Discovering Stored Treasures

Discovering Genealogy, One Ancestor at a Time.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Should Genealogist Spill Family Secrets?

One of two photos Max Crane (far left).
One of my most mysterious ancestors is Max Hyman Crane.  His story has been difficult for me to tell. It's a "secret" family tale, full of taboos. Almost ninety years have passed since Max died, and though I struggle with making it public, I think it's a story that needs to be told. It's the kind of story you don't expect to encounter when you dig into your own family history, yet every family has stories like this. We can all learn something from them. I learned a lot from Max. I learned that like today, my ancestors struggled between their responsibilities and their passions, sacrifice and love. Most of all they were human.

Max was my great-grandmother Minnie's older brother. In Stored Treasures, Minnie credits Max with bringing his siblings to America. Here is how she describes her beloved Max. 
1903 was ".........the summer my brother Max came back from living in Pinsk.
Max was the second brother (the family’s third child). Max or Chaim Mordechai, as he was called in Hebrew, was a very sensitive boy. At a very young age, he was sent to study at the Yeshiva in Pinsk with my mother’s brother Hillel (Yarmovsky). Max went to continue his studies, help his uncle with the younger students, who were rich, spoiled kids, and sort of look after them. Max’s job was to wait on the kids, bring their lunches, run errands, and so forth. Somewhere in the process of study, he became indoctrinated with the ideas of socialism through some young revolutionaries. Uncle Hillel had a small printing press for his school. Max and his radical friends secretly printed propaganda leaflets on the school printing machines. Unfortunately, they were found out.
Pressure was put on Uncle. “Either you send Max away, or we tell the police.” He packed Max off home without any ceremony. 
Max found our small hometown to be intolerable. There was no one his age in Belitsa with whom he could exchange ideas. He left for America. Max was seventeen when he came to the United States. From America, he wrote his interesting letter telling us of his adventurous journey. Max’s ship, was not permitted to land at the first port of arrival because there was an outbreak of cholera at the port. 
 It took Max eleven months to finally land on United States soil.

Max arrived in New York. Mother’s brother, Harry Yarmove (changed from Yarmovsky), was there to greet him, but Max did not like New York. Instead, he headed to New Britain, Connecticut, where father’s youngest brother, Oscar Kranowitz (also known as Aaron) had settled. Uncle Oscar had five young children, two daughters and three sons, all of whom were nice to Max. They treated him like one of their own boys. He found work in a large food market. He went to night school and worked days as a clerk and delivery boy for the large market. Max was a young boy of seventeen or so, attractive with blond, baby soft, curly hair, blue eyes, fair skin, and a mischievous nature. The women customers liked to have Max take their grocery order and deliver it to them. Yes, in the pre-supermarket days, groceries were delivered. Max’s popularity with the ladies made a nice profit for the owner. Max could always get another job if the one he held did not suit him. Max made a nice living and saved his money. When he had saved enough, he sent for Brother Will (Vevel) and then for the rest of us."
She sprinkled only a few more Max tidbits later in the book. Max moved out of the family apartment to marry Freda Levit, a woman ten years his elder, whom Minnie didn't seem to like very much. She describes her as shy, and sickly. Minnie suggested Freda's often faned illness. They had a prodigy son, named Milton. What captured my attention was, that in her writings, Minnie failed to mention that Max committed suicide in 1925. He was thirty-six years old. She never explains the circumstances of his death.

A couple of years ago, at our Kranowitz/Crane family reunion, I learned a bit more about this tragic story. The Crane elders reported that Max was rumored to have had an affair, with his uncle Harry Yarmove's young wife. This is the very same uncle who received Max when he arrived from Russia and later offered work to the Crane brothers in Atlantic City. The lovers were about the same age, and almost a decade younger than their respective spouses. The wealthy, young aunt, was about to leave her husband, when he fell ill. Devastated, Max took his own life. No one was quite sure how (drowning, gas oven?). Freda, Max's wife was so angry, she threw away every photo she found of Max. Only two family photos were rescued from her rampage. He left behind a devastated wife, a young son (seven years old) and a torn apart family. I can only imagine the pain he was feeling and the stigma, shame and pain of those who loved him. My great-grandmother's choice not to share this story, reflects here generation. While today, memoirs are filled with traumatic events (or else it wouldn't sell), she chose to protect her family from such sorrow.
Uncle Harry Yarmove and his wife Annie (Back)
with their nephews Bernard and William Crane
at Bernard's graduation from Medical School
(University of Michigan) 1921

In his memoir,  Tales of A Clam Digger, Sidney Crane (Max's nephew), alludes to the affair. Referring to his great-uncle Harry Yarmove, Sidney wrote:
"Despite an early hectic family life, he treated his wife, Aunt Anne and children, as though they were the royalty he had once placed on thrones of gold."
According to Sidney, uncle Yarmove was a kindly mand and played an important role as patriarch. It was comforting for me to learn that the Yarmove family found a way to heal after such an ord.

Max himself remains as a puzzle and I decided to double check my document collection for clues. Years ago, before the internet, my cousin Minda spent long hours researching at +, YarEllis Island. Amazingly, she found four pertinent records and passed the information to me. According to Minda, Max arrived at Ellis Island on September 16th, 1905 aboard the Pretoria. The Pretoria departed from Hamburg. Here is the Ship Manifest I attached to Max, on the family tree:
Line 8 reads: Mottel Krainowitz, age 15, tailor, from Bilitz. He headed to Brooklyn NY with $15 dollars in his pocket. He paid for his own trip and was meeting an uncle, Joseph something (very hard to read, maybe Passisovsky?)
(Click to enlarge)

Since I've encountered this record three years ago, the following things have trouble me:
1. It is difficult to read. Many names are crossed out.
2. Kranowitz spelling is questionable. Ellis Island transcribed it as Kreinawitz while ancestry Krinsawitz. I can live with either. Misspelled Russian names are a dime a dozen in our line of work.
3. There is no other record indicating Max was a tailor. I can also live with this fact. Maybe he never worked as a tailor again. He was only fifteen. Perhaps he invented a profession because he was unskilled (a yeshiva student) and wanted to ensure his entry to the United States.
4. The Cranes had many uncles, none were named Joseph.  Illegible as Joseph's last name is on the manifest, it's neither Yarmovsky nor Kranowitz, the two known uncles in America.
5. Is Bilitz the same as Belitsa? I've never seen the shtetl's name spelled this way, but again, I could overlook this one.

Of all the many travel manifests I've found for my  numerous ancestors, this one is the least satisfying. Out of maybe fifteen facts, five are fishy. It was time to double check. I examined another record I had for Max, a US Naturalization Index Card. These cards frustrates me, because they don't provide much information. I can't afford to order so many records from the national archives. Instead, I wait for them to upload more documents while I save the index cards as a reference. I decided that, in Max's case, it was worth paying for the Naturalization Petition. These petitions, are rich with information, sometimes photos, and almost always provide information about how the immigrant arrived in the US. I bit the bullet, paid the ten dollars to our National Archives.

To my delight, they located Max's records quickly. On Monday, a thick envelope was waiting at my doorstep. Jackpot! Max's citizenship petition and records form 1908-1913. Low and behold, something jumped out at me from the page: Max was not aboard the SS Pretoria, from Hamburg. He departed from Liverpool, England on the Saxonia, arriving in Boston on October 5th, 1905!

One of three documents I received from the National Archives reporting Max Kranowitz, born 3/15/1889 in Belica,
Russia declared his  intention to become a citizen on Nov 8, 1908. He was 19 years old and a metal worker.
According to this document he arrived at the port of  Boston, Mass on the Saxonia, on 10/4/1905. 

Armed with this information, I was instantly able to located the Saxonia Passengers List:

Line 29, lists a Motel Kranowitz, 15 years old, a tailor, heading to Brooklyn New York. He paid for his won trip, carrying only $11 dollars and met his uncle with the last name of Yarmovsky, and if I'm not imagining it, the uncle's first name might say Hirsh (note: Uncle Harry Yarmov's Yiddish name was Hershel. 
(Click to enlarge)
Minda was very close! Her Motel, very much resembled our Motel. They were both fifteen and tailors! But this is our Motel-Max Kranowitz, who later (January 13, 1913) changed his name to Crane. Minda could not have known that Max enter the United States through Boston and not Ellis Island. (I will have to update the second edition of Stored Treasures with this information).

Here is my second favorite find of the week. It's from a new database recently released by the Connecticut, Military Census, of 1917.
Connecticut, Military Census, 1917 for Max Crane
Aside from the standard information, I learned some fascinating thing about my ellusive great-uncle Max. He was not only tailor, metal worker and shopping clerk, he was also a meat cutter! He knew how to ride a horse, handle a team of horses and drive a vehicle. He also considered himself to be a good swimmer!

The Crane siblings after William returned from WWI. Max is seated in the front,
 with his son Milton in his lap and wife Freda to his right.
The Crane/Kranowitz descendants, owe much to Max. He was the first to make the journey across the Atlantic. His experience not only shape his life, but encouraged his siblings to follow. His hard work was instrumental in bringing his family to America and helping them during their early years as new immigrants. He was the first to change his name to Crane. He was far from perfect, and sadly, his story met a tragic and premature end. As I am not from my great-grandmother's generation, I decided to share his story.

Now, I could use some help from my genealogy friends and of course family members who might have some information I don't. As always, the more I discover, the more questions arise. Here are a few:
1. I have not been able to corroborate Minnie's story of Max being stuck at sea for eleven months due to a cholera epidemic. Any ideas?
2. I would like to find a record of Max's death. I only know he died around 1925, but I don't know where. I would love to find his death certificate and his grave.

And here is another question for you all:
Do you think genealogist should "spill" these kinds of family secrets?


  1. Yes! I think family secrets should be spilled! Especially if all concerned are generations removed(dead). That is the exciting part of learning the stories of family members : )

    1. Here is a question for you Jill? How about the descendants? How many generations have to pass before it's OK. In this case, there are living grandchildren who may or many not know this story. Were do you draw the line?

  2. You can find an extensive history of the Saxonia at:
    There is a reference to a cholera quarantine in 1911 in a voyage from Italy, but the 1905 voyages appear to have been uneventful.
    A small point in ref to the photo - the caption has "wife Freda to his left". According to the hand written tags, wife Freda is "on" the left, to his right.

    1. Thanks for the Saxonia article. I particularly like the photos taken by the passenger in 1905. I had looked at several other sites with info on the Saxonia, and clearly this was a normal voyage. My sense is that he possibly boarded another ship and was quarantined and eventually had to get off in Europe and take another ship. It was even surprising for me that he left from England, coming from what is now Belarus. The other scenario would be that he was stuck in route from his village for 11 months until he could actually board the Saxonia because of a localized outbreak in Europe. Either way, I can find any reports of major outbreaks in Europe in 1905.
      Thanks for catching the mistake on Freda's ID. She is to the viewers left by to Max's right. You are absolutely correct, I wrote it wrong.

  3. This comment was submitted to my from a cousin (Seymour Pomerantz) who read this post and responded to my question about if Belitsa and Bilitz were two names for the same town. He wrote: "They are definitely different towns. My source is "Where Once we Walked" by G. Mokatoff, S.A. Sack, and A. Sharon.
    Belitsa is in Belarus, Jewish pop. 483, 150km W. of Minsk, 53deg39'/25deg19'.
    Bilitz=Bielsko-Biala is in Poland, Jewish pop. 3982, 70km WSW of Krakow, 49deg49'/19deg02'

    That would make the second manifest the correct one for the arrival of Max in the US."

  4. Taking the recorded story at face value, it sounds like his entire trip ("door-to-door") was 11 months, during which, at the first port, they were denied entry due to a cholera outbreak - since he apparently went from Belarus to England, then to Boston, I'd be looking for outbreaks of cholera in British ports. Have you found him in the UK Incoming Passenger lists? Knowing when he arrived in England would narrow down when that outbreak could have occurred.

    As for "spilling" - I've struggled with that lately myself, having taken down one post and edited another because a family member asked me not to talk about certain sensitive subjects. The actual individuals in question are 1) dead 80 years and left no descendants and 2) dead over 130 years, and all of his children and grandchildren now deceased, as well. But as much as I'd like to spill, preserving relationships with my living relatives is more important, so I'll comply when I'm asked - I still have the instinct to spill, though!

    1. +Kathleen Scarlett O'Hara Naylor I also read it as "door-to-door" taking 11 months. I have not found evidence of a cholera outbreak in England, and my hunch is that it was much more likely to be in Russia. My sense is that he may have tried other ports, and eventually made his way to England. I think it's an excellent idea to locate him on the UK Incoming Passanger list and see when he arrived in England and estimate how long he was therefore. I'll be search there next!

      Sharing "sensitive" family stories is really tricky, and you never know who or what might upset someone, even so many years later. I'd certainly be willing to take this post down if someone asked me. I agree with your point that being respectful to living relatives comes first. It took me a long time to decide to share this part of our story (I didn't include it in the book) and I think it's an opportunity for other family historians to share their thoughts of how to tackle this complex ethical issue.

  5. Thank you for this article. My father's uncle Harry committed suicide, later in life than Max, at the age of 69. He was widowed and retired. I don't know if he was ill. His brother is listed as the informant--it must have been terrible.

    Of course we children were told nothing about it, even when older. I very much wish we had been. It may have helped me explain some of my moodiness, I don't know.

    As to whether "to spill or not to spill", consider that it might be valuable information to descendants, almost like heriditary medical conditions in some cases.

    I hope to get back and read the other stories in the saga of Max Crane.

    -- Ed Hamilton

    1. Thank you, Ed for the heartfelt comment. Losing a family member to suicide is always difficult. Earlier generations tended not to discuss these kids of issues leaving children in the dark. Time are changing, and there has certainly been a move towards much more openness. I do believe discussing these "family secrets" helps members get insight and understanding to themselves. I'm sure it affected your father when his uncle committed suicide and that in tern affected you.
      I hope you do return to read more about Max. I am continually learning more. I have yet to find his death certificate but I am slowly gaining fascinating insight to his life!
      Thanks again for sharing your story.


Thanks for sharing your comments!