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

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:

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!

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.