The Bubis family: from Moldavanka to the Lower East Side

Rifke Bubis was a widow of 43 when she travelled from Odessa to New York with her two daughters Malke, 17 and Ruchel, 15. They left from Hamburg on the SS Blucher on 31 October 1910. Her son, Michel, a tailor, had left earlier for New York in 1907, when he was 17, although stating he was 20. Michel had originally stayed with his sister and brother-in-law, Eli and Hanna Boxenbaum, and their little son Harry, in Brooklyn, who had come in 1906 and 1907. Later, when the Bubis’ were together, they settled in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I noted the Bubis family because Rifke was a widow of 43 and in the Odessa pogrom death records was a Gersh Peisakhovich Bubis, 46, from Uman. Probably not a very common name, there was a chance that Rifke was his widow. On the ship’s manifest, Rifke had listed her father, Abram Goldstein, 36 Gospitalnaya in Moldavanka, as her close contact and possibly her home before leaving Odessa. Gospitalnaya (now Bohdana Khmelnytskovo), centrally placed in Moldavanka, and in the heart of the pogrom area, was named after the Jewish hospital which takes up much of the street.

36 Gospitalnaya

36 Gospitalnaya (now Bohdana Khmelnytskovo), left

jewish hospital

Jewish hospital

She was on her way to her daughter, Hanna Boxenbaum, who lived at 85 Hopkins Street, Brooklyn. Hanna’s husband, Elias, was a truck driver. There was one Boxenbaum, Ios Berkovich, on the Jewish business list for 1895 at Bazarnaya St, but not in the 1904-5 directory. There were two Bubis families with Odessa businesses in 1911, one at Preobrazhenskaia 86 and one at Vneshniaia 92.

I did not find any of the Boxenbaum family on the ships’ lists so I looked again using the name closer to the Russian spelling, Boksenbaum, and I discovered Henie, age 20. She was travelling in June 1907, four months after her brother emigrated, to her husband Elias, with her baby daughter, Rive, four months old. Elias was living in Cherry Street in the heart of the Lower East Side. On the 1910 census, when Hanna, now Anna, Elias and Max were living in Brooklyn, there was only one baby, Harry, so I looked up the New York death records and found the death of a one-year-old boy called Reifert Bascenbaum, and realised this must have been the little girl, Rive or Rifke Boxenbaum. Their English must not have been understood by the person completing the death certificate. The Boxenbaums must have decided to move away from the crowded Lower East Side when they were expecting their next child, Harry. They then had another son and two daughters.

On the next census, in 1915, Rifke and the three children were living at 22 Mangin Street, a street overshadowed by the Williamsburg Bridge in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which now barely exists. It was known as a street of rough tenements, a street of crime and prostitution, like several adjoining streets in the area. Headlines from the New York Times mentioning the Mangin St area include LOST GIRL STRANGLED, BURNED BODY HIDDEN, BROKEN LIMBS IN FIREPLACE (1910) and CAFE OWNER SLAIN IN RAID BY ROBBERS, KNOCKS DOWN GUNMAN AS HE REACHES FOR DIAMOND AND IS SHOT TWICE (1923) and FIND TRUNKMAKER IN SACHS MURDER (1910).

From a memoir by Bella Spewack, a journalist brought up on nearby Goerck Street, who described her childhood in the Lower East Side as one where roaches and rats infested her home and the disturbance from the constant sounds of ferryboats and ships was relentless. (

There was a constant going and coming of moving vans and pushcarts – one family moved into one house and another moved out of the next. The houses formed a drably indifferent village that on rainy days looked like a row of washed-out, badly patched petticoats. They shared their submerging sorrows, small sufficient joys, and frequent fights. The majority of the families sprang from Galician sources; the rest were Hungarian and German Jews and a few Russians. The first half of the block was Jewish and the rest of it was Italian, with an invisible but definite line of demarcation.

mangin st 1946

Mangin Street 1946

orchard st 1926

Orchard Street 1926

tenements 1890s

Lower East Side tenements

Max and Mollie were working in clothing factories making men’s coats and Rose was making paper boxes, typical Lower East Side work. The noisy crowded streets and houses, the peddlers and markets, the nearby busy docks, the complex mix of nationalities and religions, must have seemed not much different from Moldavanka. Too old maps show incredible detail of the houses, businesses, schools, churches and synagogues in the area.

Manhatten 1903[title_uuid_s][]=Atlas%20108.%20Vol.%201,%20[1903?].||2f737a70-c5ff-012f-815c-58d385a7bc34&keywords=&layout=false#/?scroll=25

Manhatten 1922

mangin 1903

 Mangin St and the East River 1903

22 mangin 1922

Mangin St crossing Broome St 1922

By 1920 the family had moved a few streets over to 3 Willett Street, famous for the Bialystoker Synagogue at 7 Willett Street converted from a Methodist Church in 1905 when the huge influx of Jewish immigrants arrived in New York. Most families I have looked at began their life in America in the Lower East Side but eventually moved to other parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx or New Jersey.

bialystoker synagogue

Bialystoker Synagogue

3 willett st 1922

3 Willett Street 1922

There were many distinct areas that were predominantly Jewish in various parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn, as shown on these 1919 ethnic maps. These maps were designed by the police department to target groups of immigrants who might not be loyal to America and might have socialist, communist or anarchist beliefs. This was just after the Russian Revolution and Civil War. Russian Jews were bright red and scattered across both Manhattan and Brooklyn. There is nothing new in government surveillance of ethnic groups.

1919 manhatten ethnic

Manhatten ethnic map 1919

For some reason, possibly the Yiddish culture of the area, with its theatres, newspapers and markets, the Boxenbaums stayed. By 1930, one of the younger daughters, Rose, had married and moved to the Bronx, but the other, Mollie, remained in the Lower East Side, on Henry Street, with her husband, a printer, their children, their mother as head of the family, and Max. Possibly her husband’s work kept them there.

150 henry st

150 Henry Street Lower East Side

Probably due to the Depression, Max was only working occasionally in a men’s clothing factory. In 1940, when Max and his sister’s family were living on Ludlow Street, there is no job listed for Max but it says that he worked for 30 weeks in the year and earned $450. His brother-in-law, the printer, had worked 50 weeks and made $520, so Max had not done badly from his unlisted job. But, in his 1942 World War II registration form, Max is categorised as unemployed.

140 ludlow st

Ludlow Street Lower East Side

In 1940, Rifke, or later Rebecca or Beckie, was living in Brooklyn with her elder daughter Anna, who is listed as a widow. In 1930 Anna , Elias and their children were living in Coney Island on West 25th Street, at the very bottom of the 1919 Brooklyn map.

1919 brooklyn ethnic

Brooklyn ethnic map 1919

coney island

Coney Island boardwalk

Elias, who owned a truck company, had had his driving licence briefly suspended for driving intoxicated, and in 1931, according to the Brooklyn Eagle, the business was in Annie’s name and one of their drivers was charged with homicide after killing a woman in the street. Their older son Harry married that year. In December 1932, Anna’s younger son, Abraham, then 20, appears in a newspaper article about a burglary – BAIL HOLDS SUSPECT ON BURGLARY CHARGE. He was caught running away from a house where jewellery was stolen. Her two daughters, Bessie and Esther, married in the mid-1930s. In the 1940 census, when Anna was living with her mother in Brownsville, Brooklyn (north of Coney Island, south of their original Brooklyn home, all Jewish areas), her husband, Elias, appears as a lodger with a woman, Ida, and her teenage children in Coney Island. Ida appears as Elias’ wife on his 1942 World War II registration. By 1940, Abraham had settled down, was living around the corner from his mother and grandmother, was married, had a small child and was working as a plumber’s helper. His older brother, Harry, was a licensed plumber. But on his 1942 World War II enlistment form, Abraham is listed as single with dependents. There is also a 1951 California death certificate for an Abraham Boxenbaum born in New York in January 1911, who must have only been 40. The informant did not know Abraham mother’s name so it is possible it is someone else. The World War II enlistment form does not have a birthdate, only the year, 1910. Elias died in 1946, age 60, in Coney Island, a junk collector rather than a truck driver, and his wife on the form is called Frieda.

Coney Island, 1940s, as it looked in my grandparent's time

Coney Island 1940s

Although most of the members of this family – Rebecca’s two daughters, Mollie and Rose, and Anna’s son Harry and her two daughters, Esther and Bessie – seemed to have done well in their new lives in America, others, like Max, Elias and Abraham had a harder time. It will never be known why Max remained unemployed, why Anna and Elias’ marriage broke down, or why Abraham died so young, if he did. How the mother and her eldest daughter, Rebecca and Anna, actually fared through all of this will also remain unknown. Was Rebecca being helped by her children or was she the rock they depended on? Had Elias been drinking for a long time or was it recent? Had he or Anna, having emigrated shortly after the Odessa pogrom, never felt comfortable in their new home, and were they unable to support each other? Having been through so much together what had finally broken the bonds in the 1930s? Looking through the New York Times archive, it is Harry’s family that produced a dynasty recorded in the New York Times obituaries. Some children seem to inherit their family’s problems and past traumas while others break free and are able to go their own way.

 w 19th st coney island

West 19th Street Coney Island

I followed the Bubis family in the records to find out if they were related to the Hersh Bubis in the Odessa pogrom death records, and, whether they were or not, how a widow and her children, leaving Odessa from 1906-1910 for New York, managed. The two younger daughters married in New York (one to an Odessan) and had families. One moved to the Bronx and the other stayed in the Lower East Side. The son, Max (Michel), who had arrived by himself in 1907, worked as a tailor but never married, living with one of his younger sisters. It was through the younger sisters’ marriage records that I discovered that they listed their father’s name as Abraham. If their father was Abraham, was he a brother of the Hersh who died in the pogrom? Could both men have died in the pogrom while only one was in the records? Could Abraham have simply died naturally, possibly sometime earlier? Or was there no Abraham, only Hersh? Rifke Bubis was born in Odessa as were all of the children except the eldest , Anna, who, according to the ship’s list, was born in Uman, like Hersh Bubis, making it likely they were part of the same family. Another possibility, judging by the way the Feld family omitted writing the name of Nathan Feld’s mother’s name on his death certificate, could be that the Bubis family decided not to write the father’s name in the marriage records. Could they have chosen the name Abraham as it was Rifke’s father’s name? I thought again about the Scheindless brothers naming their first sons after their dead father and I looked at the names the Bubis children had used for their children. The eldest daughter, Anna Boxenbaum, had two sons, Harry and Abraham, born in New York in 1909 and 1911. Could Harry have been named after his father, Hersh, and Abraham, after his grandfather?

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