Hirsch Family – 1860’s

This photo is the oldest one in my collection and is also my all time favorite. My great-great-grand uncle, Isidor is standing in between his parents, my great-great-great grandparents Hirsch Hirsch and Susanna Mayer.

The photo was taken in the 1860’s in Rhineland, Germany.

Currently, a researcher is getting ready to publish an article about this branch of my family in May. I will post the piece here when it’s available.

Samuel Hirsch – Chief Rabbi of Luxembourg and Reform Rabbi in Philadelphia


The information available for those doing family research never ceases to amaze me. I just came across a Luxembourg postage stamp which commemorates the 125th anniversary of the death of my second cousin four times removed, Rabbi Dr. Samuel Hirsch.

Samuel Hirsch was born in Thalfang, Germany on June 8, 1815. We are both descendants of Salomon Ackermann and Zerle Levi but this is where our trees split. I descend from two of Salomon and Zerle’s children, Isaac and Johanna, through different branches and Samuel’s ancestral line is through Isaac and Johanna’s brother, Samuel.

Samuel Hirsch's ancestors Courtesy, Elmar Ittenbach

Samuel Hirsch’s ancestors
Courtesy, Elmar Ittenbach

Although there are plenty of resources available relating to the life of Samuel Hirsch, including his own writings, I was only familiar with his later years in the United States, serving as a Reform rabbi in Philadelphia for over two decades.

After stumbling upon the postage stamp, I learned that he was appointed chief rabbi of Luxembourg in 1843 by Wilhelm II, king of the Netherlands and Grand Duke of Luxembourg. Samuel Hirsch held that position until 1866 when he moved to Philadelphia to lead Congregation Keneseth Israel.

Rabbi Hirsch was known for his radical voice in Reform Judaism when the movement was in its early stages in Germany. He was considered a controversial figure.

In 1888, he retired and moved to Chicago to live with his son, philosopher and rabbi, Emil Hirsch. Samuel Hirsch died in Chicago on May 14, 1889.

Escaping Europe Aboard the SS Hilda and the Atlit Detention Camp Experience

Passengers Aboard the SS Hilda

Passengers aboard the SS Hilda

Two months after the outbreak of World War II, Efraim Lilian, a destitute man, escaped Europe ahead of the Nazi regime. He, along with 727 other refugees boarded an overcrowded, run down ship hoping to make it to the Promised Land. The journey, which was nothing short of a nightmare, should have taken a week or two but instead, lasted three months. As the SS Hilda finally approached the port of Haifa, the British Royal Navy intercepted it and arrested everyone on board.

The SS Hilda was part of secret operations designed to bring persecuted Jews to Palestine between 1920 and 1948 when Great Britain ruled the region. The program was called Aliyah Bet. After the outbreak of WWII, the urgency for Jews to leave Europe intensified.

According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “62 voyages were made between 1937-1944. The trips were dangerous and hundreds of people lost their lives at sea. By 1948, well over 100,000 people had taken this route, including more than 70,000 Holocaust survivors.”

The reason why it was so difficult for Jews to enter Palestine was because of a change in the immigration policy imposed by the British. On November 9, 1938, the British issued a statement called the White Paper. It was designed to drastically reduced Jewish immigration in order limit their population growth. The goal was to prevent violent unrest amongst Arabs who vehemently opposed Jewish immigration.¹ Ironically, the White Paper statement was issued on the same date that Kristallnacht broke out in Germany.

The White Paper contradicted the Balfour Declaration, written by British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour which favorably viewed the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine.

After the White Paper went into effect, a strict immigration quota was enforced. This led to secret operations known as clandestine immigration.

The following details describe the experience aboard the SS Hilda.²

SS Hilda Passengers on the pier in Balchik, Bulgaria  before their journey. Courtesy Maapilim.org.il

SS Hilda passengers on the pier in Balchik, Bulgaria
before their journey.
Courtesy Maapilim.org.il

Weeks ahead of a special secret mission to escape Europe, hundreds of refugees began their journey from all over the German Reich (Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia). A couple of ships were organized to take passengers down the Danube River and meet in Sulina, Romania where they would board the SS Hilda. Approximately 300 people from Germany sailed on board the ship, Tsar Dushan and another group of 350 people sailed from Prague on board a ship named the Karlitza Maria. They both departed from Bratislava and landed in Sulina.

In the meantime, the SS Hilda was under renovation ahead of the journey. The vessel, far from seaworthy, was just a Danube river boat. The upgrade was designed to satisfy basic needs such as sleeping and bathing as well as to prevent detection. The British kept watch by land, air and sea looking out for these ships and any hint of a clandestine immigration mission would cause reason to detain and turn the ship back. The wait was long and difficult to withstand for those whose lives were at stake.

The SS Hilda was also delayed because a group of people expecting to join the mission were detained in Hungary. Eventually, the wait became too risky due to harsh weather conditions and lack of vital supplies. The organizers, along with the original 650 passengers and a new group of 78 people, decided to change course to Balchik and wait there for the additional refugees.

After they arrived at the port of Balchik in Bulgaria, the weather conditions deteriorated and the SS Hilda became imprisoned in the frozen Black Sea. The ice was too thick for travel and the ship was stuck to the pier. The organizers tried to locate a different vessel but were unsuccessful.

The mishaps during the journey prolonging the trip well beyond what anyone would have anticipated. The refugees had to stay in Balchik for almost six weeks starting from the end of November, 1939 through the beginning of January, 1940.

The following passage, found at the Maapalim website best sums up what happened next.

The people who organized the journey struggled to find a new crew to replace the former one.

The physical conditions deteriorated every day. After a few weeks at the dock in Balchik, the water pipes froze, the passengers were left without drinking water, ran out of food and the morale was low.

Despite the hardship, the passengers organized parties on board the ship (like a Chanukah party on December 7th). The youth movements’ members organized lectures and musicians performed.

On December 29, a fire broke out on board after one of the passengers filled an oil lamp with gasoline. A passenger named Emgrad Levinstein died in the fire. A short while later, a storm tore the ship’s ropes and almost threw it into the pier.

Despite these disasters, the passengers celebrated a few engagements and two births, a boy and a girl. On January 14, 1940, after the ice in Balchik melted, the SS Hilda left the harbor and started its journey to Palestine. It arrived in Istanbul on January 15. The ship didn’t enter the port but food and coal were brought over.

When the SS Hilda arrived in Istanbul, the passengers were struck with a stomach flu and the long line to the lavatories exposed the ship’s clandestine immigration mission.

SS Hilda crossed the Dardanelles and entered the Aegean Sea near Kos [a Greek island]. A storm forced the ship to enter a nearby harbor. After the storm subsided, the ship continued its journey to Haifa. It was captured by a British destroyer on January 17, 1940. A few days later the SS Hilda was escorted by the British destroyer to Palestine and entered the Port of Haifa January 23.

After arriving at the port of Haifa, the passengers were not permitted to disembark. Instead, they sat on the battered ship for another week. As word got out about their plight, many people tried to help.

Below is an example of one of several petitions that were made to publicize the ordeal. A brief summary of the petition follows.

72 hours on the water of Haifa. 730 souls – destroyed souls. Three months on the ship and now waiting at the port of Haifa with no sign of help. During our long and difficult journey, we have seen tragedy after tragedy but our spirits are still high. We are not giving up. Please give us a helping hand. We are waiting to immigrate. From the passengers of the SS Hilda. We are your brothers and with us you will live.

Despite tremendous hardship and suffering, they continued their fight and never lost sight of their dream. A week after landing, the refugees were permitted to disembark but would not gain the freedom they sought. Instead they were all sent to an internment camp. The women and children were released after a few weeks but the men were forced to stay for six months.

In 1939, the British converted a military facility in the town of Atlit, into a detention camp for clandestine immigrants. The center, known as Atlit Detention Camp, was located south of Haifa.

The following account³ captures the essence of the facility.

The Atlit camp, surrounded by three barbed wire fences and guarded by armed sentries in six watch towers, eerily resembled the Nazi concentration camps whose horrors had been branded into the survivors’ psyches as surely as the numbers branded on their arms. The British could not have designed a more sadistic absorption process for the already traumatized survivors. After being forced to disembark from their ships, many of the refugees were put into cattle cars to be transported to Atlit. When the prisoners entered the Atlit camp, the men were sent to one side, the women to the other. They were sprayed with DDT, then told to undress and enter the showers. Then they were sent to sleep in long wooden barracks with corrugated tin roofs, a facsimile of the barracks from which they had recently been liberated. Men and women were assigned to separate areas of the camp, with barbed wire between them.

Following a month of detention, a file was opened in order to deport Efraim Lilian.

This document was one of millions that have been indexed and set up as a free resource. The purpose is to preserve the memory and provide information about survivors and victims of Nazi persecution. The document itself was an index for a deportation order.

Thanks to this record, I found a cousin that I never heard of because his birth record was improperly transcribed. After discovering this index page, I was motivated to learn more.

His full name was Efraim Fishel Lilian, the firstborn son of Ettel Bernfeld Lilian and her husband Isak. Efraim was born in Stanislawow in 1881 and like so many other children in his extended family, he received the honor to be named after his great-grandfather. I stumbled upon his name while researching another family member. If it wasn’t for this record and the World Memory Project, he may never have been discovered.

Since Efraim’s birth index was transcribed incorrectly, it did not show up with those of his siblings. Following the discovery, I went back to the birth indexes and searched for Efraim using his mother’s first name and his year of birth. His record turned up under the surname Rosenfeld instead of Bernfeld.

Efroim Fischel 1881 B 42 1222 M Isak Ettel ROSENFELD Tyśmienica

The record below, which clearly shows the name Bernfeld, is followed by the full birth record.

Efraim Lilian Birth 1881

Efraim Lilian Birth 1881

One happy part to this story is that although there were documents revealing an attempt to deport Efraim, in the end, he along with the other people on the application below were permitted to stay.

An archivist from the Atlit Museum showed me a list that records Efraim Lilian’s release date as July, 1940. At this point, I don’t know what happened to him after he left Atlit.

My search included Atlit Detention Camp, Yad Vashem, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and on-line inquiries both in Hebrew and English. There is one archive that I recently found which may have information but it will take a while to receive an answer. Perhaps Efraim changed his name, left the country or died shortly after his release and therefore may not have left a paper trail. For now, the rest of this story remains a mystery.

The following video is about the Atlit Detention Camp. The center was restored to its original state and is now a museum. Tour guide, Zahi Shaked made this video.

Writing about Efraim Lilian, the SS Hilda and the Atlit Detention Camp was a learning experience. Before researching this story, I was unfamiliar with clandestine immigration, the situation in the area during British rule or Atlit.

Thank you Alex Koegel for sharing many resources about the SS Hilda. Alex’s father, Shraga-Iser Koegel Z”L was one of the passengers aboard the ship.

¹Puckett, Dan J. In the Shadow of Hitler: Alabama’s Jews, the Second World War, and the Holocaust. U of Alabama, 2014. Print.

²”Hilda.” Http://en.maapilim.org.il/ShowShip/589/51197. Golan, Yehudit. “ומי במים…” Breslev.co.il. 

³Rigler, Sara Yoheved. “Escape from Atlit.” Aish. Aish, 12 Jul. 2009.

*Palestine was the name given to the Jewish homeland by the Romans in the year 132 CE.

*Kristallnacht, literally Crystal Night is also known as, The Night of the Broken Glass. Kristallnacht began on the evening of November 9, 1938 and lasted throughout the next day. In total, almost 200 synagogues were destroyed, over 8,000 Jewish shops were looted, and tens of thousands of Jews were removed and placed in concentration camps. 

Information about the World Memory Project can be found here.

Ideas for Better Photo and Memorabilia Organization


Friends - July 12, 1921

Friends – July 12, 1921

During the process of going through family memorabilia, I am learning more about my grandmother’s youth. This photo was sent to her right after she moved from Germany to Chicago. On the back it says, “For my dear Selma, in memory. Your Elsie. Photo taken 12 July 1921.”

The image above is part of a collection of pictures, postcards and letters that I received from my grandmother. Once I had several of her items translated, it became apparent that there was a need to do a better job organizing because I was storing the photos and translations in two separate places.

Her keepsakes are in boxes, envelopes and albums and the translations are located in an online family tree. After accidentally getting the same postcard translated twice, I knew it was time to change my system. The goal was to place everything in one central location.

I would like to share some ideas that I started using to help you organize your images, documents, family heirlooms and any other memorabilia.

First think about and try to locate where your items are stored. Before the advent of digital cameras, most people used slides, photo albums and boxes. These may be the easiest things to find since they are tangible.

Next, try to recall where all of your digital images are stored. As technology improves, people like to upgrade. This means that you may have photos stored on several computers, in different files, on CD’s, phones, iPads and other devices as well as social media. Unless you are highly organized, it’s hard to keep track of everything.

After you have located all of the items that you want organized, select an image hosting website. The website I selected for storage is called Flickr. It’s free and can hold videos, photos, scans, notes, translations and ideas. Privacy settings can be changed for each photo so you get to decide if you want your items to be public, shared with a select group of people or private. You can also make online albums, create groups and edit. They even offer a printing service if you would like to create a photo book.

So far, the new system has been a big improvement over the old way. It has even saved time and shortened the steps usually needed while working with various media. For example, I no longer have to crop my images in one program and store translations in another. Everything can be achieved at one location.

Technology has drastically changed since many of us began taking photos and collecting various ephemera. Therefore keep in mind that consolidating every collection you own may take a while since your items might be stored in many different places. This project will be well worth the time and effort you put into it.

There are other websites that offer free storage. Before you commit to one, research a few and see which one best suits your needs. The article linked here will give you the rundown on a few other photo storage sites.

The Benefits of Crowdsourcing in Genealogy Research

Yesterday, I went to an archive at Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem to look at a memoir written by two cousins. One photo in particular interested me because it shows my great-great-great uncle, Rabbi Aryeh Leib Bernfeld’s headstone.

Headstone of Aryeh Leib Bernfeld  Courtesy Yad Vashem

Headstone of Aryeh Leib Bernfeld
Courtesy Yad Vashem

Back in May, I wrote an article about Aryeh Leib although it was brief due to lack of information.

Since my Hebrew skills are basic and I didn’t know every word inscribed on the marker,¹ I crowdsourced with an active online genealogy group. In addition to receiving a translation, people added other information. Some of the details would not have been known without their help.

The headstone says that Rabbi Aryeh Leib was the son of Shimon. It includes the phrase, “May his memory be blessed.” Rabbi Bernfeld was a local rabbi. He died on the sixth day of Iyar [Hebrew month] and was a rabbi for 60 years.

The writing beneath the headstone says it is the tombstone of the Great Rabbi Aryeh Leib, head of the Beit Din [court] of Zaleszczyki.

The person that translated the items above continued and said, “He was buried in Zaleszczyki, as the inscription clearly states ‘rabbi of this place.’ Were he to be buried elsewhere, the inscription would have said, ‘rabbi of Zaleszczyki.’ Anyway, 5692 [Hebrew calendar] is 1932, but I’m not sure if it’s the date of death or the date of this picture. It looks like a yahrzeit picture.” A yahrzeit is a memorial connected to the anniversary of someone’s death.

Someone else mentioned that the inscription formed an acrostic of his name. If you look at the larger letters on the right side of the grave marker going from the top to the fourth line from the bottom, you can see that his name was written (Hebrew is read from right to left), אריה ליב בנ ר שמעונ which translates as Aryeh Leib son of Reb² Shimon.

The person then went on to say that, “An acrostic eulogy is not a rarity for an especially revered rabbi or a dedicated communal leader.”

Someone else provided additional details. “Rabbi Aryeh Leib son of R’ Shimon Bernfeld Zaleszczyki (Galizien) born circa 1842, circa 1873 became a rabbi in Snetin, and later Chief Jewish Judge (Av-Beit-Din) in Katzmanen, and then Av-Beit-Din in Vizhnitsa, and then Av-Beit-Din and rabbi in Zaleszczyki.”

Another person clarified that the town of Katzmanen is now called Kitsman.

Next, someone mentioned that the obituary found in my first article (and now below) was incorrect because the headstone states that Aryeh Leib died on the 6th day of Iyar, May 16 in the year 1929, and not May 21 as the obituary notes. I agreed with him that the inscription on the stone was most likely the more accurate date. Following that, a couple of people explained why this is not necessarily the case. One person pointed out that although the obituary was written on May 21, stating that he “died here today” the article could have been reprinted on May 21 and that the information may have been a few days old. In addition, she pointed out that just because the date of death is carved in stone, it does not make it right.

Aryeh Leib Bernfeld Obituary (First name spelled incorrectly)

Aryeh Leib Bernfeld Obituary
(First name spelled incorrectly)

Someone else mentioned that he wrote his own father’s death date incorrectly in an obituary because he was so grief-stricken at that moment that he was not thinking clearly. Errors can be found in documents, articles, obituaries as well as grave markers.

One final item that someone contributed was a reference to a book that may provide some additional details about Rabbi Bernfeld.

I highly recommend crowdsourcing and collaborating with other people if you want to get better insight into anything you are researching.

¹The following link provides helpful information for reading Hebrew tombstones: http://www.jewishgen.org/InfoFiles/tombstones.html

²The “ר” which stands for Reb does not mean that the person was a rabbi but instead is a term of reverence for the person. 

Finding Solutions to Unconnected Links on a Family Tree

Felep Bernfeld, previously known in the Old Country as Fishel, immigrated to the United States in 1890. He left behind a little gift because he didn’t know how to write his name using Latin letters. After his naturalization document was written, he signed it in Hebrew. The name used in his signature was different from the one written in English. This wonderful discrepancy revealed that he might be a match to a still unattached branch in the Bernfeld family tree.

Felep (Fishel) Bernfeld Naturalization document

Felep (Fishel) Bernfeld
Naturalization document

The name Efraim Fishel, variations of it and a few other names were passed down from generation to generation through several Bernfeld family branches originating in Jezupol (and before that time Vienna). The process of piecing unlinked parts of this family together has been difficult since vital records from Jezupol were destroyed. It appears (but has not yet been proven) that some of these unlinked branches may be related.

Although my 4th great-grandfather, Efraim Fishel and his family were the first Bernfelds to move to the town of Jezupol around 1789, circumstantial evidence does not provide a solid link to other families carrying the same surname. By using records from towns where vital documents survived, several branches can be traced back to Jezupol. The goal is to connect these branches.

Another clue that Felep left behind was the spelling variation of his surname. The name, written in Yiddish using Hebrew letters had three additional vowels. It was almost the same variation that a cousin, Simon Bernfeld wrote about. Fishel Bernfeld wrote his name פישעל בערונפעלט, a unique spelling.¹ Those vowels have been omitted and today the surname is spelled with six letters (ברנפלד).

The only thing I don’t understand about his signature is that he wrote the last letter of his surname using a “ט” which gives a “t” sound instead of a “ד” which gives a “d” sound. This spelling translates as Bernfelt. Perhaps there’s a rule with the Yiddish variation that differs from Hebrew. The naturalization document, which was written in English, states that his last name was Bernfeld. His birth record as well as those of his siblings also spell the surname in Latin as Bernfeld.

Felep's birth record (#4)

Felep (Fishel Nisen’s) birth record – #4

After locating additional records, it was revealed that Felep was a match to a specific unattached branch. Felep, who was given the birth name Fishel and later changed it to Phillip, was the first-born child of Awner Bernfeld and his first wife, Chane Miller. Awner is traced back to Jezupol through the birth record of his second child, Abraham. It is interesting to note that Awner also had a child named Efraim.² A possible theory is that Awner divided Efraim Fishel’s name amongst two children. First a connection needs to be established and evidence must be found in order to prove this idea. The children in this family, born in Brzezany, are as follows:

Fishel Nisen Feb 23, 1869 May 6, 1937
Abraham 1871
Leiser 1872
Dawid 1878 1879
Chaje Rossie 1880 1887
Cirl 1883 1885
Moses Leib 1885 1886
Efraim Aug 9, 1891 Mar 14, 1972
Taube 1893 1893
Saul 1895
Marjem 1901

There are trees posted for at least two of the names above at genealogy websites such as Ancestry.com.

Since I began this blog nine months ago, I’ve collaborated with a few Bernfeld descendants that can trace their family back to Jezupol. Some exciting news regarding this family is that new relatives from my line have been found. The connections come through Moshe Bernfeld’s children. So far, one branch has been located in New York and another one has been traced to Israel. As a side note, the person from the Israeli branch has an intense story of survival. He escaped Nazi Germany and made it to the shores of Israel only to be locked up in an internment camp because of the British Mandate. I’m still researching this person and will report what I find some time in the near future.

In addition to finding relatives through documents, another way to expand the tree and connect unlinked branches is through DNA testing. A Bernfeld DNA project has been started by someone in California. The goals are to gather enough information in order to find out if our branches connect and to find out who else we relate to back in time. I ordered a Family Finder DNA kit a couple of weeks ago and am looking forward to where this leads. Men in our group that are direct Bernfeld descendants are using the Y-DNA test.

As pieces of the puzzle come together, hopefully more descendants from this town will emerge.

If any Bernfeld researchers are reading this and would like to join the DNA project, please let me know.

¹ The Hebrew block letters written in this post look different than some of the letters used in Felep’s signature. This is because he signed using Hebrew script. You can see from the chart below how they differ.

Hebrew alphabet in block and script

Hebrew alphabet in block and script

² Efraim’s mother was Chaje Dine Rosenberg. Awner’s first wife, Chane Miller died in 1886 at the age of 37.

New Years Day Reflections

While growing up, January 1 was always one of the most significant dates on the calendar for my family. It was my grandmother’s birthday and my grandparents anniversary. This meant that every year we had a party on New Years Day.

My grandmother was born January 1, 1900 in a small village in Germany. She lived to be 102. The celebration that stands out the most was her 100th birthday on January 1, 2000, the first day of the new millennium. According to a relative, thirteen people turned 100 on that day in the United States.

Family photo. My two littles boys in the photo are now teenagers.

Family photo. I’m next to my grandmother with my two little boys.

My mom and my grandmother

My mom and grandmother

To honor her birthday, my grandmother received a couple of letters from politicians, including President Bill Clinton. Since I only have a photocopy, it’s impossible to tell if President Clinton actually signed the paper himself or if it was a stamped signature. The letters were a fun addition to the scrapbook and my grandmother enjoyed receiving them.