Search for Sorrel-Gittel , Zhukovskaya Street

by Jules Feldman, Kibbutz Yizreel, Israel

In April, 1999, I visited Sara Darom and took notes on the history of her branch of the family which she read from her father’s notes. Her father, Arye-Leib Hurwitz, who died in 1975, aged ninety-nine, was the cousin of my great grandfather, Zalman Hurwitz, and both were born and raised in the little shtetl Rakeshik (now Rokiskis), a town in the north of Lithuania, where most of the Jews were adherents of Chabad.

In 1890, when Arye-Leib was fourteen, there being no bread in his home, he left Rakeshik and went to Dvinsk (now Daugavpils), Latvia, because "my father’s sister had a daughter there", namely Yocheved, the wife of Nachum Rabinowitz, a prosperous merchant, and with their help he hoped to find some employment there .

From this sentence, I learned that the two brothers Mordechai Dov Hurwitz , the father of Zalman Hurwitz and Shmuel Yehuda Hurwitz , the father of Arye-Leib Hurwitz, had a sister who was the mother of Yocheved. .

I continued to take notes as Sara read and told the story – after a number of years in Dvinsk, Arye-Leib moved to St Petersburg where he became a prosperous merchant. The story of how Arye-Leib and his family left Russia in 1925 and came to Tel Aviv is itself an interesting story, but I will not tell it here. Sara was then able to tell me about the "new" branch of relatives, the Rabinowitz family, and added that Yocheved had a daughter, Raissa, who immigrated to Tel Aviv in the 1930’s with the help of Arye-Leib.

After the conversation with Sara, I phoned Tova, whose late husband, Nachum, was the son of Raissa and the grandson of Yocheved. Tova gave me details on the Rabinowitz family. In 1914, Anna, the oldest daughter of Yocheved, was married by shidduch to Hirsh Rung in Helsinki, Finland, and soon after that the whole Rabinowitz family moved to Helsinki.

A month later in Netanya, I met Raya, the daughter of Anna, who came from Helsinki to visit in Israel. I asked Raya the maiden name of her grandmother Yocheved and whether she had any siblings. Raya was unable to tell me Yocheved’s maiden name, but did tell that her grandmother corresponded with a brother or sister in South Africa by the name of Ribak.

I now looked for a Ribak family with a South African connection. I phoned Issy Rieback who lives in Herzliya. Issy remembered my father Hillie Feldman from their childhood days in Johannesburg, but we did not find a family connection.  So I turned to the internet to the JewishGen Family Finder (JGFF) and wrote to all those looking for Ribak from Lithuania and Latvia. As happens in most enquiries, none of those who responded could suggest a family connection.

Then, in January, 2001, Beverley from Johannesburg registered in the JGFF as looking for Ribak from Rokiskis (Rakeshik), Lithuania. I sent an e-mail to Beverley and wrote that I am looking for the relatives of Yocheved and Nachum. Beverley responded that her father Isaac Riback, then ninety years old (he subsequently passed away June 13, 2003), remembered his aunt Yochde and her husband Nachum and that Yocheved, whose maiden name was indeed Ribak, had three brothers who lived in Standerton, South Africa. Here I am surprised – in South Africa, there were three first cousins of Zalman Hurwitz and they had grown up in his shtetl, Rakeshik and his daughter Malka, my grandmother, who was the focus of all the family in South Africa, never knew of them.

In addition, Yocheved had a brother Mendel, a revolutionary who was exiled to Siberia after the failed revolution of 1905 and a brother Chaim, Isaac’s father, who remained in Rakeshik and died there in 1918 and, added Isaac, "in Dvinsk, I had not one aunt but two" – Sorrel-Gittel, the younger daughter of the Ribak family was also living in Dvinsk and her husband’s name was Hirsh Gref; they had seven daughters and from Dvinsk they moved to Russia.

Isaac told of his six brothers: one migrated with him to South Africa, two were murdered by the Germans in the mass murder of the Jews of Rakeshik and three fought in the Red Army in WWII and after the War settled in Vilna and raised families there. After 1972, the children of the three brothers moved to Israel. I phoned the five nephews of Isaac in Israel and two weeks later the five with their families came to visit us here at Kibbutz Yizreel.

At the same time, I received a copy of the 1897 Census for Rakeshik, translated into English, and there living in Korenskaya Street appears the Ribak family - Berko, head of the household, son of Nachman, age 56, a carriage driver and  Shifra-Leah, wife, daughter of Yossel, age 56. This included all their children, except Yocheved, who, as we already know, by 1890, was already living in Dvinsk.

I had now traced most of the Ribak family, but whatever happened to Sorrel-Gittel and her seven daughters? To the Ribaks, in Israel, the story is familiar, "Our grandfather Chaim had seven sons, his sister had seven daughters", but they were unable to add any further details.

I phoned Raya in Helsinki to tell her that I had found her mother’s first cousin still alive in Johannesburg and to ask her what she knew about Sorrel-Gittel, the younger sister of her grandmother Yocheved.  Raya confirmed that there had been occasional contact between Yocheved and Sorrel-Gittel and added a significant detail - Sorrel-Gittel lived in St Petersburg. Those were the dark days of Stalin, however, a rare event occurred in about 1935 – a son-in-law of Sorrel-Gittel arrived in Helsinki as a member of a commercial delegation and visited the family and he spoke about his wife’s family, the Grefs.

Given this new tidbit, I phoned Sara Darom in Tel Aviv again and asked her, "Do you remember relatives in St Petersburg?" "There were many", she told me. "We had a big home and there were always relatives staying with us or visiting us. There is no point in mentioning names. I was seven when we left and my father Arye-Leib drew a line. From the day we arrived in Israel, he rarely mentioned what had been in the Golah."  I persist and ask, "What about the family Gref?"  Her immediate response was, "those with seven daughters? When we left St Petersburg, we could not sell the house and we handed it over to the Gref family! The Grefs arrived with their daughters to receive the house from us. I was angry – Mr. Gref sat in my father’s chair. We spent half a day with them and then left on our way to Israel".

In Russia there is a possibility of finding a family at the same address even after 50 or 80 years. I write down the address, Zhukovskaya, No. 24, and look for someone to go to the address to try and find them. I tell my cousin Carmella, who lives in Paris and is also of this clan. Her daughter’s piano teacher is a young woman from St Petersburg who visits her family every summer. In the summer, this teacher went to the address on Zhukovskaya, No. 24, but could not find a clue.

I wonder what else I can do to find them and all of a sudden I receive an e-mail message from Igor Genkin of Boston. He tells me that he did a web search and found the Family Tree of the Jewish People located at There he located the names of Hirsh Gref and his wife Sorrel-Gittel. He is their grandson and the son of Bertha, one of their six daughters.  I phoned immediately. In the conversation, I tell Igor, "I even know where your grandparents lived – at Zhukovskaya…" and Igor completes the sentence "No. 24". Through the telephone, I could feel the emotional charge.

Igor, who arrived in Boston six years before, tells me that, "We knew there are relatives in the West, but we knew no names and we did not know how to begin to look for them."  A week later, Igor and his family met Ilona, his relative and mine. Ilona had moved a few years previously from Johannesburg to Boston. It was an emotional event for both the families, neither of whom had kinfolk in the Boston or anywhere nearby, until that moment. Both Ilona and Igor sent me their warm impressions of the meeting and of each other.

Igor then sent me a chart with details of the six daughters and their families – in addition to those in Moscow and St Petersburg, there are a few representatives in Israel, including Ilya Kazdan the grandson of Anna Gref, daughter of Hirsh and Sorrel-Gittel. He came to Israel in 1999 and lives in the small community of Beit Charon.

At that point, the family history gets interesting as I suddenly realized that, by coincidence, Sara Darom’s sister, Dina Achinoam, has a daughter and grandchildren also living in Beit Choron. In fact, it turned out that Dina’s granddaughter is Tali Wiener, who is in charge of immigrant absorption in the community and  that Tali had been instrumental in helping Ilya Kazdan settle in Beit Choron as a new immigrant.  

Who could imagine that when Dina Achinoam left Zhukovskaya, No. 24, in St Petersburg and bid farewell to her relative Anna Gref, that seventy-five years later her granddaughter Tali would meet and assist Ilya the grandson of Anna Gref. Strange indeed that they would live in the same small Israeli community never knowing of their family connection to each other until my research uncovered it. 

And now, my research continues as I still have to trace the family of Mendel Ribak, the brother of Sorrel-Gitel, who was banished to Siberia in 1905.

NOTE: Written in Hebrew, March 2001. Translated into English, November 2003. The Hebrew version was written in Hebrew for the Hebrew forum "Shoreshim Mishpachtim". 

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