By Henry Benjamin Winkler
The English writer, L.P. Hartley, begins his novel, The Go-Between, with the oft-quoted sentence:
The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.
For many Jews of my family and my generation, our past is, literally, in a foreign country. And, our previous generations did things quite differently.
Yet, there are some commonalities that form, in Lincoln’s phrase, “The mystic chords of memory,” that, from the grave, touch our living heart with the deeds from the past that propel us forward.
Our grandfather, Henry (born Chaim) Bransdorf, and great grandfather, Benjamin Bransdorf, on our mother Reba’s side, came to America from Brzesko. They were both born as “Bransdorfers,” but apparently changed to “Bransdorf” in the United States. At the time they emigrated – 1892 for Benjamin and 1895 for Henry – Brzesko was in what was called Galicia. This was part of the Austria-Hungarian Empire. The current living generations have no family stories of our ancestors’ experiences in Brzesko.
Nevertheless, Anna Brzyska, chairperson of the Association Memory and
Dialogue: Common History, asked me to write what I could. In this effort, I was aided by a publication, Gantze Mishpocha: a History of the Kaufer & Bransdorf Families, selflessly compiled by Mark Kistlin, who married into the Kaufer-Bransdorf families. (To view Gantze Mishpocha online, go to: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1-0CZeUerQU0LqR3rF56F7z7BTzTQhpyY/view?usp=share_link )
Bransdorfers in Brzesko
Going back to the earliest generation we could find:
Via Anna Brzyska’s research, we can go back to my generation’s Great-great-great grandparents Dawid and Chaje Rabinbauer, parents of Perl Rabenbauer, the wife of Reuven Bransdorfer. Likewise, Benjamin Bransdorfer’s mother’s side shows my generation’s Great-great-great grandparents to be Leib and Chana Weiss, parents of Feiwel Weiss, who married Sara Freidel Weiss, the parents of Reisel Weiss, wife of Benjamin Bransdorfer.
Via Gantze Mishpocha, there are Benjamin Bransdorfer’s parents, Reuven Bransdorfer, born about 1810, died about 1875 in Austria-Hungary (which could have been Brzesko), and Pearl “Perel” Robinbaum, born about 1810, died about 1890. They married about 1835. Virtually all these births, marriages and deaths took place in Brzesko.
Anna Brzyska fills in:
According to surviving Jewish vital records from Brzesko, Binjamin Brandsdorfer, single, born in Brzesko in 1841 and Reisel Weiss, single, born in Brzesko in 1846, married in Brzesko on June 18, 1864
The couple had 8 children, all born in Brzesko (see below).
There exist also death records of the
previous generations of the family, those of Feiwel Weiss (father of Reisel
Bransdorfer nee Weiss), and Perl nee Rabenbauer: (mother of Benjamin
- Feiwel Weiss, married, former butcher, son of Leib and Chana Weiss, former butchers in Brzesko, died at 4am on March 10, 1890 in Brzesko, house #173; buried in Brzesko on March 12, 1890; 76 years old.
- Perl Rabenbauer, ritually married to Majer Stimler (this term refers to religious marriage which was not recognized by the state) daughter of Dawid and Chaje Rabinbauer from Brzesko; died at 8pm on December 1, 1885, in Brzesko, house #57; buried in Brzesko on December 3, 1885; 63 years old
It’s practically certain that the father of Binjamin, Reuven Brandsdorfer, died before 1874 as his grandson, born in October 1874, was obviously named after him. Unfortunately, the earliest surviving Brzesko death records come from 1877.
About Pearl “Perel” Robinbaum:
First of all, there were no Robinbaums in Brzesko – this is certainly a somewhat distorted version of the name Rabenbauer. Death record of Perl Rabenbauer states that she was the wife of Majer Stimler whom, most likely, she married after the untimely death of her first husband Reuven Brandsdorfer. The fact that 2 Brandsdorfer families named their daughters Pearl in 1886 (daughter of Majer Brandsdorfer) and in 1890 (daughter of Binjamin Brandsdorfer; his previous daughter was born before the death of Pearl Rabenbauer) strongly indicate that this was the case.
Her matzeva (in the Brzesko cemetery) is in a rather poor state; there is no last name of the deceased on it (which was very often the case on older Brzesko matzevot) but the first name, the name of the father and date of death correspond exactly to data from death record, so it’s certainly her matzeva.
My great grandfather Benjamin Bransdorf married Gitel Breindel Weiss “about 1863,” probably in Brzesko. They had a daughter, Sarah, “about 1866,” and Gitel “died soon after, which led Benjamin to marry Gitel’s sister, Reizel,” that same year. These years are from Gantze Mishpocha. However, these years are in conflict with what Anna Brzyska found. According to Gantze Mishpocha, Gitel and Reisel parents were Shraga Tzvi Weiss (1812-1891) and Sara Weiss (1812-1850). However, based on surviving Jewish vital records from Brzesko, Reisel Brandsdorfer nee Weiss was the daughter of Feiwel and Sara Freidel Weiss.
It seems, when attempting to get basic facts about the Bransdorfs and other relatives from Brzesko, for every question, there seemed to be three opinions. For instance, my Great-great grandfather Weiss might have been Feiwel, Shraga Tzvi and/or Filip. Three opinions for every question? Hmmm? Seems like this confirms that our ancestors from Brzesko are Jewish. Keep in mind, however, the differences in names can be reconciled because Jews often had double names (written in their birth records), but not always used both of them.
For instance, look at what Anna Brzyska could find in the official records (on the left) compared to what is in Gantze Mishpocha (on the right):
Mark Kislin, the compiler of Gantze Mishpocha depended on a Bransdorf relative, Sarah Wruble Marcus and her memory (she was over 80 when the book was published), for the history of the Bransdorf family. I think we should put more weight on what Anna found in the official vital records.
In Brzesko, Benjamin Bransdorfer was a shochet (butcher). While in Galicia, it is said that Benjamin was a great swimmer. It is also known that, as many Jewish boys had to do to escape service in the Emperor’s army, he maimed himself by fixing his finger so it would never bend. (from Gantze Mishpocha)
Bransdorfers come to America, become Bransdorfs
After his mother, Perl, died in 1885, Benjamin Bransdorfer apparently decided to come to America. According to Gantze Mishpocha:
Sarah Bransdorf, daughter of Benjamin Bransdorfer and Gitel Breindel Weiss, was the first of her family to arrive in America, sometime after her marriage in Brzesko to Isidor Kluger, son of Shmuel Tzvi Kluger. She was then followed by her sister, Freida White and her husband, Wolf White, who settled in Olyphant, Pennsylvania, just northeast of Scranton.
Family legend has it that, in Brzesko, when Sarah was an infant, her mother Gitel passed away. The family needed to find a woman to take over the nursing chores for Sarah and they found Isadore Kluger’s mother. Eventually, the infant Sarah would grow up and marry Isadore and have seven children born in America.
Benjamin immigrated from Briegel/Brzesko, Austria-Hungary, around April 5, 1892. At the time of his departure, he left behind four (younger) children, on his way to America to reunite with his other (older) children. The ones who were in America already were: Sara Kluger, Freida White, Rose and Reuben. He first arrived in New York where he stayed a short time. From there he went to Olyphant to live with his daughter Freda and her husband, William Paul “Pinchus Wolf” White. Wolf White worked in a synagogue as a Shamas.
Freda Bransdorf White ended up in Olyphant because her husband had a cousin (whose last name was Rakers?) there. These cousins brought Wolf White to Olyphant. Wolf had been married and divorced before he met Freda Bransdorf. He was originally from Boston.
Eventually, the other children, who had stayed briefly in New York City, moved to Olyphant and later to Exeter, Pennsylvania (and surrounding) areas (Exeter is one of many small towns which dot the west side of the Susquehanna River, across from Wilkes-Barre, about 20 miles west of Scranton).
Among Benjamin’s possessions is an old book which appears to have been brought to America from Galicia, when he arrived in 1892. It is in Russian and Yiddish with the date 1890 in the inside cover. On the back cover is written a name and address… still a mystery as to who this person was. The information is as follows:
120 Suffolk Street
New York City
January 25, 1898, Tuesday, 1 p.m.
Somewhere along the way, probably in Exeter, Benjamin acquired the title “Rabbi.” My mother, Reba (Bransdorf) Winkler, said that her grandfather Benjamin was never ordained. It seemed that “rabbi” was an honorific title, as a learned and pious man.
In 1895, Benjamin’s wife, Reisel, set out to rejoin him in America. According to Gantze Mishpocha:
On her way to America, Reisel and her 4 children stayed overnight in Vienna. Reisel arrived in America along with her four children (Henry, Channa, Gussie and Pearl) on August 30, 1895 at the port of New York aboard the S.S. Phoenicia. She listed her occupation as a wife. She was heading to Pennsylvania.
According to the ship passenger manifest, Reisel was born in 1860 – but this cannot be. According to Anna Brzyska’s research of Polish records, Reisel was born in 1846.)
Again, according to Gantze Mishpocha, Rabbi Bransdorf was instrumental in the creation of the Exeter synagogue around 1905. The name of the shul was Anshei Ahavas Achim (Lovers of Brotherhood). Rabbi Bransdorf was the first rabbi of this synagogue. And the first marriage held in the Exeter synagogue was of Joseph Kaufer to the rabbi’s daughter, Gussie, on December 25, 1906.
As my mother recalls, among her grandfather Benjamin’s charitable deeds, during the Spanish influenza of 1918, was to visit the homes of bed-ridden mothers to feed their babies. The symptoms and contagiousness of the Spanish flu could be quite severe. My father, Irving Winkler, remembers as a 6-year old, that his father was carted to the hospital in South Bend, Indiana. My father recalls the rest of his family was bed-ridden. “I had to get the food and medicine…no one but a doctor would come in…” to the house. His mother was so weak that she had to give cooking instructions to little Irving, in order for him to feed the family.
Benjamin’s wife Reisel was known in America as Rose. She had a stoke about seven or eight years before she passed away of Arrythmia Cardiac at her home, 156 Lincoln Avenue, Exeter, on August 30, 1921. Her yahrzeit is the 21st of Av. She was buried at the West Pittston Jewish cemetery on August 31.
My grandfather, born Chaim Bransdorfer in Brzesko, was known as Henry Bransdorf in Wyoming, Pennsylvania. It seems he first established a grocery store around 1900 in West Wyoming, then moved about 1924 to Wyoming Avenue, Wyoming. Later, he established a dry goods store in West Wyoming, on Shoemaker Avenue.
My mother, Reba, born in 1917, remembers: “My father was loved and admired not only by his family but most people in the community of West Wyoming. He was an understanding and compassionate person. He would put me on the seat of the delivery truck when I was small and sing at the top of his voice as we delivered orders. Other times he would make up stories for me and illustrate the animal characters on pieces of brown wrapping paper.”
My mother told me that he and his brother, Reuven (who died before I was born) performed as comics at family weddings. His humor was a gift we all shared. They spoke Yiddish in the family, but English in their store. All of Henry’s children, at one time or another, worked in the store. My mother, despite the after school chores at the store, played violin in the school orchestra. Growing up, my mother remembers their milk came from a cow they owned and pastured on their property.
Most of their customers were coal miners and their wives. Many were Polish immigrants. Relations between the various ethnic and religious groups – Poles, Italians, Maronite Christians from Lebanon, Jews and the earlier established Welsh and English – often seemed cordial enough. Perhaps that was because no one ethnic group predominated. Unlike most areas of the United States, where Protestants were in the overwhelming majority, many communities in this Wyoming Valley had a plurality, if not an outright majority, of Catholics.
Benjamin Bransdorf died on the 10th day of Ellul (August 27, 1928) at the home of his daughter, Pearl Wruble, 110 Lincoln Avenue, Exeter. Participants in the funeral of Rabbi Bransdorf were: Rabbi Davidson of Wilkes-Barre, Rabbi Gutterman of Scranton, Rabbi Siegel of Exeter, and Rabbi Sickerman of Wilkes-Barre.
At the time of his death, Rabbi Bransdorf not only left behind his children, but also 60 grandchildren and 25 great-grandchildren.
A national coal miners’ strike, starting in Pennsylvania in April 1927, had a devastating effect on Henry Bransdorf’s cliental. In the age before credit cards, it was the Bransdorf business itself that extended credit to customers while their bread-winning (or in this case, bread-losing) miners were on strike. The strike lasted until October 1928.
Bransdorfs in Wyoming Valley intermingled and intermarried with the Kaufers; so much so that Gantze Mishpocha was subtitled A History of the Kaufer & Bransdorf Families . One of these Kaufers was Abraham Jacob Kaufer. Abraham was born in Lukawice, Galicia (now Poland). He emigrated to America in 1900 and set up Kaufer Brothers Furniture and Hardware Store in partnership with his brother Simon, in Plains, Pennsylvania, on the west side of the Susquehanna River, next to Wilkes-Barre. Virtually all of his siblings who did not come to the United States or Canada beforehand, like he did, perished in the Holocaust, along with their children.
On November 1, 1928, Jewish shop owners throughout the Wyoming Valley were shaken. Abraham Kaufer was robbed and slain. A newspaper article, headlined “PLAINS MURDER HUNT EXTENDED,” starts off:
State, county and Plains township authorities last night were working on the theory that the burglars who yesterday morning shot and killed Abraham J. Kaufer, aged 47, prominent merchant of 45 River Street, Plains, committed one robbery and attempted another in Plains prior to the shooting and are the men who cracked safes and robbed establishments along State highway from Nanticoke to Danville…
Gantze Mishpocha fills in:
Abraham was killed at his residence and place of business by two or three men who were attempting to steal money from him. While his family looked on in horror, Abe barracked himself in the room where he kept his valuables. Unfortunately, the men shot their way into the room, killing Abe in the process and then proceeded to rob him.
After a while, the three men were caught; and it tuned out they were neighbors. One was killed during their capture; one hung himself in jail, and the third man (known as Mustache Mike) was executed in the electric chair, while Simon “Sam” Kaufer, Abe’s youngest sibling, looked on.
The Bransdorf’s owned a “General Store” which became a grocery market (West Wyoming) and a Department store (Wyoming). The “Eagle” Poster in the window is the symbol of the National Recovery Act, which lasted from 1933-35. The sign, “Dr. N. Klein Dentist,” refers to Nathan Klein, the husband of Henry & Anna’s first born daughter, Gussie.
In October 1929, the American stock market crashed, leading to “The Great Depression.” Following a year and a half of extending credit to striking miners, this was devastating to my grandfather, Henry Bransdorf, his family and his business. Again, so many of his customers found their bread-winners unemployed, as industries and their coal-fired plants were idled.
The Bransdorfs had three properties – their home, grocery store and dry goods store. Two of the properties were paid off. However, they had a “blanket mortgage,” which covered (or, “blanketed”) all three properties. Not being able to make the payments on the third property, they lost all three.
On March 15, 1934, my grandfather, Henry Bransdorf, passed away of cardiac trouble at his residence at 187 Wyoming Avenue, Wyoming, Pennsylvania. My mother wrote that, “He passed away… two months before my high school graduation. I put away my violin and have not played it since.” With his passing, my family lost their last living link to Brzesko.
Despite the economic and health woes of Henry’s last years, his widow, Anna “Hendel” Wasserman Bransdorf lived to a ripe old age of 91, passing away in 1969, having been born before the Age of Flight and witnessed the first Moon Landing. And his children and their descendants rebounded, have contributed and continue to contribute to their communities in Wyoming Valley and beyond in business, education, the arts, medicine, charity, military service and Jewish life.
Back in Brzesko, my great-great grandmother Perl (Raubenbauer) Bransdorfer’s matzeva is engraved:
Important modest woman
Mrs Perel Mindel
Daughter of Mr David HaCohen. Died on 24
Kislev 5646. May her soul be bound in the bundle of life
© Henry Benjamin Winkler, 2023