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.

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.