The challenge for us genealogists is to learn as much as possible about ancestors whom we never or hardly ever knew. We strive to give them a face, to bring them back to life through our research. I was fortunate to have known three of my grandparents, heard their stories, ate their cooking, played in their homes and now retain numerous photographs, documents and memories of them. My paternal grandfather, Jacob Arkin, is the one who had remained faceless to me.
I grew up knowing next to nothing about Jacob. He died in 1929, almost two decades before I was born. Not a single photograph of Jacob seemed to exist. Barely a word was spoken by my grandmother Mamie (Masha) Wolfson Arkin about her husband. My father, Herbert, and his five brothers also maintain a shroud of silence over the subject of their father. I cannot even find Jacob’s grave, though I hacked through poison ivy to stand on the spot where it should be at Baron Hirsch Cemetery on Staten Island, New York.
Research began with a few clues. My bubbe (grandmother) Mamie revealed that the Arkins of Manhattan and Brooklyn were originally the Orkins of Bobruisk. My dad mentioned that his father was “bald, but handsome,” and “worked in a paper box factory.” My mother had heard that Jacob died as a result of injuries sustained in an accident on that job. Jacob and I share a ready-made bond, because our Yiddish name is Yankel and Hebrew name is Yakov. I am named after him.
My inquiry into the mysteries of the seemingly unknowable Jacob Arkin, and my life as an amateur genealogist, began at my first Jewish Genealogy Society (New York) meeting in 2000. I introduced myself by stating, “I’m researching Arkin and Wolfson of Bobruisk.” A voice from the audience responded, “I’m also researching those ancestors!” In Yiddish beshert means an event that is preordained. That is how I came to know my second cousin, Michelle Frager. I had never known she existed, nor did I suspect that her grandmother, Esther Wolfson Frakt, was my grandmother’s elder sister. Michelle taught me much about my family, but mostly about the Wolfson side. What could she reveal about the Arkins, particularly Jacob? Most significant was Michelle’s information that the Orkins did not originate in Bobruisk. Jacob Arkin and Mamie Wolfson migrated from Hlusk to Koslovichi (a dorf or “bump in the road”), where they probably were married, and finally to Bobruisk. Once they arrived in America, my grandparents continued to migrate, from one apartment to another in lower Manhattan.
According to Michelle, their East 7th Street apartment had served as a magnet for the family; Mamie’s brother, Hymie Wolfson, and brother-in-law, Sam Frakt (Michelle’s grandfather), lived there briefly. Proof was in Sam Frakt’s Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS ) card, which listed Jacob and his address as Sam’s destination.
Ultimately, documents told me the rest of the tale about the elusive Jacob Arkin, but they did not readily make their appearance. I obtained a death certificate for a Jacob Arkin, but he was not my grandfather; this Jacob had died 13 years earlier. I had been misled by the occupation of the other Jacob: “paper box industry.” When I did track down the correct death certificate, I was struck by the cause of death: “congestion of the brain and viscera.” Maybe this condition resulted from the workplace accident to which my mother referred.
The hunt for Jacob’s passenger manifest was even more challenging. I used every conceivable spelling and combination of names to search the Ellis Island database, but his manifest seemed not to be there. Why? In the meantime, I pursued another route. I hoped that Mamie’s documents might shed some light on Jacob’s immigration. Michelle tipped me off that Mamie’s manifest was indexed under “Husetic” Orkin; the erroneous given name was a misreading of Musche. Mamie’s manifest indicated that she was meeting her husband “Jankel” Orkin. I knew Jacob was in New York by 1908, but how did he get here? A more experienced genealogist would have gone immediately to the naturalization papers, which I eventually did.
Another piece of the puzzle fell into place because Mamie’s citizenship declaration reported that her husband “Jake” had arrived at the port of Boston. Armed with that information, I called Boston NARA to obtain copies of Jacob’s manifest. They replied that the Pittsfield, Massachusetts, NARA could better handle the job, so I acquired beautiful copies of Jacob’s manifest from the National Archives branch in Pittsfield. He was a 5-foot, 4½-inch “brunette”-complexioned, brown-haired, brown-eyed man. Jacob suddenly had a physical face!
Yet I wanted to “know” Jacob beyond his outward appearance. My first lead was supplied by Alex Friedlander on a JGS “panel of experts.” He suggested that I search the New York Times archives through ProQuest, a subscription research service. I thought I knew better. “My grandfather was poor, illiterate and not famous, so how could he be in the Times?” A year passed before I came to my senses. I was in the New York Public Library when I realized that there was nothing to lose by mining the New York Times archives. I struck a vein of gold! In an article from December 11, 1926, headlined “Strikers Testify Police Are Brutal,” I learned that “Jacob Arkin of 218 Watkins Street, Brooklyn, said he was on picket duty. . . . The policemen jumped out and attacked him, he said, and the captain followed them and struck him in the mouth, knocking out three teeth.” So this is how my poor grandfather got his name in the New York Times, the Herald Tribune and The Nation!
Could this beating have contributed to his death three years later? I thirsted to learn more about the incident. Since there was an internal police department investigation, I called the New York Police Department, which referred me to John Jay College of Criminal Justice. They, in turn, recommended I call the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which represented the brutalized paper box factory strikers. The ACLU documents are housed at Princeton University’s Mudd Library, where Archivist Daniel Linke guided me through the collection. I found on microfilm the actual deposition in which Jacob Arkin testified against the offending police officers; an additional deposition was signed by my Uncle George, who had witnessed his father’s beating!
I read all I could about the paper box industry. Its workers were poorly paid. They worked under dangerous conditions, with sharp-edged tools and machines, toxic chemical fumes and inadequate ventilation. I was not surprised that they were extremely disgruntled and frequently walked out on strike. I felt still more rachmones (compassion) for my grandfather, Jacob.
A posting on JewishGen steered me to a novel source of data. I became aware that the New York State Archives in Albany had a microfilm collection of the 1913 Factory Investigating Commission. As a result of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, this commission questioned workers in the garment, confectionery and paper box industries about their specific tasks, wages, working hours and other matters concerning their employment. I searched the relevant rolls of microfilm, without the benefit of an index, for hours. The file card for Jake Arkin jumped out at me! He was the factory’s “glue table man,” working six days a week, for 56½ hours, being paid $15. Although the wages were meager, they were a bit higher than I expected, especially compared with those of his brother-in-law, William Wolfson, at the same task. I wonder to what extent Jacob’s type of work debilitated him.
My most recently acquired knowledge of Jacob came from his estate records at Kings County Surrogate’s Court. At the time of his death, his property was valued at $425. He did not leave Mamie and their sons destitute. Besides, Prohibition was the law then; family legend is that they had an “extra” business. Most interesting to me was that the words “and he was a citizen of” were crossed out and replaced by “no.” With this information, I ended my frustrating multi-year search for Jacob’s citizenship papers. He must never have reached the level of literacy and assimilation that Mamie had
I arrived at a few valuable conclusions from my quest to make my grandfather, Jacob Arkin, figuratively “come alive.” I would like to believe nobody is unknowable, even if that ancestor is long-dead. The lives and deaths of Holocaust victims are still coming to light. Jacob lived half his life in the United States; he left plenty of family members, as well as a hefty paper trail. There exist many varieties of documents which, when pieced together, create a fairly vivid picture of the person. I found some practically at my fingertips, and I had to play detective to access others. I never imagined I would be chasing after depositions located at Princeton University or work records in Albany. Finally, I could not have possibly succeeded without plenty of assistance. My mother, Florence, and my newly “discovered” second cousin Michelle provided oral history clues. Sometimes, I relied on professional genealogists, who are a “cut above.” Archivists, librarians and clerks filled in many of the blanks. Research at the Family History Library and in the “Old Country” is my next step. I may never find a photograph of Jacob Arkin, but he is no longer faceless to me.
Jeffrey Arkin, a retired history teacher in the New York City public schools, dabbles in family history. He lives in Fresh Meadows, New York, with his wife and two daughters.
Avotaynu 2007; 23(4):33-34
Copyright © 2008 Avotaynu, Inc.