Monday, June 22, 2009

A Discovery Postscript

Just a brief postscript to my earlier blog "A Discovery". In that blog I traced the linkages between a cemetery in Belarus and immigration records to the US to locate the grave of my great-great grandfather and confirm interrelationships with another family. Since that post I was in contact with my third cousin, grandson of the original immigrants of the family with whom mine is related. He informed me that his father's Hebrew name was Pesach which helped to close the loop and confirm my theory. His father was named after his great-grandfather Pesach Mordechai, my great-great grandfather. In the Jewish Ashkenazic tradition children are often named after a deceased grandparent or great-grandparent. In this case his grandfather was still alive at the time of his birth so his father reached back a generation.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

New Artwork Directions

I’ve written quite a bit about my trip plans and genealogy pursuits. I am also contemplating the direction my artwork will take on my return. I’m interested in what vestiges I may find of the once vibrant Jewish community of Vilnius that may work their way into my artwork. There are several directions that I may explore and for which I’ve done some exploratory work.

I seem to do a lot of paintings around the theme of transporting. To transport means to carry between and has meanings far beyond the geographical interpretation. I like the process of going somewhere, the transitional space we occupy as we move from one point to another and the way we pass our time in transit. Often we are at close quarters with others, yet disconnected from them, encased in our solitary bubble. In reviewing my past work I realized that I have many paintings of people on subways and buses that reflect these themes.

I recently began a series of images from a train window which ended up being a triptych. Normally I am a figurative artist so painting a landscape seemed somewhat atypical until I decided to include the suggestion of a person. A young man with a striped jacket sat in front of me and his reflected image can be found in the series of views from a more rural landscape into the city. This particular set of images is based on a train ride to Chicago.

This is a theme that I hope to explore in upcoming travels in Eastern Europe, to the landscape within which my ancestors lived. This seemed a particularly apt subject when I looked up the definition of transporting.

1. To carry from one place to another; convey.
2. To move to strong emotion; carry away; enrapture.
3. To send abroad to a penal colony; deport.

My family members who remained in Europe were transported to their deaths during the Holocaust. They traveled through that landscape on the way to concentration camps, deported from their homes and communities. But I imagine they also had moments where they experienced that landscape in a utilitarian manner and perhaps were enraptured by a beautiful spring day. I will be visiting the shtetls, the little towns in which my family lived, visiting the cemeteries looking for family names, feeling their presence in what remains of the space which they once occupied. Although I am more often a figurative artist, I will be seeking my family in the landscape as they no longer exist on the land. Perhaps the suggestion of their presence will emerge in these paintings as well.

Yiddish is the language my parents spoke when they didn’t want me to know what they were saying. From that standpoint it always seemed rather mysterious. It also embodies much about the Jewish culture that once existed in Eastern Europe prior to WWII. Learning Yiddish is a part of learning the culture from which my ancestors came.

In preparation for my trip, I began to review books on Yiddish and was soon captivated by the expressions and proverbs. I was amused by the colorful expressions and the story telling quality of many of them. I was especially interested in the literal meaning of these expressions as that tells me something of the culture in which they lived. One of my favorites, Az drei zogen mishugeh, darf der ferter zogen “Bim bom”, means “majority rules”, but the literal translation is “if three people say or do something screwy, the fourth has to go along”.

I decided to do a series of paintings based on Yiddish expressions with the expression imbedded in the image. The first one I did is actually based on a colorful Yiddish curse, Vahksin zuls du vi a tsibeleh, mitten kup in drerd which translates to “may you grow like an onion with your head in the ground and your feet in the air”. I incorporated an image of myself at 10 years old with my skirt billowing out in the form of an onion plant. I frequently use language in the body of my paintings and this series definitely called for that. The writing becomes a part of the imagery mirroring the spiky onion leaves.

Another expression I found reflective of the culture was der betler iz shyn in dritn dorf which means “the beggar’s on his third village already”. Its meaning is “hurry up, get a move on”. I thought about what images that conjured for me. The first thought that came to mind was an outstretched hand. That hand morphed into a road with shtetls along it and the words written on the road.

Haken a tsheinik means a boring, long-winded and annoying conversation, someone who talks for the sake of talking. Literally it means to bang on the tea kettle and derives from when a tea kettle knocks when it is empty. My painting is of a tea kettle between two hands which are pounding on it. Words spill from the kettle spelling out the expression.

The expression lakhn mit yashtsherkes literally means "laugh with the lizards" and refers to a bitter kind of laughter, the kind that keeps you from crying. I posed a lizard on a seed pod that I found visually interesting and then had to contemplate what a lizard looks like when it laughs.

While these two directions present some possibilities for future artwork, I may find some surprises that take me in entirely new directions.

Friday, June 12, 2009

A Discovery

Genealogy research is often painstaking and insights may arise over many years as more information becomes available. Often the answers lie in information we’ve already collected, but didn’t have the context to make sense of earlier. I’ve not departed for my trip yet, but information I’ve gleaned in my preparations has already unlocked some long standing puzzles. 

My story begins with a photo of the tombstone of my great-grandfather who is buried in New York. Jewish tombstones indicate both the name of the deceased as well as his or her father. I’ve gotten several different interpretations of his father’s name on the tombstone. While the second name is clearly Mordechai the first name appears to be Peish or Feish. My great-grandfather’s death certificate offered no guidance only noting his father’s name was “Max”, presumably an Americanized version of Mordechai provided by his grandson for a grandfather he never met. At this point I had only my great-grandfather’s tombstone and death certificate and thought I had hit a dead end. 

When I began to prepare for my trip I posted a question on the Jewishgen Belarus Special Interest Group e-mail. Had anyone been to Dunilovichi or Glebokie? If so could they offer me any guidance? I heard from a number of people who had traveled there or in nearby regions. Some offered additional names that they were researching as well as travel tips. One of the most valuable contacts was with a woman who had traveled to Dunilovichi. When she returned she organized a fund raising campaign and arranged for the Jewish cemetery to be cleaned up and for the stones to be documented. That effort resulted in a list of the tombstones which were translated to the extent possible. I noted that of the 369 tombstones only two thirds were legible. The earliest burial was in 1761 and the last was in 1950. Presumably someone returned after the war and with his death the Jewish community of Dunilovichi ceased to exist, yet another story to explore. The first surname didn’t appear until 1887 and then a long period ensued until 1901 when surnames began to appear with some frequency. 

 In reviewing the spreadsheet, I first looked at surnames that might resemble my family name of Raichel. There were two Rayhels, possibly relatives, who had died in 1919 and 1936. I then decided to ignore the surnames and evaluate them for anything which might resemble Peish or Feish Mordechai. One name jumped out – Pesach Mordechay was the father of Eska Zinger who had died in 1938. Hmm, could this be my great-great grandfather? The name wasn’t Rayhel or Raichel, but something gave me pause. I knew of Singers from Dunilovichi. My parents had told me there was some sort of relationship to an Abraham and Sadie Singer, but were never sure to which one we were related. Some years back I had tracked down the grandson of the Singers who had been contemporaries of my grandparents. Could this be the linkage between our families? 

I did a search on the name Eska which confirmed that it was a female name. I now had a working hypothesis that Eska was born a Rayhel and married a Singer. My great-grandfather Schloime had died in 1932 so would have been a contemporary of Eska. Perhaps she was a sister. I then looked to see if there was a record of the death of Pesach Mordechay and found one in 1904 without a surname. It gave his father’s name as Moshe. So if my hypothesis proves correct I’ve identified my great-great grandfather (Pesach Mordechai), my great-great-great grandfather (Moshe), a sibling to my great-grandfather (Eska) as well as the linkage between the Singers and the Raichels.
I went back to my earlier research on the Singers who immigrated. Perhaps there was a clue that I missed in my research that might make sense in light of this new information. I had discovered the immigration record of Itze Singer from Dunilovichi. In faded writing by his name was recorded the name “Abraham”. He gave his father’s name as Benes Singer and immigrated in 1913 to his cousin Abraham Schwartz at 613 Rockaway. Suddenly I had an “Aha” moment. The name Schwartz hadn’t meant anything to me at the time as I assumed it was a relative from Dunilovichi whom I hadn’t yet encountered. But the address seemed familiar. I went back to my immigration database and confirmed that was the same address given for my great-grandfather when his son immigrated in 1911. Suddenly Abraham Schwartz clicked into focus. My great-grandfather’s oldest daughter had married an Abraham Schwartz. By marriage he would be a cousin to Abraham Singer even though he had never met him at this point in time. This was 1913 when a woman traveling alone was held as a “likely public charge” until a man vouched for her. Offering the name of a male cousin by marriage would have taken precedence over a female blood cousin if one wanted to enter the country smoothly. 

I also had an immigration record for a Schie Singer from Dunilovichi whose father was given as Pines Singer going to his uncle, Schloime Raichel, my great-grandfather. I never was able to trace him successfully after his immigration as I was unsure what the name Schie became once Americanized. I also found that Singer was about as challenging as Weinberg. There are a lot of them. But now I wondered if Benes, the father of Abraham Singer, was the same person as Pines, the father of Schie. I could imagine the names sounded very similar to the person recording the immigration information. The family tree was sprouting mental leaves linking the Dunilovichi graveyard to my New York immigrant relatives. If my great-grandfather was Abraham Singer’s uncle, then perhaps Eska Zinger was his mother, Benes (Pines) his father and Schie his brother. And one more trip back to the Dunilovichi cemetery to tie it all together. There was one more record of a Zinger. Drum roll !!!! Benjamin –Binush Zinger who died in 1934, son of Nachum. 

A little research confirms that Benes is the shortened version of Benjamin. And working my way backwards I do a search for tombstones for a Nachum and discover his death in 1921. How do I know this is the correct Nachum? It was the only Nachum in that time period and his father is listed as Benjamin. Among Ashkenazic Jews, children are frequently named for a grandparent who is deceased at the time of their birth. 

So what does it all look like when I put it together? The graveyard data is framed in bold lines and the other names are those who immigrated to the US. This is a very abridged version that just deals with the names I've mentioned. All conjecture at this stage, but a very strong working hypothesis woven out of naming patterns, immigration records and tombstones in a Belarus cemetery. While in Vilnius I will be reviewing the revision (censuses) lists in the archives. Hopefully I’ll find something that will confirm or disprove my theory. For now I’m very optimistic that I’m heading down the right road.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Trip Preparations: Planning My Travel to Belarus

“Did you hear about the tourist promotion where first prize is a week in Belarus and second prize is two weeks?”

Belarus is not on most people’s list of must see places, but for a family historian with roots in Belarus, it definitely made my list. Over twenty years ago I did an oral history with my aunt in which she told me that my grandmother’s family came from Vilna (now Vilnius). Immigration records revealed that the shtetl they were from was Dunilovichi, now in Belarus, while the province was Vilna. I went to the JewishGen Communities Database to get a better sense of the geography and learned that it was 81 miles away from today’s Vilnius and about an equal distance from Minsk.

When I contacted others who had traveled in that region, I was advised that getting a visa from Belarus was neither simple nor inexpensive. An on-line search seemed to prove that out. It sounded as if I had to stay in a Belarus hotel or use a Belarus travel agency to get the voucher which was required before getting a visa. This multiple step process required payments at every stage. In any case, it didn’t seem to support a day trip from Vilnius.

It was quite a struggle to get much clarification. My email to a travel agency in Vilnius went unanswered. I then contacted a researcher who had been recommended to me to assist in doing a day trip from Vilnius. Despite these efforts, I wasn’t able to get any guidance on how to get the visa without staying overnight in Belarus. When I don’t get a clear response, I’m never quite sure if it is due to a language or cultural barrier. I often had to press to get answers as to what something would cost and I wondered if I was inadvertently offending someone with my question. I would hasten to add that I encountered others who addressed my questions very directly and that tended to influence who I worked with.

I believe there is a way to get a visa in Vilnius, but without any clear information I wasn’t willing to take that chance so I turned to plan B, staying overnight in Minsk. In my Internet searching I stumbled across an organization called the Jewish Heritage Research Group of Belarus. I e-mailed Yuri Dorn and was delighted to receive clear information in response.

Yuri advised me that I could do a one day trip with an overnight stay in Minsk. They would meet us at the train and take us to both Dunilovichi and Glebokie (where my great-grandmother was born). He recommended hotels in different price ranges and indicated that they could book the hotel as well. I had already used a service that was very responsive, but heeded his recommendations on hotels. The service that I used (see link at end of blog) was able to locate rooms even though the usual on-line booking services indicated they were full. I also learned from Yuri that to enter the country I would need to purchase a minimum of 5,000 Euros of traveler health insurance coverage at the train station regardless of whether I’ve purchased travel insurance separately.

While I had hoped to do a day trip during the time I was in Vilna, I now decided to tag a day onto the end of my trip. We would take a 6:30 AM train to Minsk, spend the day at the shtetls, stay overnight in Minsk and fly out the next morning to Tallinn. While our original plan of driving from Vilnius had sounded simpler, I began to think the train might be preferable to driving when I read about several hour delays at the border for automobiles entering Belarus. By contrast, the train stops at the border for 15 minutes.

Yuri advised me that there are old Jewish cemeteries existing in Dunilovichi & Glebokie. Both cemeteries are fenced, which helped them to stay in fairly good condition. In addition to the cemeteries there are Holocaust memorials and streets with original pre-war houses in both places. We can also meet with elderly residents, who were born before WWII.

I received the voucher from JHRG with instructions on what to send to the embassy and what copy to bring with me. I debated sending the application directly to the embassy in DC or NY to get my visa, but decided to use a firm when I failed to reach anyone at the embassy by e-mail or by phone. I had visions of my passport falling into a black hole with no way of locating it and decided the $45 fee might be money well spent. Yuri’s words of advice were “Don't be surprised with Belorussian business etiquette.” Obviously some cultural issues I will need to learn to accommodate.

With all expenses it cost $230 to get a visa for a one day trip and that doesn’t include the actual expenses of a guide, transportation and hotel. While this day in Belarus has become rather costly, I think I would always regret if I failed to visit the shtetls when I was so close. My decision to travel there has already unlocked a number of resources that have led to some exciting breakthroughs in my research.

Coming Up….A Discovery

Links for services that are referenced in this blog follow:

Jewish Gen Communities Database
Jewish Heritage Research Group
Visa service
Hotel booking service

Friday, June 5, 2009


This is the start of a blog that I anticipate will deal with genealogy and art, my two passions. My impetus for this blog is an upcoming trip to the Vilnius Yiddish Institute in Lithuania where I will study Yiddish and be involved in cultural events in the surrounding area. I also am planning a trip to Belarus where my grandmother and great-grandparents came from as well as some side visits to Riga and Tallinn. I hope to continue this blog while I am there, but it occurs to me that my planning for the trip may also be of interest to readers. I also anticipate using this blog to discuss other genealogical and artistic explorations.

I am a researcher and planner and you will see that I use those skills to inform my trip and minimize the stresses that can occur with travel. While I was frequently grateful for web resources, I often wished there was more available on the web. Others who have traveled to this region and worked in the archives offered considerable information which I will share within this blog. I hope that the information that I learned will prove useful to others who may contemplate a similar trip.

A little bit about myself….I am both an artist and a genealogist who uses my artistry to inform my genealogy and my genealogy to inform my art. Having made my career in finance for most of my life, I also use the analytic skills I’ve honed in my work in my genealogy research.

So a little about my artwork… I paint primarily figurative imagery often using metallic paints. Usually I work in acrylic on board, but have also delved into collage. I share a studio with my partner in the California Building in Northeast Minneapolis. My most recent bodies of work include a series focused upon family history and a series on the people of the Yunnan province of China. You can find my work on my website at

I currently am working on a series reflecting colorful Yiddish expressions with the language incorporated into the piece. In my family history series I frequently used language and words within the body of paintings and am very intrigued with the languages of my ancestors. Coming from the Ukraine, Belarus and Poland they spoke Yiddish, but lived within a broader world of Russian and Polish. I have begun studying Russian and will continue my language studies with Yiddish. I particularly like languages that don’t use the Latin alphabet with which we are so familiar. We tend to experience words in Yiddish, Hebrew and Russian as a graphic image initially, particularly if those are not our dominant languages. That allows me to incorporate them into paintings as a visual element, yet one laden with meaning.
My other passion, genealogy, began with family oral histories over 20 years ago. For many years I had hesitated to dig further into my genealogy. Living in an area where many of my friends are of Swedish ancestry, I was intrigued by their reports of family history and perhaps a bit envious. Unlike them I knew I would not go to the ancestral village and find relatives. With Jewish ancestry, I would only find Holocaust monuments at best. I wasn’t sure I wanted to discover the specifics of my family’s fate.

When Ellis Island went on-line, I had made a half-hearted attempt at locating family. Entering “Weinberg”, I quickly had a hit, in fact thousands of them and that was only the ‘A’s. I quickly concluded that I didn’t have sufficient information to find anything meaningful.

A few years later I was cleaning out boxes when I stumbled across a couple pages of a history that my grandfather had written. My mother had given this to me some time back. In the history he talked about my grandmother’s family and gave some very specific dates and places. With that information I decided to take another run at Ellis Island. Fortified by the fact that my grandmother had a less wide-spread name, “Kishlansky”, I typed that into the search engine. With only a handful of hits, I quickly arrived at my great-uncles’ immigration records.

Armed with a search engine and an obsessive nature, I set out to locate other relatives who had immigrated. I queried my parents and through e-mail connected with my father’s cousins. After I had searched extensively for my grandfather, my mother reported that she believed he had changed his name. In fact she was able to resurrect the letter in which he told her he had changed it from Schiecher to Jaffe. One of my father’s cousins reported that my paternal great-grandfather had changed his name from Raichel to Rothchild following the practice of an earlier immigrant cousin. Another cousin knew family was buried in an area of the cemetery for immigrants from Dunilowicz. And my mother knew her mother came from Kamenetz-Podalsk although whenever my grandmother used to speak of where she was from my mother had thought she was saying “Communist”. It wasn’t until years later that she read a book by someone from Kamenetz Podalsk and the light bulb went off. With scraps of information on surnames and towns my search began in earnest and I gradually found each of the immigrants who had made their way from Kamenetz Podolsk (Ukraine), Radom (Poland) and Dunilowicz (Belarus) to the United States.

I had many excited late night phone calls to my parents to report on my early successes. I then availed myself of the resources of the Family History Library, both locally and through annual trips to Utah with a Jewish genealogy group. That led to the discovery of many metrical records (birth, marriage, death) from Poland documenting the lives of family as far back as my great-great-great grandparents in the late 1700s. I hired a researcher who found records in the Ukraine. I learned how to decipher Polish and to pick out likely family records from a maze of handwritten Cyrillic Russian. I found census, draft records and death certificates. I traveled to Germany to examine newly released Holocaust records at the International Tracing Service. Through these efforts I located relatives in Israel, Paris, New York and California. Working both forward and back I knit a rich tapestry of family connections.

As I learned I shared my knowledge through genealogy seminars, both locally and nationally. I began to use the wealth of genealogy materials and stories in my artwork. I exhibited my work and began to do workshops and talks about how to create collages to express one’s family history. When I speak about artwork and family history, I am often amazed at the response. These interests that I had pursued quietly for so long proved to have an audience. People are moved, images speak to them. Telling one’s family history story can often meet with glazed eyes as we talk about our third cousin once removed. A visual medium makes the stories accessible, providing a vehicle for others to engage with the story and to think of their own family stories. I am hopeful that my travels to Vilnius will add context to my artwork and my research and plan to share my discoveries in this blog over the next several months.