Family of the Vilna Gaon

By Chaim Freedman
Copyright © March 2004-2006, All Rights Reserved, Petah Tikvah, Israel
Chaim Freedman's family originated in the Raseiniai district of Lithuania. David Hoffman coordinated the Raseiniai researchers for the LitvakSIG and they developed a collegial relationship over several years. Hoffman accumulated documentation about his family’s oral tradition of a relationship to the Vilna Gaon. He discussed this with Chaim Freedman, who was studying the family of the Gaon. Freedman became very supportive of Hoffman’s efforts to obtain early 19th century Russian Empire revision lists and 1784 and 1765 censuses from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Together they traced some lines of their families back to the 18th century.

Rabbi Eliyahu The Vilna Gaon (1720-1797)

Research of the family of the Vilna Gaon was published in 1997 by Avotaynu as Chaim Freedman’s book Eliyahu’s Branches, The Descendants of the Vilna Gaon and His Family. There Freedman explained that the number and order of birth of the Gaon's children and their ages was not consistent in the sources. Aside from some biographies, it is necessary to study texts that, although their specific purpose was not to record the biography of the Gaon or his family, include passages from which familial information can be interpreted. These texts include in particular the introductions to books written by the Gaon.

The number of children recorded in these sources ranges from a minimum of two sons and one daughter to three sons and five daughters. It seems quite certain that only three sons survived to adulthood. Five daughters can also be established, but there may have been others.
The dates of birth of the Gaon's children are significant in order to establish or counter claims of families that they are descended from one or other of his children. The time period between the earliest known ancestor of claimant families and the birthdates of the Gaon's sons may preclude such a claim. On the other hand, since most of the Gaon's daughters were older than the sons, there is the possibility of a greater number of intervening generations between the daughters and hypothetical descendant families. Therefore, there may be a greater number of possibilities of descendant lines from the Gaon's daughters than from the sons. Given that the estimated age difference between the Gaon's eldest and youngest child is about twenty-five years, researching the line of descent must take into account the possibility of a variation of an entire generation in the ancestral line, depending whether descent is sought from the older or younger of the Gaon's children.

The Vilna Gaon was identified in Vilna (Vilnius) in the first Russian Empire revision list (census) in 1795 and in the two censuses from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania of 1784 and 1765.

1795 Revision List of Vilna showing the Vilna Gaon (Eliasz Zelmanowicz and his wife Gitla):

1784 census list of Vilna showing the Vilna Gaon (Eliasz Zelmanowicz and his wife Gitel, daughter Chana, Son Zelman and his wife Rochla, daughter Treyna:

1765 census list of Vilna showing the Vilna Gaon (Eliasz Zelmanowicz, wife Chana, son Zelman, daughter Basia, and servant Nechama):

Some of the daughters’ names were discovered for the first time by using these lists. But Freedman particularly wanted to find a son of the Gaon, Abraham, who was not listed in the Gaon’s household in 1765. Since he was aware of Abraham’s wife’s family, he was able to use this information to seek Abraham.

Abraham's wife was Sarah, daughter of Nowach and Minda. Minda’s father was known as Eliyahu Pesseles. So Freedman looked for this family on the 1765 Vilna census list, and found Nowach and Minda living in her father’s household:

At 59 Ulica Zydowska: Elias son of Hirsch and his wife Chaia, with four children: Joseph (not married); Berko (married to Dwera with three children Leib, Chana and Sora-Rocha); Bejla (married to Aizik son of Abraham); and Minda (married to Nowach with one child Mirka). Also, Elias' father Hirsch, a widower; and five servants.

This information is consistent with what is known of Elias (Eliyahu Pesseles) and his family. For his son-in-law Nowach it is clear that he must be recently married to Minda and that as of February 27, 1765 - the date of the census - they only had one daughter, Mirka. His daughter Sarah, who was later to marry Abraham son of the Gaon was not yet born, and this is consistent with Freedman’s postulated birth date of circa 1765 for her future husband.

Further information was consistent with what Freedman knew about the Pesseles family, and he was able to identify many members of the Gaon’s family. The widower Hirsch was a brother of the Vilna Gaon’s grandfather.

Freedman then turned to the 1784 census to find Nowach and Minda, hoping that Abraham, son of the Vilna Gaon, would be living with his father-in-law. In the 1784 census, Freedman located Abraham in the household of his father-in-law Nowach Abramowicz (Noah Lipshitz, Mindes), along with Nowach’s wife Minda, and Abraham’s wife Sora. In this entry no children appear with Abraham, further indicating the proximity of the marriage to the date of the census.

1784 census of Vilna in the Kamienicy (house of) Eliaszowicz (Eliash), ... Nowach son of Abram, his wife Minda, son-in-law Abraham, his wife Sora, and servants Nechama and Mowsza:

Finally, the 1795 Russian revision list records Abraham, son of the Gaon, with his age as 30. That means he was born in 1765, exactly the year stated in Freedman’s book and calculated by him from complex and often obscure references. This date is about 15 years later than the date "used" by other sources. Now the three lists 1765, 1784 and 1795 support Freedman’s scenario for the configuration of the Gaon's sons.

Name: Avraham
Relationship: Head of Household
Father: Eliasz
Age: 30
Year: 1795
Town: Vilnius
Wife: Sora aged 22
Daughter: Chana aged 11


Jewish Family History Foundation for 18th century Grand Duchy of Lithuania records, 1795 and 1816 Revision Lists. Provided by Dr. David Hoffman and Professor Eric Goldstein.
For additional information about the 18th century Grand Duchy Project and examples of other successful research, including Chaim Freedman's Komisaruk family of Raseiniai, Lithuania, follow the links at

Learn more about the thirty years of scholarly research that led to the publication in 1997 of Eliyahu's Branches: The Descendants of the Vilna Gaon (of blessed and saintly memory) and His Family, by Chaim Freedman at the Avotaynu Website

The book analyzed many source materials, from religious writings to the writings of the Gaon and his disciples.

Freedman's book about the Vilna Gaon contains a rare portrait of the illustrious 18th-century Eastern European sage, a discussion of his substantial influence on the Jewish world and a thoroughly-documented family tree listing more than 20,000 descendants of the rabbi and his siblings. A small portion of the tree--the first four generations--is available on the Web. (Sections need updating - see on this Blog Komisaruk Family - first eight generations).

This current article, using the previously unavailable 1795 Russian revision list and 18th century GDL census lists, resolves inconsistencies and provides new documentary evidence for Freedman's theories.

Jewish Agricultural Colonies in the Ukraine

Introduction to the Study of the Jewish Agricultural Colonies in the Ukraine
Overview of Shtetlinks site
by Chaim Freedman
Petah Tikvah, Israel, 2005

In the late 18th century large areas of territories in south-east Ukraine came under the control of the Russian Tsarist regime. At that time this area was known as Novorussia (New Russia) and was divided roughly into three Guberniyas (provinces): Kherson, Yekaterinoslav and Tavritch (the latter included the Crimean peninsula and part of the adjacent mainland). The Russian government was anxious to develop this region by settlement from the rest of the Russian Empire. At the same time the government sought a way to relieve itself of the so-called "Jewish Question", particularly in what are now Lithuania, Latvia and Belarus. With the accession of Tsar Alexander the First, legislation was passed to define and partially relieve the situation of the Jews. One objective of this legislation was to encourage Jews to leave the crowded and economically poor centers in the north and establish new settlements in Novorussia. Those Jews who qualified to be included in this enterprise were promised financial support to set up agricultural colonies, with the added incentive of exemption from military service (the period of exemption changed at various times throughout the 19th century).

Initially a number of agricultural colonies were established in Kherson Guberniya commencing in the first decade of the 19th century. The Yekaterinoslav colonies were established later. In 1846 the first group of Jewish colonists set off from the rallying point in Mogilev and headed for a region in Yekaterinoslav Guberniya. This group was subdivided according to town of origin. Several convoys underwent the arduous journey by river and by wagon. The 285 families were divided into six colonies. Subsequently other colonies were established bringing the total to seventeen by the late 1860's. At the peak of settlement in the 1880's the Yekaterinoslav colonies comprised about 20,000 Jews. The colony region was roughly north of the Sea of Azov, and the colonies were situated in two uyezds (districts), Alexandrovsk and Mariupol. Much can be written about life in the colonies during the period of the second half of the 19th century until their tragic destruction during the Civil War of 1917-1921. Thereafter most of the colonies were revamped by the Soviet regime and functioned as collectives incorporated as the Nei-Zlatopol Jewish Autonomous Region. The Nazi invasion brought an end to this unique episode in Jewish history.

The Jewish urban communities in Yekaterinoslav Guberniya were established on a very small scale alongside the colonies. As time passed and many families found themselves unsuited to rural life, the urban communities were boosted by many who dropped out of the colonies. The major communities, aside from Yekaterinoslav the capital, included Alexandrovsk (Zaparozhe), Pavlograd, Orekhov, Tokmak, Melitopol, Berdyansk, Mariupol and others. In effect the original colonists drew in their wake significant numbers of their hometown relatives or neighbors from Lithuania, Latvia and Belarus who constituted the majority in the developing urban communities in Yekaterinoslav.

There are very few sources about this region's Jewish population. English books refer briefly to the region. Most of the other sources are in Russian, particularly a very detailed history of the region which includes many statistical analyses. There is one book in Hebrew devoted to the subject, "Khaklaim Yehudiim Bearvot Russia" (Jewish Agriculturalists on the Russian Steppe" , Tel Aviv 1965. The primary source is in Russian, "Yevrei Zyemlyedeltsi 1807-1887" (Jewish Agriculturalists) by Viktor N. Nikitin (Petersburg 1887). This mammoth work of over 700 pages explains the sequence of events leading up to the establishment of the colonies, gives details of the organization and financing of the initial settlement, and includes periodic reports on the development and achievements of the colonies. The reports were prepared by inspectors appointed to investigate conditions in the colonies and recommend action by the government. Since considerable funds were allocated by the government, exact statistics were constantly required.

My first knowledge of the existence of the Jewish agricultural colonies in Russia came about with the death in 1958 in Melbourne, Australia of my late grandfather Shlomo Zalmen Komesaroff (the family name was originally Komisaruk but branches of the family used various versions). As a child I was present at many family gatherings and heard many names and places associated with relatives in Russia. After my grandfathers death I was prying in his room in our house and opened up a cupboard under his bookshelf. There I found a treasure trove of what proved to be sources of family history. There were photo albums from Russia, documents such as his Russian passport, marriage certificate, my mothers birth certificate and personal letters in Yiddish and Russian. I showed my late mother the material and nagged her to provide explanations. Most of the photos she was able to identify. The inscriptions were written in Russian but my mothers Russian was that of a four year old who had emigrated from Russia, and she could not read the language. So I taught myself Russian, a knowledge which continues to be essential as I decipher Russian archival material today.

One particular item held the key to opening up the scenario of the colonies. This was my grandfathers personal stamp which he had affixed in a set of old Hebrew books.

The stamp read: "Zelman Mendelevitch Komisarov, Kol. Grafskoy Ekat. Gub." I asked my mother for an explanation and after taking some time to recall what the abbreviations stood for, she told me that Grafskoy was where her father and both grandfathers were born (my grandparents were first cousins), "Ekat." stood for Ekaterinoslav which was the name of the province, and "Kol." stood for "Kolonya" or colony. Then she explained what she had been told about Jewish life on these Kolonyas.

My grandfathers youngest brother William (Khaim Velvel) Komesaroff was still alive and since he left Russia aged fourteen he retained many memories of life there. I collected much information which I published privately in my first book "Our FathersHarvest" (Petah Tikvah, Israel 1984). Subsequently I discovered considerably more material, both by contacting many relatives particularly in North America, and by discovering rare sources in Israeli libraries. So much material accumulated that I published it as a supplement in 1990. I began communicating with my cousin Mel Comisarow in Vancouver BC, Canada who researched and added much material culminating in his two visits to the Ukraine to rediscover what remained of the colonies. At the same time we succeeded in extracting much material from Ukrainian archives. In fact we continue to amass material so much so that I began to be concerned about its ultimate fate. Was it to remain in the personal archives of Mel and myself, or should we make it available to the public at large so as to ensure its preservation as a source of a valuable part of Jewish history?

I believe that to the phenomenon of Jewish agricultural settlement in an organized form in the European Diaspora is of importance in understanding the endeavors of certain groups of Jews to improve their social and economic situation under the restrictive and oppressive Tsarist regime. Their efforts were part of a unique episode in the struggle for Jewish survival in the Diaspora. This striving for survival whilst retaining Jewish values and life style needed to be brought to light in order to put into proper and just perspective the positive character of Jewish activities in the Diaspora, often besmirched and denigrated by Jews and gentiles alike in their accusation that the Jews exhibited a passive acceptance of the inevitability of their fate.

I found the ideal solution to my concern as to the future of my material when Nancy Holden, who also has connections with the colony region, decided to set up a Shtetlinks site under the auspices of Jewishgen. I decided to donate all of my material to the site. Nancy worked tirelessly as I engulfed her with material in innumerable e-mail attachments. This included most of the text of my two books as well as about thirty photographs. These were rare photographs of relatives as well as unique photos of houses in colony Grafskoy, the synagogue was photographed during visits to the Ukraine by Mel Comisarow, tombstones and general views. As the site became publicized other families who originated in the same area donated their photographs and material

Material presented on the site:

The many sections of the site are cross-referenced by internal links for ease of navigation.

· Extracts from the major sources such as Chaim Freedmans book "Our Fathers Harvest"; translations of selected sections of Nikitins work "Jewish Agriculturalists" and other Russian sources; an extensive article from "The Jewish Encyclopedia (Funk and Wagnall); recent articles on archival data by a Russian researcher Dmitri Feldman; excerpts from an article "Jewish Agricultural Colonies in Russia" by Harry D. Boonin reprinted from ROOTS-KEY, the newsletter of Jewish Genealogical Society of Los Angeles(Spring 1991); "Jewish Agricultural Colonies" from the RAGAS Newsletter (Summer 1996), Patricia Eames, editor; a Timeline of contemporaneous events; Migration - charts and maps showing the geographic origins of the original colonists; Russian Geography an account of the methods used to locate the exact positions of the colonies; and the ever valuable Site Map.

· Index of the Colonies - a list of all the places (colonies, villages, towns and cities) mentioned on the site, linked to the particular subsection which houses material about each place. It is the aim of the site to have a page for each place that will eventually incorporate history, surnames, sources, family pictures and stories. Places are presented alphabetically, according to location (Gubernia) and according to origin of settlers. Variations of place names are included.

· Surname List To date over 800 surnames found in various sources such as Hebrew newspaper donor lists, Prenumeranten lists and archival Revision Lists. This section will grow progressively as more sources are found.

· History of the agriculturalists is documented from many viewpoints. A special section includes translations of articles found in the nineteenth century Hebrew Press in Russia (Hamelitz, Hamaggid, Hatzefirah) which give vivid first hand accounts of life on the colonies. The number of such articles is surprising and indicates that the Jewish world at large was fascinated at the phenomenon of Jewish farmers.

· The Holocaust and the colonies presents witness sheets from Yad Vashem of colony born victims of the Nazi extermination of the Jews in the Ukraine. Other material has been located in the Ukraine and awaits translation.
· Personal memoirs of people who lived on the various colonies. These have been translated from Yiddish and Hebrew and provide fascinating first hand accounts of Jewish life in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Many of the experiences related are heart rending as the loss of family members in pogroms is vividly portrayed. One continually marvels at the scope of the writers memories as they give minute details of farming methods, Jewish holidays and practices, and the sequence of events in wartime.

· Documentation census data, settler lists, mayoral elections, extracted from archives.

· Photo Index reproduces all the photos that are located in individual parts of the site. The index is divided into two sections: "People" and "Places".

· Charts listing colonies in various regions such as Ekaterinoslav, Kherson, Bessarabia, Moldavia as well as nearby German colonies and Ukrainian villages and towns. It should be noted that at this stage (2005) most of the material received concerns the Ekaterinoslav colonies and it is hoped that researchers of other areas will provide their material.

Chaim Freedman examines traditional rabbinic genealogies

Nu ? What's New ?

The E- zine of Jewish Genealogy

Gary Mokotoff, Editor

Volume 7, Number 1 February 19, 2006

Chaim Freedman Stirs the Pot

There are some people with names not very familiar to the general Jewish genealogy community who have made significant contributions to genealogy and Jewish history. The person I would like to cite in this issue is Chaim Freedman of Israel.

Chaim has made a number of breakthroughs in the realm of rabbinic genealogy. He is a descendant of the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797) and has devoted a lifetime to researching the genealogy of this great scholar and his descendants. Avotaynu published in 1997 the results of his research in Eliyahu's Branches: The Descendants of the Vilna Gaon and His Family. It identifies more than 20,000 descendants of the Vilna Gaon.

But the important part of the book is not the list of descendants. It is the introductory portion where Freedman conjectures about the genealogy of the Gaon's family (how many children did he have, the order of their birth, etc.). It is this scholarly portion of the book that is Freedman's contribution to Jewish history. Freedman has also found entries for the Gaon's household in the 1764, 1784 and 1795 censuses of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. It helped him understand the order in which the Gaon's children were born.

Now Freedman is stirring the pot in areas of rabbinic genealogy that were previously considered proven. He claims he now has evidence that the MaHaRaL of Prague (1525-1609) was not descended from King David in the manner previously believed for three centuries. He has disproved the accepted pedigree of the MaHaRaL by a method seemingly lacking in rabbinic genealogy: primary source evidence. Much of rabbinic genealogy is based on lore; information passed down from one generation to another. Freedman disproved the MaHaRaL line to King David by examining the tombstone of the MaHaRal's alleged great-great grandfather, Yehudah Leib (Liwai) Hazaken. Apparently the tombstone was misread three hundred years ago and the error has been perpetuated. Yehudah Leib Hazaken died in 1540 not 1440 and, therefore, was a contemporary of the MaHaRaL not an ancestor.

Freedman's evidence appears in the Spring issue of AVOTAYNU.

Another yichus (pedigree) Freedman is challenging is that the Jaffe family can trace its ancestry back to King David through Rashi. Freedman claims there is no convincing evidence. He believes that the confusion arose from a comment by Yosef Levinstein on page 154 of Ir Tehilah published in 1885 where he states that Yekhiel Mikhel Epstein was a son-in-law of Mordekhai Jaffe, known as the Levush, and that the son-in-law of Yekhiel- Mikhel (Avraham Heilprin) was a descendant of Rashi. But that does not mean that the Levush was descended from Rashi. This error was perpetuated in the Jewish Encyclopedia (Funk and Wagnalls, 1903). Freedman is also planning an article on this subject.

I still recall that shortly after Freedman published his opus on the family history of the Vilna Gaon, I was contacted by one of the recognized experts on rabbinic genealogy who challenged some of Freedman's claims. "On what basis did Freedman conclude such-and-such," implying the expert was very knowledgeable on all known lore about the Vilna Gaon. My answer was "birth records."

Additional information about Eliyahu's Branches: The Descendants of the Vilna Gaon and His Family can be found at

Nu ? What's New is published biweekly by Avotaynu, Inc.Copyright 2006, Avotaynu, Inc. All rights reserved

Ancestry of the Vilna Gaon

Family Research

Berliner, Poland:Rozprza,Tomaszow-Mazowiecka, Lodz.
Bull,Latvia:Lewenhoff (Livani), Dvinsk (Daugavpils), Korsovka (Karsava).
Diamondstein, Latvia:Korsovka (Karsava),Dvinsk(Daugavpils), Rezhitza (Rezekna),Polotsk.
Dobrin, Latvia: Lutzin(Ludza).
Freedman/Frydman,Poland: Zakroczym.
Gordon, Lithuania: Salant. Ukraine:Nechaevka (Peness), Zelenoepole(Myadla).
Grinblat,Lithuania: Salant. Ukraine. Israel, Australia.
Kantorowicz, Poland:Opoczno, Tomaszow-Mazowiecki.
Kerszenbaum, Poland:Zakroczym, Warsaw.
Komisaruk (Komesaroff), Lithuania:Rassein (Raseiniai). Ukraine:Grafskoy
Lemky, Latvia: Ventspils (Windau)
Luban, Latvia, Ukraine.
Pogorelsky (Halevy), Belarus/Lithuania/Ukraine.
Kvint/Quint,Lithuania/Latvia: Leckava,Kursenai,Riga,Pikeliai. England and Scotland. Shenkovitch, Poland: Jamno.
Super,Latvia:Lutzin (Ludza), Korsovka (Karsava.
Vilna Gaon, worldwide.
Yekhovi (Ekhovi), Lithuania: Pikeliai, Zidikai, Siad
Weizenberg, Poland:Zakroczym, Plotsk.
Yovel(Joel) Lithuania: Plunge (Plungian). Ukraine:Trudoliubovka,Andreyevka, Berdyansk.
Zmood (Zhmudya),Latvia: Lutzin (Ludza). Ukraine: Novozlatopol,Andreyevka, Berdyansk,Mariupol
Zylbersztajn, Poland:Ujazd, Tomaszow-Maz.