The End… of one line’s record

In the last few months, the Polish State Archives has digitized a number of their 19th century records, leading to a tremendous breakthrough on my Warsaw-area ancestors and related cousins. [As opposed to UNrelated cousins? Anyway….] I hope to be writing about them soon.

wertel marriage

Marriage of Jankiel WERTERYN and Sura WIENISZ, 1826

Today, however, I share a fascinating couple of documents that I found related to the WERTEL side. I’m still working on the exact translation from the Polish, but the first document is a marriage record from Kaluszyn on 17 Oct 1826, between Jankiel WERTERYN, a young tailor from Miedzyrzec Podlaski, and his bride, Sura WIENISZ. Despite the spelling difference, the ages, place, and profession make me pretty certain that this is the marriage of my great-great-great-grandfather and his first wife (I’m descended from the second spouse, Sura Ita (bat Kielman)).

Even more exciting, the document mentions Jankiel’s parents, who until now were unknown. They were Herszk (Hirsch), a hatter who had been deceased by 1826 for several years, and Dyna. My great^4 grandparents!

Why the spelling difference of the surname? Traditionally, Eastern European Jewry did not use surnames, but simply patronymics. So, Jankiel was originally known as Jankiel HERSZKOWICZ, or “son of Herszk”. This all changed under French rule. Napoleon created the Duchy of Warsaw in 1807, and mandated the surnames for everyone. Adoption of those names were rather haphazard, and in most cases little thought was initially given to it. Even within the same family, surnames might be different between brothers. They might take their patronymic as their name, or perhaps the name of the town in which they lived, or something related to their profession. I have no idea where WERTERYN / WERTEL comes from, as it seems to not be related to any of these in either Yiddish or Polish. Perhaps they just liked the way it sounded.

Szapsel birth record 1811 4

Szapsel Herskowicz, 1811

In any case, the marriage record led me to the second document, for which we need to travel back to Miedzyrzec Podlaski in 1811. Here, we find a birth record for one Szapsel – no surname – son of Herszk, age 42, and Dyna, age 48. Herszk’s profession is listed as “creator of Jewish hats” – probably the fur hats which were very fashionable at the start of the 19th century, and are still worn by certain Hasidic Jewish sects (see here).

While I can absolutely prove anything, it seems likely that this Herszk and Dyna are the same as Jankiel’s parents. Even better, the document names the parents’ patronymics, my great^5 grandparents: Berkowicz (son of Berko, or Ber) and Leybkowicz (daughter of Leib). No ages are available, but we can safely assume that these two gentlemen were born sometime between the 1720s and 1740s. Potentially even earlier if they married a younger wife.

Finding earlier records will be problematic. The French brought was a requirement of civil registers, which persisted in a rather rigid format until the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917. Thus, this 1811 record represents one of the earliest records we can hope to find. While some 18th century Polish records do, indeed, exist, the fact that they also predate surname adoption and contain considerably less information than the post-1810 records makes them extremely difficult to “match up” with family records.

Several questions remain:

What happened to Szapsel? Assuming he lived to adulthood – not at all a sure thing – he may not have taken the surname WERTEL. He might have chosen his own patronymic as his new surname (HERSKOWICZ), or adopted his father’s patronymic (BERKOWICZ). Perhaps he chose something entirely different, and – like brother Jankiel – moved to a different part of Poland. There’s no easy way of knowing.

Did Jankiel and Szapsel have other siblings? Almost certainly there were older siblings, but they predate the Napoleonic records, making it difficult to find them. Jankiel was born between 1803 and 1809; various documents from Jankiel’s life disagree, but the earliest available record suggests 1808. As Szapsel was born in 1811, when his mother was 48, he was very likely the last child.

When did Herszk die? Sometime between 1811 and 1826. The Polish on Jankiel’s marriage record is literally “several” years, but Google Translate wants to make it “a dozen” years. It’s unclear if that’s really the proper usage, and even if so, if it was common 200 years ago.

Are there more records of Herszk and Dyna? Again, maybe. I have located two more records that may be the same family, but something is a little off in each of them, either the age, or profession. It may also be that I am the one who is off; my Polish is very, very rudimentary, and my reading of two-century-old handwriting from microfilm is not best.

The search continues!

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