Monday, 22 October 2012

Climbing the stairs

Lewis (Leibisch) Levin was a brother of my great-grandmother Mikhlya. He was born in 1861 in Streshin, a little village on the river Dniepr, in what is now the south-east of Belarus. In the early 1900s he came to London accompanied by his three children from his first wife, who had died a few years previously, and his second wife with her own daughter. They found somewhere to live in the heart of the East End, where tens of thousands of East European Jews had settled over the previous 20 years or so.

My own grandmother - Lewis' niece - came to London soon after, aged about 18, and stayed with the Levins, probably helping to look after the children. Within a couple of years there were two more boys, and they moved from one accommodation to another, always along Whitechapel High Street and Mile End Road, presumably to have more room for the expanding family. In every document, and in various trade directories, Lewis is a 'Paper Bag Maker', even sometimes a 'Master Paper Bag Maker'; his own children, and my own young uncles and aunts, were all roped in to work in his paper bag factory, which was mostly located on the kitchen table.

We knew that he had died in 1927, aged 67, and that he was probably living on his own by this stage - his second wife had died when the boys were very young, his older children had all left home for marriage, America, or the Russian Revolution, and the younger boys didn't see their futures in paper bags and left home to work elsewhere and to put themselves through night school.

The figure of Lewis has long fascinated me, and a few months ago I ordered a copy of his Death Certificate, to see if it could offer up anything new about him. And so it did - an address: "of 84B Whitechapel High Street". So now we knew where he had been living at the time of his death.

The next time I was in the area I looked for the building. Next to the Whitechapel Library I found number 82; a few doors down was number 87. The two or three buildings in between did not appear to be numbered, but I assumed 84B would be one of them and duly took a photo as evidence.

My cousin Beatrice, Lewis' great-grand-daughter, is currently in London - her mother Alice (Lewis' grand-daughter, now aged 101) is unwell, and Beatrice has come over from the US to be closer to her. Yesterday afternoon Beatrice and I went on a 'Musical Walk round the Jewish East End', organised by the Jewish Music Institute, and guided by the historian David Rosenberg (highly recommended, by the way). Beatrice's grandfather Sam had been involved in the Workers' Circle, a friendly society established to further the interests of working-class East European Jews, from the 1910s onwards, and her mother Alice was active in the Yiddish theatre movement from the 1930s, and Workers' Circle and Yiddish theatre both featured in David's programme for the Walk.

The group met outside the Library, and then David led us off down a narrow alleyway between two of the neighbouring buildings - Angel Alley, you can see it at the extreme left of the photo above. There on the right a notice was pinned to a door: 'This is NOT 84B, it's 84A. 84B is opposite!' You can hear the exasperation in the printed words. You can probably also hear my involuntary intake of breath, for 84B turns out to be the premises of Freedom Press, the long-established Anarchist publishers and booksellers.

David was going to tell us about some of the radical figures and groups that flourished in the area 100 years ago, but Beatrice and I were just standing there, minds racing, staring at the building.

After the Walk, we grabbed David for a chat over a superb falafel lunch (PilPel, Brushfield Street), then made our way back to see if the Freedom bookshop at 84B was still open. It was. We explained why we had come, and asked the lady in the shop if she knew how the building was being used in 1927. She kindly went off to find a book containing a history of the organisation - and its premises - which told us that at least before 1942 there had been a printing press occupying the ground floor.

"Would you like to see upstairs?" I had to ask her to repeat the question, partly because I don't hear very well, but mainly because I couldn't believe what I had just heard. Upstairs? Lewis must have lived upstairs, 85 years ago. We took a deep breath, and followed her up. The staircase, banisters, walls, and some of the doors, looked as though they had had nothing done to them in 100 years or more.

She took us into one of the rooms, and we discussed the layout. The room we were standing in had a structural beam across the middle, and we reckoned it had probably originally been two rooms. On the landing there was a blanked-off door which confirmed this.

So we sat, and stood, in one half of the room, looking out to the brick wall opposite (the Library building, in fact), and tried to imagine a bed, and a chair, and a table. Where was the sink? There probably wasn't one, he'd have had to bring water in from the bathroom. Was there even a bathroom? How did he cook? Did he cook?

But it was the stairs that got me. He must have gone up and down these stairs every day for months, maybe two or three years. And here we were, treading the same steps, holding on to the same worn banisters, knocking on doors - his door, maybe - to feel the wood.

He fell ill here, and died at the London Jewish Hospital down the road in Stepney Green. I've just looked at the Death Certificate again. He died on 20 October 1927. Just 85 years and one day before we came to visit him.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Finding more new cousins

It's happened again.

Four weeks ago I found some Shreibmans, on my father's side, that I never knew existed. They are descendants of Aron, a cousin of my grandfather. We didn't know of Aron's existence until he appeared in the research we commissioned in Belarus last year. Aron emigrated to America, and became Harry, and now we are sharing family stories with the sons and daughters of his sons and daughters. If only my father - or any of his seven brothers and sisters - were alive to share this moment with us!

Two weeks on, and I've found some Frankensteins.

My mother's father, Leibisch 'Louis' Frankenstein (above), came to England from Poland some time in the 1910s. A few years later his brother Itzhak 'Isaac' Finkelstein, emigrated to South America, and then after a few years went on to Israel. Before you ask, neither Isaac's nor Louis' families have ever been able to explain why the brothers used different surnames. Did one of them change his name? And which was the 'genuine' family name? No-one knows.

The extent of our families' meagre 'knowledge' is that their parents were Jacob and Gittel, there were probably three other siblings, all girls, called Hava, Haia and one whose name we don't know, and they came from a town called Gombin (Gabin) in Poland. We have a rough idea of Louis' and Isaac's years of birth. Other than that, nothing.

Or rather, next to nothing.

My cousin Bracha, Itzhak's daughter, and I have been getting our heads together. Bracha tells me that Itzhak had a relative called 'Reimond Ball', who was active in the Gombiner Society in America, and that Itzhak himself had been President of the Society in Israel. And that there were other relatives, called Schwartz, who had six sons, all tailors, who went to London, and helped my grandfather when he arrived there 100 years ago: one of them was called Abraham.

Now this being the 21st Century, the Gombiner Society in the US has a web-site. On the web-site I came across a reference to a 'Raymond Boll'. Promising! They also had a database with listings of Gombiner families from a few years around the turn of the 20th Century, with dates of birth and, where appropriate, death.

Amongst the families in the database I found a Jacob and Gitla Finkelstein, with a daughter Jenta Bajla who married a member of a Svarc family. And a Bajla Frankenstajn, who also married a Svarc, and had eight children; the two girls died young, the six boys survived. One of them was called Abraham. This Abraham Svarc was just a few years younger than my grandfather Louis and his brother Isaac.

And then I found that some of the US Gombiners have even set up a Facebook Group; it is 2012, after all. When I saw that the owner of the group is called Dana Boll, I felt we might be on the right track.

And indeed we are. Dana and her cousin Joyce are grand-daughters of Raymond Boll; their fathers recall Raymond being in contact with Itzhak Finkelstein, who they assume was a cousin to Raymond. They tell me that Raymond's mother was Rifka Leah Frankenstein, who married twice and had mountains of children. They also have a Bajla Frankenstein, who married a Schwartz, and had 10 children. However, although they think of Itzhak as a cousin, they know nothing further about him. He does not appear on their family tree, and at the moment, no-one quite knows how he fits in.

They do, however, have a 'Lajb (?)' - with a question mark - on their tree, and a Chava, as brother and sister. So they do have reference to two names that appear in my grandfather's family - his own, and one of his sisters' - although, again, they are not sure which bit of their family they 'belong' to.

So, to sum up:
1) My own family's knowledge includes:
• an Itzhak Finkelstein who used to be in contact with a cousin Raymond Boll, both involved in the Gombiner Societies in their respective countries
• Itzhak has a brother Leibisch and a sister Chava, plus two other sisters, one called Chaya and the other unknown
• their parents are Jacob and Gittle
• Itzhak also has a cousin Abraham Schwartz, one of six brothers, who went to London and knew Leibisch there
• we do not know the exact relationship with Raymond Boll and Abraham Schwartz
• no other related Frankensteins or Finkelsteins are known to us

2) In the database, we find:
• a Jacob and Gitla Finkelstein who had a daughter Jenta Bajla who married a Svarc
• a Bajla Frankenstajn who married a Svarc and had six sons, one of which was called Abraham

3) Our possible new cousins' knowledge includes:
• a Raymond Boll who used to be in contact with a cousin Itzhak Finkelstein, both involved in the Gombiner Societies in their respective countries
• Raymond Boll was a son of Rifka Leah Frankenstajn
• Itzhak's parents and siblings are unknown
• a brother Lajb and a sister Chava, who are closely related but whose parents and any other siblings are unknown
• a Bajla Frankenstajn who married a Schwartz and had about ten children

So, nothing definite, as yet, no absolute proof. In particular, we do not yet have anything that identifies a specific relationship between Jacob Finkelstein and Rifka Leah Frankenstein, Raymond's mother. Were they brother and sister? Cousins maybe??

Nevertheless, life is short, and I'm happy to accept the weight of evidence, which as far as I'm concerned points to the conclusion that, for the second time in a fortnight, I've found new cousins.

The sharing of stories is about to begin. If only my mother were alive to share this moment with us! Happily, two of her sisters are still here, as is their cousin Bracha - and they are going to be the ones with the best stories to tell.