Wednesday, September 9, 2015

All Roads Lead To Yankel

I should say that all branches start from Yankel, at least that’s what I learned over Labor Day weekend when I attended a Millman/Melman/Kravitz family reunion in Ewing (New Jersey). Yankel Melman was my great, great, great grandfather. Yankel begot Hirsh, who begot Abraham, who begot Isaac, who begot my father Meyer, who begot me—our own book of Genesis.

My middle name (Ina) is after my paternal grandfather (Isaac) and grandmother (Ida). Until this past weekend, that’s about all I knew about my father’s family. Well, that’s not quite true. I knew his sisters Mollie, Katherine, and Dorothy, and his brother Robert. In fact, Russell is named after my Uncle Robert. Robert was a sweet, gentle soul, mentally challenged, who lived with my Aunt Dorothy’s family. He never married, and died too young. I liked the idea of honoring him and my father by naming my firstborn after Uncle Robert.
Great Grandfather
Great Grandmother
When I was young, we traveled to south Jersey to visit cousins about once a year. It wasn’t until I was a teenager and found my parents’ wedding album, with a card signed “Love Your Brother Harry,” that I even knew my father had another sibling. Harry, my mother told me, warning me not to talk to my father about him, was the family black sheep, an itinerant who died in a tenement fire that he apparently started while smoking in bed. In the paperwork we found in the files after my mother died, I discovered that despite everything, my father had paid for Harry’s funeral, and he is interred with the much of the family in Trenton.
For whatever reason, my father also never mentioned his aunts and uncles, his cousins, or even talked at all about his parents. I have found only one photo of them, which appears to have been taken at my father’s college graduation. Truthfully, I never much thought about my father’s relatives or why we didn’t know or hear of them, that is, until my mother died two years ago.
Me, Beverly & David Weinstein
Esther Melman Kravitz (Great Aunt)
Samuel Kravitz (Esther's husband)
Joseph Melman (Great Uncle)

My Parents
Garie & Meyer Millman
That’s when Bruce and I discovered a letter from my father’s first cousin—Nathan Melman—along with a family tree that Nathan had put together, along with his daughter Beverly. Imagine our surprise to learn there were many branches to that tree. Imagine our surprise when we learned that my grandfather was the only one in the family to spell the last name as “Millman” instead of “Melman.” Had he changed it, and if yes, why? Or had some official misspelled it because of a heavy accent? We’ll never know.
Fast forward to about a month ago, when I received an email invitation from Beverly, inviting us to a reunion. Beverly had continued the family tree compilation that her father had started, and thought it would be a great idea to gather the leaves of that tree together. I’m so glad she did.
While many of the 50+ people who attended were distant relatives at best, and none of them knew my grandparents or my parents (except Beverly, who had met them at the cemetery), it was exciting nevertheless.
Benjamin Melman
(Great Uncle)
So, what else did I learn? That my grandfather and one of his brothers may have been the only Jews in the Cossack army. They were selected because they were excellent horseman and excelled in the martial arts, and were responsible for guarding the Czar’s train in Siberia. And me, afraid of horses…not an inherited skill, I’m afraid.
I learned that Mollie, Robert, and Harry were born in Russia, not in the United States as I thought. And, even more fascinating was to learn that my grandparents also begot two girls before Robert, who I had always thought was the eldest of my father’s siblings. They died before the family emigrated from Russia. Wow!
Best yet, I ran into an older first cousin, Miriam, at the reunion, who said she had some pictures of our grandparents that she could send me. I wonder if I look into their faces if I will see my father, or even myself. While I’ll never know who they were, it’ll be nice to know what they look like.
Note to self: Share all the family stories (both good and bad), histories, and pictures with my children. It has made us who we are, and, indeed, them who they are. What a great thing to be able to pass along.

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