When I last wrote about my great-grandmother Tillie Kopelman, I didn’t expect to write about her again. When Harry Met Tillie included a brief sketch, mostly based on my Uncle Jay’s memories. Origins: Taube Kurdabrin documented her arrival at Ellis Island and rehashed the earlier sketch. I didn’t think I had anything more to say about Tillie. But exchanges with two fellow genealogists taught me that other discoveries awaited, even if I was oblivious to the possibilities.
This mini-saga begins with a talk my friend Ken Drabinsky gave at a meeting of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern Alberta (JHSSA). Ken’s talk was called “Genealogy: What’s the Point,” and it taught me how deep and wide the field of genealogy really is. Ken is an accomplished genealogist. I’ve barely taken the first few baby steps.
I asked a question at the talk about finding U.S. naturalization records, then followed up with an email to Ken a few days later. A lively exchange followed. Ken sent me an image of a birth certificate for Abraham Joseph Kubrin, Harry and Tillie’s second child, after my grandfather, Sam. The birth certificate drew my attention to a discrepancy I’d previously overlooked. The family remembers Abraham’s given name as Alvin, and Alvin is also the name given on his gravestone. Yet that birth certificate (and the 1920 census) list him as Abraham. But in the family, everyone called him Bumie.
Ken also sent an image from a Manhattan telephone directory, which listed a tailor named Max Kubrin. Max was Harry’s brother-in-law. He took American citizenship in 1923. I found Max’s naturalization certificate quite easily on Ancestry.com, but I have not yet found the certificate for Harry, my great-grandfather.
Finally, Ken sent a variety of links to other genealogical resources, including a JewishGen KehilaLinks page called The Vasilishki Families Kopelman and Yanowski by Varda Epstein. To my astonishment, this page mentioned my family—specifically, my grandfather Sam Kubrin and his sister Ruth.
As it happened, I was already familiar with the author of the KehilaLinks post. Varda Epstein had written to my Uncle Jay from Israel, wondering if our two families might be related through the Kopelman line. I tried to contact Varda a year ago, using the P.O. box on her letter, but my letter to her came back undelivered.
Varda’s KehliaLinks post was intriguing. It mentioned a Max Kopelman, who had immigrated in 1896, settling in New Kensington, Pennsylvania, with his brother Haiman. That detail made sense—when Harry Kubrin arrived at Ellis Island in 1903, he listed Tillie’s brother Max in New Kensington as his Stateside contact.
But the post said that Max and Haiman Kopelman had a sister named Zelda, who immigrated to New York and had two children named Sam and Ruth Kubrin. These details were a bit off. My grandfather did have a sister named Ruth—but he also had four other siblings, who were not named in the post. The family lived in New Kensington and Pittsburgh, not New York. And their mother’s name was Tillie, not Zelda.
I tried to reach Varda Epstein again, this time using her Twitter account, @epavard. We later got in touch by email so we could send longer messages than Twitter would allow. By coincidence, I also spoke to my Uncle Jay that week, who reminded me that family members had also referred to Tillie as Tibbe Zelda or Tobbe Zelda. And sure enough, when I checked her burial record in the JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry (JOWBR), her name is given as Toibe Zelde.
I shared this detail with Varda, and it didn’t take us long to make the connection. Her great-grandfather, Haiman Kopelman, had a sister named Zelda. But in the family, she was also known as Tobbe Zelde. So Varda’s great-grandfather and my great-grandmother were siblings.
Yet as soon as we solved this mystery, we ran headlong into another. Varda asked me to send her a photo of Toibe Zelde’s gravestone, which I have thanks to JOWBR (and the ingenious sleuthing of my cousin Damon Yoches). On reading the Hebrew, Varda discovered a crucial discrepancy. Toibe Zelde’s gravestone gives her father’s name as Shmuel Eliyahu. Her brother Haiman Kopelman’s gravestone gives his father’s name as Shlomo Zalman. In Varda Epstein’s family lore, the mother of Haiman Kopelman and Toibe Zelde Kopelman had been widowed but had not remarried. So we both have some more digging to do.
Still, I’m satisfied with what I learned from Ken Drabinsky and Varda Epstein. Ken taught me that vast troves of genealogical data lie within easy reach, as long as I know where to look for them. So I definitely need to sharpen my research skills.
Ken and Varda both shined light on small details I had overlooked in the data I had already compiled. Which brings me to the great reward of family history and genealogy. This work sharpens the mind. It teaches you to challenge your own findings—because you never know what you’ll see when you take another look.
© 2015, Andy Kubrin. All rights reserved.