Sepia Saturday: Minsk to Minnesota
Welcome to another Sepia Saturday!
For decades, my family knew little about my mother’s paternal grandfather Isaac Singer (1857-1924). Her father Art, Isaac's only son to stay alive out of a dozen or so children, told us his father had been a furrier when he’d immigrated to the States in the 1880s, expertly matching mink pelts for color. My mother thought he been born in Odessa, Russia, and on some census forms he claims he was from Minsk. Art was hazy at 79, but thought his dad's surname had been "something like Yarminelsky" until the Ellis Island folks changed it willy-nilly, as they did so many other Jews with multisyllabic names, to Singer.
Fast-forward to the present. I was bopping around on Ancestry.com, as is my wont, this time looking up family trees for people descended from Arthur’s sisters, such as Nettie Singer. And bingo, there she was.
And her mother’s name was there too -- listed as (wait for it) “Nettie Jermelensky.” The Nettie part is wrong (it was Mollie), but AT LAST there was not only a reference to the pre-Singer surname, but it was a clear variant on the one we’d assumed was a wild guess up till now!
I attempted to get in touch with the person [I’ll call him Biff Y] who created the family tree, but received no response. Sleuthing a bit further I contacted some of the later names on the family tree -- and it panned out!
After introducing myself, the question I posed was whether "Jermelensky" was apocryphal, or was it perhaps written somewhere – say, in a family photo album? The reply was that there was no written confirmation of the original name “but I have always heard it as Yarmolinsky; perhaps different vowels?”
I visited JewishGen.org, and sure enough, the Ukraine (home to both Odessa and Minsk) is festooned with similar surnames:
(There was NADA for “YarmaNELski” or similar.)
I later went to the well-stocked King County library and looked up the name in a massive book of Russian genealogy, which told me that the family name of Yarmolinski "probably came from the village of Yarmolyntsi." It turns out, however, that there are three of those, relatively close to each other, between the general area of Minsk in the north and the general area of Odessa in the south.
There are records of a couple of Isaac Singers (not an uncommon name -– perhaps all victims of unimaginative immigration officials) arriving in the States in 1886; they claim to be Austrian or German. Strangely, Isaac on occasion put down his nationality as German. His death certificate correctly says Russian.
Similar to his as-yet unknown in-law counterpart Ben-Zion Blumenfeld (their children would marry twenty years later), Isaac Yarmolinski seems to have come over the year preceding his family; at that time it consisted of his wife Molly (b.1860), and three daughters whose Americanized names were Sophie (b. 1876), Nettie (b.1878), and Annie (b. 1886).
I guessed that after Isaac’s name was changed in New York, when he sent for the family, he advised them to use Singer at the outset. I subsequently found this passenger list online, arriving in the U.S. 30 September, 1887. They steamed on the German Empire via Hamburg to West Hartlepool, to Liverpool, to New York.
Taube Singer (F) Born abt 1859
Scheine Singer (F) abt 1879
Chane Singer (F) abt 1880
Tulke Singer (F) abt 1886
An attached document showed them having last lived in Bobruisk, Ukraine.
Minsk is only about 80 miles from Bobruisk. My guess then is that these respectively are Molly, Sophie, Nettie, and Annie, before they changed their first names to go along with the new American surname. The birth years are pretty dang accurate, and it’s the right number of passengers.
Eventually I was contacted by a direct descendant of Nettie Singer, who said “I am quite sure that you are correct about the group who came together to the USA... I remember Grandma [Nettie] telling me that she was about 8 years old when she came, but she did not tell about her life in Russia and, unfortunately, we kids didn't ask. Back then, the future was important and the past more or less forgotten.”
In the foreground, Arthur's sisters Annie, in the striped dress, and Sophie in the black dress, with his wife, my grandmother Helen. Riva, a daughter of Annie, is standing with Arthur. Late 1940s.