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[Page 51]

Mariampole in Texas

by David Epstein, Washington, D.C.

For me, Mariampole was an almost legendary place. My father, Yudie Epstein, the son of Arieh Leib, emigrated from that small corner of Lithuania and settled in San Antonio, Texas in 1922. He was 17. Virtually all of his brothers and his only sister came to this city. They were Mariampol in America.

They brought the Yiddish language, an enthusiasm for conversation, and a generally good sense of humor, of which my father's was outstanding.

The contrast from Mariampole to Texas must have been immeasurable. Texas is immense, and relatively unpopulated, especially in the 20's, 30's, and 40's. The climate is hot, the people generally very friendly, and the opportunities great. Hard-working, the Epstein brothers sought independence and financial security. When my father saved his first few dollars he bought a few acres of empty land, at $12.00 per acre. Owning land was an important sign to him of financial security. Many of the Jewish immigrants to San Antonio during this period started as peddlers who sold merchandise, such as blankets, on credit to the Mexican-American population, a group which had then only recently come from the countryside to the city. The peddlers went around by horse cart, and later by truck, to provide a first step for their customers into the consumer economy.

With capital accumulated, my father shifted into a more substantial business. Land was cheap and he built low cost houses and sold them to the same population on credit terms. None of the established institutions would take the risk of selling to customers whose incomes were too uncertain. The business prospered, so did my father and the other of his contemporaries who followed the same route, including a number of brothers and nephews, each in his own business.

The uncertainties of economic life in Mariampole determined his view on the uses of money. The primary objective was to achieve financial security. He had no urge to use money to achieve power, or to live ostentatiously. He gladly used his resources to provide for the education of his children through schooling and travel.

As in Mariampole, family was his foremost concern. He felt strongly about the personal well-being of his children, his sons William and David, and his daughter Eleanor. This concern for family expanded to include the families of his brothers and sister. The Epsteins of Mariampole were at one time ten children. Of these, his brothers in Texas were Harry (Aaron); Meyer; Bernard (Beryl); David; and Martin (Mordechai). His sister was Fruml, who married a cousin from Vilna, Bernard Rubinstein. My mother, Sonia Firman of Bialystok, Poland had immigrated to Mexico in the early 1930's where she and my father met in 1932 and married three weeks later. They came from the same Yiddish culture, but my father's feeling for Mariampole always seemed more positive than my mother's for her home city.

The Mariampole Jewish culture was in every pore of my father's being. He was marinated in Yiddishkeit. He was most comfortable among those who came from similar background. Though he came to Texas when he was 17, he never felt completely at home in the prevailing American culture. He spoke Spanish with enthusiasm and had an easy familiarity with the Mexican-Americans of Texas.

References to Mariampole were triggered on various occasions. A cherry or raspberry would remind him of a summer fruit of Lithuania. A Pesach ritual might generate a reference as to how it was with Pappa and Mama, his parents. Leib Epstein, his father, apparently loved to study, had served as a felshar (a paramedic) in the Czar's army in Finland, where Leib's mother used to bring him Kosher food. Leib's tiny store in the center of Mariampole sold grease for wagon axles and some other odds and ends. Hinda, the mother, was the more accomplished in business. From her, the sons acquired a keen enthusiasm for business, which proved valuable in the New World. Leib died in the mid 30's and Hinda died in 1940, both of natural causes, and before the Nazis destroyed the Jewish community of Mariampole. After their sons emigrated during the 1910-20's, they did not see most of them again. My father returned once in 1933. He always spoke of his parents lovingly.

One of his brothers, Yaakov, was killed by the Nazis, along with his wife. Yaakov had several years earlier emigrated, but made the fatal mistake of returning to

[Page 52]

Europe to live.

By contrast, life in San Antonio was placid. The cycle of life was birth, growing up of children, grandchildren, and death due to illness or age. Of the brothers, only Martin was involved in the world's upheavals, landing in France on D-Day, 1944. The last of the Epstein brothers and sisters died in the 1970's. A new generation rooted in America was in place.

Yiddishkeit-Mariampole style was not transmittable to succeeding generations. My father though he could transmit Yiddishkeit by teaching us the Yiddish language. We learned the language but our commitments to Judaism and the Jewish people was more the result of our mother's insistence on ritual observance, the holidays, synagogue, and Jewish education. My father's Yiddishkeit gave to us the use of the language and transmitted personal values - of family, avoiding antagonizing others, respecting commitments.

The fact is that at least half of the descendants of the Epstein brothers do not identify as Jews, and of the remainder, the intensity of identification varies from indifferent to strong. Of the few with strong identification, the reason is rarely to be found in the Mariampol connections. With a few exceptions, these Mariampole Epsteins had not learned Judaism. they knew practices and customs from the daily practices in their community in Mariampole. They left for America at a young age and without having had the opportunity to study deeply the Jewish religion and culture.

What then can be said of Mariampole-Yiddishkeit. From my limited vantage - my uncles and aunt - it produced self-reliant, highly individualistic personalities, who carried Mariampole within them. Personall values were transmitted, and I sense that I and some of their descendants, carry a touch of Mariampole within us. Judaism did not survive the passage to the New World in a good condition, at least in the environment of a small Jewish community of San Antonio, Texas, far from any of the great concentrations of Jewish life in America.

In 1939, when I was four, I asked my father, “Why are we in America?” He responded by writing a poem in Yiddish, which I have since had translated:

 

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Levin's Sausages Factory

 


[Page 53]

Why We Are in America

by Yudie Epstein

My mother and father lived in Russia
They owned a home and a store and they fumbled along
And they had eight children
And their thoughts were always directed to the question how to make a living.
The name of the oldest son was Aaron.
He wanted to lavish money like a baron.
At age fourteen he went away to work
To see sacks of salt for someone else.
He worked for him four years
But his work did not progress toward higher wages,
His parents began to consider
Perhaps to send him to America to Uncle Ben
Who at that time lived in Chicago
And with whom they had some contact.
So he traveled to America
Before he became eighteen
And his father pawned
His golden watch for an interest-free loan
In order to have money for a ship ticket and clothing.
And when he had been in America two months
He wrote to his brother Berchik
That here they live like magnates.
For that reason he should come right away
Because it is ideal here for a watchmaker.
And this was in 1913
When brother Meyer was nineteen.
He had grown up small and thin, with a pair of large eyes.
And he had become suitable for working in father's store.
Both brothers wrote from American
(Although they exaggerated about many things)
That he should leave Russia as soon as possible
Because if he stayed there he would be making a mistake.
And they sent him a second-class ship ticket
And he departed immediately, he wasn't crazy.
And three weeks later he arrived at their place.
They took him to night school right away.
Brother Aaron (who was called Harry here)
Threatened him that if he remained a greenhorn
He could only become a servant to someone else.
And since Meyer had worked
Quite some time in Uncle Ben's store
He was, as they say in America, “all right”
Because he understood the English language
And he wanted to go into business for himself.
He went out with brother Harry to sell for themselves
And they quickly earned a few dollars from it.
They used to send money to mother and father
So that they could afford a festive meal even in the middle of the week.*

*By Yudie Epstein, December 22, 1939. Translated from the Yiddish by J. Michael Stern.

 

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Rivah Porozowsky   A student in the Mariampoler Gymnasium

 


[Page 54]

Ellen Robinson-Epstein
A Mariampole Grandchild; A Method to Preserve the Past

by Bonie Fogel

The Montgomery Journal, Friday, June 16, 1978

You are third generation American, your ancestors came from Poland, Russia, Europe. Your children have American names, American possessions, American memories. They know little of the traditions and countries that molded them.

You remember a little. When you were a child your mother and grandmother talked sometimes of life in the “old country” and you found it fascinating. Later, as you grew older, you became impatient with grandmother's stories. And then, sensing your indifference, grandmother stopped telling them.

You are jolted into nostalgia by some small, insignificant event. Suddenly, it is vitally important that your children understand what life was like in grandmother's youth. Suddenly you realize that no one talks quite like grandmother - that accent, those mannerisms, that special way of talking about life.

You wish you could preserve for your children and their families all grandmother's wonderful memories and her unique way of recalling them.

Most Americans whose families immigrated to this country two or three generations ago feel these pangs of nostalgia from time to time and they try to come to terms with what they think is an unretrievable past.

A few lucky Americans know about The Center for Oral History and its director, Ellen Robinson-Epstein.

Epstein is an oral historian. She interviews people and collects their memories on tape. She created The Center for Oral History in Chevy Chase to help families organize memories into a personal memento. Epstein has always been fascinated by history. She describes herself as “a very historical person.” She is acutely aware of the passage of time and wants to make use of every minute.

This credo is much evidenced in her life. She has worked out an awe-inspiring schedule which allows her to meet her professional and personal needs without neglecting her family.

Weekdays are devoted to sons Jeremy (five), and Asher (three) and Barak, 1 1/2 - none of whom go to school. On Sundays she visits and tapes her subjects. Weeknights she works on the tapes and transcripts, seldom finishing before 1 a.m. Asked when she sleeps, she explains, “This is my greatest gift; I don't need much sleep.”

Epstein does not anticipate changing this schedule for many years. However, since she has more work than she can handle she does plan to hire moral oral historians and may open more offices around the country.

The Center for Oral History, in common with many other highly successful inventions, is a basically simple idea adapted to meet new times and new needs. That is its genius.

Although thousands of years have passed since people first handed down their heritage through storytelling, people's needs for those stories remain unchanged. Ellen Epstein has recognized that need and she has responded.


[Page 55]

Eppstein Ha-Levi, Roterosen, Mevzos
Families of Mariampole

by Morris Rote-Rosen
Granville, New York,
June 20, 1955

Mariampole

Mariampole originally was in Lithuania, later passed to Poland, taken over by Russia, conquered by the Nazis and now a part of Soviet Russia. For a very short time following World War I, Mariampole was again in Lithuanian hands as a result of the Versailles treaty but it was only for a few years. It is presumed that Marimpole was entirely wiped out by the Nazi hordes and nothing has been heard from it or about it in some time.

The Jewish community in Mariampole dates back to about the Revolutionary War period of the United States when only a few Jewish families had settled there and they were dependent for Jewish communal affairs on the adjoining town of Kalvary. The first rabbi in Mariampole was Rabbi Hayim Shershaver who was selected to serve there in 1780 when the small Jewish community did not have enough funds for the erections of a synagogue. It was due to the efforts of Rabbi Shershaver who visited the many communities and solicited funds with which to erect a religious edifice in Mariampole. It was the first of its kind there.

When the Poles rebelled against Russia in 1831, one of their regiments passed through Mariampole and they insisted that the Jews side with them in their effort to overthrow the Russian government in Poland. When they appeared before four of the elders of the Jewish community with their request and the elders having refused to participate in the revolt the Poles carried them to a nearby small forest, tied them to trees and had them executed. In an encounter of the Poles and Russians, the Jews locked themselves in the synagogue with the result that only one Jew was killed in the street fighting.

The official census of Mariampole in 1897 was 6,298 of which more than 2,000 were Jews. About the turn of the century (1903) the population totaled about 10,000.

Mariampole in 1900 was known as an educational center and it contained a “Gymnasium” or what is known here are a college preparatory school. There was also a young ladies seminary; a German school; a Hebrew school; a Polish school as well as a parochial Hebrew school known as the “Talmud Torah”, also several semi-private schools.

There were two Russian Orthodox churches there; one large Roman Catholic church; a German Lutheran church and three places of Jewish worship; The 'Beth-ha-Medrash”, the “Schul” and the newest “Achnosas Orchim”.

The streets in Mariampole were paved with cobble stones and the main highway leading out of the town toward Kovno and Kalvary were paved with crushed stone making these the finest highways in that area. The sidewalks of the town were of concrete and some of the back streets had wooden board walks. The buildings were modern in every way, an unusual sight for a town of the size of Mariampole during that period but it was the result of several disastrous fires which destroyed all of the old buildings. There were three modern hotels there as well as several inns to accommodate the traveling public. The park was beautifully laid out and during the summer public concerts were held there as well as theatrical entertainments.

Military bands and orchestras of the two regiments which were stationed in Mariampole furnished concerts. they were of the Russian 9th Dragoons (Cavalry) and the 111th Donskoi Polk (Infantry).

There was a district court in Mariampole as well as a police court. A hospital, a jail, an army warehouse, an army officers club house and two training fields

[Page 56]

for the cavalry and infantry regiments.

There was no railroad in Mariampole in 1900, but in later years before the Nazi invasion there was a railroad running through Mariampole connecting with Pilvishki and with Kalvary.

There was a banking institution in Mariampole which was government controlled similar to an American national bank.

Abraham or Avrom Roterosen who was the youngest in the family married Haya Reizel Mevzos, daughter of Shmuel and Sarah (Taub) Movzos. He was better known as Shmuel Enochs.

Abraham Roterosen came to live with the Mevzos family in Mariampole finally establishing his own home by becoming active in the Mariampole community. For twelve years he contracted to supply the canteen and commissary of the Russian army barracks in Mariampole. For nine years he contracted to supply Mariampole with municipal kerosene lamp lighting. He had charge of the administration of the public slaughter house for six years which then was under the supervision of the government. During nearly all of his stay in Mariampole he had business connections with the military and civil authorities. He was popular with the younger set as a member of a Talmudic class which held study classes in the Mariampole “Beth-ha-Medrash”. this group was known as the Hevrah Shaas.

Among his best friends was the Chief Justice of the District Court, Judge Mamonoff who had been a Kammer Junker or aid-de-camp to Tzar Nicholas II in St. Petersburg. Another intimate friend of his was Judge Arhimovitz. Colonel Sosnovski, then Chief of the Russian Secret Police in Mariampole was a personal friend of Abraham Roterosen and because of their friendship he was offered an assignment in the service of the Russian Secret Police (Gendarmes). He had ambition to visit into the interior of Russia to the east where Jews were forbidden and he thought if he would be appointed a member of the Gendarmes he would have an opportunity to seek out a business location for himself for the future. However, Colonel Sosnovski informed him that if he accepts the appointment as a secret service operative for the Russian government he will have to report at least two political offenders (revolutionaries) monthly. This he refused to do and he remained in Mariampole until he entered the timber business with his brother-in-law Faivel Williamofsky of Raigrod and Yosel Endel of Pilvishki.

The forest where the trio was to contract to cut timber were located near Tcharno-Brod and Sepetkin in the Province of Suwalki. Business did not go well with them and he lost considerable money in this venture.

He could not see himself starting all over again in Mariampole with limited opportunities and he decided to leave for the United States having received encouraging letters from his brother Leib (Louis) of Center Rutland. He left Mariampole for the United States in February 1901, and arrived in New York after twenty one days of a rough voyage. With his brother Leib (Louis) and his nephew Berel (Barney Rosen) living in West Rutland, Vermont, he chose to go there to join them.

He immediately became a dry goods peddler carrying a heavy laden pack on his back which at times weighed more than he did and on foot he would cross the Green Mountains out of West Rutland for Proctor and Fowler, Vermont, to sell among the Polish people who were employed in the marble quarries there. Giving up carrying a pack he found employment in the general merchandise and grocery store of his nephew Barney.

In 1903 he was joined by his oldest daughter Gittel (Gussie) and his only son, Morris. His wife Haya Reizel and the other three daughters Dora, Tillie and Lena joined them all in West Rutland about two years later. In 1905 Abraham Roterosen joined a brother-in-law of Barney Rosen whose name was Harry Lurie and the two conducted a grocery store which was later purchased by Abraham Roterosen who continued the business for many years in several locations in Granville.

[Page 57]

As old age approached he retired from Business and he and his wife took it easier in their declining years enjoying their family and the many friends he made. they died as they lived respected by the Granville community and their children lost a loving father and mother.

 

The Mevzos Branch

Of the earliest records obtainable of the Mevzos family we go back to the youngest daughter of David Yankelishok presumably of the town of Yankelishok who came to Mariampole early in the Nineteenth century to marry a daughter of Enoch Mevzos of Mariampole. Her name was Hasha and she was the youngest child of David Yankelishok aslo known as David Alviter or David's Dinah's. there is no record of the origin of the Mevzos family but judging by the names of Epstein and Roterosen which indicate descendancy from the German or Ashkenazi group of Jews, Mevzos definitely indicates that it is of Lithuanian origin. Whether there was a man named “Moses” after whom the family was named is not known but the name “Mevzos” which is definitely of the Lithuanian language may be derived from the word “Moses” or “Mauzas” and finally “Mevzos”. The head of families were then recognized and identified as David Dinah's, Herschel Tilke's, Shmuel Enoch (David Dinah's) Mevzos.

There can be no doubt that Hasha Yanelishok whose father was known also by the name of David Dinah's was a relative of Enoch whom she married since he too is identified as “David Dinah's”. It was a common practice among Jews to marry cousins. And this record would indicate that they were either first or second cousins.

Since Hasha Yankelishok was born about 1797 or 1798, her husband Enoch Mevzos was already settled in Mariampole. It is presumed that the father of Enoch Mevzos was among the first in the Mariampole community when Rabbi Hayyim Shershaver came there in 1780 to form a Jewish community and to erect the first synagogue in Mariampole.

It is definitely known that Enoch Mevzos, husband of Hasha, was an elder in Mariampole and the Mevzos family was well known among the leaders in the community as traders and exporters.

 

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The Kabzen - Painting M. Rosentalis

[Page 58]

Sarah Hartman Kushner

When the matriarch Sarah passed away, the Torah makes reference to (Hebrew). The rabbis understood this to mean that (Hebrew) lived two lives: a devoted wife and mother AND an influential person in the formation of the Jewish way of life. Similarly, Sarah Kushner managed to be (Hebrew) in the finest sense of the phrase, and a leader in Jewish education and synagogue life.

Sarah Hartman Kushner was born in Mariampole, Lithuania, during the festival of (Hebrew) in the year 5664 (1904). As a young girl, she emigrated to America but returned with her mother and brother to visit Lithuania in 1914 and was stranded there during World War I. She returned to America after the war and resided with her family in Brooklyn, New York. After a distinguished academic career at Barnard College, New York University and the Teachers Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Sarah Hartman became a teacher of Hebrew.

In 1929, Sarah Hartman married Julius Kushner - also a native of Mariampole who had recently arrived in Brooklyn after servings as a (Hebrew). Their first son Harold was born in 1935; their younger son Saul was born in 1937.

Sarah Kushner was active in the Jewish community throughout her life. she was president of the Parent-Teacher Association of the Brooklyn Jewish Center and went on to become president of the United Parent-Teacher Association of all Jewish schools in Greater New York. As president of the Sisterhood of the Brooklyn Jewish Center, Sarah Kushner gained a nationwide reputation and was in great demand as a speaker and consultant.

Yehuda and Sarah Kushner have devoted their lives to Jewish education and to Zionism. They have visited Israel several times since 1955. Both their sons are rabbis in America. Harold serves a congregation in Massachusetts and is a prominent author and lecturer. Paul serves a congregation in New York and is the national director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

Sarah Kushner was a (Hebrew) in the tradition of (Hebrew). Her home was always open for (Hebrew) and became known as a gathering place for Jewish scholars, artists and communal leaders. Sarah Kushner died in Miami, Florida on (Hebrew) in the year 5736 (1976). she left behind her husband, her sons and daughters-in-law and six grandchildren. Two months after her death, a seventh grandchild was born who was named after her.

(Hebrew)
In Loving Memory of Sarah H. Kushner
(Hebrew)

Therefore do her children bless her,
And her husband also praises her,
Saying, “Many women have done valiantly
But you excelled them all.”

Mr. Julius Kushner
Rabbi and Mrs. Harold Kushner
and Family
Rabbi and Mrs. Paul Kushner
and Family

[Page 59]

Herman Kowarsky

Mr. Herman Kowarsky died in Johannesburg on Monday after a lengthy illness.

Born in Vilna 52 years ago, Mr. Kowarsky lived in Mariampole Lithuania for a considerable time and was engaged as a teacher of drawing at the Hebrew High School. He was highly respected by his friends and pupils as a man of great charm and devotion of Jewish culture.

After his arrival in Cape Town in 1927 he took a great interest in the Jewish theater and produced and organized a number of Yiddish plays such as “Riverside Drive” and Sholom Asch's “Motke Ganev”.

Later he moved to Johannesburg, where he enjoyed the friendship of a host of people in Jewish cultural circles. He took an active part in the production of “Bearvot Hansger”, staged by the Zionist youth.

Mr. Kowarsky is survived by his wife, Mrs. Rochel Kowarsky, who is a member of the staff of the Johannesburg I.U.A. and by three children. Mrs. Kalma Wortreich (Cape Town), Mrs. Sally Israelstam and Master Paul Kowarsky of Johannesburg.

January 28, 1952
The Zionist Record
Johannesburg

 

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Drawing Teacher - H. Kowarsky

 

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Mariampole - Warshau Street

 


[Page 60]

Mariampolers in South Africa

by Johanathan Batnitzky

Mr. J. Batnitzky was the President of the Mariampoler Society in South Africa, son of the famous Rabbi Shloime der Daian of Mariampole. He was the editor of the only Yiddish paper in South Africa, “The African Jewish Newspaper.”

The South African Jewish population is predominantly of Lithuanian origin. South Africa can rightly be regarded as a “colony” f Lithuanian Jewry. Jewish emigration from Lithuania to South Africa began some 90 years ago, and in the year 1890, the majority of South African Jewish population were Lithuanian Jews. Those Jews however who emigrated to South Africa, came from that part of Lithuania which belonged to the Kovno province (Gubernia) and a few from Suwalker Gubernia. In Mariampole we knew very little of South Africa, and America was looked upon as the only country suitable for immigration.

Nevertheless, Mariampolers in scanty numbers have in the course of their wanderings reached the shores of South Africa. Some of them occupied a prominent place in the midst of the South African Jewish community. I shall, in this connection, mention some Mariampolers who have played an important part in the Jewish communal and social life in this remote part of the world. It is likely that there are some others, but, they are unknown to me.

Among the first Jewish pioneers was Dr. Aron Abelheim. He was born in Mariampole in 1868, and arrived in South Africa in 1894. He graduated at the Kharkov University and was a member of “Bilu”. He settled in Johannesburg and gained much popularity as a medical practitioner and lecturer at the University. He died in South Africa. Another South African pioneer born in Mariampole was Chaim Herzenstein, who arrived here in 1880. He donated $35,000.00 the the Beth Hamedrash of Orthodox Jewry in Johannesburg which bears his name. He also contributed generously to other Jewish institutions. He died in 1932.

One of the finest types of South African Jews was Chaim Perez Goodman. Born in Giwi, near Mariampole, he was one of the first Hebrew teachers in South Africa; a great scholar and “Maskil”. He possessed a noble character and charming personality. Mr. Goodman died in 1939.

Great and meritorious achievements in the field of Jewish cultural life in South Africa were rendered by Chaim Joseph Lurie of Mariampole, who arrived in South Africa in 1925. During the short period of his life in South Africa he achieved, as far as Jewish education is concerned, for more than any other spiritual leader in this country. He had instilled in quite a number of South african born young men a thorough knowledge of Jewish culture and to this day these young men read Hebrew and Yiddish, which was a rare phenomenon until recently. Some of them are presently occupying responsible positions in Jewish communal life here. Mr. Lurie died in 1933.

There lives in Johannesburg the daughter of Rabbi Moshe Azriel, the eminent “Tsadik” in Mariampole. Her husband, Mr. A. Rom, is one of the veteran Hebrew teachers in South Africa. There also lies in Johannesburg, Mr. Balsberg, who related that before he left for South Africa 50 years ago, Rabbi Shlomo the Dayan blessed him. The blessing was fulfilled.

Some years ago, the small community of Mariampole Landslite in Johannesburg organized itself into a Mariampoler Society, and during the comparatively short period of its existence, the association rendered considerable service and material assistance to a good number of Landslite in various parts of the world.

(Mariampoler Aid Society, Chicago)

 

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