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.

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.