Saturday, October 14, 2006

An unknown cousin emerges from the Internet

I recently received an e-mail message from a man in Vermont named Howard, informing me that he is my second cousin. My first reaction was that this was just an Internet scam. But it quickly became evident, after reading the family names Howard listed, that he is indeed my second cousin. His maternal grandfather and my maternal grandmother were brother and sister.

Our contact was established after Howard, out of curiousity, typed the name "Sivin" into Google. That is the maiden name of both his mother and my maternal grandmother. The name was "Americanized" from Tsivin by my grandmother's older brothers when they came to the U.S. in the 1890s from Czarist Russia.

Google directed him to an article in the Jewish Geneology Society's on-line newsletter: ""

My cousin, David Fox (see Sept. 30 posting "A tribute to my cousin Bea Fox at 90") and I had collaborated on the article. Dave, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, is an ardent genealogist. A few years ago, he embarked on a search for our family's ancestral home in what is now Belarus.

He discovered a 1903 business census of the Minsk region, where my mother and Dave's maternal grandfather were born, and arranged to have it translated. Listed in the census was a miller named Moshe Aharon Tsivin (shown above with his wife Basha). Moshe Aharon was my maternal great-grandfather and Dave's great-great-grandfather. I bear Moshe Aharon's Hebrew name.

The census provided the exact location of Moshe Aharon's mill and his adjoining house, encouraging Dave to fly to Belarus and visit what remained of both structures. The local farmers confirmed that a Jew had leased land from a Russian nobleman and had operated the mill on that site more than a century ago.

Dave wrote an account of his visit for the on-line Jewish Genealogy Society newsletter, and I added a brief family history to his report. I posted a summary of the newsletter article on this blog ("The search for our family's ancestral home") on April 3, 2006.

Howard, my Vermont correspondent, was stunned by the newsletter article. He recognized the name of Moshe Aharon Sivin as his own maternal great-grandfather. The article noted that among Moshe Aharon's five sons was a dentist in Gomel, a town near Minsk. The dentist was Howard's maternal grandfather.

Ever since Howard's initial e-mail message, we have had an extensive exchange of e-mail messages comparing notes about the Sivin family. Howard, who is about 15 years my junior, never knew his grandparents. In contrast, my maternal grandmother lived with my parents as I was growing up. Obviously, I am thus far more familiar with the Sivin family background than Howard.

Although I never met Howard's mother, Dora Sivin, I knew that she was a concert singer and a voice coach. As a highly educated professional woman, she was not close socially to my mother, a first cousin, who was a bookkeeper and later a mere housewife. Dora was regarded as a celebrity in a Russian Jewish immigrant family eager to assimilate into the American culture. I recall that as a teenager being taken to a concert of hers. Although I was already a classical-music lover, I confess that her German lieder did not win my favor.

I did know Howard's maternal grandmother, Helen Sivin. In fact, she was a midwife who had delivered me at home. Apparently, my mother was more comfortable with her aunt's birthing skills than with the doctors at the famous Mt. Sinai Hospital, located only a couple of blocks from our apartment. I remember the aunt as a stout, cheerful lady who wore a perpetual smile, distinguishing her from my more dour elderly relatives.

I also knew Dora's two older spinster sisters, Luba and Nettie. They frequently took their mother to visit my grandmother in our Bronx apartment. I remember that they usually spoke Russian with Grandma rather than Yiddish. Howard recalled that his aunt Nettie worked at what he called the "Homler Brothers Credit Union" on Manhattan's Lower East Side. He apparently was unfamiliar with the nature of the organization. I told him that it was a landsmanschaft for immigrants from his mother's birthplace in Gomel. The Yiddish name for Gomel was "Homlya."

Howard's mother Dora also had a brother, Joe Sivin, who was a legendary figure in our family. I never met him but knew that he was a Wall Street stockbroker and a "financial adviser" to some of his relatives. Not surprisingly, the 1929 stock market crash had an adverse impact on his family relationships. Howard told me that Joe ended up in Austin, Texas as a finance officer for the American Red Cross during World War II. "Various rumors, all of them [unsavory], float around his name," Howard wrote.

Howard knew his maternal grandfather's name as Herman in English and Chaim in Hebrew. I remember that my grandmother, his sister, called him Muni, which I assume was a Yiddish nickname. Howard was aware that his grandfather had four brothers but was surprised to learn that he also had three sisters, one of whom was my grandmother.

According to family lore, Howard's dentist grandfather continued to practice his profession, although unlicensed, among his fellow Russian Jewish immigrants in New York. But Howard owns a Czarist Russian document registering his grandfather as a licensed dentist. It bears a stamp from New York authorities authorizing him to practice dentistry in this country. So much for nasty family gossip.

Howard and I look forward to a personal meeting to reinforce the relationship we have developed via the Internet. Sadly, to our knowledge, there are no longer any males in our family line who bear the Sivin surname. It survives only as Howard's middle name.


Blogger Norma said...

As I always remind my relatives who lament the loss of a family line due to surnames, not people, we women will carry on.

A great story, and a reminder that genealogy has been made a bit more interesting and easy with the internet.

Sunday, October 15, 2006 4:15:00 AM  
Blogger Ginnie said...

Oh, Mort, this is wonderful. I can just imagine that Howard is thrilled to learn that he has such an erudite cousin and what fun for you both. It is a wondrous thing to be able to bring our history to life and I love to read about your family. I can't wait for you to meet Howard and to give us all a recounting of that. All the best, Ginnie

Sunday, October 15, 2006 8:40:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've just realized you ADDED PHOTOS! Congratulations on achieving the next milestone!

Wednesday, October 18, 2006 12:52:00 AM  
Blogger Ivan said...

Morton, that is a great story. I hope you and Howard will meet soon and will post another report for all of us to enjoy.

Thursday, October 19, 2006 6:29:00 PM  
Anonymous claude said...

What an incredible story! The Internet IS quite something. Thanks for adding and sharing those photos. They are wonderful.

Friday, October 27, 2006 4:30:00 PM  

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