Aaron’s Arrival: Marking 100 Years

Aaron Naginsky With Grandson Gary

Aaron holding his first grandson, Gary Grossberg.

One hundred years ago today, my great grandfather, Aaron Naginsky, arrived in America.

I’ve described his trip from Russia to New York’s Ellis Island in an earlier post. I’ve also shared what I learned about his childhood and adulthood. But given this significant milestone, I wanted to dedicate this post to “papa” and include everything I’ve been able to gather about him in one place.

Aaron was born in about 1879 in Pohar, Russia, the second child of Ann Voloff and Morris Naginsky, a cantor. His older brother, Israel, was about 2 years old when he was born; he was about 6 when his sister Mary arrived and 13 when the youngest, Sadie, came along. He would marry at about age 26, and he was about 28 when his first child was born; the following year, the family would move to Aleksandrovsk, Russia, where his four other daughters would be born during the next six years. He was about 35 years old when he left for America in 1914. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen on July 14, 1921.

Aaron would make a living as a butcher in Russia and later in America, but he spent most of his working years in New York as a capmaker in the Garment District. Presumably, his first job was at Supreme Caps Co., located at 51 West Third Street, where his brother was working as of 1918. Sometime during the 1920s, we were told the family lived in Linden, New Jersey, and operated a butcher shop there; however, I have yet to find any official documentation of this. As of 1930, he and the family were back in Brooklyn, according to the census, which recorded his profession as a capmaker again. His last job was at Buchbinder & Co., located at 43 West 46th Street, where his sister Sadie’s husband, Sam Silvert, was a partner.

Aaron may have had a typical working-class immigrant experience, characterized by long hours and hard work, but the sweat shop role did not define him. As I’ve noted in previous posts, family members say he was interested in politics and loved music, especially Russian composers. They also describe him as a quiet, gentle man.

Throughout his adulthood, he struggled with his health. He contracted tuberculosis while still in Russia, and, according to family accounts, he was treated for the disease in America as well, spending a year at the New Jersey Sanitarium — something I have yet to document. His daughter Ada always remembers him “coughing his head off” and having asthma. His granddaughter Judith Bradfield Tomero remembers him injecting himself with insulin because of diabetes.

Despite the challenges he faced in his life, when he died of heart disease on Dec. 23, 1945, at age 66, I like to think he was content. In addition to his five daughters and sons-in-law, there was now a new generation of American-born Naginsky descendants: three granddaughters and seven grandsons. The youngest, 3-year-old twins Nick and Bob, would visit him when he was ill and bed-ridden, but Nick would “retain an image in my mind of him cheering up at our visit.” Seeing them, I expect, was the fulfillment of a dream.

Growing — and Going

Aleksandrovsk as it looked at the turn of the century.

Whether they still held out hope for Russia, did not have the financial means necessary or simply opted for greater stability, Aaron and Mariasia Naginsky initially resisted the emigration trend. Between 1907 and 1908, they chose a less ambitious frontier, moving 300 miles south to a newly booming area of the country.

While many Jews were being displaced by pogroms and new government restrictions, it’s possible the Naginskys left not by force but by choice. To placate the increasingly activist Jewish community, the czarist regime instituted limited reforms in 1905 that included opening up 100 small towns in southern Russia for Jewish settlement, perhaps Aleksandrovsk among them. With a Jewish population of more than 5,000 at the turn of the century, Aleksandrovsk in the Ekaterinoslav gubernia was larger than the hometowns of both Aaron and Mariasia — and growing rapidly. It was the site of the first railway bridge across the Dnieper River, helping to spur industrial growth before the communist revolution and sparking overall population growth from 38,000 in 1910 to 60,000 in 1913.

With a growing family, the Naginskys may have been seeking better economic opportunities. Their first child, Jhina (later Janet), was born in 1908 before they left Chernigov. Just a year later, their twin daughters, Chaya (later Ada) and Mira (later Mary) were born in Aleksandrovsk, as were their two youngest daughters, Zepora (later Sylvia) and Chana (later Anna), who arrived in 1911 and 1913, respectively.

We have some information about the Naginskys’ lives in Aleksandrovsk, which Jhina (Janet) shared with her own daughter, Judith Bradfield Tomero, years later. The family lived in a house with niches, or shelves, built into the wall where the children would sleep during winters to keep warm. Jhina (and presumably Chaya and Mira) attended a local school, which required Jewish children to take an entrance examination for admission. As a child, Jhina would go out to the fields in the spring to cut flowers with the Russian village girls and learned how to make the flower crowns they commonly wore. And the daughters were cared for by a maid who had a gypsy boyfriend.

We know from family accounts that the Naginskys also struggled with health problems during this period. Aaron contracted tuberculosis, a widespread, frequently fatal contagious disease largely affecting urban populations. Although the mortality rate from tuberculosis had started to decline in the early 20th century, there remained no known cure so experimental remedies were common. Aaron was advised to take lard, a treatment that was unorthodox in many ways — most obviously because scientists already had determined that tuberculosis was a disease affecting the lungs. It also was, quite literally, unorthodox for Aaron because consuming lard — made from bacon fat — conflicted with Jewish dietary laws that he followed. In an account about Aaron’s health problems from his daughter Ada, we get a glimpse of Mariasia’s fortitude when it came to protecting her family.

Another health issue that would have a profound effect on their family involved the Naginskys’ fourth daughter. As an infant, Zepora suffered from an illness that caused her to lose her hearing. Sign language already was in practice in Russia at the time, but whether she began signing or enrolled in school as a young child in Aleksandrovsk is an open question.

It’s difficult to imagine that Aaron and Mariasia would uproot their family knowing they had plans to emigrate. But from 1908 to 1914, as hopes for a truly representative form of government continued to diminish in Russia, we can surmise that the lure of a new land started to grow — no doubt assisted by letters from Israel, urging his brother to join him in America.

Genesis of the Exodus

Mary Naginsky Ginsberg, Cyprus, 1927

Aaron Naginsky, New York, 1930?

1881 was a pivotal moment in Russian history. That year, Czar Alexander II was assassinated, ending more than a quarter-century of reforms that had raised the hopes of Jews to earn equal rights through citizenship. In the weeks that followed, pogroms broke out in Ukraine, incited by agents of the government, and they continued into the next year, when laws were enacted to reduce the Jewish presence in villages in the Pale of Settlement. “By the 1880s,” according to “World of Our Fathers,” Jews’ high expectations had been “badly shaken, perhaps destroyed.”

It was against this backdrop that the children of Morris and Anne Naginsky entered the world. The oldest, Israel, was born in 1877, followed by Aaron in 1879, Mary in 1885 and Sadie in 1892. (The birth years are close approximations based on public documents, which frequently conflict by a year or two.)

We have no facts about their childhood in Russia other than the town they lived in, Pohar, which had a Jewish population of 1,159 at the turn of the century. But we can make some general assumptions based on the common culture of the shtetl of Eastern Europe, the historical period, and what we know of Israel, Aaron, Mary and Sadie from their family.

It’s likely all the Naginsky children received some type of Jewish education at the “kheyder,” or school. According to “Life Is With People,” boys traditionally studied the Torah — some starting as young as age 3 — from 8 to 6, five days a week, and a half-day on Friday. Meanwhile, girls only were taught how to read and write a little Yiddish and to read some Hebrew by rote. However, they usually went home after two hours to help their mothers with responsibilities around the home.

Traditionally in the shtetl, Jewish boys who were considered to have the aptitude for a life of study were sent on to the yeshiva, a rabbinical academy, after the kheyder. Those who were not would interrupt their education at that stage to pursue a trade or business. That could be one reason why both Naginsky brothers went into trades, Israel as a furmaker/journeyman and Aaron as a butcher.

Another possible explanation is the climate of change that was sweeping across Eastern Europe in the late 19th century. According to “World of Our Fathers,” a combination of forces — exposure to modern thought during the Haskala, or Enlightenment, and the rise of worldwide political movements such as Zionism and socialism — were weakening the role of rabbis in Jewish society and strengthening the idea of secular thought. This trend — along with a sharp growth in poverty — may have made it more socially acceptable for Israel and Aaron, sons of a cantor, to pursue nontraditional roles.

We do have clues that the Naginsky children were touched in some way by these new societal forces. Aaron was interested in politics and loved music, according to our 1977 interview with his daughter, Ada Naginsky Grossberg; the Russian composers were his favorites, recalled Aaron’s granddaughter, Judith Bradfield Tomero. And Aaron’s younger sister Mary apparently was part of the Zionist movement seeking to make Palestine her adopted homeland, but she only got as far as Cyprus before ultimately joining her siblings in America.

The events of the late 19th century shaped the views of many Jews — and likely the Naginsky children — causing them to question their role in the Russian Empire. They began to realize that peace and prosperity were not going to be part of their future in Russia, and the idea of leaving for a better life in America began to take root.

Naginsky cousins: Do you remember hearing anything about the childhood of Aaron or his brother or sisters? Do you have photos of any of the Naginsky siblings as children or photos of Israel or Sadie at any age?