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.


  1. Is it possible to view the list of Jewish tombstone names from Dunilovichi?

  2. Yes, I've been organizing the spreadsheet into likely family groups based on both given and surnames. I will share it with anyone who is interested in that shtetl. There are only 44 discrete surnames so you will want to research given names as well to get the most value from the spreadsheet. I hope to get photos of the tombstones when I'm in Dunilovichi.