One of the most rewarding parts of family research is finding real stories, the concrete information about an ancestor that helps paint a vivid picture. The goal isn’t just to collect names and dates. It’s to find out the details of their lives, to recreate in our mind what their life was like. When we can connect our ancestors to specific historical moments in time, they become real figures in our family history.
In the following passage, Simon Bernfeld discusses a common ancestor, my great-great-great-great-grandfather, Efraim Fishel Bernfeld.
My great-grandfather Ephraim was doing a valuable service to the Austrian troops in the war against Turkey (starting 1788) by providing supplies. At the occasion of a withdrawal of the troops he forfeited all of his property. The commanding general recommended him to emperor Josef II, who granted him an audience in Vienna. When asked what could be done to help him, Efraim Bernfeld expressed the desire to obtain land ownership, since he was quite interested in agriculture. The Austrian government had at her disposal extensive state property in Galicia, an area that she had acquired with the first partition of Poland in 1772. My great-grandfather obtained a small estate in Jesupol near Stanislav. But since he wanted to engage in farming on a larger scale, he leased an adjoining estate from Count Dzieduszycki.
The Count made an agreement with my great-grandfather that the latter would pay him the lease on the first day of each quarter in shining full-weight ducats at the exact designated time. My great-grandfather was to thoroughly follow this condition. Should he, however, need some money during the quarter for his operation, the Count would be willing to grant him an interest-free loan.
One day, Ephraim went to the Count’s castle to pay the due installment of rent. Count Dzieduszycki was just like most of the Polish nobles, a frightening and strange man. On this particular day, when he entered the Count’s palace, the house was full of guests having a family feast. The Nobel talked to my great-grandfather in anger, “Now you are coming to bother me? Don’t you see that I have many guests in the house?” My great-grandfather replied, “We have a deal between us and I am keeping it. I am not going to back off even one bit. I am here to bring you the lease fee.” The Count immediately became kind to him and said, “If so, then here is the key for the safe box. You already know where the location of the safe is. Go and put the money in it.” When Efraim Fishel went out of the room, one of the guests said to Dzieduszycki in crooked lips, “You are so smart! You took the money from a Jew without counting it and the worst part is that you gave him the key to the safe. Of course he will steal as much as he likes.” The Count got very angry at the person who said those things and he answered him in a harsh tone. He said, “This is an offense on my honor. This Jew that I receive money from is a very honest man and I trust him.” When this situation was over, they were both so angry that they ended up striking each other. They continued to fight for many years.
Ephraim Bernfeld was married three times, and when he died at an old age, he left a large progeny. As it is often the case with children from a first marriage, my grandfather, Simon was disadvantaged when it came to dividing the estate.
I owe tremendous gratitude to my cousin, Rabbi Simon Bernfeld for writing an autobiography with family detail that could be passed down throughout the generations as well as Andreas Schwab, a biomedical scientist who volunteered his time to translate the German portion of this document. The extract above was taken from both the Hebrew and German versions of the autobiography.
Very little is available in the Ukraine archive for the Jewish community of Jezupol. In a future post I will discuss what I found and some files that still need to be searched.