The Kelmansky family and the Cossacks

Every now and then, readers of this blog write to me with their stories, wanting to know if I have come across their family name or could help them look up something. I always love a mystery to solve and occasionally something turns up. This time, Wendy Kalman, who would desperately love to find out more about her Kelmansky or Kilmansky family in Odessa, has sent her own very well researched story. But as is common with families who did not own property or run a business in Odessa, there is little to find online. There are also family stories that two Kelmansky brothers fought with Cossacks, possibly in the 1905 pogrom, as they left Odessa shortly afterwards. One of the brothers was a cantor and the other possibly a farm labourer. I gave Wendy the name of a researcher in Odessa (a name given to me by someone else who contacted me from the blog) and now she is finding new information from the birth and marriage records of the one family member who did not leave for the US and hopes to find out more about their lives in Odessa and previous generations in Podolia from censuses and other records. Here is Wendy’s story:

In February 1906, Jacob Kelmansky arrived in New York. The ship manifest listed him as 32-year-old Jankiel Kielmanski, a cantor from Odessa, with $11 in his pockets. We know that he found work in his field, eventually landing at Congregation Beth Jacob Anshe Sholom in Brooklyn (which today, as Congregation Beth Jacob Ohev Sholom has a storied history) and officiating at weddings for members of his family. Seven months after he arrived, so did his wife Goldie and their six children, ages six months to 11 years, along with his 18-year-old brother Naftaly (later, Nathan — my great grandfather, often referred to as Nate), who is listed as a farm hand. In February 1907, three of Jacob and Nathan’s siblings, Lieb (Louis), Ette (Annie) and Chaier (Clara), this time noted as Killmansky, land in New York, and in 1913 sister Anna and her husband Isaac Stevelband and their two daughters make the journey as well.

Two years before the Stevelbands came, in February 1911, the siblings’ mother Sore (Sarah) and another sister arrived. This sister, also puzzlingly listed as Chaie — is the only one I have no further information on. Interestingly, this manifest notes that they left behind another sister, Sose Walberg, who lived in what looked like a part of Odessa called Gross Bautol or Bantol. We now believe that she and her husband resided in Grossliebental, a farming colony settled by Germans, right outside Odessa.

1911 ship’s manifest for Sore Kelmansky

With the help of a researcher, we now know both their names (Guttman and Sosya Voldberg) and that they married in Odessa in 1898 when Sosya was 23. She was the daughter of Berko Kelmansky – a petty bourgeois from Ladyzhin (Gaysin uyezd of Podolia province). I separately learned that the family was evacuated during the war and three married daughters later went to the United States.

Nate married twice, and had two sons, William and Joseph. When they were grown, Joe joined Nate in his tire business, but Willie did not, instead selling high end ball gowns. Willie had two children, including my father Richard, and sadly passed away before I was born (I was named after him). 

For the most part, the Kelmansky family settled in Brooklyn with some in Manhattan. Over the years, some changed their name to Kalman and others to Kelman, but as far as we can tell, the only name they went by in Russia was Kelmansky. My father told me that his grandfather Nate told him there it is was pronounced more like Kielmansky. Of Jacob and Nate’s siblings, one — Louie — became a hotelier, owning a hotel in the Catskills, and Victoria Mansion and later on, the Fairmont Lounge, in Lakewood, New Jersey. Victoria Mansion went up in a horrific fire in 1936, before my father was born, and Louie’s son Benjamin was among the many who perished. While my father knew that Victoria Mansion had gone up in flames, he had no idea about Louise losing a son that way.

Victoria Mansion Lakewood, New Jersey
Victoria Mansion fire 1936

My father does have fond memories, though, of all the family going every year to the Fairmont for Thanksgiving. I’ve found newspaper ads which noted how Jacob officiated at High Holiday and Passover services and his son Sam was a pianist at the hotel. While Louie and his family moved to Lakewood, and Jacob and Nate stayed in Brooklyn, others in the family, like my father, after he married my mother, moved elsewhere, like to the suburbs on Long Island and north of New York. Louie’s daughter Bea’s first and second husbands (Mac Sacks and Sam Katz) later became general managers at the Fairmont Lounge and Sam continued to run it after Louie passed away. The Fairmont, too, made headlines when a robbery of over $400,000 in cash and jewelry took place in the late 1960s. Crooked cops and known criminals were involved. As I’ve dug into the family history, I have found many interesting stories. Nate, too, had the safe in his tire business broken into and money he had borrowed to start a second store was stolen. My father had never heard about that either.

While the family grew in the New World, it is the Old World that I want to learn more about. I am finally learning more names and dates thanks to the researcher but what we know about their life in Odessa is minimal. There are family stories about the Cossacks, and I have to assume, given the timing, that they were caught up in the 1905 events. The story that came down about Nathan was that he killed a Cossack and had to leave. His grandchildren do not know if this is bluster or truth, but it was what they grew up hearing. The timing of their departure tells me that it is not entirely impossible.

I tracked down one of Jacob’s youngest son’s son in Canada. While getting to know him, we compared stories and he told me he had grown up hearing that Jacob had been attacked by Cossacks, and had a scar on his head because of it. The grandson had no recollection and no idea if it was true or not, but I found Jacob’s 1942 Old Men’s Draft Card and it noted that he indeed had a scar on his head. Could these stories about the two brothers be true? Could they have had the experiences attributed to them during the 1905 pogrom in Odessa?

I am working with the researcher who helped me learn about Sosya to see if we can piece information about my great great grandfather Berko, and even further back. She is hopeful, I think for two reasons. Some of the records are from censuses which can give us relationships.  We can also partially determine these from a Kelmansky group that someone else I connected with runs. This person’s family also shortened its name from Kelmansky and he is connected via DNA (my brother took the test). And so I am hopeful about going further backwards, to before the family arrived in Odessa. But here in Odessa is also where I am stuck. What was Jacob and Nate’s involvement in the pogroms? We know that Ukranians died, but did Nate actually kill a Cossack? Was Jacob actually scarred by one? What happened to the Kelmansky family in Odessa in 1905?  I wrote to the author of a case study on the 1905 pogrom who has pointed me in the direction of his sources; perhaps I can uncover news or police reports. Perhaps someone reading this has a family story which matches ours and knows something more. Who knows?

Victoria Mansion fire 1936 photo https://www.facebook.com/UHLFDNJ/posts/540561339768819

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