Saturday, August 15, 2009

What's in a business card? Notes for a family history

Business card printed for my grandfather, Samuel Pactovis—born Salamon "Samu" Paktorovics—some time between 1920 and 1927.

I was born and raised in Queens, New York, where my grandparents and their children settled some time after their immigration to the US. Although some of my grandfather’s siblings had settled before him in the Boston area, I never thought of my immediate family, including my grandparents, as anything other than New Yorkers from day one. This image persisted long after my grandparents, who co-owned with my mother our three-story wood-frame house on 91st Place [1] in Elmhurst, migrated to Los Angeles; my brother, and later my mother, moved to Glen Burnie, MD; and I wandered off to Boston, then Seattle, San Francisco, Athens, GA, and Durham, NH. But one day a few years ago, as I looked through the earliest of my mother’s photo albums, I was struck by the realization that the first pictures of her and her family in the US, which I had probably seen many times before, were taken in the back yard of a house somewhere in Dorchester, an incorporated neighborhood of Boston. Mom had marked them with the caption, “A New World! Dorchester, Mass. U.S.A. 1924-1925.” In the photo below, they were almost literally right off the boat, having left Uzhorod, Czechoslovakia (formerly Ungvár, Hungary), only a few months earlier (additional photos and documents concerning their emigration can be found elsewhere). Except for the youngest child, Edith, grinning in the foreground, they all appear pretty solemn and weary. The Star-of-David locket my mother is wearing gives away their Jewishness.

My grandmother, Melanie Pactovis (Melán Klein Paktorovics), with her first four children, (from the left) Jolán (my mother), Edith, Alexander, and Josef, soon after their arrival in the US.
In fact, the ship that brought my grandmother and the first four of her five children to America had clearly landed in New York City; I have the original passenger ticket showing she'd purchased a single second class cabin on the White Star Line steamship “Majestic (II)” on its regular Southampton-Cherbourg-New York run during August-September 1924 (my grandfather, shown in the photo below, had already immigrated four years earlier, in 1920) [2]. The photographs, with my mother's note, showed that they hadn’t stayed in New York, but had migrated immediately to Boston, where my grandfather was established (more or less) and waiting for them [3].
My grandfather, ca 1920, just prior to his emigration from Czechoslovakia. The photograph is signed "Paktorovits Salamon" [4]—in the Hungarian manner, with his surname first—and was evidently affixed to some official document, such as an identity card, visa, or passport.

I don’t know precisely where my grandfather entered the US, but that he would have gone to the Boston area upon arrival makes sense, since two of his brothers, Daniel and Morris, were already living in the vicinity with their families [5]. That this was the case is further evidenced by the business card reproduced above, which I found on the same page as the Dorchester photos; it credits him as the "proprietor" of a “Beauty Parlor and Bobbing Shop” on 345a Blue Hill Avenue in Roxbury, the Boston area neighborhood immediately west of Dorchester. My first reaction on seeing the card was, like, WTF, I can’t believe this! This couldn’t be the man I had known—not that there’s anything wrong with the beauty business, but I just couldn’t picture him involved in the activities listed on the card. Facial massage and manicuring? Marcel waving? Had he gone to beauty school on his arrival in the US? Well, I knew he had held a number of different jobs in his life, but I guess the man would have tried just about any profession in his youth [6].
I don't have any evidence that my grandfather's La Fontaine Beauty Parlor was successful; in any case, he soon left it behind and headed for New York, and by 1928 his children were enrolled at P.S. 102 in Elmhurst, Queens. The 1930 US Census record shows him living with his family (there were 5 children, now, including my Aunt Rosalind, born in 1927) at 93-14 Corona Avenue, in Elmhurst, Queens, NY, and lists his profession as "Conductor, Rail-road ".

Historically, at the time my grandfather lived with his family in Roxbury, it had a substantial Jewish population; according to the Wikipedia entry for Roxbury, Boston, “[a] thriving Jewish community developed around Grove Hall, along Blue Hill Avenue, Seaver Street and into Dorchester along Columbia Road. A large Irish population also developed, with many activities centered around Dudley Square, which just before and following annexation into Boston, became a central location for Roxbury commerce. Following a massive migration from the South to northern cities in the 1940s and 1950s, Roxbury became the center of the African-American community in Boston.” The latter is the way I remember it from the time I lived in Boston, from 1966 to 1979, but at that time I had no idea my mother's family had lived there before me. At least I don't remember her ever mentioning it, even though I knew a number of our relatives in the area.

The Crawford Street Synagogue (congregation Beth Hamidrash Hagadol), completed in 1915, was just down the street from where my grandfather was living when his family joined him (#97 Crawford Street, according to their entry on the "Manifest of Alien Passengers" of the Majestic II, scheduled to arrive at The Port of New York on 25 November 1924 [2]). Also nearby were the Blue Hill Avenue Synagogue (built in 1905 by congregation Adath Jeshurun) at 397 Blue Hill Avenue; Temple Mishkan Tefilah, built on the corner of Elm Hill Avenue and Seaver Street in 1925; and what is now the Charles Street African Methodist Episcopal Church on 551 Warren Street (corner of Elm Hill Avenue), which was built in 1888 and is still there, having been added to the National Historic Register in 1983 (the Charles Street A.M.E. congregation acquired the building in 1939). The building that once housed the Crawford Street congregation is no longer used as a synagogue, but the adjacent Crawford Street Memorial Park Cemetery, established in 1925, is still there [7]. Whatever building my grandfather had his shop in is gone. The latest Google Maps Street View for the location shows what appears to be an open concrete foundation, either from an old building torn down or a new structure about to be erected, on the corner where #345 probably stood.
Additional notes:
[1] It's still there at 48-30 91st Place, 3 houses in from the corner of 50th Avenue, on the left (west) side of the street.

[2] Their actual itinerary must have been more complicated, because the ticket specified their departure from Cherbourg, on 26 August, but the “List or Manifest of Alien Passengers for the United States Immigration Officer at Port of Arrival” (which I found while researching this essay earlier today), shows their actual point of departure as Southampton, the embarcation date as 19 November, and their scheduled arrival date at the Port of New York was 25 November. I believe the explanation lies in a story I recall my mother telling me, that their voyage was delayed when her sister Edith initially failed to pass a pre-immigration medical exam.

[3] The “Manifest of Alien Passengers” entry for the Paktorovits family is actually quite confusing with respect to their intended destination, and the process of deciphering it is almost worth an essay in its own right. In the "final destination" column on the left page, "N.Y., New York" is given; then, on the right hand facing page, it’s clearly typed that they are to join my grandmother's “Husband—Mr. S. Paktorovits”, but his address is given as “97 Crawford Street, Roseburry, Mann.” Underneath this, the initials “NY” had been handwritten in pen or pencil. Of course this makes no sense whatsoever; there is no US State that would have been abbreviated as “Mann” (someone may have surmised that this referred to Manhattan, hence the “NY” appended underneath); and there is no town or neighborhood of "Roseburry" anywhere in New York State (or anywhere else in the US, as far as I can tell). There are places called "Roxbury" in NY, but one is a section of Breezy Point adjacent to Fort Tilden and Jacob Riis Park, and the other is a town upstate in Delaware County. There is no evidence that my grandmoher knew anyone in those places. What does make sense is that there was and still is a Crawford Street in Roxbury, Mass., and that #97 is three blocks from the corner with Hollander Street, on which Samuel Paktorovits’s younger brother Daniel was living at #54 with his family (at least at the time of the 1930 US Census). From 97 Crawford Street, it would have been a walk of about 3/4 mile or less to my grandfather's shop on Blue Hill Avenue.
It also makes sense that my grandmother's lack of English (not to mention US geography) at the time could have led to some confusion about their actual destination. She may have given NY as the "final" destination simply because that's where the ship was going to land. It's also relevant, perhaps, that she did have at least one relative, her sister-in-law, Regina, in NYC, and she may have taken her children to stay temporarily with Regina's family before heading up to Boston. It's quite conceivable she didn't know precisely where she was going to end up.
Interestingly, the Manifest entry contains an additional error, inexplicably rendering the name of her youngest son, Alexander, as "Alexanfra", and his sex as "F". The only explanation I can think of is that the clerk who typed the record somehow got the idea that my Uncle Alex was a 7 year old girl named Alexandra, and then compounded the mistake by mis-typing "f" in place of "d" (the two letters are adjacent on my keyboard, at least). I think it's clear one has to interpret such documents with a critical eye; it helps especially to have complementary sources, such as photos and other documents, and some knowledge (either personal or researched) of local geography and history. In this case, some concrete knowledge about my grandfather’s closest relatives provided additional context.
4] The spellings of the family surname as "Paktorovics" or "Paktorovits" were equivalent and used interchangably, and would have sounded essentially the same in Hungarian (i.e., cs or ts in Hungarian = ch or tch or tsh in English). In Czech/Slovak, the equivalent rendering would have been Paktorovič, as can be found on my grandfather's post-WWI Czech passport; omitting the inverted carat (haček) over the "c" converts its sound to an English ts instead of ch. Such omissions are common occurrences in transcription, either through neglect or lack of the proper symbol on the keyboard, and can lead to some confusion about the original pronunciation of a surname.
[5] All three Paktorovics brothers who came to the US, Morris, Daniel, and Salamon (Samuel), changed their surname to Pactovis upon their arrival.
[6] I thought about titling this essay "Views of My Grandfather Waving" (with apologies to the late great Donald Barthelme). It's possible the primary skill he brought to the shop was supervision, since he'd been a Reserve Feldwebel (a rank roughly equivalent to Sergeant Major) in the Austro-Hungarian infantry during WWI. His company was dedicated to construction (baukomagnie), assigned to a medical unit (sanitätsanstalten), and possibly responsible for building field hospitals. Whatever he did, he was apparently good at it, since he received at least two awards for meritorious service, although these were not for combat. I've written about this in more detail elsewhere.
[7] The Blue Hill Avenue Synagogue was sold in 1967, then later acquired by the First Haitian Baptist Church in 1978 and restored; it is now also on the National Historic Register. The Mishkan Tefilah congregation moved out of its synagogue on Seaver Street in the 1950s, and the building was later owned by the Elma Lewis School for the Performing Arts; it was acquired in 1997 and restored as a church by the United House of Prayer.


Blogger La vita Alessandria said...

Steve: This was really interesting. Now, I know why it is that you've cut your own hair all of these many's in your genes.
And your daughter has also been drawn to the area, something else in the genes?

August 17, 2009 at 6:14 PM  
Blogger Steven Levery said...

Thanks for reading and for your comment, Rachel. I never thought of the connections until now! Haircutting genes...?

August 18, 2009 at 1:45 AM  

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