Morris Silbert was my great uncle. Several of his siblings and first cousins wrote histories of the Zelbovitz family. While all were directionally correct, there were conflicts that we can resolve today through investigating records. One point of interest is that they seemed to start the Zelbovitz family with their great-great-grandfather Nosson. We now know, since many of you are part of other sections of the Zelbovitz family, that the family casts a much broader net.
Hsistory of the Zelbovitz Family
by Morris Silbert
The early history of Lithuanian Jewry goes back to the Crimea where Jews lived since the first century. The population there was augmented by two influxes. The first was in 723 A.D. when persecution by Emperor Leo caused many to flee to the Crimea. The second was brought on by the forced conversion by Emperor Basilius the Macedonian, in 867 to 886 A.D. This caused many Jews to flee from the south shores of the Black Sea to its northern shores. As a result, a large Jewish community developed in the Crimea. Toward the end of the 14th century the Grand Duke Witovt of Lithuania invited Jews of Crimea to come and settle in his domain for the express purpose of developing its commerce. Lithuania had not yet embraced Christianity.
During the next century Christianity arrived with disastrous results for the Jews who came. In 1495 the Jews were expelled from the country and their property was confiscated. Six years later they were invited to return and over the next century many returned. In the 16th century Lithuania was united with Poland and the Jews enjoyed a period of peace under a succession of tolerant kings. The first Jews that returned were largely engaged in agriculture. In the latter part of the 16th century they shifted to commerce and handcrafts. As a result of a power struggle between the nobles and the king which began in 1569, the Jews came under the direct jurisdiction of the nobles. While ultimately the change was disadvantageous to the Jews, it had immediate benefits. With the increase in the nobility the Jewish settlements increased. Thus developed many Jewish shtettels.
My father told me that he had seen the record of his father’s family in the synagogue going back to 1600. The recordings of births, marriages, and deaths for a period of three hundred years. Father left Ponadel in 1899. Among the first settlers in Ponadel was the family Zelbovitz. From the family name we can extrapolate that during the exile from Lithuania, our ancestors lived in Celbowa in northern Poland near the Baltic Sea. Names were often given to people from the place they came from and it appeared natural for our ancestors to be called Celbowatzer which eventually became Zelbovitz. The Zelbovitz family were humble people who lived a simple life. The men were powerfully built and lived by the sweat of their brow.
The earliest member of the family of which I have knowledge was Isaac, born about 1790, who was the father of Jacob Judah, my father’s father. As a young man Isaac served in the Russian army that fought Napoleon’s grand army. He was a man of great courage and determination. This is illustrated by the rescue of his son when as a small boy he was kidnapped. This is how it happened:
Soon after Czar Nicholas I ascended the throne of Russia in 1825, he introduced compulsory military service for young Jewish men at 18, for a period of 25 years. Several years later an amendment was added, providing for pre-military service for boys of 12 to 18 years of age. The purpose was to recruit the young when they were still malleable and to ultimately convert them to Christianity. Recruitment was done by placing a quota upon every Jewish community requiring it to produce a certain number, with dire consequences if they failed. The local Jewish governing body (Kahal) was given the dirty work: they had to hire catchers to kidnap enough children to meet the quota. When not enough 12 year olds were found, the catchers would take 10 year olds and as low as 8 years of age and pass them off as 12 year olds. There were no birth certificates in existence at that time.
Incredible brutalities were committed. Nocturnal raids were often reported too; children would be snatched from the mother’s arms, or ensnared and abducted. When caught, a recruit would be confined to the Kahal prison chamber until he was inducted into the military serviced. Herded children would be conveyed on foot by an officer to the Eastern provinces and to siberia. A very high percentage died along the way and the roadsides were strewn with their little bodies. Parents and relatives would mourn their abducted children as dead. Certainly they were rarely seen again.
When grandfather Jacob was a small child he was snatched and this horrible fate awaited him. There had been a bitter scene. My great-grandmother tried to prevent the abduction but was overpowered by these evil men. It was a day of horror for her. She screamed, she wailed, mouring the loss of her beloved son. When great-grandfather Isaac arrived home from work, he was greeted by a house in terror. It took time before he was able to find out what had happened. Stunned by the blow he quickly recovered and decided to get his son back at whatever cost. When the catchers seized Jacob they failed to reckon with his father, Isaac, a brave and determined man. He had learned to fight in the Russian army that had defeated Napoleon and was now ready to fight his own battle.
Not wasting a moment, upon finding out that the children were still in town he set out to recover his son. Armed with a heavy rod he made his way to the town lock-up, building up strength as he went. His anger flared and grew stronger and stronger and his strength and determination grew with it. When he arrived at his destination, the soldier on guard challenged him and drew his sword. With a quick well placed stroke from his rod, he broke the sword in two. The blade few back and left the way open. The soldier gave him no more trouble after that. Isaac entered the jail, took his son, and left in haste. Father and son moved triumphantly down the road and Jacob fell into the arms of his joyful mother. I do not know how the Ponadel Jewish community made up its quota. Perhaps another poor child was seized. The leaders of the community who had no stomach for a fight left the family in peace. A charge was laid against Isaac for breaking the soldier’s sword but this was never pressed.
Jacob grew up in the warmth of his family and lived a good life and died in 1927 at the age of 101. Isaac was married to Hava and they had two sons, grandfather Jacob Judah and Yonta, and two daughters, Shifra Hena and another whose name I do not know. The latter emigrated to London, England, and was married to a man by the name of Katz. I have no knowledge of that daughter.
Grandfather Jacob and his brother Yonta were engaged in heavy physical work. The specialized together in draining swamp lands to produce additional acreage for growth crops. In the cold winter months Grandpa worked for a brewery in Ponadel which was run by the Jewish innkeeper. Grandpa was a devoted Libavetcher Chassid and was scrupulously honest in all his dealings.
Grandpa Jacob was married to Nahama who came from a learned family in Dvinsk. They had seven children: four sons and three daughters. The oldest was Sara Mala, followed by Chipa Mara, Fivel Nasan, Aryeh, Mendel (my father), Chava, and Simon (Seeman). Grandpa earned three rubles a week. They lived modestly and always had enough to eat and enough to help less fortunate neighbors.
Grandma was a grugal manager and made the most of her earnings. Grandma came from Dvinsk from a family that produced a great scholar and rabbi. Her cousin, Meir Simchah Ha-kohen, was the misnagdom goan of Dvinsk. Enycylopedia Judaica says he was a Talmudic scholar who was the joint president of the Russian central committee of rabbis in 1911. He wrote Talmudic novelle, commentary of the Pentateuch, etc. Scholars have told me that some of his work is still being used.
Grandma was described to me by townspeople as the most religious womanin town. They still remember her going to the synagogue carrying a large prayer book with wooden covers under her arm. She was also very charitable, making sure that others had provisions to celebrate the Sabbath. In summer she would pick wild raspberries that grew around the cemetery fence. She would process the juice and store it up for the winter. In the winter she would provide it as a remedy for the sick. Today we know that this is high in vitamin content and altogether appropriate as a home remedy. My father told me that she used to go and clean out the hegdus (a shelter for poor wayfarers). Once he said there was a very sick man in town dying from an advanced case of syphillis and no one would come near him, but Grandma nursed him in his agony. In her old age she fasted two days a week.
Grandmother had three brothers and one sister: Golda was the oldest, Melech Moishe, Seemon Aaron, and Pinkus, In 1931 I met Pinkus, the youngest of the family in Chicago. He was a fine old man and lived to be 99 and 3/4 years. He was still spry but his sight had deteriorated. Coming from the synagogue on Saturday, he walked in front of a tram car and was killed. Grandpa, too, did community work. He was the gaba (trustee) of the burial society. These volunteers would give their services to assure a proper burial for everyone who died. An informant told me that while grandpa was also an intelligent person, he remembered him best for his dancing in the streets with his Chassidim on festival days.
Grandpa was a man of great honesty and integrity as illustrated in the following story that I call ”The Dowry”. My grandparents’ oldest child was a daughter, Sara Mala. In those days Jewish girls were raised to get married and to be good wives and mothers. When a girl reached sixteen she was already referred to as a kallamade (a bride girl) and the hunt was on for a suitable husband. There were a number of ways in which marriages were arranged. If the parent who arranged the match knew of a young man in town from a good family that met their expectations, they would send a shadchen (matchmaker) to speak to his parents. At other times the relatives or friends from another town would suggest a candidate. The girl’s parents then negotiate through a shadchen. If any of these avenues were not open to them, they would ask a shadchen to start a search for a suitable groom. It was customary, too, that when arrangements for a marriage were being negotiated, it included a cash dowry, an amount that was agreed upon between the two sets of parents.
I do not know which of these methods were used, but my grandparents had found a suitable groom for Sara Mala. The preliminaries had been completed and the dowry of 200 rubles had been agreed upon. As time approached for the completion of the marriage arrangement, my grandparents had only accumulated 170 rubles toward the dowry. This is where things stood when a strange event took place. In the summer Grndpa and his brother, Yonta, drained swamp lands for farmers and peasants in the area. In the cold winter months he worked for a small brewery. The owner also ran the inn in Ponadel. Each day when Grandpa finished working, he would stop on his way home at the inn to discuss the day’s work with his boss. Then they would plan the next day’s work.
On the day of this event the shtettel was alive with people. It was a market day when the peasants from the surrounding area came to town. They sold their produce, bought provisions, and then settled in at the pub to regale themselves with beer and vodka. This day, as all other days, Grandpa came in to see his boss. The town was abuzz and the inn was loud with laughter and drinking. As he left the inn he walked out on the town square. Lo and behold, he saw a small sack on the ground and bent down to pick it up. He was surprised to discover how heavy it was. He opened it up and what do you think he found? Thirty gold rubles. There was no name or identification as to whose money it was. The square was a public place and there not being any identification, according to Jewish law and Russian law, he was entitled to keep the money.
At this stage you, my readers, would guess what was going to happen with that money. Just the right amount to complete Sara Mala’s dowry. How nice! To Grandpa, when it came to honesty, there were no shadings. It was either black or it was white. He returned to the inn, found his employer, and said I have found this sack with thirty gold rubles and I would like you to find the owner and return it to him. With no furhter comment he left for home. When the family was having their evening meal, Grandpa casually mentioned the event that had taken place.
Well, Grandma was very religious woman and was constantly in touch with G-d. Among the things she prayed for was the completion of the dowry so that their daughter could get married. Otherwise, she could reach twenty or twenty-one without a husband and would then be considered an old maid. When she heard Grandpa’s story, she was sure that G-d Himself had heard her and sent thirty rubles to complete the dowry so that Sara Mala’s wedding could take place as planned. She made this known to Grandpa in no uncertain terms. She called him a fool and accused him of rejecting G-d’s gift to them. Sara Mala too entered the fray and poor Grandpa had a rough time. He kept protesting that it was not his money. It was not his money.
Time for providing the dowry passed and the match would not be completed. The deal was off. They were hard days for Grandpa but he never had a moment’s regret about what he had done. Some weeks after the match was abandoned, a young man by the name of Moshe from a good family in Ponadel approached him. He said he heard that Sara Mala was no longer spoken for and he would like to be considered as a prospective husband. When the two families got together my Grandfather asked what dowry was expected and Moshe replied, ”I came to ask for your daughter who is dowry enough for me.” The rest of the story is there for all to see. The young couple were married soon after and enjoyed a happy life together until World War I drove them into exile. Moshe was a good husband and devoted father. His relationship with my grandparents was the best and if you had asked my Dad and his sisters and brothers, they would have told you that he was the pillar in the family.
Granma and Grandpa, already in their seventies, took on the task of raising two young children who were orphaned. They were the daughters of Fivel Nasan. During World I, in 1915, the entire family in Ponadel went into exile. They ended up spending the rest of the war years and the revolution in Saransk and Pinza, several thousand miles from home. The trip there was too rigorous for Grandma in her late eighties. She died and was buried somewhere in the interior of Russia. Grandfather survived the war and came back to Ponadel in 1922. The town was gutted and they had to build anew. Grandpa lived to 101. On a Saturday morning, very feeble, he asked to be helped to the door to take one more look at the world. He died and had to be carried back.
Dotted throughout Lithuania were hundreds of shtettels (large villages or small towns). The residents of these shtettels served the countryside by buying the produce from the farmers and in turn supplying them with their needs. Besides merchants, there were the carpenters, cobblers, tailors, tanners, blacksmiths, tinsmiths, innkeepers, etc., catering to the needs of the country folk as well as the needs of the shtettel residents. Ponadel had a population of about 600 people, nearly all Jews. The Jews were divided equally between the Misnagdim and Libavitcher Chassidim. Grandpa belonged to the latter. As a sign of his devotion, he named his third son, my father, Menachem Mendel, after the old venerated Libavitcher rabbi who had died several years earlier.
Father Menachem Mendel was born in 1873, the fourth child of seven. He had a typical childhood, was carted off to Heder (religious school) at a tender age. He was a good student. Father with pride told me that as a boy he was picked by the most respected citizen in Ponadel to be a suitable companion for his own son. Before Father turned thirteen he decided he wanted to go out and earn his own living. Many Ponadel residents earned theirs by going out in the country to buy produce. Father chose this route and embarked on his new career. On the very first day out a vicious dog, of which there were many in the countryside, bit his leg. He was laid up for months and that is why he had to be helped up to the bema on his bar mitzvah. My Grandmother, who never was in favor of Father being a trader, won her point and had him apprenticed to a tinsmith. He was with the tinsmith for years where he learned the trade and continued to work for his employer as a journeyman. Father worked on many copper roofs, many church steeples, until it came time for him to do his army service.
Inducted into the army, Father learned that a Jewish soldier’s lift was hell. He had to struggle to maintain his Jewishness and the only way it could be done was by bribing the officers. This required money which led him to a role that provided money with risks attached. Stationed near Warsaw which had a heavy tax on silk entering the city, Father became a smuggler. The silk merchant would wind a bolt of silk about his body. Father would then put on his uniform and, armed with a pass, would enter Warsaw and deliver the goods. For three years he succeeded in this career, using the money to provide leaves for himself and the other Jewish soldiers in his unit. Through this effort they were able to observe the Jewish holidays with jews in the vicinity of the army base. A few months before his army service was over, a customs officer discovered his load and proceeded to arrest him. He grabbed Father by the collar. Father slipped out of his coat and ran. He escaped but never again smuggled silk.
When Father was discharged from the army, a friend of his asked him to see his family in Pasval. That is how Father came to meet his friend’s sister, my mother, Rachel. They were married in 1899. About a year later, Father’s brother Aryeh returned from South Africa where he had lived for a number of years. He too married a girl from Pasval. Aryeh had some money and he and my father became partners. They rented property in the country and bought a herd of cows. They became suppliers of milk and milk products for the Jews of Pasval. This arrangement lasted until the Russian-Japanese war broke out in 1904. My father and my uncle were both generous and I am sure helped many poor people. As a child I recall my father getting a letter, about 1920, from a town’s person who said he would never forget my father’s kindness in those days. The man said when he was a little boy in Pasval, their family was very poor and had no fuel to heat their house. One day Father arrived with a sleigh load of wood.
All of the Zelbovitz sons and sons-in-law had served their stint in the Russian army before the war broke out in 1904. But the reverses the Russians suffered in the war were dealt with by the government instigating pogroms against Jews. The position of the Jews in Russia became more and more menacing. In addition, all of the sons and sons-in-law of the Zelbovitzs emigrated. Simon (Seeman) came to Baltimore. Pertz, Hava’s husband, came to Jacksonville. Feldman, Tanta Chipa Mara’s husband, went to Wisconsin. Father went to Canada. Aryeh went to South Africa. Fivel Nasan came to Canada with my mother but was rejected because he had an eye infection called trichoma. He was sent back in 1906 and died on the way back out of grief.
As there was not enough money to take the family with him, Father left alone in late 1904. The family stayed behind in Pasval with the grandparents. I don’t know whether he left in a hurry to avoid the authorities nor do I know how he got to Antwerp around New Year’s 1905. I spent time researching the ships’ lists to find when and how my partents arrived. Early in 1905 there were two ships that arrived with large contingents of Jews my father’s age. They all travelled steerage and the following year saw the wives and families arrive separately. Father arrived on the SS Mount Temple on February 24, 1905, at St. Johns, New Brunswick.
What happened upon the arrival of the immigrants is a story that each family knows on their own and I will not try to tell it. There is only one correction I wnat to make and that was that Sara Mala and Moshe, her husband, did not emigrate and remained in Lithuania as well as the two daughters of Fivel Nasan. The families continued to live in Ponadel until World War I when they went into exile and returned in 1922 and continued to live in that town until World War II broke out and the entire family left there was annihilated.
This completes the historical material that I have available to me.
*Shtettel is a large village or small town.