“The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and respected Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions.”
“The American cousin is the last hope of every Eastern Jewish family.”
—Joseph Roth (Austrian Jewish writer)
For Chanukah this year, I received an odd present — a used envelope! I burst into tears when I saw it — not out of disappointment, but out of astonishment and joy.
The present came from my friend and fellow genealogist, Alex Feller, who found it on eBay, posted by a seller in Athens. He was more than a little surprised that my thank you phone call came accompanied by tears. I had to explain to him that every single detail, from Friedlander and Eighth Avenue, even to Baisogala, the town named in the Russian postmark, was familiar to me. Most everyone reading also knows Eighth Avenue and Friedlander — in fact, many of us are either Friedlanders or related to them (for example, my father’s first cousin married into the family). What Alex found wasn’t just some random curiosity that washed up on the shores of Greece.
I know the Friedlander family history in detail — they are one of the central families in this project — but when Alex asked, “Who is M.M.?” I could not say. My giant family tree of Jewish Homesteaders soon revealed the answer: Morris Friedlander, 1882-1943. The tree showed that the envelope came into existence because in 1901 Morris lived in Homestead, and his parents and siblings in Baisogala.
The story of the envelope is the story of why the family separated and how they reunited. You already know how this sort of story goes. And yet, to take this one in, to follow all its twists and turns as though you, like the Friedlanders, are entering the unknown, may yet surprise you.
The story of the Homestead Friedlanders begins in Baisogala, a small shtetl in the Kovno district of the Russian Empire (today Lithuania). Patriarch Eliyahu Friedlander, born around 1818, had at least six children who survived to adulthood. They, in turn, had more than 30 children, including Morris, and when our story begins in the 1880s, Eliahu’s great-grandchildren began to enter the world.
Already there is much to unpack:
- Homestead Friedlanders: Eliyahu himself was surely descended from an equally large family as the one he begat. His descendants, most of whom came to Homestead, comprised just one branch of a giant family tree.
- Friedlanders: And also Jacobsons, Seiavitches, Mervises, Perlmans, and Liebermans. Eliyahu’s descendants intramarried heavily with many other families in their region.
- Intramarried heavily: I don’t just mean that two Jacobson siblings married two Lieberman siblings, or that two Jacobson sisters married two Seiavitch brothers, but also that there were at least two first cousin marriages and two uncle-niece marriages just amongst Eliyahu’s descendants. In the small communities in which they lived, marital choices were slim. Plus, as descendant Harold Hiedovitz explained, such marriages were a way of keeping property in the family. I suspect such family ties went back generations, making the Eliahu Friedlander family deeply connected to a densely-intertwined network of Jewish families centered in Baisogala and neighboring Grinkishok (today Grinkiškis, Lithuania). These connections would play a marked role in this family’s history and self-perception. 1
Their ties to each other were tight, but it’s less clear how deep went their connection to Baisogala and Grinkishok. The Jewish community in Lithuania dates back to the 14th century, though an expulsion from 1495-1503 and the Chmielnicki Massacres of 1648-1649 uprooted the community and diminished its size. The Jewish community of Grinkishok, first documented during the 17th century, was surely shaped in its early years by the massacres. By the late 18th century Lithuania’s Jewish community had recovered — but then they became subjects of Russia, living in the newly-created Pale of Settlement, bound by its oppressive restrictions, and subject to mandatory conscription. The Jewish community of Baisogala dates to the beginning of this harsh period. For much of the 19th century and probably longer, suggest the surviving genealogical records, this region, home to the poorest Jewish communities in all of Europe, was also home to the Friedlander+ network of families. 2
Over the course of the 19th century, the Eliyahu Friedlander family grew. Most branches made their home in Baisogala or Grinkishok, though some went to nearby shtetlach with much movement between. The history of these places indicates that their Jewish communities, just four miles apart, were bound together in ways that went beyond family connections. Grinkishok, the older, but smaller community, with perhaps 400 Jews at the community’s height in the late 19th century, had the cemetery, cheder, and shochet for both. Baisogala, a mile from the train station, had the larger community, peaking at 634 Jews in 1897, and was once famous for its rabbis and native sons. Each maintained the traditional Jewish institutions — synagogues, batei midrash, benevolent societies, burial societies — but by the end of the nineteenth century, secular education and Zionism had taken root. Even amidst these steps towards modernity, both communities continued to struggle with poverty, famine, and disease. Moreover, the wave of pogroms that began in 1881, mainly affecting Jewish communities further south, exacerbated the fears the Jews of Baisogala and Grinkishok had for themselves and their prospects. The events of the late nineteenth century would push much of the Eliyahu Friedlander family, along with most of their landsleit, to leave the places they had called home for generations.
In fact, the Jews of Lithuania had been coming to the Pittsburgh area since the aftermath of the failed Polish-Lithuanian uprising against the Russians in 1863-4 and especially after the famine of 1869. Their numbers became sufficient to establish their first synagogue in 1870. By the time the first of Eliyahu Friedlander’s descendants left home in the 1880s, Pittsburgh would have been well-known to them as a destination where they’d at least find landsmen, if not also old friends and family — and landsmen were a prerequisite for immigration.3
Friedlander family lore relates that their family’s exodus began with the two sons of Eliyahu’s daughter Sarah Friedlander Jacobson. Matching these stories against the genealogical records, it seems as though both Louis (b. 1868) and Abraham David (b. 1878) first left Grinkishok and came to the U.S. as teenagers in the 1880s. Much more is known about Abraham David’s experience. 4
As a teenager, he had a run in with the law or was out to avoid conscription into the Lithuanian military. The story goes that in order to escape a jail sentence, he ran away to America. He came to Pittsburgh, probably in the mid 1880’s as a 17 year old. What he found were opportunities to work and make a good life for himself. He knew how to be a peddler, so he started his business by going door to door or shall we say, farm to farm, to get orders for food and durable goods, such as pots, pans, clothing, tools, etc. He then found suppliers in Pittsburgh who would sell him these items so he could return with his horse drawn cart to deliver the orders to his farm customers. He also discovered the good selling territory on the southern side of the Monongahela River, known as Homestead, Pennsylvania.
Peddling was the most prevalent way Jewish immigrants like David and Louis got their start. 5 It was lonely, arduous work. The further the territory from Pittsburgh, the likelier that families needed the goods the brothers hauled to their doorstep, but the more dangerous it was for a lone Jew in such remote places. Peddlers were routinely cheated, attacked, and in rare cases, murdered. Within small towns like Homestead, they were considered a public nuisance and a threat to local shopkeepers. They were required to get daily licenses and were arrested and fined if they did not. 6 In the face of difficulties like these, David and Louis’ years of peddling were years of perseverance.
David, who dropped his first name Abraham so that the “goyim” would buy from him, matured and became a business man. When he reached his early 20’s, he felt it was time to return home and find a bride. 7
Both brothers married women from Grinkishok. David set his heart on Libby Raize Lieberman, whose brother had married David’s sister, despite Libby’s being betrothed to another. Louis married his first cousin Rebecca Friedlander, daughter of his uncle Berchick. During the 1890s, both their families grew, along with the many families of their siblings and cousins. Family lore posits that David “returned several times to Homestead, an area he had come to love” in the midst of fathering five sons, but I wonder…
Meanwhile, David and Louis’ first cousin Benjamin (b. 1876, son of Berchik, so also Louis’ brother-in-law) became the first documented resident of Homestead from this family. He, too, may have initially come to the U.S. earlier, but he arrived for good in July 1893. His early years in the U.S. are a mystery — my guess is that he peddled in the Philadelphia region — but in April 1899, at twenty-three years of age, he opened a clothing store on Homestead’s main street. Perhaps David’s praise for the town had planted the idea in Benjamin’s head, but Homestead was then at the beginning of a boom after years of stagnation, and the organization of the town’s synagogue in 1894, along with the slowly increasing number of Jewish families, surely helped recommend it to Benjamin. A couple months after opening his store, Benjamin married in Philadelphia, and once he and his new wife “went to housekeeping,” they opened their home to Benjamin’s parents, three brothers, and younger sister, who immigrated to join them.
From the beginning, the town regarded Benjamin and his store highly. I suspect he had the labor of his family backing his efforts, and his success, in turn, supported them and the relatives yet to immigrate — starting with his first cousin Morris Friedlander, who arrived just months before the store opened. (Morris is M.M. of the envelope, son of Eliyahu’s son Louis.) A year or two later, Morris’ brother Joseph (b. 1883) followed. In these early years, Benjamin was the public face of what was really a mutually-dependent family group. 8
And thus things stood on May 19, 1901, when someone in Baisogala posted a letter to Morris. My guess is that it was his parents, who still had Morris’ two sisters and youngest brother with them (though at this point the bulk of the Eliyahu Friedlander family remained with them in Russia). Morris and the other relatives in America had tremendous pressure on them. Not only did they have to establish themselves, but quite likely they were supporting their family back in Russia, too. (Was the Russian family so poor that they could not even afford postage? That’s not a stamp you see on the letter, but a “postage due” label. It and all the other markings on the front indicate that the letter was mailed from Baisogala without postage paid. Alex also points out to me that handwriting on the envelope is well done for a Russian. Was it addressed by David or Louis, the relatives who had spent significant time in America?)
What did someone in Baisogala have to say to Morris in May 1901? Send money? Hurry up and get us out of here? Or perhaps, heads up — more cousins are on their way! For David Jacobson returned for good that summer, leaving behind his pregnant wife and sons. Louis Jacobson, his wife, and their three children likely arrived around the same time. By the end of 1901, three of the six known branches of Eliyahu Friedlander’s family had a foothold in Homestead.
The letters back and forth across the ocean continued. Perhaps the new Americans wrote home to reassure their family that they were making progress, that they were building new lives amidst a small Jewish community, whose most established members lived in comfortable circumstances they were working towards themselves. This was the trade-off of choosing a place like Homestead over the Lower East Side or even the nearby Hill District of Pittsburgh: less Jewish community, but faster upward mobility. By 1902, though, they could write home that the community was steadily growing and at last had it own synagogue building. Though they likely all frequented the synagogue, so far only Benjamin was a member — probably due to his superior economic situation and his marital status. As for the Jacobson brothers, how they fared in these early years is not clear. Did they return to peddling as a stepping-stone? Or, did they already have the capital to rent the necessary space and procure the necessary equipment for their own businesses? Or, were they loaned it by their cousins? As newcomers, it would not have been unusual had they leaned on the earlier arrivals. In Jewish communities like Homestead’s, those who had businesses employed those who needed to learn a trade, those who were wholesalers sent newcomers out with goods to peddle, and synagogue and charitable groups gave tzedakah to those who encountered difficulties. In a large family circle like the Friedlanders’, close relationships further eased the way. They helped each other to rise together.
Homestead’s Jewish community continued to expand, and Friedlander immigration contributed to the increase. Just days before the synagogue dedication in March 1902, Morris Mervis became the first child from Eliyahu’s daughter Hannah Milke’s family to arrive. He departed Russia not long after the January wedding of his first cousin Lena Jacobson (b. 1877), sister of David and Louis, to her brother-in-law, Benjamin Seiavitch (b. 1876). Benjamin soon became another who immigrated while his wife was pregnant. His younger brother, Harry (b. 1880), arrived in September of the following year. (He came over with Harry Lieberman, his brothers’ brother-in-law, who remained in Baltimore with his own brother.) Morris and Joseph Friedlander’s younger brother, Alex, preceded Harry by a month, leaving their parents with just two girls at home. Once in Homestead, the latest arrivals lived some with Benjamin and the rest with Louis. With the exception of these two families, the rest of the Friedlander immigrants were young men, mostly bachelors. Together they were seeding their family community within the growing Jewish community of their new town. 10
I wonder at what point the piecemeal process of immigration turned into a consensus that they’d all reunite in Homestead. Easter 1903 brought the first Kishinev Pogrom, which set off pogroms in hundreds of towns and villages across Ukraine and Bessarabia and alarmed Jews throughout the Russian Empire. The Homestead Friedlanders read detailed accounts about what happened in local Jewish and non-Jewish newspapers alike. The pace of Jews fleeing Russia picked up dramatically — Jewish immigration to the U.S. in 1903 increased by a third over the previous year. 11 Perhaps the tone of the family’s letters from Russia took on an added urgency. Perhaps the breadwinners in Homestead felt intensifying pressure. Fortunately, at this critical moment, things seemed to be going well for them. 1903 brings the first evidence of the establishment of Louis Jacobson’s grocery store at 530 Dickson Street. Both Seiavitch brothers lived with him and likely worked for him. Louis was now able to afford to join the synagogue. As for his brother David, by this time he had settled in Pittsburgh on the opposite side of the bridge leading to Homestead (today Duck Hollow) and went into an atypical line of work: farming! Primarily he tended cows for milk that he sold in Homestead, but he raised poultry and grew vegetables, too. Now the family had three businesses in Homestead.
With such a foundation in place, one can only imagine the flurry of letters back and forth in the ensuing months. In early 1904 a family group assembled in Russia, all from the branch of Eliayhu’s daughter Sarah Friedlander Jacobson. They were: Harry Lieberman’s daughter, Frieda; her uncle, Eliezer Seiavitch (also brother to Harry and Benjamin), and his daughter, Frieda; Benjamin’s wife, Ella (sister to Louis and David), and his young son; Lena’s sister Breile; and David’s wife, Leibe Raize, and six children. The four adults — one man and three women — were siblings or siblings-in-law to each other. The eight children, ranging from 11 mos. to 18 years, were siblings or first cousins. In the summer they would leave Russia forever, just twelve of the hundred thousand Jews who would make a similar journey that year.
At the time the Friedlanders were emigrating, it was illegal to leave Russia. 12 To assist them, there was likely a secret emigration agent in Baisogala or Grinkishok, part of a larger organization that facilitated the process of illegal emigration. With the local agent’s assistance, it’s likely that the majority of the family’s multi-day journey to the port at Bremen, Germany was by train, with stops for the border crossing and health inspection. Reaching the port was not assured, but this family group seems to have gotten out of Russia without incident. They departed Bremen on July 21, traveling in steerage under cramped, unsanitary conditions. During the journey, Libba Raiza weaned baby Sarah on potato soup while her oldest son, 9, watched his four younger brothers. 13
To enter the U.S., they would have been most concerned about proving to immigration officials that they were free of dangerous diseases (based on legislation from 1891) and would not become public charges (1882). Having family already working the U.S. eased the way for this large group of mostly women and children. (As Russians they may have been illegal emigrants, but they did not have to consider illegal entry to the U.S. — in 1904 people like them were welcomed generally without restriction.) 14
From Baltimore, all but Frieda Lieberman took the train to Pittsburgh. “It was told that Libba Raiza refused to give the train conductor the fare because he tried to take more coins from her hand than he had taken from Ella’s,” the family remembers. “She did not understand that it took more coins for her family with seven (sic) children than it took for Ella and Sam [Seiavitch].” After this last leg of their journey, at last they were reunited with family they hadn’t seen in years. Benjamin met his son and Abraham his daughter for the first time. As the new arrivals were escorted to their new homes, we can only imagine their shock when they heard the racket and saw the smoke of the steel mill, and yet for them the shape of their new lives — whether they ran a store in town or worked on a farm across the river — resembled their old lives more than for the typical Jewish immigrant of the period, who faced crowded tenements and factory schedules.
A few more relatives trickled in over the rest of 1904 — Emanuel Lieberman, joining his father and sister, who had left Baltimore for Pittsburgh; and two more Mervis brothers, who possibly came by way of Capetown, joining Morris Mervis. The end of the year saw the start of the events that led to the Russian Revolution of 1905. Strikes spread across the country, and a new wave of pogroms. Russia lost its war against the Japanese. That year, Jewish immigration to the U.S. increased to 130,000. During the summer another large family group came to Homestead — eight people spanning two branches of Eliyahu’s family. His daughter, Hannah Milke Mervis, came with her husband Isaac, her daughter Mary, and Mary’s daughter Mamie. (Mary’s husband, an unrelated Morris Mervis (not to be confused with her brother Morris Mervis), had come to Homestead 2-3 years prior.) And Eliyahu’s son Louis came with his wife Esther and daughters Pauline and Fannie — Morris Friedlander’s parents and sister. At last Morris and his family were reunited, more than fours years after the letter and more than six years after he had left home by himself.
With these two large groups, the majority of Eliyahu’s descendants were now in Homestead. Still, they continued to arrive. In 1906 154,000 Jews immigrated to the U.S., the peak for the decade, including the first family group from Eliyahu’s daughter Leah Perlman’s branch. Over the rest of the decade, individuals from all five branches continued to join their American relatives.
From Eliyahu’s descendants alone I count nearly 60 individuals who made the journey to Homestead. But to gauge the full effect of what happened resulted when two Litvish brothers tested their luck at peddling a small steel town outside of Pittsburgh, we’d have to include the many cousins and in-laws and landsmen whose immigration was influenced, if not outright supported, by these 60 — for example, Joseph Hiedovitz of Grinkishok, who came to Pittsburgh looking for the Jacobson family who had been his widowed mother’s friends and customers. 15
Not everyone came over. Eliyahu had a son Zelig, not attested in any tree, whose branch ended up in South Africa and tried to get back in touch with their long-lost cousins in 1929. 16 Eliyahu’s daughter Leah Perlman never left, nor did her husband; their children were divided. Eliyahu’s daughter Sarah Jacobson also stayed behind with her husband, their daughters Golda Lieberman and Leah Riva Seiavitch never joined their siblings or husbands, and their children also remained divided. Golda’s brother, David, offered her the travel money, but she refused. For these relatives, there would be no reunion. Their letters would continue for decades. 17
From the vantage point of those left behind in Grinkishok and Baisogala, it was a devastating loss. Consider: there were ~450 Jews in Grinkishok at the time when the Friedlanders began departing for good. In 1921 there were 250. It was worse in Baisogala; from 634 Jews in 1897, there remained in 1914 just 100 people from 15 families. Everyone had left for the treyfene medina. In 1911 a Hebrew-language newspaper covering Eastern Europe wrote about Baisogala’s institutions (which likely served both towns), “The Talmud Torah is about to collapse, the Bikur Cholim Society and the Synagogue were in a state of neglect.” Generations of traditions could no longer be sustained. 18
The Friedlander envelope is a poignant artifact of all that this family endured to make a better life for themselves. For years they were parted, not knowing if or when they would ever be reunited, and some resigned themselves to permanent separations from their dearest ones. On one side of the ocean, they prepared to say goodbye to the only home they had ever known — or watched their loved ones as they left them one by one. On the other side of the ocean, they struggled to make a new place, with its opportunities and obstacles, feel like home. They took a risk millions of immigrants took. We have to wipe our minds clean of the subsequent history we know too well: it was a risk. It was a heart-breaking, desperate gamble. There were no guarantees how things would turn out on either side.
In Homestead, the Friedlanders who immigrated could see from earlier arrivals that with hard work all the things that were impossible for them in Russia were now attainable — making a living, raising children in comfort, educating them fully, and living in peace — and for them, so much more so with family support. The pattern we have already seen, of family member employing family member, continued as a means of helping newcomers get started. Benjamin Friedlander employed his brother Julius until he married and opened his own store. Benjamin and Ella Seiavitch went from living above his brother-in-law Louis’ grocery to running their own dairy, the Seiavitch Home Dairy (later the Homestead Milk Co.). Benjamin’s brother Harry farmed the land next to David’s and and supplied milk to Benjamin and Ella. Even Joseph Hiedovitz moved in with his landsman David Jacobson and worked for him — eventually becoming part of the family by marrying the farmer’s daughter (Sarah who had been weaned on potato soup on the boat to America). Morris Mervis started Mervis Motor Sales and employed his brother Manuel and Perlman cousins. And so on. Earlier arrivals continued to bootstrap the later ones.
In less formal arrangements, of course, most of the children worked in their parents’ business. It was expected. Louis Jacobson’s kids worked in the grocery, and Benjamin Friedlander’s in his clothing store. David Jacobson’s children’s entire childhood was shaped by growing up on a farm.
Life on the farm was busy. Libby Rose and the younger children tended the gardens, fed the chickens, milked the cows and churned the butter…She was a quite a woman. She did it all! She managed the farm and its production and prepared all the meals, without a break in routine even after the birth of a new baby. David, on the other hand, was the gentleman farmer, always dressed in a three piece suit…
D. Jacobson’s Dairy, as it came to be known, grew and prospered so that when the boys were old enough, they were given a horse drawn cart and their own milk delivery routes. They would have to go on the delivery routes in pairs so that one would watch the milk in back of the cart while the other brother would deliver the milk to the house. Keeping good records of “accounts receivable,” or which customers owed you and how much, became an important business lessons for all the brothers…Sarah was known as the best bookkeeper in the family. In fact, when she was eight years old, she would go on the milk route with her father…she would keep the accounts [for him]…because he severely damaged a finger while learning the butchering trade back in Grinkishok. 19
Fairly quickly, as the younger men grew up, a new pattern of family members becoming business partners became established. Brothers Morris, Joseph, and later Alex Friedlander joined forces in a butcher shop, Friedlander Bros. Harry Lieberman and his son-in-law opened a furniture business. Joseph Hiedovitz tried out the auto business with his new brothers-in-law. The Perlman brothers took over the Eighth Avenue Garage. Louis’ sons Meyer and Samuel Jacobson partnered with their brother-in-law Sam Gordon to run the Jacobson & Gordon automobile dealership (later Gordon Jacobson!). Benjamin Seiavitch’s sons Maurice and Robert formed Mauro Sales, another dealership.
David Jacobson’s many sons took family partnerships to a new level. David worked hard to train them for the “butchering business,” as he called it. “This is America — Go Make It — I did!” he told them. He helped Harry and Sam start Homestead Provision Co., then Sam pushed Harry out to partner with Heiman, so Harry started the East Carson Packing Co. and Hays Rendering Co. Howard eventually joined the Homestead Provision Co., too. Both businesses were extremely successful, and yet, the family believed that “if the brothers could have gotten along, they had a chance to build a company as large as Armour Meats.”
Of course, some of the family members went into business for themselves, but often the businesses fit within the family’s areas of expertise — butchering, automobiles, clothes, grocery, dairy. There were even a few barbers. Despite these connections, not all the family found success. Morris Mervis labored for Mesta when his tailor shop did not work out (this is Mary’s husband, not to be confused with her brother with the car dealership). His brother-in-law George Perlman laid brick there when the land he rented for his dairy farm was sold (today Calhoun Manor and Calhoun Village in West Homestead). Harry Seiavitch lost his cows to disease and later his grocery to a flood. The Perlmans and Mervises faced illness, and many died young. George Perlman’s daughter, Sarah, was widowed with four young kids, two deaf, and supported them all by running a grocery store. When her Aunt Mary was widowed, also with young children, she did the same. Amongst the Friedlander first cousins were some of the most prosperous members of Homestead’s Jewish community and some of those who struggled the most.
While this review has largely focused on the role of male family members, since historical records always named them as the sole proprietors of their businesses, it’s important to note that the family’s own recollections time and again emphasize the contributions of the women. In the first generation of family businesses the women were equal partners, if not the driving force. Libbie Jacobson and Ella Seiavitch managed their husband’s businesses (especially Ella, since Benjamin’s asthma limited what he could do). Cousins Sarah and Fannie Jacobson were the bookkeepers for their fathers, David and Louis. Anna Friedlander ran Benjamin’s store after his early death, ensuring it continued to thrive while her children came of age. As the family became middle class and social norms shifted, women played a smaller role in the next generation of family businesses, but their role in keeping the family together remained strong. The women of the David Jacobson branch formed a “sisters-in-law club” whose activities kept their families close. Business ties were one thing, but it took much more to keep such a large family together. The family spirit maintained amongst the Friedlanders made them a close-knit community unto themselves.
Lillian Seiavitch Burechson, Benjamin and Ella’s daughter, recalls the sense of family she had growing up.
With so many family members in such close proximity, the Homestead Friedlanders managed to hang onto the best aspects of the lives they left behind in Baisogala and Grinkishok — not only family togetherness, but also Jewish communal involvement. The family ranked amongst the synagogue’s most active families. Most of the men who remained in the Homestead area became members, and some became officers, directors, and donors, while the women were active in the sisterhood. Both assisted the burial society — the women even met at Harry Seiavitch’s to sew the shrounds (“one size fits all, and you can’t take it back” was their joke) — and their children attended after-school cheder and Sunday School. Outside of the synagogue, the adults joined the local B’nai B’rith, and their children the various youth groups. Friedlanders played a role in just about every Jewish organization there was in Homestead.The result was that subsequent generations of the family grew up with a genuine connection to the community. The shul was their religious center and social center, and their own relatives played visible, important roles in maintaining the community. They heard about how Harry M. Jacobson, as chairman of the burial society, had improved the cemetery in the ’30s. They watched Benjamin Seiavitch on the bima as Vice President in the ’40s and ’50s. They marveled at how Harry Seiavitch led services and auctioned off the honors at breakneck speed. They appreciated how he, as cemetery caretaker, and R. Oscar Cohen (Leah Friedlander Perlman’s grandson), as secretary of the burial society, devoted themselves to the care of the cemetery for much of their lives. If nothing else, every time they came to shul they had the comforting sight of many of their own cousins “running around all over the place,” as Harold Hiedovitz remembered. Family and communal life were highly intertwined for the Homestead Friedlanders, and each bulwarked the other. “The feeling of belonging, being part of the shul, not only kept us together, but also gave each of us a sense of self-worth and self-esteem,” reflected Linda Jacobson Daniels.
In their professional and communal efforts, the Friedlanders were ultimately successful in building comfortable lives for themselves in America. But the effects of what they accomplished went beyond their family. Their businesses helped make Homestead a good place to live, and not just to work. As businessmen and wives of businessmen, they filled an important role in town-wide charitable and civic activities in an era before government addressed those functions. They stepped up when their country called upon them, both on the homefront and overseas. Family and Jewish community they carried over from Lithuania, but America gave them a sense of belonging and showed them a way to give back. They embraced the opportunities before them. They became proud Homesteaders and proud Americans.
The envelope Alex found on eBay is the only surviving example I’ve seen of the thousands that must’ve made the journey from Eastern Europe to Homestead, carrying the hope and fears of the dozens of family networks that came to form Homestead’s Jewish community. I could write the story of any of these families — the Magazanik-Glick-Burechson-Averbachs and the Satin-Stein-Lazar-Weiner-Resnick-Melnicks come to mind — and show you the same patterns of family members supporting each other and the larger community. The Friedlander envelope captures the period of uncertainty before the family’s hopes became realized: America enabled them to thrive in ways they did not even know were possible for Jews.
And yet, the success and visibility of this wave of immigrants produced a backlash whose results were worse than they could have ever imagined. The last Friedlanders to immigrate arrived in the early teens, and then World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the ensuing chaos cut off immigration to the U.S. for years. By the time circumstances in Europe might have permitted the resumption of earlier immigration patterns, nativism in general, injected with the most virulent antisemitism America had yet seen, led to the 1921 Emergency Quota Act and the even more restrictive National Origins Act of 1924. The era of permissive immigration to the U.S. was over. After the Nazis came to power in 1933, the Roosevelt administration created further obstacles for potential immigrants. The Jews of Europe were trapped.
Golda Jacobson Lieberman, who had refused to come to America, died in the Lodz ghetto at the age of 72. Two of her sons, Rabbi Reuben Lieberman and Shmuel Lieberman were killed in Lithuania along with their families, likely in a mass execution shortly after the German invasion. Her sister, Leah Riva Jacobson Seiavitch, mother of Libbie Seiavitch (Harry’s wife), was murdered in her 70s. And these are only the names the family knows. All the Jews of Baisogala and Grinkishok were murdered in September 1941. The whole region became nearly Judenrein within months. 21
Improbably, the Friedlander envelope made the journey back to Europe about 20 years ago, not long after the Friedlander store closed, when it was sold by a New York dealer to a Greek collector. 22 This fragment of their family’s history somehow went strangely astray, but I’ve met dozens of people from all over the Homestead Friedlander tree who all know who they are and where they come from. They have maintained a remarkable sense of identification with each other and with Homestead and with the shul. If you visit the Homestead Hebrew Chapel in Congregation Beth Shalom, you’ll see on display a testament to both: the velvet amud covers they donated as part of their weekend-long family reunion in July 1996.
A hundred and seventeen years have passed since the envelope made its first appearance in Western Pennsylvania. We know the end of the story that Morris and his family were in the midst of living — how this large family were trapped in an oppressive regime for generations, how they saw in America a chance at a better life, how they helped each other get out one-by-one and together reestablish themselves in America, and how they assimilated and prospered here. We take all of that for granted — it’s the narrative of the American Dream on which we were all raised. And yet in our time, the foundational idea that they took for granted — that America wants, needs, even benefits from the world’s “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” — becomes more controversial by the day.
We know what it looks like when refugees are given a chance, and we know what it looks like when borders are closed to them. It’s what Morris and his generation would put down on paper, seal in an envelope, and send back to remind us. It’s our story.
It takes a village to write about a village (or two!). Thank you to the many Friedlander descendants who have shared their memories, photographs, trees, and scrapbooks with me over the past few years. I’ve met people from all five American branches of Eliyahu’s family, but I must single out Lisa Sher Schulz, not only because she is the closest relation to Morris Friedlander I’ve found (he was her grandmother’s brother), but also because she has been the next-door neighbor of one of my best friends since 2005! We only discovered that our ancestors were friends a few years ago. Other Friedlander descendants who helped me include: Aline & George Lange, Linda & Robert Daniels, Ellen & Mike Siegel, Blair & Lynn Jacobson, Marshall & Baylee Gordon, David Jacobson, Caren Lever, Bernice Meyers, Ina Laman, and my cousin Myra Reichart and almost-cousin Cathy Kovach. I musn’t forget Betsy Alexander, whom I met just days ago, and her brother Ben Friedlander, who motivated me to wrap up this essay. Thank you to Lisa Steindel for giving me the 1929 correspondence with the South African branch. I tried my best to be faithful to the stories all of you told me, as well as the spirit in which you shared them.
Special thanks to Linda Jacobson Daniels for giving me a copy of the Jacobson Friedlander Reunion ’96 book and to Lynn Jacobson and Cathy Kovach for giving me additional versions of the family tree. I was also aided by the 1993 oral histories of Lillian and Milton Burechson, Marshall Gordon, Florence and Harold Hiedovitz, and Harry Mervis. Although I footnoted sparingly, hundreds of records on Ancestry.com helped me piece this story together. I also found significant documentation of these families and their communities in Jewish community records from Lithuania available online at LitvakSIG.org. I would encourage the Friedlander descendants reading to dive into them; I am certain missing branches of your tree are there, just waiting for one of you to reconstruct them.
My spelling, following what I’ve seen most commonly on other Jewish sites, is inconsistent. Grinkishok (which I’m using) and Baisegale (which I’m not) represent the Yiddish pronunciations this family would have used. Harold Hiedovitz’s explanation of the family’s propensity for intramarriage came from his 1993 oral history. ↩
Pogroms, Networks, and Migration: The Jewish Migration from the Russian Empire to the United States 1881–1914, p. 18 relates the economic situation in this region. More than a fifth of the population lived off tsedakah (Martin Gilbert, The Atlas of Jewish History). Amongst the restrictions Russia placed on its Jewish residents was that most Jews were only allowed to live in shtetlach. In villages (dorfs) where some families lived, for example, the Russians permitted only the oldest son to remain to assist his father in business. All the other sons had to live elsewhere when they grew up. ↩
The Jewish Experience in Western Pennsylvania: A History, 1755-1945, by Jacob Feldman, pp. 68-71, details the Lithuanian immigration to Pittsburgh. Our Abraham Skirball was part of this group. Pogroms, Networks, and Migration: The Jewish Migration from the Russian Empire to the United States 1881–1914, p. 26, discusses the importance of landsmen. ↩
This family lore comes from a fabulous family history book prepared for the family’s reunion in 1996. Despite its publication a century after the events in question, it appears to be sourced from the recollections of the children and grandchildren of the Abraham/Louis generation repeating what their elders told them.
Without that book, and the research that went into it, this article would not have been possible. I attempted to find documentation supporting the book’s early immigration stories, but struck out. Immigration and naturalization records are difficult to locate for this period. The records include far fewer fields than in later years, making it difficult to confidently assign a record for an Avrom Jacobson to our Abraham David, let alone guess if a Leib or Leizer Jacobson is really our Louis. Not only the lack of supporting documentation makes me wary of trusting these family stories, but also the rarity with which Jewish immigrants went back even once — except that the wildly divergent immigration dates in both Abraham David’s and Louis’ subsequent records are truly unusual. Abraham David’s say he came in 1892 or 1901; Louis’ say in 1884 or 1901. I cannot recall having seen such a discrepancy in other immigrants of their generation, which makes me think that each man sometimes answered the first time he came to the U.S. and sometimes the last time, i.e. when he officially became an immigrant.
As for the specific circumstances that drew them to Pittsburgh, I should add that there were Lithuanian Mervises who came to Pittsburgh around the same time as Louis and Abraham David, but I cannot determine if those Mervises were actually related to the Mervises who intermarried with our Friedlanders. I’ve also seen early records for Jacobsons who were more likely cousins to these Jacobsons, as well as individuals from Grinkishok who may not have been relatives, but were certainly friends. ↩
Homestead had a steel mill that attracted immigrants from all over Central and Eastern Europe, but very few Jews worked there in this period. The widespread belief is that the company did not employ Jews then, but steel making also wasn’t the kind of work most Jews wanted — or needed, since they came to America with skills and experience that made it unnecessary for them to take unskilled laboring positions. The overwhelmingly majority of non-Jewish immigrants to Homestead did choose to work for an employer rather than to strike out on their own. ↩
Jacobson Friedlander Reunion ’96, by Linda Jacobson Daniels, p. 23. Subsequent passages attributed to “family lore” or “family memory” or otherwise unattributed quotes come from this book. The age limit for Jewish conscripts was 25, so perhaps that played a role in David’s return as well. ↩
I am basing my account of Benjamin’s store on the newspaper, city directories, and genealogical records, which consistently point to him as the sole proprietor of the store. The Jacobson Friedlander Reunion ’96 book says something rather different:
Berchick started a clothing business after doing the usual peddling from house to house. The first store was on Fifth Avenue… the business then moved to 221 E. 8th Avenue…Benjamin, the oldest son, and his wife Annie Lebovitz, worked in the business…
MSS #107, Box 4, Cash Book Vol. 1, p. 16 ↩
Benjamin Seiavitch’s daughter Lillian Burechson recalls in her 1993 oral history that he married after he got out of the Russian army. I am suspicious of this recollection, as Jews were required to serve for 25 years. His precise marriage date of January 16, 1902 comes from Lithuanian records! ↩
Emigration passports were available, but they were expensive, slow, and difficult to obtain. Most Russian immigrants crossed the border illegally. You even needed papers to move within Russia! ↩
Information about the organizations facilitating emigration from Opening Gates to the West: Lithuanian and Jewish Migrations from the Lithuanian Provinces, 1867–1914, pp. 59-60. This 1903 memorandum about how immigrants were inspected at Bremen details what this family experienced. The story about weaning Sarah Jacobson is from the Reunion ’96 book. ↩
The full list of inadmissible classes in 1904 included those who entered with a contagious disease (1891); as a prostitute (1875), convict (1875), Chinese national (1882), contract laborer (1885), lunatic (1882), idiot (1882), felon (except for political reasons, 1891), polygamist (1891), or anarchist (1903); or if their passage was paid by another (1885; in part because people like Homestead Strike villain H.C. Frick were hiring foreigners to be strike-breakers). Inadmissible classes continued to be added until the introduction of the quota system in 1921, which specifically targeted Jews and supported much more rigorous regulation than had happened previously. My thanks to Rich Venezia for providing this legislative history and clarifying my understanding of the trends here. ↩
Recollections of Joseph Hiedovitz’s immigration from his son Harold’s 1993 oral history. Subsequent recollections of Harold’s are from the same source. ↩
Sheila Zetler, a descendant of this branch, shared with me the responses the Homesteaders sent her family. ↩
The story about Golda refusing to immigrate comes from the Reunion Book, p. 35, and is reiterated in Harold Hiedovitz’s oral history. ↩
Reunion Book, pp. 24-5 ↩
MSS #107, Box 2, Ledger of Individual Accounts Oct. 1, 1934-Sep. 31, 1943 ↩
Names and details of family members murdered in the Shoah taken from the tree provided to me by Lynn Jacobson. The fate of Baisogala and Grinkishok taken from Pinkas HaKehillot Lita. ↩
These are all the facts I have about how this transaction happened: The Greek eBay seller said he purchased the envelope in New York about 20 years ago, but doesn’t know at what store. He said people regularly buy “covers” (collector-speak for old, used envelopes) looking for valuable stamps. 95% of the time the covers do not include letters. Alex explained to me that he does often see envelopes from Homestead on eBay, though it’s rare for them to include enough legible information to identify. (And he clarified later that he did search for the Friedlander surname on this site to confirm that I was interested in this family.)
Now begins my speculation about how the envelope ended up with a dealer in NY: Morris Friedlander died in 1943 in Verona (about 10 mi. from Homestead). He was unmarried. As a starting point, I have to assume the envelope was in his possession when he died. He lived with his sister, Pauline Friedlander Zalevsky, and her family when he died; his sister Fannie Friedlander Sher and her family were also in Verona. Presumably one of them took care of his things after he passed. I have not attempted to exhaustively trace the Zalevsky and Sher trees to the present, but using information provided to me by Lynn Jacobson, I believe the only child of these two families to end up in NY was David Sher. Did he give the old family papers to a collector when he downsized? His sister, his cousins? Or did the papers get left in some attic for a subsequent home owner to dispose of them?
(There is another starting point, wherein the letter stays with the Friedlander store and not Morris. When the Friedlander store was sold in the early ’90s, was that when the letter began its long, strange journey?)
What other papers were with this envelope when it went to the NY dealer? And was there anything inside this envelope, a Yiddish letter that was not valuable to the philatelicly-inclined? I obsess in particular over the top edge of the envelope. I estimate that a half-inch was cut off the top. Judging by how sharp that edge and corners compared to the rest, I wonder if it was cut much more recently. Why?
As long as I’m going overboard into the backstory of the envelope, I’ll add one more tidbit. The envelope took so long to get from Athens to Pittsburgh that Alex feared it lost. I did, too, because this wasn’t the first time a bit of Homestead Hebrew detritus turned up overseas and got lost on its way back. Ben Kaden, a vintage postcard collector in Berlin, somehow ended up with this card for Morris Grinberg’s Christmas Merchandise Club. In late 2015 he found me via Google and generously mailed it to me free of charge. It never arrived. According to the tracking, it was last seen at the North Texas Processing & Distribution Center in Coppell, Texas, where lost mail goes to die. Ben’s theory is that his German-style 1’s made my zip code, 15217, look like 75277, which corresponds to Dallas, which is not far from Coppell. ↩