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Grampa Harry

September 18, 2008
My grandfather, Harry S. visited us for my 5th birthday.  He's on the couch.  I'm the birthday princess in front, holding the balloon. My friend Michele is behind me.

This is my only photo of my grandfather, Harry S. (sitting on the couch in the back). He was visiting us for my 5th birthday. I'm the birthday princess in the front, holding a balloon. My friend Michele is behind me.












My September surprise arrived yesterday, triggering elation and visceral revelation.

Only a minute or two after I launched yesterday’s post, I received an email from Ann Rexe, Enquiries Coordinator of the Toronto Branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society. Ann is the incredible volunteer who has been helping me search records to learn more about my mother’s family origins.  A week sooner than I had expected her to begin searching for my grandparents’ marriage certificate, she emailed me its very image.  Ann is a woman of understatement and surprise, as well as competence and good humor.

And there was a bonus. Ann had also discovered a border crossing record and sent its image as well. She said it should provide “some clues.” Clues! The record was the treasure chest itself.

The marriage certificate gave me the true names and ages of both my grandparents.  The groom was a “bachelor” of 27; the “maid” a “spinster” of 22.  Their certificate also gave me the names of each of their parents, so that I have the unexpected boon of knowing the names of my great-grandparents. My grandparents’ religions were also recorded: both were Jewish. I had held out some hope that my grandmother might have been a Christian, but she was not. But the marriage certificate gave only the country of my grandparents’ birth: Russia. I had hoped very much to learn their actual hometown. I wished to claim, in a foolishly human way, that “dot on the map.” My mother had told me that her parents were both from the same town back home and met in Canada. I only needed the hometown of one of them.

Canadians and Americans who live near the border cross each others’ borders fairly routinely.  My grandfather, an alien residing in Toronto, visited the United States one day in 1911.  He left a record that providentially would become very precious to me 97 years later.

The little card the customs agent completed that summer day reveals that my grandfather first entered Canada at the Port of Quebec on September 21, 1906. This information enabled me to discover that only one ship arrived at the Port of Quebec that day: the S.S. Virginian, sailing from Liverpool, with “1,133 total souls” on board. I went through the ship’s 35-page manifest online, but did not find my grandfather listed. I have learned that people known to be on board a particular ship are sometimes simply not on the list. Moreover, if my grandfather’s landing date as recorded on the occasion of his 1911 U.S. border crossing was even one day off, it would mean he was on a different ship, not the Virginian. In any case, the actual ship was not something I originally had any hope of finding.

There was more trove on the border crossing record. It records that my grandfather entered the U.S. at Niagara Falls on July 29, 1911. His destination was Brooklyn, to see a friend whose name and address appear on the form. The form has a “Money showed” box. My grandfather was carrying $339–equivalent to a current value of $6,988. He must have been one frugal tailor. Perhaps he was meeting the man to purchase business assets, for he later owned his own tailoring shop in his home. I have no way to know what took him to Brooklyn with so much money.

The border crossing record gave my grandfather’s height and hair and eye color. I do remember him as being small in stature, and the 5’5″ concurs with my recollection. The document also records my grandfather’s next of kin, his father, with the same name that appears on my grandparents’ marriage certificate. This leaves no question that the fellow headed to Brooklyn on business that summer day in 1911 was indeed my grandfather. And there was more: the prize, my dot on the map. His hometown is recorded, and repeated as the residence of his father: Bendin, Russia.

Yesterday was the first time I had ever heard of Bendin. I found the dot on the map under its present name, Bendzin (benJEEN). For the rest of the afternoon, I forgot to eat, to drink, to open mail, to close drawers, to put the roast in the oven, to take the roast out of the oven once I finally remembered to put it in, to put things in order before my very understanding husband came home. I am precariously hypoglycemic, so this is not a good thing. But I had to learn more about Bendin. Ann’s surprise thrust me into power overdrive.

The first thing I learned about Bendin, Russia is that Bendin is in Poland.

However, Bendin was located in Russian Poland from 1815 to 1919. Thus, my grandfather, born in 1885, was a Russian national, as is accurately recorded on his marriage certificate and on the border crossing record when he visited the United States.

My mother had told me that my grandfather was from Russian Poland. I never understood what that meant. I still don’t; it’s complicated. I am learning that Bendin is the crossroads of the joyful and the visceral. One of the oldest cities in Poland, Bendin has been a hub of geo-political strife at the frontier of Western and Eastern Europe. If you have a grasp of the history of Poland, you have a grasp of the history of Europe. In fact, you have a grasp of the history of Western civilization from the 10th century to the present.

Bendin goes by several names. Bendin is likely the obsolete form used in Russian Poland. The usual is Bedzin (Polish), Bendzin (German), and Bendsburg (also German). Bendin was under German occupation from 1939-1945. I will use “Bendin,” unless quoting someone using another spelling, because that is what appears on my grandfather’s border crossing record. 

Russian Poland was Russia for all sovereign purposes. Abram Gold recalled some pervasive elements of Russian nationalism in a memoir of his education in a Bedzin (his spelling) cheder, or Hebrew school:

“We did not learn worldly subjects in the “cheder”, apart from Russian, which was ordered by the Czarist government. Every child had to learn, by heart, the Czar’s oath. On every Russian national holiday or birthday of one of the Czar’s court, we went to the school and said prayers in honor of the Czar (for his good health) and for his friends and court. . . .

“This particular school was one of the best. Students from the whole region came to study there; if their parents were capable of paying the tuition for them. Hebrew was studied in Ashkenazi, the bible and the director, Mr. Wroncberg, taught grammar. He was a good Hebrew teacher and Talmudist. There was a different teacher for German and Russian; a private teacher taught Polish, because the Russian government forbade it.” (Source)

Presumably my grandfather spoke Russian, since Russia had ruled Bendin for 70 years by the time he was born. He likely spoke Yiddish, as well. I never heard him speak anything but English, “because we speak English in Toronto.” As best as I can recall, his accent sounded German.  Yiddish is a German dialect that is written in Hebrew.

Somehow my grandfather made his way from Bendin to Liverpool, and took a steamship, likely the S. S. Virginian, to the Port of Quebec, arriving September 21, 1906. An interesting sidenote is that both sides of my family emigrated from Europe at the same time. My father’s mother arrived in New York in 1906, on the S. S. Berlin, having sailed from Palermo, to join her husband who came ahead and was settled in upstate New York with a job and a house.

My grandfather’s resourcefulness and whatever family and friends supported his departure was well-timed. At the time he left Bendin, the city’s Jewish population was 27,000. In 1940-1943, the estimated Jewish population was 7,000. By 1945, there were an estimated 23,300 Jewish survivors and returnees in all of Poland.

Grampa Harry didn’t marry the girl next door; he married the girl down the hall. Her name was Goldie. They lived in what must have been a large rooming house, he in Room 47, she in Room 60. These are the addresses that appear on their 1912 marriage certificate. My mother, Dora, born in 1914, was the first of their three children. Harold and Lena followed. At some point, but by 1920 when my grandfather appears in the Toronto City Directory as a tailor at 50 Pendrith Street, they bought the house in which my mother grew up, and where my grandfather lived for the rest of his life.

Perhaps tragedy left behind has a way of catching up. When my mother was nine, Goldie was hospitalized with dementia praecox. She never recovered and she never returned home. Harry was left with three young children. My mother helped to raise her brother and sister. Some years later, Lena took her own life.

My mother immigrated to the United States around 1945. She met and married my suave father, a handsome son of Italy whose joie de vivre contrasted vividly with her dark sense of life. I was their only child, but I was never lonely. I had friends, animals, and many ghosts.

Undated photo, Toronto Public Library.  Kensington Market, the Jewish garment district in Toronto

Undated photo, Toronto Public Library. Kensington Market, the Jewish garment district in Toronto

  1. Jane permalink
    September 19, 2008 6:40 am

    What an accomplishment! Since “all things are disciplined by theology” it must be encouraging and awe-inspiring to be able to trace God’s hand in bringing about the complex circumstances of your “first birth”, as well as your “second”. Kudos, kiddo.

  2. September 19, 2008 6:45 am

    To God alone the glory. As the verse of one of our hymns says:

    “His decree who formed the earth
    Fixed my first and second birth;
    Parents, native place, and time,
    All appointed were by him.”

    Thanks, J.

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