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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…

Rootstech 2013 – which is where I am from now through Sunday —  occupies a goodly portion of the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City, and its 6700 attendees take over a goodly portion of the city’s hotel rooms. The massiveness was more than a bit overwhelming, so after a quick tour of the Expo Hall with all the Rootstech bloggers (of which I am one) at 7:30 this morning, I headed over to the Family History Library for some much-anticipated research.

I had been over-the-moon with excitement when I found that the FHL had microfilmed tax census documents (revizki skazki in Anglicized Russian) for Tiraspol, the ancestral town of my Kishinevsky family. So I headed to the basement, snagged the 4 films, set myself up with a 42x magnifying microfilm reader (my eyes not being what they used to be), attached my digital camera and my bendy tripod to the microfilm lens mounting, and settled in for the long haul. A 6 and a half hour haul, to be exact. That’s how long it took to slog through crabbed 19th century Cyrillic script. Some documents were badly faded, others had been written by clerks who were barely literate. Many were written with pen nibs that were so wide, the ink bled through the foolscap paper of the ledgers, making text on both sides practically illegible. One ledger had been so badly neglected you could see hundreds of mold spots on every page. I found Vasilys, Grigoris, and Gerasims (traditional Russian first names) enough to choke a horse, but only two Jewish first names: Xaim and Moisei. And not a Kishinevsky to be seen! After six and a half hours!

By then my eyes were terminally crossed, but I also wanted to check out what promised to be another interesting source – police records of the murders (and other interesting events – that’s in the title) that took place in Chicago 1911-1920. Why did I want to see these? I had hoped to find the statement made by one Arturo Fabbri, who was of interest in the gunning down of Big Jim Colosimo on May 11, 1920. Fabbri, who had been married to my great-aunt Jeanette, was cleared in the case, but I wanted to see evidence of the police making him sweat. I found the entry, but it was one measly paragraph, starting with “Colosimo, James, age 47, shot at entrance to his café.” No mention of Fabbri at all. Another dead end!

Back at the Salt Palace, I was able to catch Patricia van Skaik’s session “Beyond Home Movies: Youtube Genealogy.” I want to be able to share family stories in a way that will entrance my two kids and my two nieces – if that is at all possible. Patricia’s presentation was just the ticket. There are several items in my notes that will be transferred to my genealogical to-do list when I get home.

Rootstech arranged both a reception for attendees at the Leonardo Museum – a lovely contemporary venue where I met at least a dozen intriguing people. From there, I tagged along with Pall Howes and his lovely wife to a specially-arranged concert by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The 360-voice choir sounds otherworldly with its embroidered harmonies, and the organ (12th largest in the world) is awe-inspiring. Thanks Rootstech organizers for arranging this musically spiritual experience!

Today is Thankful Thursday, and the end of the Family History Writing Challenge. Here is what I am thankful for, now that the Challenge is complete.

  • I am thankful that I was able to create 25 of the planned 28 posts during February, more than all the posts I have created in the 6 years that this blog has existed. I have learned that even with the FHWC to kick me in the butt, I still face challenges with blogging daily.
  • I am thankful that I have learned that if I create a blog calendar, I can devote several hours over a weekend to creating posts for the entire week, and schedule them to be posted in advance.
  • I am thankful that I now know that every document I have collected in the last 20+ years of research can generate at least a 250 word story (that was my commitment). In general, I can write the first draft within a half hour, and craft it to my standards within an hour.
  • I am thankful that I have learned to tag each post before previewing – this is important, because I neglected to tag the earliest posts for this blog, not realizing that I needed to scroll down in order to see that option. I have edited all earlier posts and tagged them properly.
  • I am thankful that I know how to drag and drop more than one image into a post, and can add images to any part of the post, not just at the start of the first paragraph.

Thank you, Lynn Palermo (The Armchair Genealogist), for sponsoring the Family History Writing Challenge. Even though I don’t plan to blog daily, I feel confident that I can maintain the discipline to create twice weekly

Morris Newlander was my great-grandfather Isaac Kishinevsky’s older brother. Practically from the time he arrived in Chicago from Tiraspol, Morris owned a cigar factory of one sort or another.

Van-Loo cigar label (Collection of the Author)

Business names and year of establishment were M Newlander & Company in 1899, Van Loo Cigar Company in 1911, and La Polina cigars (year unknown). The first company was formed with partners W Warshawer and Lawrence Schat. He also owned farm land in New Hampton, Iowa and Vanceburg, Kentucky on which he grew Turkish tobacco.  In the early 19-teens, a cigar factory would not have been the size of an airplane hangar. M Newlander & Company consisted of a few rooms at 49 Franklin Street near downtown Chicago.

Morris Newlander’s factory was described in a human interest news story from the Chicago Daily Tribune in August 14, 1910. The reporter wasn’t necessarily interested in the hard working cigar makers – 50 men and women worked there, some recruited from as far away as Puerto Rico and Cuba. But the reporter was interested in the pretty young woman Morris had hired to read to the workers. Ethel Vipon read in two hour segments, with twenty minute breaks, from the time she punched the time clock in the morning, until the workday was over. Mr. Newlander hired her to break the monotony for the cigar makers, and so that the workers could improve their English. A secondary gain to Morris was that production of the ten cent cigars also improved from seven cigars to eight during the same length of time – a 14% increase!

The company paid Ethel $3.50 per week, but the majority of her income came from the workers, who each contributed 25 cents. All told, she earned about $16 a week. That’s almost three times what my grandma Sophie earned sewing shirtwaist dresses in a sweat shop just 2 years later!

Daily readings included the daily newspaper (including headline stories, society news, and the sports pages); short stories by Guy de Maupassant, Lev Tolstoy, and Upton Sinclair; magazines; and history books.

Ethel Vipon reading to cigar makers, 1910 (Courtesy of Chicago Daily Tribune)

Morris got the idea of hiring the reader from having seen the same thing done in cigar factories in Cuba. Once the practice was established, none of the workers wanted it to be discontinued. According to Morris, ”At the hours when this reading is not going on there is an apparent restlessness and discontent.”

On this Tech Tuesday, I am creating my schedule for attending RootsTech, the conference that targets people who are at the intersection of genealogy and technology. This means software programmers who write programs and apps for genealogists to use, and genealogists who want to learn more about how technology can help us both with genealogy research and connecting with others who share our passion.

So what sessions appeal most? Any session that will help me tell family stories in a way that engage younger family members. So far, tops on my list are sessions on Friday and Saturday. I’ll be posting summaries here, and as an official RootsTech blogger!

But actually, what I am most looking forward to is spending time at the Family History Library in Salt Lake. This is the genealogy research candy store – I know, because I’ve researched there before. This trip, I want to look at microfilm that is new in the catalog – revizki skazki (tax censuses) for Tiraspol, the ancestral town of the Kishinevsky family. There are 5 rolls of microfilm, and rather than order them at great expense to look at them at my local FHL, I want to look at all 5 in SLC, determine if alphabetical indexes exist and if so, where on the microfilm they are. If I still have time, I’ll look for Kishinevskys, and if I find them, use my digital camera to photograph the relevant entries. If I don’t have time, at least I’ll know which specific microfilms I’ll need to order later. I have found other Kishinevskys listed in records from Kishinev, the capital of Moldova, but I have no way of knowing if, or how, they relate to mine. Maybe the Tiraspol films will help me figure it out.

There’s still time to register ($179). RootsTech runs from March 21 to March 23, 2013: www.rootstech.org.   

Slonim and Surrounding Towns (Source: http://dlib.rsl.ru/viewer/01005452506#?page=872)

For Mappy Monday, I just found a little gem tucked into the end-pages of Vsia Rossia, the All-Russia business directory, digitized by a library in Russia. The document was published in 1895, so it is long out of copyright, and fair game for using here. Guberniya (provincial) boundaries are shown in green, and roads in red. The center of the 5-pointed asterisk (or maybe it’s more like a starfish) in the middle of the map is the town of Baranovich. Slonim, the town where my grandmother Sophie Klebanskaya was born in 1895, the year this was published, is just to the left of Barnovich. Heading north the road passes through Lida, all the way to Vilna. Heading northwest (which grandma did on the train 100+ years ago) gets you first to Volkovysk (where grandma lived from age 10 to 17) and then to Bialystok. Heading northeast, you get to Minsk. Heading south you’d eventually get to Pinsk (Sounds like the lyrics to Lobachevsky, an old Tom Lehrer song: Nikolai Ivanovich Lobachev…but I digress).

Poland – as we would recognize it today — is to the west, and the towns of Warsaw (Varshava), Radom, Lublin, and Lomza are prominent. Further to the east are the towns of Igumen, Mogilev, Gorki, and Vitebsk. All names that roll trippingly off the tongue, and some of which I plan to visit sometime in the future.


I’m declaring yesterday as Slonim Sunday (I somehow always seem to get behind when blogging…). Slonim is the town in which my grandma Sophie Klebanskaya was born in 1895. It was in Poland then, and she and her family spoke Polish (not Yiddish) at home. Today it is located in Belarus.

Title Page of Grodno Adres' Kalendar' 1912

Something exciting and Slonim related happened to me last week. Somehow (and I’m kicking myself that I didn’t write it down) I found that several new digital sources about Slonim had been posted to the Russian Goernment Library Online Review of Documents site (http://dlib.rsl.ru).  These sources are called Adres’-Kalendar’, a cross between a city directory (like a telephone directory, but before telephones were widely available) and an almanac. The documents cover several uezds (districts) besides Slonim, all located within the Grodno guberniya (province): Sokolka, Bialystok, Belz, Brest, Kobrin, Pruzhany, and Volkovysk.

Individuals are listed if they owned a business, had a profession, or provided a service (like teaching) to the community. Individuals are listed under the category of business/service they provided, somewhat like a yellow pages phone directory does today (for those of you who know what yellow pages are). The books included calendars of local secular events, and separate calendars for Roman Catholic/Lutheran, Muslim, and Jewish events for the year.

The ones I found online were published in:

Masha Klebanskaya - listing as a dentist in Grodno Adres'Kalendar' 1912

Until these documents appeared, I had no tangible evidence that my grandmother’s mother (Anna Vatnika Klebanskaya) or older sister, Manya Klebanskaya, ever existed in Slonim. I had a listing for my great-grandfather Klebansky as a store owner in 1899, and a few pictures of Anna in Israel in 1952, but no documents. The documents are searchable if you have name available in Cyrillic. So I pasted in the name Klebansky (derived from Stee Morse’s English into Russian tool at www.stevemorse.org) and – shazaam!

In the 1911 and 1915 books, there was a listing for great-grandma Anna as a teacher in the local girl’s school. There was also a listing for Masha (a Russian nickname for Manya) Klebanskaya, listed as a dentist. Grandma Sophie had told me Manya was a dentist, but I did not know that Manya lived in the town of Svisloch. Now I do.



In honor of Thrifty Thursday, I want to compare what food cost 100 years ago to what it costs today.

Image: http://wide-wallpapers.net

A nifty website from the Historical Text Archive shows costs for many food staples for the years 1914, 1924, 1976, and 2002. The more recent data comes from Starkville, Mississippi, rather than the large urban area I live in (Los Angeles), but the comparison is informative nevertheless. Let’s look at items that appear regularly on my grocery list.

Eggs were 35 cents a dozen in 1914, and 89 cents in 2002. Currently, I pay $1.49 or so at Trader Joe’s, less than what is charged at my local chain (unless my friend Ann shares some of the bounty from her backyard chickens).

Milk was about 9 cents a quart in 1914, compared to $1.49 in 2002. I don’t buy milk in that small a quantity, so I don’t know what the price is today.

Bread went for 6 cents a pound in 1914. Now, they did not have Wonder Bread back in the day, so this would have been for an unsliced loaf of dense bread. In 2002 in Mississippi, bread went for $1.49 a pound. That’s 23 times more for the staff of life than the 1914 price.

Potatoes were $0.18 a pound in 1914, compared to $.89 in 2002, a surprisingly small increase given the time span.

Bacon, one of my favorite foods for dinner when I was kid (along with cinnamon toast), went for 27 cents a pound 100 years ago, but had skyrocketed to $2.39/lb in 2002. So pork belly prices are 13 times more in 2002 than it did just before the start of World War I.

Only the price of sugar has dropped in that time, from .59/lb in 1914 to $.44/lb in 2002.

A table below the one I just described shows prices for a wider range of foods, including cornmeal, beans, and rice for the years 1913, 1924, and 1925 for the city of Chicago, based on another data source, the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

If you’re trying to write a family history that describes daily life of your ancestors in those time periods, hie yourself to this web site (http://historicaltextarchive.com/sections.php?action=read&artid=418) and incorporate some of this information about food prices! And then check out the articles and e-books at the Historical Text Archive, which describes itself as “one of the oldest history sites on the Internet.”

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