Saturday, July 2, 2016

"Who Do You Think You Are?" - Lea Michele

It was not supposed to take me this long to write my commentary on the Lea Michele episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, but the fates conspired against me.  I didn't know I had so many deadlines hitting at the same time when the episode aired.  Then, when it was time to head down to Southern California for Jamboree, I discovered the last day that the episode was available on demand was June 5, the last day of the conference.  I'm lucky the friend I stayed with had on demand with her cable, and she watched it with me.  And now it's taken me the rest of the month to finish writing about it!  Of course, if I weren't obsessive-compulsive (almost a required trait for genealogists), I would have just written it off.

So.  The teaser for the episode about Lea Michele, the final episode of this season, said that she would uncover a story of love but also about an ancestor who faced devastating loss.  She would unravel secrets of her Jewish lineage for the first time and reunite family members after decades of separation.

Lea Michele was born in New York City (actually The Bronx) and is an actress who grew up on stage, with a Broadway debut at 8 years old in Les Misérables.  She is now known for her performance as the character of Rachel Berry on Glee and has legions of fans worldwide.  She has written two best-selling books and released a solo singing album in 2014.  She now appears in Scream Queens, a horror-comedy series on Fox.  Although she lives in Los Angeles, since she was born in New York, she decides (was told) to start her research there.  (Surprisingly, the entire episode takes place in New York.)

Lea begins by talking about her parents, Mark David Sarfati and Edith Thomasina (Porcelli), both of whom are from The Bronx.  Lea is an only child; her father is Jewish, and her mother is Roman Catholic.  She was raised Catholic and doesn't have a lot of information about her father's side of the family.  He spent a lot of time "being Italian" with her mother's family.  While Lea loves her Italian family, she thinks it would be nice to stop and figure out stuff about her father's side.  (And nothing else is said about her mother for the entire episode.)

Lea knew her grandparents, Albert ("Poppy") and Celia ("Nana") Sarfati.  Celia died in early 2009.  As nothing is said about Albert having passed away, we have to assume he is still alive, but no explanation is given for why Lea doesn't try talking to him.  (He could be senile, he might not like talking about family, or they might have decided to follow Celia's family and any conversation with him became irrelevant.)  Albert and Celia retired to Florida when Lea was young and she didn't see them much.  Not much was said about family history.

Lea does know that her father's family is Sephardic, meaning that they were Jews who lived in Spain until they were kicked out (in 1492, by Ferdinand and Isabella, also known for funding Columbus' voyage to the New World).  When the Jews left Spain they scattered to other locations.  Lea is unsure where her ancestors lived:  Greece?  Turkey?  Israel?  She wants clarity on where they came from and wants to share what she learns with her father, let him enjoy this experience also.  She starts by going to visit her father to ask him what he knows about his grandparents:  where they were from, what they did in the U.S.

We see Lea cross a street to go to her father's place, which has no identifying information on the outside.  Inside it looks like a loft, and painted on a wall is "Zero Otto Nove", which translates to 089.  He says he's looking forward to learning more about his family.  His father was Albert, who married Celia, who also went by Sylvia.  Celia's parents were Morris and Bessie Veissy, whom he thinks were from Greece or Israel.  (Um, Israel didn't exist until 1948, guy.  Maybe you mean Palestine?)  He knows their names but not really where they were from or what they did for a living.  (Almost the same words that Lea used earlier.  It couldn't be scripted, could it?)

Sarfati has some photos to show Lea.  One is of Celia with her parents, Bessie and Morris.  Lea tells her father he looks like Morris, who died before Sarfati was born.  There's also a wedding photo of Morris and Bessie, in which they look pretty fancy.  Sarfati thinks Bessie's original name was Bonita and that his sister was named for her.  Lea teases her father that when she finds information about the family that he's going to cry, which he denies.

Since we don't have an Ancestry ProGenealogist shill in this episode, Sarfati is the one who prompts Lea to go online to Ancestry.com to look for information (7 minutes into the episode!).  Lea brought an iPad, and they connect immediately.  Sarfati suggests they look at censuses first and cues Lea on what to do.  (So does he actually use Ancestry himself, or was this also [semi]scripted?  If it was scripted, he acted a lot more natural than most family members do on this show.)  Lea goes to the main census search page and enters Morris Veissy with a spouse named Bessie, with exact match turned off.  Their top three results are for the correct people in the 1930 U.S. census, the 1925 New York State census, and the 1930 census (which is exactly what I get with the same search, but the weird thing is that 1930, where the last name is spelled "Vaisha", comes up first).  Sarfati tells Lea to start with 1940 and go backward in time.  (He had to have been coached.)

The 1940 census shows the family name as Veissy and Morris and Bessie being from Turkey.  Sarfati's mother was enumerated as Celia, and he notes that she was 15 years old, so born in 1925.  The 1930 census shows the family as Morris, Bessie, and Sylvia Vaisha, and Morris and Bessie as being from Greece (but with a native language of Spanish, which neither Sarfati nor Lea comments on).  They start trying to figure this out:  Maybe they were born in Greece and moved to Turkey?  The census indicates that Morris arrived in the U.S. in 1917 and Bessie came in 1919.  This also generates questions:  They didn't come together?  Maybe Morris came and then sent for Bessie?  The 1925 New York State census has them as Morris, Bessie, and Sylvia Veissey, and this time Morris and Bessie again said they were from Turkey.  Sarfati and Lea are very confused now.  This census also shows the disparity in the years the two immigrated to the U.S., but this time it merits no mention.

United States 1940 Federal Population Census, Administrative District 2, Bronx Borough,
Bronx County, New York, April 8, 1940, Enumeration District 3-187, page 5A, lines 6–8
United States 1930 Federal Population Census, Administrative District 4(?), New York City,
New York County, New York, April 17, 1930, Enumeration District 31-123, page 12A, lines22–24
New York State 1925 Census, Block 2, Election District 26, Assembly District 4, New York City,
New York County, New York, June 1, 1925, page 36, lines10–12
After the censuses don't give a clear answer, Sarfati says that they probably landed at Ellis Island, which has more records beyond the census, so Lea should go there and try to find them (except Ancestry has all the Ellis Island passenger lists).  And after both of them had said that they wanted to know what the family did for a living, they didn't discuss that at all, but Morris had a candy stand in 1925 and was a ladies' clothing presser (working in the garment industry) in 1930 and 1940.

As she leaves her father's building, Lea talks about how excited he was and how he was jumping in and pressing the computer keys.  Now she is going to Ellis Island, to which she has never been.  She wants to clarify the confusion between Turkey and Greece and also why her great-grandmother came two years after her great-grandfather.  Did she meet him here, in the U.S.?  Did he send for her?  (If this were the biggest mystery in my family history, I would be so well off!)

At Ellis Island Lea meets with Catherine A. Daly, credited as Director, Family History Center.  (I thought that meant an LDS Family History Center, but apparently it is the "American Family Immigration History Center" at Ellis Island.)  Lea gives Daly a short summary of the information she knows, and Daly pulls out an oversized printout of a passenger list from May 30, 1918 showing Benouta Veissi's arrival in New York.

SS Giuseppe Verdi, arrival New York May 30, 1918, page 131, line 1
Benouta Veissi departed Genova, Italy on the Giuseppe Verdi and arrived in New York.  Daly explains to Lea that "ge-NO-va" is "what we call now Genoa in Italy."  (No, actually, the name in Italian was and is "GE-no-va."  Only English speakers call it Genoa.)  During World War I, people traveling from Greece and Turkey had to find safe ports from which to travel; Genova was one of those ports.

Benouta was 28 years old and widowed, which blows Lea away:  "Wow, no one ever knew about that! . . . I mean, my father never mentioned that before."  She astutely asks whether that means Benouta had a "younger" (i.e., earlier) marriage in her own country.  She also notices that the passenger list says that Benouta was from Greece and comments that the census had said Turkey.  Daly explains that the Turkish (or Ottoman) Empire had controlled Salonika until Greek independence in 1912.  (She doesn't try to explain why Benouta said Turkey in 1925 and 1940, however.)

The next item that catches Lea's attention is that the passenger list says that Benouta's final destination was Montreal.  She asks Daly why it would say that, and Daly responds that Benouta must have said she was going to Montreal.  (Oh, that was helpful.)  Lea is confused, of course, because Benouta settled in New York, not in Canada.  Then she sees that Benouta said she was going to join her bridegroom, Moise Veisse, in Montreal.  Who was Moise?  That was Morris' Jewish name, so she was going to meet Morris.  Daly tells Lea that "people of the Jewish faith" used their Hebrew names on passenger lists.  (What she didn't say is that they used the names that were on their identification papers, and for many of them, the names were Yiddish, not Hebrew.  Wherever they immigrated, they tended to change their names to fit in, as did many other immigrants.)

Lea tries to parse what she has learned:  Benouta left Genova, coming from Greece, which used to be Turkey, and said she was going to Montreal to meet Moise, her fiancé.  Yup, sounds right!

Now Lea focuses on the fact that Benouta's last name is the same as Moise's.  Were they from the same family?  Daly says maybe.  (The other possibility, since Benouta was a widow, is that Moise and her late husband were from the same family.)

The passenger list has columns for read and write, and the "no" in each column for Benouta are circled.  Daly clarifies that means she could not read or write in her own language and adds that in 1917 the U.S. Congress passed an act requiring that immigrants had to be able to read and write to be allowed in the country.

The next piece of bad news on Benouta's passenger list is the "SI" on the far left of the first page.  Daly tells Lea "that says" Special Inquiry, but of course it is actually an abbreviation.  Benouta was held at Ellis Island for further investigation and inquiry into her immigration.  So what was it like to be held at Ellis Island?  Daly tells Lea that a ranger can take her through the experiences of a detained immigrant.

Ellis Island Ranger Danelle Simonelli shows Lea the refurbished "Dormitory Room."  It is one of twelve dorm rooms that existed during the immigration period.  Three tiers of bunks would have accommodated twenty-seven people in the room.  They were held until their hearings, where it was determined what would happen next.

The two women next visit the hearing room, which has also been refurbished.  Simonelli points out that Benouta would have sat on the long bench waiting for her turn to face the Board of Special Inquiry, consisting of three inspectors.  An interpreter would have been provided for her, and there might have been witnesses.  She would have been questioned back and forth, and the board would decide whether to allow her in or not.  Only a small percentage were not permitted entry.

SS Giuseppe Verdi, arrival New York May 30, 1918, Special Inquiry page

The Special Inquiry page from Benouta's passenger list is not shown during the episode, but it details that her hearing was on June 1 and that she was sent to Gloucester City on June 24 at 11:00 a.m.

Leaving Ellis Island behind her, Lea talks about how it was a place of hope and dreams, but sadness also.  Her great-grandmother was detained, which must have been scary.  She could have been sent back.  She couldn't speak the language and was all alone with no family.  It's heartbreaking for Lea to think about.

Lea's next location is not identified.  It is a multistory building somewhere in New York City.  She meets immigration historian Vincent Cannato of the University of Massachusetts at Boston.  He tells Lea that he has more than 50 documents relating to Benouta's special inquiry.  (Considering the small number of special inquiry cases for which the documentation was kept by the government, this is an incredibly lucky find.  I wonder if the WDYTYA researchers have been trolling through the surviving files, looking for someone connected to a celebrity, just so they could have a scene like this.)  Even though Cannato says the hearing was within a day of Benouta's arrival, it was actually two days later.

Below is all of the hearing that I was able to get by watching (and rewatching!) the scenes where the transcripts of Benouta's hearing were shown.  I wasn't able to get everything; the gaps are denoted by "[missing text]".  Most of this was not read on air, and what was read wasn't always in the order in which it appears in the papers.

-- >< -- >< -- >< -- >< --

188 Omm                                                                               Before a
Names of Aliens:                                                                   Board of Special Inquiry
Veissi, Benouta 28f                                                                held at
Greece Hebrew                                                                      Ellis Isl, NY Harbor, N. Y.
SI 13 New                                                                              This June 1, 1918, 240 p.m.,
II Cabin                                                                                  Present: Insps. Toner (Chmn)
                                                                                                 Burke & Dobler:
SS G. Verdi, Ital Trans, 5/30/18
Unable to Read 4/3603
Insps Newburn & McGovern
Ticket and $40 to intended husband.
to ELLIS ISLAND June 1, 1918 1045 a.m.
(Interpreter Talabao)
ALIEN sworn by Insp. Toner testified:

Name and age as above; travelling alone; born in Saloniki, Greece, where I always lived, where I have my sister Ester in good health; single ; I can read a little (UNABLE TO READ TEST 5/3607, Hebrew) I arrived on the Giuseppe Verdi from Genoa; intended husband's brother, Samuel Veissi, who is my first cousin also, paid my passage; seamstress; never in the United States; going to intended husband and my first cousin, Morris VEISSI, 233 Burnett St., New Brunswick, N. J.  Shows $44 [missing text] a ticket to Montreal, Canada.

Q Is your intended husband a resident of Montreal? A No, of the United States.

Q Then why have you a ticket to Montreal?  A Because I could not read, the company's agent told me to [missing text] to Canada; said it was best for me to go there.

Q Have you any friends or relatives in Canada?  A No.

Q Have you a passport?  A Yes.  (shows passport No. 4 by Greek Government issued at Saloniki Jan. 5, 1918 bearing her photograph and "seen" by the American Vice Concul at Saloniki, Jan. 30, 1918, No. 16, and amended at Saloniki "sailing and date named impossible and amended for steamer sailing Feb. 25, 1918," signed by American Vice Consul.  Also declaration No. 16, on form 228, issued at Saloniki Jan. 29, 1918, bearing alien's photograph and following footnote:  "Illiterate but going to join husband to be."  Date of sailing and ship unknown on account of local military and post regulations".  H. F. R. American Consul)

Q Is this your signature before the American Consul in Saloniki?  A Yes.

Q Have you relatives in the United States?  A No.

Q Or Canada?  A No.

Q How long is your intended husband in this country?  A Two years.

Q Has he ever been married?  A No.

Q Have you ever been married?  A Yes I was married to my intended husband's brother, Elia, but he is dead.

Q Did you have any children?  A No.

Q Where did your husband die?  A In Saloniki?

Q What was the cause of his death?  A He was sick but three days and died.

Q Did your intended husband's brother send you the money or ticket for your passage?  A His brother in Saloniki gave me the money.

Q How much money did he give you?  A I don't remember.

Q Did you purchase your ticket yourself?  A My intended husband's brother did that in Saloniki.

Q What did he pay for the ticket?  A I do not know.

Q Have you a contract from the ship?  A Yes.  (submits contract No. 354 showing cost of [missing text] 550[?] lires[?] from

[missing text ] A The American Consul asked me and I told him [missing text] not.

Q Is there any legal reason why you could not be married to this young man?  A No.


WITNESS sworn by Insp. Toner, testified, in English

Q What is your name?  A Morris Veissi, 146 Burn[ett] New Brunswick, N. J.

Q Did you ever live in Canada?  A No, but I had intentions of going there.

Q How long have you been in the United States?  A [missing text]

Q Who do you call for?  A My intended wife (names)

Q Has she ever been married?  A Yes, she was married to my brother Elia.

Q Where is he?  A Dead.

Q Where did he die?  A In Saloniki, 2 years ago

Q Who paid her passage?  A I sent the money to [missing text] ticket for her in Saloniki. [missing text] –s the ticket was purchased in [missing text] .  The agent in Saloniki transferred [missing text] ticket to Genoa.

Q How much did the passage cost from Genoa to New York?  A I do not know.

Q How are you employed?  A By the Mitchell Tire Company getting $25 a week.

Q Have you steady work?  A Yes.

Q Have you any savings in the bank or elsewhere?  A Yes (shows $400)

Q Have you money in the bank?  A No.

Q Have you ever been married?  A No.

Q When did you expect to be married?  A Today.

Q Is there any legal reason why you and she could not be married?  A No

Q Has she any relatives in the United States?  A No.

Q Has she relatives in the United States?  A No.

Q Or in Canada?  A No.

Q She has a railroad order from New York to Canada.  Do you know why she is in possession of that?  A I wrote them I intended to go to Canada.

Q Was it because she was unable to read that that arrangement was made?  A Yes.

Q How old are you?  A Twenty-six.


TO ALIEN

Q Being unable to read, the board denies you permission to enter the United States.  Have you any further statement to make?  A Do as you please.

(Passenger agent of the SS Giuseppe Verdi advises that the cost of 2nd cabin passage from Genoa to New York is $75 plus head tax)

The alien is UNANIMOUSLY EXCLUDED AS A PERSON UNABLE TO READ.  EXCLUDED AND ORDERED DEPORTED.

TO ALIEN:

You are entitled under the law to an appeal from the decision of the board denying you the right to land to the Secretary of Labor at Washington for a review by him of such decision.  If deported it will be in the same [cabin?] and at the expense of the steamship company.  You are entitled to a refund of the money paid for passage [missing text]

-- >< -- >< -- >< -- >< --

As Cannato and Lea begin going through the pages, Lea notices at the beginning where it says "where I always lived" and is surprised that it seems to be Benouta speaking.  Cannato explains that there was an interpreter but they were Benouta's words.

Lea is surprised and a little shocked to learn that Benouta's first husband, Elia, was Morris' brother.  Cannato tells her it was not uncommon for a Jewish man to marry his brother's widow.  (We don't know if it bothered her that Benouta and Morris, and Benouta and Elia for that matter, were first cousins, because the sections about that were not read on air.  But it does mean that, in answer to her earlier question to Catherine Daly about whether Morris and Benouta might be related, yes, they were.)

The narrator steps in with one of his few informational interludes in this episode to tell us that according to Torah law, the brother of a deceased man is supposed to marry the widow.  This Jewish tradition is called yibbum.

Cannato and Lea discuss why Benouta would have said she was going to Canada.  Because Benouta could not read or write, she was likely to be excluded from immigrating to the U.S.  The shipping company agent suggested Canada as an alternative destination.  Cannato did not explain that the company would be obligated to pay for Benouta's return passage to Europe (although this information appears in the transcript), and the agent was trying to prevent that from happening.  They comment on the fact that Morris said he was thinking about going to Canada, which was just going along with Benouta's story.

Lea is touched by Morris' response of "today" for when he and Benouta were supposed to have been married.  Obviously, their wedding plans had been derailed for a while.

Of course, Lea is upset when she reads that Benouta was denied admission.  Cannato says it may seem harsh, but it was the law.

The narrator pops in again and says that immigrants during World War I faced strong attitudes against foreigners.  People who could not read or write were deemed undesirable and a financial burden on the government.  Immigrants who failed the tests, however, were stuck at Ellis Island because of the war.

In 1919 Morris wrote a letter asking for assistance with Benouta's case:

-- >< -- >< -- >< -- >< --

Morris Veissy,
c/o Joseph Beja,
134 West 38th St.

New York Aug. 14, 1919.

Burreau of Immigration,
Department of Labor,
Washington, D.C.

Sir; —

The undersigned a declarant, having brought my fiancé Benouta Veissy to America in April 1917 from Salonica Greece, has been excluded by the Department of Labor on account of illiteracy and interned Glucester, N. Jersey.

She was admitted to this country temporarily on the day of the 16th of November 1918, on the condition to be deported at convenience.

I take the liberty of laying the bare facts of the situation before you.

On account of the two wars in the Balkans a terrible misery is existing throughout that vicinity, and the big fire of Aug.18, 1917 which destroyed the greatest part of the city of Salonica, has doubledits sorrows, and made for any human being unfit to live.

The only protection wich my fiancé has over there is a suffering old widow mother without any living means.  Therefore sir, you can picture what may be the future of this young lady if she is deported.

Personally, I'am fairly well financially fixed, and am in the position to marry her, and also to take care of her as well.  So I appeal to the noble and human heart of the American Government to permit her to reside forever in this country.

In the hope of a favorable reply, I remain,

Faithfully yours

Morris Veissy [signature]

-- >< -- >< -- >< -- >< --

People being held at Ellis Island had been moved to Gloucester, New Jersey when the island was used for war purposes.  Benouta was one of those paroled to Gloucester, but she was still subject to deportation.  She was sent to New Jersey in November 1918 and was still there when Morris wrote his letter, in August 1919.  Lea is moved by Morris' letter and how well spoken he was, which reminds her of her father.

Morris was making the point that Benouta would not be a public charge, as he would take care of her.  He wanted her to be allowed in as a resident, to remove the shadow of deportation.  The government, however, didn't seem inclined to do so, based on a letter written about the time of Benouta's parole to New Jersey.

-- >< -- >< -- >< -- >< --

U.S. Department of Labor                                                                                             November 16, 1918

Commissioner-General of Immigration
Washington, D. C.

Pursuant to the instructions contained in Bureau letter of the 6th instant, No. 54334/344, and Department telegram of November 15, we have taken such steps as are possible to comply with the terms of Rule 17-A, as to the temporary landing of the alien Benouta Voussi, who arrived on the "Giuseppe Verdi", May 30, 1918 and was excluded as unable to readThe alien's signed statement and that of the sponsor named by her, Morris Veissy, are transmitted herewith.

A reference to your record will show that the sponsor is the man whom the alien intended to marry, and while it has been impressed upon him that such marriage should not occur, and he has stated that he understands that this action should not be taken, if it is consummated, I know of no action the Department can take in the matter without inflicting considerable hardship upon the persons concerned, and I doubt that deportation could be effected legally inasmuch as she would then be the wife of a bona fide resident of the United States.

In view of this situation, which may have escaped the Bureau's notice at the time the decision was rendered, I have — [the continuation of the letter was not shown on air]

-- >< -- >< -- >< -- >< --

So the government had been putting pressure on Morris not to marry Benouta, because they figured they wouldn't be able to deport her if she was married.  Wait, that's all it was going to take to prevent her deportation?  Well, then, let's take care of that, shall we?  And Cannato shows Lea a memo from 1920, almost two years after Benouta first arrived in New York.

-- >< -- >< -- >< -- >< --

January 14, 2910

No. 54334/344
Ellis Island.


In re BENOUTA VEISEY.
SUPPLEMENTAL MEMORANDUM
for THE ACTING SECRETARY:

Under date of June 14, 1918, the Department directed the deportation of this illiterate alien.  However, deportation was not effected owing to war conditions.  Under date of October 11, 1918, the Department directed that she be released temporarily under the provisions of Rule 17-A.  The record shows that shortly after her parole deposits stopped coming and an investigation was made with the result that it was learned that the alien has married.  The husband has declared his intention of becoming a citizen.  The request is made that the deposits be returned.

The Department has to recommend that, in view of the alien's marriage, her admission be made permanent, and following recommendation, it is believed that the deposit should be returned to the alien.


Assistant Commissioner-General
[signature]

Approved:
[signature]

-- >< -- >< -- >< -- >< --

So Morris decided to take matters into his own hands.  Maybe he heard that the government wouldn't deport her if she were married.  Cannato didn't explain the deposits referred to in the memorandum, unfortunately, because I was curious about them.  Lea mentions the wedding photo that her father has, and now it's clear just how important that marriage was.  To complete the information, Cannato also gives Lea a copy of the marriage license.  Morris Veissy and Benuta Cohenka, both born in Greece, were married on October 17, 1919 in New York City.  Morris' parents were listed as Joseph and Dora Veissy; Benuta's parents were Isaac Cohenka and Miriam Aramia.  (Since Benouta said that she and Morris were first cousins, was Dora's maiden name Cohenka or Aramia?)  Both Morris and Benuta were living at 83 Stanton Street.

Cannato tells Lea that if she wants to find more, she should go to the Center for Jewish History.  Lea thanks him and gets up from the table, then says, "I'm gonna take this with me if that's ok," as she picks up the papers, which is very polite of her.

As she goes across town to the center, Lea talks about how Benouta had problems at Ellis Island but got over the hurdles.  She loves how intelligent, determined, and strong Morris and Benouta were.

As she arrives at the Center for Jewish History, Lea talks about how Benouta had the American dream, but what about her mother in Greece?  Inside she meets Dr. Devin Naar, professor of Sephardic Studies at the University of Washington (and keynote speaker for this year's IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy!).  He tells Lea that his father was also from Salonika, then takes out a map of the Ottoman Empire, dated 1300–1923.  He explains that their relatives lived for 400 years under Turkish rule in Salonika, until Greece gained its independence in 1912.

Naar goes into a little history, talking about how the Sephardic Jews came from Spain after they were expelled in 1492.  They went throughout the Mediterranean, and the majority settled in the Ottoman Empire.  By the early 1500's, half of Salonika's residents were Spanish-speaking Jews.

Lea asks about the 1917 fire in Salonika and what happened to people.  Naar explains that it was a catastrophe — the center of the city, where most of the Jewish population lived, was devastated.  About 75,000 residents were left homeless, and more than 50,000 of them were Jewish.  But how did the fire affect Lea's family members?  Naar says he has a document that will tell her about that.

Aerial photograph of Salonika during the 1917 fire

What he pulls out is actually a heavy book, which he says is a census conducted of the Jewish community after the fire.  (I wonder if this book is actually in the holdings of the Center.  I tried searching the catalog, but I couldn't quite understand the results.)  He turns to a page and points out family #685, but of course the writing is all in Greek.  Conveniently, he has a separate sheet with a translation of the entries.  The family members listed are:

Isaac Shemtov Couenca, age 50, stevedore
6 Queen Olga Street
victim of fire:  yes
died September 1918

wife Miriam, 50 years old, given milk
son David, 18 years old, work boy/servant, given milk
son Mair, 15 years old, given milk
daughter Clara, 19 years old

Isaac being listed as a victim of the fire means that he had some sort of property damage.  Naar says that Isaac's death in 1918 was unrelated to the fire.

Lea realizes that Miriam is her great-great-grandmother and that David, Mair, and Clara are Benouta's siblings.  She asks about Ester, the sister Benuta mentioned in her Special Inquiry interview.  Naar says that if she married before the fire, she would have been registered with her husband.

Lea then takes stock of the family's situation.  With Isaac dead, Miriam would have been left with three children.  How can she find out more about what happened to them?

Naar does not say directly that there was little chance of them having survived World War II, but he details what would have happened if they had stayed in Greece.  After the Nazis occupied Greece, they started deporting Jews to Auschwitz in March 1943.  Eighteen or nineteen trains left from Salonika.  Almost all Jews in Greece died during the Holocaust, about 50,000 from Salonika alone.

After that, Naar tells Lea that to learn more she should go to the Lower East Side, to a synagogue there, Kehila Kedosha Janina.  (What he doesn't say, at least not in what we saw on air, is that this is a well known synagogue of the Romaniote Jews of Greece, who are neither Sephardic nor Ashkenazi.  I recognized the name immediately, and the view of the synagogue from the front confirmed it.  I guess they chose it because of the connection to Greece.)

Lea is a little somber as she goes to the synagogue.  She thinks about Isaac and Miriam having died and the devastation to the Jewish community.  It's sad for her to think about the destruction of the rich Jewish culture in Greece.  Now she's hesitant:  She's aware of the reality of what happened to Jews during World War II, but she wants to know what happened to her family members.  She feels more connected to her Jewish roots than she has before, all because of this research.  She's even figured out the references to Greece and Turkey, and she knows about Spain and that there's no one from Israel.

Inside the synagogue, Lea is approached by a woman who introduces herself as Kochava Mordichai from Israel (of course).  Lea pauses for a moment, then you can see the recognition flash across her face and she exclaims, "Wait!  I know that name!"  Kochi (nickname for Kochava) is a cousin!  Lea's father, Mark Sarfati, met Kochi several years ago.  (And the producers decided Kochi's accent was too difficult for Americans to understand, and she is subtitled throughout this segment.)

Lea asks Kochi how they're related.  Kochi's father was Moshe Yosef Mordichai, who was the son of Estreya.  Estreya is Ladino for Ester; she was Benouta's sister.  (So Kochi and Sarfati are second cousins, and Lea is Kochi's second cousin once removed.)

Kochi shows Lea a Yad Vashem Page of Testimony for Miriam Couenca.  It includes a photograph, and Lea is smiling and happy as she looks at the page; she doesn't realize the reason the page exists is because someone submitted information about Miriam having perished during the Holocaust.  Kochi explains the purpose of the form as they read over the information:  Miriam was 72 years old, born in Saloniki, and died in Auschwitz.  The person who submitted the form was Moshe Mordichai, Kochi's father.  (Miriam's form is unfortunately not on the Yad Vashem site, although a transcription of information from a different source is there.  I would hate to think that the Pages of Testimony for this family are not available on the site simply because a celebrity is related to them.  Considering the large number of Couencas in Thessaloniki in the database, I'm sure several other people are related to them also.)

Kochi says that her father, Moshe, was the only member of the family to survive.  All the other family members died in Auschwitz.  (Nothing is said about whether Moshe was also in Auschwitz or when he left Europe.)   He died about 14 years ago, around 2000.

Lea thinks that Miriam's eyes look like Sarfati's.  She says her father is going to be excited about all this.  Kochi says the last time they saw each other was in 1984, which was before Lea was born.  He's coming to the synagogue now, and they'll get to meet again.

When Sarfati arrives, at first he sees only Lea.  She catches him up on a bunch of the research and tells him how excited she was to visit places her great-grandparents had been.  She feels closer to them now and feels connected to where she came from.  She tells him all about the struggle to keep Benouta in the country and what a great love story it is.  Sarfati says he's a little emotional but refuses to admit that he's crying, as Lea predicted he would.

Then Lea goes on about the unique culture she has inherited from her father's side of the family.  Now she knows her ancestors weren't from all over the map but were from a specific place:  Salonika.  She tells Sarfati that someone is there who can teach them more about their family history, and Kochi walks in.  Sarfati recognizes her right away, and they have a lovely reunion.

In the wrap-up, Lea talks about the devastating reality of what happened to her family.  It was a horrible end to the story to learn almost everyone died in Auschwitz, but comforting to hear about it from a relative.  She wonders why none of this was talked about before.  She feels very Jewish now and tells her father to stop acting Italian; he of course says, "I'm not acting Italian!"  Now she has knowledge about her Jewish ancestry to back up her feelings and can't wait for someone to ask her what she is.  The episode closes with Lea, Sarfati, and Kochi raising glasses in a toast to cries of "L'chaim" and "Salute."

No comments:

Post a Comment

All comments on this blog will be previewed by the author to prevent spammers and unkind visitors to the site. The blog is open to everyone, particularly those interested in family history and genealogy.