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  • Jake Garfinkle '23


Bertha and Louis Kurland.

There is a lot of history that gets forgotten—or hidden—as time goes on. The following story is one of those pieces of history.


On the 15th of Cheshvan, 5645 (November 3, 1884 CE), Meyer-Leyb Kurlyand was born in the city of Vilna (now Vilnius, Lithuania), which at the time was situated in the Russian Empire. His bris was performed a week after his birth by Samuil Petukhovsky. Meyer-Leyb was the son of Sholom Kurlyand and Chava Muler.


Meyer-Leyb Kurlyand’s parents, Sholom and Chava, had many other children, including Israel, Itsko, Aron, Tevel, Peisach, Sarah, Khonon, and Ruvin. Sholom Kurlyand was one of many as well: his siblings and half-siblings included Tsalko, Yankel, Genach, Mina, Freyda, Menkhen, and Jankiel.


The Kurlyands had been living in the city of Vilna since at least 5580 (1820 CE). Meyer-Leyb’s father, Sholom, was the son of Yehoshua “Ovsey” Kurlyand, the grandson of Betzalel “Tzalko” Kurlyand, and the great-grandson of Tzemach Kurlyand.


Meyer-Leyb was due for conscription in 1904 CE. Almost all of Meyer-Leyb’s close male family members were due for conscription at some point as well: his uncle, Tzalko, in 1874 CE; his father, Sholom, in 1877 CE; his half-uncle, Menkhen, in 1892 CE; his half-uncle, Jankiel, in 1895 CE; his brother, Izrail, in 1900 CE; his brother, Peisach, in 1907 CE; his brother, Ruvin, in 1915 CE; and many cousins.

On the 7th of Tishrei, 5665 (September 16, 1904 CE), Ovsey Kurlyand died in the city of Vilna. His cause of death was written as “от раздробления камнем черепа головы”—his skull was crushed by a stone.


A week later, on the 13th of Tishrei, 5665 (September 22, 1904 CE), Meyer-Leyb Kurlyand, age 19, and Bunya Rubinshteyn, age 18, were married in the city of Vilna. 

Bunya Rubinshteyn was the daughter of Man Rubinshteyn, also known as Mendel, Manya, and Manko. Bunya’s mother died when she was quite young, and her father remarried to Chaya-Reizel Kowarsky. Bunya had at least six half-siblings by her step-mother, including Avram, Elka, Itzik, Freyda, Yuda, and Feyga. 


On October 22, 1904 CE, just one month after the marriage of Meyer-Leyb and Bunya, the couple registered in Denmark under the names Leib and Bone Kurland with the intention of emigrating to New York City via the “indirekte” route. Leaving Denmark, they arrived in Glasgow, Scotland. From Glasgow, the newlyweds boarded the SS Columbia and left for the United States on October 29, 1904. Arriving at Ellis Island in New York City on November 7, 1904, Leib and Bone Kurland then met their friend who lived on Cherry Street, Manhattan.


At this point in the story, the details become less obscure.

Once in the United States, Leib and Bone began using the names Louis and Bonnie Kurland, and they moved to Malta Street, Brooklyn. Eventually, Louis was joined in America by his living siblings: Israel (later Isidore), Peisach (later Philip), Sarah, and Ruvin (later Rubin). Louis was a woodworker, describing his work at various points as box maker, trunk maker, and carpenter. Bonnie, who changed her name once again to Bertha, was a homemaker who raised the couple’s six children: Bea, Sarah, Mary, Gussie, Annette, and Samuel. The Kurlands eventually moved to 658 Alabama Avenue, Brooklyn, which became the home base of the growing family. Louis was quite involved with his synagogue, Chevra Agudas Achim Anshei New Lots, which was right around the corner on 43 Malta Street. All six Kurland children married and had their own children—Louis and Bertha had ten grandchildren altogether.

My bubby is one of Louis and Bertha’s grandchildren. She grew up in the two-family 658 Alabama Avenue house with her parents on the first floor, while her grandparents lived on the second floor. My bubby remembers her grandfather quite warmly and as a smart man. She would get him copies of Der Forverts, help him with translations in synagogue bookkeeping, and prepare for the Jewish holidays with him. Despite her closeness to her grandparents, my grandmother rarely heard any details about their life in the old country. They seldom spoke about their family, apart from the relatives who were in the United States. In fact, my grandmother doesn’t recall her grandmother Bertha ever speaking about her family. All she recalls hearing was that her grandparents had “fled the pogroms.”

Louis and Bertha Kurland built a large, loving family in Brooklyn, New York. But the path to get there was not easy, and their early life seems to be quite dichotic to their later life. Louis’s peaceful death in his mid-seventies is starkly contrasted by the death of his paternal grandfather, Ovsey, whose head was crushed by a stone in his mid-seventies, and the death of his paternal grandmother, Mera, who died in her early thirties of cholera. The health and well-being of Louis and Bertha’s six children is in stark contrast to the early infant or child deaths of at least four of Louis’s siblings and two of Bertha’s. The United States military service of Louis and Bertha’s son, Sam, is vastly different from the risk Louis and many male family members faced due to conscription into the Tzar’s army. Louis and Bertha’s marriage was followed by their near-immediate fleeing of their home, whereas their daughters’ marriages were celebrated on the steps of their home. Bertha’s cherished role as matriarch is one that many women in her family did not get to fully enjoy: her mother died quite young, her step-mother was murdered, and at least one sister and one niece were also murdered. Louis and Bertha’s children never had to know the pain of leaving family behind, whereas Bertha left the old country and—to our knowledge—never saw a single member of her family again. Louis’s father, who stayed behind, was eventually brought to the United States by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), but not until after he endured the hardship of World War I. Louis and Bertha’s burial in New York and my ability to visit their well-kept graves is unlike the likely burial of their family members, buried in mass graves or in built-over, destroyed Vilna cemeteries.

I think about the story of my grandmother’s grandparents often. I think about the violence they witnessed and the scars it must have left. I think about the decision-making involved in their life-altering journey and whether I would have made the same choice. I think about the challenges of structural violence and the strength it took to survive. I think about the strangeness of arriving in a new city and the communal or kinship ties they must have relied on to find their way. I think about their devotion to their family and community. I think about the traditions they upheld. I think about the joy and fulfillment they felt.


It also makes me think about: storytelling in a Jewish context—what doesn’t get brought up, what gets hidden, and what we choose to pass on. The details that we will never be able to know. How close the past is to us, how little time separates us from it, and the chain of people who connect us to it. The idea of memory, so central to Jewish history, and the times when memories are joyous or painful. L’dor v’dor and intergenerational throughlines. Material heritage objects, memorials, and sites, like kiddush cups, gravestones, and cemeteries. The cost of opportunity and who pays that cost. Sacrifice. Sanctuaries, places where people can live free of violence or fear. And the importance of knowing our history—as individuals, families, and communities. Everyone has a family history, a series of people and events that are lineally precedent to their own lives.


As a genealogist, I work with these themes often, and consider it my privilege to rediscover and retell these stories in tandem with my family, friends, students, and community members.

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