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 . . . .

What is Closest at Hand?

We do have some information from other relatives about the gardener’s (aka my husband’s) maternal history, but it will need more work in the future. For now, we want to focus on his paternal relatives because we know so little of them.

I wrote to the gardener’s cousin and asked if he had any documents passed down in the family. Unfortunately, he does not. At some point, anything that would help in researching the family history was thrown away or lost.

But I started to think that since both his paternal grandparents immigrated to this country and died here, that the cemetery and their headstones would be the first step.

They are both buried at Montefiore Cemetery in Queens. I was able to confirm that on Find-a-grave. I asked our cousin to take photos of the headstones because I didn’t think it was a good idea to ask my daughter who is not familiar with areas of NYC outside where she lives and works–and she has no car. He was very willing, but then Sharon from Branches of our Haimowitz Family Tree told me that I could just ask the cemetery to take the photos for me for $10! So much easier. It turned out to be quick, too, because the photos showed up in my mailbox seemingly instantaneously. Thank you to Carl!

 

I knew Celia because when the gardener and I got married she was elderly. She traveled from NYC to Michigan for our wedding and brought her own food with her as she was worried that she wouldn’t be able to get kosher food in Kalamazoo.

She was a tiny little lady. Here is a photo of her dancing with her son, my father-in-law Murray, at our wedding.

Since Isidore passed away in 1953, I wasn’t even born yet, so I never met him. But his presence was always a part of the family that I married into.

 

I think these are extraordinarily beautiful headstones–the details are marvelous.

What did we learn from the headstones? We already knew their names and the dates they died. But we might have learned the year they both were born–Isidore’s by taking 1953 and subtracting his 68 years and hers by taking 1982 and subtracting her 89 years. Time will tell if we are right.

By translating the Hebrew we have learned that his father was listed as Shimon, and that Isidore’s Hebrew name was Itzchak Meir (my husband was named for him).

Celia’s Hebrew name was Tziviah Sheindel (Tzivia Shaindel). In fact, our daughter is named for her and for my grandmother–Miriam Shaindel. Several people translated the headstone, just to make sure. This is the one from a kind soul on a Facebook group.

Line 1, [abbreviation]: Here lies buried, L2: Tziviah Sheindel, daughter of , L3: Mr. Baruch Avraham, L4: died 4 Kislev 5743, L5: [abbreviation] May her soul be bound in the bond of life.

 

The “Mr.” is seen in the abbreviation resh (R) followed by what looks like an apostrophe. This is for the Yiddish word Reb (according to the translator above), which is a term of honor closest to mister. Remember in Fiddler on the Roof Tevye is sometimes called Reb Tevye?

It was very helpful to locate the headstones as an initial step, and I’m glad we tried what is closest at hand first. Having the names of the fathers will be a big help in searching in eastern Europe.

 

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.

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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.