Ruby Family History Project Blog

Urban archaeology in Gdansk

If you like maps, fire up your favorite geolocation tool and follow along as Isaak Wohlgemuth would have gone from home to work on a typical day in, say, 1908. 

Put in a start location of Dobra 1A, Gdansk, Poland, the current address of Isaak’s former residence, where he lived with his wife Betty and their two daughters. The older girl is my grandmother, Elly Wohlgemuth Ringel, who is six years old as Isaak sets out on his walk.

For the destination put in Zabi Kruk 11 in Gdansk. That’s my best guess for where the Wohlgemuth moving business was located, probably with a warehouse and stables. Ask for walking directions and look at the route in 3D satellite view so you get a feel for the terrain.

The first discovery is a disappointment. The building at Dobra 1–Abegg Gasse 1 in Isaak’s time–has been replaced with a particularly undistinguished postwar apartment building. The pictures show the current building and a nearby building from the period.

Go across the first bridge and proceed along ul. Torunska (it was Thornscher Weg to Isaak). On your left is a big fenced off swampy vacant field. The photo gives a picture of the scene. Beyond the field is a view of the southern ramparts of the old city. 

On the north side of the street alongside the canal is a major redevelopment project that looks like mixed use commercial and residential. There is a lot of new construction in and around Gdansk, but mostly it hasn’t yet touched this lower district of the old city.

Cross the island on Torunska and try to imagine what it was like in Isaac’s day. But so far there is not much to go on. Proceed across the second bridge, past the luxury Almond Hotel and on to the corner of Zabi Kruk. 

In Isaak's day this street was called Poggenpfuhl, and we are looking for Poggenpfuhl 73. But the numbers on Zabi Kruk are entirely different, reaching no higher than number 20 on the south end of the street on a block is that is now dominated by three high-rise Soviet-era apartment buildings.

You will check those out later, but for now you cross the street and go north on Zabi Kruk towards the big cathedral up ahead. This turns out to be the Church of St. Peter and Paul and it goes back to the 15th century. In front of the church is a historic information display that you stop to admire. 

The multimedia exhibit of photos and Polish text covers not the church specifically but the history of this part of the city, the Alte Vorstadt. On one of the panels describing the southern fortifications and the city’s Lower Gate, your eye is drawn to the finely drawn map.

It is a detail of an 1840 map of the Alte Vorstadt showing all the key buildings and fortifications. That vacant field you noticed on the way over is shown on the map as the location of the "Güterbahnhof"—literally, a train station for goods, or freight depot. 

Ah, this makes sense! It explains why the Wohlgemuth shipping company was located in this section of town, remote from current-day transport hubs. 

With that insight, you can now return to the south end of Zabi Kruk, where those high rises have replaced the business block where the Wohlgemuth company was established. You go by the present-day boating concession on the channel, explore around the surviving buildings adjacent to the old rail yard, and come out at the lower gate to the city, called today the Brama Nizinna Tor once known as the Leege Thor.

A former railroad right-of-way traverses a discrete opening in the surviving fortifications. Immediately above you is the imposing Żubr Bastion, one of 19 massive earthen mounds that surround the city. Zoom out on your mapping app to see the layout of the bastions. You will want to make your way up the trails to the top of the Żubr to enjoy the fantastic panorama. 

All of the sites called out on the 1840 map–the sluice gates, the Leege Thor, the Bahnhof, the approaches to the adjacent bastion–are all spread out below you.

Cell service is spotty up here, so you are having trouble learning a lot about the train station in real time. From the name and what little is known in family lore, you can infer it had been a freight shipping terminal serving the old Prussian territories. Maybe it had been bombed out in the war and never rebuilt. 

The answers will come later when you can get back on line and spend some quality time with Google Translate. For now, enjoy the view and the pleasure of having discovered a little bit of history along the route of an ancestor’s walk to work.  

Cemetery headstone deciphered

There are two recognizable Wohlgemuth headstone fragments in the old Jewish cemetery in Starogard Gdanski. I will talk about the other one in a separate post. Here is one where I couldn't exactly make out the first name and married name engraved on the stone, but I could clearly see her maiden name was Wohlgemuth. Her married name looked like Blau. It was great to find her but it didn't mean that much because I didn't know who she was or even what to call her. 

Since coming home I have been able to mine a new set of records that gives the answer. First, I knew pretty quickly I was right about the surname Blau. It is one of 64 Jewish family names that were registered in Stargardt in 1812. Then I began digging into the trove of digitized LDS microfilms that I just recently discovered. 

The whole family and all the relations are in there, including the answer to the identity of the Wohlgemuth-Blau gravestone. The third attachment is her marriage record from July 1862. I read her first name as Teile, which I find listed in at least one Yiddish name directory. She was the daughter of Salomon Wohlgemuth. As you recall, all of the Wohlgemuths in Stargard descended from either Salomon or, like us, his brother Herz. Teile's husband was Hirsch Blau. 

Salomon was already in his 60s when Teile was born in 1832. Apparently he was then residing in the nearby town of Berent, today Koscierzyna. I have not yet mined the death records so as of now I don't have death dates for Salomon or any of the others. I assume Salomon had several wives, so I can't say yet who Teile's mother was. 

Still I was able to identify and give a background story for the person in the grave at the Starogard Jewish cemetery. And that feels better than just having found the grave of an unidentified relative. 

Leopold Wohlgemuth marriage in 1863

 I'll put out the important documents one by one as I capture them. Here is the November 4, 1863 marriage record of Leopold Wohlgemuth and Fredericke Pächter, the future parents of Isaak and Julius Wohlgemuth. The record is in the lower right of the columnular book. I've cropped in on the Wohlgemuth record. You can see the two surnames that are underlined. I will extract the key information below.

Date: November 4, 1863 Location: Pr. Stargardt
Husband: Leopold Wohlgemuth Wife: Fredericke Pächter
Yiddish Name: Lewyn Age: 25
Profession: Merchant Town: Tiegenhof
Age: 30 Father: Julius Pächter

A few things are notable. We see again Leopold's common and Yiddish names both given. He has advanced in profession beyond dealer to merchant ("kaufmann"). Tiegenhof was a new location for me. It was the German name for the town now called Nowy Dvór Gdanski. It is 34 miles northeast of Starogard and is close to the bigger city of Elblag, formerly Elbing, where Isaak and Julius Wohlgemuth moved in 1892. Julius's name may be in honor of his father-in-law. I should try to learn more about the Pächter family in Tiegenhof.

LDS records solve the Wohlgemuth conundrum

I found another cache of specifically Jewish records from Stargardt that were filmed by the Mormons and are accessible at FamilySearch.org. With these, I have now been able to reconstruct our Wohlgemuth line from Isaak's father Leopold back to the first Wohlgemuths to take the name in Stargardt. (Yay! That was one of my goals in making the trip.)

Leopold was born on March 5, 1833, the son of Abraham Wohgemuth and Rebecca (nee Altmann). He was formally give the name Lewin but the more Western name Leopold is also recorded on his birth record. Leopold's father Abraham Wohlgemuth was born in 1805, the third child of Herz Moses Wohlgemuth and Rosa. At the time of Abraham's birth, surnames were not yet in use, but a few years later in 1812 Herz Moses, his brother Salomon Moses, and their father Moses Salomon all adopted the Wohlgemuth surname. 

From a directory published in 1812 that correlates the surname with the old patronyms, we find birth dates for Hertz (March 16, 1769) and old man Moses (May 21, 1729). Herz's mother Yette was born March 13, 1739 and Moses married Yette on May 18, 1760. All of the men in the family are identified by profession as "handelsmann," or dealer. 

So that is our family history in Starogard Gdanski. I will capture images and properly document these new finds later, but I wanted to share the news immediately. 

Post-travels blog reboot

Despite my best efforts, I was unable to resume daily posts during the three days remaining in my trip after the conference. It's a week later now, and I am home working through all my material including the missing days in Starogard and Gdansk. I am not going to try to recreate the immediacy of the daily reports but will highlight the most important developments, including both my on-site experience with further research accomplished since. I am also working on a series of video-blogs from several locations on the trip, including reports from the Starogard Jewish cemetery and the lower city area of Gdansk. When I get those posted, you'll have an excellent idea of my daily experiences during the final leg of my trip. I'll start by posting several emails sent to family members during the last several days. 

Scars on the landscape—what is to be done?

A couple of days ago I wrote that echoes of the Holocaust pervade the present, and then I regretted posting that. I didn’t mean to imply that it Is front of consciousness for most everyday Poles, because I don’t think that is true. Then I attended a session on Thursday, the last full day of the conference, that put my half-formed idea into eloquent, even poetic expression.

Jakub Nowakowsky, director of the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow, is not Jewish, but he has made it his life’s work to study the forgotten sites of Jewish life in the region of the former Galicia, which constitutes the southern tier of Poland and the western portion of Ukraine. His talk was based on the core exhibition of the museum, which recalls the diversity Jewish life that once flourished in hundreds of Galician villages and cities and which was snuffed out in the Holocaust. 

His theme was the absence of memory and the physical spaces that represent what is painfully missing from the modern Polish world. Synagogues repurposed as shopping malls. Cemeteries desecrated and unrestored. Mezuzahs stripped from doorways leaving traces in the peeling paint. Unmemorialized killing fields where people now walk their dogs. These, he said, are scars on the Polish landscape and in its collective psyche. 

“Sometimes it is nothing that tells you something,” he said. “Here there was a polyphony of Jewish life—a diversity of flavors, tastes and noises. It was not one common experience, until the end when rich Jews and poor, observant and not, educated and unschooled all met the same fate.

“These are the traces of the past shouting the silence of the Jewish presence. Some are places on the map for visitors but most are just embedded. Unlike in other countries where they erect a Holocaust memorial, all of Poland is a memorial.”

But history does not end in 1945 at Auschwitz, he continued. Today, there is a revival of Jewish life in Krakow, Warsaw and other big cities, but it is a shadow of the vibrancy that was. Krakow in particular has become a tourist destination for Jewish heritage, a type of commercialized Disneyland. 

The major issue confronting Jews and Poles alike is what is to be done with these forgotten sites of history. In most cases they are in places where tourists will never visit. They should not be built over, but should they be restored or preserved as ruins? How should they be memorialized? How can surviving Jews who want to restore a cemetery, for example, do so with participation from the local population, and not just “parachute” in and out?  

Nowakowski says that Poland does not have a national policy, and that every locality makes its own hard decisions. He believes this is as it should be, because it puts the responsibility for memorialization on the local people and their children to recognize what happened and to account for it. The good news, he concluded, is that in many places Poles are beginning to recognize that the history of the Jews is their history, too. Instead of turning their heads, they now have the opportunity to embrace the commonality of the Jewish and Polish experience before, during and after the Holocaust. 

For me, this moving session wrapped up many of the ideas and issues raised during the course of my week at the IAJGS conference. I decided to skip the extra-cost closing session in favor of some final interactions with other attendees, including an American-born Berliner and an Israeli couple—both with amazing genealogical stories. My week at the IAJGS in Warsaw had come to an end. Next August, the conference returns to the U.S. when it convenes in Cleveland, Ohio.

IAJGS: Borders and culture in Jewish genealogy

One of the challenges in researching family history in Poland and Eastern Europe is understanding the constantly changing political boundaries in the region throughout the centuries. The same locality where your family lived was likely governed at different times under different monarchies and empires. This affected customs, language, laws—just about everything that defined your ancestors’ lives and circumstances. 

In my family, three branches that originated only a few hundred miles from each other (all within the boundaries of present-day Poland) were subjects of three different empires—Russian, Austrian, and Prussian-German. The political and cultural differences in three localities entirely determined their differing attitudes and life decisions—differences that continue to have an impact right down to the current generations. 

Several IAJGS conference sessions this week have focused on the constantly shifting map of Eastern Europe, helping researchers place their families in historical context. Two sessions by Hal Bookbinder focused on the entire history of the region from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. Another by Marysia Galbraith zoomed in on the critical years from 1772 to 1795 when the Polish lands were partitioned in three separate land grabs by the surrounding empires, until the sovereignty of Poland ceased to exist until it was reconstituted by the Treaty of Versailles after World War I. 

My Prussian ancestors, whose towns I will be visiting in a few days, grew up as assimilated German citizens with less religious identification and greater economic opportunity. My Austrian relatives also ended up in Germany but with much closer connections to their shtetl past, which was reflected in their stronger religious practice and support of Zionism. My Russian relatives emigrated from the region two generations earlier and brought with them all the trappings of Jewish tradition reflected in mainstream American Jewish culture. 

When my parents were married in 1947, my high-brow Prussian born maternal grandmother had to swallow her pride to be joined into my father’s family of so-called Östjuden, eastern Jews. Such combinations happened commonly in America but were exceptions in Europe.

The two sides of my Russian family came to New York in separate waves of immigration in the 1870s and 1890s. The family story is that my father’s maternal grandfather Abe Ratner left Russia in the 1891 hidden under a bed of hay in order to escape conscription. I have not seriously investigated this possibly suspect legend so far in my research, but several sessions have given me some avenues to work on. 

One particularly useful session by Professor Ruth Leiserowitz looked at gazette notices from the city of Kowno in 1843 to discover the many ingenious methods used by families to enable their sons to evade conscription. 

 

Images

1. Hal Bookbinder presents on the history of Eastern European borders

2. The Russian Pale after 1792

3. Attendees scan the message board in the conference lobby area

IAJGS: Echoes of the Holocaust

We’re going to have to talk about it. The Holocaust. It happened here 75 years ago and it still pervades the place. Nobody seriously contests the facts: 3.5 million Polish Jews perished, including the 450,000 who were killed when the walled Warsaw ghetto, smack dab in the city center, was liquidated in 1943. It happened because of the evil policies of the Nazi party in Germany, but many Polish citizens participated and most others looked the other way. A few took action at great risk to themselves and their families to rescue Jews. 

Equally true, the Polish people also suffered terrible losses, both by the Germans during the war and under the brutal repressions of the Communist regime that ruled the country for the 40 years following. Many Poles of Jewish extraction supported communism. and some of these played leading roles implementing Stalinist policies. 

What is a matter of never-ending debate and recrimination is the reckoning of responsibility. Counter narratives from every sector of society —by Jews and Poles, by disparate layers of officialdom, by opposing factions within the Catholic Church, and by intellectuals and the man in the street—reverberate to this day. Six months ago, the current nationalist government under Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki promulgated a controversial new law criminalizing words or actions ascribing any degree of collective responsibility to the Polish people. A worldwide outcry ensued, including a move, later rejected, to relocate this conference out of the country. Just a few weeks ago, a new agreement between the governments of Poland and Israel resulted in modest changes to the law that has defused the controversy, at least for now. 

Professor Anatoly Polonsky, the conference scholar in residence, gave his penetrating analysis of the history of the responsibility debate in Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine during his major address to the conference on Tuesday evening. He expressed discouragement that after earlier periods of liberalization and self-examination, the current moment sees populist and nationalist tendencies on the rise, especially and surprisingly among the young generation of Poles. However, Polonsky finds hope in the work of scholars and reformers that the long arc of history will bend toward toleration and pluralism. 

“As difficult as it is, the past is easier to deal with than the future,” he remarked. “I believe in the reverse of Gresham’s Law: Good history will drive out the bad.”

As an outside distant observer, I have little to contribute to the debate. However, I can do my part to commemorate the original sin. There are many wonderful resources for Holocaust research in Warsaw especially the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute named for the author and social worker who chronicled the unfolding tragedy in Warsaw between 1941 and 1944. Documentation and material objects that he and others in the Oneg Shabbos group collected were buried before the final destruction of the ghetto and were partially recovered in the aftermath of the war. These form the basis of the JHI’s collection, that also includes vast resources of records and documentation about the history of Polish Jews before, during and after the Holocaust.

There are also those organizations from around the world who memorialize Holocaust victims that are represented here. The Israeli memorial authority, Yad Vashem, which maintains the definitive list of Holocaust victims, is at the conference to solicit new testimonies from the high percentage of conference attendees whose families were impacted. 

The stories of several of my relatives are already well documented in the Names Database, but just last week I learned of a previously unknown relation, Amalie Katz, the cousin of my great grandmother, who was deported from Berlin in 1942 and perished at Treblinka, the death camp located 60 miles northeast of Warsaw. Amalie is listed in the database, but only because her name was given on a Nazi deportation list. Based on my research, I can add significant new details about her and her family history that will help to bring life and memory to this otherwise forgotten individual. Before I leave this week, I will assemble my information about Amalie (so far I have no photograph) and make an official submission to Yad Vashem.

IAJGS: A take of three SIGs

One of the best things about these Jewish genealogy conferences are the special interest group (SIG) meetings. They are based on geographies, and families being what they are, most attendees are interested in multiple SIGs. I am looking forward to the Belarus, French and German SIG meetings later in the week, but already I’ve attended the Latvia, Danzig and Galicia meetings. 

Of these, Gesher Galicia is the biggest and most influential, but its meeting was the least interesting—just an overview of the group and resources that are available. Galicia was a region of the former Austria-Hungary that is now part in Poland and part Ukraine. Gesher is from the Yiddish meaning ‘bridge.’ 

The Latvia group drew about 25 people and had a lot of energy, having recently been revived under a new leadership team. One of the highlights was a presentation by a representative of FamilySearch.com, who shed light on the complex web of relationships between companies, organizations and countries involved in records scanning and indexing. Because of these collaborations, a lot of new records are likely available for my family from Rezekne since I last worked on that branch.

The Danzig/Gdansk SIG meeting was even better. Here there were just four of us along with the SIG leader Logan Kleinwaks, who is a minor celebrity in the Jewish gen world. He heads numerous projects across a wide range of subjects, and has run the Danzig group for some time. Logan was a font of fast-talking, quick-witted information for 45 minutes. Then he had to rush off to give another presentation. After today he isn’t attending the conference, but is holed up at an archive across town. Last week in Berlin, he negotiated a deal for a new batch of Danzig records.  

Gdansk rates having a SIG of its own due its unique history of changing national affiliations, including the interwar years as an independent city-state, and as the birthplace of the Solidarity movement that brought about the end of Communist rule in Poland. I am going to Gdansk after the conference to learn more about my family history there in the early 20th century, when it was called Danzig and was a part of the recently unified German Empire.

Logan’s many research suggestions give me several new leads for my on-the-ground research beyond the family business and residential addresses that I already have. 

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IAJGS: We are all from Chelm

The 38th annual meeting of the International Society of Jewish Genealogy Societies kicked off last night (Sunday) in Warsaw, Poland, with a moving session featuring greetings by dignitaries including the chief rabbi of Poland, the chairman of the POLIN Museum of Polish Jewish History (a Holocaust survivor), the director of JRI-Poland (which for 30 years has led the extensive indexing of Jewish vital records in the Polish lands) and the managing director of the Polish state archives. 

Conference scholar-in-residence Antony Polonsky presented his views on the importance of collaboration between professional historians, who study the great historical processes, and family history researchers, who document how individuals were affected by those processes. “All history is autobiography—we aim to learn about our place in the world. Professionals like myself have much to learn from dedicated amateur genealogists,” he declared.

The conference marks the first time the meeting has been held in Poland or any of the countries of Eastern Europe that was once the homeland of Ashkenazi Jewry, until that civilization was largely wiped outduring the Holocaust. A pre-conference panel discussion at the POLIN Museum explored the fraught relationship between non-Jewish Poles and local and international Jews, communities still struggling to make sense of the terrible events that took place here in the 1940s. It also comes in the wake of a  controversial new Polish law that makes illegal any assertion of Polish anti-semitism or complicity in Holocaust actions. The consensus of the panelists is that members of both groups need to make conscious efforts to break down stereotypes of the other, and to recognize the suffering that all Poles endured in World War II. 

The opening session concluded with a dramatic performance of a fanciful Yiddish tale about the Jewish town of Chelm presented by actor Witold Dabrowski from the Grodzka Gate Theater in Lublin, with accordion accompaniment in the klezmer musical style that originated here during the heyday of Jewish cultural achievement. Presented in Polish with English translation projected on a screen, the performance ended with the message: “Chelm is everywhere. We are all from Chelm.”

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