|Lily Gordon, circa 1935|
The story goes that Bubbie's mother, Sarah Libby (Brainin) Gordon, was pregnant with her when Sarah's brother, William Brainin, came home from the Army with influenza during the 1918 pandemic. He infected his sister, who became gravely ill. She had to go to the hospital and have a lung removed, while still pregnant. Everything was touch and go, and there were serious questions as to whether either or both of Sarah and the baby would survive.
Somehow, Sarah recovered and gave birth to my grandmother. Both of them were healthy, and Sarah's father, Rabbi Mendel Herz Brainin, was so overjoyed he went dancing in the streets. As an epilog to the story, Bubbie also said that her Uncle Willie had died before she was born.
So far, the only part of this story that I've attempted to research is Uncle Willie's death. My first clue that he didn't actually die before my grandmother was born was that I found him, or someone who certainly appeared to be him, in the 1920 U.S. census with his parents in Manhattan. After that discovery, I searched for him in the New York City death index and found a likely listing with a death date of January 26, 1920. I ordered the death certificate and confirmed it was indeed for the brother of my great-grandmother. Obviously, I was very lucky in that he lived long enough to be enumerated in the census!
Learning that Uncle Willie had died in 1920, not before Bubbie's birth in March 1919, does seem to poke a fairly large hole in my grandmother's story. Unfortunately, the other avenues of research aren't particularly viable. The odds on any hospital records from 1918–1919 surviving are very small, and even if they existed, I probably wouldn't be permitted to view them, because medical records of any type are considered sacrosanct in this country, and New York is especially well known for being unfriendly about allowing researchers access to records (yes, even 100-year-old records that are supposed to be available).
A slightly — only slightly — better angle would be to research Uncle Willie's time in the Army. He apparently did serve, because there was a photograph of him in his uniform that my grandmother identified. It disappeared several years ago, but he was an enlisted man. About 80% of Army enlisted personnel records for soldiers discharged between 1912 and 1960 were destroyed in a fire in 1973 at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri. So the chances of his records having survived are low. I do need to try requesting them, though, because that's still a 20% of being successful. If his records did survive, I might be able to find out if and when he was sent home with the flu. (It's on my [long] list of things to do for my own family research.) If he did have the flu, and if he went home between about June 1918 and February 1919, maybe the story is true after all!