Frustrations in Genealogy (What’s New?)

This post is just to mention that I’m at a frustrating point. Now that we have the names of the Goodstein cousins of Celia, it should be easy to track the families down to the present.

Inna made headway finding the descendants of Rose and Isidore, but they have not responded to our attempts to contact them. Rose’s son Stanley is about 92, and he could possibly have information to share since he is the oldest family member that we know about.

It was also quite a bonus to find that Max traveled to the United States to meet his brother-in-law Max, but the other Max’s surname continues to elude us. Here is a cropped version–Max’s name is on the third actual dotted line. I want to know what the surname says AND what the street name and number are.

Here is the complete document that the cropped portion comes from.

Anna’s relatives in the United States (if that is what is meant by brother-in-law of Max) will continue to be a brick wall until these two words can be deciphered. Any ideas? The street is not Stone, after all.

Yet another frustration is that the DNA match attempts with Scheshkos from Vasilishki has been inconclusive. One of them was compared on Gedmatch, and there is a DNA match, but so small it could be “noise.” The other person has been “unavailable” since I asked for a Gedmatch comparison.

Further Tiraspol and Odessa records continue to elude Inna at this point.

But we know there was family alive in the sixties because Celia was writing to them. The only clue we have is this headstone for Khaim Gutstein, 1897 to 1974. It’s in Tiraspol.

Inna translated the inscription:

To dear father from grieving children, grandchildren, daughter-in-law, and nieces.

That would mean a large family alive in 1974, possibly in Tiraspol. Will we ever discover if there is a connection to Celia?

All that trouble Celia and her relatives took to write to each other, although the censors cut out huge portions of their letters. I like to think Celia would like it if we can find the descendants of her relatives.

The Places Behind the Faces, Part I: Vasilishki

If you look carefully at the translation of the birth records on Finding Names for the Photograph, we have another hint for further research from the birth records. The gardener’s great-grandfather Shimel (sometimes Shimen) is not originally from Odessa or Tiraspol after all, although the family lived in both places. He is originally from Vasilishki, which is in Belarus.

As a reminder, this photo is Isidore and his family (except sister Malka who was in the U.S.). Take a look at the father, Shimel, seated in the center. He was born into a family of Vasilishki Scheshkos who had probably been in that town for generations.

Inna tried to find Shimel’s birth record, but the Lithuanian archive that houses these records does not have Jewish birth records for the year Shimel was born. They have very few Jewish records for Vasilishki at all. But there was one large Scheshko family in town, that is clear. It’s possible that Mendel, son of Girsch (born 1833), could be Shimel’s father.

Shimel’s birth in Vasilishki means that the name Scheshko (Sheshko) might not be Ukrainian, but come from elsewhere. Inna used Alexander Beider’s A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames and discovered that “Jews with this surname lived in Ukmerge (old name Vilkomir) town that is located in Lithuania, Lida, Belarus, Village Sheshki in Panevėžys district of Lithuania and village Sheshki in Ashmyani district of Belarus. So if the family lived in one of the Sheshki villages, then the surname is toponymic.” That would mean that the name came from where they lived at the time they took the name. This differs from family folklore, which is that the name came from the trade of ironworker or sword maker. No definitive decision on the origins of the surname yet.

Vasilishki is still in existence. You can get a feel for what it looks like today HERE. Google will translate it into English, if you wish. It did not look this way before WWII. It was a drab, gray town set in a beautiful landscape with forest, streams, and meadows. The railway station was sixteen kilometers (ten miles) away.

JewishGen profiles Jewish communities, including Vasilishki. From that site, I found the following information. Before WWI, the town was in the Lida district, Vilna province, and part of the Russian Empire. Between WWI and WWII it was still the Lida district, but now it was Poland. After WWII Vasilishki was part of the Soviet Union and today it is in Belarus. Think of it as in the Vilna region. It is 20 miles WSW of Lida and 42 miles east of Grodno. There were sixteen nearby Jewish communities. Not documented to my satisfaction, but of interest, is an online report that suggests that the town was first mentioned (that we know today) in 1486. Jews may have lived there since the 16th or 17th century.

The Jewish population in 1897 was 2,081 (out of a total of 2,780), but in 1921, it was 1,223. Jews made up about 80% of the town, and it could be considered a shtetl. In 1909 a men’s private Jewish school was opened. JewishGen has a list of Jewish surnames that were found in Vasilishki in 1834. They include Sheshko.

In the 1920s the entire region was constantly changing as it was just after the Russian Revolution of 1917. One Jewish response to the changing world was the creation of the Betar movement, which was a Revisionist Zionist youth movement founded in 1923. Very soon there were chapters across Europe. It was an influential group. For instance, Menachem Begin, Israeli prime minister (on and off between 1980 and 1983), was a member of this youth group. Vasilishki had its own Betar group before and perhaps during WWII.The organization still exists today, particularly on college campuses.

Betar of Vasilishki

Click the photo to enter the source at JewishGen

Of course, this history leads up to WWII and the Holocaust. If you wonder as I did what happened to the town’s inhabitants, I will tell you that Jews no longer live in Vasilishki.

If you recall on my post Who Are These Other Scheshkos? I posted a small portion of a list from a database of Jews that were murdered in the Holocaust. These were Sheshkos from Vasilishki. At the time it seemed far away from our Scheshko/Sheshkos, but now we know that the gardener’s great-grandfather left Vasilishki at some point. Presumably, he left his family behind in Vasilishki. Realistically, it appears at this point as if the Sheshkos listed as murdered were actually the gardener’s relatives. This was quite a blow to absorb as up ’til now the gardener did not really connect his father’s relatives with the Holocaust.

There was another list I put up–of Jews who survived the Holocaust–and there were Scheshkos in Belice. On this map from JewishGen you can see how close Vasilishki is to “Bielica,” which is possibly the Belice on the list. If Vasilishki is 20 miles from Lida, then clearly it’s not much farther to Bielica. Of course, we don’t know what happened to these people after the war, but notice the names. Ida Scheshko, like Isidore’s mother. It does seem unlikely though as the last place we see her (so far) was Odessa and she would have been quite old. It’s possible that the Belice survivors are related to the Shesko/Scheshko/Scheschkos in Canada, but this is just an intuitive leap, and I could be wrong.

What actually happened in Vasilishki during the war? Before the Germans arrived there, the military sent all the Jews into the forest in case of bombing. They had to pray silently during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. When the Russians retreated and the Germans arrived, they ordered everyone back to their homes. At first, the Jewish population thought that this was a good thing and they communicated easily with the Germans through Yiddish. But quickly they started to see the cracks.

A forest in Belarus


At the very end of 1941 a ghetto (read: prison) was established in Vasilishki by the Nazis for the Vasilishki Jews, as well as those from neighboring villages. They were worked very hard. The Lithuanian police, on May 10, 1942, helped the Nazis select Jews to be killed. Pits had been dug in the Jewish cemetery, and between 1,800 and 2,200 Jews were shot and killed and buried in the pits. About 200 people were transferred to other ghettos, and a few escaped into the forest.

On JewishGen, I found the Vasilishki portion of Shchuchin Yizkor Book which includes testimony from survivors of Vasilishki and provides a narration of what occurred before, during, and after the war. You can go here to read more. And Vasilishki is mentioned elsewhere on the site, as well. I don’t think it requires joining JewishGen, but you can join for free if you like, although a donation would be appreciated.

The Vasilishki Jews who were murdered by the Nazis are honored in the Forest of the Martyrs in Israel.

Finding Names for the Photograph

In a very short period of time, Inna was able to get her hands on documents that would have taken me months to obtain.

First let me introduce you to Isidore’s Eastern European family.

When this photograph was given to us years ago by Charlotte, the daughter of Isidore’s sister Malka (Malka had only one child and no grandchildren), all we knew was that Malka is not in the photograph because when it was taken she was already in the United States–and that Isidore is the one in the center in back. We, of course, assumed that the older couple were his parents.

Now, remember last week the birth list from Odessa? 

We saw Isidore (Itskhok-Meer) and Malka both on the list. We also saw a Scheshko whose name began with T, a Sura, a Mendel, and a Feyga Sosya. Sura and Mendel are listed as twins, and this seems to fit with the young man on our left and the seated young lady on our right. The T could be the standing woman.

So what did Inna find?

1885 Births, Odessa Rabbinate

Record #1420

Date: December 31, Hebrew date Shvat 6

Daughter: Malka

Father: Lida meschanin[1] Shimel son of Mendel SHESHKO

Mother: Khaya Brana


1887 Registry book of births, Odessa

Record #147

Date: January 26, 1887 Hebrew date: Shvat 13

Son: Itskhok-Meer

Father: Vasilishskiy Meschanin, Shimel son of Mendel SHESHKO

Mother: Khaya


Book of Odessa Jews born in 1889

Record # 631

Date: May 14, 1889 (Hebrew calendar:  Iyar 25)

Daughter: Tema was born on May 13

Father: Vasilishskiy Meschanin, Shimen son of Mendel SHESHKO

Mother: Khaya


Metrical records book for Jews born in Odessa in 1891

Man Record #: 1379

Woman Record #: 1269


Son – Mendel was born on September 3d, registered on September 5th, Circumcision was done on September 10th

Daughter – Sura was born on September 3d, registered on September 5th,

Father: Vasilisheskiy meschanin* Shimel, son of Mendel SHESHKO

Mother: Khaya

Metrical book for Jews born in Odessa in 1896

Record # 1741

Date: December 2, 1896 (Hebrew calendar:  Tevet 9)

Daughter: Feyga-Sosya

Father: Vasilishskiy Meschanin, Shimel son of Mendel SHESHKO

Mother: Khaya

* Meschane in Russian Empire represented poor town residents who did not qualify as merchants or civil servants.


Standing: Mendel, Isidore, Tema

Seated: Khaya (listed as Ida on Malka’s marriage license), Shimel (listed as Samuel on Malka’s marriage license), Sura, and an unidentified boy

Is it just me or does the boy look photoshopped in?

Regarding Feyga Sosya, why is she not in the family photo? She was younger than the twins, so she would certainly be in the family photo if she was still alive and not away with other family. Maybe we will discover one day what happened to Feyga Sosya.

In the Odessa archives, Inna was able to find the marriage record of Shimel and Khaya.

Book of marriage records of Odessa Jews, 1884

Record #147

Groom: Vasilkovski meschanin Shimel SHESHKA, bachelor, 23 y. o.

Bride: daughter of Kupilskiy[1] meschanin Itsek Meer PECHNIK, Khaya, maiden, 24 y. o.

Marriage took place on February 20, 1884

[1] Kupil – Jewish settlement in Khmelnitsk province of Western Ukraine

So Khaya did come from Ukraine, and her maiden name was Pechnik, which is a wonderful addition to our accumulation of information and clues for further research.

Since the story was that Isidore didn’t know his birthday, it’s wonderful to see that there really was a record of his birth and those of his siblings. January 26 will always be the gardener’s grandfather’s birthday to me from now on.

Who Are These Other Scheshkos?

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.

STAY TUNED . . . .

Entering the Pale for The First Time

When I was a kid, growing up in Michigan, there were two world powers: the United States and the USSR or the Soviet Union. In my mind, the USSR was RED for Communism and made up of Russia (where they had snow and vodka) and some other gray areas that never really took shape for me.

Map of Iron Curtain from Wikipedia

When I met my husband in high school, he said his grandparents were “Russian Jews,” and that their relatives were shut behind the Iron Curtain. He remembered his grandmother receiving letters from her relatives with more words cut out by censors than the number of words left in the letters. Today we wish those letters still existed, but at the time nobody thought to save them.

For years, we assumed that all records of these relatives were lost to time and war.

Not so, we are now discovering. And the reality of who his relatives were, where they lived, and what their lives might have been like seems to be different than our assumptions. But we are only beginning to learn about them. This blog is meant to share our findings with others who might be interested in the people of The Pale of Settlement.

Have you ever seen Fiddler on the Roof? If you’re like me, you probably assumed it took place in Russia because of the references to the Czar, the Russian soldiers, and the pogroms. The musical is based on the short stories of Sholem Aleichem who grew up in Ukraine, near Kiev. His stories are set in the area he knew best, thus Anatevka was in Ukraine! I’m not a history scholar of the area by any stretch of the imagination, so I could be wrong, but I imagine that is why the focus on the Cossack soldiers in the story. Cossacks are from eastern Europe–primarily, but not exclusively, Ukrainians. Of course, these lands were all under the Russian Empire at the time of the story.


As I explain about this blog in the About Entering the Pale page:

This blog is dedicated to researching family from a historical area of Europe known as The Pale of Settlement. This area included Belarus, Lithuania, Moldova, Ukraine, and parts of Latvia and Russia, extending from the demarcation line (known as the eastern pale) to the Russian and Prussian/Austria-Hungary border. The reason I call the blog Entering the Pale is that the Pale was an area where Jews were allowed permanent residency, as opposed to other areas of Russia. This is where the Scheshkos, Goodsteins, Pechniks, and others lived.

When I was a young history student, I was taught that the expression “beyond the pale” referred to the land east of the Pale of Settlement. Nowadays some people assert that the expression comes from an area of Ireland that was beyond the boundaries of England. In either case, the pale refers to the Latin word palus or stake. The land that is enclosed by a fence driven by stakes is a pale.