A family story by Stephen M. Cohen, Ph.D.
Two of the children born to my great-great grandparents, Avrom Nayman, a blacksmith, and his wife, Beyle-Khin(k)e,* were my great-grandfather, Shleyme-Khayim (1879–1948), called universally by his grandchildren Zeydi (grandfather in Yiddish) and his younger brother, Mikhl Nayman (1881–1961). They lived near Lenina, in Polesie, an area in what is now southern Belarus. Mikhl was drafted into the Tzar’s Army to fight in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905). (See Figure 1.)
Shortly before the war he married my great-great aunt Beyle Gurewicz (1885–1969), born in Lakhva, a few miles to the south of Lenina (see Figure 3).
The Together Plan helped trace down early origins of Beyle’s paternal Gurewicz family in David-Horodok, Belarus, and maternal Kantorovitch family in Lakhva.
In June 1901 my great-grandfather Shleyme-Khayim married my great-grandmother, Perl (1883–1977). Yes, two brothers—Mikhl and Shleyme-Khayim—married two sisters—Beyle and Perl.
The Japanese took Uncle Mikhl as a prisoner of war. Mikhl said that he was treated better as a prisoner of war than as a Russian soldier. In fact, it was the first time he realised that life could be better as a Jew outside of Russia. He befriended one of the Japanese captors, Shounosuke Yamanaka, who was from the village of Furuichi, Soekami Prefecture, Nara province, which is now a quarter in the enlarged city of Nara today. Before his release back to Russia, Mikhl kept the new Japanese friend’s photograph and address. Not until nearly a century later did I get that name and address translated.
At the end of the war, Mikhl was released from the P.O.W. camp and made his way back to Polesie. Soon thereafter, Mikhl and Shleyme-Khayim were walking through the woods near Lakhva. A non-Jew passed by, and remarked, “Comes the revolution, we’ll know what to do with you Jews.” At that point, the two brothers decided it was time to leave for the goldene medine, the Golden Land of America, to which many locals were already heading. They saved up money to buy steerage tickets for the two of them, travelled to Libau (now Liepāja, Latvia), and left for America on October 14, 1907, on the steamship Saratov. They arrived about two weeks later, November 1, 1907, at Ellis Island, in New York Harbour, just as the Panic of 1907, the first economic depression of the Twentieth Century, was hitting the world. (See figure 6.)
After they left the immigration port, they assumed the Americanized names of Michael and Samuel H Newman. Toiling in sweatshops, they saved enough money first to bring Michael’s wife Beyle in December 1910 to New York City, where she took the anglicized name Beckie. Saving up more money for Samuel’s wife, Perl, plus their four children meant Perl had to wait another year, arriving at Ellis Island in late December 1911. Samuel and Perl (first called Pauline in the USA, and later Pearl) with now five children, they initially lived in a tenement house at 97 Monroe Street in Lower Manhattan, within sight of the Manhattan Bridge. Michael, on the other hand, came down with tuberculosis. In that pre-antibiotic era, his doctor’s order was to move to fresh country air, so he and Becky settled at Frog Hollow Road in Wawarsing, New York, in the Catskill Mountains northwest of New York City.
By 1920 Samuel and Pearl moved to the New York City borough of Brooklyn, and a few years later finally acquired half of a four-plex house on 96th Street, where Samuel lived until he died of lung cancer (he was a heavy smoker) in 1948, ten days after the State of Israel was founded.
They were active members of the Lenyin-Lachwer Benevolent Association for many years; he was president in 1926. In Wawarsing, Michael and Becky ran a kokhaleyn, a “self-catering” inn, for tourists, until he passed away in 1961. Samuel often sent his wife and children from the late 1910s onwards during summers to stay in the Catskills with “Uncle Mikhl and Tante Becky,” as they came to be called.
Samuel and Michael’s older sister, Khaye-Sheyndl, married Meyshe-Leyb Olshansky and moved to David-Horodok (Belarus). Meyshe-Leyb left for Canada in 1914, and crossed the border into Detroit, Michigan in 1916. World War I trapped his wife and children in David-Horodok; they were finally able to join him in Detroit by the autumn of 1921. They were members of the David-Horodoker Organization based in Detroit, which is still active (and of which I and several other relatives are now members).
Another sister, Risha-Leah, married a man named Yankl Glikshteyn, but they never left Polesie. There was one more brother, Itsik-Meyer Nayman, who had been in the Russian Army at about the same time as Mikhl. He refused to eat the military’s non-kosher food, and died of tuberculosis and malnutrition. Unfortunately I have been unable to locate any documentation of either Risha-Leah’s or Itsik-Meyer’s existence.
About 20 years ago, I had the back of the photograph of the Japanese soldier translated, then I sent an e-mail to the city of Nara in southern Japan, asking if they knew anything about the soldier. I soon received a response: yes, Mr. Yamanaka returned to Nara and became Mayor of the city.
I am named for Zeydi and Uncle Mikhl: My Hebrew name is “Shlomo-Chaim Michl.” Because of Mr. Yamanaka’s better treatment of Uncle Mikhl in the Russo-Japanese War, my great-great uncle realised that life could be improved outside of the Russian Empire, and so Uncle Mikhl and Zeydi left for America. Therefore, without Mr. Yamanaka, I might not exist. I would love to find any of Mr. Yamanaka’s descendants and personally thank them!
*I use the parentheses around the k in Beyle’s name because my mother is named for her as Beyle-Khine, while her second cousin is also named for her as Beyle-Khinke. I do not have a definitive document showing which is correct.
Copyright © 2022 by Stephen M. Cohen