Here is a photo of Isidore and Celia Scheshko. I really love this portrait. It’s very small and wedged into the curved glass front frame for as long as I’ve known the gardener (and that’s a long time). I haven’t removed it to scan because I am afraid of damaging it. Any ideas on how to take it out carefully, with the hopes that I can put it back in the same frame? Alternatively, if a relative has this image scanned, please email it to me, and I won’t need to bother.
Although the gardener and I have only recently begun searching for his family history in a focused and determined way, for years we did stop by Ancestry looking for Scheshkos (grandfather Isidore) and Goodsteins (grandmother Celia).
Searching for the Goodstein family was very difficult because the name is relatively common and easily confused on documents with Goldstein, an even more common surname. Also, Celia traveled to the United States as a teen with her best girlfriend to live with her uncle. But we don’t have the name of the uncle–and we don’t think any other family members came to this country. We don’t even have the name of the girlfriend, although apparently, when they were elderly, they both lived together in a nursing home in the Bronx.
We had been told that Scheshko was not a common name, and that turned out to be true–at least in the U.S. We found a handful of other American Scheshkos, but they were apparently Christian and of no relation. We wondered if their family might have once been Jewish because we assumed it was a Jewish surname. In the case of Isidore, the only other family member who did come to this country (to our knowledge) was his older sister Malka who married, had one daughter, and no grandchildren.
I mentioned before that Celia used to get letters from the Soviet Union that had been shredded by the censors. The gardener and I always assumed that he had relatives behind the Iron Curtain. We even thought they might have been absorbed into the general population of that country during a period where religion was frowned upon.
Finally, at around the same time that I wondered about the grandparents’ headstones, I did a search on JewishGen, a genealogy website focused on Jewish history and ancestors.
There are 3 databases that revealed important information regarding the Scheshkos.
The first is a database that has been compiled of Jews who survived the Holocaust.
You have to understand where our brains were when we tried to process the idea that Scheshkos were anywhere near the Holocaust. For some reason, it never occurred to either of us that the Holocaust ravaged Ukraine and Moldova. We consider ourselves more knowledgeable about history than the average American. After all, it’s one of the gardener’s passions, and I have an undergraduate degree in history. In fact, one of my post-doctoral specialties was the Holocaust memoir, particularly written by those who had been children during those years.
But the Holocaust that I read about was always in Germany, Poland, Austria, France, Netherlands, and even Italy and Hungary. I suddenly realized I didn’t know much of anything about the 20th century history of the Pale of Settlement.
As I reread the list from Jewish Gen, I thought how the people didn’t seem familiar (how dumb is that?). But if Scheshko isn’t a common name, could they be shirttail relatives? We didn’t know. And where is or was Belice? I searched and searched and couldn’t figure it out. Eventually, we discovered it in the Grodno region of the Lida district in the country of Belarus.
A small detail of this list gave me pause, although I wasn’t sure if the gardener noticed it until I told him. I had found Isidore’s sister Malka (who became Molly in this country)’s marriage license (which I will produce in a later post)–and her parents were listed as Samuel and Ida. If Isidore’s mother’s name was Ida, was this woman in Belice his mother? I thought she was too old to have survived, but maybe it was another relative with her name–such as a niece of Isidore? Keep in mind that Jews customarily name babies with the name of a deceased ancestor, oftentimes a grandparent or great-grandparent. So if Ida, the gardener’s great-grandmother, had already passed on when a grandchild was born, the baby might share her name. This is strictly about Hebrew names, though, and Ida is not a Hebrew name.
A second database undercut our hope about the first one because it was a list of Scheshkos who died during the Holocaust. Start reading halfway down this list.
While this list is for those from Vilna, some of the same people are listed in one for Grodno (like Belice). Notice that these people are from Vasilishki, a town in Belarus.
Belice and Vasilishki are very close, but Belarus is very far north from where the gardener’s relatives in the Black Sea region lived (Odessa and Tiraspol, as we had been told).
We were tempted to dismiss these other Scheshkos as family because we couldn’t imagine traveling so far (and for what reason) in those days unless you were actually immigrating to a place like the United States. That was our thinking.
All throughout the previous years and even in the beginning of this process this year we have been very naive. Just know that I can’t reveal all in one or two posts. There is too much information.
But I will show you the third database on JewishGen.
Look at that! Malka and Itskhok Meyer (just another spelling!), born in the right decade. But in the right city? The gardener had been told they came from Tiraspol, which is in Moldova. This database is for babies born in Odessa, which is in Ukraine. How can they be the same then? Maybe Scheshko was more common than we thought.
But I did a little Google research. Apparently, Tiraspol and Odessa are 65 miles apart and, in those days, Tiraspol would have been part of greater Odessa for government and other purposes.
At this point, I felt we had a serious lead, but I could not figure out a way to search for eastern European records, particularly those that were written in various languages completely unknown to me. I am used to wiewaswie, a website devoted to Dutch history. It translates into English, and the collection of Dutch documents available is astonishing. All very conducive to researching. But I was at a loss for how to proceed in Ukraine, Moldova, and even Belarus.
I contacted a few people on JewishGen and one person led me to another who led me to another. The gardener and I ended up hiring a smart and knowledgeable genealogist named Inna who specializes in this area. If you want to know how to contact her, please email me.
Inna was now able to take these lists from JewishGen, the headstones, and the few facts or maybe-facts that we had and begin a search abroad.