Some Amazing Things I Uncovered on Ancestry.Com By Thelma Adams
Some Amazing Things I Uncovered on Ancestry.Com
By Thelma Adams
When I began to research Bittersweet Brooklyn, originally entitled Kosher Nostra, my genealogical research into my late grandmother, Thelma Schwartz nee Lorber, led me to Ancestry.com. I got a subscription and, in the years that followed, I've never let it lapse. It became a key tool for my historical research as I plotted births, deaths and marriages. Not only that, but I discovered that it held my attention like the Sunday crosswords. I could sit down to check out one fact, or add in a family detail my mother had revealed to me, and look up three hours later.
Sometimes I feel that I could do an ad for Ancestry!
The family tree that grew on the site provided the roots of the novel, which is about a liberated woman before her time – and the fraught immigrant world that she grew up in. Her older brother Abie became a criminal who occasionally made it into the papers – in small print and at the bottom of the page. Her other brother, Louis, enlisted in the army at 21 and became a WW1 hero and lifelong soldier.
Early on in my research I discovered a document on Ancestry.com that became central to my understanding of Abie, the family dynamics and what might have led him to stray from the straight and narrow.
It was a commitment document for the New York Hebrew Orphan Asylum Records for Abraham Lorber dated August 14, 1905. That in itself was startling. The boy was nearly 11 and his younger brother, Louis, was 9. Both were committed by their mother, Rebecca Lorber and dispatched to the Hebrew Benevolent and Orphan Asylum way uptown on Amsterdam Avenue.
Application for Admission #435 is dense with information. It gave Rebecca's birthplace, which I didn't have previously. She was from Drohobych, Galicia in Austro-Hungary. That allowed me to look further into whom she was and opened the door to a vein of research into what it was like to live in that area and what the conditions were like for Jews under the Empire. She wasn't a faceless Eastern European immigrant – she had a hometown, she was grounded, knowable.
It also revealed that she was 36 and worked as a washerwoman while living on Manhattan's 106th Street with a family named Junger.
And then there was this scrawled at the bottom in answer to the printed line 'Special Circumstances of the Case:' "Father died two years ago. Mother supported them until now. Claims to be sickly. Has received assistance from UHC [United Hebrew Charities]."
This seemed so dramatic to me – a mother willing to place her two sons in care. Who was she? What happened between Drohobych and New York? What had the boys done, if anything? And how did this experience shape who Abie and Louis became, one good with a knife, and the other fond of guns. And how did it impact their little sister, Thelma, who was three when her brothers were taken from their lodgings on 106th Street.
Although I later learned that it was not uncommon for a widow to surrender her children, I knew I had to understand the crisis that overcame the family in 1905. As a historical fiction writer, the conflict had huge dramatic potential. I used this horrible separation as a watershed moment that would reverberate until the last pages of the book. It is hard enough to be an orphan – but what does it feel like to be an orphan with a living mother who rejects you, or a child on the sidelines forever concerned that she would be committed if she misbehaved?
I am attaching the document itself – what do you see there? How would you interpret the evidence? Where would it lead you?
In turn-of-the century New York, a mobster rises—and his favorite sister struggles between loyalty and life itself. How far will she go when he commits murder?
After midnight, Thelma Lorber enters her brother Abie’s hangout under the Williamsburg Bridge, finding Jewish mobster Louis “Pretty” Amberg in a puddle of blood on the kitchen floor. She could flee. Instead, in the dark hours of that October 1935 night before the dawn of Murder, Inc., she remains beside the fierce, funny brother who has nurtured and protected her since childhood. There are many kinds of love a woman can feel for a man, but few compare to that of the baby sister for her older brother. For Thelma, a wild widow tethered to a young son, Abie is the center of her world. But that love is about to undo everything she holds dear…
Flipping the familiar script of The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, and The Godfather, Bittersweet Brooklyn explores the shattering impact of mob violence on the women expected to mop up the mess. Winding its way over decades, this haunting family saga plunges readers into a dangerous past—revealed through the perspective of a forgotten yet vibrant woman.
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Excerpt at Broken Teepee
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Review at Oh, The Books She Will Read
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