2012-08-10 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

Answering The Question Of Who Came Before
Commentary By Howard Schwach

A month ago I spit into a vial all the way up to the black line and sent my spit away to a laboratory in California.

Now, thanks to a new DNA identification program driven by Ancestry.com, the results are in.

I am 77 percent European Jewish.

No surprise there, since I have known for several years that my great-grandfather, Samuel Schwach, came to New York City in 1891 on the steam-ship Noordland from Kisvarda, Hungary.

He was the first of a long line of people with the Schwach name to live in New York City and specifically in Rockaway.

I used to tell a story that my children and grandchildren found funny.

Since “Schwach” means weak in the Yiddish language, all my forbearers in Europe spoke that now-archaic language.

I told them that our ancestors had a different, unknown name, and when the clerk at Ellis Island asked Samuel what his name was, he thought that he was asked how he felt, and answered “Schwach.”

Thanks to Ancestry.com, I now know that story is not true.

The Schwach family lived in Kisvarda for a long time, a town that was wiped out in two days during the Holocaust.

What is surprising is that the remainder of my DNA shows that I have non- Jewish ancestors in Spain, Portugal and Italy. No wonder I love pizza and spaghetti.

In any case, Samuel left his wife, Esther in Kisvarda and came to New York City to found two of the largest barber shops on the lower east side – one at 231 East Houston Street and the other at 285 Stanton Street – in buildings that still stand today.

They had eleven children, none of whom came over with Samuel on the Noorland.

My grandfather, Kalman, was the oldest, born in 1879.

It is amazing to me that, in an age where we won’t let kids play in the street or walk a couple of blocks to a store to get a soda, Kalman, whose name mysteriously changed to Charles at Ellis Island, in August of 1893, at the age of 13 or 14, led his younger brother, Jacob (12) and two younger sisters, Bertha (6) and Helen (8) from Kisvarda to Glasgow (Scotland) and from there on the ship State of California, to Ellis Island in New York Harbor, where they were met by Samuel.

Think about that for a moment. Four kids: 14, 12, 8 and 6 travelling half way around the world alone, across half a continent and then on a month-long sea voyage, alone.

It boggles the mind, but it was common in those days.

Esther and the younger kids came a year later.

You find out all sorts of wondrous things when you start out to find out who came before you, to find out about your roots.

I started out doing it for my grandchildren, to answer all the questions for them that I would have liked to have answered when I was their age and never thought to ask until everyone who could answer those questions was either dead or demented.

Along the way, I became reacquainted with a number of cousins who I have not seen or spoken to in more than 50 years, some who live locally.

We met again after all these years because they too were searching for their roots and found me on Ancestry.com or on JewishGen.com.

When I wondered why Samuel is not buried along with Esther and some of the other kids in a northern Queens Cemetery, I found out from a granddaughter of Morris that Samuel had died in a Manhattan hotel room in bed with another woman and therefore was barred from being buried with the rest of the family.

My cousin’s mother had told her that story a number of times.

I found out lots of other things as well.

I had met my father’s sisters, Gertrude and Thelma, many times and still have some contact with a first cousin who lives in East Rockaway.

What I did not know was that my grandfather, Charles, and his wife Annie, had a fourth child.

I found that out by searching on line through the New York Times database on Ancestry.com.

I knew of course, that my father, Stanley, was born in 1911 here in New York and lived in Rockaway most of his life.

In fact, the 1930 census shows that the family lived at 345 Beach 69 Street and had been there at least seven years at the time. His sisters were born in 1908 and 1913.

There, however in the birth announcements in the New York Times was a short item – “Born to Charles and Anne Schwach of 174 Fox Street, Bronx, on March 12, 1920, a daughter, Shirley.”

I held the printout in my hand for some time before emailing all the relatives that I knew.

I found out from another cousin, who remembered hearing it from her grandmother, that Shirley had lived for 29 days, passing away from a mysterious illness on April 10, 1920.

I plan on going to the New York City Municipal Arch-ives later in the summer to get a copy of her death certificate and find out why she died.

The mystery is that my father was about nine years old when she died, and had to know about her, yet in all the years we lived together and all the years we had a close relationship, he never once mentioned an aunt that I never knew about until I saw it in the New York Times.

Shirley, I have found, is buried in a plot right next to Samuel in a Queens cemetery.

I found out lots of other things in my quest.

My database, or Family Tree, as they call it, now has more than 350 people.

When my grandson turned 13 earlier this year, I printed out an Ancestor Tree for him that showed him his ancestors on both his father’s and mother’s side back to great-grandparents.

That’s what it’s all about.

Finding out who came before you and the stories that make the tree real.

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