Spring Has Arrived and Research Update

It’s been hard to stay indoors and blog during this time of year because spring has arrived in Jerusalem! Our seasonal rain period is over and has been replaced by plenty of sun and warm weather. Once this transition happens, we won’t see rain until autumn.

There’s so much beauty to see right now and I want to share some of it with you. As you can see in the video, the desert where I live is in full bloom and the drive from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea is breathtaking.

Although I’ve been enjoying the outdoors, I do have some news regarding family research. There’s been a few great discoveries, especially with the Bernfeld clan.

Several Bernfeld descendants have started taking DNA tests and my newly found cousin, Bruce Bernfeld matches me exactly where he should, at the third cousin level. It’s been a bit of a challenge to figure out how all of our Bernfeld participants are related. Although we show up as relatives to one another (some more distant than others) we don’t all match and triangulate on one common segment. As more people test, we hope to figure this puzzle out and find some answers.

Another incredible discovery was learning that Rabbi Simon Bernfeld’s son, Raffael survived the Holocaust! This is the first time that I came across anything mentioning a surviving descendant.

Raffael Bernfeld was born in Belgrade in 1891 while his father Simon served as chief rabbi there. I stumbled upon his name through a record from the Cison Valmarino internment camp in the province of Treviso, Italy. The list, dated 1946 states that he survived the war.

I am still trying to learn what happened to Raffael and if he has descendants. The last item found in his paper trail was in reference to a restitution claim that he submitted after the war. I requested information about his file and finally received a response today. An archivist was willing to send me a 260 page document relating to his case but it required a hefty fee. Unfortunately, I don’t know German so instead of that option, I asked the representative if she knew where he was living when he filed the application. Hopefully she will have an answer.

The third piece of information regarding Bernfeld research relates to Efraim Lilian, the relative I recently wrote about who escaped Europe only to be locked up in a detainment camp. An archivist that I am working with in Jerusalem found his name in a database and is currently trying to gather information. I’m optimistic that there may be more to this story, one that ended prematurely due to lack of additional material.

I look forward to catching up on all of my fellow bloggers posts which I missed over the past few weeks. You inspire me!

102 Years of a Beautiful Life – Part 1

When I think of my grandmother, a saying from the Talmud comes to mind, “Whoever saves one life, it is as if he [or she] saves the entire world.” The story that I relate to this quote is remarkable and at the same time, has a great amount of sadness. I will write about that event soon but first, I would like to start from the beginning of my grandmother’s life.

My grandmother Selma age 18 - Germany

My grandmother Selma age 18 – Germany

On January 1, 1900, the first day of the 20th century, my grandmother, Selma was born in the small rural town of Thalfang, Germany. It is now part of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate.

Her parents’ modest home only had two bedrooms, a living room and a small kitchen. Selma and her older sister shared a bed because the room was too small for an additional one. Their mattress was made from straw and each year, it was replaced with a new batch. The only source of heat inside the home came from a coal oven, located in the kitchen. The living room, which also served as an all-purpose room, was where her father set up a workshop for his carpentry business. They also had a small barn attached to the house where they kept chickens and a goat.

Although I don’t have a photo of the house she lived in, I found a couple of pictures of the neighborhood where she grew up. The first image is the view across the street from her house and the next one is the synagogue building, located next to where she lived.

When Selma was six years old, her parents and two sisters moved to Cologne. The family struggled financially because Selma’s father could not find full-time employment. They hoped that the move to a large city would enable him to find a full-time job and earn a steady income. Selma’s grandparents were devastated by the news that their only child, my great-grandmother Johanna and their grandchildren would be moving so far away. Selma, the oldest grandchild (her older sister had a different mother and therefore different maternal grandparents) had always been very attached to her grandparents and decided to stay with them so that they wouldn’t be lonely.

Selma was eleven when her grandfather died but she and her grandmother, Rosina remained in their home.

After graduating grade school at the age of fourteen, Selma continued her studies as an apprentice to a fine seamstress in Hermeskeil, Germany.

Seamstress teacher

Seamstress teacher

She would leave on Monday by train and return home on Friday in order to spend the weekends with her grandmother. Since Rosina did not have the financial means to pay for Selma’s room and board at her school, she made arrangements with several families so that Selma could live at one home and eat at five different homes each week.

While Selma was learning, WWI erupted. She could hear the shooting all throughout the war. Although the fighting never reached her town, they were still affected because of food rationing. There were many farms in and around her community but the farmers sold their produce to businesses that were willing to pay more than the local retailers.

After three years of an apprenticeship, Selma started her own dressmaking business in her home. Within a short amount of time, she built up a very successful business and employed two assistants.

In July, 1917, one year after she started her business, Selma’s grandmother, Rosina died tragically by falling down the basement stairs. Selma continued to live in the house alone.

After World War I ended in November 1918, English and American soldiers arrived in Germany. As they traveled through the countryside, they would sleep in residential homes. Since my grandmother lived alone, she was worried by the thought that soldiers might stay in her home. The soldiers were very considerate of the fact that she was by herself and didn’t include her home while they stayed in the area.

During this time period, Selma began writing letters to her grandmother’s brother Michael. He lived in Chicago and encouraged her to move to the United States. The economy in Germany was terrible so she was happy to accept his offer. It took about two years before she could acquire a visa.

Before Selma immigrated to the U.S. in 1921, she sold her house and put the money in her German bank account. Two years later, in 1923, the money lost all of its value because Germany had hyperinflation and went bankrupt. In 1923, the inflation was so terrible that Selma received an envelope from Germany covered with stamps on both sides. It cost 57,000 marks just to mail that one letter to the United States.

The chart below gives you an idea of how rapidly the German Mark devalued in 1923.

Date Approx. Value of 1 US $ in German Marks
1/1/1920 50 Mark
1/1/1921 75 Mark
1/1/1922 190 Mark
7/1/1922 400 Mark
1/1/1923 9,000 Mark
6/1/1923 100,000 Mark
9/1/1923 10,000,000 Mark
10/10/1923 10,000,000,000 Mark
10/25/1923 1,000,000,000,000 Mark
11/15/1923 4,200,000,000,000 Mark

Selma immigrated to the United States on April 30, 1921. The first part of her journey involved taking a small boat from Hamburg, Germany to Liverpool, England. She waited there for a week and then departed from the Port of Southampton traveling on a Cunard Line ship named the Aquitania. The journey was difficult because she was seasick almost the entire time.

My grandmother saved this photo of the Aquitania, the ship she took while immigrating to America

My grandmother saved this photo of the Aquitania, the ship she took while immigrating to America

Ship travel log during my grandmother's trip to America

Ship travel log during my grandmother’s trip to America

In 1921, the year that Selma arrived in America, anti-immigrant sentiments ran high. That mood was reflected by the Emergency Quota Act which Congress passed on May 19, 1921. Fueled by fears that uneducated foreigners would flood the work force, the law established strict immigration quotas.

After arriving at Ellis Island, she stayed with relatives in New York before continuing her journey to Chicago. Selma lived with her uncle Michael and his wife Fanny for one year but she didn’t like Chicago and returned to Brooklyn. She stayed with Michael’s sister-in-law, her great-aunt Mina.

In 1922, Selma went to the McDowell School in Manhattan where she studied dress pattern design. In the evening she went to school to learn English.

Selma Frankel - 3rd row from front left side

Selma Frankel – 3rd row from front left side

In 1923, after Selma finished her pattern course, she worked for a dressmaker named Madame Pauline who had a shop located on Second Avenue in New York. There, she met a girl from Poland  and they started their own dressmaking business together on 13th Avenue in Borough Park, Brooklyn.

In part two, you will find out what Selma did to save many lives during World War II.

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.