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In loving memory of my mother, Batsheva Friedman Stepansky z”l, whose forefathers arrived in Zefat and Tiberias 200 years ago and are buried in their ancient cemeteries

 

Introduction

In recent years a large concentration of gravestones bearing Hebrew epitaphs from the 16th and 17th centuries CE has been exposed in the ancient cemetery of Zefat, Among them are the gravestones of prominent Rabbis, Torah Academy and community leaders; well-known women (such as Rachel Ha-Ashkenazit Iberlin and Donia Reyna, the sister of Rabbi Chaim Vital); disciples of Rabbi Isaac Luria (“Ha-ARI”); as well as several until-now unknown personalities. Some of the gravestones are of famous Rabbis and personalities whose bones were brought to Israel from abroad, several of which belong to the well-known Nassi and Benvenisti families, possibly relatives of Dona Gracia. To date (2018) some fifty gravestones (some only partially preserved) have been exposed, and that is so far the largest group of ancient Hebrew epitaphs that may be observed in situ at one site in Israel. Stylistically similar epitaphs can be found in the Jewish cemeteries in Istanbul (Kushta) and Salonika, the two largest and most important Jewish centers in the Ottoman Empire during that time.

Since 2010 the southernmost part of the old cemetery of Zefat  (Fig. 1 above; map ref. 24615/76365), seemingly the most ancient part of the cemetery, has been scrutinized in order to document and organize the information inscribed on the oldest of the gravestones found in this area. This is in the wake of and parallel with cleaning-up and preservation work conducted in this area under the auspices of the Zefat religious council. The documentation (readings of the epitaphs, photography and text-writing) is voluntarily being done by archaeologist Y. Stepansky and former cemetery caretaker E. Ben-Tovim, within the framework of the Association for the Preservation and Heritage of Zefat and on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). They have had the constant assistance of Prof. Y. Ben-Naeh and Dr. E. Davidson (epigraphical and historical consultation and editing). Prof. Yitzchak Kerem, Prof. E. Reiner, the late Dr. D. Amit, Z. Sehayek, Z. Erlich; other prominent historians and archaeologists were also occasionally consulted. Dr. E. Engel (paleographic analysis of the ‘Rabanit  Gracia’ epitaph); Rabbi M. Stepansky (translator of the epitaph of Meir Benveniste); Dr. Y. Shivtiel (Zefat Academic College) Dr. M. Souroujon and Y. Saness (descendents of deceased members of the Zefat cemetery ‘community’), and Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists D. Avshalom-Gorni, A. Hillman and H. Bron (antiquities inspection) have also all been very helpful in promoting this project. The IAA Conservation Department, Education Department and the Eastern Galilee and Golan District, together with the Municipality of Zefat, livnot u’lehebanot Institute, Ministry of Housing and residents of Zefat – are all partners in the project for the preservation of Zefat.

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Bio:

Yosef Stepansky is a field archaeologist (M.A., Tel Aviv U.) working for or with the Israel Antiquities Authority since 1979; he is a resident of Zefat and is currently (2017) an independent researcher, lecturer and certified tour guide. Yosef has authored four books and more than one hundred professional and popular articles relating to Zefat, Tiberias, Kivrei Tsaddikim in the Galilee, and to archaeological surveys and excavations he conducted throughout Eastern Galilee.

E-mail address: Stepansky@bezeqint.net   cell. 052-4589009

Website (Hebrew): www.stepansky.co.il

From the Israel Tour Guides Website:

http://israeltours.baruchhaba.com/guides/yosef-stepansky/

Very little, if anything, is written about mestechko, the small towns or townlets in Eastern Europe with fewer than two thousand Jewish residents.  There is almost nothing about such places in Jewish scholarship.  If lucky, one may find that Jews lived there in a certain year, and that a synagogue or a burial society was created in another year.  For some small towns, there might be a line about Nazi atrocities.  There are some exceptions, for example an 800-page book There Once Was a World.  A 900-Year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok, written by Yaffa Eliach[1].

Many Yizkor Books were written in the 1950s about the larger towns, with stories about Jewish life from the beginning of the 20th century throughout World War II.  Most of them were published in Israel by societies connected to a town or a region[2].  These books are great testimonies to Jewish life in Eastern Europe.  One of the major Jewish genealogical sources, JewishGen.org[3], affiliated with the Museum of Jewish Heritage, has thousands of volunteers creating a memorial for the Jews who once lived all across Europe.   A section of JewishGen, KehilaLinks[4], includes websites for many towns, sometimes very small communities in Ukraine, Lithuania, Moldova, Hungary and other countries.  All these websites were developed by volunteers with connections to these places; they usually include a history of the town, a history of the Jews in that town, old town photos and maps, memoirs of the residents, testimonials from the survivors of the Holocaust, reports of recent visits to these places, discoveries of cemeteries, or synagogues hidden close by and more.

I have a special interest in the Bessarabia[5] region because I was born in Kishinev[6], which was once the capital of Bessarabia oblast and gubernia[7].  My parents, grandparents, and great grandparents were all born and lived in Bessarabia.  In my 2006 Hebrew College course “Through Their Eyes” with Professor Jay Berkovitz, I engaged in a study of Jewish life in the whole region of Bessarabia/Moldova.  My final paper for the course was “A geo-historical and cultural overview of Jewish life in Bessarabia/Moldavia region up to the beginning of the 19th century.”

In addition, I have an interest in pursuing my own Jewish heritage.  Because of the political situation of the 1940’s to 1980’s I had been unable to pursue that interest when living in Kishinev and in Moscow.  Only after emigration from the Soviet Union in 1989 was I able to study Jewish subjects and be involved in historical and genealogical Jewish research.

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1 Eliach, 1998 Eliach, Y. (1998). There once was a world. A 900-Year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok. Boston, New York, London: Little Brown and Company.

[2] Many of the Yizkor Books are available online at NY Public Library: http://yizkor.nypl.org.

[3] http://www.jewishgen.org

[4] http://kehilalinks.jewishgen.org

[5] Bessarabia is a region between Rivers Prut, Dniester, Danube and the Black Sea.  The name originally applied only to the southern part of the territory, and only in 19c under Russian rule the whole region was named Bessarabia.

[6] Capital of Moldova,  the republic of the Soviet Union, and currently the capital of Republic of Moldova.

A large part of Bessarabia was included after WWII into the Republic of Moldova, and southern and northern parts became part of the Ukraine.

[7] Oblast, gubernia – province in Russian Empire.

 

Yefim Kogan was born in Kishinev, Moldova. After he emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1989 he did extensive genealogical and historical research. In 2012 he received Master of Jewish Liberal Studies from Hebrew College, Boston with focus in Jewish Cultural History.  He is active in Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Boston. Yefim taught classes on Jewish Genealogy for the local Jewish and Russian communities of Brookline and Boston. He developed a website for the towns of Kaushany, Dubossary and Kamenka, Moldova and Tarutino and Serpneve (Leipzig) in Ukraine. In 2011 Yefim organized Bessarabia Special Interest Group, developed its website: www.jewishgen.org/bessarabia.  Most important projects he was leading and coordinating are the Bessarabia Revision List, where already 145,000 records are translated, and the Bessarabia Cemetery project, where 76 cemeteries were located in Bessarabia/Moldova where Jews are buried and 45 of them are already photographed and indexed with more than 45,000 Jewish burial records.

Since 2009 Yefim presented at the International Jewish Genealogical conferences.  Here are several highlights (find excerpts at http://www.jewishgen.org/Bessarabia/Conferences.html)

2016, Seattle, “When, Why and Where did the Jews arrive to Bessarabia/Moldova”,

2015, Jerusalem, “The Jewish Surnames in Bessarabia / Moldova. What makes our Surnames Unique”

2012, Paris, “Estate and other categories of Jews in Bessarabia, Russia in the 19th century

2009, Philadelphia, “History of Jews in Bessarabia (Moldova) in the 15th to 19th Centuries. Geography, History, Social Status”.

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)

Morris Silberkasten Declaration1921

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

Brussels

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’.

YosheKalb Einstein letter

From a Certificate of Arrival delivered for immigration purposes by the US Department of Labor,

US Dept Labor record

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

Moishe second marriage 1927

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.

Moishe Silberkasten

Moshe tombstone

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?

Malka Ritten

Back in Europe she had met Ben-Zion Wagner who was an actor as well,

BenZion Wagner

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.

Elka Rozen

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.

About one year ago I had a telephone conversation with Dr. Nirit Shalev-Khalifa, who was the curator of an exhibition entitled “Jerusalem: A Medical Diagnosis” which was opened in the spring of 2014 at the Tower of David Museum[1]. I then told Dr. Khalifa that my maternal grandparents were both born in Jerusalem and that they had died in Jerusalem from diseases during the First World War. I did not know whether they were hospitalized and died in a hospital or died at their home. They left six orphaned children. The three younger children including my mother were sent to orphanages in Jerusalem. My mother who was about four years old was sent to the orphanage named “Maon le’Banot Israel” (literally Home for Daughters of Israel)[2]. Dr. Khalifa then suggested that I make contact with the Medical Records Department at the Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem. She said that if my grandmother and/or my grandfather had been hospitalized at Shaare Zedek, it is possible that the medical files would be found at the archive. It is worth mentioning that from 1902 until 1980 the building of Shaare Zedek Hospital was located adjacent to Shaare Zedek neighborhood on Jaffa Road (no. 161). The founder of the hospital outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem on Jaffa Road was Dr. Moshe Wallach[3]. In 1980 the hospital moved to its new building located in the Bayit VeGan neighborhood in Jerusalem.

   Shaare Zedek Hospital at the beginning of the 20th century

I then spoke with Mrs. Keren Cohen, secretary of the Medical Records Department at Shaare Zedek Medical Center and gave her the following information: My grandmother, Rivka-Alte Vigiser, daughter of Moshe-Yehoshua Salant, was born in Jerusalem in 1878 and she died of typhus on the 16 of month Tammuz, 5676 (17/07/1916). My grandfather, Shmuel-Leib Vigiser, son of Abraham-Meir, was born in Jerusalem in 1871, served in the Turkish army during World War I, and he died of illness on the 21 of month Shevat, 5678 (3/2/1918). Mrs. Cohen promised to check whether my grandparents’ medical files were archived. A few days later I received a reply stating that only the medical file of my grandmother had been found in the archive and that I may see it at the Medical Center.

  Rivka-Alte and Shmuel-Leib Vigiser (ca. 1910)

 

On the 26 of Tammuz, 5776 (01/08/2016), one hundred years after the death of my grandmother, I went to Shaare Zedek Medical Center and was excited to see the medical file of my grandmother. The records were written in German and I asked for photocopies. I then submitted it for translation. Below is a photocopy of part of the medical summary and its translation into English:

The General Jewish Hospital Shaare Zedek in Jerusalem
                              Medical Summary
Serial Number 8519    Women’s Department     Number 363

Name: Alte. Age: 36. Occupation: wife of Shmuel Leib Vigiser.  Community: Vilnius
Date Received: 15 Tammuz, 5676 (16 July 1916) Bed Number 76. Bed Number: 75
Diagnosis: Typhus

Release Date: 15 Tammuz, 5676 (July 16, 1916), died. Days of treatment: 1

According to the report my grandmother died in the hospital on the same day she was hospitalized. I did not know that before. Obviously, I was smiling when I noticed the writing of my grandmother’s occupation. Unfortunately I could not decipher the handwritten signature of the doctor’s name which appears at the top of the document.

Additional handwritten medical details (in German) are also included in the report. I sent the medical report to an acquaintance of mine, who is a medical doctor in Germany. He translated to me additional details, such as: names of the medications that my grandmother had received.

Finally, I would like to express my gratitude to Dr. Nirit Shalev-Khalifa for her good advice, to Mrs. Keren Cohen for her useful assistance and also to the staff of the Medical Records Department for the kind and sympathetic attitude I received during my visit.

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  1. link to the exhibition entitled Jerusalem: A Medical Diagnosis
    http://www.funinjerusalem.com/medical-diagnosis-jerusalem/
  2. link to an article on the orphanage “Maon Le’Banot Israel” (in Hebrew):
    http://www.tapuz.co.il/Forums2008/Articles/Article.aspx?ForumId=325&aId=21163
  1. Dr. Moshe Wallach, an orthodox Jewish physician, came to Jerusalem from Germany in 1891 when he was 26. He was the director of Shaare Zedek hospital from 1902 until 1947 and he was also a chief physician at the hospital. The history of the hospital “Shaare Zedek” is described in the fascinating diary of Schwester [nurse] Selma Meyer “My Life and Experiences at Shaare Zedek”. Selma Meyer arrived in Shaare Zedek from Germany in 1916, when the typhus epidemic was rampant in Jerusalem. She was the right-hand assistant of Dr. Wallach and the head nurse of the hospital for over fifty years. The diary is posted (in Hebrew) at:

https://www.szmc.org.il/UploadedImages//11_2015/MyLifeAtShaareZedek.pdf

 

Ruth Marcus was born in Ramat Gan, Israel. She holds a Ph.D. degree in Statistics from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Since 1988, Ruth has been involved in researching the roots of her family in Jerusalem, Hungary, Lithuania and Byelorussia. She has published two books (in Hebrew): about her maternal family in Jerusalem, and about the shtetl of Lunna – her father’s town of birth. She has also published several articles (in Hebrew, English, Polish and Belarusian) on topics related to her research. She has a Kehilalink site on JewishGen for the town of Lunna: http://kehilalinks.jewishgen.org/lunna. Ruth was also the curator of an exhibition on the “Tarbut” Gymnasium in Grodno, which was opened in October 2012 at the Grodno University, Belarus.