Friday, September 19, 2008

Wrong again

Phooey! The death certificate that I ordered for the Joseph Rabinowitz buried Sept. 2, 1920 at Mount Hebron arrived yesterday. He was age 46 and had been in the U.S. for 14 years—originally from Russia. Son of Elias Rabinowitz and Ella Tarman (?). Resided at 587 Beck Street in the Bronx before his 10-month convalescent stay at Montefiore Home & Hospital. Diagnosis of his last illness was chronic endocarditis.

So that's not our guy. Beautiful embossed-seal reproduction of the original, though. The search goes on.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Two takes on the migratory narrative

I've just submitted this short article about two sessions from the recent conference to ZichronNote, the journal of the SF Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society. I am posting here as well as part of my blog coverage from the conference. BTW, next Sunday I am on a panel at the SFBAJGS monthly meeting to discuss these and other sessions for a "Highlights from Chicago" panel discussion.

Between the decision to leave home and the beginning of a new life in America or elsewhere, migrating Jews from the western regions of the Russian Pale encountered a difficult transition in East Prussia. The fascinating presentation "Litvak Migratory Decisions in the 19th Century and Their Consequences," by University of Klaipeda professor Ruth Leiserowitz, filled in the gaps in the migratory narrative during a well-attended Monday afternoon session in Ballroom A.

One of the world's leading experts on Prussian social history, Leiserowitz is also a professor through and through. She basically read the paper in her almost expressionless accented English. But the material was so compelling that it overcame any dryness in her presentation style.

Whether motivated by economic opportunity, draft evasion or technology-driven global awareness, migrants faced challenging economic and logistical obstacles during the first legs of their passage to a new life. Along the way, they spent anywhere from weeks to years to the rest of their lives in Prussian port cites like Memel and Libau.

Using statistics and anecdotes (and some well-chosen slides) to help tell the story, Leiserowitz covered the details of their illegal border crossings and their lives in the margins of Prussian society. Because of her focus on the transition period instead of the more familiar arc of voyage and arrival, her portrait is bittersweet—more about the circumstances driving families to fragment than those bringing them together in a new land of opportunity.

There were other sessions for that. This one shined a light on chapter of Jewish history, including my family's, that deserves to get more attention. For much more information, see Leiserowitz's Jews in East Prussia online exhibit at

For a different take on immigration, I attended the Wednesday presentation "HIAS Archives: What Can and Cannot Be Found There," by HIAS historian Valery Bazarov, in which described the small bank of filing cabinets in the society's New York office as "bursting with Jewish immigration history."

The same could be said of the presentation itself. Though Bazarov has given this talk many times before, his animated speaking style brought that history to life with accounts of cases mined from HIAS' long and honorable past. Thus we hear the story of a Jewish infant surviving from the steerage of the Titanic, of the South African family coming to New York to be able to adopt two black African children, of Holocaust refugees in Lisbon and Shanghai.

In each case, the HIAS files were crucial in solving mysteries and bringing families together. Today the "archive" includes records from many but not all of the society's 150 branches around the world, and Bazarov says it is his mission before he retires to locate any boxes that may be still hidden. Since HIAS is a service agency for helping immigrants, it does not an archiving mission. Records may be scattered about in different files, and most data is not indexed for searching.

Bazarov himself may be the best search engine when it comes to HIAS records. I can say this with surety since he helped my brother a year ago in locating fragmentary records about my own mother's refugee experience in Marseilles and Lisbon.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

All our Rabinowitz names can be found at Mount Hebron Cemetery

Walt, I started looking at the Mount Hebron cemetery records again, and am feeling hopeful that the Joseph Rabinowitz who died August 31, 1920 and is buried in the Isaac Elchonon Independent Society plot may be our guy after all. You might recall that I had chalked it up to a near miss when I blogged about it on August 1. The problem is that Italiangen shows a Joseph Rabinowitz who died that day at age 46. Our Joseph would have been 66.

Now I am considering the possibility that Italiangen has an error. We've seen other cases of transcription errors. It wouldn't be hard to believe that 46 was entered by mistake instead of 66.

Besides the name of the burial society (that society buried about 100 people at Mount Hebron between the years 1913 and 1987--no other names that I recognize), the other indicator is that there are people in that cemetery (all buried by other societies) that match the names of every member of the family except Blossom.

Actually, though there are two Julius Rabinowitzes there, we know our Julius is in Montefiore Cemetery. And sure, each name by itself is common enough to have many occurences, but what is the chance that there would be a Joseph, Lena, Sadie, Abraham, Henry and Seymour Rabinowitz along with a Meta Cannold and of course Walter Ruby? It looks to me that this must be the family cemetery.

Also, I just ran a search for Joseph Rabinowitz in the 1920 census (we had not previously found a Rabinowitz family record for that year) and I discovered that a Joseph Rabinowitz was a patient in Montefiore Home & Hospital in The Bronx as of January 5, 1920. I did a little reading on the history of Montefiore and learned that before it became a world-class research hospital it was a rest home for Jewish patients with chronic diseases like tuberculosis and diabetes.

I am going to order a copy of the death certificate for $10 from NY Municipal Archives. And it looks like you will have another field trip to do. I can provide you with all the plot numbers or you can do the searches yourself here. By the way, there are seven Lena Rabinowitzes buried there. The best bet appears to be the one who died January 30, 1948, when she was a ripe old 87 or 88. At first, I thought that might not be her because I recalled that she wasn't listed as a survivor in Blossom's obituary, which I thought was earlier, but I just checked and Blossom died on November 4 of that same year.

I've got a good feeling about this. If this is the right Joseph, his death certificate and/or gravestone should give us the answer we have been seeking.