Tuesday, May 02, 2000

The Sherksner's

About a year ago, the Sacksners made contact with a long lost South African branch of their family. Here is the story of that family and the the discovery, written by a member of the family, Eli Goldstein of Johannesburg.

Families Virtually Reunited via the Internet
By Eli Goldstein
Johannesburg South Africa

It is almost 100 years ago - Chanukah 1901, in the midst of the Anglo-Boer War and the Witwatersrand Gold Rush. The place is Jeppestown Shul in Johannesburg, South Africa. The occasion is the Bris (circumcision) of Ephraim Leib (Louis) Jackelson, son of Avrohom Yitzchak Jackelson, who had come to South Africa with his wife Batsheva Jackelson (nee Levin) in 1895 from Shavel and Telz in Lithuania. Chaya Leah Jackelson, one of the daughters, married Kalmen Meier Goldstein (formerly Olshvang) of Varniai, Lithuania in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1908. These were my paternal grandparents.

Avrohom, my Great Grandfather, was the son of Yaakov Sherksner, of Libau (Liepaja) in Latvia. Libau (or Liepaja) is in Latvia just past the border with Lithuania. Libau is probably less than 100 miles from Telz. To avoid the "khappers" of the Russian Czar's army, who would conscript all Jewish males except the eldest son, to a stint of 25 years plus in the Siberian wasteland, Avrohom Sherksner was "adopted" by a family called Yokhelzohn in Shavel (Sialuliai). He took on the name Yokhelzohn, which was later changed to Jackelson in South Africa. His eldest brother, Boruch Sherksner, retained the surname since eldest sons were permitted to remain at home to provide and care for ageing parents.

Martin Gilbert's book "Atlas of Jewish History" mentions that by 1891, 700,000 Jews living east of the Pale of Settlement were driven into the Pale. This number probably would have included Latvian Jews, and may have been why the Sherksners could have relocated to either Telsiai or Siauliai (Shavel/Shavli) in Lithuania. The birthplace of Boruch Sherksner's son, Moshe Chaim Sacksner, is given as Libau on a document found by Rocky (Esther) Silverman, one of his daughters. It is possible the Sherksner family lived there when Moshe Chaim was born and later moved to Shavli or Telz This fact still needs to be verified.

Both Boruch and Avrohom studied at the famed Yeshiva of Telshe in Telz (Telsiai) Lithuania and received Smiche there. Telsiai was the original home of the famous Telz/Telshe Yeshiva which is now based in Wycliffe, (near Cleveland) Ohio, USA and at Telz-Stone in Israel.

In South Africa, about 6,000 Jews - 10 percent of the total population - lived in Johannesburg nine years after the discovery of gold and the city's establishment in 1886. While some came from Britain and Germany, more than half were from Eastern Europe, particularly from Lithuania and Latvia. An influx of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania and Latvia arrived in the 1890s and early 1900s. Bad times soon brewed - caused by the Jameson Raid in 1896, the re-election of President Kruger in 1898, and the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War in 1899.

Two political ideologies, namely British imperialism and Afrikaner nationalism, were to clash at the turn of the nineteenth century in South Africa. Britain sought the unification of the whole of South Africa under the British flag. The existence of the two Boer republics namely the South African Republic (Transvaal) and the Orange Free State therefore was a stumbling block. The two republics on the other hand wanted to preserve their independence and to build their republics into regional forces. They were therefore not prepared to become part of a united South Africa under British authority.

Early Jewish settlers in Johannesburg flocked to Fordsburg, Mayfair and Doornfontein. These suburbs had many Jewish characteristics and families were found living near to one another. These were the days of wood-and-iron dwellings and the discomforts of early pioneering days. For many, the streets were not paved with gold but with poverty and there was a serious housing shortage.

Boruch had come to visit his younger brother and family and to see what South Africa was like. He was apparently not too impressed with the dearth of Yiddishkeit here at the time. The Jewish population at the time numbered about 8000 people Avrohom was living in Prospect Township, he had a trading store in what amounted to a miners camp. Later, Avrohom got into commercial property broking.

What really swayed Boruch's opinion of South Africa must have resulted from the so-called "hat story." At Ephraim Leib's Bris, his father Avrohom was wearing a "Cheesecutter" or "Boater" hat (made of straw). In Lithuania, the trend was for observant Jews to wear either "Homburg" or bowler hats. Boruch was very indignant at this Cheesecutter attire, as he felt Avrohom was "getting too Anglicised and too much influence from non-Jewish sources." They had an argument about this and the legend goes that Boruch said to Avrohom in Yiddish: "Du kukst ois vie an Engelse ferd un du host bald oysgeshmatterd" which, literally translated means "You look like an English 'horse' (ferd is Yiddish for horse but also a type of endearment term for a fool) and you have almost assimilated." The story goes that Boruch promptly left South Africa on the next boat and returned to Lithuania. The brothers seemingly lost contact with each other. Boruch subsequently emigrated from Lithuania to Montreal, Canada.

For many years my great-uncle, Ephraim Leib Jackelson and later I tried to make contact with Boruch Sherksner's family in Montreal but efforts to trace the family seemed futile. I wrote to the Rabbis of some Montreal communities and to editors of Jewish newspapers in Montreal with no results. While looking at the Jewish Genealogy site on the Internet one day in May 1999, I did a search on the surname Sherksner but spelled it as Saksner and came up with a number of matches. Jerrold Landau, who is related to the Epstein side of the family in the USA and Canada had apparently posted the family tree about a month previously on the Internet. A frenzied series of e-Mails going back and forth followed and eventually one of the Sacksner family in Montreal was asked to check Boruch Sherksner's tombstone inscription in Montreal. If it transpired that his father's name was listed as Yaakov then there would be no doubt. Due to the Internet and e-Mail, the whole process took less than 4 weeks, starting on 24 May 1999. We finally confirmed the connection on 18 June 1999 when Jeffrey Sacksner, a Great Grandson of Boruch, living in Montreal, went to the Baron de Hirsch cemetery to inspect the gravestone inscription and confirmed that Boruch's father's name was indeed Yaakov - as was Avrohom Yitzchak. So, after almost 100 years, the descendants of the two brothers were re-united, albeit virtually.

Since all of Avrohom Yitzchak's children were already deceased in 1999, it was difficult to ascertain whether Boruch and Avrohom were ever in touch with each other by letter after the hat incident. It is strange that despite the perception that they had not been in contact with each other for many years, and an age difference of eight years, the two brothers died in the same year, 1938/5698. Boruch Sherksner died on the 17th Adar 5698 in Montreal Quebec, Canada. Avrohom Yitzchak Jackelson, Boruch's younger brother, died on 21 September 1938 (25 Elul 5698) in Johannesburg South Africa.

Today the Sacksner family, descendants of Boruch Sherksner, are a large family in Montreal, Toronto, New York and other USA cities with some members in Israel. Many of them are highly committed orthodox Jews. What is also worthy of mention, however, is that Yiddishkeit in South Africa today, with one of the most committed communities in the world, is a lot different to what Boruch Sherksner saw in his trip to the dusty streets of Johannesburg nearly 100 years ago.

Avrohom's descendants mainly live in South Africa but many have moved to Australia, America and Canada. His Great-Great Grandson, Warren Goldstein, a practising Rabbi in Johannesburg, following in the tradition of his Great Great Grandfather, obtained Smiche from the Yeshiva Gedola of Johannesburg, whose Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Azriel Goldfein studied at the Telshe Yeshiva in Wycliffe, Ohio USA.

This is a story with a happy ending and how the course of history has come full circle. It shows how Divine intervention and modern telecommunications have re-built the most precious thing of Jewish life, home and family. Where letters between Lithuania and South Africa may have taken 2-3 months to arrive a century ago, the Internet and e-Mail has, in a flash, re-kindled family ties that were broken by a straw hat.

Recently, again through the Internet, the families have made contact with descendants of another Sherksner brother, Ascher, whose Serkin family live in Canada, the USA and England. Research continues.

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