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Alexander, aka Sasha, Peckler, c 1937

I remember my great-uncle Sasha Peckler as a serious, mild-mannered kind of a guy. He was a pharmacist who established his own drug store on 5736 W. Grand Avenue in Chicago. The very last person I would think of as owning a gun, much less using one.

But a story from the Garfieldian shows that my assumption was wrong. Sasha and his family lived in an apartment above the drug store. One Wednesday night in late April, 1944, Sasha heard a strange noise. He grabbed his gun, dashed downstairs, and fired a shot through the glass pane of the door. He was a good shot, too – apparently hit the presumed burglar in in the ear. The shooting victim – John Peter Skoczwinski — claimed he was walking innocently by when Sasha fired. The police had him taken to the hospital, but there was no further follow-up that I could find.

I’ve tried to track down other documents related to John Peter Skoczwinski. I found a John P Skoczynski of the right age in the 1930 US Census. His family was living at 2122 N Austin – less than half a mile away. But there is no sign of John in the 1940 census or in any other documents, other than one who died in Chicago in 1934, 10 years before the alleged burglary attempt took place.


I am calling today Talented Tuesday so I can highlight people in my family who were artistically talented. Today’s spotlight is on a distant cousin by marriage, Joseph Cutler, known as Yosl Cutler.

Tracing out how Yosl is connected to my family is complex. My great-grandmother, Eugenia Gumenik, had a brother, Chuna, whose daughter Bertha married one Hyman Cutler. Yosl was Hyman’s brother.  He was probably born in Troianovo (now in Ukraine), based on Hyman’s World War I draft registration. Hyman was in the US by 1910, but Yosl apparently did not arrive until 1911.

Yosl Cutler was an artist of some distinction. He designed posters for Yiddish theater, inked cartoons for the Communist newspaper Morning Freiheit, and constructed puppets. In partnership with Zuni Maud, another artist, he wrote and produced satiric puppet shows that were wildly popular at the Yiddish Art Theater on the lower East Side of New York. He and Zuni traveled the U.S. and abroad presenting their puppet shows in the 1920s and early 1930s, including a trip to the USSR in 1932.

Yosl Cutler died in car accident in June of 1935 near Iowa Falls, Iowa. He was on his way to Hollywood to make a film. He was so beloved, that 10,000 persons attended the funeral. Yosl was buried at the cemetery of the International Workers Order, now known as New Montefiore Cemetery.

Fortunately, a short film of his puppetry survives at the Yiddish Book Center and a few other locations. Unfortunately, the nearest one to me is 400 miles away, so I am unlikely to get to see it any time soon.

Today’s mystery is one that has challenged me for more than 20 years – when was my great-grandmother, Eugenia Gumenik Pekler, born?

Because she was born in Europe, and I don’t know exactly where, I do not have a document that clearly states her date of birth. It is possible that even if I knew exactly where she was born, that her parents never registered her birth officially. Jews in the Russian Empire were understandably reluctant to have anything to do with government officials. Even if they did register her birth, the tome in which births were registered that year may not have survived pogroms or World War II.

So what do the documents that I have show about her likely date of birth?

The first document in my possession that pertains to Eugenia’s date of birth is the passenger manifest. Eugenia, her husband, and 3 children arrived in New York on 17 January 1922. According to the passenger manifest, she was 60 years old. According to my mother, however, Eugenia shaved years off of her age, and off those of her daughters. She may have felt this to be necessary in order to avoid being considered too old to work, and therefore someone who might likely to become a public charge. They were probably warned about this possibility by their older sons, Sasha and Matt, who had already immigrated to the United States. Had she really been 60, she could have been born sometime between 1861 and 1862.

The US Federal Census usually asks the age of each member of a household. Eugenia arrived in the United States in 1922. So the first Federal Census in which she appears is 1930, which was enumerated on April 9. As I remember her, Eugenia always spoke with a heavy Eastern European accent. In 1930, her English was probably not that good. Perhaps Bertha or Philip (the only two children who still lived with her), whose English was better than hers, was the person who provided the information to the census enumerator. In that census, Eugenia’s age is listed as 55. If that were accurate, she would have been born no later than July of 1875. Looks like she was shaving off the years again.

I have not found her entry in the 1940 US Census. This is odd, because her husband had died 3 years before, but she wasn’t living with any of her married children.

I found two index cards for her naturalization. One card (dated 17 Sep 1943) states she was 82 years old. If she gave her correct age at that time, she would have been born no later than late September 1862. The other index card says she was born Feb 22, 1861 (Peckler Gittle natzn card).

On Eugenia’s death certificate, her birthdate is given as November 1872. The certificate also said she was 96 years old. Her tombstone says she was 97.

So, I have 6 different birth years ranging from Feb 22 1861 to July 1875.We can eliminate the 1872 and 1875 dates, because I speculate she was unlikely to lie about her age to make herself older on the passenger list. Based on the other information on hand, the closest we can estimate is that Eugenia Gumenik Peckler was born is between February 22, 1861 and September 1862. In either case, when she died in 1969, Eugenia would have been between 107 and 108 years old. I don’t really need to know her birthday – just that I have inherited some pretty amazing longevity!

The Sentinel was a weekly magazine published for the Chicago Jewish community from 1918 to 1949. It has now been digitized and put online (http://www.idaillinois.org/cdm/landingpage/collection/p16614coll14). This record set has been valuable for all of my personal and professional research about families who lived in the Windy City.

Today I want to highlight death notices that I found for my grandmother’s sister (Bertha Peckler) in 1938 and for her brother (Matt Peckler) in 1942.

Death notice for Bertha Peckler, The Sentinel, 16 June 1938. Source: Spertus Institute

This notice appeared on page 29 of the June 16, 1938 edition. The notice was brief, but even so, the obit reporter managed to make a mistake. Bertha was Nathan (aka Naftula aka Anatole) Peckler’s daughter, not his sister (although it was true that Matthew A Peckler was her brother). I already knew that Bertha had died in 1938 based on oral history interviews I had done with my mother and uncle. This mistake on the part of the journalist reinforces the importance of not trusting everything that you read.

This notice is particularly important genealogically, because other than a picture of her headstone, and her appearance in the 1930 US Census, I had no documents or pictures pertaining to her at all. Luckily, Bertha’s headstone includes a picture of her, although it has been damaged by weather over time.

Bertha’s brother, known as Matt, died in 1942 from diabetes. I already knew that based on oral history interviews. Unlike Bertha’s meager paper trail, Matt’s trail was substantial: I had several pictures and documents.

But this death notice is still genealogically significant because it mentions his wife (the spelling of her name made me laugh, as we usually see it as Manya, not a form of mental illness) and daughters (whose names I knew), and the place of burial, which I didn’t know. 

Death notice for Matt Peckler, The Sentinel, 26 Nov 1942. Source: Spertus Institute

Just a note for genealogists who research in The Sentinel. Be sure to download the cover page of each issue so you have the publication information for the source citation. The header of subsequent pages includes the date, but not the volume and issue numbers.

Today is Throwback Thursday, a prompt provided by my sister, whose Facebook friends post a picture from their pasts and describe it every Thursday. I will do the same, trying to extract every piece of information I can about the sitters for this portrait, which is from our family collection. In a long ago life, I was a costumer, so my analysis will emphasize what they are wearing, and what it reveals about them.

The picture was taken in Zhitomir, in a studio with a painted backdrop showing a forest scene. My grandma, Tanya Peckler, is seated on the left, with her sister Raya standing next to her.

At that time, people having their pictures taken had to stay still for a very long exposure. That’s why most people are not smiling – they are concentrating on not moving. If you look closely, however, there is a shadow of a smile on Raya’s face. Both girls have their hair parted in the center and drawn back from their faces. Since earlier pictures show that both young women have wavy hair, I suspect they each applied a lot of pomade to straighten it.

They are both wearing identical outfits, with high waists, and hems several inches above the ankles. Although they look like dresses, they may be separate skirts and blouses (or shirtwaists, as they were known then). At first I thought they were school uniforms – but my grandma and her sisters were taught at home. The bodice of the dresses is a middy style (ie, it has a separate shoulder yoke) and has eyelet inserts at the shoulders and the sleeves. This ornamentation also argues against the dresses being uniforms. Both dresses are made with what appears to be a high quality fabric with a metallic stripe woven through it. The bodices have the stripes running horizontally, while the skirts have the stripes running vertically. The skirts are top-stitched at the hem and about 3 inches above the hem. Top stitching is a sign of a high quality item, and the top stitching was very event, indicating that it was done by machine. The Peckler family was solidly middle class, so I suspect the dresses were made for them (there was very little off-the-rack clothing available at this time). But it is also possible that my great-grandmother, Eugenia, made them herself – after all, her husband sold Singer sewing machines.

Tanya’s skirt appears slightly narrower at the hem than at the hip, a so-called “hobbled” skirt. But Raya’s skirt bells out slightly from the hips, so the “hobble” may be an artifact of Tanya’s pose. This high-waisted, “hobbled” style of skirt was popular in the early nineteen-teens.  Given the girls’ unlined faces, the fact that Tanya already has a womanly figure, and the dress style and hem length, I estimate that this picture was taken about 1913, when Tanya was 17, and Raya 15.

Grandma has her right hand held behind her, the other hand draped against the curved bench on which she sits. Her left foot is hooked behind her right. Perhaps she was posed that way to show off her shoe, a heeled version with a strap across the instep. Raya is holding a book in both hands. Was she the intellectual one of these two sisters? Most likely, it was simply a prop provided by the photographer to make a pleasing composition. The spine and cover of the book appear to be embossed but it is impossible to read the title.

I look for a resemblance between my grandmother and me, but I don’t see one. She looks a little bit more like my sister Laurie did in her youth. But I definitely inherited her fashion sense — except that I never wear horizontal stripes!

Photo credit: Peter Bellis/Flickr

Today is Welcome Wednesday. This prompt inspires me to write about my ancestors’ arrival in the United States. My grandma Tanya’s brother Alexander (aka Sasha) Peckler was the first member of the family to come to America.

Sasha left Zhitomir (which is now in Ukraine, but was then the Russian Empire) in 1910, when he was 22. He traveled under the name of Schaje Pekler in steerage class on the SS Hannover, which left Bremen on September 22  and arrived in Philadelphia on Oct 5 1910. His marital status is listed as single. But he did not travel alone.

Listed right after him in the passenger list were three young women: Lise Gorlowsky, Malke Gorlowsky, and Rebecca Gorlowsky – all of them single and of marriageable age (24, 17, and 20). Ditto marks in certain columns indicate that the 3 sisters traveled with Sasha.

It was scandalous for a single woman to travel with a single man – especially on a journey that would take 2 weeks to cross the Atlantic. The Victorian era had only ended in 1901, and most of its strict moral standards trickled over to the Edwardian era.

How could this have happened? Perhaps the fact that Sasha was a teacher meant that he was so well respected that he could act as a travel companion, even though he was 2 years younger than Lise.

I know from personal memory that Sasha married Lise (plus I have a copy of their marriage certificate). I suspect that Sasha was already engaged to Lise at the time they emigrated from Russia. Under those circumstances, especially since she had two sisters with her who could act as chaperones, it might have been considered socially acceptable.

But there is an even better explanation. There is a column on the passenger list in which the nearest relative who remained in the passenger’s home town is listed. Sasha listed his father, Naftula Pekler. The three women indicated Naftula as that person also, and that he was their uncle; thus, Sasha would have been their cousin, and therefore a suitable travel companion. As far as I know, the Gorlowskys and Peklers were not related. So this little white lie was likely how the sisters protected themselves from being perceived as behaving improperly.

Interestingly, there are marginal notes that record the naturalization certificate numbers that were later issued for Sasha, Malke (who was known as Manya in Chicago) and Rebecca (who was known as Rivka). Sasha was  naturalized in 1916, and one of his witnesses was Jacob Patofsky, who later became president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers’ Union.


I plan to live as long as my maternal great-grandma Eugenia – who was about 108 years old when she died…

Great-grandmother was born Gittel Gumenik about 1861 near Zhitomir, which was then in the Russian Empire. Gittel was her Yiddish name; Eugenia was her official Russian name. Her maiden name means someone who works on a threshing floor making sure  sure no one steals anything from the barn where the grain is separated from the chaff. The surname may also have derived from the village of Gumenikki (which is about 10 miles northeast of Zhitomir).

When she was 16, Gittel married Naftula Pekler, who was a traveling salesman for the Singer Sewing Machine Company – which had a factory in Russia. He was a snappy dresser, and by all accounts, a ladies’ man. Gittel gave birth to 11 children, but only 7 lived until adulthood: Sasha, Matt, Tanya (my grandmother), Raya, Bertha, Esther, and Philip.

Gittel dutifully followed her husband from Zhitomir to Rovno (which was then in Poland), where the family lived with false papers for a year before they could emigrate in 1922. Evidently, she had been warned that American immigration officials were likely to deport her as “likely to become a public charge” if she revealed her true age. Back then, when typical life expectancy was about 50 years, someone over 60 was considered unemployable. So she shaved a dozen years off of her age for that voyage, and claimed to be 48. Eugenia kept up that ruse well into the 1960s, claiming to have been born in 1871 when she applied for a Social Security number so she could work at my grandpa’s clothing store.

Once the family left Zhitomir, Gittel’s feistiness blossomed. She absolutely refused to live with her husband any more. In the 1920s, this was not the done thing, but she stood her ground and never lived with Naftula again. The 1930 census, the first one in which members of the Peckler family appeared, shows that Eugenie was living with her children Bertha and Philip (and claiming to be a widow, even though her husband was still alive). Anatole was living with Sasha and his wife and kids.

Eugenia was determined to become a naturalized citizen. It took her nearly 20 years living in the U.S. to achieve it, and the day she took the oath in 1943 (when she was 82) was one of the happiest in her life.

When great-grandma moved to the Chicago Jewish Home for the Aged, she was the oldest resident who had ever lived there. She died in 1969 at the age of 97 or 108, depending on whether you believe her headstone or her naturalization certificate. With her as my role model for aging, I confidently expect to live to be a centenarian. Thanks, great-grandma for providing some outstanding DNA!

Pekler Family in Zhitomir c 1910



Since this is Surname Sunday, the time seems right to explore a mystery within the Pekler family. My mother’s mother was Tanya Pekler (far left in this picture) back in Russia; the family spelled it Peckler in the U.S.

The surname Pekler means “smuggler” or, if one lived in the district of Orsha, “from the town of Peklo.” 1 The name Pekler was found most often in parts of what are now Lithuania (Vilna), Belarus (Rechitsa), and Ukraine (Rovno).  My grandmother was born in Zhitomir, which is 117 miles from Rovno. This was a long way to travel in the 19th century, so it seems unlikely that the family came from there originally. However, my family stayed in Rovno for a year with false papers before they were able to emigrate in the early 1920s. Maybe they chose Rovno because there were relatives there. We will probably never know.

According to my mom, my great-grandpa, Naftula Pekler (the dapper, mustachioed patriarch in the picture), was not originally from Zhitomir, but no one knows where he was born. Naftula (who was known as Anatole in the U.S.) married Eugenia Gumenik about 1887. Their first child, Alexander (known as Sasha), was born in 1888 (he had already emigrated by the time this picture was taken). Sasha wrote that he was born in Zhitomir in both his World War I draft registration card and his naturalization petition. However, my mom says he was born somewhere else, but she doesn’t know where. Unfortunately, although birth registers exist for the Jewish community in Zhitomir, the archives has not permitted them to be microfilmed or digitized, so there is no easy way to confirm or refute that for the moment.

To add a bizarre wrinkle to the story, my  great-aunt, Esther Peckler (in center of picture),  told me that the family’s name wasn’t even Pekler – originally, it was Shnurman. That name means a “man who makes string” in Yiddish. The name is found most commonly in the towns of Kovno (today in Lithuania) and Mogilev (today in Belarus).

Why would a family change their name from Shnurman to Pekler? One possible explanation relates to the laws governing military conscription in the early 19th century. When Jews were first permitted to enter the Russian army in 1827, only the eldest son in the family would be drafted – and he had to serve for 25 years! But if the eldest son in one family had already been drafted, no other son could be drafted later. Because the  duration of service was so burdensome, young men of military age did what they had to avoid being drafted. So if, for example, the eldest son of a Pekler family had already been drafted, the Schnurman family with an eligible daughter would marry the second or third Pekler son, and take that family’s name. Her brothers would then adopt their sister’s married name and could theoretically avoid becoming cannon fodder.

1Alexander Beider. A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from the Russian Empire. 2008. Bergenfield, NJ: Avotaynu, Inc. 1008 pages.

Today’s Rootstech theme was Discover.

First I discovered that Rootstech did not do a good job of setting the target audience for the workshop I had chosen for the first morning session — Karen Clifford’s session “Using Technology Effectively to Solve Research Problems.” According to the legend in the Session Schedule, it was an intermediate class, and I was looking forward to a challenging class at that level. There must have been some miscommunication, however, because Ms. Clifford evidently proposed it as a beginner class — she stated outright that she thought there would be more beginners there. I saw many people get up and leave, evidently as upset as I was. But I was brought up old school (ie, to be polite), and as a presenter, I know how disruptive such behavior can be to one’s concentration and pacing, so I stayed. I did get a few nuggets of new knowledge that will be helpful for researching a client’s family. For example, I knew that most people married in the town where the bride lived, but I was not aware that a newlywed couple would often stay in the wife’s hometown at least until the birth of first child so the mother could act as midwife. I will incorporate this nugget into the webinar (“Is There a Baby Catcher in Your Bloodline?”) that I’ll be presenting for the Southern California Genealogy Society, about researching ancestors who are midwives (http://www.scgsgenealogy.com/extension-series/jes2013.html).

Luckily, the 2nd session, “Digital Storytelling: Beyond Bullet Points” led by Denise Barrett Olson provided many useful discoveries. I have used PowerPoint for years to develop slide sets for presentations at medical conferences. Those presentations have to follow a strict, and boring, format, because speakers generally only have 12 to 15 minutes to summarize and share mounds of data. With that tiny slice of time, you can’t take the chance on adding audio or video to engage the audience, because if anything goes wrong, you do not get extra time – the schedule is the schedule. But I took mad notes to crib design ideas from Denise’s mini-movies within a slide show. I can just envision a variation on some of her themes with the pictures from the photo album that my late grandmother brought with her to the United States from Russia 100 years ago, with audio embedded from the oral history interview I did with her before she died.

During my first afternoon session Thomas W. Jones presented a classic case study entitled “Can a Complex Research Problem Be Solved Solely Online?” I discovered that, unlike other case studies I’d seen presented at other conferences, it was possible to incorporate both audience participation and wry humor when leading attendees through decisions about what record groups to consult to answer genealogical questions.

It was the NGS luncheon that led to the best discovery of all – an unexpected way to connect to someone. I had registered too late for Rootstech to snag a ticket to the luncheon, but my friend Susan Kitchens decided to prep for her afternoon presentation, and offered me her ticket. I arrived late, and only a few tables had empty seats. I chose to sit at one table randomly – all right, it was because there was a cute guy sitting there – who turned out to be attending BYU majoring in genealogy. I introduced myself to Paul and the older fellow to his right, Gary. I mentioned that, being from Southern California, I didn’t have warm enough clothes for the snow that had fallen throughout the conference, even though I had traveled here often. I knew how cold it can get in Salt Lake, because my husband, Dan, had been born in Wyoming and had grown up in Utah. Gary looked more closely at my name tag and said “Rollins? My step-father is Gary Rollins, from Lyman, Wyoming.” “Oh,” I said, “I’ve been to the oldest cabin in Lyman, where my husband’s grandfather was born.” Gary: “My step-father is Porter Rollins and that cabin is on his property across the road from his house. He must be related to your husband’s family.” OMG!

My mother would say there are no coincidences. Otherwise how would I have driven 800 miles to a genealogy conference, and attended a luncheon which I was not supposed to attend, only to sit at a table at random and find the stepson of one of my husband’s cousins? Genealogy is all well and good, and technology with genealogy is even better, but isn’t it really all about connecting people face to face? What do you think?




This post didn’t come into existence yesterday, because I spent the time I should have been creating the post dancing at Thomas MacEntee’s birthday party last night. It was definitely the right choice to make – we all had a blast celebrating!

Yesterday I attended sessions all day, along with 6700 other folk. I know my wheeled bag was responsible for more than a few bruised toes (apologies to the victims), and my own toes got a bruising as well.

The first morning session I attended was Kory Meyerink’s session “Evaluating Databases and Overcoming Their Errors.” I’ve heard Kory speak before, and knew he would cover the topic logically and thoroughly – and with humor – and he didn’t disappoint. The suggestion to always check the section that describes each database you use before plunging into a search was an important reminder for all genealogists, beginner and advanced. He mentioned using the FamilySearch research wiki to study Kentucky land records, which reminded me that I could use it as well to learn how to find out more about the Turkish Tobacco company formed in Vanceburg by my great-uncle Morris Newlander, who my grew tobacco in Kentucky for his cigar making businesses in Chicago.

Peggy Baldwin’s “Shrewd Internet Strategies: Diving Deeper” was next. I liked Peggy’s advice to keep a Google cheat sheet by my computer. I already knew about using a tilde next to a key word (like ~genealogy) to have the search generate results that include all synonyms for that key word, but I had forgotten. I am definitely going to find an existing cheat sheet using Google when I get home. I also appreciated the heads up she gave that FamilySearch now allows wild card searches with the asterisk at the start of the word or name (eg, *ishinevsky to identify any record for which an indexer may have misinterpreted the first letter).

This is the year I will have to enter the 21st century and buy a smart phone. My main motivation is to include info about smart phone apps for my upcoming book “Health Care Navigation 101.” But I wanted to learn how I could exploit the soon-to-be-mine gadget for genealogy and family history. So I next attended David Lifferth’s presentation “Using Your Android Device for Genealogy and Family History.”  He covered how an Android phone can help the genealogist on the go from A to Zed. And I’m also going to crib a style layout from his title slide, which was beautifully designed. I can already visualize my family photos laid out in similar fashion. Thanks, David!

I did not inherit the gene that bestows the ability to be naturally organized. So, I have to work at it. I still maintain 3 ring binders labeled with family names, and my computer folders are well organized for the way I think – but one can always learn one more tip that will help keep organization maintained. That’s why I attended “From Paper Piles to Digital Files,” given by Valerie Elkins. I will definitely implement the first suggestion she offered: to write Standard Operating Procedures for tasks that I do repeatedly. In my case, I definitely need an SOP for scanning procedures for my desktop and mobile scanners – I don’t scan often enough to remember all the steps from one time to the next. Valerie is a proponent of David Allen’s “Getting Things Done,” and mentioned a program called Zendone that acts as an electronic in-box that automatically saves items that you choose to Evernote. Sounds like a real time-saver that is well worth checking out. She also mentioned some scanning apps for the Android phone I plan to buy: Camscanner; DocScanner; and Doc Scan Pro.

I finished out the day by hanging out in the Expo Hall. First, I stopped to visit with exhibitors I already knew, like Genlighten and the Southern California Genealogical Society, which is sponsoring my upcoming webinar “Do You Have a Baby Catcher in Your Bloodline?” I also visited a few vendors that were new to me: SeekingMichigan.org, for example. We couldn’t find my great-uncle Eugene Weisz (who lived in Detroit), but I’ll keep checking back as they bring more content online. Just before the hall closed, a delightful man named Olof from Arkiv Digital spent a half hour with me, helping me find documents pertaining to a collateral line of mine who migrated to Malmo, Sweden.

A full day, but there was still some heavy-duty partying to be done…

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