Ruby Family History Project Blog

Reopening the Spektor file

Back in 2008, I wrote extensively on this blog about the family history of the famous Kovno Rav, Rabbi Yitzhak Elchanan Spektor. In the course of that work, another Spektor researcher named Morris Spector sent me a copy of a fax he had received 12 years earlier, in 1996, from Shmuel Elchanon, a descendant of the rabbi born in Kovno in 1930 and still living today in Rehovot, Israel.

By coincidence, my brother Walter in the course of his journalistic work had also met Shmuel, and thus I had the chance to participate in a conference call with him to learn more about his amazing family history. I won't review it here now (search the site for Shmuel and Spektor to find the old posts), except to remind you that his family descends from Spektor's fourth son Benjamin Rabinowitz (all the Spektor children took the Rabinowitz surname). 

The fax I received from Morris was four pages in Hebrew print with this cover note of handwritten Hebrew. I planned to have the pages translated at that time but I never got around to it. The untranslated fax languished for years in an unopened file of papers. 

Last week, another Jewish genealogist I had encountered several times before, Shirley Portnoy, contacted me about some of the Spektor information I had posted on Geni, the genealogy website, in 2008. Shirley is active on Geni and she wanted to clean up some of the inconsistent information about the Spektor family that had been posted through the years. It seems that back then I had been as guilty as others of posting speculative information (I'm more careful now). After reviewing the history, I agreed with her that two of the profiles I "managed" at Geni should be removed.

Then Shirley asked me about the fax from Shmuel that I had blogged about. I was able to find the pages in my files and scanned them to make a digital file. Since the source was a photocopy of an original fax, the image quality was not good. I sent the scans to Shirley with a question, "How's your Hebrew?"

The answer to that turned out to be "tov meod" (very good). Within a few hours she translated the cover page and provided a summary of the contents. Overnight, her full translation of the crucial Page 4 of the fax arrived in my mailbox. She cautions that some words are fuzzy and others cut off on the right margin, so the translation is her best approximation. I'd say it is fantasic.

The image and translation follow in the next post. Todah rabah, Shirley.

Family Story:

Another look at the Catrow conspiracy

It has been some years since I originally reported on this blog that my grandfather Walter Ruby may have been involved in an illegal liquor conspiracy during the early years of Prohibition. He was one of six individuals indicted in April 1922 in what came to be known as the Catrow conspiracy. The criminal case was later dismissed. You can see our previous coverage here, here and here.

Now that I have been recently focused on my grandfather's life in the years just prior to the dates in the indictment, I wanted to go back and see how his involvement in this matter aligns with our other known facts in his personal life and professional resume. 

Unraveling all of that will require several posts. For starters, let's see if we can find a plausible connection between our Walter Ruby and any of the other named individuals and entities in the indictment. This morning I made a quick scan for historical information about the five individuals and two business named in the indictment.

I'll come back to follow up on some of these leads. For now, here in a brief recap:

Herbert G. Catrow - Prominent businessman who as assistant Prohibition director in New York authorized liquor withdrawals.

Hill & Hill Distilling Co. - Kentucky distillery owned by bootlegger George Remus from whose New York City warehouses the withdrawals were made. 

Samuel P. Steckler - New York Jewish druggist who distributed medicinal alchohol 

Progressive Drug Co. - Steckler's wholesale pharmacy

David F. McGowan - Ad agency owner with ties to the New York police commissioner

Frank Fallon - Described as prominent in fraternal order circles

Benjamin Silver - No known trace of him or Benjamin Gluckow also mentioned in the article 

Family Story:

Remembering Sallie West

On this day of a memorial celebration in Santa Cruz, Calif., of the life of Sallie Johnstone Samuelson West, here is a tribute to her musical inspiration and her matriarchal lineage, which I recently researched for a genealogy project. The photo is from a community theater rehearsal in Santa Cruz in 1964.

I did not personally know Sallie or her foremothers, but I admire the lives they lived. Here's to the future generations!

Why did the Wohlgemuths leave Danzig?

In all our writings so far, it has been said that the Wohlgemuth family relocated to Berlin from Danzig during or more likely after the First World War in order to find better prospects for their marriageable daughters Elly and Hilde. That's a nice story and no doubt partly true, but there were very likely other factors motivating the family's move. 

[By the way, I am spelling Hilde with an 'e' instead of the 'a' she used later because that is how I find her listed in some original records.]

Danzig was a cosmopolitan German city in Isaak Wohlgemuth's day. The city's considerable Jewish community tended toward assimilation with the German state. The leading synagogues and community leaders were liberal. Zionism took hold slowly and was rejected by most Danzig Jews in the early years. Also, eastern Jews from Russia were discouraged both by German law and the attitudes of German Jews from settling in Danzig. 

Families like the Wohlgemuths were prospering in business. They retained their Jewish identity but sought to fit in with the dominant Christian society. Danzig Jews volunteered patriotically for the Great War. [There are a number of Wohlgemuths on German WWI casualty lists, but I have not yet connected them to our family.]

The photo is not of the Wohlgemuths but of prominent Danzig businessman Franz Boss and his family, out for a Sunday stroll in pre-WWI Danzig. 

In 1920, under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, Danzig became a semi-autonomous city-state called the Free City of Danzig, created as a buffer between the reduced German republic and a new Polish nation. The city became a free trading zone and a point of embarkation for transit to the west. Tens of thousands of Polish and Russian Jews passed through the city on the way to England and America, and Danzig's own Jewish community swelled with the addition of eastern, orthodox, Zionist Jews who could now freely settle in the city. 

It must have come as a unwelcome change for long-time Jewish residents of Danzig. Our grandmother Elly grew up as a Jewish Danziger, perhaps until age 19 or 20. Possibly we can see here the formation of some of the attitudes she later projected: her disdain for östjuden and her disinterest in Zionism. 

Perhaps we also see here the real reason that Isaak Wohleguth pulled up stakes from the rapidly changing Danzig to a place, Berlin, where a more civilized and cosmopolitan Jewish lifestyle was practiced. If so, that explains why the Wohlgemuths chose to permanently leave their native city at the very time Danzig's Jewish population was dramatically on the rise.

Family Story:

Gerhard Salinger study of Jewish Stargard

A German-American Jewish historian, Gerhard Salinger, who is the author of detailed studies of the Jewish communities of Pomerania and West Prussia, has collected the available Jewish records for  the town where our Wohlgemuth family originated.

We learn this from a December 2010 review of Salinger's West Prussia book by Dorothea Shefer-Vanson in the Journal of the Assoiation of Jewish Refugees, in which she describes Salinger's methods using his work in Stargard as an example. Here is the relevant passage from the review.

So how has he set about his seemingly overwhelming task? Take the town of Preussisch Stargard (now Starogard Gdanskie) as an example (see Part I). What can the reader expect to find here? Apart from a brief potted history, Salinger notes that two Jews, Mendel Salomon and Alex Baruch, were permitted to settle there in 1774 because they possessed more than 1,000 Taler. By 1812 there were 112 Jewish households, and individual names - both original and adopted later - are listed. 

The population had grown to 597 by 1840, to 688 by 1849, and to its highest number (802, 13.7 per cent of the population) by 1870. There was a synagogue, a rabbi and a school. 

Salinger goes on to list all those Jews who paid taxes in 1883, stating their names, occupations and places of residence. There is also a list of tax-payers in 1911. The names of two men who lost their lives in action during the First World War are given, as are extracts from the Secret State Archives in Berlin concerning the election of Jewish officials and other matters. 

There is a list of deaths, giving names and age, going back to 1848, and a long list of deaths from 1857 until the community ceased to exist. It is striking that many died at a relatively young age. There is no information on where and how they died, but it is nonetheless an extraordinarily detailed survey.

On his visit to the town, Salinger discovered that the synagogue is now used as a shopping centre and that the greatly neglected cemetery has a number of gravestones, many severely damaged but five still standing upright, with the names of Mendelsohn and Wohlgemuth recognisable. Photographs of the former synagogue and the cemetery are provided.

How wonderful that he has called out the recognizable Wohlgemuth headstone that we have already discovered among the resources at Virtual Shtetl. More importantly are the multiple lists of residents, taxpayers, deaths, and war casualties for various years between 1812 and 1918. Undoubtedly we wiill be able to find more about our Wohlgemuth ancestors in Stargard by examining the actual book.

It is written in German in three volumes and evidently there are very few copies in existence. I will be trying to track it down. 

Family Story:

Wohlgemuth map, 1812-1942

I annotated this map of the northeastern section of the German Empire under Kaiser Wilhelm II between the years 1871 and 1918 with what we have learned about the Wohlgemuth family movements during that time period.

The map shows the provincial  borders between East and West Prussia and neighboring Pomerania. I was wrong earlier when I said that Elbing was in East Prussia; it was within the boundaries of West Prussia. Also, Kolberg was in Pomerania, not West Prussia. 

Isaak Wohlgemuth on 1893 Elbing list

Virtual Shtetl has lists of Jewish Households and Individuals in Elbing for a few random years in the 1890s and 1900s. Following is the list for 1893, where we find Isaac Wohlgemuth listed as "Kaufmann" (merchant) along with two other Wohlemuths, Witwe and Heinrich. (I'm not sure, but you may need to be logged in to the site to access the page.),people-lists-of-names-genealogy/34432,j-dische-haushalte-und-einzelpersonen-im-jahr-1893/

There are also lists for 1900-1 and 1905-6. On the 1900 list the same three Wohlgemuths are listed using first initials only (Isaac is identified as "J. Wohlgemuth".) However, in 1905 there are no Wohlgemuths listed.

This is great because it definitively places our ancestor as a merchant in Elbing between the years 1893 and 1901. We also know that Elly was born in Elbing in 1901. It also shows that Isaak no longer resided in Elbing by 1905, which is consistent with the fact that Hilda was born somewhere else (Danzig) in 1906. Whether they remained settled in Danzig or perhaps relocated again (to Konigsberg) is to be determined.

The two new Wohlgemuth names, Witwe and Heinrich, are new to us. The name we might have expected to see—Leopold, Isaac's father—is not listed. Is he perhaps deceased by 1893 or else still in Stargard? If so, are Witwe and Heinrich brothers of Isaac? They could also be cousins or similar relation. ( Elbing is only about 30 miles from Stargard although it was across the river in East Prussia.) It is interesting that Witwe and Heinrich are also absent from the 1905 Elbing list, suggesting that they all may have moved together.

Welcome home, Jo. This is the second time your traveling investigations have resulted in fantastic discoveries.

More on the 1812 citizenship law

Here is a better view of the relevant records of three of our Wohlgemuth ancestors in Stargardt. This records the very moment they took on the Wohlgemuth surname as a condition for acquiring legal citizenship in West Prussia. 

At the time of this action, they were among a small number of Jews from rural areas who established homes and businesses in the town. Without citizenship, they were subject to various punitive measures up to expulsion.

Previously, Jewish men were identified by the combination of given names, their own and their father's. So in the first record we see Moses, the son of Salomon, who now adopts Moses Wohlgemuth as his legal name. 

The next two records have original names identifying them as the sons of Moses, so we see the family tree developing. We know that our great-grandfather Isaak Wohlgemuth was born in this town 53 years after these Wohlgemuth men became citizens. We presume that Isaak's father Leopold was born here but don't have the year or other details of his birth. 

I am working to establish the connection from Isaak and Leopold backwards to either the Herz or Salomon Wohlgemuth listed. There will be another one or two generations in between. If we establish that our Wohlgemuth family descended from either Herz or Salomon Wohlgemuth, that will further embellish our German citizenship credentials. 

About the Wohlgemuth name, it translates something like "good natured" and it was probably selected by Moses and his sons from a list of approved surnames. 

Surname Givennames
(Prussian name)
(Polish Name)
Page #
WOHLGEMUTH Moses Salomon 
Preuss. Stargardt 
Stargard Gdanski 

75 (WP) 
Preuss. Stargardt 
Stargard Gdanski 
75 (WP) 
WOHLGEMUTH Salomon Moses 
Preuss. Stargardt 
Stargard Gdanski 
75 (WP) 

Family Story:

Wohlgemuth gravestone in Stargard

At Virtual Shtetl, there are photos of the destroyed Jewish cemetery of Starogard Gdansk. Just a few headstones are intact, but see here the one for a Wohlgemuth woman buried in 1890. She could be an aunt by marriage of Isaac's father Leopold. 

The Nazis killed very few Jews in Starogard for the simple reason that almost everybody had left the town before 1939. The Jewish population of Starogard peaked at around 600 in 1875, when Isaak was a boy, and then began to decline for economic reasons. We know that Isaak left there for Elbing at a time that many young people were leaving shtetl life for larger cities. 

There was an atrocity in the fields outside of Starogard, but they were Poles that were gunned down, not Jews. The Nazis occupied the synagogue building after 1939. The building is still standing (see the photo), having been used by merchants for many years, but was recently returned to the Jewish Community of Gdansk.

Also here is four-minute video shot at the Starogard cemetery. The narration is in Polish but images and music are quite moving. I believe I see another Wohlgemuth headstone in the video.

Earlier blog posts identified Stargard as possible Wohlgemuth town

Review what was written here about the Wohlgemuths in April 2012.

The second post concerns a West Prussian citizenship law of 1812 that affected the lives of area Jews in important ways. The law made some Jews eligible for Prussian citizenship, giving them legal status and protection from persecution. Among the requirements to qualify, Jewish families were required to take on Western-style surnames instead of the patrilineal naming style that Jews had practiced for centuries. Before the coming of surnames, Jewish men were known by the combination their own name and their father's name. 

In 2012, I had discovered 10 instances of Wohlgemuths on the 1812 citizenship list. I found they were clustered in towns to the southwest of Danzig and even made a map to show the distribution of towns. Two of the Wohlgemuths on the list, Moses Solomon Wohlgemuth and Herz Moses Wohlgemuth, were from the town of Stargard Gdanski, a sizable town 40 miles south and west of Danzig. 

Since we have now learned from his marriage certificate that our ancestor Isaak Wohlgemuth was born in Preuss Stargard (in 1865), it seems logical to assume that Isaak and his father Leopold must descend from one of the Wohlgemuths from Stargard on the 1812 list.