Family histories help us rediscover ourselves

January 19, 2003|By MICHAEL OLESKER

THIS IS ABOUT the hunger of memory, the human desire to know how families start out in faraway villages no longer located on maps and wind up in America, in cities such as Baltimore.

It's about a woman named Lynn Weisberg, who seems to have contacts everywhere on the planet, including a place called Libau, Russia. And it's about a woman named Zipora Struhl, whose journey started so many others more than a century ago.

Zipora was 55 years old on that December day in 1897 when she arrived in America from Libau. She was a tailor who had raised two sons and buried a husband, and she sailed on the SS Furnessia into the port of New York with $10 in her pocket and a son, Mendel, waiting for her in some new persona.

Mendel arrived from Russia six years earlier, as a youth of 17. But now, instead of Mendel Struhl, he was somebody known as Max Strull. Instead of speaking Russian or Yiddish, he spoke the full American patois, or a reasonable Russian facsimile.

Max worked in a basement sweatshop on Hester Street, on New York's Lower East Side. He made $3 a week there as a tailor and became an American citizen, as witnessed by a cigar dealer named Louis Abromson. It's all in the records.

Max would father a family that would cross the generations and find itself in Baltimore, with a fellow writing a newspaper column about how it all started 106 years ago with Zipora Struhl, who was my great-great-grandmother, and Max Strull, my great-grandfather.

(For all of this, I thank Weisberg - the Baltimore genealogist who discovered these facts - and my wife Suzy, who discovered Weisberg and presented me with a genealogy study over the holidays.)

There are two family albums now in my possession, and more ghosts than I could have imagined. They haunt me the way memory haunts each of us who ever wondered where we come from, and who were the people who helped make us who we are.

We reach for traces of those we've never known. On the Lower East Side, Max Strull met a girl who worked in a clothing factory, also from Russia, whose name was Zlotte Gurian. I now have a copy of their wedding certificate, dated Oct. 25, 1900. Names begin to take on life.

Out of the union of Max and Zlotte came six children who lived, including a daughter named Dora. I never heard of this Dora until now. It turns out, she was the grandmother I always knew as Ruth, who was my mother's mother.

So it goes. Mendel Struhl becomes Max Strull, and the wife Zlotte becomes someone called Jenny, and the daughter Dora changes herself to a Ruth. Her sisters did the same, changing their names from Russian to something that sounded American. It is how we make our way in the melting pot. And Ruth marries a young man named Moe Loebman, originally from Austria, who is the grandson of a man named Asher Zelig Lobman.

This man I never heard about. But I now have a photograph of this Asher Lobman, sitting with his wife, Feige, whom he married in the 1860s. They are my great-great-grandparents. They are posed, rather formally, in a place called Bolekhov, a small shtetl in Galicia, by the Carpathian Mountains, in what is now the western Ukraine. The picture was taken a hundred years ago.

And I notice something about this great-great-grandfather of mine, Asher Lobman: We share a face. We have the same eyes and nose and cheekbones, which are also my son's.

This knowledge alone is a gift. In these simple genetic vestiges, there is proof: We have come from something. We have a verifiable history. In a world that moves so quickly, and so confusingly, and so rarely leaves traces, here is evidence that connects us to something else. We are not alone.

The albums also offer a larger history: birth records, citizenship papers, census reports. In the 1910 census, in the apartment building where Max and Jenny Strull raised their five daughters and a son, there are several dozen families. All but one came from Russia or Italy. They are laborers, carpenters, seamstresses, taxi drivers. Many are listed as boarders.

They are a generation of immigrants who will create a 20th-century American history - not the famous stuff of headlines, which are forgotten the next day, but the stories passed down when families gather around a kitchen table. And a name is mentioned here, and maybe a place. And you find yourself wanting to know more, because these people are the beginnings of your own journey through life.

The other day I called Lynn Weisberg to thank her for the albums, and to ask how she put them together. She has connections around the globe: people who dig into birth and death records, houses of worship and hospitals, ships' passenger lists, baptismal records, military records.

And they find photos. Here is Max Strull, in that basement sweatshop on Hester Street. Here are Asher and Feige Lobman, in a place called Bolekhov a century ago. They connect us to something: family histories. And ourselves.

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