My Road to Genealogy Began…
I am often asked how I decided to pursue a career in genealogy. Well, my passion for genealogy began approximately 7 years ago when I quickly discovered unknown family members living in Russia. In the spring of 2012, my nephew had to complete a family tree assignment for school. My sister decided to open an Ancestry.com account for him. When she told me about it, I remembered that I had tried to start an account years ago, but I had never done anything with it. I was finally motivated to use Ancestry and start my family tree.
Soon after starting my research on Ancestry, I located my great grandfather Samuel Levin’s Petition for Naturalization. I noticed that approximately two weeks before I began my research, someone else had saved the same naturalization document to her tree. I was surprised by this. My dad, aunt, sister, and I were my great grandfather’s only living descendants. As far as I knew, he had very few other family members.
Here’s the story that I was always told about my great grandfather, who my sister and I called Grandpop Sam. When he came to the United States in the beginning of the 1900s, he somehow got separated from his father and could not find him (I always pictured Fievel in the movie An American Tail ). He had no other immediate family, fought in World War I shortly after he immigrated to the United States, married my great grandmother Sarah, and had one child, my grandfather Simon.
I was really curious to find out whether the person who saved Grandpop Sam’s naturalization document was related to me. Consequently, I decided to contact her. As it turns out, she was a historian who was born in Russia and had immigrated to Australia. She had read about a man on a Russian genealogy forum and decided to do some research for him on Ancestry. Based on her research findings, she suspected that the man might be related to my Grandpop Sam. She sent me a link to the Russian genealogy forum.
Using Google Translate, I read the man’s postings on the forum. In the first post, he wrote that his grandfather had two older brothers, one of whom was named Samuel Levin. He explained that in the early 1900s, his grandfather along with Samuel and their parents came to the United States, trying to emigrate from Vilkomir (formerly of the Russian Empire, now known as Ukmergė in Lithuania). When they came to the United States, only Samuel was able to stay. The rest of the family went back to Russia. Although Samuel had a different name in Russia, his last name became Levin in the United States. The man who wrote the post also indicated that his family had received a letter from Samuel in 1945. Remarkably, he had the envelope with Samuel’s return address in Philadelphia.
Remembering Grandpop Sam
When I read the story, it sounded plausible that the Samuel in the forum was my Grandpop Sam. I was fortunate enough to have known my great grandfather very well. He lived to be in his nineties. When he passed away, I was 8 years old. I have fond memories of him, especially of him holding me on his lap and of his heavy Yiddish accent. He always added a “la” to everyone’s names, calling me, “Julila”, my dad “Mikela,” etc. Adding a “la” was apparently a sign of endearment. Unfortunately, because I was so young when he passed away, I never asked him about his life.
Pursuing the Lead and Finding Relatives
I decided to e-mail the man who wrote the post in the Russian genealogy forum. In the e-mail, I sent my Grandpop Sam’s address from the 1940s. I wrote that if the return address on the envelope matched the address that I provided, then it would confirm that we are related to the same Samuel. After much anticipation, I received a reply, with the stunning revelation that the address was a match! This confirmed that the man who wrote the post was my Grandpop Sam’s great nephew and my cousin. He explained that although he had the envelope, he was not in possession of the actual letter. However, he wrote that he had a photograph that Samuel had sent with the letter. The photograph was apparently of Samuel, Samuel’s wife, and Samuel’s son. He e-mailed the photo to me. I was shocked to see that it was my grandfather Simon’s Bar Mitzvah photo. That same photo hung in my parents’ house for my entire life.
My family and I were so moved to learn of my great grandfather’s brothers and their descendants that we decided to meet his brothers’ descendants in Moscow in 2013. In addition to meeting my cousin who had posted in the Russian genealogy forum, we met his wife and children, his parents, and several other cousins. Some of my cousins drove all the way from the Ukraine to meet us! It was absolutely thrilling and quite surreal. We could not get over the strong family resemblances between my Russian relatives and my father, my grandfather Simon, and my Grandpop Sam. It was a very emotional reunion. My family and I will certainly never forget it.
Meant to Be
After our travels to Moscow, I located my Grandpop Sam’s passenger list for his journey from Europe to Philadelphia. I noticed that neither his parents nor his younger brother were listed on that passenger list. I have yet to determine whether my cousin was correct about them attempting to come to the United States at or around the same time as Samuel. The search will continue. However, I noticed, quite miraculously, that Samuel was on route to the United States exactly 100 years prior to the date that my family and I traveled to Moscow. One hundred years after he was separated from his family, we were reunited.