The cover picture of our (great-)grandmother Fanny
was the only picture Grammy had of her mother as a young woman, and it had
pride of place in her apartment.
child I used to stare at it for long stretches, imaging the life of the
confident woman in the elegant, plumed hat.
But now I know that Fanny was just a teenager in this photograph, a
garment worker not long off the boat living opposite railroad tracks and a coal
And she almost didn’t make it
When I asked Grandmom about her mother's immigration, all she said that was that she came in the early 1900s from Kiev, as did her parents and some, though not all, of her siblings.
It took finding the records of their journey on Ancestry.com to begin to learn about the early life of the woman in the plumed hat. And that's how I discovered the surprise.
Her family’s immigration story began in
September 1901, when her father, Joseph, departed for Philadelphia, leaving
eleven year-old Fanny, her four younger siblings, and pregnant mother in
Chornobai, a small shtetl in the
heart of the Pale of Settlement.
Philadelphia was a popular destination for the
large wave of Russian Jews fleeing poverty and pogroms, and Fanny’s rich uncle Marcus A. Benn, who had himself
been a penniless immigrant just ten years prior, paid the $36 for Joseph’s
Joseph worked for for
three-and-a-half years, probably as a peddler selling vegetables, to save the
$182.50 to bring over his wife and now six children, the youngest of whom he had never even seen. On May 30, 1905, Joseph walked into Rosenbaum Bank and paid off their tickets.
Rosenbaum Bank was one of a number of banks where recent immigrants could save money to purchase tickets to bring their families to the U.S. Of all such banks in all the port cities, only a few Philadelphia banks' records survive. We are lucky to have this resource available for so many of our ancestors, not just Fanny's family!
The likeliest scenario is that the seven of them left Chornobai in early June 1905 with whatever possessions and food they could carry and proceeded by foot or cart to the dangerous border crossing into
Austria-Hungary 435 miles due west. From there they likely boarded a train to the
port of Hamburg, another 830 miles north-west taking them further and further from the only home they had
ever known and would never see again.
On August 5, 1905, they sailed to Grimbsy on the east coast
of England, a thirty-two hour voyage, and from there they took a train across
England to the port of Liverpool.
There, they were supposed to have boarded a ship called "Haverford" destined for Philadelphia.
As you can see, their names were crossed off that manifest. They never took that ship.
They ended up taking the "Friesland" a week later. On 8/27/1905 Joseph was reuinted with the wife and children he hadn't seen for three-and-a-half years, plus he met his youngest daughter for the first time.
But take a close look at the manifest -- only five children are listed.
Fanny is the missing one. She did not immigrate with the rest of her family.
What happened to her?
These manifests are frustratingly mute about this traumatic chapter in my family’s history. Why was Fanny left behind? My first instinct was that she had gotten too sick to travel. Perhaps it was too expensive for her mother and five siblings to remain with her while she recovered.
Did they expect she would recover?
I dwelt on the heart-breaking possibly that when they parted, they might not have known if they would ever see each other again.
Eventually I discovered that Fanny boarded a ship on 11/29/1905, arriving in Philadelphia to reunite with her family on 12/13/1905. She was only 15 and had been left alone for over three months!
Clearly her mother felt the pain as acutely as any Jewish mother would; in the section of the manifest where they sometimes add notes about the relative responsible for meeting the passenger, it says, "Mother called."
Why, I wondered, was Fanny left behind?
When I told the story to second cousin Rhea, she wrote me, "I've often heard that something happened in England on the second leg of the journey from Russia. My grandmother, Sarah, was ill and not allowed to accompany the rest of the family to Philadelphia."
Interesting that she knew this story, which was unknown to my part of the family—but she had the wrong sister!
Last summer I found a researcher in Liverpool who focuses on Jewish genealogy. Based on Fanny's age and the amount of time she had been there, he guessed that the only surviving records that might shine light on what happened to her would be from the Liverpool Workhouse.
But alas, no one with a name like hers was admitted in August or September of 1905.
So, unfortunately, cousin Rhea's half-mistaken recollections are all we may ever know about what happened to Fanny.
Regardless of why she was detained, after arriving she followed the path so many other young, Russian Jewish immigrants in Philadelphia's Jewish Quarter took: she went to work in the city's garment industry.
Her future husband, Abraham Yorker, arrived six months later and also went to work in the garment industry. They were married three years after Abe arrived and moved into together opposite an iron foundry. She worked up until she delivered her first child, (Great-)Aunt Syd.
Despite the traumatic way in which she immigrated, she led a very happy life in the U.S. It was not without its struggles, especially during the Depression, but she and Abe raised four children who remembered them both as warm and loving.
I think often of Fanny's bravery. I'm not sure any of us has ever had to be that brave.