Howard Schwartz says he was never one for researching family history, but after his mother died six years ago, a pair of old photographs hanging on her wall piqued his curiosity.
Who, he wondered, were those serious-looking, bearded men? The women in buttoned-up dresses, the girls with the braids, the boys in knee-length trousers?
Beginning with those questions, Schwartz, a 63-year-old Baltimore native who lives in California, developed an extraordinary chronicle of a clan that emigrated to Baltimore in waves from a single village in Russia roughly a century ago.
In all, several dozen immigrants came to Baltimore from Mlynov, Russia, from 1890 to 1929 — people named Fishman and Goldseker and Shulman who, with others from their village and their descendants, left indelible marks on their adopted city in Maryland.
The Mlynov community gave rise to many prominent citizens, including doctors, lawyers, rabbis and politicians.
One was Morris Goldseker, who came to Baltimore at 16 in 1914, went to work in a pants shop, and later became a local real estate tycoon. More than $10 million of his estate went toward the creation in 1975 of the Morris Goldseker Foundation, one of Maryland’s largest philanthropic foundations.
Ellen Shulman Baker, a physician and NASA astronaut, is a member of the clan. So was Neena Betty Schwartz, a renowned endocrinologist who died last year.
At Schwartz’s behest, more than 80 members of the group he calls “the Mlynov descendants” will gather in Baltimore next week for a day of remembering and honoring their forebears.
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“I found first, second and third cousins, but I came to realize I couldn’t make sense of my family without understanding these other families they knew," says Schwartz, who plans to present his research as part of the celebration."So, I expanded to other people who came from the same village. And I realized that Mlynov itself was an extended family.
“This project is actually about both — a village and a family — and I’m really looking forward to getting everyone together.”
In many ways, the migration of the Mlynov descendants to Baltimore is a microcosm of the waves of immigrants, many of them Jewish, that came to the United States from Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In Russia, the dominoes began falling in 1881 with the assassination of Czar Alexander II, whose policies toward the Jewish population were open-minded for the time. His son, Alexander III, a virulent anti-Semite, soon began a campaign of persecution that included new laws banning Jews from holding certain jobs, owning property and living in rural areas.
The moves sparked a massive wave of emigration. Of the 2.5 million Russian Jews who relocated to America from 1881 to 1914, most arrived via New York, but Baltimore drew such migrants by the tens of thousands.
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Among them, Schwartz learned, were the "Mlynov pioneers,” Getzel and Ida Fax, a young couple who arrived in Baltimore from the village in western Russia in 1890 and 1891.
According to a memoir written by a Schwartz relative in 1982, the Faxes had owned land near Mlynov. But when they lost their right of possession, Getzel grabbed “the first ticket available” to the U.S.
He found work in Baltimore and sent for Ida.
They soon moved to a rowhouse at 836 E. Pratt St., near what is now the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House. Their home, and another house at 104 Albemarle St., became landing places for the dozens of men, women and children who came from Mlynov in three major waves, the first from 1890 to 1909, the second from 1910 to 1914, and the third from 1920 to 1929.
The Dembs and Fishmans, Schwartzes and Grubers, Goldsekers and Roskes who arrived during those years helped establish a communal life in the neighborhood — a part of town that Baltimore in 1907 designated as a tenement district, where multiple families packed most of the rowhouses and kosher chicken butchers operated in the alleyways.
Many members of these families, Schwartz learned, had married each other in the old country, often within families, information he confirmed through DNA research. The pattern continued in Baltimore, and the Mlynov immigrants became integral to a community that worshiped at Shomrei Mishmeres HaKodesh — an Orthodox Jewish congregation that moved into the Lloyd Street Synagogue in 1905 — and gave one another lodging and work.
“My father never forgot his good fortune, to be living in a country where he could go wherever he wanted, and no one would ask him for his papers.”— Ted Fishman, one of the Mlynov descendants
Newspaper clippings from the era, he found, spoke of a world teeming with activity, some of it downright comical, including the time The Sun reported that a man named Hyman Bressner “stole up the middle aisle" at the synagogue and "pulled a handful of whiskers from the bounteous beard of Mr. Abraham Bronstein, a furniture dealer.” When the police were called, the paper reported, “almost the entire congregation followed them to the police station” to see Bressner pay his fines.
“There are many stories we can tell about this congregation’s life,” Schwartz says.
Some were tragic. On Oct. 8, 1937, Benjamin Schwartz — a brother of Howard Schwartz’s grandfather, Paul H. Schwartz, and a successful merchant — was shot to death in his store in West Baltimore, a crime that triggered a manhunt.
Schwartz says he spent uncounted hours calling and reaching out online to hundreds of people for the project. Few had heard of him, and most knew little of their distant relations. Some treated Schwartz as "a stalker or internet troll” until he had a chance to establish his bona fides.
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One who needed little convincing was Ted Fishman, a 92-year-old Columbia retiree whose father, Benjamin, came to Baltimore from Mlynov in 1920.
As Fishman tells it, Benjamin, then 18, happened to be standing nearby when a native who had emigrated to America and fought in World War I returned to Mlynov and sought to bring family members to the U.S.
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Benjamin volunteered to go with them, and he, too, was soon living in a rowhouse in East Baltimore.
Fishman’s best friend growing up, Leon Schwartz, was Schwartz’s father. Like many in the clan, the two would later move with their families to Northwest Baltimore, a sign of the community’s entry into the American middle class.
“My father never forgot his good fortune, to be living in a country where he could go wherever he wanted, and no one would ask him for his papers,” Fishman recalls.
It’s one of the many stories Fishman plans to tell when he addresses the gathering, an event that is to include a walking tour of the old neighborhood and tours of the synagogue and the Jewish Museum of Maryland.
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Schwartz, for his part, now knows the names of nearly everyone in the two pictures that catalyzed his journey. But it won’t come full circle until he sees his extended family members connect, sharing photos and family stories and solidifying the connections that run from Mlynov — a Russian “shtetl” (Yiddish for a village) that became part of Poland, and now is part of Ukraine — through Baltimore and beyond.
If he’d had enough time and money, Schwartz says, he’s sure he could have filled a venue the size of Camden Yards. But those who do come will be celebrating a valuable bond.
“I imagine our ancestors looking down and being amazed and moved at how many descendants are taking the time to assemble to honor them and their memories,” he says. “It will be a fitting tribute.”