I’ve always envied people who have access to their family histories going back to the proverbial Charlemagne. That is not the case for me for several reasons. First, I didn’t know any of my grandparents. My paternal grandparents died before I was born and my maternal grandparents emigrated directly from Poland to what was then Palestine, where they died when I was very young. They would have been the repositories of family lore and information that might have carried my story at least several generations back beyond what I know now. As it is, I have some sketchy information about my great-grandparents on my father’s side and none even that far back on my mother’s side.
Second, the Holocaust has shut off potential sources of family information for Ashkenazic Jews, particularly those from Eastern Europe, like my father from what is now Belarus and my mother from Poland. Public records about births, marriages and deaths were casualties of the war, along with many of the people whose lives they documented. It’s a disruption of the ancestry pipeline as abrupt and irreparable as that experienced by Africans torn from their homelands and transported here on slave ships.
Finally, my parents were not very forthcoming about what they knew of their family histories. It was a reticence born, I think, of shame and embarrassment about lives of poverty and discrimination. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, my inquiries about their own histories were met dismissively with comments like “Why do you want to know about that? It was bad there. It’s better here.” I was not yet equipped to appreciate how much pain those comments concealed and how much it would have cost them to return in their minds to that world. And now there is no one left to ask. I am the youngest cousin in my generation and my father was the youngest of his siblings so everyone else who might be the keeper of family stories unknown to me is gone.
All these musings were prompted by a note from my older daughter, Adina, who had been looking at the paternal family tree that I had sent to her and her sister a while ago. She was having trouble unraveling it and arranged a Zoom conversation to go over what was either puzzling or illegible. I don’t have a clear memory of how or when we generated this tree with its odd and intriguing notations, but I have a vague recollection of me and my late sister convincing my father to help us reconstruct what we could of the family story, at least on his side. For the purposes of this piece, I’m focusing only on my father’s story. We have a less elaborated tree for my mother’s side but that’s for another time.
The paternal tree contained some intriguing, albeit sketchy tidbits. One of my great grandfathers was a beggar. Two of my great grandmothers were sisters, so my paternal grandparents were first cousins. As far as I know, there has not been a genetic price to pay for this fairly common occurrence among Ghetto Jews. There were two suicides and an arrest for forgery, all begging for elaboration. So many lost stories which are particularly painful for a lover of memoir who enjoys immersing himself in the heroes and villains others have resurrected in their own histories.
Several of the books that Adina has written required deep dives in archives as diverse as documents discovered in a Cairo synagogue dating back to the 9th century C.E. (in collaboration with her husband, Peter Cole) and the Israeli army’s records of the War of Independence. So, it wasn’t long before the itch to do the same for our own family was activated. Why we hadn’t pursued the unknowns closer to home sooner was a mystery. Truth to tell, I had been thinking of appealing to Adina to use the considerable investigative skills she had developed on material closer to home, so I was delighted that she had chosen to do so on her own. I am fascinated and moved by what is emerging and sad about the unknowns that won’t yield to even the most skilled archival researcher.
I’ve never known the details of the arrival of my father and his family in this country, so what Adina discovered in her first exploration was the manifest of the ship, the SS Finland, that brought my father, a brother and their mother to Ellis Island in September 1910. What bedevils this kind of immigration research is the matter of names – changed last names, alternative spellings, etc., so the breakthrough here was my response to Adina’s query about what name my father, Max Hoffman, might have gone by before he adopted this American-style moniker. I told her that his Hebrew name was Mordecai, but he was probably known by his Yiddish name, Mottel. I knew that our original family name was Chodosh – or was it Chodosch or Chodish? With that information Adina hit paydirt. There was Mottel Chodosch, age 12 (or possibly 14), his brother Yankel – my Uncle Jack and their mother, about to enter the New World, taking the first step toward creating his own American family.
But where was my grandfather? With a little more digging, Adina managed to find the manifest for his arrival several years prior to that of his wife and two youngest sons. He, in return, listed as a contact in the US David Chodosh, my Uncle Dave. I knew that he had come earlier and was already presumably at work. He paid for his father’s passage and his father in turn was able to pay for the journey of his wife and remaining children several years later. This kind of tag team arrival of family members was not uncommon, although there are sad tales of fathers leading the way, promising to send for the family but disappearing into “The Golden Land” never to be heard from again.
The first family member to arrive was my father’s brother Abraham, 19 years his elder. The documents Adina found traced him to New Jersey where he is now listed in the local directory as a tailor named Abraham Hoffman, the first indication of the abandonment of the Chodosch name in favor of a more American surname. The notations on our family tree diagram, with information that could only have been provided by my father, indicate that he eventually relocated to Macon, Georgia where he later committed suicide. What Adina was able to find from her computer in New Haven would, as a friend said, have taken considerable time in travel and digging through paper files, was really eye opening. It ranged from his draft card to his naturalization in 1913 to the painful little article in the local paper which read as follows:
“Macon, Nov. 18 (1921)
Abraham Hoffman, a widely known Macon tailor, committed suicide some time yesterday afternoon by strangling himself with a cord. Mrs. Hoffman, fearing that her husband would attempt self-destruction, had been searching for him all afternoon.”
What a world ripe for the exercise of the imagination is contained in those two lines. What was he doing in Macon in the first place? What had he done to become widely known in that city? What brought him to the point of suicide? What led his frantic wife to fear that he was going to kill himself? It’s unlikely that any of those questions will be resolved by further research. Unless Adina has some other rabbits to pull out of her researcher’s hat, the possible answers lie in the mind of a future author.
Beyond the new information about individual family members there was the confirmation of the Old World setting which my father’s family left behind when they came to America. My father told me he was from Berezina, somewhere in the vicinity of Minsk in Belarus. Over the years I came to question the existence of such a place. There is a river by that name which makes an appearance in War and Peace, but nothing much beyond that. Yet there it was on the ship’s manifest as the family’s place of origin, and with that confirmation and with a bit of spelling scrambling, Adina was able to locate information about a place by that name.
At the time of my father’s birth, Berezina was a town of about 35,000 people, 2/3 of whom were Jews. Long after my family was gone from the place, it was occupied by the Nazis from 1941-43, during which time they exterminated its entire remaining Jewish population. There but for the grace of God…
I wish I could invoke the spirits of all my ancestors to help me reconstruct the life of my great-grandfather the beggar, the details of Abraham’s story and of all the other stories hinted at in that skeletal family tree, but so much has blown away like dust in the ensuing years as will be the case for much about my life in a few generations. We have a responsibility to preserve as much of that history as is humanly possible. I have not been as diligent a steward of that legacy as I wish, and I hope this brief account will inspire some of you to get busy working on your own family’s story.