Family Chronicle • July/August 2010
Searching through page after page of vital records, especially those written in foreign tongues and flowery, faded handwriting, is often challenging. As time goes by, concentration may flag, entries merge, heads ache, and eyes tire.
Occasionally, however, elusive surnames may suddenly pop up clear as day. Birth records may note parents’ parents. Or, as I discovered while exploring the microfilmed 1851-1901 Jewish Vital Records for Stropkov, Slovakia (available through any Latter Day Saints Family Center), far more exciting discoveries may arise.
Stropkov, through the nineteenth century, boasted the largest Jewish community in northeastern Slovakia. A small number of Jews, however, settled in nearby tiny, largely Christian hamlets. Some of them owned great estates, raising wheat, potatoes, and cabbage or ran groceries, stocking soap, salt, and cones of sugar for local farmers. Some distilled windfall plums into liquor, selling glassfuls from their front rooms. Others kept chickens, geese, or milk-cows, peddling eggs and butter at Stropkov’s market.
Whenever these rural Jews arrived in Stropkov, along with a warm welcome, they could count on an array of religious services like kosher meals, use of the ritual bath, and the pleasure of studying and praying with brethren. Bereaved families, no matter where they lived, were also assured of consecrated burials in the Stropkov Jewish cemetery.
Stropkov was also the regional bureaucratic center. Jews and Christians alike, by law, diligently noted all births, marriages, and deaths, including those that occurred in the surrounding villages.
In these records, Jewish births that occurred in Stropkov itself usually appear in chronological order. Births that occurred in the surrounding villages, however, are frequently “misplaced.” The September 1889 birth of Mosche Siegelman in Havaj, for example.
appears among the November entries. The January 1890 birth of Rifke Weinberger in Hommon-Olka appears among the April entries.
Why might parents postpone registering their children’s births? Perhaps daily cares or inclement weather kept them close to home. Perhaps they preferred to accumulate a number of town errands, before making the long trip in by horse and wagon. In any case, people were probably not overly concerned. The main thing was the birth itself. Reporting it could wait.
Because Jewish law proscribes burial within twenty-four hours, however. deaths were another matter. Most people, even those from distant villages, quickly carted the bodies of their loved ones to the Stropkov Burial Society for ritual cleansing, then a hasty burial in consecrated soil. Registering their deaths was probably done on the spot.
Clearly then, most burials took place in the Stropkov Jewish Cemetery. But not all. Research shows that Jewish villagers did, from time to time, bury their dead near home. But most of these burials were isolated events.
The Stropkov 1893 Records, however, are strikingly different. They show that within six short weeks, Death swept through tiny Hommon-Olka and Stropkov-Olka, leaving nine Jewish youngsters dead, all of them under the age of seven. Records show that all were buried in nearby Kriva-Olka.
Two questions arise. Why did so many deaths occur in these neighboring villages within such a short time span and why were the children buried close to home? Obviously, something unusual had happened.
While visiting Slovakia, I set out to learn more. Hommon-Olka and Stropkov-Olka, I discovered, had merged during the intervening years, into one village, Olka. But though more than a hundred years had passed, Kriva Olka, a handful of worn farmhouses surrounded by fields, was still just a few miles away.
As we paused at the nearest house on arrival, a couple of elderly people ventured outside, walking toward us. At first they stared stony-eyed from behind their padlocked gate. Then, as one began a wary give-and-take with our guide and translator, the others chimed in.
Yes, they remembered the old Jewish cemetery—or maybe they remembered hearing about it…. “up there, behind those fields,” they explained, pointing out toward the wooded hills rising behind them. “The Jews used to bury their children up there… but there’s nothing to see anymore, nothing left. Not even the tombstones.” Then, averting their eyes, they fell silent.
That made sense. After the Holocaust, most Jewish survivors left for Israel, Canada, America, and Australia. Since then, many of the Slovakian Jewish cemeteries, alternately blanketed by snow in winter, and overgrowth and jewel-like wild strawberries in summer, have reverted back to meadowland. Tombstones too, for lack of tending, have tilted over, their chiseled stories sloughing off with time.
In fact, but for the Stropkov death records, no one would know that these children had ever lived. Yet their story does not end here. Their death records reveal not only their burial site, but also what caused their deaths. Admittedly, interpreting these entries, which were written in floral, cramped, Hungarian script (see illustration), proved daunting. Compilations of antiquated Hungarian diseases, which can be found on the Internet, and consultations with other researchers helped immeasurably.
Here are the facts.
On September 16, 1893, Kalman Siegelman, 7, died of bronchitis. Ten days later, Chaim and Joszef Moskovits,
These names, at first, were puzzling. By studying the entries, however, I was able to construct several possible familial relationships. Moritz Moskovits reported all three Moskovits deaths (Chaim, Joszef, Leah), Simon Amsel reported both Amsel deaths (Sruel, Rezi), and Naftali Berger reported both Berger deaths (Eszter, Sruel). So it appears that their children, if not siblings, were certainly close cousins.
Child mortality was very high in nineteenth century Slovakia, for a variety of reasons. Vaccinations against childhood diseases like measles, chicken pox, and mumps were non-existent. Antibiotics too, including penicillin, were still unknown. Moreover, poverty-stricken families, those blessed with many children, often lived in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions. People commonly used outdoor bathrooms and drew water from nearby wells, an arrangement that frequently led to intestinal diseases, even cholera.
However, scarlatina, known today as scarlet fever, was the most common fatal infectious disease of the nineteenth century. It primarily killed children aged two through eight. Caused by Group A Streptococcus bacterium, scarlatina spreads not only through the air but also through direct contact with infected and asymptomatic carriers alike.
Even then, to prevent contagion, caretakers were warned to isolate patients, and then burn their personal beddings and belongings. In overcrowded households, however, this was nearly impossible. So a spate of ill-aimed sneezes, a flurry of sisterly whispers, or even shared bowls of cabbage soup might spread this highly feared disease from one sibling to the next. Moreover, carriers remained infectious for two to three weeks before falling ill. So during that time, believing themselves healthy, carriers could innocently infected everyone they met.
Olka’s handful of Jews undoubtedly shared day-to-day events, celebrations, and prayer together. Their children, too, probably shared their yo-yos, sawdust-ball paddle games, and dolls as well. It’s no wonder that ten-year-old Catherine Elizabeth Havens, in her Diary of a Little Girl in Old New York (1849-1850), reveals that when her young niece comes to visit, “we have things together, like whooping cough and scarlatina
Considering the Olka children’s proximity to one another, coupled with the highly infectious nature of this disease, I wondered if, despite the records that show otherwise, they all had actually contracted scarlatina.
In those days, people thought twice before calling in a doctor. Not only were the sick sick, but the whole family was sick in fear of his fee. Still, perhaps a doctor did recognize the Moskovits’ symptoms as scarlatina. The others parents, possibly poorer, may not have sought a doctor’s diagnosis. They, like most everyone around them, must have tended their sick children through their final hours themselves. Then, when the Stropkov clerk recorded “cause of death,” they may have simply described common illnesses that they had seen before– bronchitis, pneumonia, and diphtheria.
Scarlatina, which is actually a strain of streptococcus, can evolve into many guises. It typically begins with a sore throat, headache, fever, fatigue, and vomiting, followed by a characteristic scaly rash and a “strawberry tongue.”
If complications set in, however, this disease can lead to sinus and ear infections, rheumatic fever, and kidney failure. Unchecked, it can also cause deep, racking coughs, high fever and chills, chest pain, and rapid breathing– streptococcal pneumonia. In its most virulent form, scarlatina can also cause intense inflammation and swelling of the throat, often with membranous patches that may be mistaken for diphtheria. This theory might be verified if, within the same time period, Olka’s Christian Death Records include similar entries.
In any case, I can now guess why the Jewish children were buried in Kriva Olka. Perhaps their parents could not afford a Stropkov burial. Perhaps they could not face the long, sad journey over mud-caked roads or through windswept snowdrifts. Most likely, however, with their other youngsters also stricken, they were needed at home.
How often we scour vital records for names alone. But going a step further, studying a representative list of all a town’s entries may offer fascinating clues about an ancestor’s world. How old was old? Did people marry young? Did many often enter into intra-marriages, ones uniting same two or three families? Were grooms usually local boys or “imported” from neighboring villages? Did maiden aunts board with married siblings? Did the town experience an epidemic? The answers may be right before our eyes.