Victorian author George Eliot (a.k.a., Mary Anne Evans) once wrote, “Our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them.” Unfortunately for Jennifer Grey’s family, the identity of her mother’s grandmother was lost over the span of just one generation. Her episode on Who Do You Think You Are? sought to restore her place in the family history.
Many people erroneously believe that records of Jews prior to their emigration from Eastern Europe cannot be found. While it is true that many Jewish records were lost to wars, natural disasters, and the specifically targeted destruction of Jewish communities, millions of records still exist.
One of the biggest hurdles is to identify the place of origin in Eastern Europe, and the names family members went by prior to emigration. Records in Europe would reflect those names.
From passenger lists, Jennifer learned that her grandfather, Israel (known in the U.S. as Izzy) Brower immigrated from Yampol, Russia (now Yampol, Ukraine), in 1907. Izzy was sixteen, traveling with his siblings, 18-year old Rose, Cheskel, age 14 and Taube, age 9. They were going to meet their father, Shulim Brower in Brooklyn, New York.
What happened to Izzy’s mother? Why were they traveling without an adult? Was their mother already in the United States? Did she die in Europe? What was her name? Jennifer’s mother —Izzy’s daughter—did not have the answers.
Discovering the fate of Izzy’s mother took time and patience. As was typical among Jewish immigrants, their names were changed after immigration to Americanized versions. Cheskel became Charlie and Taube became Tillie. Shulim became Solomon. The 1910 census was the first accounting after the children arrived which listed all the family members. It indicated that Solomon was widowed. We needed to learn when and where his wife died. According to the census, Solomon and an older child, William, arrived in the United States in 1906, a year before the other children.
In order to locate information about the family, many types of documents in the United States were reviewed. The family name “Brower” is not a common name, and it was necessary to gather as much documentation as possible regarding the family, to attempt to identify Izzy’s mother.
The family lived in Brooklyn, New York. These records reviewed included:
- Passenger arrival lists from Ellis Island
- Census records
- Records from the Brooklyn School of Pharmacy
- World War I Draft Registrations
- Lists of enrolled voters
The records seemed to indicate that she had died in Europe. Identifying documents overseas was more problematic. The records of the Jewish communities in Europe are often difficult to find. Not all the documents and repositories survived the many wars in Eastern Europe and other disasters, such as fire and flooding. In the Vinnitsa State Archives, in Ukraine, records pertaining to Yampol, in the Podolia region of Russia before World War I, we found Izzy’s mother’s death record. That record revealed her name, Sheyndl, and the place where she resided, Dzygovka, also in Podolia.
Vital records from the Jewish community are often, as with this record, across a two-page spread. The page on the left is in Russian and the right side of the page in Hebrew. Russian is written in the Cyrillic alphabet and both Yiddish and Hebrew are written in the Hebrew alphabet. Item number eight, on the death register recorded the tragic young death of Izzy’s mother. The record said that Sheyndl, wife of Shulim Browerman, from Dzygovka, died 27 August 1897 in Yampol at the age of thirty-five from childbirth. This probably meant that her death was associated with the birth of Taube, who, in 1907, was nine years old and traveling to the United States with her siblings.
Izzy and his father and siblings used the surname Brower in the United States. Prior to immigration, their surname was Browerman. Perhaps since Shulim arrived first, he took the surname Brower and when the children joined him, they used the name he had already adopted. This frequently occurs when other family members join an earlier immigrant.
Jewish record research is, as was demonstrated in the search for Jennifer Grey’s great-grandmother, not impossible. It is filled with emotions and very rewarding. In Jennifer’s case, her great-grandmother, whose name had been lost to time, is back in the family memory where she’ll live on for generations.
Learn more about Jennifer’s journey or see videos about other celebrities’ ancestries on TLC.com. Watch full episodes of the show on TLCgo.com. Discover more celebrities uncovering their family history on all-new episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? Sundays 10|9c on TLC.