Getting to the Root of My Roots

Minnie Naginsky holding her great granddaughter, Debbie (about 1963).

As a child, I remember being told the tales about my grandmother’s voyage to this country. They went something like this: My great grandfather came to America first, sending money home to his family in Russia so they could join him in New York. Unfortunately, the money was being stolen in the mail. Realizing this, my great grandmother set off on her own, along with her five daughters (including my grandmother and her sisters, who were young girls at the time). Because World War I had begun, the Atlantic Ocean was closed to passenger traffic, so they had to travel across Russia, passing through Manchuria; Japan; and the Pacific Ocean to reach the United States.

“Mariasia’s Crossing” refers to the remarkable experience of my great grandmother — known as Mariasia in Russia but later called Minnie — during the “second crossing,” when millions of Jews immigrated to the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th century “across a literal and figurative ocean into the modern world,” as the Yivo Institute for Jewish Research describes it. The first crossing, which we read about every year on Passover, was Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt across the parted Red Sea.

Like many immigrants at the time, my grandmother didn’t want to focus on the past. If she had her way, we would just talk about the future — how the family had gone from “professions of nothing” to become doctors, engineers, teachers and artists. But two events spurred me to gain a better understanding of what happened as my family emigrated from Russia: the death of my grandmother, Ada Naginsky Grossberg, in 1990 and my father, Stuart Greer (Grossberg), in 2003.

To start, I had these bits and pieces of family lore, along with a prized audio cassette of my grandparents, but still a lot of questions. Where did they live in Russia? (I needed something a little more solid than “Chick-a-chick” gubernia.) Did they leave any family members behind? When did they leave and arrive? And how did a woman travel halfway around the world with five young girls (amidst the turmoil of World War I and the Russian Revolution, no less)?

A lot has gone into my search in the 20-plus years since I began. I spent countless hours at the National Archives, searching for the name “Naginsky” on reels of microfilm. I traveled to Seattle, where I visited the public library and the University of Washington, and New York, where I reviewed the archives of the Yivo Institute. I tracked down ship manifests, immigration arrival cards, certificates of naturalization, census records, applications for Social Security numbers, World War I and II draft registration cards, and  death certificates — anything that might yield clues about their lives.

By no means have I found the answers to all my questions. It will be an ongoing effort to put all the pieces together — some of which, unfortunately, may be lost to history. But I have gathered some important facts, which I will share with you through this blog.  I’m also hoping this blog will allow family members to share the information they have — whether it’s anecdotes, documents or photographs — and help me make the experience of Aaron, Minnie, Janet, Ada, Mary, Sylvia and Anna come alive, nearly 100 years later.

Thanks for joining me on my own journey to tell their story of courage and sacrifice.

16 comments on “Getting to the Root of My Roots

  1. Judith Tomero says:

    Dear Naomi, this blog is just wonderful Thank you, thank you for bringing it to life, not to mention all the years of work and research you have put in searching for all you could find out about the Naginsky family. I think I have given you copies of all the family photos I have. Do you have the one of the four sisters, Janet, Ada, Mary and Anna, taken at the family reception my parents gave after Rafael and I got married? There is one of Minnie taken the same day, a very straight, very old lady. What courage she must have had to take a journey half way around the world in war time and a revolution brewing in Russia with 5 little girls. My mother told my brother and me about how, as Minnie and her daughters spoke Russian and not Yiddish, the soldiers on the trains they took would help the little girls up through the windows so they could have good seats or how they had to wait in railroad stations long days for the next train to come through, surrounded by their baggage, which included the enormous goose down pillows that carried with them to America.You mention that they traveled through China on their way to Vladivostock, but my mother never said they passed through China, she did say they had been in Harbin, in Mongolia. Was Mongolia then a part of China? My mother said that sometimes men in uniform and boots would come through the trains and people would whisper that they were Bolsheviki. I am sure also that I have given you a copy of the Naginsky family naturalization papers.
    My mother did tell us quite a bit about her life in the Ukraine as she remembered it- going , to the local school which as a Jewish child she had to first pass an examination, about the maid who took care of the little girls and who had a gypsy boyfriend., about the niches or shelves built into the wall of the house where they lived and where they slept in winter to keep warm, about how she learned to make the beautiful flower crowns decorated with ribbons that Russian girls wear when even as a little girl my mother went with the village girls out to the fields in the spring to cut flowers for making the crowns, about the rich merchant family she lived with the winter they had to spend in Vladivostock who gave her silk dresses to wear and caviar for breakfast.. I ought to write it down or at least send what I remember to you written down.After all, if Minnie and ther daughters arrived in the U.S. in 1916 and my mother told us about her life before this, they had only been in the U.S. about 25 years.

    I will let you know if any more memories come back. Meanwhile, again many thanks for all you have done and are doing.

    Love. Judy

    • nsgreer says:

      I’m so glad you like it! And I love all the details you put in your comment. I had written most of them down, but it’s better to hear them all directly from you. Regarding Harbin, it is definitely in China today, but I don’t know if it was different back in 1916-17. It looks like the Trans-Manchurian Railway route went through Russia, skirting Mongolia, then continued to Harbin and then on to Vladivostok.

  2. Neil "Nick" Friedman says:

    Hi Naomi and thank so much for working so hard to document our wonderful family heritage. I’m sending along a link to a video recording I made at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. I believe I got the stopovers out of sequence-I was quite emotional as I tried to fully relate the magnitude of they voyage. Here’s the link to my recording http://iys.nmajh.org/iys/stories/NzY0OUZHSElKS0xN. I have several photographs, some digitized wheich I can send along

  3. Neil "Nick" Friedman says:

    The photo that introduces the blog shows Minnie and Aaron along with a child and another adult. Also in the photo, but not shown, are my twin brother (Bob) and myslef as infants in strollers. We are in the photo’s lower half. I’m not sure of the identity of the child or the third adult.

  4. Neil "Nick" Friedman says:

    Sorry-I din’t finish my comment–actually a question-does anybody know who the child and adult are?–This has been bothering my for many years. Thanks, again, Naomi for doing the blog and using one of my favoite photos to introduce it.

    • nsgreer says:

      I didn’t know the babies were you and your brother! And i don’t know who the other people are. But maybe now that the photo is posted here someone else in the family can identify them!

  5. Neil "Nick" Friedman says:

    Your recounting of Naginsky history was most moving–it seems we all share quite a learned heritage. The information was new to me and is much more definitive that what I’ve been previously told. According to my mother Minnie’s father’s name was Nathan whom I’m supposedly named after. In view of your info, this is not correct. Minnie, like her father was literate in
    Russian which would confer relatively high social status. She told us that because of her Russian literacy, blond hair and piercing blue eyes she was often taken for a native Ukrainian. As you know she used this to her advantage when crossing Russia. In Russia she read Tolstoy and other Russian novels in Russian, not Yiddish.

    My impression is that, in Russia, Aaron and Minnie financially comfortable to the degree that they had household help, or, at least, a nursemaid for their children. The story I got from my mother is that a nursemaid dropped Aunt Sylvia to the floor while changing her resulting in her disability. I’m not sure if this is true or not. As you probably know Sylvia and Joseph were deaf-mute. Your grandma and her sisters could all sign with them. For some reason we (Bob and myself) were never taught to sign even though the Krassners lived nearby and we spent many after school hours there having tons of fun.

    It would be wonderful to travel to current day Cherginov, Pohar or Alecksandrov? (or their current day settlements) to pore through whatever records might be available–maybe someday.

    I have a question about “daughter Mary and her husband Israel Ginsberg” who arrived from Cyprus. In the Naginsky family constellation the Ginsbergs are cousins who, did indeed, arrive from Cyprus in the 1930s. Are Mary and Israel part of this group? The ones I know of, and who I had the closest relationship with were cousins Manny and Sam Ginsberg. There was a third
    brother, Martin, but I was not that close to him. All three are of my parents’ generation. Their kids were of my generation. Manny and Sam, who I knew best were wonderful and generous people. Manny, for many years, operated a bakery distribution route. Sam was a medical doctor who took care of our family’s medical needs from childhood all the way through
    college. I was closest to Manny’s kids since they were our contemporaries–Barry is a medical doctor in the midwest, Allen (Alan)? is an alternative practitioner in Massachusetts.

  6. Neil "Nick" Friedman says:

    I remember Israel but have no recollection of Mary whatsoever. We called him Uncle Yisroel. They, like us and your grandparents, were part of the East New York complex of Naginskys. He drove a Studebaker car and would take us for rides in it. He was friendly and always had a smile for us kids. The last recollection I have is attending his funeral in the mid 1970’s, perhaps in 1976. My guess is that he’s buried in Mt. Hebron cemetery along with Minnie and Aaron. I know that either Minnie or Aaron’s name is spelled Najinsky or Nijinsky in the cemetery records.

    His daughter Elise married Milton Tomashaw, a dentist. They lived in Woodmere near Sam Ginsberg. I visited them just after Ellen and I were married (1992) Manny Ginsberg was also there and it was good to see him. Milton enjoyed talking about politics but what I remember most is that, at the time, bothof us had rock collections and we discussed our collections at some length. Manny served as a corpsman in the US Navy during WW 2. Sam attended the American University in Beirut, Lebanon. I think (but I’m not sure) that’s where he got his Medical Degree—I could be wrong on this.

    Thanks again for your hard work. I’ll keep checking the blog. Hopefully my brother may weigh in with a comment or two.
    Nick

  7. Neil "Nick" Friedman says:

    Sorry about the multiple entries–perhaps my pasting problems date back to kindergarten?

  8. Judith Tomero says:

    I have been reading over all Nick’s comments and remembrances of our Grandma and the Naginsky clan and this has brought up my own remembrances.I wrote above in my first comment that my mother told me that the family spoke Russian, not Yiddish which helped them so much during their 2 year journey to the U.S. I remember Grandma telling me that she had read all the great Russian classics in Russian and that she wanted to read them again, but that the written language had changed after the Revolution, she could not read it easily and could not find any books available in New York in the pre-Revolution language.My mother told me that Aunt Sylvia became deaf-mute as a result of scarlet fever. Some 5 years ago, maybe more, we visited our next door neighbors here at their summer house in Kennebunkport. Remembering that Rosalie Krassner had a house there I contacted Stuart who gave me her phone number. We did get together and she mentioned another disease which I just can’t think of that had caused her mother’s deafness. The town they lived in was Alexandrovsk. My piano teacher once had a woman from the Ukraine as a nanny for his children and I often had a chance to chat with her if I got to my lesson a bit early. She is Jewish and had been an engineer in the Ukraine. I asked her abou t Alexandrovsk and. she said she knew it well

    When I was growing up and we lived in Far Rockaway and all the rest of the clan lived in Brooklyn we would always go to Grandma’s for the Jewish holidays and invariably we would see all the clan, Ginsbergs, Silverts, their children and grandchildren (my generation). There was a cousin Frieda and a cousin Lily, one of them had a daughter named Iris, but I don’t think they were either Ginsburgs or Silverts. The Silverts always took a bungalow in Wavecrest in the summer and Minnie played cards with them.Their son was Leo or Leon and a daughter, Gladys.They had a restaurant in downtown New York on Delancy Street that was quite well known.I remember Mannie very well. He lived not far from my parents and visited occasionally. He was the person to consult if you wanted to buy a new watch or a pearl necklace.My mother told me that the Ginsburgs had left Russia heading for Palestine via Cyprus, but again, my memory on why they ended up in the U.S. instead of Palestine is dim.I remember the daughter Elise (or was it Lisa) who was very pretty.Yes, Sam did get his medical degree at the American University in Beirut

    I am sure, Naomi and Nick, you have both remarked, as have I, on Aaron’s head of thick dark hair in the blog banner photo when he was surely in advanced middle age. You both must have heard the story of how he and Minnie were going to buy a new piece of furniture and he did the advance looking around. The salesman came to the house (I don’t know for what reason), only Minnie was home and he referred to Aaron as her son. He was such a quiet, gentle man and he loved music, especially the Russian composers.

    • nsgreer says:

      Yes, Frieda, Lillie and Annie were daughters of Israel (Aaron’s older brother) and Rose Naginsky. I had recorded “Ira” as one child of Frieda and Paul Mendelson but maybe it was Iris! Lillie and her husband, Sol Feinberg, had two children, Ellen and Edward. I don’t have a record of any children of Annie and her husband, Jeffrey Halpern.

      Soon I will be posting a link to our family tree so everyone will be able to contribute and help me fill in the blanks!

  9. Neil "Nick" Friedman says:

    Hello all. It’s so good to see such interest in our family’s history. Ira is Frieda and Paul’s son. He lived in Freeport about the same time I did (early 1970s or so) but we never connected. I’m not sure who Iris’s parents are. Possibly Mack Rowan but I think his daughter is named Maris. Possibly Ann (or, as you say Annie) Halpern. I’ll have to think a little on this one.
    The Halpern’s son is named Jeffrey. Could her husbandbe named Jeffery also? hmmm. I went to Jeffrey’s Bar Mitzvah where the service including the Rabbi’s d’var Torah was conducted in Yiddish.

    I remember visiting the family compund in Wavecrest. One summer, I beleive it was 1950 our family and the Grossbergs shared a bungalow on Beach 36th street. Mary, Tom, Victor and June took a bungalow accross the street and we had a wonderful time. We were near to the Silverts and all the adults indulged us by letting us stay up late and fly kites on the boardwalk.

    • nsgreer says:

      Nice story! According to the family tree I’ve built, Iris was a daughter of Israel and Rose Naginsky’s daughter, Ann, and her husband, Donald Halpern. Jeffrey was her brother. Maris was the daughter of Anne Silvert (daughter of Sam and Sadie) and Mac Rowan. I will have to give you early access to the tree so you can check my work! 🙂

  10. Judith Tomero says:

    Naomi, I think you are right, Iris and her brother Jeffrey were grandchildren of Israel and Rose’s daughter Ann.I played with Iris when we went to Grandma’s for the Jewish holidays and the Naginsky clan seemed to do a lot of visiting at each other’s houses. Maris was the daughter of Anne Silvert and Mac Rowan..Mac had a permanent tan and a Ronald Coleman moustache I remember all the names, but can’t put faces to them (except for Mac Rowan’s moustache) I occasionally baby sat for the extended family grandchildren during the summer when the Silverts and maybe some of the others rented bungalows in Wavecrest. I once made $5.00, a princely sum for those times.

  11. Nick Friedman says:

    Nice job on so succinctly untying those family relationships that always seemed so knotty to me. No need for “checking” whatsoever. I recall Jeffrey very well especially one particular night when a group of us cousins went into the late hours playing “Clue”. Mary was Leon (we knew him as Leo)Silvert’s law secretary for many years. His office was on Court St. in Brooklyn. I wworked nearby and from time to time I would meet “Aunt” Mary for lunch.

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