I must confess. Although I consider myself somewhat of a history buff and do what I can to continue to educate myself, it wasn’t until this year that I started to dig into my family genealogy.
In college, I studied the African diaspora, took a class on the Holocaust, learned about pieces of American history not taught in high school and read a book about Rastafarians. All this time, my family genealogy was way on the back burner.
It wasn’t until I got a call from Dick Goldman, president of the Jewish Genealogy Society of Maryland, that my interest in my own ancestry piqued. I only knew bits of pieces of my heritage. Some ancestors could be traced back to Poland and Hungary, but I didn’t know who came from where and when they came to America. For that matter, why did they come to America?
This is only my story, but it parallels the stories of many other Ashkenazi Jewish families. Our ancestors came over from Eastern Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s, settling in Jewish neighborhoods with other families often from the same town. Many families, like mine, came over with few possessions and lived in substandard quarters by modern comparisons, betting on America being the land of opportunity. They came to America looking for better jobs and were often fleeing anti-Semitism.
To unravel the story, I started by interviewing the oldest living members of my family this past winter — my mom’s parents, Max and Hannah Wolf, and my dad’s mom, Ruth Shapiro (my grandpa Mickey, born Saul Milton Shapiro, died in 2005). I asked them everything they knew about their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and so on.
“Doing family history is detective work,” Goldman told me. “It’s puzzle solving, it’s guessing, knowing how to do sophisticated searching.”
I learned about the jobs of my ancestors, what last names were changed, where my grandparents grew up and what life was like growing up in the 1920s and 1930s. In these interviews, I learned more about my family history and my grandparents than I ever knew. I even learned that my great-great-uncle married his stepmom’s sister.
Since genealogy can be a life pursuit, my goal with this article was to figure out how each side of my family got to America. As of press time, I haven’t figured it out for all sides of the family, but I’ve made great progress.
“Anybody who does genealogy can spend their entire lives doing this,” Goldman said. “For most people, it’s an obsession that comes and goes.”
As of this writing, consider me obsessed.
The Wolf family, or should I say Peltakovitch?
I started in February 2014 with Grandpa Mac and Grandma Hannah, also known as Max and Hannah Wolf. And I’m glad I spoke to them when I did.
As Goldman warned me early on in the process, people die. Sadly and unfortunately, my grandfather passed away in March.
Max Peltakovitch was born on Sept. 17, 1921. He wasn’t exactly sure how to spell his last name, which was changed to Wolf when he was a young boy. Max was under the impression that his father, Harry, came over with his grandfather, Louis, which doesn’t appear to be true, but his wife, Anna, and first child, Max’s older sister Rose came over after, which was true.
Goldman was able to find possible spellings of Peltakovitch using a database on JewishGen, a Jewish ancestry website, and helped find my great-grandfather Harry on Ancestry.com.
As a writer, I had to quickly let go of the notion that spellings and numbers were set in stone. Last names could change depending on who was writing them down, what language they were in and who ruled the European country they were from; spellings of first names could change and become Americanized, and birth years and dates were often approximate. On the other side of my family, for example, the same woman was referred to as Rose, Rosie and Rosa.
“‘Cz’ and ‘tz,’ ‘f’ and ‘p’ are interchangeable,” Goldman explained. “It was very loose for probably half the Jewish names in Europe.”
My great-grandfather was listed as Hersy-Ber Peltakovitch on the passenger manifest for the ship La Touraine, which left Le Havre, a town in northern France, on Sept. 13, 1920, headed for Ellis Island. According to the manifest, he was 35, was born in Poland, could read and write and spoke Polish. He was a tailor.
How did Goldman and I know this “Hersy-Ber” was Harry? On the list of passengers, it asks for the nearest relative and address from which the passenger is. He listed an address in Paris and indicated his wife was there. That same address was used when Anne and Rosa came over three months later.
My research into Polish Jews coming to America told me that 1920 was late to come to America. Years of anti-Semitism, violence against Jews, social and physical isolation led to millions of Eastern European Jews coming to America between 1880 and 1924, when Congress began to restrict immigration.
Anne, who Goldman found using the spelling “Peltakowiez,” was 25 years and eight months (yes, the eight months was on the passenger list) when she came to America with “Rosa,” who was 7 at the time. They left Le Havre on Dec. 7, 1920, sailing on the Leopoldina, intending to settle in Brooklyn. The manifest indicated Anne was from Russia and Rosa was from Poland, and they could speak French and Russian. But, as Goldman pointed out, saying someone is from Russia doesn’t mean much since the Russian empire included other Eastern European countries from 1795 until after World War II.