Comedians are unusual characters. Quite a few of them populate my paternal line and this short article will clarify what I mean. In their profession, actors frequently change roles, names, and ages. It appears that in my family they have done that on the real life stage too, maybe reflecting the fact that for them the border between reality and fantasy is thin…!
Let us start with my father’s father, whose name was… well, I am not quite sure actually! He was known to us as David Wagner but in July 1916 I discovered that on the passengers list of a boat sailing from Kobe, Japan, to Seattle, Washington, he appears as Michael. Not Michael Wagner but rather Michael Silberkasten! How did I know that this Michael Silberkasten, aged 6, was ‘my’ David Wagner? Simple: he is listed there with his mother Malka Silberkasten (born Ritten or Ryten), aged 27, whom I knew about from other sources. I knew too that Malka (also known as Molly) was Moishe Silberkasten’s wife, and that Moishe was David’s father. Malka and Moishe were young actors in the Yiddish/Jewish theater in Warsaw, Poland. Probably fleeing from World War I, Moishe had arrived to America from Warsaw via Harbin (China) in 1914 where he stayed for about two years, and from there went by ship to Seattle in May 1917, thus preceding his wife and son by two months. This I learned from Moishe’s 1921 Declaration of Intention to Become a Citizen (of the USA)
and his 1927 Petition for US Naturalization.
Not getting along too well, Moishe and Malka separated and Malka and her son Michael/David returned to Europe in the early 1920s (on his 1921 Declaration of Intention to Become a Citizen, Moishe wrote that Malka still resided with him but a little later, she and Ben-Zion already were living together in Belgium). Moishe stayed in the US where he became an actor in the troupe of Maurice Schwartz, touring theaters around the globe, including in Brussels in 1935
where his ex-wife and his son David resided. The Schwartz troupe appears on some pictures with Albert Einstein in Princeton and with Charlie Chaplin in Los Angeles. Einstein wrote an admiring letter following a performance in Princeton of Schwartz’s ‘Yoshe Kalb’.
From a Certificate of Arrival delivered for immigration purposes by the US Department of Labor,
I later found out that Moishe’s first name was in fact Hirsh, but he usually used his second first name, Moishe, and later Morris which obviously sounded American. I do not have his divorce record but in April 1927 Morris/Moishe/Hirsh married again, in New York. Her name was Gertrude Stein, and her profession was, you guessed, theater actor. Their marriage record
was invaluable to this genealogist because it had the full names of Moishe’s parents, and I was able to connect him with the rest of the Silberkasten clan using the Warsaw JRI-Poland records. With time, Morris/Moishe/Hirsh became a member of the Executive Board of the Hebrew Actors Union and died in 1939 in Detroit. He was buried in New York, in the Mount Hebron cemetery section where most actors and play writers of the Yiddish theater of America are resting in peace.
His tombstone indicates 1886 as his year of birth but other documents state at least two other dates, 1889 and 1892.
Did I mention that Malka also was a theater actor?
Back in Europe she had met Ben-Zion Wagner who was an actor as well,
but not only an actor: he also was a Yiddish writer, dramatist and poet. After the marriage he adopted Malka’s son, David/Michael. This is how my grandfather, David/Michael Silberkasten, became David Wagner, and why our last name is Wagner rather than the original Silberkasten (my mother once claimed that if my father’s name had been Silberkasten she would never had married him; my father replied that she would have married him even if his name had been Donald Duck!).
Malka was in fact Ben-Zion’s second wife. His first was Elka Rozent (yes, with a ‘t’, don’t ask me why because I don’t know), whose profession was… well, you already guessed.
Regrettably Ben-Zion died in 1930 of a disease at the premature age of 40 in Brussels. Malka went on to play the Yiddish theater, touring the European scenes with the Habima troupe and other troupes too. She moved to Israel in 1950, following her son David who himself had followed his own son (my then 18 year-old father Benny).
Upon arriving in Israel, David decided to change his last name from Wagner to Bar-Stav! That now gave him two different first names and three different last names. As if he was enjoying ‘principles of uncertainty’ more than physicists, David seems to have taken pleasure in concealing his birth date: on some archival documents he states September 11, 1911, on others it is April 12, 1912, and there are more. I suspect he himself probably did not know; I have never been able to find his birth record in the Warsaw archives. As already mentioned, the same is true of his father Moishe/Morris Silberkasten whose birthdate on different documents appears to be adjustable too. Grandfather David used to publish articles in the Belgian Yiddish press but at some point he became involved exclusively in the printing press business, especially during the activist political years preceding Israel’s Declaration of Independence when he published and distributed political pamphlets in Brussels.
The Bund Club in Tel-Aviv (Moadon Ha’Bund, 48 Kaliszer Street) has a fabulous collection of Yiddish books. Among those are the Zalman Zilberzweig’s catalogs of Yiddish literature and Yiddish theater in which detailed biographies of Moishe Silberkasten, Malka Ryten and Ben-Zion Wagner can be found.
The artistic genes appear to have lingered as my daughter Noa is slowly trying to follow the steps of her ancestors in the theater business. Time will tell.
There were also quite a few musicians over time in the Wagner branch but I will not dwell here into this separate artistic side of the family: it is another story.
The complete story first appeared in AVOTAYNU, Vol. XXXII, No. 4, Winter 2016.
Daniel Wagner is a Professor of Materials Science at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. He has researched his family since 1995.