On the train from Washington D.C. to Boston this past summer, I sat next to an immigration lawyer by chance. Thanks to reading immigration case files all the time, I was proud that I could at least identify a few documents and steps in the immigration process he mentioned. I remember remarking how difficult it must be to understand the immigration process and navigate it successfully. Thinking about the encounter in hindsight, and after interning at the Wyner Family Jewish Heritage Center for a year, I realized that the immigration process being difficult, tedious, and full of unexpected challenges isn’t exactly new.
During the Second World War, the U.S. State Department was notorious for its role in impeding the immigration of refugees, particularly Jews. Reflecting fears about German spies, the Department issued a so-called “relatives rule,” which instructed U.S. consuls abroad to deny visas to any applicant with close relatives in Nazi-occupied territory. Continue reading An immigration obstacle course→
When Isaac Gordon and his two younger brothers – Aron and one whose name is unknown – left their village in Poland and fled from the Nazis into the woods, it must have felt like stepping into another world. Polish resistance to the Nazis was fierce during World War II, and the dense Polish forests would be the training grounds, staging areas, and headquarters for all types of partisan groups and underground fighters. Isaac, a cattle-dealer in his early thirties from Vilna (Vilnius), could hardly have felt prepared for the type of life that he and his brothers would be embarking upon when they joined the resistance movement. Continue reading Notes from the underground→
My great-great-uncle Raymond is a hot mess. At least that’s what kids these days might say about him if they, like me, were trying to unravel the workings of his life. I first “met” Raymond Young – or, rather, I first became better acquainted with him – while researching the family lines of my great-grandmother, his sister Opal (Young) (Porter) Everett, and her family’s Mayflower ties. However, getting to know Raymond hasn’t been easy. He’s proven himself to be an artful character to say the least. Continue reading A hot mess→
As we mark Veterans Day, I think of my ancestors who fought for our country. During my family search, I found that most of my ancestors didn’t arrive to the United States until 1870; we don’t have any early American soldiers in our family tree who fought in the American Revolution or World War I. I do have two great-uncles, on my paternal side, who were in the military during World War II. These two men are the individuals I want to honor this Veterans Day.
My grandfather, Leo Napoleon Dery, had a brother named Gerard Ovila Dery who was born in 1920. Gerard, pictured in uniform, enlisted on 2 February 1942 at the age of 22 and was stationed at Fort Benning in Georgia. Continue reading Two souls→
For family historians whose ancestors may have been associated with the visual arts, the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art is a preeminent repository of primary sources (www.aaa.si.edu). Founded more than sixty years ago, the collection – whose vast holdings include diaries, letters, scrapbooks, financial records, oral histories, and exhibition catalogues – is a must-visit for researchers. And so it was for me, back in 1988, when a research project first took me to the Archives, then with an office on Beacon Hill in Boston. There, I settled in to pore over the microfilmed scrapbooks of the Provincetown artist fraternity called the Beachcombers where my grandfather, John Whorf, had been a long-time member. Continue reading Forever Provincetown→
Last week I had the opportunity to explore something completely different in genealogy. The hunt was to identify when and where a family came from to the U.S. The information was minimal and second-hand, but since this was the paternal ancestry of my grandnephews and grandniece, I had a little background already.
The family name now is Solhan and they have been in Indianapolis for three generations. The family traditions that I had heard over the years were that their origins were in Lebanon and/or Syria. There also was the old “name changed when they arrived” story floating around. I had the names of a number of the family members, in particular that the immigrating grandmother was Matilda. Continue reading A toe in different sand→
Immigration case records from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) often involve siblings, parents, spouses, children, or other relatives, but in some circumstances people reach out to whomever they can, asking for assistance from anyone they know. Anetta Ottolenghi Cavalieri was from the Piedmonte region of Italy, and had deep family roots there; she had no family or even close friends in the United States. But when Fascism began to make inroads in Italy, she reached out for help to pen pal Bessie Buxton of Peabody, Massachusetts, with whom she had discussed horticulture on and off for several years. Continue reading ‘An iron will’→
Josef Izsack’s case in the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) collection only spans one year, but it highlights an interesting tale spanning a longer period than twelve months. Deported after entering Boston as a stowaway in 1946, Izsack came to the United States again the following year, working as an engineer on the Norwegian liner S.S. Fernglen. He was denied the ability to come ashore, though, owing to that previous attempt at entering the United States. An old shrapnel wound became infected and Josef Izsack was forced to spend several months at a marine hospital on Ellis Island. Continue reading Effectively stateless→
[Editor’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 30 August 2016.]
My maternal grandparents were born in 1932: they were just nine years old at the beginning of World War II. They grew up blocks from each other in the Bronx: Nana in The Alley, and Papa on the other side of the tracks (literally; train tracks separated their neighborhoods) on Elton Avenue. When I come to visit, they often talk about their childhood – and I always listen. And while I am a wonderful and attentive listener, I am terrible at recording our conversations. My most recent visit, however, I was determined to conduct a proper interview. Continue reading ICYMI: A Bronx tale→
Persistent family genealogists will eventually encounter a relative who died in a state hospital, city shelter, or mental institution. In many instances, that fact may have been hidden, disguised, or made more palatable for public perception. The death of my grandmother’s only brother, John P. Cassidy (1887–1934), presented me with my first “alternative version” of a vital statistic. After Pott’s Disease crippled him and terminated his career as a pharmacist, John spent the last years of his life in the tuberculosis ward of Fall River’s City Hospital. There he dabbled in trick photography and tinkered with his superhetrodyne radio. Continue reading Institutional stigma→