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How Will I Know Where I'm Going, If I Don't Know Where I've Been?A Genealogical Journey
By Elizabeth Ruderman Miller
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2009 Elizabeth Ruderman Miller
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAlways Out There, But Never Known To Me
Who were my ancestors? Where did they come from? What were their occupations? Where is my extended family? As I took this wondrous adventure of trying to bring my roots to life, I realized that you can gain strength from your heritage with the knowledge you gather each time you 'meet' another ancestor or family member. WE ARE CUSTODIANS OF OUR FAMILY'S MEMORIES. It is our responsibility to pass along the stories which we discover by means of the genealogical process.
I LOVE being a detective. Perhaps, I missed my true calling. Then again, I may not have appreciated the process years ago. Not having been a jig-saw puzzle fan, I may never have enjoyed the fascination of assembling the pieces and solving the mysteries of my genealogical hunt. When I did become preoccupied with the search for my families, I felt NOTHING would interfere with the discovery of clues and evidence which would solve my family mystery.
I do, however, want to warn readers that not everyone contacted will have the same exuberance about finding unknown family members. Although disappointing, you must respect their decision. At first, I found it difficult to accept a NO. You arenot going to entice everyone or change their minds. Yes, you will have holes in your Family Tree. It's their loss, not yours.
I am fulfilling a dream by leading you through my exploration to find my family members who were always out there but never known to me until I undertook the journey of a lifetime. In the process, I found new family friends and the history of those whom I, unfortunately, will never meet in person. These connections to our family I will pass down to future generations, so that their place in our story will not be lost again or forgotten.
When I embarked upon this genealogical quest in the summer of 2006, I had no idea of the successes that I would amass by 2009. I had an insatiable interest in the historical time period of my ancestors. I know that the next time I see 'Fiddler on The Roof', I will view the story through more personal eyes. Little did I dream that what I believed was a very small ancestral line would become the extended Family Tree which has grown and continues to flourish with each new generation.
A shtetl was typically a small city, village or town with a large Jewish community which was located largely in Eastern Europe. Shtetls were primarily found in the 19th century Russian Empire's restricted Pale of Settlement and in the Kingdom of Poland. It was in these villages, now lost to history, that the remarkable culture of the Ashkenazi Jews flourished until its demise during World War II.
Most residents were poor, superstitious and resistant to change. They followed Orthodox Judaism despite outside influence. Their Yiddish language became synonymous with the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern European shtetls.
Many of our thoughts invariably drift to scenes from "Fiddler on the Roof" as the quintessential story of life in a 19th or early 20th century shtetl. While there was music and dancing, the townspeople were tailors, butchers, fishmongers, shopkeepers, peddlers and dairymen, who worked long, hard days just to sustain their poor lives. Each shtetl was led by a Rabbi who was respected by all Jews in the community.
Shtetls operated on the idea that giving to the needy was not only to be admired, but was essential and expected. The problems of those who needed help were accepted as a responsibility both of the community and of the individual ... on earth, the prestige value of good deeds is second only to that of LEARNING. The rewards for benefaction are manifold and are to be reaped both in this life and in the life to come. As summarized in "Pirkei Avot" by Shimon Hatzaddik's 'three pillars': on three things the world stands. On Torah, on service (of God) and on the acts of human kindness. It is this Tzedaka or charity that remains a key element of Jewish culture.
While wealth was a secondary status, learning and education were the ultimate measures of worth in the shtetl. A hard working person was admired in the community, but he who studied was considered most valuable of all.
My Ruderman ancestors resided in Kraysk or Kraisk - now part of Belarus, then it was in Lithuania. With a mere seven hundred residents, this was certainly one of the smallest of the shtetls recorded in the First All Russian Census of 1897. There are few records in existence for Kraisk, none the less, I do hope one day to discover my great grandfather's occupation. I would assume, however, that he may have been a butcher, farmer or dairyman, as my grandfather was a butcher for most of his life in America.
On the other hand, the Bornstein and Hiller families lived in the larger, more thriving community of Gritse, today's Grojec, Poland. Thanks to the stories left by my grandmother, Annie, and grandfather, Sam, I have a clearer picture of the lives they led in Gritse.
Grandma Annie (Chana Yetta) and her mother, Bubba (Grandma)Dina Borensztejn were skilled with a needle and thread. They created beautiful table cloths, towels, and the like. Grandma Annie told stories of how she and her mother had a 'push cart' which they took from town to town, and from which they sold their wares. Grandpa Sam Hiller's brother became an expert leather craftsman, carving saddles and other leather objects.
It was Grandpa Sam, along with Grandma Annie's brother, Abe (Abram) who aspired to become scholars. I know that my grandfather would have loved to become a Rabbi, spending his days debating the aspects of the Torah and the Talmud. When Sam and Abe fled the horrors of the pogroms in Russia and Poland, they knew they would need a skill in order to survive in their newly adopted country. I remember when I was a child how Grandpa Sam continued to visit the Synagogue in Paterson, New Jersey several times per week to pray and study with other immigrants.
"Gone now are those little towns, where the shoemaker was a poet, the watchmaker a philosopher, the barber a troubadour. Gone now are those little towns where the wind joined Biblical songs with Polish tunes and Slavic rue, Where old Jews in orchards in the Shade of cherry trees lamented for the holy walls of Jerusalem. Gone now are those little towns, through the poetic mists, the moons, winds, ponds and the stars above them have recorded in the blood of centuries the tragic tales, the histories of the two saddest nations on earth." -Antoni Sionimshi, "Elegy for the Jewish Villages"
Passport To Freedom
Words can not express how thrilling it was to discover my Grandfather Sam Hiller's 1908 PASSPORT. Hidden away between other keepsakes at my Mom's home was this gem encased in a plain black cover. Upon inspection, I was surprised that the writing appeared to be Russian, as my Grandfather Sam always said that the Hiller family was from Poland. It wasn't until I researched further, that I learned about the Russia-Poland connection prior to World War II.
I was anxious to return to California to have my prized possession translated. Fortunately, my rheumatologist has a staff of several women who have themselves immigrated from Russia. During my next appointment, Diana, an assistant, perused the document while I saw the doctor. She was grinning like a Cheshire cat when I returned to the window. She had some wonderful secret she wanted to share with me. Unlike today's passports, she reported, those from one hundred years ago read like pages of someone's biography. As Diana translated the pages, I wrote on yellow post-its, so I could attach the English translation to each page. I do believe that I trembled as I wrote each translation, learning facts about my grandfather which I had never known.
Page one indicated that this was a passport specifically for Jews. It mentioned the city where the passport was issued and the date of March 28, 1908. I learned the exact Yiddish name of my grandfather on the second page Shyje Yacov Giller (there was no letter as in Hiller); was Jewish and was born on June 15, 1882. I was never able to garner the proof of birth for any of my other grandparents. The next few pages read like a little story, adding more important information about my Grandpa Sam. He was living in the Warsawa (Warsaw) Gubernia (province), and he was married to Zhenya Mahlya Dvanra, who was born on January 2, 1885. They were married in 1901 and had a baby daughter, Perla Leya, who died at six month of age. There was confirmation of Sam's conscription (compulsory service)in the military in 1905, however, it made no mention of his 'inability' to serve. (I knew Grandpa Sam had no military record). I learned that his birth records showed he was from Grojec. The proof of his physical description was literally in black and white with his medium height, black hair and no specific birth marks.
Presenting this information to my aging mother was the kind of gift about which we dream. Mom knew nothing of her half sibling who died at infancy, nor the name of Grandpa's first wife. Even though the passport was in her possession for nearly fifty years, she had never thought to ask anyone about it's contents.
There were two more surprises contained between the pages of this prized possession. The actual CERTIFICATE OF NATURALIZATION, although not in pristine condition, was folded in thirds. It was dated June 16, 1915 and stated that my grandfather was thirty-four years old and stood five feet five and one half inches tall. I knew Grandpa Sam until I was in my teens, and I can honestly say that he was taller than my Mom, who was herself that same height. His age and that of my grandmother are correct when compared with his PASSPORT. It is an amazing document!
The second surprise was a clipping from the Paterson, New Jersey Evening News from Monday, May 15, 1950, fifty-nine years to the day on which I am writing this chapter. The Paterson United Jewish Appeal campaign was headed by the 'BACK BONE DIVISION' of the Textile Workers. There, seated, was Grandpa Sam Hiller, and I couldn't have been more proud.
Grojec (Gritse in Yiddish) is a small town in Poland. Jews were permitted, to reside there and were recorded as early as the census in 1754. The Jewish community numbered 1,719 in 1856 (68% of the total population), 3,737 in 1897(61% of the total population) and 4922 in 1921 (56% of the population). On the eve of World War II there were approximately 5,200 Jews living in Grojec.
With the entry of the German army on September 8, 1939, terrorization of the Jewish population commenced. On September 12, 1939, all men between the ages of fifteen and fifty-five were forced to assemble at the market, and from there marched on foot to Rawa Mazowiecka, about thirty-seven miles away. Many were shot on the way. During the spring of 1940, about five hundred Jews from Lodz and the vicinity were forced to settle in Grojec. A ghetto was established in July, 1940, and the plight of the Jewish inhabitants drastically deteriorated. They suffered from hunger, epidemics and the lack of fuel during the winter of 1940-41. About one thousand Jews from nearby locations were brought to the Grojec ghetto that January. On February 23 and 24, 1941, about 2,700 of the Jews in Grojec were deported to the Warsaw Ghetto, where they shared the fate of Warsaw Jewry. The Grojec ghetto was liquidated in September, 1942. About 3000 surviving Jewish inmates were deported to Bialobrzegi (a small town on the Warsaw-Radom highway), and from there were all sent to the Treblinka death camp. In Grojec itself, only three hundred Jews remained, 83 of whom were deported after some time to a slave labor camp in Russia near Smolensk, where almost all were murdered. The last two hundred Jews were executed in the summer of 1943 in a forest near Gora Kalwaria. After the war, the Jewish community in Grojec was not reconstituted. Organizations of former Jewish residents of Grojec were established in Israel, France, the U.S., Canada and Argentina.
Only one of my mother's cousins survived the death camps during the Holocaust. After the liberation of Buchenwald, seventeen year old Benjamin Hiller came to the United States to his uncle, my grandfather, Samuel Hiller.
Jewish History In Eastern Europe
The Diaspora (the presence of Jews outside of the Land of ancient Israel) transplanted Jewish exiles to Babylonia, Spain, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Another thousand years would pass before Jews would establish a foothold in Europe where, in about 900 A.D. we can trace the beginnings of the Yiddish and the Jewish culture. In Central Europe, Jews were limited to trades such as that of merchants engaged in long-distance travel. During the Middle Ages as Jews moved to new areas in France and Germany, they built flourishing centers for Sephardim. As the communities of Central Europe grew, Jews developed a hybrid language of their own, combining German, Hebrew and Aramaic. This local vernacular, Yiddish, would unite the secular and the religious into the Jewish culture that would define Ashkenazai life in Eastern Europe until the Holocaust.
Jews who lived in the German lands suffered continual injustices from the Crusades, the Plague (for which Jews were often blamed and held responsible for its devastation) to finally being expelled and driven East toward the newly forming Kingdoms of Lithuania and Poland. Jews from the West brought many traditions with them, including worship in synagogues, burial societies, religious schools for children and governing bodies. Hebrew continued to be the religious language while Yiddish remained a significant and distinguishing aspect of Eastern European Jewish life and culture.
The cradle of Ashkenazi culture in Jewish Poland over-shadowed that in the German lands. Notably, during the Middle Ages, Jews from the West travelled East to study and conduct business in the commercial center of towns such as Vilna, Brest and Cracow. Jewish-centered communities increased during the 18th and 19th centuries, enabling Jews more occupations opportunities in the trades, crafts and land leasing for nobles. The three basic types of Jewish communities, the city (shtot), small Jewish urban settlements (shtets) and the tiny scattered communities (yishuv) meshed nicely into the Jewish world of the day.
Jewish communities have been found in the Rhine valley since ancient Roman times. German Jews suffered from extreme violence during the Middle Ages causing the migration to the Slavic and Baltic regions of Europe. The language which they carried with them was the roots of Yiddish. If your ancestors were Eastern European Jews in 1490, THEIR ancestors probably lived in Germany in 1000 C.E.
The Sephardic Jews in 1492 - Spanish Jews immigrated to Portugal after they were ordered to convert or be expelled. The Ladino language arose as a result of Jews bringing their language with them to the Balkans and the Middle East. Many of the Jews who left Portugal settled in the Netherlands. If your ancestors were Dutch or New York Jews then, there is a good possibility that they lived in Spain or Portugal in 1490.
Polish nobles employed Jewish overseers to Administer to their lands in the combined Kingdoms of Lithuania and Poland. If your ancestors were Ukranian Jews in 1800 C.E., their ancestors most probably lived in Poland and Lithuania in 14 C.E.
Jews from Central Europe first settled in Lithuania during the last half of the 14th century. Anyone who lived under the Lithuanian rule during the 16th and 17th centuries in the areas including Poland, Minsk and Belarus were referred to as Litvaks. During the 19th century, Litvaks moved further into what is today's Poland, especially the area of Lodz where the famous textile industry began. Jews have appeared in Lithuanian census lists as early as the 17th century. (Continues...)
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Table of Contents
Always Out There, But Never Known To Me....................1
Passport To Freedom....................7
Jewish History In Eastern Europe....................13
If I Were A Rich Man....................17
Brothers and Sisters....................29
Grysk, Kriesk, Kraisk?....................31
The Name Game....................39
The Wedding Photo....................45
Home, Sweet Home....................49
Coming To America....................51
New York Is A Wonderful Town ....................57
Random Acts Of Kindness....................63
But We're Cousins ....................75
Genealogy Without Documentation Is Mythology....................113
The Power Of Whitepages.Com....................119
A My Name Is Abe....................125
Don't Wait Too Long....................129
All In The Family....................137
Last, But Certainly Not Least....................147