Emigration: the messy middle

In this blog, I’ve talked about the origins of my Berkman family and a little bit about my most immediate ancestor, my father. I also looked at information about one of the family’s journey to the US.

But there is a whole lot of uncertainty around most of the Berkman emigrants to North America. Some of this is the relative scarcity of ships records. A huge issue is matching names on ship manifests to ancestors. In the case of Gitel Berkman (my great-great aunt), she had married and had two children when they travelled, so I was pretty certain that this family of four was the same as the one that I had identified in Vilkija.

When I try to track my great-grandfather Myer Abraham Berkman, I come up with a couple of different possible ships. I cannot find the births of my grandfather David or his sister Sadie in Russia (Lithuania? Belarus?), nor his marriage or the death of his wife Aidla Vaskoboinik before they emigrated. While I know that Myer died and was buried in Montreal in 1941, I can find no trace of him in Canadian census records. Where did he live?

So today I decided to take another look at my records for my grandfather, David Berkman. From the few accounts of those who knew of him, I believe he would be called a “player”, and there is some evidence of this in the divorce decree issued 9 years later.

But let’s start with some facts.

As I mentioned in a previous post, he married my grandmother Vera Elstein in 1922 and my father Franklin was born two years later. When (and where) was David born?

david berkman grave
Baron de Hirsch – De La Savane Cemetery, Montreal QC
Courtesy Stoneman. Copyrighted Image. Used with Permission.

I don’t have any direct information about his date of birth such as a birth registration. His headstone states that he died at age 68 in 1956, suggesting a birthdate of 1888. The informant was his sister Saidie’s son Frank Rubenstein and I have no reason to believe that this date is more or less precise. It is also the year of birth of Saidie herself. Maybe it was a best guess?

On the 1921 census taken in Regina Saskatchewan, David claims to be 28, suggesting a birth date of 1893. A David Berkman appears on a ships register for a 1898 Liverpool – Quebec route stating that he is 18 (birth date of 1880). Another (or possibly the same?) David Berkman is on a 1906 Antwerp-New York sailing and he’s stated as 23 (birth date of 1883).

He starts to appear in City Directories in 1907 in Ottawa where he is listed as a tailor, often in partnership with someone. This would suggest that a birth date of 1893 is unlikely.

So, rather than dwell on the pesky dates, I’ll focus my next post on David’s life post-emigration.

Croup? Or Diphtheria?

The last two children born to my great-great grandfather, Hirsh Berkman, and his wife Sore, died as toddlers of croup. This was identified in death records from the Lithuanian town where they lived. Aharon Nate died at a-year-and-a-half in 1882, and daughter Teme Leye died at two-and-a-half years in 1886. This had me looking for some explanation for deaths from an illness that my brother easily survived at a similar age, but in the 1960s.

Death of Aharon Nate Berkman
Death of Aharon Nate Berkman (Index) From jewishgen.org.

The medical literature in the late 1800s has a number of articles (one here) about the overly wide use of the term croup to include diphtheria. So that made a lot of sense. The bacterium for diphtheria wasn’t identified until 1883, and there were a number of epidemics of the disease worldwide well into the 20th century. According to Natural History of Infectious Disease, a diphtheria epidemic that started in England in 1858 had spread worldwide within a year, with a second period of high death-rates in Europe around 1890.

Once the bacterium was identified, scientists were able to produce an anti-toxin, starting in about 1895.

diphtheria antitoxin
Preparing diphtheria antitoxin from the white blood cells of horses. Marburg, Germany. c. 1895 Source: MuseumofHealthCare.ca

As genealogists, we often come across causes of death (or illnesses) that look familiar, but a little search into the history of medicine may lead to something entirely different.


This has been a little side trek away from family history, but more is coming! Consider subscribing to the blog, and have a look at previous posts that you might have missed.

Gitel Berkman to Gertrude Freeman

Most of the historical and genealogical records I have used to trace my ancestors in Lithuania were collected and published by JewishGen and the Litvak Special Interest Group. I joined JewishGen years ago, but it wasn’t until I was able to trace my Berkman ancestors to Lithuania that I realized the full power of their collections.

In this post, I will look at the first of Hirsh and Sore’s children, their daughter Gitel, my great-great-aunt, sister of my great-grandfather, Myer.

Gitel was born in Vilkija in the early 1860s. In November of 1883, she married Leyb Freyman, also from Vilkija and they had two children, a daughter Chaya Beyle (1885-) and son Itsek Ber (1887-).

In October 1887, the family of four left for New York from Hamburg, via Liverpool, on the steamship City of Chester.  The manifest notes their port of arrival as “Grimsby (Amerika (USA) via Liverpool)” and I learned that this was a typical route for emigrants to the US. They were able to purchase a package ticket that would take them from Hamburg to the port of Grimsby (England), and then a train from Grimsby through Manchester, to Liverpool. From there, they could get a ship to the US.

city of chester
Steamship City of Chester

I haven’t been able to determine when they sailed from Liverpool to the US, nor what port they arrived at.

The next time I find the family is via the US Census of 1910. They are living in Boston. Leyb has become Louis and Gitel is Gertrude. They have had seven more children:  Rose (b. 1890), Mae (b. 1892), Morris (1893-1894), Sadie (b. 1896), David (b. 1896), Charles (b. 1900), and Harold (b. 1903).  These were all born in Massachusetts as per the census, so they arrived in the US not long after their journey through England.

The two children born in Vilkija are now Bessie and Benjamin. Father Louis is listed as a house painter, Bessie (23) a bookkeeper in a shoe store, Benjamin (21) a tobacco salesman, Rose (20) a Stenographer in a picture store and Mae (18) is an underwear maker in a factory. They live at 132 Brighton Street which they own (with a mortgage.)

By the time of the next census in 1920, Gertrude has been widowed. Louis died in 1915 at the age of 57 from chronic nephritis and secondarily, lobar pneumonia. His is noted as being in real estate in the death record. He had spent four days in the two-year-old Peter Bent Brigham Hospital at the time of his death on the 24th of December.

Peter Bent Brigham Hosp. Est. 1913 Courtesy: Boston Public Library.

In 1920, the family has moved to 17 Holborn Street where they are renting. Gertrude still has seven children living with her, plus her daughter Mae’s husband Morris Brown and their two daughters. She also has a female lodger.

Gertrude died in August of 1929 at the age of 66 and was buried at Adath Israel cemetery near her husband.
There is much more to this story, but I haven’t figured it all out yet. When I was searching for pictures of the houses on Brighton and Holborn, I came across this item from the Boston Post. I note the addresses 132 Brighton Street, 70 Brighton Street (the address where Rose was born), and that Gitel Freeman is noted as the “supposed present owner” of 101 Brighton Street. My next step will be to peruse some city directories to find out who lived where and when.

Taxes due at various properties owned by Gitel Freeman and various Berkmans.
“City Collector’s Notice.” (Unpaid taxes.)
Boston Post, 7 November 1896.

Final note: if you are related to this (my) family, I would love to hear from you. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me, particularly if I have made errors in my research, or just to connect!

Looking back from today

My Berkman ancestors have, until recently, been something of a mystery. My father’s parents, David Berkman and Vera Elstein, were divorced in 1931, nine years after they were married and seven years after my father was born. David died in 1956, four years before I was born, and so I never met him. Nor did my father speak of him. At all. Never in my memory.

Vera remarried and Maurice Winer was my paternal grandfather. I was very fond of him, but figured out pretty early (due to the last name) that he wasn’t my biological grandfather. I don’t recall if I ever asked my father about his father directly, but I definitely asked my mother. While I don’t remember her words, it was clear that this would not be a good subject to raise.

At my grandmother’s death, I saved boxes of letters, photographs, and other ephemera. The only trace of David was some holes cut out of photographs and a business card.

David Berkman card

Regardless, the starting point for any genealogy is one’s immediate family. I blogged about my father, Franklin Berkman, in another writing space. I am one of three children, the first born. My elder son was given “Berkman” as his middle name (much to his chagrin.) My brother has three children including two sons, and so the Berkman name will continue into another generation. (I will leave patriarchal naming systems for another time, possibly another lifetime.) As I examine my family history via this blog, it is of the generations in the future that I think.


The Beginnings

In 1831, when Hirsh Berkman was born, much of Lithuania existed under the Russian Empire, so records from this time typically show the town, the uyezd (an administrative area under the Empire), and the guberniya (governorate). While we don’t have a record corresponding to Hirsh’s birth, he lived most of his life in Vilkija (or “Vilki”), in the uyezd and guberniya of Kaunas. Vilkija is about 30 km northwest of the city of Kaunas on the bank of the Nemen River.

Lithuania 1867-1914

The name Hirsch means “deer” or “stag”, and is alternately spelled Girsh in some records due to transliteration from Russian and/or Yiddish. He also appears as Tsvi, the Hebrew equivalent (“gazelle”.)

Hirsh married Sore Bershteyn (1844- ) and they had eight children together, six of whom survived through childhood.

The first, Gitel, was born in Vilkija in 1861 when Hirsh was 39 and Sore was 17. Hirsh and Sore’s second child, Myer Abraham Berkman was born in Vilkija in April of 1864 and is my great-grandfather. By age 10, when the census was revised, he had three younger siblings: Getsel Ber (1867- ), Yankel Leyb (1870-1941), and Osher (1873- ). Four more children were born after that census, two of whom died from croup  as toddlers: Eyga Ester (1875-  ), Schmuel Volff (1878- ), Aharon Nate (1880-1882), and Teme Leye (1883-1886). 

[The Russian Czar conducted Revision Lists between formal censuses. These included taxpayers, those eligible for the draft, and their families.]

In the Revision List of 1890, the Berkman household is listed as missing from Vilkija. The members of the household are listed with the males first (sons Myer, Ber Getsel, Yankel Leyb, and Osher), and include Hirsh’s younger brother Leyb. Sore and their two daughters, Gita and Eyga, follow in the list. But they are no longer in Vilkija and this is where it gets more difficult to track them down. In future posts, I will focus on this generation and what I have been able to determine about them.