My Grandparents, Zalman and Chana Reizel Kaye (Komesaroff)

My Grandparents:

Zalman (1886-1958) and Chanah Raizel (1887-1955)
Kaye (Komesaroff)

Born Ukraine, immigrated to Melbourne, Australia 1913.

Written by Chaim (Keith) Freedman in 1960, aged 13.
Edited 2003
Most of the photos were taken between 1950 and 1955.

“Rozalia” 72 Princess street, Kew, Melbourne, Australia

Although I didn’t know my grandparents for very long before they died, my memories of them are still very vivid. The main picture of my grandmother (whom I called Nanna) that seems to remain fixed in my mind, is that of her in the place she loved best: in the kitchen at 72 Princess Street Kew. She always seemed to be cooking the favourite dishes of one or other of her children or grandchildren. My favourite dish was `Piroshkes’, a Russian potato pastry. I can see Nanna standing at the head of the kitchen table, sleeves rolled up , flour in her hair, pounding and twisting a large lump of dough with her muscular arms. I can almost taste the mixture of potatoes and onions from which I used to sneak a nibble, although I didn’t really have to do this secretly as Nanna never really minded. Anyone who came through that famous kitchen, with its inviting smells, was tempted to open the refrigerator or peek into saucepans to see what was cooking.

Keith and Neville in garden in front entrance to house.

Nanna was never lonely in her kitchen as it was always a hive of activity. People continually walked in and out, and although Nanna sometimes grumbled about the interruptions, I don’t think she was ever happier than when someone was there to watch eagerly as she worked.

I remember my grandfather (whom I called Pappa) coming home from work. He would come through the back door, almost hidden behind a pile of parcels. He rarely came home empty handed, but would bring home all sorts of things including cakes, fish, drinks or anything that he had seen during the day which he thought his family might like.

Pappa always appeared very tall to me and I would eagerly await the time when his large figure came through the door. He used to call me `Keithi’ or more often Chaim Kopel, my Hebrew name. I remember how he used to ruffle my curly hair and I would follow him outside to help him unload the car. I think I was more of a hindrance than a help , but Pappa never let me know this. He would load me up with parcels and I would stagger across the back lawn into the back porch and finally deposit my load in the little storeroom at the back of the house.

Keith and Pappa in front of rose bed in back garden.

This room was a source of mystery to me. It contained all sorts of suitcases, boxes and parcels of varying shape and size and always seemed to be dark and dusty. I used to often wonder what treasures these cases contained.

This storeroom also contained pickling and fruit preserving apparatus. Each year, at the appropriate seasons, Nanna and Pappa would each set to work, Pappa to pickle cucumbers and Nanna to preserve fruit which came from the numerous trees in the back yard. I can see Pappa on the back porch, sleeves rolled up. Wearing one of Nanna’s aprons, surrounded by basins containing cucumbers and a number of earthenware crocks. No one ever really knew his recipe for pickling cucumbers and many, including my father, have tried in vain to copy it.

I used to love watching both Nanna and Pappa at work and I would run in and out from the back porch and the kitchen where Nanna was up to her neck in fruit and large bottles. Eventually I think I tried even their great patience and would be sent outside to play.

Nanna making preserves in the kitchen.

The backyard was huge. On the left side was the gravel drive which led up to the big double wooden garage. This garage was full of `junk’: boxes, tools and goodness knows what else were piled around the walls and rested on top of a sort of loft formed by the rafters in the roof.

Neville and Keith playing cricket in from of garage.

At the side of the garage was a narrow woodshed. This was a source of terror for me, and I rarely entered is as it seemed to be teeming with thousands of insects. It was always full of various types of wood from thick logs to broken up fruit boxes. I can remember standing and watching, awe-inspired, as the gardener Mr. Wheatley swung the huge axe to split heavy logs. I remember how occasionally, when he wasn’t looking, I would pick up the axe and try my hand at chopping wood. However, after nearly losing my legs a few times, I gave this practice up.

Back garden – Tessie, John, Keith, Nanna and Pappa

The wood was used to feed the `Wonderheat’ fire in the breakfast room. I used to enjoy sitting on the floor watching, enraptured as the flames danced before me and I used to see all sorts of pictures, and imagine myself involved in many adventures, in the bright yellow flames of that fire.

Departure for Queensland – Nanna, Tessie, Keith, Pappa, Neville.

I can remember my grandparents’ house far more clearly than our own for we seemed to spend most of out time there. It was an enormous house, over thirty five squares[1] in area.

Plan of Rozalia drawn by Neville Freedman

The house was almost hidden from Princess Street by a thick hedge. On the left was the long gravel drive which led to the garage at the back. The garden was full of bushes, trees and colourful flowers. A short path led to the wide veranda which stretched right across the front of the house and a third of the way up each side. To the right the veranda led to a part of the house which had been divided off and let to an old lady, Mrs. Oakey.

Keith, Nanna, John, Pappa, Tessie – around the swing in the back garden

To the left the veranda ran alongside the drive to a French window which lifted upwards to open into the drawing room. In about the middle of the front of the house was the large, wooden paneled front door, surrounded on each side by a fine opaque glass panel. This door opened onto a short passage from which Nanna’s and Pappa’s bedroom led off. This was a large room containing a big double bed; a wardrobe facing it; a low ottoman under the bay window; and a dressing table with a marble top on the wall opposite the window.

Diana (Dina Burgess), Nanna and Pappa

On the opposite side of the passage was the spare room[2]. There against the passage wall was the cot which I spent countless nights in. I remember lying in that cot staring up at the high ceiling, from the middle of which hung a light supported by a white chain. Around the start of the chain was a circular pattern in relief on the roof, as there was in each room around the light sockets. I used to spend long periods after waking in the morning staring up at this ornamentation on the ceiling which never failed to hold my interest.

The end of the passage was marked by two curtains which were gathered at the wall. Here the passage widened out and became the lounge. This was a long gallery with various chairs and couches lining the walls. At the far end was the radiogram. This was a very old fashioned type which just looked like any cupboard from the outside. The gramophone was towards the top and under it were about a half a dozen drawers containing countless records ranging from Enrico Caruso and cantor Joseph Rosenblatt to `The House That Jack Built’ and other children’s records.

Lounge without gramophone – note rocking horse

On entering the lounge from the passage there was an opening on the right wall. Here, in an alcove, was a linen cupboard and other storage cupboards. I remember standing there while Nanna got out the fresh bed linen and towels and helping her carry them to the bedrooms.

Leading off this alcove were two doors: one which connected with the tenant’s flat and was always bolted; and the other which opened into the bathroom. The bathroom contained a bath; separate shower recess which has Nanna’s initials `A.R.’ in the terrazzo[3]; and basin. The toilet led off from the bathroom and was enclosed on two sides by walls which were frosted glass from halfway up.

Opposite the alcove, on the other side of the lounge, a door opened into the drawing room. This was the most beautiful room imaginable. The walls were painted blue; around the room were numerous richly upholstered chairs and on one wall an immense black floral couch. It was so big that when I sat on it I almost disappeared as I sank into the soft upholstery.

Drawing room (before mirror installed)

In the middle of the wall against the drive was a bay window which had a high semicircular couch around it. On the wall opposite this was the crystal cabinet which contained all sorts of fascinating articles. Under this was a green inkpot in the shape of a beetle and a bronze alligator nutcracker, both of which I used to enjoy lying on the carpet and playing with.

Against the front wall of the drawing room was an upright piano. Although I had no idea how to play it properly, I loved to spend hours sitting at it, banging away pretending I was a famous concert pianist, and composing all sorts of marvelous musical pieces; at least I thought they were marvelous. I can remember one particular day, not long before Nanna died, I was sitting at that piano playing, when my mother came in and told me to stop as I was disturbing Nanna who was sick in bed. I hadn’t been stopped for more than a few minutes when Nanna called out. She wanted to know why I had stopped. Before Mummy could finish explaining the reason to her, Nanna insisted that I resume playing. She said: “It doesn’t disturb me; as long as he is happy.”

At the other end of the room, on the wall opposite the piano, was a marble fireplace and a mirror over the mantelpiece. The mirror had two blue side panels to match the blue walls[4]. In the center of the room was a high round table. In the center of this was an article which aroused my curiosity. It was a spherical green glass ball. I often wondered how the myriads of tiny bubbles happened to get into the middle of it[5].

At the far end of the drawing room a door led into a small hall which connected with the lounge, dining room, and breakfast room. There was also a door which led to the pantry; another of my favourite nooks. In this room shelves lined the three walls right up to the high ceiling and were always filled to the point of overflowing with all sorts of food. I used to love coming into the pantry with Nanna to fetch some particular food; sometimes climbing up on a chair or ladder to bring something down from a high shelf which Nanna could not reach.

Grandkids: Moura with Melanie (?), Pappa with Wendy (?), Nanna, Neville, Tessie with Keith. On Pappa’s right – Jennifer.

The door next to the pantry led into the dining room, a very long room with a big extending table down the centre and a large black leather couch at one end. There was also a sideboard, and several desks and armchairs. I can remember often sitting at the table while Pappa and Daddy were engaged in business bookwork. I used to collect the many different rubber stamps and would imagine myself a big business executive as I stamped away on the business letter-heads. Around the dining room walls and on various cupboards were many photographs of relatives who I never knew: my great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, old photos taken many years ago in Russia.

The happiest time of the year was always Yomtov, when all the family gathered at Princess Street. We would get up early in the morning and go to Shule (the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation in Toorak Road). There Pappa sat in the middle of the male members of his family: my uncles Myer and Bill on his right and myself, Daddy and Neville on his left, Neville and I often exchanging seats to sit next to Pappa[6]. But on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when the Shule was crowded, I had to sit on Pappa’s and Daddy’s knee, being swapped from one to the other. When we stood up at different times during the service, I would stand up on the seat behind Daddy and Pappa, holding on to their shoulders and often looking up to the balcony on the right to where Nanna and Mummy sat. I was never bored in Shule, even though I could not follow the service properly. But I tried to, often asking Neville, Daddy or Pappa to show me the place. Sometimes Pappa brought one of his old books that he had brought from Russia (one had belonged to his grandfather). This was a big book which had a Yiddish commentary, and at times during the service he would turn around to discuss various explanations of prayers with two old men[7] who sat behind us, and they would hold lengthy discussions, reminiscing about the old days in Europe.

Even during the sermon I was rarely bored, especially when Rabbi Goldman gave the sermon, because he never failed to include quaint stories and parables.

Keith, Nanna and Pappa – front of house in the drive

After the service we would all go back to Princess Street where Nanna prepared lunch for us. I can remember many of these occasions, sitting at the table in the breakfast room. Pappa would make Kiddush and then Nanna would bring on the meal, after which Pappa `benched’[8], all of us joining in at the parts that were sung. Pappa’s favourite part was the last sentence נער הייתי .. “once I was young, now I am old” and he seemed to have a faraway nostalgic look in his eye as he sang this. After a while I was able to sing עשה שלום..” off by heart and gave an impromptu concert at lunch one day.

Neville’s Barmitzvah

Of all the Yom Tovim my favourite was Pesach. In fact Pesach was the highlight of the year for me. Preparations commenced a week before Pesach when Mummy spring cleaned Tanner Avenue[9] and made all her preparations and then went to help Nanna at Princess street. The cleaning of Princess street was an enormous task, but Nanna was not satisfied till every corner had been cleaned. Then came Erev Pesach. I would wake up early in the morning eager to get to work to help Nanna and Mummy in the task of bringing the Pesach dishes out from the cupboards where they had been stored since the previous Pesach and then putting the Khometzdiker dishes back into those cupboards. When all this had taken place the entire house had an atmosphere of cleanliness about, and all was ready for Nanna and Mummy to commence cooking for the Seders which were to take place that night and the following night.

I spent the day running from room to room watching the various activities and helping whenever I could. In the afternoon the preparations reached fever pitch: Nanna and Mummy rushed around anxious to have everything ready in time. Soon Daddy and Pappa would arrive home from work and Neville from school. The time had come for the preparation of the ritual items necessary for the Seder. The horseradish had to be grated; this was usually done by Daddy or Neville. The egg, the salt water, the onion, the chicken’s neck and other items for the Seder plate had to be prepared. But most important of all was the making of the Kharoset. This task belonged solely to Pappa. He alone knew the recipe which imparted the flavour which never varied from year to year[10]. He would sit down at the table with all the ingredients: apples, almonds, walnuts, cinnamon, wine, and would spend hours chopping all them up into as fine pieces as he possibly could. Finally when he had finished and the Kharoset appeared to be the right colour and texture, one of us would be given the honour of sampling it.

By late afternoon all the preparations were nearing completion and Mummy, Daddy, Neville and I would return home to wash and dress ready for the Seder. Then we would return to Princess Street and pick up Pappa to go to Shule. Mummy remained to help Nanna add the finishing touches.

When the male members of the family returned home there was an air of serenity and holiness about the house. The hustle and bustle that had existed all day had subsided. Nanna had miraculously found time to prepare herself and was dressed ready for the Seder. In the dining room the table was set up, the old brass candlesticks which were over 100 years old and had been in the family for five generations before Nanna, were lit in the middle of the table. In everyone’s place was a Haggadah. The table had extra leaves added to it to make room for all the family. Soon my uncles, aunts and cousins arrived and all was ready for the commencement of the Seder. The climax of the day had arrived. Everyone seated themselves at the table, Nanna and Pappa at one end on the big sofa which had been draped in sheets and numerous cushions. Pappa was wearing a big white Yarmulka[11] and slippers. Then when everyone’s cup was filled with wine, Pappa commenced the Kiddush.

Pappa making Kiddush in the dining room, with Nanna, Tessie and Moura, c.1950.

Throughout the Seder I followed in my own Haggadah. No one could possibly lose interest in a Seder conducted by Pappa. Everything he did he explained, telling us the reasons behind the ritual, often accompanied by amusing anecdotes. Every now and then Pappa would say a short prayer, `Hineni’ which did not appear in anyone’s Haggadah but which Pappa believed was essential. This was always a mystery to us but we never questioned Pappa as his word on such matters was sacred.

Neville, Tessie and Keith - next to the garage


I retain additional memories of my grandparents which I did not include in my original memoir.

When we attended Shule together, it was understood that I would go up to the balcony where the women sat to visit my mother and Nanna. This was quite acceptable as I was only a little boy. It was a very special experience for me and I looked forward to it. I climbed the many wide marble stairs for three flights and quietly pushed aside the curtains which hung on the inside of the double doors to the gallery. The gallery was tiered and I found descending the steps of the rows quite precarious. Nanna and my mother sat in the second row on the right about three or four seats in. I sat either next to them or between them, I don’t recall exactly.

I was “shown off’ to their nearest neighbours, such as Mrs.Goldman, the wife of the much beloved Rabbi Goldman, who with her daughter Nina, sat in front of Nanna. The children’s services were held in the Minor Synagogue and Rabbis Goldman and Rapoport alternated in taken these services. I only went when Rabbi Goldman led the service as he had such an understanding rapport with the children. It was only years later that I developed a respect and friendship for Rabbi Rapoport and was invited to his home on several occasions for lunch after Shule. On one of these occasions another visitor was the British Chief rabbi Sir Israel Brodie, who had been rabbi of Toorak Shule until he returned to England in 1937. My grandparents were particularly close to Rabbi Brodie and I recall attending a function at the Melbourne Town Hall to welcome Rabbi Brodie on one of his return visits to Melbourne as Chief Rabbi.

My grandfather was a staunch supporter of Rabbi Goldman when controversy broke out between him and the Board of management. Pappa was a member of an ad hoc committee which included Nanna’s brothers Uncle Pinnie and Uncle Louis who sought to protect Rabbi Goldman’s interests. But the rabbi was obliged to leave the Shule and died not long after on Kol Nidrei night in Adelaide. When Jane and I were traveling in England in 1973 we visited Mrs. Goldman and Nina who had returned to live there.

I sat for a while upstairs until the appropriate point in the service when I was told to return to the men. Also attending that Shule was my grandmother’s sister who we called by various names which I always found hard to pronounce and only as an adult realized what the differences were. Her Hebrew name was Tsipora, pronounced in the Litvak fashion as “Tsipeyre”. Her Russian name was Cecilia, pronounced “Tsetsilya”. Her nieces and nephews used the shorter form Tsilya confined with the Russian for aunt “Tyotya” so she was “Tyotya Tsilya” – a real mouthful ! She sat towards the back of the womens’ section with her daughter Tybel Nathan, who always wore severe masculine clothes. She was unmarried.

Occasionally we would visit with Tsetsilya at her flat. I think it was somewhere like Armadale. It was rather old fashioned even in those days in the early 1950’s. We were entertained in the dark dining room, overshadowed by two portraits hanging on the wall over the sideboard: Lenin and Trotsky. Tybel was a staunch Communist, a Trotskyite; I don’t know whether Aunt Tsetsilya was also. Despite this they always came to Shule on Yom Tovim. I have vague memories of being very bored during these visits and would sit on the floor tracing the carved pattern in the dining chairs. After the great Breigus which broke out after Nanna died, we had no further contact with Tsetsilya, although we still used to see her at Shule with Tybel.

Although I described the drawing room at Rozalia I did not mention the many family gatherings that took place there. These usually included quite a crowd of people, in particular Nanna’s brothers Uncle Pinnie and Aunty Sarah with Uncle Louis and Aunty Fanny. I was quite fond of them all and they gave a lot of attention to the children present. Both Uncle Pinnie and Uncle Louis were great story tellers and I remember sitting on the floor at their knees listing to their yarns. Some of Uncle Pinnie’s stories were about his service in the Australian army during the First World War. Funny, but I don’t recall visiting them at their homes. Like Aunty Tsetsilya, after the Breigus we had no further contact with the great-uncles, although we used to meet Uncle Louis of all places in the men’s toilet at Toorak Shule and we exchanged polite greetings. But publicly, in the Shule foyer, we all ignored each other, and even if we came face to face with Tsetsilya, an occurrence we tried to avoid, no signs of recognition were made. It was all very sad and uncomfortable for a youngster like me to understand.

I don’t recall Pappa’s side of the family during Nanna and Pappa’s lifetime. Our close friendship with Pappa’s youngest brother Uncle Willie and Aunty Margaret and their children seemed to start after Pappa died. I do recall that Uncle Willie and his brother Uncle Pinkhas came to our house in South Caulfield to visit Pappa several times when he was ill, and they came there to sit Shiva for him. I think it was only for one day as he died during Khol Hamoed Pesakh which cancelled most of the Shiva. I recall that the rabbis told my mother she did not have to sit Shivah because of this but she insisted on having a Sheloshim Service at the Minor Synagogue.

When Nanna became seriously ill my mother insisted that she be cared for at home and would not hear of hospitalizing her. As her condition deteriorated, private nurses were required day and night. I was spoiled by the nurses and thought it all a game. I used to help by taking things to Nanna who was bedridden. I still bear the trauma of the only time Pappa lost his temper with me. I had gone to collect an empty bed tray after Nanna had finished eating in her room. I held the tray by both hands and skipped up the long lounge in the direction of the kitchen. As I skipped I bounced the tray on alternate knees. Then suddenly I noticed a strange jigsaw like pattern on the surface of the tray. It had a glass inlay which had shattered. I shamefacedly took it to the kitchen but met Pappa enroute in the breakfast room. He saw what had happened and began screaming at me – the Komesaroff temper was notorious. He certainly did not hit me, but I crouched on the floor and hid behind an armchair. It was ages until I came out and I spent the time tracing the pattern in the carpet. I don’t recall how it ended, but Pappa and I soon patched things up.

I related above how Pappa used to love shopping for all sorts of goodies, particular food. I recall certain items such as the soft drink “Creamy Soda” which was no longer available when I was older. There was also a selection of small goods “pressed meat” we called them, and I slyly used to tear off small pieces, particularly of tongue, when no one was looking. Strange that in later years and until this day I cannot stand tongue in any form.

Sometimes I went with Pappa to the Village Bell in Elwood where most of the Jewish shops provided our Kosher food needs. The women clamoured around the counter of the Greek fishmonger “George”. When Pappa visited the Kosher butcher he was apparently not satisfied to buy the merchandise on display in the shop and I would accompany him behind scenes, I suppose to select his particular prime cuts. I was terrified by the group of apron and headscarf clad women sitting on the floor out the back of the shop plucking the feathers out of the chicken carcasses.

We often went for Sunday drives with Nanna and Pappa. The favourite places of interest were up “in the hills”, that is the Dandenong ranges outside of Melbourne. There were holiday resorts surrounded by beautiful “Gum tree” (Eucalyptus) forests. It was a special treat to but “fresh laid” eggs and honey from the farmers in the mountains. In later years I recall going with Uncle Willie to visit his farm in the country (I don’t recall where) and seeing the egg packing and stamping process.

To be continued. September 2007

[1] A `square’ was a measurement of house size equal to 10 x 10 feet.
[2] The spare room had been my mother’s room before she was married.
[3] The initials `A.R.’ stood for Anna Roza, her Russian name, rather than her Yiddish name Chanah Raizel.
[4] This mirror was reinstalled at my parents’ new home in South Caulfield, but the blue panels were changed to orange.
[5] The glass ball is preserved by my cousin Diana Burgess.
[6] After Pappa died my father retained his seat.
[7] Mr. Seegan and Mr. Bennet.
[8] Grace After Meals.
[9] Where we lived.
[10] After Pappa died, the task became Neville’s and later mine.
[11] After Pappa died, my father used that Yarmulka and now I have it.

"Eliyahu's Branches" - Review by Arthur Kurzweil

“Eliyahu's Branches: The Descendants of the Vilna Gaon and His Family”

Review by Arthur Kurzweil
Published in Avotaynu.

Eliyahu's Branches: The Descendants of the Vilna Gaon and
His Family by Chaim Freedman. Avotaynu, 1997. 704 pp.

It is not since Neil Rosenstein's extraordinary ground-breaking work, The Unbroken Chain, that I have had such enjoyment reading a book in our field of Jewish genealogy. “Eliyahu's Branches: The Descendants of the Vilna Gaon and His Family” by Chaim Freedman, which traces the family tree of Rabbi Elijah, the Gaon of Vilna, is as fascinating as a detective novel, intricate as a scientific thesis, and uplifting as the most beautiful poetry.

A great sage once said that the Jewish People, as a single entity, is not an animal but a plant. The implications of this metaphor are frightening, or at best paradoxical, for as every botanist knows, it is when a plant is cut back that it is stimulated to grow. I have heard a stirring presentation on this notion from a revered rabbi who aptly points out that when we look at Jewish history, the pattern becomes clear. A few examples will suffice: right after the incredibly traumatic expulsion from Spain, we see the most creative period in Jewish theological history, that of the mystics of Safed; after the massacres in the Ukraine, we see the great revival movement known as Hasidism; after the Holocaust, we see the birth and growth of the State of Israel.

This troubling metaphor passes through my mind as I reflect on Eliyahu's Branches. It does not take much imagination to actually feel that it is not a book, but a living, growing part of that glorious tree called the Jewish People. As I leaf through this inspiring book, I feel like I am looking at one of those scientific documentary films that use special photography to show us how flowers grow and bloom. The petals appear and unfold right before our eyes.

We, in Jewish genealogy, often quote a well-known passage found in the Talmud: If you save one life, you save a whole world; if you kill one life, you kill a whole world. Of course, every family tree, from the most modest to the most elaborate, illustrates this notion: How many of us have been struck by the realization that if a certain two people never met, married and had children, we-and dozens, if not hundreds of others would not be here? This is the striking message of this outstanding, deeply moving new book; every life is sacred; every life has the potential to create an entire world.

Chaim Freedman has been researching the descendants of the illustrious Gaon of Vilna for more than 30 years. And, while the careful critic will observe that Freedman makes some leaps of faith in this methodology, resulting in some doubtful branches and descendants, one must surely be in awe of his monumental efforts. The introductory material in this book, where the author explains some of his methods and some of the many difficulties involved in such a mammoth search, will delight any family historian. Freedman invites us to think about his search strategies and some of the stumbling blocks that he had to encounter. Of great importance is Freedman's discussion about the pitfalls and problems facing the genealogist who must depend upon sometimes dubious oral testimony. (In all of my travels, including public speaking about Jewish genealogy before more than 800 Jewish groups nationwide, the one individual who is claimed as an ancestor more than any other is the Vilna Gaon.)

The vast majority of this book is the genealogy itself. Freedman has painstakingly tracked down about 20,000 descendants of the Vilna Gaon, providing the reader with capsule biographies of many of them. These brief biographies alone communicate the exceptional creativity bursting forth from the lives of the descendants of this illustrious sage. But, this massive volume offers more: There is a wonderful essay on the importance of genealogy as reflected in Jewish thought through the ages; biographical material on the Vilna Gaon himself; a listing of every town mentioned in the book (along with the current name of the location); a useful glossary; a rich bibliography of sources; and, of course, a name index.

Every Jewish genealogist should have this book on his or her shelf. Even if the contents do not help you specifically with your research, the volume will serve as an inspiration, not only to show what can be done in our field if one has the will, but, also, as a monument to an eternal people, who despite the trials and tragedies of history, persevere.

The Gaon of Vilna - Verifying Oral Tradition


Based on "Eliyahu's Branches - The Descendants of the Vilna Gaon and His Family",
Chaim Freedman "Avotaynu 1997.

Published as an article in Avotaynu, Volume XIII, #3, Autumn, 1997

Chaim Freedman – lecture to the Israel Genealogy Society, Jerusalem, February 2000.

The Legend

Tracing the family tree of the Gaon of Vilna, has long posed a challenge to genealogists due to the many difficulties encountered in validating the claims of families which hold an oral tradition of descent from the Gaon. Many families of Lithuanian origin preserve a tradition of descent from the Gaon, but the exact nature of many of their claims defies clear definition. Indeed, the apparent uncertainty of such claims has engendered amongst scholars and the general public an attitude of scepticism as to their authenticity, and an aura of legend has surrounded this perplexing puzzle.


A number of attempts have been made in the past to research the family of the Gaon of Vilna. The most comprehensive published genealogy is "Sefer Hayakhas Lemishpakhat Rivlin Umishpakhat HaGaon miVilna " (the Genealogy of the Rivlin Family and the Family of the Gaon of Vilna) written by the late Eliezer Rivlin in Jerusalem in 1935. He recorded many branches of the Gaon's family that were known at the time. But Rivlin's work encompasses only 300 descendants of the Gaon . It should be noted that at the time when Rivlin conducted his research (prior to the Second World War) communication technology was limited, and the difficulty of exchange of information over closed borders limited the scope of the material Rivlin was able to collect.

Number of descendants

A mathematical extrapolation over the eight to ten generations that are descended from the Gaon can be shown to yield about 140,000 - 150,000 theoretical descendants. Even allowing for factors such as cousin marriages and considerable decimation during the Holocaust, the Gaon's family tree should potentially encompass a considerable number of families of Lithuanian origin.

Personal involvement

This author has been interested in the genealogy of the Gaon since his childhood when he heard his grandparents telling stories about their ancestors, including the Gaon of Vilna. The subject of the Gaon gained new momentum during a discussion which took place in Jerusalem between genealogist the late Rabbi Shmuel Gorr and Benyamin Rivlin, son of Eliezer Rivlin, the author of the above-mentioned original genealogy of the Gaon. Rivlin suggested to Gorr that he propose to Chaim Freedman that Freedman take upon himself the project of updating the Gaon's genealogy. This major research project was instigated in mid-1987. Its objective was to collate all available material about the Gaon's family and to publish an updated genealogy. The importance of pursuing this project was that it would provide the last opportunity to preserve oral traditions and link them to related archival material before the passage of time further eroded the genealogical memory base of oral traditions which were the key to research.

Comparison of parallel traditions

Cross-reference by the author of seemingly independent family histories resulted in the discovery of long-standing missing links. Families which held traditions that, when considered individually failed to provide a basis for establishing their descent from the Gaon, yet when collated by the author, displayed a common denominator which led to the establishment of their relationship.

Collection of material

Freedman's research involved the recording, analyzing and assessing of material provided by families claiming a relationship with the Gaon, as well as a comprehensive survey of library resources in Israel including community histories, newspapers, journals, rabbinic texts, biographies, manuscripts and published family histories.

Additional material was provided from resource centres outside Israel by Freedman's genealogical colleagues. Notable New York genealogist, Alex Friedlander was of particular and constant help. He researched vital statistic records obtained from Polish and Lithuanian archives.

The material collected by Freedman constitutes a valuable database for those interested in the Gaon's family.


The nature of the material researched by this author in preparing a book on the family of the Gaon of Vilna necessitated the establishment by the author of three categories of families:

1) Families which claim a relationship with the Gaon of Vilna that is definitely established by reliable sources and records.

2) Families which hold an oral tradition of a relationship with the Gaon that, when critically analysed in the light of sources and records, is, in the opinion of the author, highly likely to be valid, beyond any reasonable doubt.

3) Families which hold an oral tradition of a relationship with the Gaon, but are unable to provide sufficient evidence for the author to verify their claims from the sources available to him. Such families have been further divided into two groups:

a) Families for which sufficient evidence exists for the author to decide to record the available information, for the purpose of preserving it in case further evidence is discovered in the future. Should such evidence be discovered, the inclusion of these families will facilitate a renewal of research, which may lead to the authentification of the families' relationship with the Gaon.

b)Families which have provided information that, after analysis and research by the author, enabled him to come to the conclusion that, in his opinion, these families are most probably not related to the Gaon.


Modern aids

The place of oral tradition in genealogical research is the subject of academic dispute. Modern genealogist have at their disposal many sources which were unavailable to their predecesors several decades ago. Modern computer and communication technology facilitate access to a wide range of depositories of sources. Documents preserved by archives throughout the world are becoming more readily accessible, particularly those documents which are held in libraries and archives in the former Soviet Union and neighbouring countries.

Past reliance on oral family history

Genealogists in the past have relied mainly on records kept by family members. These were supplemented by research in libraries and archives where communal and personal documentation may have been found. In the case of families of rabbinic descent, the religious literature provided considerable information about the familial relationships of the authors.

Vital Statistic records versus oral tradition

Given the rapid advances in modern Jewish genealogical research, much of it based on newly uncovered vital statistic records (birth, marriage and death registrations), there is a tendency amongst researchers to play down the importance and validity of oral tradition.This author contends that oral tradition still has, and always will have a valuable place in Jewish genealogical research. A person usually is told by his parents, grandparents or other relatives about his family history.This is the first indication that a person receives about his family history and is derived from oral tradition. Documents may or may not be available to support this information, but in their absence it is the natural tendency of a person to initially accept what he has been told. If he is sufficiently interested, he may engage in research in order to validate the oral traditions and to expand the information which he may desire to preserve for the benefit of future generations.

Limitations of Oral History

It cannot be denied that the indiscriminate use of oral tradition by genealogists has its pitfalls. It may be embellished in order to aggrandise past generations. Distasteful information may be suppressed. When oral information is repeated it may not be recalled accurately, or it may be distorted due to insufficient attention paid when the information was conveyed. These distortions and inaccuracies may be perpetuated when the information is passed on to subsequent generations. In extreme cases information may even have been fabricated.

In assessing the validity of oral tradition it is important to analyse the terms in which it was conveyed. In particular it is important to know whether the information was conveyed spontaneously without any leading questions which may have put into the mind of the person being questioned ideas which were not part of the original information. However, with respect to certain factors, it is valid to ask leading questions. For instance, a parent or grandparent may not recall the name of an ancestor when asked for the name directly. Yet, if the question is rephrased in terms of after whom the parent was named, he may then recall that he was told that he was named after a certain greatgrandparent. Such oral information may then lead to a new line of research.

Preservation of traditions for future research

The greater the number of generations removed from a particular ancestor being sought, the more likelihood there is of discrepancy in oral tradition. If one is told that one's grandfather claimed that his grandfather was a fourth generation descendant of the Gaon then there are thirty-two possible lines of descent from the Gaon. There may be additional information, such as place of residence or dates of birth which may reduce the possibilities. But the number of ancestral lines which need to be researched is still very large. If the link is not discovered in the current generation and the story is passed on to yet another generation, members of that generation have to cope with a bigger puzzle in which the number of possibilities soars to sixty-four. This simple calculation further justifies the author's decision to record all reasonable oral traditions in his book on the family of the Gaon of Vilna, in order to assist the coming generations should they try to uncover the `missing link'.

Oral tradition and documented sources complement each other in pursuing lines of research.A competent genealogist takes into account all the above factors in considering the validity of oral tradition, uses the available documented sources, and comes to a conclusion which is valid beyond a reasonable doubt.

Attitude to oral tradition in Judaism

Since this book deals with one of the most prominent personalities of Jewish scholarship, it is fitting that a principle established in traditional Jewish law be used to support the case for the use of oral tradition. Jewish law defines the forms of evidence required in solving a dispute brought before a Beth Din. Considerable material exists in the Talmud and in its commentaries about the need for conclusive evidence being presented to prove cases brought to litigation.

The late Rabbi Shmuel Gorr of Jerusalem, a prominent genealogist, used to expound the Talmudic principle ( (זבחים פרק י"ד, משנה ד'that the assertion: "I have not seen it", that is no evidence (to the contrary). He explained that simply because documented evidence may not have been discovered does not mean that the evidence does not exist, or that the point claimed to be valid must be disregarded. This was one of Rabbi Gorr's favourite quotations whenever the value of oral tradition was denigrated.

In his book on the family of the Gaon of Vilna the author exhaustively sought documented evidence to establish the genealogy of the families included. Oral tradition has been objectively considered. In many cases the author has consulted genealogical colleagues and taken into consideration their opinions.The conclusions presented are those of the author based on his expertise and experience in Jewish genealogical research.


The paradox - only 200 years

The difficulties that have been encountered over the years in tracing the descendants of the Gaon are surprising, considering that only 200 years have elapsed since his death in 1797. Only about eight generations have been born since that time . At the time Freedman started his research in the early 1960's, there were people alive who had heard stories about their descent from the Gaon from their grandparents (born in the 1830's) who were grandchildren of the Gaon's grandchildren (born in the 1780's). Such a chain of oral tradition was not so extended as to preclude the preservation of far more oral traditions than were in fact discovered.

There are several reasons for the difficulties encountered in researching the Gaon's family.

1) Lack of official records

Official records of births marriages and deaths were kept by a law instituted in the Russian Empire only in the early 19th century, except for communal lists which were compiled several times during the 18th century. Since all of the Gaon's children and most of his grandchildren were born prior to this date, there were few official records which could confirm their identity. It was not until the commemorative activities which took place in Vilna in 1997 to mark the 200th anniversary of the Gaon’s death that the census of 1765 was revealed. Study of the family unit of the Gaon made it possible to confirm the relative age of the Gaon’s sons as proposed in my book. Later the census lists for 1784 and 1795 added to the overall picture.

2) בטול תורה

It is a characteristic of Lithuanian families to play down their Yichus (pedigree). One example of this phenomenon was encountered when Freedman contacted an elderly rabbi living in Jerusalem. He was reluctant to discuss the issue, but grudgingly related what his mother had heard from her mother about their descent from the Gaon. But he soon cut the conversation short retorting: "What does it matter. Such research is Bitul Torah". He was expressing the sentiment of which the Gaon himself was a renowned proponent. One is obligated to spend as much time as possible in the study of the religious texts. The only time which can be justifiably used for other purposes is that needed to earn a mimimal livelhood. Even time required to attend to family affairs is begrudged. There are several stories related about the Gaon's disinterest in his children's everyday activities, despite his love for them. In the light of this attitude it is no wonder that orthodox Lithuanian families spent little time telling their children about their family history. Thus, much information was forgotten with the passage of time.

One oral tradition conveyed to this author related that an elderly relative in Vilna had possessed a book in which the Gaon himself had recorded his genealogy. Bearing in mind the Gaon's personality and relationship with his family, this story was obviously fictitious, or at best, an embellishment of some other book in the family's possession.

3) Wars

Wars and pogroms which plagued Europe over the last 200 years destroyed many records. Jewish cemeteries have been severely damaged or obliterated in many towns in which the Jewish population was decimated by the Holocaust. The loss of six million Jews during the Holocaust severed what might have been a continuation of the passage of oral traditions.

4) Migration

Mass emigration of Jews from the age old cradles of their family origins in Europe to the `New World' in North and South America, England, Australia, South Africa and Israel severed the natural contact between the generations. A new generation grew up, cut off from contact with its grandparents. Immigrant parents were all too anxious to forget about the Diaspora and its often sad and harsh history. It is no wonder that genealogical information was not passed on.

Information useful to genealogists is often found in old Hebrew prayer books, bibles or other religious texts. It was the custom in traditional families to record names of relatives and their dates of death in such books and pass them on to the ensuing generations. When young couples emigrated, these books usually remained with their parents, since they were still in use. Only if the parents or grandparents had already died at the time of their family's emigration might such books be taken with the emigrants, if they valued them.

Photographs are also useful in establishing genealogical details. But people often are negligent in not writing the names of the subject of the photograph on the back. When these photographs are passed on to the next generation, the identity of the relatives depicted is often unknown.

Sometimes, such photographs can lead to completely erroneous conclusions. This author was presented with an album of photographs collected by an elderly relative. Some were inscribed on the back, and others were identified by elderly relatives still alive. One photograph was the subject of much conjecture until the author examined the Russian inscription. It was a photograph of the famous Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy, obviously not a relative at all !

5) Modesty

Because the Gaon of Vilna was such a prominent figure in Jewish scholarship, descent from him was considered to be particularly worthy of honour. Some people may have been embarrassed to publicise stories told by their parents about their descent lest they be thought to be boasting. Descent from the Gaon also carried with it a responsibility to live up to his standards of behaviour, particularly in religious matters. Perhaps people who no longer were religiously observant considered descent from the Gaon an onerous burden.Yet, ironically, many non-observant people take great pride in their descent from the Gaon and preserve the oral traditions conveyed to them.

6) The title “Gaon"

The term `Gaon' was quite sparingly used during the time of the Gaon of Vilna. Over the ensuing generations it has been rather liberally ascribed to rabbinic scholars as a term of honour. This may result in a person being told that he was descended from `the Gaon' yet the term may refer to another rabbi who was known by that title.

The families Elion and Jodaikin held a tradition of descent from the "Gaon Eliyahu" and believed therefore that their ancestor was the Gaon of Vilna. Two factors led to the confusion. The families were in fact descended from a famous rabbi who was often referred to as a "Gaon". He was Rabbi Eliyahu Luntz (or Rabbinowitz) of Krozhe. Furthermore, this Eliyahu was a brother-in-law of the Gaon of Vilna whose second wife was Luntz's sister. The coicidence of these two factors led the above families to believe that they were descended from Eliyahu, the Gaon of Vilna.

An extreme example of confusion between rabbinic personalities arose when the author was informed by a certain family of it's descent from the Gaon of Vilna. Unable to discover the link, the author's problem was solved when his contact apologised profusely. The ancestor was actually Rabbi Shneour Zalmen of Liadi, ironically the Gaon's rival !

7) Forgotten daughters

Genealogies of rabbinic families often omitted sons or sons-in-law who were not scholars. Similarly, daughters were often not recorded in such families. The Gaon's son Rabbi Yehudah Leib of Serhei, Lithuania is recorded in Rivlin's work as the father of only two daughters. This author has discovered that Yehudah Leib had at least six daughters.

8) עין הרע

Certain families, known to be descended from the Gaon, simply refuse to publish their family tree, for a number of personal reasons. This is regrettable, since their non-inclusion in this present book may lead to the impression, in the future, that such people are really not descended from the Gaon. A prominent rabbinic family in Israel is known to have about 500 living descendants, yet the family refuses to record their names.

9) Surname changes

Siblings born to a mutual father often used different surnames to each other and to that borne by their parents. This practice was prevalent in the Tsarist Empire, and was a ploy used to confuse the military authorities. The notoriously anti-Semitic practices of the Tsarist army resulted in male Jews using this surname change as a means of evading conscription. Such variation of surnames within the one family leads to confusion in genealogical research.

For example, one of the Gaon's daughters, Khiena, the wife of Rabbi Moshe of Pinsk, bore eight sons who used the surname Chinitz, one whose surname is unclear, but whose descendants used the name Lipshitz and Neches. Certain families claim that one of Khiena's sons used the surname Penchuk and yet another, Landau.
Each of these claims had to be carefully analysed by the author, and some remain unverified.

10) Inaccurate translations

Some historians and genealogists who are not fluent in Hebrew have used, as the basis of their research, sources translated from Hebrew to English. These second-hand sources are prone to errors. Similarly, members of families which claim descent from the Gaon of Vilna, have been assisted in their research by incompetent translators, who are not familiar with the genealogical nuances of sources.

One researcher went to the trouble of having Rivlin's work translated into English. This led to confusion between a descendant of the Gaon's brother who lived in the town of Eiragola, Lithuania, or Ragoler to the Jews, with a certain person who live in a place called Raguva. The researcher conveniently merged the two personalities and added to his family tree hundreds of people who had no place on it.



The Gaon was married twice. The first wife was Khana, daughter of Yehudah Leib of Keidan. After Khana's death in 1782, the Gaon remarried a widow Gittel, daughter of Rabbi Meir Luntz (born 1709) of Krozhe, Lithuania. The fact that the Gaon was married twice has caused considerable confusion. There are families that held a tradition of descent from the Gaon's second wife, Gittel. Since the sources on her family clearly establish that Gittel bore no children to the Gaon, then families descended from Gittel are descended from her first husband, and not from the Gaon.

A major error made by a certain researcher arose from the Gaon's second marriage. Knowing that the Gaon was a brother-in-law to Rabbi Yekhezkel Luntz of Shavli, the researcher assumed that the connection was through Luntz's wife Malka. The researcher drew up a family tree of the Gaon's family and included all of the descendants of Yekhezkel Luntz as descendants of the Gaon's hypothetical sister, Malka. If the researcher had been conversant with Hebrew sources, he would have been able to read a book written by a grandson of Luntz, the contents of which make it clear that there was no such descent. The Gaon was a brother-in-law of Luntz, not through a hypothetical sister, but due to the fact that Luntz's sister Gittel was the Gaon's second wife.

Brothers and relatives

Certain families have believed that they were descended from the Gaon. After investigation however, it becomes clear that they were descended either from the brothers of the Gaon, or from one of his students. Terminology used to refer to relationships is misleading. "‏Of the family of the Gaon of Vilna‏" may mean actual descent, but more often the term refers to the descendants of the Gaon's siblings, or even may refer to more further removed connections by marriage without an actual blood relationship.

A prominent family that settled in Jerusalem 140 years ago maintained steadfastly it was descended from a daughter of the Gaon. This author failed to identify the relevant daughter, despite considerable research by members of the family. Recently new material came to light. A letter written about 1855 by a Lithuanian rabbi records a match arranged between his son and a daughter of the above family in Jerusalem. Of immense genealogical value was a statement by the writer of the letter giving details of the descent of the bridegroom from a sister of the Gaon. At last the puzzle had been solved.

Erroneous families

One of the Gaon's ancestors, Rabbi Moshe Kremer, who was chief rabbi of Vilna in the seventeenth century, was known as "Kremer", meaning shopkeeper, since his wife operated a stall in the market. The appelation "Kremer" was not a surname. Indeed most Jews in the Russian Empire only acquired surnames at the beginning of the nineteeth century. Yet many families bearing the name Kramer or Kremer erroneously believe that they are descended from the Gaon of Vilna. (Some are descended from a brother of the Gaon whose descendants did adopt the name Kremer).

Likewise a widely ramified Galician family believe that they are descended from the Gaon, simply because they bear the surname Wilner.


An important means of disproving certain oral traditions is often a simple arithmetic calculation.

Members of a certain Kossowsky family, whilst probably genuinely descended from the Gaon, instilled doubt in the mind of the author when they claimed that an ancestor recalled sitting on the knee of the Gaon, who, it was claimed, was her grandfather. Since the Gaon died in 1797, and since the ancestor was born in 1826, this incident could not possibly have occurred. On rechecking the source of the story, it was found that the incident occurred a generation earlier, which brought the event within a feasible time frame.

The Kantorovitch family of Jerusalem, whose claims to descent from the Gaon are most likely valid for other reasons, recorded certain events which cannot have occured in the way they were stated. It was claimed that the Gaon's youngest son Avraham wrote a letter to a grandson, Yaakov Koppel Kantorovitch, congratulating Kantorovitch on the completion of his studies and on obtaining Semikha (rabbinic ordination). Since Avraham died in 1808 at the age of 44, it is not likely that he had grandson of a suitable age to have obtained Semikha during his lifetime.

It is claimed that the Gaon's daughter Khiena had a son "Haskell Landau" whose daughter married a Remigolsky. This author's research identified the relevant Remigolsky. Yet details of Remigolsky's son in a rabbinic encyclopedia, whilst recording his emminent rabbinic ancestors, fail to record descent from the Gaon of Vilna. This omission renders the family tradition highly suspect.

A common source of confusion in oral traditions is the assumption that if one's cousin is descended from the Gaon of Vilna, so must one also be. This author attended a family reunion at which various sides of his family were represented. He had to repeatedly correct the impression held by one side of his family that they were descendants of the Gaon, like the majority of their cousins attending the reunion.


It has been this author's fortunate experience that he was able to verify many valid oral traditions of descent from the Gaon of Vilna. One example was discovered in Australia where a family which had settled there in 1854, still maintained an oral tradition of decent from the Gaon. Much effort was expended in researching this family which resulted in the discovery of a photograph of the tombstone of the original member of the family who settled in Australia. Although the tombstone was no longer standing, a photograph preserved by the Australian Jewish Historical Society revealed that the person in question was actually a grandson of the Gaon. Details of the inscription correlated with oral traditions held by another family living in England. Thus, this author was able to solve the links of several families, hitherto unknown to each other, yet each holding the same tradition.

Many were such success stories and the author continues to hope that other missing links, recorded in his forthcoming book, will one day be resolved.

Berliner Saga - exploding the myths

The Berliner Saga

Chaim Freedman
Petah Tikvah, Israel
April 1999.

Did you know that grandfather Emanuel Berliner was one of 20 siblings ? !!

Did you know that when he was born his father was aged 74 ?

Did you know that the Berliner family were not descended from a long line of rabbis, but the family profession was “Quack” ? !!

These are some of the extraordinary and intriguing discoveries uncovered by recent research of Polish Vital Statistic records.

For many years there were few documented sources about the family of Emanuel Berliner (1870-1948) of London, England. Little was known about his Polish ancestors or the early years of his life in Poland. Certain circumstantial evidence lead to the belief that Emanuel was a member of a rabbinical Berliner family that was resident in the nineteenth century in Piotrykov and Lodz.

A researcher in the United States, Morris Wirth of Baltimore, conducted considerable research of a number of inter-related families including the above rabbinical Berliner family. Information was exchanged mutually between us as we both had sources which were inaccessible to the other party. As more and more Polish records were discovered, it became clear that Emanuel Berliner’s ancestry did not stem from the rabbinical family and a fortuitous discovery of one document held the key to his true family connections. Morris Wirth continued to expend considerable energy, time and skill until all the available records were extracted.

Background of Oral Family History

In 1974 during a visit in London Janey and I visited Auntie Annie Stein and met Uncle Rubie Berliner. We asked them what they knew about their parents’ Polish background. They knew very little since their parents rarely talked about their past in Poland. Their father Emanuel Berliner was actually named “Mynyl”. Although the Hebrew inscription on his tombstone in London bears the name “Imanuel”, a legal document bears the name “Mynyl (Miller) Berliner”.

Emanuel was reputed to have come from the town of Tomaszow Mazowiecka where his father, Rubin was a “barber-dentist”. This occupation was explained by Rubie as a function of a paramedical who attended Jews whereas the gentile Polish doctors were reluctant to do so. Rubin pulled teeth and gave haircuts. He was comparatively affluent, which enabled Emanuel to acquire a good education in his childhood. However Rubin died when Emanuel was young and after a few years his mother was unable to support him. She sent him to Lodz to work for a wealthy Jewish family where he minded the children. In Lodz he met and married Sheindel (Jane) Szymkowicz, the daughter of Tsvi Leib Szymkowicz, who was reputed to be wealthy, as he “owned a market”. What became of Emanuel’s mother, or even her name was not known. Questioned as to whether either of their parents had siblings, Annie and Rubie said that they never heard mention of siblings and they had the impression that their parents were only children.

Theoretical ancestry

Emanuel Berliner actually bore a rare personal name “Mynyl”. This Yiddish name is apparently a diminutive derivative of the Hebrew name Imanuel, although some omnasts believe it is an extension of the name “Man” derived from “Menakhem”. A prominent rabbinical family, descended from Rabbi Tsvi Hersh Berlin the Chief Rabbi of Berlin settled in Piotrykov, Poland in the late eighteenth century. Because the rare name Manele, a variant form of Mynyl, appeared several times in that family, it was considered that Emanuel (Mynyl) Berliner inherited his name from the Piotrykov family. It was proposed that the most likely relationship was that Emanuel’s father Rubin was a son of Manele Berliner, a son of Rabbi Yaakov Shaul Berliner of Piotrykov (1800-1880). For this to have been valid, Emanuel’s birthdate had to be after the date of death of Manele Berliner, a fact that had yet to be established.

Morris Wirth surveyed all the vital statistic records for Piotrykov from 1826 until the 1880’s. He was able to establish the identities of Manele’s children, who did not include Rubin. This in itself may not have been conclusive as experience with these records often demonstrates that records are either missing or even falsified. However the conclusive proof came with the discovery of children born to Manele after 1870, Emanuel’s birthdate calculated from his tombstone. There was one weak hope that the relationship might still be valid if Emanuel’s age was incorrect. Later discoveries established his true ancestry, so reluctantly, Emanuel and his descendants lost their illustrious rabbinical ancestry.

Rozprza instead of Tomaszow.

Fortunately for family of Emanuel, Morris Wirth had relations in Lodz and Tomaszow and so he was able to search the records of these towns for either Emanuel or Rubin. Surprisingly there were virtually no Berliners in Tomaszow, claimed by Annie and Rubie as their father’s hometown. One record held the clue. A marriage took place in 1880 in Tomaszow between Haja Berliner and Jakob Tarlowicz. The marriage record states that Haja, aged 19, was the daughter of Rubin Berliner, deceased and Ruchla Mirla Zylbersztajn of the town of Rozprza.

The fact that the bride’s father was named Rubin and that he was deceased by 1880, when Emanuel was ten years old, seemed to resemble the scenario described by Annie and Rubie. But where was Rozprza and, if the Berliners lived there, what was the connection with Tomaszow ?


Rozprza is a small town located in the general area of the towns Piotrykov, Lodz and Tomaszow. Again Morris Wirth was researching his family in Rozprza and so agreed to look for the Berliners. Initialy he found a marriage in 1859 between Rubin Berliner of Rozprza and Ruchla Mirla Zylbersztajn of Tomaszow. This identified the parents of the bride of the 1880 marriage in Tomaszow. Rubin’s age was recorded as 50, making his birthdate about 1809. It should be noted that ages were notoriously inaccurate, as will be shown in Rubin’s case. Rubin’s occupation was stated as “Feldszer”, This was a medical orderly who usually acquired his limited skills in the army, or from another Feldszer, and carried out basic medical treatment for the village Jews. This fact correlated to the oral history related about Emanuel Berliner’s father.

Another record found in Rozprza was an earlier marriage in 1851 of Aron Pincus Berliner aged 18. That made his birthdate about 1833. This marriage record stated the parents as Rubin Berliner and Rywki Soldan. Could this be the same Rubin Berliner who appeared in the 1859 marriage ? But why did he marry another woman ? Unless the identities could be established there might have been two Rubin Berliners. If so, which was the father of Emanuel (Mynyl) Berliner of London ?

Morris Wirth set about tracing all the Berliners recorded in Rozprza. Among the children of Rubin Berliner and Ruchla Mirla Zylbersztajn was “Mynyl” born in 1870, exactly the birth year commensurate with Emanuel’s tombstone.

The Rozprza Berliners - Highlights

The family tree and some of their activities quickly took shape as many records were extracted.

Rubin Berliner was married twice. His first wife, Rywki Soldan, died February 2, 1859. By May 5th of the same year Rubin married his second wife, Ruchla Mirla Zylbersztajn. The bride’s age was stated as 20 and the groom as 50 ! In fact the astonishing age difference was even greater. Rubin had falsified his age, as seen from the death record of his first wife three months earlier. There her age was recorded as 63, and although Rubin’s age is not stated he would hardly have been thirteen years younger. In fact the birth records of Rubun’s children bear ages commensurate with a birth year which varies between 1789 and 1802. The most reasonable date seems to be 1796, making Rubin 63 at the time of his second marriage.

Why would a 20 year old girl marry a 63 widower ? Maybe he was very rich and she was very beautiful.

Emanuel Berliner was far from an only child. He was one of 20 siblings, 14 of whom survived childhood.

Rubin Berliner and Rywki Soldan had 12 children:

Zossia (Zysli), 1825. Married Jakob Jozef Horowitz.
Rajzla, c.1828. Married Dawid Cymberknop.
Laja, 1829-1830
Alexander Michal (Hil Alexander/Yekhiel Michal), 1832
Perla, c.1833. Married Naftal Rajnglas.
Aron Pincus, 1834
Lewek, 1836
Mosiek Szaia, 1838-1839
Jetta (Itla), 1840-1843
Samuel (Simel), 1842-1843.
Apolenia (!!!), 1844
Jochwet, 1845. Married Hersz Lewkowicz (*).

*Hersz and Jochwet Lewkowicz’s family also live in England and the Rozprza records establish their relationship.

Rubin Berliner and Ruchla Mirla Zylbersztajn had 7 children:

Haja Sura, 1860. Married Hersz Tarlowicz of Tomaszow.
Laja Alte, 1861
Nechuma, 1863. Married Ojzer Wajsberg.
Jzrael Dawid, 1865-1873
Haim Szlama, 1867-1873
Mynyl [Emanuel], 1870-1948 London.
Yakow Itzik, 1872

Rubin also had several brothers including Mordka (Mordechai) and Jozef, a sister Haja, who married Jozef Braniec, and a half-brother and sister, Abram and Hawa. These had many children.

In 1873 tragedy struck the family of Rubin and Ruchla Mirla. On the 16th of May their six year old son Haim Szlama died. On the 4th of September their nine year old son Jzrael Dawid also died. Nine days later, on the 13th of September, the father Rubin died. The cause of death stated on the death record was Cholera. It is probable that that was the cause of the deaths of his two sons. Rubin’s age at death is stated to be 84. However two years earlier, on his son Mynyl’s birth record, his age is given as 74, making his birth year 1796.

The Rozpra records include some of the subsequent generation of Emanuel’s half-brothers’ and sisters’ children. It remains to be seen what became of this large family. Some may have settled in the USA and elsewhere. Many probably perished in the Holocaust.

Earlier Berliners

Rubin Berliner was the eldest son of Zyskind Berliner, born about 1760 and died in Rozprza in 1828. Zyskind’s first wife and Rubin’s mother was Zysel Temerman (although her surname is subject to clarification). She was dead by 1825. Zyskind’s second wife was Hany (Anna), by whom he had two children. Zyskind died two days before the birth of his youngest daughter Hawa and her eldest half-brother Rubin acted in his father’s place in registering the birth. Hany subsequently remarried.

Both Zyskind and Rubin were occupied as “Feldszer”, A son of Rubin also followed what must have been a family occupation. The Feldszer was akin to the English term “Quack” !!

Female ancestral relationships

The Berliner family’s connection with the town of Tomaszow arose from the fact that Rubin’s second wife (Emanuel’s mother) Ruchla Mirla Zylbersztajn was born there in 1840. She was the daughter of Izrael Zylbersztajn and Tauby Kantorowicz. They were married in 1838 in Tomaszow but came from other towns. Izrael was born in 1815 in Ujazd, a son of Leyzer and Hany Zylbersztajn. Tauby was born in 1817 in Opoczno, a daughter of Nusyn and Itty Kantorowicz.

The marriage record of Ruchla Mirla in Rozprza in 1859 establishes the identity of her parents. Their marriage record in Tomaszow in 1838 establishes their ages and parentage. Further research should reveal the identities of Zylbersztajn and Kantorowicz relations.

That is a summary of the saga of the Berliner family. An incredible amount of documented information was discovered, which, although removing the theoretical rabbinic relations, provides a fascinating picture of the actual family.