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.

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.