Sunday, August 6, 2017

Identifying Esther Leah (Schneiderman) Gorodetsky

Avigdor, Etta, and Esther Leah Gorodetsky, circa 1890, Kamenets Podolsky, Russian Empire

The path to the discovery had begun two years previously, in 2000.  I had visited my grandmother in south Florida, and we had eaten lunch with cousins on her father's side of the family.  During conversation, Bubbie (Yiddish for "grandmother") had made comments to various of the cousins there:  "I have a photograph of your parents on their wedding day."  "I have a photo of your brother when he was a baby."  "I have a photo of your mother."  And she promised to give them the photos.

When Bubbie and I returned to her apartment, she instructed me to pull out four big boxes of photographs.  We went through them, not focusing much on the photos in general but searching only for those to be given to the aforementioned cousins.  I was not permitted to label any of the other photos.  We ended up with a small pile of about seven photographs, which she would make sure got to the appropriate cousins.

Fast forward two years to 2004.  My grandmother's memory had started to slip a little.  In conversation, she began to repeat statements and questions four or five times.  I was already planning on a trip to the Orlando area for Thanksgiving to visit a cousin on my father's side.  I remembered those four boxes of photographs, all unlabeled and unidentified beyond my grandmother's memory, and worried about identifying them before it was too late.  So I made a spur-of-the-moment decision.  I called Bubbie and asked if she would like me to visit for a few days.  I added a round-trip ticket from Orlando to Ft. Lauderdale to the front end of my existing trip.

When I arrived at Bubbie's apartment, I asked if we could look through the boxes of photographs again, and this time could I label them, please?  I was surprised and elated when she said yes.  I had prepared by bringing a large supply of sticky notes.  I brought out the boxes again, and every time Bubbie identified a photo — "This is my grandparents, Mendel Herz and Ruchel Dvojre."  "This is my parents' engagement photo."  "This is Uncle Willie in his Army uniform." — I wrote a short note on a sticky and put it on the back of the photo.

Bubbie looked at one photo and announced, "I have no idea who these people are," then tossed it aside.  I picked it up to check it out.  The photo was of three people:  a man seated on a chair on the left, a young child on a column in the middle, and a woman standing on the right.  The printing on the card was in Cyrillic and gave the photographer's name and location, Kamenets Podolsky, Russia.  I knew that's where Bubbie's father and grandfather were supposed to have been from, so I thought the people might be relatives.  I asked if I could take the photo with me, and Bubbie said, "Sure."

After working through all four boxes, almost everything was put away again and I had far fewer sticky notes remaining.  The photos for the cousins which had been pulled out two years ago were still sitting around, never having been delivered, so I was allowed to take them (and accept responsibility for mailing them), in addition to the unidentified photo of three people in Kamenets Podolsky.

When my visit with Bubbie was over, I flew to Orlando to spend Thanksgiving with my cousin and his family.  While I was there, I talked about the photographs my grandmother and I had pored over and the few I had been permitted to take away with me.  My cousin's wife was interested in seeing the photos, so I brought them out.  We looked at the ones destined to be sent to cousins and then came to the one from Kamenets Podolsky.  Fern declared, "We've seen her before!"  My response:  "We have?"  We went slowly through the photographs and came to the one Fern was talking about.

The photo was one that my grandmother had identified as being of Sarah (Gordon) Millstein, a younger sister of my great-grandfather Joe Gordon.  She was the spitting image of the woman in the photo.  They looked so much alike, one might easily think they were of the same person, or that the two women were twins.  The giveaways were the clothing and the photographer locations.  The woman in the Russian photograph is wearing a lovely Victorian dress, whereas the photo of Sarah shows her in a stylish 1920's dress, a moment captured by a photographer in New York City.

So if the Russian photograph wasn't of Sarah, who could it be?  Given the clues of time and place, I realized it was probably my great-great-grandmother Esther Leah (Schneiderman) Gorodetsky, Sarah's mother, and also mother of my great-grandfather.  She died in Kishinev (now in Moldova) in late 1908, a month after the birth of her eighth surviving child.  Early the next year my great-grandfather began the chain migration of the family to the United States.

I was very excited but not quite willing to commit.  When I returned home I compared the man in the photo to a known photo of my great-great-grandfather Victor Gordon (formerly Gorodetsky).  It looked like the same person!  Furthermore, I could date the photo, to approximately 1890.  The child in the photograph appears to be a little girl.  The oldest child in the family, my great-grandfather's older sister, was Etta, who was born about 1890.  All the pieces were fitting!

Because Esther Leah died in Russia, any photos of her had to have been taken there.  So far this is the only one that has surfaced.  I thought it was such an important discovery that I had the photo digitally cleaned up and then mailed prints to all the cousins on that side of the family, so everyone would know what Esther Leah looked like.  I did not want her to be forgotten again, tossed aside with a comment of "I have no idea who these people are."


  1. How wonderful that Esther Leah will not be forgotten again, thanks to your persistence. Glad you added this post to the blog party!

    1. I just found your comment, Marian! Thanks very much.

  2. What a terrific find and that you and your cousins were able to piece together Esther Leah's identity. If I could step back in time and speak to all the ancestors at once, I would tell them to LABEL THEIR PHOTOS! So many of us have fabulous pictures of unknown people.

    1. I agree! I regularly warn people about identifying photos before it's too late. I am lucky I was able to figure out who was in this very important photo.

  3. On most of the photographs I've inherited from my grandmother she would place and "X" on the photograph above family members head. But the "X" doesn't tell you much. I miss her.

    1. I've seen X's like that on many photos. It must have been a common habit. Somewhat better than no info, but nowhere near as good as being able to talk to your grandmother.


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