Monday, August 9, 2010

Endearing Family Stories...Fun Even if They're Not True

We've all heard them. Those stories about hard times during childhood or romantic stories about our parents or grandparents. We all took them at face value with no reason to doubt the facts. For better or worse, genealogy researchers tend to kill off a few of these stories as we progress through our research and wonder how some of them got started. Here are a few of mine:

Grandma Bessie's Age
The story: my maternal grandmother Bessie Schneider (born Peshe Bergzon in Lazdijai, Lithuania) had to lie about her age when she arrived at Ellis Island. She said that she was 14 when she arrived in America but lied to the officials saying she was 16 so she could work instead of going to school. This was her own story...makes sense...times were tough in the early 20th century.

The facts: Bessie/Peshe arrived in New York in 1929 at the age of 19. I have the ship manifest. I also have a copy of her Lithuanian Internal Passport (ID papers issued by the govt between the wars) showing her date of birth as April 13, 1910 and a list of 1915 evacuees from the Suwalki Province showing her at age 5. These 3 sources confirm that she was indeed 19 when she arrived in America.

Conclusion: I think the age change story is just one of those stories told to younger generations to exaggerate how difficult life can be (along the lines of those "I walked 5 miles in the snow to the one room schoolhouse" stories). I don't really know how difficult life was when the Bergzon family first arrived in America. I'm pretty sure that they were financially comfortable back in Lithuania because Bessie and her brother David were still in school at the ages of 16-17, possibly graduating, and they had time for drama club and Zionist sports activities (photo Koakh Sports Club, Lazdijai, April 29, 1929).

Grandpa Aaron/Harry/Harvey
The story: my paternal grandfather Harvey Klein, born in NYC in 1907, was actually born Aaron but when his mother first took him to school, she said his name with such a heavy Yiddish accent, the person at the school heard Harry instead of Aaron and that's how Aaron became Harry.

The facts: his 1907 birth certificate does show his name as Aaron so we know that's true. However, the 1910 census shows him at age 2 with the name Harry. So much for the school story. Where does the name Harvey fit in? My grandma Irene, back when they were dating I think, decided that Harry was an old fashioned name so she called him Harvey :-D  As the oldest grandchild I didn't know any of this until Irene died in 1985 when I was 20. I was there when her will was read and the will had to mention all of the names that each party to the will was known by. FYI...Irene was born Ida but thought that name was also old fashioned so she went by Irene.

Conclusion: I can't even guess at how this story got started but I do know the name changes created confusion for my grandfather throughout his life. When he applied for a social security number in 1936, he wrote his name as Aaron but signed Harry so they made him cross out Harry and sign Aaron. My dad and his siblings like to tell how Irene would always yell at him "pick a name already!". My uncle told me that he finally made a legal name change to "Harry A" because that was the name on the title to the house they owned in Brooklyn. His headstone reads Harry but the Hebrew name is wrong. To me Harry sounds funny and he will always be Grandpa Harvey.

Irene Needed a New Coat
The story: when Harvey and Irene were courting (they married June 1931 so 1929-1930) Irene didn't have a good winter coat  because her grandparents Solomon & Rebecca Lutsky (she was raised by her grandparents) couldn't afford it...they had to provide for their own girls. Apparently Harvey asked his mother for the money and she said "no".

The facts: by 1929-1930 the "girls", Irene's aunts Bertha Berland, Yetta Rotheim, and Olga Haykin, were already out of the house and married with children of their own.

Conclusion: this is a cute romantic story with Harvey wanting the woman he loved to have a good coat. I don't know if or why Irene didn't have a good coat to begin with and if she didn't why her grandparents might have denied her to provide for married daughters. I have no idea if the second part, Harvey asking his mother for the money, is correct. It is possible he asked his mother for the money and it would be likely that she would say "no" because Irene wasn't family yet. (photo Irene & Harvey c. 1930, probably taken at Coney Island)

and the best for last...

Sarah and Her Sisters Were Whores
The story: my father's paternal grandmother Sarah Klein and her sisters were whores. They didn't stand on a street corner but the men knew where to go.

The facts: I always found this one odd because I'm named for Sarah. If she was so terrible, why name a baby after her. Sarah, born Sora Mariam Zejburska in 1884 in Lomza, Poland, did have 2 younger sisters but she was approx a full generation older than both of them (they were born 1900 & 1903) so I don't know how close they would have been. Sarah divorced my ggf Abraham in 1931. Sometime after that she was living out of wedlock with Harry Mindel, a widower, who was a family friend and interestingly enough a witness in the divorce records.

Conclusion: this past April I found out the source of this story from my aunt, at least as far as Sarah is concerned. She told me that her father (Aaron/Harry/Harvey) always resented his mother Sarah for living with a man out of wedlock. Hence the "whore" label. I don't know anything about her sisters yet to know how they fit into this story. Personally, I don't look down on Sarah. At the time of the 1931 divorce most of her children were out of the house and she had to survive. I do know that she barely knew her grandchildren...not sure if that's the family intentionally pushing her away or if she chose not to be close to the family.

If it is wasn't for my research these stories would live on. Sometimes I think it's more fun to laugh at the stories being wrong or exaggerated. I wonder what my grandparents would say if I were able to challenge them on the facts.


Jennifer said...

Great post! I enjoyed reading it immensely.

Sarah said...


I am also named Sarah after someone in my family (a great aunt), and I was born in 1984 -- 100 years after your Sarah!

Anyway, I edit a website called Family Legends (, which is a collection of family stories that my mother sometimes researches. Please consider submitting one of your stories (and your excellent research!) to me.

All the best with your research,

Greta Koehl said...

Those are fascinating stories, especially when the story is contrasted with what is actually known. Reminds me of a few stories in my family, but especially in my husband's family.

Nancy said...

I don't know if it's better to have family stories that aren't true or no stories at all. I come from a family of non-story-tellers, so I especially appreciate reading other people's. Yours are gems!