When I was a kid, I thought I came from a small family.
I had one sister, four cousins through my two uncles, two grandparents (the other two died when I was young).
No one talked much about the previous generations, except for my father, who filled my head with tall tales about his grandfather, Bernhardt:
- He brought over many relatives from Hungary? But my father only had one relative, a brother!
- He built a synagogue? But my mother constantly complained that my father knew nothing about religion.
- And a cemetery? Clearly that was an elaboration on the previous fabrication.
In the summer of 1991, someone with the answers found us!
Frances Fleshin was a distant cousin of my father in Texas who was researching the whole Hepps family. It turned out that we were the lost branch!
(My father likes to joke that we knew where we were the whole time!)
Three months later her book arrived in the mail: 80+ pages of trees, stories, and photographs!
- Bernhardt did bring all his siblings over from Hungary!
- He did build Homestead's synagogue!
- And he did found Homestead's Jewish cemetery!
Two months later I became a Bat Mitzvah.
My newfound understanding of just how hard my great-grandfather worked to establish and support Jewish institutions in his little corner of this country made my coming-of-age ceremony even more meaningful for me.
And forever after the book changed my entire perspective on my family, their legacy, and my responsibility towards that legacy. It showed me that even though the people around me weren’t all that interested in distant family history, there were people besides me who were.
... and like Frances, I would go out and seek the answers, too!
As I slowly became a “real” genealogist, I came to understand that even if other relatives actually corroborated my father’s tall tales, I still needed sources to prove everything.
This ship manifest was one of the very first I ever pulled. I was amazed it gave such specific information!
But what about the really interesting stuff about the synagogue and the cemetery? Could I prove that?
The breakthrough came many years later, when I discovered that of all the small synagogues in all the small towns of America, the one my great-grandfather founded had not only kept detailed records, but also they had been carefully preserved with a digitized finding aid!
Sixteen boxes of records? As they say on Who Do You Think You Are?, I guess I'm going to Pittsburgh!
Somehow it took three more years until I could make my first trip to Pittsburgh with my father.
After a couple wonderful days seeing where he grew up and touring the synagogue and cemetery Bernhardt built, we concluded our trip with a day at the Heinz History center...
I was very nervous. What if I didn't find anything about Bernhardt in the synagogue record?!
But my fears were unfounded. In fact, I was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of what I found!
Bernhardt's name was on the very first page of the very first book I opened. And book after book, page after page, I found the proof I had come for...
There were so many more records besides these, and Bernhardt’s name appears on so many pages, if nothing else just to sign off on the expense as secretary or treasurer.
But my favorite were the speeches extolling the religious tolerance the congregation found in the U.S., because the reason why my father told me so much about Bernhardt was that if he hadn’t brought over the family, the family wouldn’t have survived.
That is how my father raised us to love America. And now, after years of research and luck, I had proof that every one of my father's tall tales was true!
And the net result of this twenty-year odyssey is that somewhere along the way I stopped being a kid with an obsession with the past and became a genealogist who could persevere 'til she found the answers to her burning questions!
Many years later when I self-published my own family book for my maternal side, I dedicated it to Frances Fleshin for “inspiring my enduring interest in genealogical research. Her work showed me how the task is done.”
You can draw a straight line from Frances’ book to my creation of Treelines. If people enjoy this site, they will have her to thank, too!