Origins: Chaim Kurdabrin

Chaim Kurdabrin's Arrival Record at Ellis Island

My great-grandfather Chaim Kurdabrin landed at Ellis Island on June 6, 1903, arriving on the S.S. Finland out of Antwerp. I make this statement with reasonable certainty, having located his arrival in records posted online by the Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation, which also sold me a facsimile of the ship’s manifest. That’s him on the seventh line in the image at the top of this post.

It’s not easy being certain about genealogical records, but I think I’ve nailed it this time. Family lore has long held that Harry—the name he used later in life, and the one he is remembered by—entered the United States as Kobdobrin, or Kurdabrin, or something like that, so it’s no surprise finding this name here.

I didn’t know he was originally called Chaim, but the switch makes sense in the man’s long march toward assimilation. It does not bother me that the Ellis Island Foundation transcribed his name as Clione Kurdobrin. The handwriting on the manifest is hard to read, and organizations like the Ellis Island Foundation typically outsource their transcription work to unskilled overseas workers—potential immigrants themselves—with little experience in early 20th century history or Jewish culture. Clione makes no sense for a Jewish immigrant who later called himself Harry; Chaim does. When I look closely at the manifest, I also find a telltale ligature between the fifth and sixth letters of the family name, so Chaim Kurdabrin it is.

Other details in the manifest also incline me to believe that this Chaim Kurdabrin is my great-grandfather. His age is given as 24 years, which would put his birth year in 1879—a figure that accords with his entry in the 1920 United States census and (nearly) with the record of his death my cousins found in the JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry (JOWBR).

The manifest indicates that he was married and unlettered, although I believe he later learned to read and write. It gives Chaim’s hometown as Wolpa and his destination as Pittsburgh, where my father’s family lived for nearly fifty years after his arrival. These are all familiar data points. In column 16, the manifest provides another corroborating detail, listing Harry’s stateside contact as his brother-in-law Max Kopelman: great-uncle Max, a known antecedent in our family line. The manifest further states that Harry had never been in prison, was neither polygamist nor anarchist, and that he was in good health and able-bodied.

It must have been a difficult trip. Chaim Kurdabrin traveled steerage and arrived penniless. These are clichés of immigrant life, but I know enough about the man to round out this portrait. My uncles remember their grandfather, and I have done my best to capture their recollections. I have also written about him previously in When Harry Met Tillie.

On arrival in Pittsburgh, Chaim took up work as a tailor and haberdasher. He also taught cheder, or Hebrew, presumably a sideline. Later he sold cardboard boxes in New York, humping his wares through the streets of Spanish Harlem. He must have taken U.S. citizenship along the way, which is the time when most immigrants Americanized their names.

In spite of his cheder sideline, Chaim (or Harry) was not a pious man. He was apparently a wag. This trait must have made for interesting developments in his marriage with Tillie, who is remembered as a dour harridan. Harry’s tailor shop was located near the University of Pittsburgh. When a trio of football players entered his shop one day, looking for suits, the diminutive Harry made them lie down for measurements. During his itinerant vendor phase, he was arrested for peddling without a license. When his jailer demanded his belt before putting him in his cell, Harry snapped, “What do you think I’m going to do—hang myself for this?” After Tillie’s death in 1950, Harry married a woman many years his junior. He was in his seventies by then. The outraged Kubrin family had the union annulled.

Harry lived until 1956. He left Tillie behind when he sailed on the S.S. Finland. She was pregnant with their first child, and Harry probably wanted to get settled before sending for his young family. The child was Shmuel Kurdabrin, who later became Samuel Kubrin (and my grandfather). Tillie arrived with her toddler son in 1905, two years after Harry. But I’ll tell you about them some other time.

© 2014, Andy Kubrin. All rights reserved.

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