The Mesonzhnik family: from Odessa to Arpin, Wisconsin

Slowly working alphabetically, backwards, through the death records, I had reached M, which I put into the Steve Morse Ellis Island search, with the residence Odessa and the years 1905-1908. I could then look through names whose spelling seemed similar to a name on the list, and also look out for children travelling alone, or mothers with many young children who might be travelling to meet their husband or might be widows joining another relation in America. One of these mothers was 30-year-old Feige Mesonschnik (Mesonzhnik or Месонщник) with four children under 5 – Simoche 5, Momzi 4, Moische 2 and Chaim 1 – travelling from Rotterdam on 19 June 1906. She was travelling to her husband, and I would not have continued researching this family except that I was intrigued by where they were going – an isolated settlement called Arpin, Wisconsin. And her husband had changed his name to Finkelstein. J.W. Finkelstein. How did a family from Odessa come to be travelling to Arpin, Wisconsin? Were they joining relations called Finkelstein?

Feige Mesonschnik SS Noordam, Rotterdam 19 June 1906

When I first began to research this family, I could only find a Jacob and Fanny Finkelstein of the correct age with three children of similar ages and names, Celia, Morris and Hyman, living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1910. The second child must have died and the middle child, Morris, seems to have taken the age of his older brother, being 8 instead of 6. Hyman, who must have been born around the time of the pogrom, is 5. On the 1910 census, there are spaces for the number of children born and the number alive. Every family on the page has listed how many children they had had except the Finkelsteins who left the spaces blank. Possibly their son had recently died. In the next census, Celia is working in a department store, Morris is studying medicine, and Hyman is working at a bookbinders. On the 1930 census, only Hyman, 25, is living at home with his parents and is working as a barber. In 1940, the parents are living alone although they put the absent Hyman, 35, as still living in their home. He appears on the census at the Milwaukee County Asylum and all the inmates on this page have been in the asylum for the past five years.

Milwaukee County Asylum

Although the censuses have different immigration dates on each one, 1905/6 in 1910 and 1907/9 in 1920, Jacob had gone to America a year or so before the rest of the family, so I tried to find him on the Ellis Island website and eventually found a Jankiel Mesaznik, age 30, an Odessa tailor, travelling from Trieste in October 1904. He was travelling with a friend from Odessa to the friend’s sister in Hoboken, New Jersey. Nine months after he left Odessa, his wife had Chaim (Hyman), in the summer of 1905, and she and the children left a year later for America. In the meantime, Jacob had gone to Wisconsin.

It was not until the second time I tried searching for the family that I discovered that Arpin had been a logging settlement on the new railway through Wisconsin in the late 1800s. Once the logging work was finished and the company moved on, there was an empty group of houses, shop and school. The New York Industrial Removal Office was trying to relocate Jewish immigrants outside New York City and Milwaukee was one of its first bases in the west. A rich German Jewish merchant and philanthropist, Adolph Rich, bought 700 acres north of Arpin, in the hopes of setting up a Jewish agricultural colony, which might become a magnet for Jewish immigrants in the west, a homeland for the Jews.

Arpin, Wisconsin 1920

In 1904, Rich arranged for 5 families, and then another two, to occupy the empty houses of Arpin, and begin to work 40 acres of land each. By 1906 the families were working 10 acres of land each. In an article by Louis Swichkow, The Jewish agricultural colony of Arpin, Wisconsin, Jacob Finkelstein is mentioned as one of the first group of seven families – Manny, Zefania and Jacob Cohen, Louis and Gedalia Smoller, Jacob Finkelstein, I. Classel, Samuel Pittelman, Sholem Antonovsky, and J. Weinberg.

The Pittelmans Arpin Colony 1909

The map below from 1928 shows all the owners of the lands around Arpin but none of the above. Most look German with some Scandinavian but there are none that look Russian and only one that is most likely Jewish, Jacobs.

Arpin 1928

Actually Jacob first appeared in the Wisconsin records in the 1905 census when he was boarding with a farming family in Saratoga, Wisconsin, next to another farmer called Sam Finkelstein, a widower with four children, who had immigrated to America in the early 1880s from Russia.

Wood County, Wisconsin, Arpin upper centre, Saratoga bottom right

I eventually came upon a newspaper headline about the murder of Sam Finkelstein’s wife Ida (called Rebecca in the article) in March 1905 by a Russian lodger in their house who felt he had been cheated by Sam into buying land that was not as it has been described to him. Sam, who, according to the newspaper, had previously been living at Arpin, had worked for a real estate agent in Chicago selling land to Jewish settlers, so possibly was setting up a similar type of colony at Saratoga. The lodger tried to plead insanity but was given life in prison. The trial was written up in great detail including a list of the jurors as if trial by jury was new in these western territories.

Sam, also known as Simon, married again in 1906 to a woman from Arpin, Sarah Robinowich, and possibly joined her in Arpin along with Jacob Finkelstein.

Sam, who had come to America in 1885 when he was 17, had previously been married to a Russian woman called Mary Quater and they had had 6 children in Chicago and Indiana. On the 1900 census, Sam was living with Ida in California Township, Starke County, Indiana, close to Chicago, and had had a seventh child, Samuel. One wonders whether Sam came to America with family, with a group of Russian colonists, or whether he was a lone pioneer.

California Township, Indiana

Bathers at Bass Lake (Cedar Lake) Indiana, 1900

The only discrepancy on the census is that although it says Ida has had one child, it also says that Sam and Ida have been married for 18 years. By 1905 they had a second child Morris. Sam next appears on the 1910 census as Simon with his wife Sarah in Milwaukee. They are living with the two youngest children, Simon (Sam) and Morris , who are 10 and 8. Both Simon and Sarah say they have been married once before, and Sarah apparently had two children no longer alive. She does not appear on the 1905 census so possibly had not been in America for long. She may have had as tragic a story as Simon.

Simon and Sarah do not appear on the 1920 census but in 1930 they are living together without any children. There are marriage records for Simon’s oldest son, Barney, who moved out to Portland, Oregon, and also his daughter Sadie, who, having been widowed, married again in Los Angeles in 1948. She died in California in 1956. On a Wisconsin Jewish burial database there is a Sam and a Samuel Finkelstein, one who died in 1917 and one in 1923. Possibly one of these is Simon and Ida’s son. On the 1940 census, Simon is 80 and in a chronic diseases hospital in Milwaukee on the same site as the asylum Hyman was in. Simon is a widow and has been there over five years. He died that year and is the only one in the story I found a gravestone for. It is hard to know what the man who was widowed three times and had at least eight children and may have deceived the man who killed his wife, was like, but at least one of his children probably remembered him with a marble gravestone. There seems to be no trace of Mary Quater, Ida Silberg, or Sarah Robinowich.

Once Jacob was settled in the Arpin colony, he must have sent for his wife from Odessa. They did not remain long in Arpin as by 1910 they were living in Milwaukee. Several families left Arpin, although a core remained until the 1920s. As there was no secondary school in the area, several families drifted to cities for their children’s education. Both Jacob and Simon were farmers in Saratoga, and in Milwaukee they both did manual jobs of different kinds. Jacob was a machine hand, a labourer for a cement block company, a fish peddler, and both men were watchman at one point, one for a scrapyard and one for a tannery.

Jacob and Fanny lost one of their children and then, sometime after 1930, Hyman was admitted to the Milwaukee County Asylum, in Wauwatosa, just west of Milwaukee. Conditions were probably quite basic in asylums in the 1930s, and there were bound to be unpleasant and difficult experiences, so no parent would want their child admitted unless they could not cope with them at home. Several children born around the time of the Odessa pogrom found themselves with a similar fate. One might have thought it would have been the 2 or 3-year-old who suffered most during that period, but it was the babies or even those born just after the pogrom whose mothers were in such difficult situations they could not give them the attention they needed in those first months and years. Feige was alone in Odessa with four small children aged from a few months to 4 years old in the midst of the pogrom and then preparing to travel to Wisconsin – across Europe, across the Atlantic and then across America. And when she arrived, she would have found herself in the middle of nowhere, Arpin, Wisconsin, alone in a flat empty land, with a handful of other, probably older, Jewish families. Possibly I stuck with this story because my grandmother also had a child in 1905 just before they emigrated from Russia, who drowned when he was 23, his life and the cause of his death remaining a mystery.

The only record I found at first for Jacob and Fanny’s other two children was a Chicago birth record for Morris’ son Samuel, born in 1924, when Morris was 22. His wife was Minnie Perlman, and strangely there were a couple of other Morris Finkelsteins, born at different times, married to women with variations on the name Minnie Perlman having children in Chicago at that time. But this Morris was born in Odessa in 1902. Morris had been studying medicine when he was 18 but no more records appear for him so he may have done something completely different or possibly died young. One Russian Jewish Minnie Perlman of the right age that I found in the records as a child in Chicago belonged to a family of travelling actors which was unusual.

I had not looked for Morris’ sister, Celia, because without marriage records it is difficult to trace women, but as she also moved to Chicago, her maiden name appears in the birth records of her children, and she had become Celia Sachs. Her husband, Abraham, was 10 years older and had come to Chicago as a baby around 1890. He had first worked selling shoes and later had a sporting goods shop followed by a furniture repair shop. They had three children. Abraham lived until 1980, 90 years old, and Celia until 1991 when she was 91. At some point they had retired to 1020 W. Laurence Avenue in uptown Chicago, an art deco apartment block which had been built in the 1920s as luxury hotel apartments with a swimming pool, a long way for Celia from 1905 Odessa and her parents’ new start in the Wisconsin wilderness.

1020 W. Lawrence Avenue, Chicago

How much Celia, who was 5 when she left Russia, remembered the name  Mesonzhnik, her early childhood in Odessa and the trip to America, the death of one brother and the background to Hyman’s move to the asylum, and whether she passed any of it on to her children… and if she did, whether they kept it to themselves…. who knows?

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s