The ghost of David Komelfeld

Duvid Shaevich Komelfeld, a native of Odessa, was 29 when he died in the 1905 Odessa pogrom. Nothing else appears in the records about him or his family. But checking on an Ellis Island database (https://stevemorse.org/ellis2/ellisgold.html), there was a family of Komelfelds, 28-year-old Sura and her four children, Tauba, Schindel, Schaje and Rafael, between ages 7 and 3, leaving Hamburg for New York in August 1907.

komelfeld sura ship 1907 - Copy

Sura Komelfeld and her four children on the SS Blucher, 2 August 1907

Her closest relation in Odessa was her brother Schiel Burdman (Бурдман) who lived at 7 Srednaya St in Moldavanka, and she was going to her husband David Komelfeld at 197 Moore St in Brooklyn.

11 serednaya burdman

11 Srednaya St (7 is a modern apartment block)

odessa map 1888 mold

Moldavanka 1888

Srednaya St means Middle Street and it runs through the centre of Moldavanka from top to bottom of the map.

The name Komelfeld (Комельфельд) is extremely rare. Slightly more common is the name Kimelfeld, and both names appear in the Odessa records. It is also a name that is rarely spelt properly in the US records, probably because many of the records were done orally and the Russian or Yiddish pronunciation was difficult to interpret. The first record I found was the 1910 census with the name spelt something like Kobnmelfeld. Sarah was living with her brother, Joe Boardman, sister, Beckie, mother, Ida, and her three children on 79 Leonard St in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, an area with many newly arriving Jewish immigrants where the family stayed through the 1920s.

Graham Avenue Brooklyn

Graham Street Brooklyn 1935

Graham Avenue in Williamsburg 1930s

Sarah is a widow and one of her children, the eldest son, has died. She has two daughters, Tesie and Sadie, 10 and 8, and a younger son, Rafael, 5. It says on the census that Sarah originally had five children and three are alive. Her brother had arrived in the same year as she arrived, 1907, but her mother and sister came in 1908, possibly to help her after her husband died. She is working as an examiner of children’s suits and her brother and sister are also working in clothing factories.

Williamsburg Brooklyn 1918

Williamsburg 1918

What I did not notice when I first saw the 1910 census was another Boardman family consisting of Morris 24, Bessie 20, and their little boy Abe who was 2. Morris had arrived in the US in 1905 and had a candy store. Living with him was Ben Komarow, who had come alone from Odessa at age 14 in 1906. Ben married Sarah’s sister, Beckie, in 1911 and will come back into the Komelfeld story further on.

139 starr St 1920 Boardman

Starr St Brooklyn

It was difficult to find the old houses in Williamsburg on Google streetview in the area where the Komelfelds lived. The street above is just south of Williamsburg, where Joseph Boardman lived in 1920, a slightly more prosperous area. When I saw the two trees framing the picture I thought of the famous story written in the 1940s, A tree grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith, which I read and cried over as a child. It is the story of an 11-year-old Irish-American girl brought up with an alcoholic father in a poor Irish Catholic part of Williamsburg just north of the Jewish area. She describes in exquisite detail the daily life, the squalid tenements, the diet of day-old bread and the Saturday treat of fresh rye bread from the Jewish delicatessen, and at school, the vicious treatment of the poor children by the teachers, and of various hierarchies of children towards each other. It was quite clear to her from a very early age that her aim in life was to find a way to rise up and out of Williamsburg.

first edition tree

The older daughter’s name was Tessie, which was rare and eventually I tried searching for her in a database with no last name, looking for someone living in Brooklyn, newly married, age 20, with an immigration date of around 1907. A possibility came up with a Tessie Bernstein, 21, married to Edward, a salesman, living in Brooklyn, with a son, Irving, 2. In 1930, Tessie has Odessa written by her birth country and I knew I had found the right person. There was no marriage record for her or her husband. By 1930 she had 2 sons. Sadie was a much more common name and more difficult to find. I also could not find any more records for Sarah or Raphael. Before I found Tessie, I thought the entire family had disappeared, ghosts from the Odessa pogrom. Eventually I made a little headway.

I returned to looking for David Komelfeld‘s death record and after a long search went back to the original Odessa death record to see the full name of the Duvid Komelfeld who had died in the pogrom, which was Duvid Shaevich. The name of Sarah’s oldest son, the one who died, was Schaje which was probably Shaya. So was Shaya named after his grandfather, his father David’s father? Then who was the David who died in the pogrom who also had a father called Shaya? How could there be 2 people in the same family with the same name and the same father? For a short moment I thought that possibly the David Komelfeld who was waiting for Sarah and the children in Brooklyn was only a figure in her imagination, a real ghost from the pogrom. Maybe she was already a widow and joining a brother in New York. Then I realised Shaya may have been named after an uncle or another relation. Maybe the Davids were cousins.

After my third or fourth attempt, I found a potential Sadie – a Sadie Held, 19 in 1920, married to Jacob, a plumber. Her immigration date was correct, 1907, and there was no marriage record for her as there hadn’t been for her sister. By 1930 she had four children, one boy and three girls.

I now tried to find the death record of the 4-year-old son. Without knowing what first name they would have used for Shaya, and with a last name that was difficult to spell, I did not have much hope, until I thought to put in Sarah’s maiden name, Bordman, which would be on her child’s death record. It bothered me the most that I could not find any record for this little boy who had come all the way from Odessa to New York, would never grow up, and would surely be totally forgotten, lost from the records. But here he was:

Charles Cemberfeld
death: 19 November 1907, age 5, 117 Seigel Street, Brooklyn
estimated birth year: 1902, Russia
burial date: 19 November 1907
cemetery: Washington
father: David Cemberfeld, Russia
mother: Sarah Bordman, Russia

The Komelfelds had only arrived in August 1907 and three months later Shaya had died. And what about David, his father? Could he have been buried through a synagogue without a death certificate? Or are some records simply lost?

I found some old maps from the 1880s of Seigel St and the area around there where the Boardmans and Komelfelds had lived for so many years. This was the centre of Jewish Williamsburg.Although these are much older maps, it is interesting to see the narrow houses, the furniture factory, tailor, bakery, macaroni factory and other workshops scattered between the houses.

Seigel Brooklyn 1884

Seigel Street on the left 1880

throop Seigel St Brooklyn 1880

Throop Ave, Seigel St, Leonard St, and Moore St 1884

I returned to Sarah and Raphael and found that there was no sign of them after 1920. I tried with every possible spelling of Komelfeld, any name beginning with K, and even with no last name. There are very few Raphaels so I tried Ralph as well, but nothing came up that fit his approximate age and immigration date. As Sarah’s mother, Ida Boardman, had been living with them in 1920, I then looked to see where she was in 1930. She appeared living with Ben Komarow who had married Sarah’s sister, Becky Boardman. I went back to his ship’s record which had said he was 14 when he left Odessa alone in 1906. It said he was going to an uncle called Abraham Bradkovsky who ran a restaurant in Manhattan on Monroe St. Unfortunately, Bradkovsky died in 1909 when he was only 40 and Ben must have moved to the Boardmans in Brooklyn. Possibly they were relations or friends from Odessa. On the ship’s manifest it said Ben was a shoemaker at age 14, but on the 1910 census he was working, like the majority of Jewish immigrants, in a clothing factory as a ladies cloak cutter. After he married Beckie, Ben moved to Sumter, South Carolina, where he appears on the World War I registration as a merchant. He probably had a brother there as there is another young man from Odessa, Isidore Komarow, nearby. It is hard to imagine why two young Jewish men would find themselves in a small town in South Carolina, but immigrants travelled anywhere to get away from the intense competition for jobs in New York.

I still did not know whether Sarah and Raphael had changed their names, moved away or died. But as Sarah had been looking after her mother, and that job was taken over by her sister Rebecca, who had returned to New York from South Carolina at some point before 1930, possibly the Komarovs returned because Sarah moved away or died. If she died, that does not explain what happened to Raphael. She might have remarried and he might have taken his stepfather’s name, but that seems unlikely when he was nearing the age to set out on his own, and so far I have not found anyone that fits his description. Possibly she remarried and later he changed his name. Or he left the country. The possibilities are endless. Having settled for 13 years in Brooklyn, these two figures, the 42-year-old mother and 15-year-old son, fade away like their husband and father, David Komelfeld, ghosts of the Odessa pogrom.