The Death of Etta Raiza Berlin Sklar
Recently I found the death record of my great-grandmother, Etta Raiza Berlin SKLAR. She died in late 1933, a widow aged 74, in her hometown of Moletai. Her cause of death was listed as “psychic disease.” I wonder if it was Alzheimer’s?
Finding out that she died in 1933 shook me up. As far as I know, her grandchildren did not know about it. My mother was almost 13 years old on the day of Etta Raiza’s death. Did her father, my Zeyda, Alex, know about his mother’s death? or did he just not tell his children?
My mother was born in 1920. She seems to have paid attention to whatever her parents had told her about their families in the old country, and she passed that information along to me. I have the impression that she did not know when her grandmother died. She just had a general notion that her father’s family had perished in Treblinka.
Looking at the names of my mother and her siblings – all born in the 1920s – perhaps I might guess that my Zeyda, Alex, knew or suspected that his mother was still alive. None of Zeyda’s children was given a name in honor of Etta Raiza. Had she been dead by any time in the 1920s – and had that been known by my Zeyda – surely he would have named one of his children after her.
On the other hand, each of Zeyda’s brothers had a daughter named Esther, born in the early 1920s. Etta Raiza was still alive. Were these girls named for their grandmother? Did their parents have the mistaken belief that she had passed? They would not name a child after someone still alive. Then, in 1931 (ca.), Ethel Sklar was born, daughter of Zeyda’s brother, Abraham. That name sounds so much as if it re-echoes the name “Etta.” In 1935 (ca.), Abraham’s last daughter was born, and he named her Eleanor Sheila.
When asked in the U.S. to give the name of their mother, the SKLAR brothers’ documents gave names such as “Ida” or “Ida Rose” or “Rosa.” So it does seem as if they associated these “American” names with Etta Raiza. Perhaps Esther, Ethel, and Eleanor did not evoke their mother’s Yiddish name in the minds of her sons.
This musing on names cannot settle the question of whether Etta Rayza’s sons in the U.S. knew of her death in 1933. It seems so sad that they may not have had any definite information about her later life and her death.
The Life of Etta Raiza Berlin Sklar
Beyond contemplating how her grandchildren apparently didn’t know about her death, more poignant is the thought that they knew almost nothing about her life. I’ve been mulling over how little I have been able to learn about my great-grandmother.
The Records, Skeletal Though They Are
Itte Reyza [you will note that I vary the spellings of her name, because there are various transliterations] was born in 1859 or 1860, the daughter of Abram Osher BERLIN and Beile Berlin (nee SHILER). She had two siblings that I am aware of: Jankel, who was just slightly older (or, less likely, her twin) and Itzko, born in 1871. Given the gap in birth dates between Reiza [in some records only this second part of her double name is listed] and her younger brother, Itzko, I wonder if there might have been more siblings.
I know nothing about Etta’s childhood, have not yet found any records to tell me what was her father’s occupation, nor what sort of home she grew up in. Nor have I found a record of her birth or of her marriage to Chaim Zalman SKLAR. I don’t know if she grew up in poverty or if her childhood was economically comfortable. I do not know if she went to school.
All the records that I have so far found – translations of records found in Lithuanian archives – give her residence as Moletai. Going all the way back to 1798, I can find records indicating her ancestors were living in Moletai. Her paternal grandfather, Eliyash Yankel Berlin, son of Gilel Berlin, was born in the 1790s in Moletai. [Eliyash Yankel is my third great-grandfather and Gilel is my 4th great-grandfather.] Moletai, about 40 miles north of the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, was in the Russian Empire through most of Etta Raiza’s life, but was in Lithuania at the time of her death.
Although she was born around 1860, the first record I can find for her is a sad one, in September 1891, when she was in her early 30s and married to Chaim Zalman Sklar. The record is about the death of a son, Nachman Sklar, one year old. Cause of death is “fever.”
Because I know the approximate date of birth of another of her sons, Morris (Moshe, Jacob Moshe) – in the mid 1880s, I can speculate that Etta Reyza was married in her early 20s, or earlier.
The other record I can find for her is the birth of a son, Abel Leyb, 8 February 1896. I have not yet found any other records for this son, but have found others with the name Abel in both the BERLIN and the SKLAR families.
Perhaps he was named for Etta Raiza’s uncle, Abel BERLIN, son of Gilel, born in the first decade of the 1800s. That elder Abel was enumerated in Moletai on a revision list in 1845. But in the 1850 enumeration in Moletai, he was listed as “missing.”
“Aba-Leyb” BERLIN, son of one of Etta’s brother’s, was born in 1907. According to one family tree posted online by a Berlin descendent now living is Israel, this man died in Lithuania in 1941.
Back to Etta Raisa: Thus I am aware of five sons. Three of them came to the U.S.: Morris, Abram, and “Alex” (Nachum Yael Sklar, my Zeyda, who went by the name “Alex” in the U.S.). One of them, Nachman, died as an infant. The fifth, Abel Leyb. . . I do not know what happened to him. Nor do I know if she had any daughters. These sons were born between the mid-1880s and late 1890s, when she was a woman in her 20s and 30s.
The Vast Unknown Beyond the Records
If the records of Etta Reyza’s life are sparse, the stories are practically nonexistent.
As I’ve continued to muse over the extent of what I don’t know about her, I’ve pondered what might be inferred from the little I have.
The facts seem to imply a woman who lost all her children, either to infant death or to emigration. So sad. [Of course, I do not know what happened to Abel Leyb. And if there were any daughters, girls who survived childhood, perhaps she was not so bereft as I am imagining.]
The impression I hold from my mother’s stories is that life was hard. She described her father’s emigration (see my earlier post about the Sklar brothers, http://wp.me/p35vsQ-3Z) as a desperate attempt to escape. Leaving Moletai was an opportunity, worth taking terrifying risks.
So I am left with her one photo. What does that tell me?
Looking at her weathered but only slightly wrinkled face, I must speculate that the photo was carried by one of her sons on his journey to the U.S. She is probably only in her forties in the photo. Yes, her hair is white. But my mother’s started turning gray when she was only 19, and my sister began graying in her early 20s. It runs in the family.
She has a Mona Lisa smile, doesn’t she? Just slightly upturned at the edges of her mouth; and the crowsfeet of smiling eyes. People so often look stiff and stern and formal in these early photos. Ita Raiza does not. Maybe she carried a positive attitude, despite difficult circumstances.
Finally, she wears three pieces of jewelry. That is another reassuring sign, a sign that she was not so poor that she had to sell her jewelry. The resolution of the photo is not sharp, so I cannot be sure, but the small charm around her neck appears to be a star of David, maybe even with a tiny gem in the center. The second item appears to be a gold or silver rope necklace. Finally, the large piece is, I think, a pocket watch secured to her dress.
Some day I hope to find and meet more of my great-grandmother’s descendents. Maybe there are more picture and more stories to fill in the blanks.