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Finding Paya's Family: Part I

Updated: May 11, 2020

This series of posts has been a long time coming. I can't predict how many parts there will be, as I keep uncovering one discovery after another, but it highlights my process and provides invaluable information to my family, genealogy enthusiasts, and people who simply enjoy tackling the steps of a good puzzle.

When I started researching my family in greater detail, I mostly focused on both grandmothers' and my paternal grandfather's branches of the tree. As far as I knew, my maternal grandfather's family--originally the Berzaks--had been well-researched by a cousin, and there wasn't much I needed to uncover compared to the other branches.

Meet the Berzaks
Meet the Berzaks (changed to Berson)! My maternal grandfather is the baby in this photo taken around 1909.

Rookie genealogy mistake. There is always more information to find, a new resource to explore, a new perspective to take. Berzak is not a particularly common last name, so I plugged it into JewishGen, the go-to website for locating your Ashkenazi Jewish ancestors. I was shocked by the number of records for my maternal grandfather's family, and I have spent many an hour trying to plug each one into my tree. I was pleasantly surprised to find so many records seemingly connected to the patrilineal line of my grandfather's tree, beginning with his own father, but also his paternal grandfather, Yankel Yosef, his great-grandfather, Shimel, and his 2nd great-grandfather, Shmuila.

Berzak Revision List
Example of what is found on JewishGen. I've spent many an hour combing through these Berzaks.

However, there was one question that still eluded me and was integral to expanding my family tree: What was my grandfather's grandmother's name, the first wife of Yankel Yosef? When my great-grandfather, Abraham, was just a child, his mother died. His father remarried a woman named Dvera, who helped raise Abraham, his brother Moshe Leib, and gave him two more half-siblings, Shiloma Yitzchak (whom we knew about and who perished in the Holocaust) and Alte Sara (whom I discovered in my research and unfortunately met the same fate as her brother). The cousin who has served as our family historian is in fact named after Dvera (who died with her children), but my great-grandfather's mother was lost to history. Or was she?

My first clue was a marriage record. The Berzaks are originally from a shtetl in Lithuania called Bagaslaviskis. If you look at the records for the town, my family comprises a significant portion of the tiny population, which only had around 200 people in 1900 when my great-grandfather immigrated to the United States.

Marriage record.
I believe this to be the marriage record for my 2nd great-grandparents.

From correspondence with a distant cousin I met on JewishGen (another great resource to connect with potential family on this site), I learned of a memoir from the daughter of my great-grandfather's half-brother, Shiloma Yitzchak. This account provided a treasure trove of information, including that my 3rd great-grandfather, Shimel Berzak, had 7 sons and a daughter ( although I may have found an 8th son). Shimel's father, Shmuilo, supposedly had a similar number. With this memoir and what I gleaned in the records, if a boy was listed as born to Shimel or a grandchild of Shimel in the mid- to late-19th century in Bagaslaviskis, I could infer he was related to my Shimel. Although not an uncommon name, the only other Shimel Berzak during the timeframe in Bagaslaviskis was a Rafal Shimel, grandson of Shmuilo, who went by Rafal in most documents and did not seem to have any children with the same names as my Shimel. I also had found the birth record for Moshe Leib, my great-grandfather's older brother, and the year of marriage made sense. Furthermore, half-brother Shiloma Yitzchak was also a butcher, and occupations tend to run in families.

JewishGen Record
English translation of the marriage record seen above from JewishGen.

This appeared to be my first clue. I was excited! It was something, even if all I knew now was Rivka had a father Leyzer. Yet, I could find no record of her elsewhere, including any record of her death. I thought this was as far as I would get, so I continued to research my line of known Berzaks, finding the birth records for my great-uncle and great-aunt as well as the death of the same great-aunt, which made me realize a critical piece of information regarding the identity of my 2nd great-grandmother "Rivka."

To be continued.


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