How can you not know who a third cousin is when you see the names and their family history? And, yes I do believe they are 3rd cousins or 4th and then there's the 2nd cousin who has no tree and refuses to respond to email. Perhaps she's adopted... And yet despite the frustration of not being able to find out for sure what the M. stands for on my Great Grandmother Ida's death certificate there are many victories that I rarely celebrate enough. So this post is about celebrating things I learned about my Grandmother Esther Schwartz who I really knew very little about when I was little and she was visiting from New York.
Note.. as I type this there is that annoying Ancestry commercial with the gal related to George Washington "Holy Smoke!" who can't figure out how this happened so fast. I can... she's not 90% European Jewish most likely. It's just so much easier doing a tree for a friend who's family lived 6 generations in Georgia near the South Carolina border where every first son is named after their father down to the Jr. on the end of their name. The second son is usually given the surname of their mother as a middle name. It's really pretty easy. As a reference librarian in a large public library I routinely helped people named George find their family tree going back to the early 1700s. You'd think some of that karma would come back to me here.... with regard to Great Grandma Ida M. Abrams.
This is the family photo from my parent's wedding.
I always loved this picture.
Especially after my Uncle on the far left Oscar Rappaport died when I was little.
I would stare at it happy they were all together.
In fact the picture made my mother sad as her family was not all together.
Her father Benjamin passed away a few years earlier.
Unlike my aunt on the left's huge wedding in the synagogue....
... my parents had a small ceremony in the Rabbi's house.
She didn't have a long gown like her sister had...
I thought she looked like a princess.
And my father's parents on the bottom row were all dressed up!
I never saw my Grandma Esther in a fancy dress.
I had only seen Grandpa Herman in a suit once...
...when he boarded a plane to Israel to see his brother.
I have this one memory of him ....
Grandpa Herman in a brown suit and a hat climbing up the ramp to the plane.
He was flying to Israel... it seemed so big, so important.
I mean he put on his dress suit for the trip!
Pictures taken with my Grandparents Esther and Herman Schwartz.
The other lady was my Aunt Ida, Grandma's sister who often lived with them.
Most Miami kids have pictures like this especially if they are Jewish.
Relatives from New York came and stayed in the winter.
Sometimes they retired here if you were lucky as mine did.
You went to South Beach and took pictures.
The wall is there today.
I often go to the Starbucks, sip coffee and remember...
My mother's family were old time Southern Jews who during wars and malaria outbreaks went up north to Philly. In the blistering hot summers of Key West and Tampa you went to visit relatives "up north" which basically meant anywhere that you didn't have to worry about malaria. My Grandma Mary sang me old minstrel lullabies of Mammy telling her little crying babe about how he needed to stay in his own backyard and she would remind me that it pertained to Jews too! To be fair, Grandma Mary's brother's tobacco fields were burned down by the KKK. She knew where her yard was though she was very stylish and thoroughly modern. While living up north in Atlantic City where they had a cigar store on the boardwalk that sold her brother's "Made in Tampa" cigars she went and bobbed her hair to look like a flapper. Her husband from Russia cried for days that she cut her long, beautiful curls. Grandma said it was important to be modern and that bob looked real pretty on her. It's not like it wasn't going to grow back, yet looking at old pictures it's obvious Grandma Mary never grew it long again.
We lived with Grandma Mary or next door to her most of my young life. Her husband Ben died in 1949 and she remained a widow the rest of her years. Ben died before I was born so he is someone I am really only learning about now as I do family research. I always heard stories about him owning a construction company and he did build their house but little kids tune stories about about people they don't really know. And, I really didn't know Grandpa Ben. But this is about Grandma Mary and my other Grandmother Esther. It is in fact a tale of two grandmas very different and yet perhaps not so different at all.
My mother always pointed out my father was first generation American and his father was born in Hungary so that made him 50% Hungarian. She spoke more about my Grandfather Herman who she liked than she did about Grandma Esther who she obviously had some issues with as most daughter-in-laws do I suppose. I'm 25% Hungarian if you extrapolate the math. As both of Herman's parents were it seems distant cousins with the last name Weiss... my Hungarian heart shaped face is thanks to that double dose of Weiss genes from Hungary. Note Weiss became Schwartz... don't you love looking for lost relatives who are European Jews....again another story for a another day.
I didn't know my father's parents as well growing up in Miami. When I was five we took the train to New York to visit them in their apartment in the Bronx. Sadly I remember the ride in the taxi more than I do time spent with them; I was very small and lucky to remember anything at all. They would come down almost every winter to stay on Miami Beach in various apartments that all looked the same not far from Ocean Drive. On Sundays we would drive to Miami Beach and we'd sit inside the small little apartment that had odd smells such as moth balls and what was most likely shmaltz frying somewhere in the large apartment building. Every building smelled the same until their last apartment where they moved to when they retired.
I always feel guilty looking back. I liked seeing them but I hated staying so long. Sometimes we'd go take a walk to Ocean Drive or Flamingo Park. Usually we sat, my father got restless and went out for a walk and my Grandfather would go play chess with the men outside in front of their building and I'd be stuck inside with my mother and my grandmother who obviously were not best friends. I'd stare at the window when my father would return and we could leave. My parents would then fight the whole way back to Miami as my mother would complain he ran off and left her there. Why I don't know and to be honest my father never had much sitz fleish as they say in Yiddish, meaning he was restless and couldn't sit still. When my brothers were born when I was 10 and 12 I was sort of saved by the flurry of activity they would bring to the scene. My grandmother would give them a top to spin and smile watching them. Time moved faster then. Sometimes they would got to LA when their daughter lived but usually they came to Miami. Eventually they got an apartment on 10th Street just off of Washington Avenue and thanks to the Art Deco Historic District ...the place looks much the same as it did back then.
It wasn't just about the family dynamics. They sometimes made me nervous.
It's hard to explain why looking back I feel guilty I knew so little about them.
It's sort of your typical little girl in Miami goes to Miami Beach to see the Grandparents.
They'd come down from New York every winter for a bit and visit.
We'd have to drive to Miami Beach.. sit in their small little apartment....
....they spoke with an accent I was not familiar with as my other Grandma spoke Southern.
I'd see my Grandma with all her friends... they all looked the same.
They all smelled the same to a little girl. Dressed the same.
As I got older I wondered where on Washington Avenue they bought those frocks.
I sound mean. I don't mean to be mean.
I'm trying to be honest.
They seemed so old world from another place.
I'm being honest here. Bear with me..
Recently I was given a few pictures of her when she was young.
Grandma Esther's hair looks sort of blonde here. Goldish perhaps?
She was never dressed up in Miami. Never wore make up.
My Grandma Mary was always going to get her hair done.
Grandma Mary said if she didn't get her hair done she'd look like Maggie Scratch.
I wasn't sure who Maggie Scratch was but I was happy she had her hair done.
It didn't sound good.
Above is a picture of Grandma Mary.
On rare occasions even Grandma Mary wore flowered dresses.
I suppose it never occurred to me those were Grandma Esther Florida clothes.
She lived in the Bronx. Below she stands to the right of my Grandfather.
I'm pretty sure that was an engagement party or maybe a wedding.
Their daughter was marrying the lady on the left's son.
It has that proud celebratory feel to it.
I don't think I ever saw Grandma Esther so dressed up in person.
I loved her but she seemed rougher around the edges than Grandma Mary.
Or maybe because Grandma Mary lived next door she seemed more real.
Perhaps the one thing this trek through shtetl names has taught me was how little I knew.
The picture below is of my Grandma Mary at her my wedding.
Mary Abrams Rick.
Grandma Esther wore brightly flowered frocks and spoke with an old world accent. Grandma Esther was nice. I loved her. But she did seem foreign in ways. I knew little about her other than she grew up in the city in Europe somewhere and my grandpa grew up in the country in Hungary. I knew that because my Grandpa Herman complained she didn't wear good shoes and how important good shoes were. I'd look down at my Grandma Esther's worn plastic looking summer sandals and move a bit further away from Grandpa Herman. It bugged me he said that though I understood what he meant, I suddenly liked her not very stylish sandals and felt strangely protective of her. She wasn't much older than I am now in retrospect but she seemed much older. Grandma Mary in contrast wore white pumps from a shoe store in Coral Gables that carried her AAA small size show with the medium heel.
Grandma Esther usually stood in the kitchen cooking some sort of snack or dinner for my Grandfather who played chess often outside in front of the apartment building in the winter sunshine. The kitchen always smelled of aromas I was not familiar with and though she was very loving the conversation was sort of stilted. I'd watch her move about and after a while I felt sort of claustrophobic. The smell of moth balls always takes me back to Miami Beach in the 1960s as a little girl. We didn't use moth balls in Miami growing up and the old people from New York who vacationed there. Everyone smelled of moth balls when they would hug you. Of course being a Miami girl I didn't understand nothing about moth balls or seasons or clothes that were stored away for the trip to Florida.
Often seer sucker jackets over linen skirts. Hard to explain.
And no I have no pictures but you get the idea.
My Grandma Mary wore pale pink suits with various types of texture always accented by a pin or handkerchief in her pocket showing just so. She wore white cotton lace shirts with a ribbon around her hair sometimes. She had pictures of herself as a young girl dressed in a Southern Plantation sort of gown and a purple velvet ribbon around her neck with a cameo from when she played the piano for the Governor of Florida in Tallahassee. The picture was lost in a closet that had a leak but is engraved in my memory. I loved to hear Grandma Esther tell how she played the piano and how they threw roses onto the stage after her performance. Grandma Mary was a great story teller.
I ordered my Grandparent's marriage certificate from New York which by the way does not arrive in a New York minute. Takes weeks and weeks every time you order anything from New York. I had heard my Aunt Ida say they were litvaks and she pointed out her father was a misnagid when my family became involved with Chabad. Misnaged for this purpose here if you don't already know means... Not Chassidic. Her father was orthodox, Aunt Ida kept Shabbos but she didn't talk a blue streak like my Grandma Mary. She lost two husbands, a baby at the end of a long pregnancy and never had children. My father was the closest thing she had a to a child and she was a second mother to him most of his life. She was a sweet lady, not larger than life in fact very small with a ready smile especially if we brought one of the babies to see her after I was married.
This was my "WOW" moment in that I finally had a town to search.
Everyone says to use Jewish Gen but it's not helpful without names.
It helps to have the town's name as well as actual first and last names.
Grandma Esther's father Bentzion went by Benjamin as well.
Grandma Mary's father Behr went by Benjamin as well.
I guess Benjamin sounds like a good American name.
No.. I'm not related to Benjamin Franklin ... not that I know of..
And no I am not related to George Washington that I know of...
..though I learned of several people I am related to of note.
So after searching endlessly for information on the ever elusive Grandparents of Grandma Mary I have found many things out about the parents of Grandma Esther Schwartz. And as time goes by and I speak to a few older cousins I have learned much more about Grandma Esther than I ever learned watching her cook some sort of small, smelly fish I think she called "smelts" that tasted way better than they smelled. I think she breaded them and fried them as she did most of the things she cooked.
The papers say that her father is Benjamin Neftalin.
His hebrew name was Benzion and he went by the name Bensel often.
Esther's mother was Celia Perretz on the marriage license.
In town records she was listed as Tsipe Peres.
Tsipe or Tzippy is a nickname for Tziporah.
Plunge and Telze are a half hour drive.
5 to 7 hours to walk.
Google doesn't tell me how long it would take a horse and wagon...
So.... Grandma Esther's parents were Bentzion Naftolin from Telsz but he lived in Plumyan also known as Plunge Lithuania. His wife Tsipe Peres short for Cipora also known as Celia was from Plunge. Another problem with Jewish genealogy is every Great Grandparent seems to have 5 names. Yehuda Leib went by Leo or Judah or Leible or Lebi depending on which family tree someone gives you. Coming to America each record for even the same name is spelled differently. It's not like John or Mike Smith it gets complicated. Some siblings spelled it Naftolin and others Neftolin and others spelled it both ways on different documents. Then I speak to a distant cousin who says "it was always spelled with an E or we aren't related" to which I think "right" as Esther's sister Ida spelled Naftolin differently on the numerous Trees in Israel she bought in memory of her mother, father and younger brother.
I've found records on Jewish Gen for Plunge for Grandma Esther's birth.
It shows September 9th, 1895 on her birth record here.
I was always told she was born in July. Why I don't know.
I don't know why no one seemed to know when she was born.
I knew Grandma Mary's was February 7th before I knew my own.
It always bothered me my father didn't know when she was born.
Seems he was wrong or the record is wrong as that is hers.
Perhaps she didn't know?
Another record shows her birthday as July 2nd.
So many mysteries.
That is her..she was a year younger than her twin sisters Ida and Bessie.
The initial B. in my father's name was for her brother Ber.
Note it says of lung disease.
Seeing as I have had asthma and bronchitis problems most of my life...
I can tell we might be related and I'm not adopted after all...
My great grandmother Tsipe died in 1909 when Grandma Esther was 14. Her father moved to Lodz taking the children with him marrying another woman whose name I have not learned. As his daughter grew older the stepmother suggested he send them to America where they could have a better life. Whether she wanted to get rid of teenage stepdaughters who looked like the first wife or truly thought they would do better... I don't really care I'm happy Grandma Esther made it to America. Most of her European relatives perished in the Holocaust along with the other Neftalins and Peres family members who did not leave before World War 2. And, many did leave and are scattered across Minnesota, Scotland, England, South Africa and even here in North Carolina.
Ironically I always felt badly that my Grandma Mary lost her mother Ida in Tampa when she was a little girl. Grandma Mary would talk lovingly of her mother and then her eyes would tear up and she'd tell me she couldn't talk anymore. She told me she was a little girl when her mother died. Seems Grandma Mary was a good story teller including telling us all she was born in 1900 when in fact she was born in 1893 (sorry Grandma you always said I should tell the truth) and she was 17 years old when her mother died in 1915. When Esther was 17 years old she was on a ship bound for America. I found the record online and Grandma Esther was right, she told the truth. She was sent second class (not steerage) on a big ship that looked like a bit like the Titanic. It was in fact named Kaiser Wilhem Der Grosse.
Is that a big, beautiful ship or what?
Over time I have learned many things about the Naftalin family...spell it anyway you want!
They were somewhere between very comfortable to well to do merchants. Many of their children not only attended college but often studied political science. Grandma Esther's cousin once or twice removed was the Mayor of Minneapolis Arthur Naftalin, known as well for being one of Hupert Humphrey's closest friends.
Find A Grave shows him but is unsure where he is buried.
What amazes me is I spent 2 summers of my life in St. Paul/Minneapolis.
Who knew Grandma Esther's cousin lived there....
What also amazes me is I have a degree in International Relations.
I studied Political Science. It seems to run in her family.
I learned about him from a relative in England who is an attorney.
His son studied politics.
Another Naftolin was the attorney Henryk Naftalin who kept records in the Lodz Ghetto.
They were very cutting edge it seems when it came to politics and history.
I have learned much about Grandma Esther who I always associate with the scent of lilacs as she wore lilac perfume often ... well when not slowly frying smelts.
Recipe for Fried Smelts... though am pretty sure Grandma Esther used Matzah Meal.
Or possibly even bread crumbs to use up as that was how people did things back then.
I also found records of her father's death shown below.
The story slowly comes together in bits and pieces.
This is a picture of Bentzion taken in New York.
A. Smith photographer on Madison Avenue.
Maybe he came to America for Esther's wedding?
Each record is another piece of the puzzle.
It tells the story behind the pictures.
I find them everywhere.
My father was said to look like his mother.
I suppose it's true especially noticeable as he grew older.
Especially after knowing this unnamed picture was his father.
Esther Bas Bentzion
Oh that's the last set of names we Jews have...
Esther daughter of Bentzion
Bentzion son of Mendel.
The records from Plunge confirmed that Esther's father was Shmuel.
She named my father Shmuel Ber after her father and her brother.
Pieces of information coming together.
My older cousin knew my Grandmother when she was younger. She told me that she would go to art galleries to look at art. My Grandma Esther had a will made for her and she pushed her sister Ida to have one made up as well. I heard a family story that she went to court with a woman whose husband had been abusive as a witness as she said men can't treat women that way especially in America. I've looked at pictures from this side of 50 and realize she did sometimes dress up and wear make up and was quite pretty in ways. And sometimes she followed her heart in things she was interested in such as art. She traveled to a country she didn't know with only a married sister Bessie Samek (Ida's twin) living here in Passaic, New Jersey. She was kind. When I was little and had a stye in my eye she took her wedding band and made it hot over a steam pot and rested it against my little eye lid to make it feel better and it did feel better. It was one of those rare endearing moments I had alone with her during one of those family Sunday visits. She was a nice lady. I always knew that but now I know more about her than I did when I was 6 hoping that if I was a good girl at my grandparents my parents would stop and buy me a promised Black and White cookie from the bakery on Washington Avenue
Herman and Esther Schwartz.
His father changed his name from Weiss to Schwartz.
So while I always knew there was something special about my Grandma Mary..... I know much more about my Grandma Esther from the Bronx who really was from Lithuania and spent a good part of her childhood in Kovno in Poland. It seems the more I research my Grandmother Esther I find references to the names of people in my Grandmother Mary's family. Not perfect matches but a lot of people in the Morris family in American with names in variations of that name in Plunge and Vilna and a place near Kovno. So ironically they may have more in common than anyone ever thought as it's possible that one of Grandma Mary's family came originally from the same area.
When I was little Grandma Esther had half painted pictures everywhere, hidden away on top of book shelves. My mother who studied art and music said they were "paint by the numbers" pictures. Seems mother was wrong, whether she knew better or just assumed is hard to say. After my mother died I inherited things that had been stored away in closets since my father died. My mother, a character a bit out of Tennessee Williams, never wanted anyone touching dead people's things. Grandma Esther painted many pictures over and over until she got one she liked just right and then she'd frame it.
Now I know why the Highwaymen pictures look so similar.
Grandma Esther painted the same type of pictures that were popular then.
Esther did love Florida. So do I.
I always planted pink hibiscus in front of the house in Miami.
Esther loved Miami Beach. So do I.
And a picture she painted sits on the wall in my house in North Carolina.
I'm not sure if it's a picture of where she lived as a girl...
Or or the California coastline when she visited...
Or maybe up in the mountains where they'd go to vacation sometimes.
Sometimes you don't have to know.
You just have to enjoy it and smile.
I smile because somehow because I have learned so much more...
... I have come to know her more better as we say Down South.
If you want to take a trip to Kovno or a town nearby.
It's a long flight, cost a lot of money.
But it's a shorter trip than it was for a 17 year old girl on a big ship in 1912.
Glad she left then... before World War I stopped others from leaving.
Still trying to figure out where Ida M. and Wolfe Abrams came from before England.
Life goes on as a good friend says.
Good luck in your searches.
Remember to celebrate your victories.