Helena Jacobowsky (1838 – 1915)

My great-great-grandmother, Helena (Lena) JACOBOWSKY was born in Sandberg, Prussia – now in Poland, near(ish) to Leszno – in 1838. Her parents were tailor Hirsch JACOBOWSKY and his wife Taube (Tennie) WOLFF JACOBOWSKY.  I know of two older brothers, Schaie and Moritz, both of whom immigrated to the United States.

Helena Levy, c. 1900. Note the

Helena Levy, c. 1900. Note the “mourning jewelry” portrait she wears of her late husband, a fashionable late-Victorian statement.

Helena immigrated to the US in 1857, arriving in New York and staying with her brother, Schaie, who had adopted the name Simon. Sometime in 1859 or early 1860, she met and married Louis HESSE (or HASSE), and the young couple was still living in the household of Simon JACOBOWSKY as of the 1860 US Census.

Within a few years, Louis had changed his name to Morris LEVY for possible reasons I’ll discuss another day. The couple had a first child, named Wolf, in 1863, who died young. The next child was a daughter, Theresa, named after Helena’s mother. A second daughter, Ida, followed in 1868. Shortly thereafter, the family uprooted to Portsmouth, Virginia, following Simon, who had moved there after the Civil War.

Morris and Helena had five more children before the end of the 1870’s: Henrietta, Annie, Henry, Julia, and Pauline. Morris ran a tailor shop on Crawford Street and later, County Street, in Portsmouth, and the family lived above the shop.  Helena was apparently still in contact with the several inter-related families who had immigrated from Sandberg, and three of her daughters were married off to members of the Pawel family, who had been a prominent family in the Prussian town.

An aside: In 2005, I had a business trip to Portsmouth, Virginia, and stayed in a hotel within a few hundred feet of my great-great-grandparent’s residence on Crawford Street. Their shop was long since replaced, of course, but it was a strange realization a year later when I began genealogy in earnest and realized how close I had been.

When Morris died in 1896, Helena lived alternately with her seven children and enjoyed spending time with her grandchildren, and the lifestyle of a matron in the South. An unpublished autobiography by her grandson, George Washington Pawel, briefly described this period of her life thus:

Grandma Levy lived on for many years and often lived with us in Sandy Hill [New York] for long periods of time. She was a large woman, no less than 180 pounds, and I never knew her to do anything other than crochet and play cards. As a boy, I played cards by the hour with her. The game was “Ein und Ewanzig” – “21” or “Blackjack” in later years – and I played it with gramma until I could add numbers at lightning speed and with perfect accuracy. […]

Grandma ‘Lena was a character. She did not stir herself because she was accustomed to be waited on by colored servants in the South. While she lived with us, my mother never called on her for help, except at the dinner table.

Perhaps that sedentary lifestyle eventually took its toll on her, and she died of heart disease in February 1915, and was buried in Hebrew Cemetery in Norfolk next to her husband. Two final grandchildren were born after her passing, and both were both named after her – Helmar ABRAMS and Helvin JANUARY.


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