For those who don’t know me, let me take a minute to introduce myself. Professionally, I’ve been working as an orchestral violinist for more than thirty years. But for even longer, I’ve been pursuing my family history. Having seen printed genealogies for my mother’s side of the family, I was inspired while I was still in college to record what information my father’s relatives could tell me. Before I knew it, I was hooked. Although I’ve researched with varying intensity over the years, the pursuit of family stories and the angle genealogical research brings to learning history have continued to be my passion.

Why the Website and Blog?

More than twenty years ago, I created my first genealogy websites. Among them were “ShtetlLink” sites for Sassmacken, Talsen and Tukums. They were part of my foray into HTML coding and website creation back in the early days of such things. I kept them up for several years, connecting with numerous researchers from those three towns, but as I began raising two children, I let the website slide and eventually disappear.

Why bring them back now? I decided to focus just on Sassmacken/Valdemarpils and Talsen/Talsi. I want to share what I’ve found – on and offline – and connect with others with family from these two towns. Since I created my first sites, I’ve been lucky enough to travel to Latvia again and have heard from others who have visited as well. And much more has become available online – documents, indices, videos – that is of interest to folks from this area. For the most part, my motivation is the same as it was originally – to share stories and information, and to connect with other Talsi and Valdemarpils descendants.

Another thing that intrigues me about this “new” format – compared to twenty years ago – is the ability to receive comments about posts, photographs and more. And I hope to involve others as guest bloggers so that we can share a variety of stories, research and travel accounts from these towns. Of course there’s a risk, but I look forward to hearing from more people this way. Don’t hesitate to let me hear from you!

A Word About Organization

To utilize a single site account, I’ve housed both Talsi and Valdemarpils under “My Courland Towns.” There are a few additional advantages to this besides saving me subscription dollars. First, many families have origins in both towns. They are less than 15 km apart. And second, it gives me an opportunity to share several Courland resources I’ve collected and had translated over the years. So clicking on “Home” will get you to the Courland page.

For each of the towns, I’ve arranged material into several categories. The main town page also serves as the “Description and Travel” page, with maps and links to travel sites. The “History” page includes a brief Jewish history of the town and a list of links for further reading. “Pictures” and “Cemetery” are pretty much self-explanatory. “Records” is a guide to the various records available for the town, with sources, examples, and hints for locating. “Families” includes links to information about and photographs of specific families, contributed by descendants of Sassmacken and Talsen. This is also the place for “mystery photos” waiting to be identified. At the moment, “Holocaust” includes records from 1941, information about the fate of the Jewish communities, and links for more information. In the future, I may begin an online memorial for the victims from these towns. If you are interested in contributing to this, please contact me.

Please Help

Do you have any photographs or documents from Talsi or Valdemarpils? Would you consider writing about your family’s story or travel experience? Are you interested in helping with a Holocaust memorial for your town?

One of the advantages of this format is the ability to involve others as guest bloggers and contributors. I’d love to make this as much a community as possible, so the more descendants we can enlist, the better. Please spread the word to others, and let me know if there’s something I can do to make the site better. I’ll look forward to hearing from you!

My great-great-great Uncle, Solomon Hoffman

by Randy Wasserstrom, Cary, North Carolina

In 2004, I went on a genealogical trip to Latvia. In Talsi, I discovered the gravestones of my maternal great great great uncle Solomon (Zalman) Hoffman (1829-1906) and his wife, Chasse (1832-1908). It was a very serendipitous discovery as I had actually been visiting nearby Sassmacken and only stayed in Talsi as it was the closest place with a hotel. I stayed in the hotel with my guide, who told me the Jewish cemetery was nearby and we could walk to it. We walked out of town, across a road and then into a grove of trees where stood the cemetery. Almost immediately, I saw the largest stone in the cemetery and it was the perfectly preserved gravestone of Solomon and Chasse. Voila!

Back in the States, I did research on Solomon, who was the younger brother of my great great grandfather Osser Hoffman (1823-1896). Solomon was born in Sassmacken, and later lived in Sabile and Talsi. His native languages were Yiddish and German. He met Chasse Brenner of Goldingen and they had an arranged marriage about 1850. They settled in Sabile (current name) where he became a merchant and they had five children: Yankel, 1852, David, 1854, Yocheved, 1862, Mere, 1865 and Leib, 1870. 

Solomon was a merchant in this small town of about 1000 people, 830 of whom were Jewish. (The photo above is a contemporary picture of the old Sabile synagogue.) He and his family then were part of the majority of the town’s population. In the 1870’s (circa), Solomon and his family (notably Mere) moved to Talsen (Talsi) which was north of Sabile. 

It was a beautiful, scenic town and often considered one of the prettiest places in Courland (later Latvia). In 1882 he bought a big estate at Liela Iela 2 (2 Main Street) in the center of town. At this estate, he lived with Chasse and Mere and also started a liquor business. The estate had three cellars, wells and fruit gardens. He became a very well known citizen of Talsen and very probably  was also well known in the Jewish community. Other relatives who lived in town were Solomon’s brother, Wulf and his brother-in-law, Lazar Brenner (1839-1909).

Solomon ran the estate and liquor business for nineteen years, until 1901, when he was 72 years old. In June, 1901, he entered into a contract with Talsi County Peoples’ Alcohol Foundation, renting out the premises for three years for 320 rubles, extending the contract in 1904 and 1907. The rental agreement included nine rooms, an entrance from Liela Street, a kitchen, a downstairs pantry and a place for a bathroom. 

Daughter Mere met and married Rabbi Zelig Lowenberg (1879-1942) about 1904. He was a native of Piltene where his father was also a rabbi.  He was fourteen years younger than his wife! The couple had their first child, Gittel, on December 23, 1906. Solomon gave the house across the street from the estate at Liela iela 1 to Mere and Zelig in July, 1907 (this may have been in his will). The second child (possibly) was Nellie (year of birth unknown) and the third child was Zalman (Solomon), born April 22, 1909. He was named after his grandfather who had died in 1906.

Zalman Lowenberg (1909-1982)

Chasse died in 1908 at the age of 76 and was buried in the Talsi Cemetery in the same location as her husband.  Meanwhile Mere and Zelig lived together until 1936, the year of her death.  Zalman emigrated to Palestine, circa 1930’s, and eventually and eventually became a newspaper editor.  Rabbi Lowenberg was a prominent rabbi in Talsi and also ran a school. He continued in these pursuits until his death at the hands of the Nazis in 1942.

The Hosiassons of Sabile

The photograph above was sent to my great-grandmother, Clara Thal, from her Hosiasson cousins in Riga in 1910. It has always been one of my favorite pictures, and for years was the only evidence I had of Clara’s mother’s family. I knew from what was written on the card that Josef and Sigismund Hosiasson were “cousins.”

Unfortunately, a few words were covered from my haphazard work removing the card from Clara’s scrapbook, but I was able to get the general idea through a translation:

My dear Clara,

            I am sending you mine and Uncle Abraham’s son’s photograph.  How do you find us.  At the [???] Adolf Blumenthal was in Riga at our place for a visit in [???].  Many heartfelt [?] greetings from your [?] [???] cousin Josef

Cousin Sigismund.

Regards from Adolf and Hanna.  [Having?] a dandy time here.

For years, this was all I had. I kept my feelers out for the name Hosiasson/Hoseason/Hosiason, but really didn’t find anything. I wondered what happened to these two young gentlemen.

Eventually, when it became possible to hire a researcher at the Latvian Historical Archives in Riga, I had a chance to find out more. When Lena, my helpful archivist, got to the Hosiasson family, I discovered a huge tree! They were based, for the most part, in the small town of Zabeln, present-day Sabile, Latvia.

Without going into too much detail – you can find more on my website – I’ll present a brief overview of what I know of the Hosiasson family from these archival records.

From Recruits Enlistment registers for nearby Goldingen, I learned that the patriarch of my Hosiasson family was a Salamon Hosiasson, son of Abraham. Salamon and his wife, Chaie, had at least three sons: Markus, Samuel and Abraham. They probably had other children, but only these three sons appear on the recruitment lists. Latvian families were often registered in nearby towns – in this case, Goldingen – where they may or may not have lived. It’s clear from birth, marriage and death records that Salamon’s sons lived in Zabeln, where their children were born.

Markus, the eldest, was born around 1811. He and his wife, Esther, had at least four children: Mnucha, Abraham, Osser, and Hana. Markus worked as a butcher in Sabile, and died there in 1865. Mnucha (Minnie) married Kalman Jacobson, and two of her sons emigrated to Bay City, Michigan in the late 1800s. She and her husband emigrated to South Africa with their four daughters around the same time. Osser’s son, Marcus, probably ran the family hardware store in Sabile with his cousin, Samuel. Other than Mnucha’s children, I believe most of the descendants of Markus and Esther remained in Latvia, several perishing in the Holocaust.

Samuel was born around 1815 and worked as a trader. He married Jette, and had at least eight children: Jacob, Chasse, Dina, Abraham, Taube, Haja-Feiga, Joseph and Hosias. I know a bit more about this branch, as Taube was my great-great-grandmother, the mother of Clara Thal, who received the postcard. Jacob was a merchant with a prominent store in Sabile, and a huge family. He and his wife, Golde, are buried in the Sabile Jewish Cemetery, and he is most likely the “J. Hoziassohn” who appears frequently in the 1892 Kurlandische Verkehr und Adresbuch. Among his many descendants is the artist, Philippe Hosiasson, who was born in Odessa in 1898 and died in Paris, France, in 1978. Chasse married Chaim Blumenthal and had a large family. Several of her descendants emigrated to the United States, some to Michigan, near Bay City, while others settled in Cleveland and Boston. Some of Chasse’s descendants remained in Latvia. Dina married Itzik Hirschson, and their son, Jacob Hirshson, settled in Boston, Massachusetts. Abraham married Eta and had at least three children. Taube married Joseph Gettleson and emigrated to Michigan in the late 1800s. Hosias died in 1858. No more is known of Haja-Feiga and Joseph.

Abraham was born around 1827, and worked as a butcher and milkman in Sabile. He married Rebecca and they had at least five children: Hosias, Beila, Marcus, Jacob (who died as a child), and Chaya. Marcus had at least one son, Abram-Mowscha, born in 1896. Otherwise, little is known of Abraham’s family at this time.

The repetition of given names makes mapping out this family particularly challenging. Those with the names Abraham and Marcus are especially plentiful. There is much more work to do to fill in the gaps. But there are a few particularly outstanding questions in my mind that I would love to have answered:

  • Is there a connection to the family of Oscar Hosiassohn, who died in 1959 at age 74 and is buried in Welkom, South Africa? There are at least three Ossers in the family of Marcus, s/o Salamon, but I have been unable to make the connection. UPDATE: The Oscar Moses Hosiassohn who died in 1959 in South Africa has now been connected via his death record. He was the son of Osser Hosiasson, s/o Marcus, s/o Salamon.
  • Does it make sense that a grandson of Markus – Marcus, s/o Osser – would possibly help manage a family hardware store with a cousin, Samuel, s/o Jacob, s/o Samuel? It was Jacob’s store, managed by his son, Samuel, but there is some evidence that Marcus was involved. It would seem that brothers would make more sense, but the birth records indicate they would have been cousins.
  • There are several records for children of “Abraham Hosiasson” in the Latvian Archives, but since there are so many Abrahams – two being close in age, grandsons of Salamon – and the mother’s name is not given, we can’t link these people into the family as yet. Among these are four babies, Shmuel, Khana, Khaya and Rivka, and a Hana Hosiassohn Funkelstein, born in Zabeln in 1879, who was killed in Riga during the Holocaust.

So what about the gentlemen in the photograph? My current theory is that “Uncle Abraham’s son,” Sigismund, is Schaie Hosiasson, born in 1884 in Sabile to Abraham, s/o Samuel, and his wife, Eta. Nothing further is known of him. Josef is probably not Schaie/Sigismund’s brother, Jossel. My best guess there is that he is Josef Hosiasson, son of Samuel’s son, Jacob. Josef was born in Sabile in 1881 and was living in Riga in 1941. I’m not a photo expert, by any means, but I believe there’s at least a chance the passport photo below is the same person. To my knowledge, Josef was not married and did not have children. According to a Page of Testimony at Yad Vashem, he was killed in the Holocaust.

Passport photo, Josef Hosiasson, 1924. From the Latvian Historical Archive, Riga.

As for Adolf and Hanna Blumenthal, who wrote to Clara in English at the bottom of the card, Adolf was the son of Chasse Hosiasson and Chaim Blumenthal. He emigrated to the United States in 1903, and lived in Standish, near Bay City, Michigan, until he returned to Latvia in 1910 to marry Hanna Bagg. It must have been on this trip that he visited his cousins and wrote back to Clara. He and Hanna returned to the United States the following year and settled in Winthrop, Massachusetts.

There are certainly gaps to fill and questions to answer. After all these years, I am even more impressed that my great-grandmother had this postcard and saved it. To be honest, I wonder how much she knew of these cousins. She was born in Latvia around 1880, and grew up in Jelgava, almost 100 km from Sabile. She had emigrated to Michigan, again, near Bay City, by around 1890, but had moved to Toledo by the time Adolf immigrated in 1903. These men must have been childhood acquaintances. I wish I knew more about them. Regardless, the photo is a treasure.

For more on the Hosiassons, you can download a list of descendants of Salamon Hosiasson or visit my website. If you have any information to add, I would love to hear from you! Please contact me!

My Family in Sassmacken

The following post was generously contributed by Randy Wasserstrom. The Michaelson/Michelsohn family photo above, taken in 1893, includes the following from left to right: Sam, Louis, Yetta, Harry, John, Aaron and Rose.

My great grandmother, Yetta Hoffman, (1861-1916), was born in Sabile, Courland, Russia and was one of the fifteen children of Osser and Sarah Hoffman. The family moved north about forty miles in the 1870’s to Sassmacken (name later changed to Valdemarpils), a small town of about 1800 persons.                         

Yetta had an arranged marriage in 1882 with my great grandfather Aaron Michaelson, (1856-1941), of Bauska, Courland, located approximately one hundred miles southeast of Sassmacken. Presumably, the two fathers, Osser and Jossel, arranged the marriage.  Aaron also knew fellow Bausker Chaskel Jacobsohn, who had moved to Sassmacken in the early 1870’s to marry Yetta’s older sister Chasse.

The same year of the marriage, the Jewish population of Sassmacken was 1167, an amazing 67% of the population!!! Our family was part of a dominating culture, very hard to imagine today. (Note: By 1935, the Jewish population had declined to 168. The Jewish Museum of Latvia)

On July 20, 1882, the marriage took place in the synagogue in Sassmacken and the officiant was Rabbi Samuel Dubitsky. Many relatives may have been  in attendance as Yetta was one of fifteen children and Aaron was one of ten siblings! Yetta’s parents, Osser, 61, and Sarah, 57, were also probably present.

Within less than a year, the first child, Herman, was born on July 4, 1883. Aaron worked as a merchant to support the family. The second child, Samuel, arrived on Feburary 12, 1885, three weeks after Yetta’s sister, Chasse, 35,  died in childbirth, leaving her husband and three children, Jacob, Pauline and Celia. Celia was the child born during the childbirth in which her mother died. Meanwhile, Feige, another sister of Yetta, began taking care of Chasse’s children.

Feige married Chatzkkel on December 13, 1885 at age 23. Twelve days later on December 25, 1885, my grandmother, Chasse Rayska Michelsohn (Rose in the USA), was born and she was named after her sister. One year passed and on December 13, 1886, Yechiel (John) was born to Yetta and Aaron. In a short span, four children had been born!!! This was the tradition of that era – to have as many children as possible.

Yetta did have a support group among her many siblings, parents, Osser and Sarah, and even her grandparents, Josef and Sarah. She was not through bearing children. Two daughters, Shifre Musha, and Feige, were born in 1888 and 1889 respectively. Unfortunately, both girls died at the age of one.

Also in 1889, Aaron’s sister in law, Etta, 38, and her four children moved to Baltimore, Maryland from Bauska. This event clearly influenced Aaron as he emigrated to Baltimore the next year. He had lived in Sassmacken only eight years. He worked for a year in Baltimore and brought then the whole family to town, arriving on on September 8, 1891. The following year Yetta had another son, Louis, born December 25, 1892.

It had been an adventurous eight years in Sassmacken. Feige and Chatzkel and their three children remained in the old country until 1903, when they too emigrated to Brooklyn, New York. Rose’s parents also remained in Sassmacken and her father, Osser, died there in 1896 at the age of 76. He was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Sassmacken.

This post was contributed by Randy Wasserstrom. Please contact him with any questions. If you are interested in writing a post about your family or another Valdemarpils-related topic, please contact me. I’m anxious to include as many voices as possible.

Leaving Courland

Among my collection of interviews is this story, told by Paula Thal Aminoff in 1974, of her brother Jacob, from Talsen, and his efforts to leave Courland (now Latvia) before being drafted into the Russian Army.

Paula Thal Aminoff, Marge Adinoff, Ted Thal and Larry Thal, September 8, 1974

Ted: You know about Abraham Blumberg.. well, I’ll tell you. His father, Abraham’s father [Jacob Blumberg] was fairly well‑to‑do, he was the one who helped all of the boys get across the line.  He paid, that’s why..

Paula: He helped them get money if they didn’t have money enough.

Marge: But Grandpa [Jacob Thal] didn’t use him though.

Paula: What?

Marge: Grandpa didn’t use him.  Tell them about how..

Paula: No, Grandpa didn’t.  Grandpa went with Mr. Lowenstein.

Marge: How many times did it take him to get back and forth?

Paula: And you know, when they got to the border, Mr. Lowenstein used to like to take a drink.  And he decided he’d like to have one more Russian drink before he goes across. And to cross the border, they had paid the guy to take them across, but you had to be there at a certain minute to get across when they were changing the guards, you know.  Now Mr. Lowenstein decided he wanted another Russian drink.  So they went in for another Russian drink.  Jake didn’t drink but Mr. Lowenstein did.  Well the guards changed, and when they came out, the next guard got them.  There was no going across. And then when they get you, they don’t just send you back, they’re sent from one prison to the next prison, walking. So, Jake sent a telegram to mother, what happened, you know.  So, Grandma just got on a train and went right down and got him off.  Got him out of jail.  I don’t know how much she had to pay, a lot.  And she got him out and took him home.  And then the next time he went by himself.

Marge: How much longer was it?

Paula: What?

Marge: How much time elapsed between the first time and the second?

Paula: Not very much.  Because they had to do it in a hurry because he was eighteen, and after eighteen, you couldn’t leave…

Larry: Who was Mr. Lowenstein?

Paula: He was a cousin of my mother’s.

It’s a wonderful story, but how much of it is true? With many digitized passenger lists available, it’s easy to confirm that Jacob Thal did leave Courland and immigrate to the United States with Louis Lowenstein. “Mr. Lowenstein” was the husband of Jacob’s first cousin, Johanna Blumberg. Married in 1885, the couple had just had their first child, Ella, in January of 1886, when Louis decided to emigrate. Two passenger lists are available that begin to tell us about their trip.

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On June 26, 1886, Louis (Levin) Lowenstein and Jacob Thal were among about thirty passengers on the cargo ship, S.S. Kaffraria, sailing from Hamburg to Liverpool. Jacob was 18, as mentioned in the story. Though the handwriting is difficult to read, they appear to have come from Sassmacken, where Louis was born in 1859, and were probably traveling salesmen. From Liverpool, they boarded the S.S. England, which took them to New York, arriving on July 14, 1886.

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But what about the rest of the story? How did they get from Courland to Hamburg to get on the ship?

Once they crossed into Prussia, emigrants from Courland could travel fairly easily by train through Berlin to Hamburg. At the time, East Prussia reached quite far north along the Baltic Sea, almost to Libau, in Courland. Travel into Kovno Province of Lithuania was not difficult. It was still the Russian Empire, though Kovno was part of the Pale of Settlement and Courland was not. The closest Prussian border was near the city of Memel (now Klaipeda, Lithuania), a seaport about 100 km south of Libau (Liepaja), on the Baltic Sea. The nearest official crossing point was at the city of Tilsit, another 100 km southeast of Memel, but reachable by train from Libau.

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“Russland, Westliche Gouvernements,” Leipzig, 1882.

Jacob Thal’s uncle – Jacob Blumberg (Abraham’s father as mentioned in the excerpt) – may have lived in the town of Salanty (Salantai, near Shateik Grove), in the northwest part of Kovno province, quite near the border with Courland. He may have been part of a large network of Jews who worked as smugglers, helping emigrants to bribe corrupt Russian officials and make contact with the steamship companies. Slipping over the border at night by using bribes was quite common at that time.

In the late 1800’s, immigration between Russia and Prussia grew increasingly complex. Without Russian passports, which were difficult and expensive for Jews to obtain at that time, leaving Russia and crossing into Prussia was illegal. Before 1890, the Russian government only guarded a few major crossings, and the guards there were definitely susceptible to bribes. The government didn’t care if a few Jews left the country as they weren’t particularly wanted in the first place. In later years, when the numbers of emigrants increased dramatically, it became more difficult to get out of Russia.

The Prussian government was stricter, though faced with conflicting pressures. On the one hand, they didn’t want these Jewish immigrants in their country any more than the Russians did. And they were already getting pressure from the United States to stem the tide of Eastern European immigrants through the German ports. On the other hand, the German shipping companies were eager for more customers since the number of German emigrants to America had tapered off. In 1885, the Prussian government began requiring everyone coming across their border to have enough cash to pay for a ticket home, and occasionally used this as an excuse to deport travelers they didn’t want. In later years, health inspection stations were set up and quarantines required. Emigration from Russia through Prussia to America became big business, in large part due to the shipping companies. But in 1886, it was not yet so intense.

So how much truth is there to this story? Slipping over the border and bribing the officials were fairly common and well-documented. But in my reading to this point, I have yet to find anything about jails or detention of emigrants by the Russian government. Deportations and shootings are mentioned, but I have no information corroborating this part of the story. Were they held in Tilsit? What sort of prisons would these be? If you know more about this, please contact me. Any links to further information would be helpful.

In the end, Jacob and Louis obviously tried a second time and succeeded in getting on a ship in Hamburg. Jacob married Amelia Bernard in 1893 – the picture above is his wedding picture – and settled in Saginaw, Michigan. Louis eventually settled in Salt Lake City, Utah, with his wife and two children. These two men, originally illegal immigrants, became the heads of large and prosperous American Jewish families. For more information about these families, visit my website at BTGenealogy.net.

Some Sources Consulted:

The Jordans of Talsen and Scotland

As a child in the 1930-40’s, I would often stay with my maternal grandparents, pictured above. My grandmother, Fanny, was a very tall, thin woman who looked more Scottish than Jewish. Unlike other relatives she did not speak Yiddish but German, and English without a trace of a foreign accent.  Being aware that most of my grandparents’ generation of Jews were immigrants to Scotland, I was interested in knowing their origins. Most Glasgow Jews had arrived at the turn of the 20th century either from Lithuania or the Ukraine. Many were on their way to the USA, and embarked at Leith, the port of Edinburgh, went by train to Liverpool, and there boarded the boat to America.  Those who stayed either “ missed the boat” or  found the “natives” friendly and decided to stay in Scotland.  In most cases Scotland was not the final destination.

My grandmother was born in Courland, and my grandfather in the Ukraine. For most of my early life I knew that Courland was in Latvia but assumed it was somehow connected to East Prussia, otherwise why the German.

My grandmother’s maiden name was  Jordan, and I learned that my great-grandmother had been called Mary, and my great grandfather, William David Jordan. Jordan was not a Jewish name, and Mary most certainly was not, so I wondered many times whether my grandmother was Jewish, or a convert. She certainly kept Kashrut, and observed Jewish holidays, but that doubt or question lingered for some time.  My grandfather’s family name was Mitchell, also not a  Jewish name, but I assumed that the family changed its name  on arriving in Scotland. Certainly the Mitchell family were very Jewish, and often spoke Yiddish among themselves.

Jump forward many years, with the advent of the internet and the possibilities of searching data from Eastern Europe, and an interest in genealogy.  I did searches and did find Jordans in the Latvian database of JewishGen.  Mitchells I could not find in the Ukrainian data base other than those like myself searching for other Mitchells.  My grandmother died in 1957 and my grandfather much earlier.  Many years later my uncle (my mother’s brother ) sent me a copy of my grandmothers UK Naturalization Papers that he had found in a drawer.  

This is from 1950. I have no idea why she waited so long to become a British citizen. In it she states that she was born in Talsen, at that time in Russia. Date of birth is June 30th, 1885. I also learned for the first time that the Mitchell name was derived from  Mechalman,  a name no one in the family knew of. My grandmother’s father’s name  is given as William David Jordan. He never arrived in Scotland, but died before Mary, his wife, left Courland. Having this clue as to place of birth, I then searched the All-Russia 1897 census on JewishGen. I found a Marianna Jordan at an address in Talsen and her daughter Fanny age 11 (below).

Below is the original census page available through FamilySearch and the Latvian Historical Archives.

1897 All-Russian Census for Talsen, Entry 561

Her place of origin (I assume this meant birth) was listed as Mitau.  Was this the correct family? Date of birth of Fanny was quite close, 1885-86. She was 11 years old. Mariana is described as a widow age 47. Fanny’s father name is given as Wulf. And Marianna ‘s father as Heim, which I assume is Hyman (Chaim). Thus Marianna’s husband was Wulf Jordan. Could she have filled out paper’s equating Wulf to William on arriving in Scotland?

Scotland’s People is a site devoted to archival material. For a small charge one can obtain birth certificates, death certificates , census results, etc.  Using this site, I found that Mary Jordan and her daughter Fanny were living in 1901 in Paisley, Scotland. This was not unexpected since my mother was born in Paisley, a small textile-industry town close to Glasgow. Paisley is famous for the reproductions of the Iranian tea drop pattern on scarfs, etc. Mary is listed as head of household, age 50, living with  Fanny age 16, another daughter Ada, age 24, with her husband Sam Paltie (age 27) and a two-year-old granddaughter Martha. 

If the Marianne and Fanny  found in the Talsen (All Russia) census were the same that would mean they arrived in Scotland between 1899 and 1901. The ages matched.

I knew from family conversations that my grandmother had three sisters: Kitty, Sophie and Ada.  Family lore was that Ada and Sophie had married two brothers and had immigrated to Australia and the United States  after their marriage.  I also heard that the two brothers lived in the North of Scotland in a town called Elgin and  were peddlers. This always seemed  romantic and the reason for the Jordan family moving to Scotland in the first place was for Ada and Sophie to be with the brothers who were from the same town, Talsen. 

Mary died in 1929, and according to the record, which was filled out by Fanny, her daughter, she was the widow of William Jordan . Her father was Hyman Thalberg. and mother Kate Thalberg (nee Levenshtein or something similar). The Hyman agrees again with the Russian Record. I found another Levenshtein married to a Thalberg, thus there must have been a lot of marriages between the same families.  There are many Thalbergs listed on JewishGen in the army registration list from Talsen. Three of them are the sons of Heyman Thalberg, though I do not know if this is the same Hyman as Mary’s father.

I downloaded the marriage certificates of my grandmothers sisters on Scotland’s People. Sophie was married in 1892 to Jacob Paltie and Annie (Ada) in 1897 to  Samuel Paltie, and Kitty in 1900 to Philip Shapiro. I knew my mother’s Aunt Kitty and her husband since they resided in Glasgow. One of the marriages took place in Elgin.

Jessie Taylor, the author’s mother, and cousin, William Shapiro, son of Kitty/Katy Shapiro,
ca. 1915 in Paisley, Scotland.

Jacob and Samuel were indeed brothers since in the marriage certificate they have the same parents, Louis  Paltie and Hannah Thalberg. I assume these were first cousin marriages (so far I have no direct evidence for this). How, why and when they arrived in Elgin is a bit of a mystery. Louis is described as a hairdresser.

I was unable to find any records of arrival dates of any of the family  members to Scotland. But all the names – Jordan, Thalberg, Levenshtein and Paltei – are associated with Talsen or Mitau in Courland.  There is an interesting  novel, The Credit Draper, by Scottish Jewish author J. David Simons, describing the life of Jewish peddlers in Scotland.

I searched on JewishGen for other Jordans from Talsen and discovered others looking for Jordans. There was a large family of Jordans residing in the USA. I corresponded with an Alan Jordan who kindly sent me information on the family.  His source was the revision Lists from Mitau Jewish Community for 1838 and 1858. The family begins with Wulf Jordan, and his son Leib. Leib and his wife Lina raised a family of 4 sons and 4 daughters.

The four sons were Wolf, David, Reuben, and Yeshayahu. When I contacted Alan he knew of the descendants of two of the sons, Reuben and Yeshayahu, but nothing of the families of Wolf or David. Interestingly Leib was a saddle maker, as was the William (Wolf) identified on my grandmother’s  and Kitty’s death certificate. The stumbling block to identifying Wolf, the son of Leib as William, the wife of Mary was information from the archives of  Mitau, which lists Wolf as having  4 daughters, and a son, and the names of the daughters do not match (nor dates of birth). Thus it is difficult to reconcile the data. Could the archives have the wrong Wolf?  It was a common name, and I have found more than one Wolf Jordan.

Sophie Paltie and family immigrated to the USA in the 1920’s and Ada about the same time to Australia. Both families have expanded, as have the Glasgow families. One final note, my grandmother Fanny is buried in Glasgow Jewish cemetery.  Her name in Hebrew is “Feige bat Zeev David HaLevi,” which translates to “Feige, daughter of Wolf David.”

DNA analysis confirmed that I and a great grandson of Shai (Yeshayahu) Jordan are third cousins.  However I am still left wondering whether my family tree and that of the US Jordan’s are really linked.  If it was not for the data from the archives I would accept it. Another puzzle, the Paltei family on arrival in New Jersey as far as I know never attempted to contact the Jordan family, which might have been expected.

For further information, the Taylor/Jordan family tree can be viewed on MyHeritage.

Callout to Researchers

A few weeks ago, I was officially appointed the town leader for both Talsi and Valdemarpils for JewishGen’s Latvia and Estonia Research Division. “What does that mean?” I asked. The goal of town leaders is to maintain contact with area researchers, locate and index records and make them available, and generally serve as a contact person for those with family from their towns. I’m happy to do this, as it fits perfectly with my goals for this website.

Since the IAJGS Annual Conference a few weeks ago, I’ve updated the “Talsi Records” and “Valdemarpils Records” pages with new information. There are more records available online than ever, indexes completed and in progress, and even more records in the archives waiting to be digitized. If you haven’t searched recently, take a look at the links. The Research Division has a brand-new website as well, which is well worth your time.

If you have family from Valdemarpils/Sassmacken or Talsi/Talsen, my aim now is to get you involved.

  • Do you have a story to tell about your Talsi or Valdemarpils family?
  • Do you have knowledge of a particular aspect of Talsi, Valdemarpils, Courland or Latvian history?
  • Do you have records from Talsi or Valdemarpils other than those already digitized and available online? (See the Talsi Records and Valdemarpils Records pages for what’s currently available.)
  • Do you have a website for your Talsi or Valdemarpils family that we can link to?
  • Do you have photos or maps of Talsi or Valdemarpils, particularly older ones, that you’d be willing to share?
  • Would you be willing to help index records as they become available?
  • Do you have language skills in Latvian, Russian, German or Hebrew? If so, would you be willing to translate records from Talsi?
  • Do you have contacts in Latvia, particularly the Talsi/Valdemarpils area, that might help us locate records?
  • Would you be willing to help fund record acquisition or digitization for Talsi or Valdemarpils if the opportunity arises?

If you answered “yes” to any of the above questions, please contact me.

While most of this will be more long-term, I’m most anxious to get others involved in sharing their stories. This space is available for anyone interested in writing about Talsi- or Valdemarpils-related topics that would be of interest to Jewish researchers. That can be anything from an informal account of your family stories to a researched history of the area. The more writers we can involve, the more interesting this project will be.

Another goal of mine is map-related. Eventually, I’d like to use 1935 census records, directories and other data to compile Jewish community maps of these two towns. At the moment, the time between the wars is the most feasible for this, but if I can find the information, I’d love to be able to do that for the 19th-century as well. If you have any address information for either town, maps, or keys to changes in street names over the years, all would help with this project.

And of course we’re looking for records. We know they’re out there, but need help tracking them down and hopefully getting them digitized, posted, and available for your research. I’ll look forward to hearing from you.

The Thals of Sassmacken

From a 1981 interview between Rabbi Lennard Thal and my great-grandfather’s sister, Paula Thal Aminoff, I have this quote: “Sassmacken. There was full of Jews. And there were a bunch of Thals there – not related, another family, very fine people, but not related to us. Ours was a big family and they were a big family.”

If you’ve done much research into families of Sassmacken, it would not be be surprising for you to have connected to one or more Thals. There were, in fact, two very large Thal families with roots there, and yet another that had ties to Talsen and other Courland towns. And Rabbi Lennard Thal? He connects with yet another Thal family from Lithuania. To make things even more confusing, the two Sassmacken Thal families are both headed by men named Moshe!

Let’s start with an overview of these families, and then, in honor of Father’s Day, I’ll talk a bit about Y-DNA.

Moses and Sara Thal

Moses Thal, my great-great-great-grandfather, was born between 1798 and 1803, the son of Yakov, according to his death record. According to his granddaughter, Paula, he and Sara were quite young when they were married, and they lived and raised their family in Sassmacken. Like many residents of the town, Moses was registered in Tukums and is listed in those revision lists. Below he is listed in an 1838 record with his wife, Sara and oldest son, Levin.

Moses and Sara had ten children, and remained in Sassmacken until they died, she in 1888 and he in 1892. Details of their descendants can be found here, and the Thal page of my personal website has more details. Most of at least four branches emigrated to the United States before the Second World War, but many of the rest remained in Latvia. Those familiar with the remembrances of Sol Katzen will recognize the widows, Dora and Minna Thal, from this family. They were the wives of Shimon and Ephraim Thal, sons of Moses and Sara. Large numbers of those who remained were killed in the Holocaust. At this time, I know of descendants living in Israel, Australia and a few remaining in Latvia. There is a 19th-century Latvian record indicating that one descendant lived in Africa, but no further records have been found.

Moses and Gittel Thal

The other Moses Thal was born about 1792, the son of Yankel and Jache. Like my Moses Thal, he was also registered in Tukums. Below he is listed in the revision lists of 1834 with his sons, Nachman, Jankel, Itzig and Schaye, as well as his wife, Gittel, his mother, Jache, and his daughters, Zipore Taube and Feige-Maye. Nachman’s wife, Riwe, and daughter, Ester, are also listed.

Details of the descendants of Moses and Gittel can be found here. A large branch of the family ended up in South Africa before 1900, and I visited descendants there many years ago. Many also emigrated to the United States, and several remained in Latvia. I have recently heard from a descendant of this family in Moscow as well. Among the descendants in this family was the famous chessmaster, Mikhail Tal, son of Nechemia and Ida Thal, both descendants of Moses and Gittel. In Sol Katzen’s memoirs, the children of Itzik Thal, son of Moses and Gittel, figure prominently. He remembers three sons in particular: Cheme, Jacob and Shaya.

Two More Families

Another Thal family, that of Auzer and Henne Thal, has roots in Tukums. To my knowledge, there are no records of these descendants in Sassmacken, but there are connections to Talsen, Mitau, and Libau. Auzer was born ca. 1784 and died in 1864. At this time, I have records of two sons, Lazar and Abraham, both of whom had many descendants. One branch of this family emigrated to Scotland in the 1890s and spread from there to the United States, South Africa, and Australia. Many others ended up in the United States. Details of Auzer’s descendants can be found here.

Finally, the ancestors of Rabbi Lennard Thal, Ariel and Chava Thal of Skophishok, Lithuania, are worth mentioning. Their descendants don’t appear in Latvian records, to my knowledge, and I have not kept good records of them. But many Jewish families moved from Lithuania into Latvia, so it’s worth noting that this significant family was not very far away.

So Is There a Connection?

Written records for these families only go back to the early 1800s. In fact, the Jewish population of this area didn’t take surnames that much earlier, probably in the 18th-century. How did two or more Jewish families end up in the same place at the same time with the same names?

One answer might be that they originated in different places. Sassmacken was a bit of a hub for Jewish merchants at one time during the 19th-century, and these families may have taken the name “Thal” before they both arrived in the town. There is a very early revision list for a Moses Jankel Thal in Kandau in 1816. I haven’t confirmed 100% which one this is, but this would indicate that both Moses Thals may not have been born in Sassmacken.

The question of a connection leads me to my Father’s Day topic of Y-DNA. Because of endogamy – the massive amount of intermarriage evident in these and most Jewish families – a standard autosomal DNA test is of little use confirming or disproving a connection. Without going into too much detail, a Y-DNA test provides information about your paternal line, and is accurate much further back than a standard DNA test.

At this time, the only place to do this sort of testing is through Family Tree DNA. Men and women can both have the test done, but the paternal line will be the only one tracked, so those born with the name “Thal” would be of interest here. I have had Y-DNA tests done for both my father and myself. Recently, I had a test completed for a descendant of the Auzer Thal family and there was no connection. I have not yet located a descendant of the other Moses Thal family to do a test.

My suspicion is that my great-great-aunt Paula was right all along. There is probably no common ancestor for these families. But I suspect the only way to prove it one way or another is through Y-DNA tests. If you are interested, check out Family Tree DNA and contact me.

Do you have a story to tell? It can appear here! Please contact me.

Latvia Journal

The following is a brief account of my last visit to Latvia in 2003.

In August of 2003, I had the incredible experience of traveling to Latvia and meeting an entire branch of my family that I had learned of just a few months before.   It was a life changing experience.  Not only did I gather a great deal of genealogical information, but the week I spent in Latvia drove home to me the differences between the family histories of those who left Latvia and those who stayed.  

            In April, I received an e-mail from Yuri Bregman, who introduced himself as a descendant of Moshe and Sarah Thal from Sassmacken.  As part of my research into the descendants of Moshe and Sarah, I had posted information on a website on the internet.  At the time he contacted me, I only knew about his great-grandmother, Rosa Thal, a daughter of Moshe and Sarah.  Yuri introduced me to his entire branch of the family, and put me in contact with several cousins, including Victor Shatz, still living in Riga.  In the end, I was able to arrange to visit Riga at the same as Yuri was there with his wife and children.  Victor and Yuri are my father’s third cousins.  Rosa Thal’s brother, Pesach, was my family’s progenitor, and he and his entire family came to the United States more than one hundred years ago.  To my knowledge, that was the last time that the two families had been in contact with each other.

            Victor turned out to be a perfect guide.  Not only did he take a week off from his job, he was already well acquainted with and interested in his Shatz family history.  During the process of denationalization of real estate in Latvia that has taken place over the past ten years, he and many other citizens tracked down proof that their family owned property in 1940 that was nationalized by the Soviets.  They also were asked to prove their relationship to the property owners.  In effect, he did a certain amount of genealogical research.

One of the first things that Victor had planned was a trip to Kurzeme or Kurland.  We drove out to Talsi and Valdemarpils (Sassmacken), stayed in Ventspils overnight, and spent the following day in Liepaja, returning to Riga that night.


            In Talsi, our first stop was the Registrar’s office, where I had been told were a number of birth, marriage and death records from Valdemarpils that hadn’t been transferred to the main archives in Riga. Ieva Ratniece, the registrar, was extremely helpful, and brought out all of the records for us to look through.  Unfortunately, the policy at the Registrars’ offices is not to allow photocopying of their documents, so I made my own transcriptions.   After we finished with the records from Valdemarpils, we found that her office also held the vital records for Talsi and Valdemarpils for the period after 1921.  She searched through her entire set for my surnames, and we located several records of the Thal family, including birth records of cousins I hadn’t yet discovered.  While we were working, Victor’s wife went down the street to get a box of chocolates for Leva.  She was very helpful, and asked that I send a copy of my book when I finish it!

            When we left the Registrar’s office, we wandered up and down Liela Iela, the “Main Street” of Talsi, and what was called “Grosse Strasse” at the time my great-grandfather grew up there.   Talsi is now a city of about 12,000, and many of the buildings in the center of town have been nicely renovated.  While the walls have been painted, and the storefronts now advertise internet and computer businesses, the buildings are still the same ones that were there more than a hundred years ago.  Although I don’t have the exact address where my great-grandfather grew up, I know that he lived on Grosse Strasse by the lake.  Walking along that street, we saw several potential sites for their house, and I even saw their sledding hill behind the church across the street!

            On our way out of town, we visited the Talsi Jewish cemetery, which is quite overgrown.  Many of the tombstones have been toppled, but a large number of them are still legible. 


            Our next stop was Valdemarpils (Sassmacken), where we visited with Eric Prokopovics.  He invited us into his small country house, where we sat at his table as he brought out a number of photographs and documents of Valdemarpils.   Because of a kindness shown to a member of his family by a Jewish doctor, he has taken it upon himself to preserve the history of the Jewish community of Sassmacken, and has accumulated quite a number of materials.  He has also put together a small historical museum for the town, which we visited. 

            Valdemarpils has not changed much since Latvian independence.  The process of renovation and revitalization has not come to towns as small and far-removed as Valdemarpils, and it remains a somewhat disheveled country village. 

            Before leaving town, Prokopovics showed us the site of the Jewish cemetery, as well as the pile of tombstones that had been removed from it, apparently for “recycling”.  A monument to the cemetery is being planned to incorporate those stones.

            The most powerful experience of my trip occurred when Prokopovics led us to one of the mass killing sites for the Jews of Valdemarpils in 1941.  He showed us a copy of the list of 120 of the 150 Jews who were killed.  The list, compiled by the town council, indicated those who were “able to work” and those who were not.  Those unable to work were apparently killed immediately in July of 1941.  Those who were able were forced to dig turf for fuel.  Among them were three descendants of Moshe and Sarah.   According to Prokopovics, these workers were killed on August 7, 1941, the last day that wages are recorded for their guards.  By eerie coincidence, we were visiting on August 7.   A few miles out of Valdemarpils, and a several-minute hike into the woods, we found the site, marked only by a rectangle of evergreens planted shortly after the war.  Most likely, Prokopovics is one of the only people living who can find the site, and even he had a bit of trouble.  There are no markers.


            Ventspils is apparently one of the wealthiest cities in Latvia, probably second to Riga.  Its money comes from the oil industry.  It is a very large port, shipping out oil that comes from Russia.  During Soviet times, it was a closed city, and home to a large military presence.  It could only be visited with a special permit.   Today it is home to about 40,000, a large part of the city has been renovated, and visitors are encouraged.  The old part of the city is particularly attractive, including the very nicely renovated museum in the old castle.


            In Liepaja, we met Ilana Ivanova, a representative of the city’s Jewish community.  She gave us a wonderful tour of the city, including the park and its historical fountain, the beautiful beach and the headquarters of a shipping company where many left from to go overseas.  We then visited the Jewish cemetery in Liepaja, which is huge and very overgrown.  Though I knew that there were relatives buried there, and we looked for a while, it was hopeless to try to find the stones.   Most were so overgrown they couldn’t be read, and it was very difficult to crawl around, as many of the stones were surrounded by small fences.  Before leaving Liepaja, we stopped at the memorial at Skēde, where the largest killing took place nearby.  The site is difficult to find, near the Baltic sea, in a grove of trees.  There is a memorial stone.

Later in the week, we visited Jaunjelgava (Friedrichstadt), the home of Victor’s ancestors, Ure Schatz and his wife Rosa Thal.   It is a small town with very little renovation in evidence, but with more businesses than Valdemarpils.  Victor has been involved with the rebuilding of the Holocaust monument at the Jewish cemetery, but the cemetery itself is greatly overgrown.

            We also visited Tukums, now a city of about 18,000 people.  The town square has been nicely renovated, each building labeled with a brass plaque telling what it used to be before Soviet times.


            Victor and other members of the family spend most of their time in the spring and summer in their homes in Jurmala, an old resort town about twenty minutes drive from Riga.  It is here that many of the newly wealthy Latvians are building their large American-style houses.  Many beautiful old homes are being slowly renovated.  As in the United States, there are regulations governing the renovation of historic homes, so that the flavor of the place is still retained.  The old main street of Jurmala is now a bustling pedestrian street with the definite air of a resort.   On the Saturday evening that I was there, stalls were set up selling jewelry and other items, and musicians were performing on the street. 

            In addition to the towns I’ve mentioned, we spent a great deal of time in Riga, where Victor and his family live during the winter months.  It is now a lively European capital, refreshingly free of American chains, with the exception of a couple of McDonald’s and Baskin-Robbins.  A great number of the buildings have been renovated, and the Old City is quite lively.  The weekend I visited, there were several performances happening on stages set up there.  Apparently, this is not uncommon on weekends during the summer.  One of the biggest problems, according to Victor, is the automobile traffic.  The number of cars has increased dramatically over the past several years, and the roads have not kept up.  This has led to major traffic backups, especially on the road to and from Jurmala.  Much has been written about Riga, the Ghetto, Rumbula, and many other monuments that we visited, so descriptions of them are probably unnecessary. 

I’d like to finish with a few words about the powerful education I received during my visit.  As students and genealogists, we have probably all studied a certain amount of Soviet history, as well as that of Latvia.  We have all read – probably at great length – about the fate of the Jews living there in 1941.  I had done the same before my trip.  But somehow, meeting a family who had lived through all of this made it all much more real.  I was forced to remember things I hadn’t thought about since my college days.   Unlike their American counterparts, these cousins are lucky to have any family photos at all.  The few they have were given to them by non-Jewish friends after the war was over.   And unlike my American cousins, they were not allowed to openly observe their religion for the greater part of the last century.   Their 20th century family history stands in stark contrast to that of my branch of the family in the United States.

But the 21st century looks much brighter in Latvia.  It is very much revitalized.  Even Yuri, who moved to Israel in 1990, was very impressed by the changes that had taken place since he left.  I urge anyone with a family history there, and especially a family, to go visit! 

Talsi and Valdemarpils, 1989

I originally wrote this for an old family newsletter, The Thal Gazette. Now over thirty years ago, our brief visit to Talsi and Valdemarpils feels like a completely different time.

Because of the recent “openness” of the Soviet Union, our family was able to visit our “hometowns” in Latvia this summer. The four of us were there in July as part of a Baltic cruise.

After months of communications with Intourist officials, we finally received permission to visit Talsi (Talsen) and Valdemarpils (Sassmacken) just days before we left Toledo. Even with that on paper, we were unsure of finding a car and driver when we arrived in Riga. Though we saw several groups of tourists, it is definitely not a major industry in the city of 730,000. In fact, our ship’s group of 3 busloads exhausted their supply of English-speaking guides. But we had a car and a driver waiting for us and sped off at about 9am to Valdemarpils, a little over an hour’s drive from Riga. The drive was quite beautiful. The roads were well- maintained two and four-lane highways, through country much like northern Michigan. There were lots of evergreens and birch trees, wildflowers, and fields of potatoes. Our driver spoke no English, so we got along at a very basic level with my Russian dictionary.

Valdemarpils, which according to the Columbia Lippincott Gazetteer had a population of 1135 in 1962, has probably not grown much since then. We found a small farming community more than willing to help us. When our driver asked about the Jewish cemetery, we directed to a small tree-covered hill overlooking a lake on the outskirts of the town. This is where the cemetery once was but no longer exists. We later learned that it is a Baltic custom to put cemeteries under trees or in wooded areas, and this was a beautiful location. Leaving our driver for a few minutes, we quickly learned that the natives spoke no English or Russian (so much for the Russian dictionary) – only Latvian, and fortunately a little German. We were directed to the “Town Hall” where the archives were located. There we could find nothing dated before 1939 when the Soviet Union annexed the Baltic Republics. The houses and buildings we saw were probably much like those of the 19th century, though I doubt that these were that old. Both people and town gave the impression of a hard life that hadn’t changed much in 100 years.

Next we arrived in Talsi, about 8 miles from Valdemarpils. It’s location on a lake in a small valley is quite picturesque. A much larger town, of about 5000 inhabitants, it has a small library, which we had been directed to by the people in Valdemarpils. Although we were unable to find any trace of the family or any Jewish records, we caught a glimpse of a nice sized book collection, a very primitive restroom, and Dad swears, a mouse. The people were very friendly, and presented us with a set of small Talsi postcards. There is a short town history on the back in both Russian and Latvian which I hope to have translated before too long. In search of lunch, we found a public cafeteria and had a very basic meal of beef stroganoff, cucumber soup and potatoes. This was real life, not like our other “packaged” meals for tourists. In Talsi we saw many newer buildings, probably from the 1960’s and 1970’s, and the postcards even show a small-scale “residential area” of apartment buildings.