Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Whispering Past

One of the things that intrigues me about genealogy are the little glimpses of history. There are so many things we take for granted, never considering that at one time they were discoveries or innovations that affected the future, our present. Even past kindnesses create future impacts. The past and our present frequently rub shoulders and because I do genealogy research for others, I stumble across these encounters with greater frequency. 

 I’ve had two recent encounters that arose from my genealogy research for clients. In one I was recently contacted by a gentleman with a complicated family history, but not a Jewish one. While I do some research outside of Jewish heritage, I was surprised that he contacted me. I soon learned that there was a connection to a Jewish family for which his grandfather worked. We weren’t sure if the relationship went deeper, but there seemed to be a suggestion that it did. 

Part of my research for them was to trace the path of the Jewish family as we followed the connections between them. All we knew of them was that the husband was in card manufacture. We weren’t quite sure what that meant when we started. I was picturing those old greeting cards that one often finds in antique shops.  As I worked my way back through the 1800s, I discovered that this was a family business that he inherited from his father who also had inherited it from his father. It began with his grandfather Lewis Cohen who was born in Pennsylvania in 1800. Lewis was an inventor. And those cards were playing cards. Lewis Cohen ran a stationary business based in NY and that business seemed to drive his inventions and improvements. 

In 1833, a fair was held for new inventions. It was discussed in a mechanics journal which lauded a New York company for their "beautiful specimens of ornamental borders for cards and other purposes." They noted that it was an art that was popular in England, but just recently introduced to the US. They then proceeded to diss Cohen by stating, "Mr. Cohen, of William street, also exhibited some, but we think much inferior to Wright & Co." 

That must have irked Cohen who had printed his first deck only a year before. It is interesting to see how the tides shifted. In 1835 he invented a four-color press which allowed him to print in four colors with one pass. That enabled him to take over the market for playing cards and build a business which lasted for many generations until it was dissolved in a merger in 1962.

In addition to the four-color press, he is credited with bringing the lead pencil to America as well as the steel point pen. So, what did that steel point pen replace? Why the quill of course. A sense of history settled around me with that realization. Why it was just a short time before that quills were used to sign our founding documents. 

Sometimes the past has nothing to do with building the family fortune, at least in terms of monetary measures. Kindnesses too can reverberate through history. One such discovery arose out of our travels to Lithuania last year. It was my first visit back in almost ten years since I had attended the Vilnius Yiddish Institute. This time I was bringing my husband along to introduce him to this town filled with memories of deep friendships and intense study. 

I had been wandering around the airport and upon my return was surprised to find my husband, a rather reserved man, in conversation with some other passengers, two brothers who were waiting for the same flight. I learned they were on a bit of a roots trip. We enjoyed our conversation, proceeded to catch an Uber together and later met for dinner. As we moved on in our travels, we kept in contact by text. Upon our return, I checked in with them and they asked me to research their family. They had discovered they lacked the information to do a meaningful roots trip and learned of my work as a genealogy consultant. My efforts proved successful and I was able to tie them back several generations into Lithuania. They were interested in history, but also connections with living relatives, so I began to work forward and across their tree to cousins. Through those efforts, I connected with a family of like name in New Orleans and learned the following story.

Louis Armstrong was born in 1901 and lived in New Orleans. He became close to a Jewish family named Karnofsky which had five boys, some close in age. As a child he was hired to ride on a rag truck belonging to Mr Karnofsky. His job was to blow a whistle to let people know they were in the area. Louis found a horn in a pawn shop for sale and the story is that Mr. Karnofsky either bought it for him or advanced him the money.  That was his first horn and it launched a legend. 

Armstrong was very close to the family and frequently shared meals with them. They encouraged him to sing as well as to play. Armstrong talked of how the Karnofskys instilled in him "singing from the heart." He developed a taste for Jewish food and later in life wore a Star of David around his neck and had a mezuzah on his door. Who wouldn't want that story in their family history?

I'm a fan of time travel literature in which a common theme is that if you go back in time and take even the slightest action, you can make changes that reverberate through history. If that is indeed true, it also means that actions taken today may affect the future just as Mr Cohen and Mr Karnofsky once did. The past whispers around us, but we need to listen carefully. 

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