My Immigrant Family
Lena and Meyer Daniel, 1918-19, with children Ray, Sally and Nathan
I’m starting off the new year with a bit of century-old history.
While Sandra and I were visiting the East Coast a few months ago, my cousin Trude (see photo at the end of this post) showed me a couple of very old photos in her basement. One was of my father’s family — his parents and their three small kids — Meyer and Lena Daniel with their daughters Ray (about a year old) and Sally (Trude’s mom, age 4) and son Nathan (my dad, 6). The other photo was of just my dad and Sally.
Love those big bows!
It’s clear from the way the children in each photo were dressed that both pictures were taken at the same time. It’s also clear when the photos were taken — in late 1918 or early 1919. This is evident from a look at the youngest kid in the shot of the entire family, Ray (Rachel), who was clearly only about a year old at the time. Since she was born in February 1918, it’s not hard to conclude that both photos were taken roughly a year later.
Although damaged, both photos looked to me as though they might be salvageable, so, with Trude’s generous agreement, I shipped them to myself here in California and (after procrastinating a couple of months) had them restored. (As I write this, 8-by-10-inch copies of the restored photos are in the mail, on the way to all my paternal cousins.)
To complement these photos, I’ll now share what little I know about where my grandparents came from. Actually, they left Lithuania right after they got married — Jews were a persecuted minority there as in all of Czarist Russia — and they arrived in the U.S. aboard a German ship, the Kaiserin [Empress] Auguste Victoria,* on September 11, 1911, a year to the day before my dad was born in New York City.
Kaiserin Auguste Victoria (I discovered this photo at the Ellis Island Museum of Immigration along with the documentation of my grandparents’ arrival in New York)
My dad’s parents both came from a shtetl (village), Vizun (Vizuonos in Lithuanian), in Czarist Russia’s Kovno Guberniya [Governate]. Kovno is the Yiddish/Russian name for the city that is today called Kaunas** (in Lithuanian). Visuonos is about 70 miles northeast of Kaunas and 60 miles north of Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius.
When I was posted to the U.S. consulate-general in Leningrad (1976-78) and I sometimes visited Vilnius on official business, I once traveled to Kaunas on a day trip from Vilnius. No one I spoke to there had ever heard of “Vizun.” If I had known its name in Lithuanian that might have helped. However, its distance from the city of Kaunas as well as the fact that (according to information on Google Maps) Vyzuonos has a population of only about 500 today, goes a long way toward explaining why I met no one who knew of it.
In a future post, I’ll discuss my maternal grandparents’ roots.
* Empress Auguste Victoria, the wife of Germany’s notorious Kaiser Wilhelm II (who bears heavy responsibility, I think it’s fair to say, for World War I) was a great-niece of Britain’s Queen Victoria. The Kaiser himself was one of Queen Victoria’s 42 grandchildren.
** In the period of Lithuanian independence between World Wars I and II, Kaunas was the country’s capital, since its present capital Vilnius (Vilno in Yiddish and Russian, Wilno in Polish — a city with a heritage as perhaps the preeminent center of Yiddish culture in Europe before almost all of Lithuania’s Jews were murdered in World War II) was mainly inhabited by Poles and was in the eastern part of pre-World War II Poland. Eastern Poland had originally been absorbed into Czarist Russia in the three “Partitions of Poland,” 1772–1795, in which Russia joined Prussia and Austria in carving Poland up.
After World War II, the Soviet Union kept all its gains under the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact, which had made it possible for Nazi Germany to invade Poland (starting World War II) without fear of opposition by the USSR. This agreement between two of history’s bloodiest dictatorships also made it possible for the Soviet Union to join the Nazis in occupying Poland and, within months, annexing the three Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. This moved the USSR’s border hundreds of miles to the west. After Germany’s defeat in 1945, the USSR reoccupied the eastern portion of prewar Poland, along with Lithuania and the other two Baltic states (which only regained their independence with the collapse of the USSR in 1991). Almost all ethnic Poles in the area that the USSR swallowed up in 1945 were uprooted and sent west. In compensation for this loss of territory, Poland was awarded the eastern portion of prewar Germany, from which all Germans were in turn driven out (“ethnically cleansed”) — payback for Hitler’s efforts to enlarge Germany and turn the Slavs into serfs and corpses.
My grandparents at the Long Branch, New Jersey, boardwalk probably shortly before I was born in 1944
Trude and me, both about age 1, 1945
Trude (right) with Sandra during our September 2022 East Coast visit
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