In Part I of this series I listed some of the facts I know about my grandfather’s life.  In this post I have turned those facts into a story

My grandfather’s story is in many ways an ordinary story.  Grandpa’s is the Eastern European Jewish version of the story, but there is an Irish version, an Italian version, a German version, a Japanese version, a version for every ethnicity.  If you are African-American it is a different story.  Lack of choice changes the story, but mine is the ethnic story. You know this story, briefly, oppression in the homeland, leave everything and take a boat to a new country, arrive somewhere where you don’t speak the language, live in harsh, soul-crushing poverty, survive and thrive. These stories are common, yet I find them extraordinary.  A million people or more arrived in this country every year between 1890 and 1910.  These were primarily Eastern Europeans and my grandfather was one of them.

Why did he come?  At the end of the 18th century Catherine the Great, Czar of Russia, created the Pale of Settlement where the Jews of Russia would be forced to live.  The Pale included what is now the Ukraine, Poland and other areas.  The laws became more and more restrictive over time.  Even within the Pale Jews could not own land, paid extra taxes and could not attend university.   Eventually Russian law demanded that large numbers of Jews between the ages of 12 and 25 serve 25 years in the Russian army.  Any community that failed to provide its quota would be punished. The Silvers or Silvermans, as they were known then, left Russia forever when their oldest son was twelve. In light of the alternatives emigration to America looked good, even if the streets weren’t paved with gold.

In August of 1891 the Silverman family arrived in New York on the S.S. La Champagne having left Le Havre, France eight days earlier.

My grandfather traveled with his parents, Mendel and Lina and his brother Sam.  I have no idea how they got to Le Havre, most likely by rail. They may have stayed in France for a while, my father recalls his father speaking of time in France.  My cousin remembers being told they spent time in Ireland. Whatever their route and whatever the delays they came through the Barge Office in New York and started a new life.

The Barge Office New York---- Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

First Photo in America Mendel, Lina, Alex and Sam


There is much more to this story and there will be a Part III.

I am in the process of switching to a new genealogy database.  Rather than importing the data I am entering it by hand and taking this opportunity to review material, assess what I know and yes, clean up those source citations we have all heard WAY too much about recently. While I enjoy some of the OCD aspects of this project, it is a bit dull because it consists only of facts and not the story behind the facts.

The intersection of facts and stories struck my fancy, so I thought I would show anyone who is interested how I move from the bare facts to the story of my family.  This will probably be a multi-part adventure.

I started with my grandfather, Alexander Silver.

What I Have


1.  The 1900 U.S. Census

Some facts from this census


1.  The name is Silverman, not Silver.

2.  The Silverman family is living on Forsyth Street in Manhattan.

3.  Alex is living with his parents, Mendel and Lena, his wife Pauline and his

daughter, Hatti–my Aunt Ethel

4.Alex was born in November of 1876 and was 23 years old.

5. Pauline was born in December of 1878 and was 21.

6.  Ethel was born in July of 1897 and was 2 years old.

7.  Ethel was born in New York, everyone else was born in Russia.

8. Alex and his parents emigrated in 1891, Pauline in 1888.

9.  Alex had petitioned for naturalization

10.  He was in the novelties business.

11.  Alex and Pauline could read, write an speak English


2.  Alexander Silver’s Declaration of Intention and Petition for citizenship














Some facts from the Declaration and Petition


1.  The declaration of intention was made in 1907.

2. Alex and family were living in Detroit in 1907

3.They were living on South 7th St. in Philadelphia, PA. in 1911 .

4. Alex came to the U.S. from Russia via Havre on the S.S. Campagnia.

5.  He arrived in New York an Aug. 20, 1891

6.  He had three children, Ethel, born July 10, 1898 in New York, Sylvia, born

Nov. 25, 1902 in New York and Stanley born May 10, 1909 in Detroit


There’s much more of interest in these documents, but I’ll keep that for later.


The story as I like to tell it will be Part Two.  Some facts may get bent, but not broken  and some things will be implied from the facts.  Context will be added to truly tell the story.


It’s Saturday afternoon and they’re gone, not the leftovers, the relatives.  The leftover turkey will last forever.  Have you noticed that every recipe you use to get rid of the turkey actually extends its life?  Its like Zeno’s paradox, you’re always using half of what’s left but it’s never quite gone. Eventually it will turn green and I will dump it.

But there are leftovers that will last longer than the turkey.  Whenever family and friends are together there is talk.  This year the talk remained civil and we’re all still speaking to each other.  This is not the case every year, so there’s something else to be thankful for.

What are leftover this year are questions about my parents.  I was very close to my parents and have always assumed that I knew everything about them.  Wrong!  Of course, in some ways we never really know our parents.  If we’re lucky, they are the boring people who go to work every day and take care of us.  I can see it in my kids eyes, that sense that we never had a different life, one in which we were as crazy and adventurous as they are.  That’s all right, normal even, but there are other things that I don’t know about my parents.

At some point this weekend someone asked to see my parents’ wedding pictures.  I have no pictures of my parents’ wedding. How is this possible?  I have hundreds of pictures of my family including every stage of my parents’ life. The universal response to this lack of photos was, “How can you not have wedding photos, everyone has pictures of their parents’ wedding?”  Not me.  This always seemed perfectly normal to me, whatever you grow up with as a kid is normal.  Not only don’t I have pictures of my parents’ wedding, I don’t know anything about their wedding.  Was it at home, at city hall, at a synagogue?  Who knows? Not me. What a family historian. I have found their marriage listed in an index of Philadelphia marriages and will certainly send for the certificate, but I fear I will never know the details.  There is no scandalous excitement here, no shotgun wedding, no bigamy.  I am sure this was just a normal wedding for its time and place, but I am truly sad and surprised that I never asked my mother about her wedding day.

In my quest to find their marriage certificate I was reminded of the fact that my mother had no birth certificate. A few years ago in order to satisfy some bureaucracy or other that my 97-year-old mother was indeed over 65 I was asked to produce a birth certificate.  I filled out the forms and checked the box that said I needed the certificate for legal reasons.  Just a few days later a very pleasant woman called and informed me that they had no record of my mother’s birth.  There was another Henrietta Silver, born a month earlier to parents with different names.  Did I want that certificate? Not really.  I knew my mother had a social security card, a passport, and a raft of other things that require proof of age, and yet, she had no birth certificate.

I knew that at the end of the holiday I would have more questions than answers, but I never expected to be saying, “My mother, mystery woman.”

I’m sitting here in front of my computer with a nice glass of ice tea, soon to be followed by something on the grill and a nice glass of something a bit stronger than ice tea.  Soon to be followed by doing nothing.  That’s right, doing nothing.  It’s summertime.  Remember the old song lyrics, Porgy and Bess, “Summertime and the livin’ is easy” or Nat King Cole, “Bring back those lazy hazy, crazy days of summer.”  Well, those days are back and this week we are going with lazy and easy.

First a set of Pat’s favorite old summertime photos with a few of my comments, and then a set of mine with a few random notes of Pat.  Here’s Pat.

In the Midwest, when I was growing up, you swam at a pool or a lake or pond and had a place at a lake for vacationing if you were wealthy. The people I knew joined the local pool and maybe spent a week at a lake an hour or two away.

Once we were old enough we spent most afternoons at the pool; the local town park had a town pool that a family could join for a reasonable fee. We took swimming lessons in the morning, run by the local Red Cross. It could be downright chilly some mornings. In the afternoon we rode our bikes to the park and established our places around the pool, laying out towels and a book or bag.

Lake Erie pavilion

Lake Erie pavilion

My mother used to talk about being taken to Lake Erie as a child, to swim and picnic and fish with her family .(I knew Pat’s mother, she was the enormously capable, organized mother of five.  It tickles me to think of her as a carefree girl.)

Grandpa Lyle in bathing suit

Grandpa Lyle in bathing suit

The family went on such adventures every Sunday afternoon until both my mother and uncle went off to college. My grandmother had never learned to swim until she learned as a mother when her two children did. My mother said that Grandma Cena had been afraid in boats when they went fishing, because if the boat capsized or she somehow fell in she wouldn’t know how to save herself. So when she had the chance as an adult, she learned to swim well enough to feel comfortable out on the water. I suspect she never liked it much though. Most of the pictures of their family and water seem to have been taken by her father,  my Grandpa Lyle.

This set of pictures was taken at Lake Erie. I know this because my mother carefully labeled one. Unfortunately she didn’t note specifically where on Lake Erie it was. Probably because as a child she knew very well where it was and assumed others would too. It could have been Mitiwanga, which was a popular vacation place and destination for a weekend trip.

Dick, Elizabeth & Lyle swimming

Dick, Elizabeth & Lyle swimming

The pictures are not dated, but from the look of the children and my grandfather, it was probably around 1926-1928.  You can also see the family penchant for occasionally labeling a picture with a cute description along with who the person was. (At least they were labelled–God bless the labellers.)

Now, my turn.  These pictures are left over from my post on the Jersey shore.  The first one is a studio shot of my Great-aunt Jennie, about 1901 or 1915.  The women of my family and probably of most families of that time would don all of their finery for studio pictures, but not at the beach.  It is great fun to see them in their casual wear.

The next one is my aunt, uncle and cousin on the boardwalk.  Judging by the age of my cousin this must have been taken in 1939. All of the people in this photo are still alive. My Uncle Syd is 96 and my Aunt Myrna is 95.  In a younger day my aunt had more energy than any three people I know.  They are not in the best of health and it is a pleasure for me to look at this picture and see them so young and vital.  (This reminds me of Coney Island many years later.  Can’t you just smell the sea and the hotdogs and the cotton candy?)

My last picture is of my grandfather on the beach.  It’s not a great photo and my grandfather doesn’t look very happy.  I don’t know who the people without heads are.  What’s interesting about this picture for me is the inscription on the back, “Ma come quick, Pa’s got his arm around Essie.”  No, I don’t know who Essie is, or rather which Essie this might be.  Esther was a common Jewish name at the time and there were bunches of Essies among my family and their friends.  (And this is the problem with the labels we have on many of our pictures.  Whoever wrote that knew who Essie was, but we don’t.  And we know Pa is Judy’s grandfather because she knows that’s who the man is.  Time to start labeling that box of photos while I still remember.) It’s good to have these photos to see people before I knew them and be able to imagine their lives before I was born.

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but sometimes it takes a thousand words to understand a picture.

These pictures  look simple enough, a happy young couple at the beach in an earlier time, but for me these pictures evoke memories that should not be mine, memories that belong to those young people.  The young people are my parents, Stanley and Henrietta Silver, and the memories the photos invoke in me are those of stories told so often and so well that the memories feel like my own.

To understand these pictures you need to understand their context.  The photos were taken in Wildwood, New Jersey around 1930, many years before I was born.  My grandmother Pauline operated a boardinghouse in Wildwood during the summer months.

To understand these pictures you need to know that my parents and grandparents lived in a row house in an intensely urban environment, no grass, no trees, no air conditioning. My grandmother worked hard all summer so her family could leave the city for the fun, the freedom and the comfort of the Jersey shore.

My Grandparents and my aunts in their swimsuits

I do not speak here of the Jersey shore of the similarly named television show.  I speak of the Jersey shore in the days before casinos.  In pictures the beaches look crowded and they are, but compared to Philadelphia’s less affluent neighborhoods this was wide-open space.  I listened for years to my parents and my older cousins tell stories about Wildwood.  For the young people in that picture it was the beach, looking good in a bathing suit, the boardwalk, maybe a quick smooch under the boardwalk. My entire extended family would spend their weekends there reveling in the cool breezes and each other’s company. They spent their days on the beach or on the boardwalk and they went to photo studios to have their pictures taken in their beach attire.

My mother and my grandfather 1913

My grandmother gave up the boardinghouse before I was born, but my family continued to cool off at the Jersey shore for years to come.  A few of my cousins rented cottages in the town of Brigantine.  On weekends the entire Silver clan would migrate to Brigantine.  These were small cottages, but somehow there was room for everyone.  I remember the ocean and the boardwalk, catching crabs and eating salt-water taffy.  Sooner or later someone would dump a crab pot on the kitchen floor.  Crabs, kids and grownups would scatter, jumping on the furniture until someone corralled the crabs and they were boiled and eaten.

My family doesn’t go “down the shore” anymore.  My generation grew up, went to college and moved around the country and the world in search of jobs, love, and adventure.  We meet at weddings and funerals and remember those times.  Now there is talk of a family reunion, maybe down the shore.