Monday, 15 December 2014

Meet the Szwarc family

The Szwarc family, Gombin (Poland) 1918
I have just this weekend had my first contact with another ‘new’ cousin, Belinda from Israel. This afternoon she sent me this photo of her grandparents, Towje Aron Szwarc and Bajla Frankensztajn, with 9 of their children. Two more had died young, and there was one more to come. Bajla was the sister of my own great-great-grandfather, Jankel Josek Frankensztajn, so Belinda is officially my Second Cousin Once Removed. She is named after Bajla, her grandmother.

The little boy seated on the right, whose feet don’t quite touch the floor, is Belinda’s father Pinhas (Paul), here aged about 5. In the middle at the back stands Jankel (Jack), the oldest son, aged about 23.

I had never seen this photo before, and thought it quite wonderful. Now that Belinda has identified all the people in it for me, I think that, for our family, it is also quite historic. Here’s why.

My own grandfather Lajb (Louis) Frankenstein and his cousin Jack Szwarc both left their home town of Gombin, in Poland, during 1913, and came to London. Louis was 21 and Jack 17. They may even have come together, we don’t know. They both found work in tailoring, Jack in the East End of London, Louis possibly in the West End. They both married in 1916. Jack’s first child Phillip was born in September 1917, and Louis’s first child, Esther (my Auntie Essie) was born in April 1918 (sadly, she died earlier this year, aged 95).

I have been trying to trace their lives in Britain for a couple of years now, and a couple of the documents I have come across deal with their military service during the First World War. In 1917 Russia and Britain, allies in the war against Germany, came to an agreement - the 'Allied Convention' - whereby all Russian nationals in the UK who were eligible for military service, would either have to ‘return’ to Russia and enlist in the Russian Army, or they would have to join the British Army. This included people from Poland, which was part of the Russian Empire.

Louis in the British Army
The vast majority of the Jewish community in the East End of London had come from areas within the Russian Empire, and this agreement was particularly aimed at them. The two cousins, along with thousands of others, had difficult decisions to make. They chose different paths: Louis stayed in the UK and joined the British Army, whilst Jack opted to go ‘back’ to Russia.

Under this scheme, a number of boats, with a few thousand men in total on board, sailed from London to Odessa, on the Black Sea, between August and October 1917, and Jack was on one of those. He eventually returned to London in September 1919.

In the end, he did not fight in the War, because the Bolshevik Revolution occurred shortly after he arrived, in November 1917, and Russia immediately withdrew from the War. I do not know whether the recruits from the UK were expected to carry out some form of military service in the Red Army, after the end of the War, or whether they were freed from service altogether.

The War between Britain and Germany continued until November 1918, so Jack would not have been able to travel across Europe to return to London before then. Until I saw this photo, I had no idea where he went, or what he did, in those two years.

What the photo tells us is that he did in fact return to Gombin, some 1300km from Odessa. Belinda’s identification of the younger children dates the photo in 1918 or possibly early 1919, and Jack's presence confirms this. I think it may even have been taken especially for Jack, so that he could take it back to London as a memento of his family, and to show to his wife. It is quite probably the only photo ever taken of the whole family together. I don’t think they were ever again all in the same place at the same time.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Meet my great-great-great-grandmother's family

Lewek and Libe Taube

This is from a Book of Residents covering the villages between Gombin and Plock, in central Poland. It is an entry on the page for the family of my great-great-grandfather, Wolek Frankensztajn, and it identifies his parents. The entry is written in Russian, and probably dates from the 1870s or thereabouts.

Wolek's parents are my great-great-great-grandparents. I had no idea what their names were going to be - I hadn't even known of Wolek until I saw this book in the archives in Plock last June. There isn't an online index for the book, so there's no way of knowing what's in it without going there and asking to see the original.

I can read a bit of Russian, not fluently, but enough to decipher the names in the first line: Lewek and Libe Taube. The word on the second line should be her maiden name - but what is it? I couldn't make it out. I put it aside, intending to post it online to see if anyone could decipher it for me.

Then a couple of days ago I was putting together a little booklet to give to my 'new' cousin Joan. We are third cousins, and this is the document that proves it: Wolek, born in 1839, is our most recent common ancestor, and I wanted to translate the whole of this page into English for her. I could work out all the rest - but I didn't want to leave out our great-great-great-grandmother's maiden name.

I had another look, I blew it up big. Suddenly it dawned on me that the word might start with the Russian character: щ , which gives a sort of double sound 'shch'. I followed through, trying out all the possibilities I could think of for all the other strokes, and laboriously pieced together a candidate: щавинска . Written in Polish, which uses Latin characters, this would be: Szczawinska .

I'd never heard of the name, so I was a bit dubious. Maybe I'd got it wrong. I went to the JRI-Poland web-site, and put in a query. There they were: a handful of Szczawinskis (masculine) and Szczawinskas (feminine) in the area, including two or three in Lewek's home town of Gombin. The database didn't include my Libe Taube, but that was because the time period it covered was wrong for her.

But at least I now know her family name, thanks to Cousin Joan :-), and I also know that there were others with the same name in the same area, so it may be possible to find traces of her family.

And now, three days later, however hard I stare at the word, I can't see it as anything but: щавинска . How come I couldn't see it before?

Can you decipher 267 Jankel?

I have a number of short snippets that I'll be posting here in the hope that someone can help me decipher them. They are from entries in a Book of Residents covering the villages between Gombin and Plock, in Poland. They are handwritten in Polish or in Russian, sometimes both. There's about 20 altogether so I'll post a couple to start with and see how it goes.
267 Jankel

This is from the entry for my great-grandfather, Jankel Josek Frankensztejn. I can see that the second note says "died 2 November 1903" - but I can't make out the first note (Russian). And I can't even work out whether the scribble in red is in Russian or Polish ....

Please feel free to post any comments or translations in the Comments below.

I think we need to talk

I met Cousin Joan yesterday. Well, Third Cousin Joan. She came across me online a few months ago, but this was the first time we had met - she lives in Israel, and was coming over to London for a couple of days, so I hopped on the train and went up to see her.

She had just started delving into her family history, and did a Google search for her great-grandmother, Bajla Frankenstein. Go on, try it. Second up is a post of mine from two years ago, recounting how I had made contact with Frankenstein cousins in the USA that we had previously had no idea even existed. In the post I mentioned a Bajla Frankenstajn I had found, as a possible connection between my family and the 'new' cousins.

Joan saw what I had written, and posted a comment:
"I've just started a serious genealogy project and stumbled upon this post. I am a great-grandaughter of Bajla Frankenstejn. I think we need to talk."
So here we are, talking. We compared notes, and after some scratching of heads we realised that, although I'm older than her father, she and I are in fact of the same generation - we share great-great-grandparents, which makes us third cousins, I think. Her great-grandmother, Bajla, was sister to my great-grandfather Jankel Josek. She was 13 years younger than him, and his lot seem to have been quicker off the mark than hers in each succeeding generation.

Joan brought with her an absolute jewel of a photo album, which had been her grandparents'; it had scores of photos from before the Second World War. I had never seen any of them before, and Joan herself was pushed to put names to more than a few of the people in them. As she showed them to me, I snapped away with my iPhone, on the café table (spot the shadows); Joan will scan them properly for me when she gets back home.

Bajla and her husband, Towje Aron Szwarc, lived in Gombin, in Poland, and had a dozen children. A couple of them died in childhood, but most of the rest went on to have families of their own. Towje Aron died in the early 1930s.  Some of the children emigrated - to Panama, the US, and the UK - and thereby survived the War. Bajla and the others stayed in Poland, and all perished in the Holocaust.

Bajla and Towje Aron
The oldest of their children was Jankel, born in 1896 and a few years younger than his cousin, my grandfather Lajb. The two cousins both came to London in 1913, where Jankel became Jack Schwartz, and Lajb became Louis Frankenstein. They remained in contact at least until the late 1930s.

Bajla came to London to see Jack in 1930, and stayed for three months, during which time she must have seen her nephew, Louis, and his family, including my mother, who would have been 10 years old. However we have very few photos from this period, and none that seem to be of this visit. So this is the first photo of Bajla that I have seen.

More than that, it is the first time I have seen a photo of anyone in the generation before my grandfather.

By the way, this is at least the third time that I have been 'found' by a previously unknown cousin googling for one of their own ancestors, and coming up with a page I had written that named the person they were looking for. See Cousin Report #27, for example.