On Nov. 12, 1912, a 30-year-old man named Srol Boronowsky from the city of Elisawetzrad, Russia, boarded the 7,869-ton passenger ship Kursk as it left from the port of Libau for its 11-day journey to New York. As passenger #101037160184, he rode in steerage, along with the other several hundred or so passengers.
But Srol Boronowsky never got off the ship; some bureaucrat between Libau and Ellis Island renamed him Isidor Brenoff -- an act that he likely did not understand at the time since, according to Census records, he did not read or write. Or maybe he understood it perfectly well: He was fleeing a city that was the birthplace of the Russian pogroms against Jews, where the 30,000 or so Russian Jews were getting a taste of what was to come years later in the Holocaust. He wanted to be able to live as a Jew, but more than that, he wanted to be able to live.
I believe that Srol Boronowsky (also spelled Bronowsky on another ship document) was my paternal grandfather. And until this week, I never knew his real name -- my real name. I knew that our family name had been lost in transit from the old country to the new promised land. It had fallen victim to the common practice of immigration officers who couldn't spell the strange-sounding multi-syllabic names of immigrants and instead gave the newcomers new ones. They probably thought they were doing them a favor.
Like most stories, my family's has been handed down verbally with little documentation. My father, an infant at the time of the 1912 crossing, told me what he knew. And through the years, I would ask questions of my aunts.
But sometimes it takes a missed deadline to jump start my engine. My father's last surviving sibling died a few weeks ago at the ripe old age of 102. And with her passing, so went any last opportunity to question and learn through oral history. But thanks to the Internet, in a few hours of amateur sleuthing using sites including Ancestry.com, JewishGen.org and the The Statue of Liberty -- Ellis Island Foundation, this is what I've learned:
1. Records are inconsistent, even contradictory. So you need to find multiple citations before you believe anything.
My grandfather's eyes were gray (passenger records from the Kursk) or blue (Census 1940) or gray (military records). No one in my family has anything but brown eyes and if they had, we would have pointed a finger at the mailman.
2. Some small details will suddenly shed light on big events.
My grandfather was missing two toes on his right foot, according to the U.S. Army that had hoped to draft him. Since he died when I was just 4-years-old, my memories of him are largely based on photos. He is always the one seated, with the family around him standing. In a few photos, he is in a nursing home in a wheelchair. In one photo, he is using a cane. The toes, I have since learned, were lost to frostbite, causing him to walk with a limp.
3. Love was strong back then.
My paternal grandmother died just months after my paternal grandfather. I was told that when he passed, she gave up her own will to live. They had six children together, and never much money. On various documents, my grandfather was described as a "peddler," a "huckster," and a "salesman." He peddled fruit for a living on the streets of New York City, rising early every day but Shabbat. Although they rented their tiny Harlem apartment, the Census notes on more than one occasion the presence of a "lodger." For awhile, my grandmother's younger brother lived with them as well.
4. You may learn some things that will shock you. Remember, every family has its secrets.
I knew that I had an uncle who died in the war when he was just 24. He enlisted on Dec. 26, 1941, according to his Navy muster records. He was the baby of the family and until their own deaths many decades later, his sisters could barely speak of him without tears flowing. What I didn't know was that my uncle had what I suspect was one of those "I'm headed off to war, let's get hitched" marriages. While I couldn't find a marriage license for him, I found his divorce records pretty quickly. Mary Eve filed for divorce just six months before my uncle was killed in action. Since she likely wasn't Jewish, I predict the marriage was not embraced by his family and hence the radio silence.
5. Records are only as good as the information the subject provides.
My recently deceased aunt always went by Fay. Sometimes on important documents, she would add an "E" to the end and make herself "Faye." But on her birth certificate, she is named "Fannie Brenoffsky." Fannie? Brenoffsky? For most Census reports, she was recorded as Fanny or Fannie, although one time she was "Florence." My best guess is that she was known as Fanny to her parents but once she left home, she Americanized her name to Fay/Faye. And the Census takers were notorious for not understanding thick immigrant accents.
6. Some records just can't be found, at least not by me.
I know my parents were legally married. In fact, they had a big wedding and I have the photographs to prove it. But damn if for the life of me I couldn't find any record of their marriage. For that matter, I also couldn't find any records of my own marriage and I swear I was there.
7. Not everything you've been told is necessarily true.
I had heard stories about another uncle being sent away to a sanitarium for treatment of tuberculosis. He recovered, married briefly and divorced, and spent many years as a bookkeeper wishing he was an actor. He even moved to Los Angeles to chase his dream. But he went through life alone, unfulfilled and depressed. While I found no records of my uncle being treated for tuberculosis in a sanitarium, I did find a Census record that listed him as an "inmate" in a mental hospital when he was in his early 20s.
I've had a few other aha! moments. Chief among them is that genealogy searching is highly addictive. And that the more you look, the more you find. So if there are any other Brenoffs out there, please reach out. Or for that matter, any Boronowskys and Baranofskys too. It's time we got to know one another.