Kriva Olka: A Jewish Genealogical Resource

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,
ages two and five, both died of scarlatina. Two weeks after that, Leah Moskovits, age one, died of scarlatina.
Three days later, Chaim Groszberger, age three, died of diphtheria. Two days after that, Sruel Amsel, age three, died of pneumonia. The very next day, Eszter Berger, age three, died of pneumonia. Seventeen days later, on 4
November 1893, Rezi Amsel, age one, died of pneumonia, and Sruel Berger, age two, died of diphtheria.

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. 

 Possibly.

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.


 

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