Late last year, I was flying from Los Angeles to San Jose – a trip I have made many times in the course of my professional career. Over the years, I have watched the San Jose airport transform itself – from a one-building terminal with rental cars parked on the curb to an international airport with rental car facilities much larger than the entire airport I first visited many years ago.
On this particular trip, however, I was traveling not on business but rather because – unbeknownst to me – a member of my family had been living just a few miles from the airport that entire time. I had learned about him from a new online genealogical service called Begats.
And thereby hangs a tale. I think it is interesting in itself, but I am recounting it here for a broader reason as well: it may hold some lessons, and some opportunities, for others as well. Indeed, I am pretty sure it will.
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My mother passed away many years ago, at age 44, from breast cancer, a month before my bar mitzvah. I never had the chance to speak to her about her family. I knew only that it was not very large. She was, like my father, an only child.
I had known her parents (my maternal grandparents) only slightly, since we lived in Los Angeles and they lived in Philadelphia, and they passed away before I could have a serious conversation with them. My father had moved his own parents (my paternal grandparents) from Philadelphia to Los Angeles to live in a convalescent home in the 1950s. I saw them when he visited them and took me with him, but they died before I was ten.
I remember my paternal grandparents mostly through the few pictures I have – my grandfather a portly man with ill-fitting clothes, standing next to a rotund wife who looked like a female version of him. They were immigrants from Russia and Rumania, arriving in America at the beginning of the 20th century. Neither in my memory nor in their pictures did they look like very impressive people. As for my maternal grandparents, I knew they were born in America, children of immigrants from Eastern Europe, but I knew nothing beyond that.
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Begats is a service that performs online genealogical searches, which (I now know) is an art, not a science, and which is hardly the clerical function I had considered it before becoming the beneficiary of the story that follows.
The job requires an indefatigable researcher – someone with computer skills willing to spend long hours sifting through clues and paper trails in old immigration records, census compilations, naturalization papers, draft registrations, phone books, and data bases of other organizations – someone with a “feel” for the lives of Jews who crossed continents and oceans to come to this country in the 19th and 20th centuries, often alone or impoverished, frequently without much family; someone who can see in dry documents the dots to be connected from names and dates and addresses, and can keep following them.
Anne Lieberman, the pro-Israel blogger who runs Begats, is such a person.
I gave her the information I had about my paternal grandfather: his name (Abraham Richman), the country he came from (Russia), and the approximate year he immigrated to America (sometime around 1903-1906). That was all I had.
Anne was back to me within a couple weeks. What follows is what she found.
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Abraham Richman’s name when he came to this country was not Abraham Richman. It was Awrum Reichman. He arrived at Ellis Island on July 21, 1906 – alone, age 22, on a ship called the “Etruria,” traveling from Liverpool, England. His Ellis Island passenger record showed his last residence was “Kischenoff.”
Kischenoff … Kischenoff. Anne knew what that meant; I did not. The name is more frequently spelled “Kishinev” and is the city in which the history-changing Russian pogroms occurred in 1903 and 1905. On April 18, 1903, ten days after the first one, The New York Times carried this story about it:
The anti-Jewish riots in Kishinev, Bessarabia, are worse than the censor will permit to publish. There was a well laid-out plan for the general massacre of Jews on the day following the Russian Easter. The mob was led by priests, and the general cry, “Kill the Jews,” was taken-up all over the city. The Jews were taken wholly unaware and were slaughtered like sheep. The dead number 120 and the injured about 500. The scenes of horror attending this massacre are beyond description. Babies were literally torn to pieces by the frenzied and bloodthirsty mob. The local police made no attempt to check the reign of terror. At sunset the streets were piled with corpses and wounded.
In Lone Wolf, his monumental biography of Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, Shmuel Katz writes that “Kishinev marked a turning point in the style and scope of Russian pogroms . Previously pogroms had consisted largely of robbery, looting and general violence. At Kishinev, from the sixth to the eighth of April 1903, for the first time murder was added.” Kishinev marked the turning point in Jabotinsky’s life, which he devoted to warning of the danger of European anti-Semitism and fighting for a Jewish state.
The second Kishinev pogrom occurred October 19-20, 1905. By then there were Jewish self-defense corps that, in Katz’s words “displayed the greatest heroism, but they proved too weak to stop the murdering.”
Somehow, my grandfather – age 21 – traveled alone after the second pogrom, from Kishinev to Liverpool, got on a ship, and made his way to America. He arrived at Ellis Island and shortly thereafter made his way to Philadelphia, where a few other relatives had preceded him.
Ahead of him would be not only assimilation into a new country, without a job and without speaking the language, but World War I, the Depression, and World War II.
On October 26, 1908, Abraham Richman – now 25 years old – signed a “Declaration of Intention” to “renounce forever all allegiance and fidelity any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty, and particularly to Nicholas II, Emperor of Russia.” It was the first step to becoming a citizen of the United States.
Here is the entire text of the oath the Declaration required him to swear: “I am not an anarchist; I am not a polygamist nor a believer in the practice of polygamy; and it is my intention in good faith to become a citizen of the United States of America and to permanently reside therein. SO HELP ME GOD.”
Abraham needed to list his occupation on the Declaration. He wrote in “huckster” – a street peddler of fruits and vegetables. His height was 5’2″ and his weight was 148 pounds.
In 1915, he filed a Petition for Naturalization, noting that he had married Katie Weinstein and that they had a son – Matthew, my father – who was then five years old. My grandfather’s occupation as listed on his Petition, a decade after he had arrived in America, was still “huckster.”
Abraham registered for the army in 1917 or 1918 (the document is undated, but he lists himself as age 36). He listed his employer as “myself” and his occupation as “huckster.” Twenty-five years later, he registered for the draft during World War II, in 1942, at age 59. His registration card lists himself as “unemployed.” At that time, his son Matt was serving as a lawyer in the U.S. Air Force, and three years later, his grandson Rick – that’s me – was born. It was 40 years to the day after the first Russian pogrom.
There is a world of experience behind all these documents, a reminder that my grandfather traveled half way across the world to come to this country, the survivor of a major cataclysm of Jewish history, struggled as a fruit dealer, registered to fight in two world wars, living through a Depression in between. That was his life between age 21 and 59 and for several years thereafter.
Several weeks after I received all these documents, I called my brother Jim, who is a successful real estate lawyer with a major law firm in Los Angeles. I told him I wanted to show him some documents I thought would interest him, and suggested we have lunch.
As we sat waiting for our meal, I showed him the documents Anne had found. When I gave him the Ellis Island record – showing Abraham leaving Russia alone at age 21 to come to America, traveling from Liverpool – Jim looked at it for a long moment and said: “It is a long way from Liverpool to here.”
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That was one set of grandparents. The story Anne found for me for my other set of grandparents – Morris and Alice Beckman – was in a way even more surprising.
The Beckmans, she discovered, go back to Sandor Beckman, born in Budapest, Hungary, on March 13, 1847. He came to the United States on January 2, 1872, at age 25. He became a citizen on October 12, 1896, listing his occupation as “merchant.” A passport application from 1906 shows him to be “5 feet, 6 and