My father’s mother’s parents, David and Esther Aptekar, were both born in Kishinev (Chisinau), Moldova, and both came to the United States, where they met, before World War I broke out. David Aptekar, my great grandfather, came to the United States in 1916, likely to avoid conscription into the Russian Army. He eventually married my great-grandmother Esther (Fera) Citron and had two daughters: Sadie and Rose.
Over the years, David received many postcards, in Russian and Yiddish, bearing photographers’ stamps in Romanian, from the extended family he had left behind. David’s younger daughter, my grandmother Rose, passed these postcards along to my mother in the hopes that some Russian students my mother knew at the University of Kansas might be able to translate them, but the resulting translations were sketchy at best. My mother also made some notes in the margins of copies of these photos with information provided by my grandmother, but the information is incomplete.
Fast-forward twenty years or more. I had created a profile on JewishGen.org, a Jewish genealogy website that provides a “Family Finder” where users can list the family surnames that they are looking for by town so that other users looking for similar surnames from the same area will be able to find and contact them. I had listed all of the surnames I knew when I joined, including the Aptekars from Kishinev.
One day, I was contacted by another JewishGen user, Semion Sucholutsky, born in Eastern Europe but now living in Canada, who was also looking for Aptekars, from Kishinev and the surrounding area of Bessarabia. He had lost family in the Holocaust and was very anxious to track them down, so he was quite interested in finding out whether our families were related. We never did discover any connection, but when I told him that I had these postcards, which featured photographs on one side and addresses and short identifying notes on the other, he offered to translate them for me. As he undertook the translation, we compared the information with the Bessarabian vital records available through JewishGen.
Then one day Semion sent me an email message from him with the subject line: “An Amazing Discovery.” In that message, he explained that the names he found on postcards stirred some memory he had of a testimony about an Aptekar family fleeing the Nazis; he had found this testimony while searching for any information about his own Aptekar relatives. As it turns out, this testimony, part of the Nizkor Project, appears on a webpage titled “Shattered! 50 Years of Silence History and Voices of the Tragedy in Romania and Transnistria Personal Testimony: Samuel Aroni,” which can be found here: http://www.nizkor.org/hweb/people/c/carmelly-felicia/aroni-samuel.html. The page begins with the following paragraphs:
Samuel Cervinschi was born in 1927, in the city of Kishinev, in the county of Bessarabia, Romania. As a child, Samuel was in the Kishinev Ghetto and, later, he went into hiding with friends and relatives in Romania. His parents, David and Clara Cervinschi, survived the deportations to Transnistria. After the war, Samuel changed his family name to Aroni in memory of his grandfather, who died on the forced march to Transnistria.
After the war, in Australia, where he studied and graduated with honours from the Faculty of Engineering in Melbourne, Professor Aroni married Malca Kornfeld, and their two daughters were born there. In 1962, the family moved to California, where Professor Aroni took his Ph. D. in Structural Engineering, at the University of California, in Berkeley.
In 1994, 53 years after having left his native city, Professor Aroni returned to Kishinev, now the capital of the independent Republic of Moldova, where he participated in organizing the first post- war International Symposium on Jewish History, Language and Literature. The symposium was cosponsored by UCLA, The Moldavian Academy of Science, The State University of Moldova, and The American Joint Distribution Committee. It was attended by academics from Tel Aviv, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev, Zhitomir, Rostov-on-the Don, New York, and Los Angeles.
Deeds of kindness are equal in weight to all the commandments.
The names mentioned in this testimony mirror the Bessarabian vital records on JewishGen; moreover, the writer, Samuel Aroni, mentions his grandfather Leib, which we knew to be the name of David’s brother. Samuel Aroni, it turned out, is David Aptekar’s great nephew, the grandson of David’s brother Leib and the son of Leib’s daughter Clara. In other words, he was my grandmother Rose’s second cousin, or my second cousin twice removed. The photographs on the postcards are of Sam and his family. After learning of this connection, I found Samuel’s contact information at UCLA and wrote him an email explaining our relation and how I had discovered it. I later sent copies of the photographs to Sam, who identified himself as well as the other relatives, confirming much of what my translator had told me.
Samuel told me that in fact he had initially been in contact with David Aptekar when he first came to the United States, but that they had eventually fallen out of touch. (Handwritten notes that my mother made on photocopies of the photos indicate that my grandmother had told her that Leib may have had a son who came to the United States to attend UC Berkeley, so she likely had some memory of her father telling her of a cousin who had come to the United States.) David Aptekar died July 16, 1963, almost seven years before I was born. All four of my grandparents were born in the United States, and so even they had little information about the fate of the families that their parents’ had left behind.
Samuel shared with me a family tree going back two additional generations to the father and grandfather of David and Leib, largely confirming the information in the Bessarabian records, although two mysteries remain, which I will discuss in greater detail in future blog posts:
1) The vital records list a Moshe-Yos as the father of Leib and David and all of their siblings, but according to Sam and to records I’ve found at Yad Vashem, their father’s name was Shmuel, and his father’s name was Moshe-Yos (or Moshe-Yosef). This is quite odd: Why would an entire generation have been elided in the Bessarabian vital records, or why would Shmuel’s name be replaced by his father’s name in the records?
2) According to Samuel, his uncle Monia (his mother’s youngest sibling) had explained to him as late as the 1990s that Aptekar is an artificial name adopted some time during the nineteenth century. The name of the patriarch in Samuel’s tree is Moshe-Iosef Feldsteyn, who had several sons, each of whom took a different last name, including Aptekar. I have read in various sources that this adoption of an artificial name by different sons is not uncommon; in fact, it occurred in at least one other branch of my family tree. Sources provide conflicting explanations for why this was done, but this is a topic for another day.
Recently, Samuel participated in Radio Free Europe’s production of a video about the Kishinev Ghetto, “Remembering the Chisinau Ghetto,” which can be found in English here: http://www.europalibera.org/media/video/26840209.html An accompanying article in Romanian, written by Eugenia Pogor, can be found here: http://www.europalibera.org/content/article/26807604.html
 Semion explains that the “Bessarabian spelling is Aptekar or Apteikar, which is transliteration from Russian Аптекарь, Аптейкарь – original spelling in Rabbinat books or official documents. Romanian spelling was Apotecar or Apotecari. That’s why some of the Bessarabian records of 1920-1940s, during Romanian presence there, had Romanian spelling. All other spelling variations other than those, are misspelling or typos of translation mostly. Polish and Galician spelling was Aptekar or Aptekarz (k-c variations).”