September 13, 2000
Ever had a day when nothing went your way? Agnes Rogers had one right before she left for America. It was April of 1912. Six months pregnant, Agnes was loaded down with suitcases to take from her birthplace in Lithuania to her new home in the United States. It was a journey that would take many days via train and ship. She was excited about her voyage, as the ship she was to sail on was hailed as "the biggest ship of her day" and assured to be "unsinkable."
She thought her day had taken a turn for the worse when the train she was taking to get to the port abruptly came to a stop. The engine had broken down! This set her back two and a half hours, and she arrived at Queenstown port just moments after the boat departed. At the time, Agnes was devastated - she was all alone in a strange new city with no way to cross the Atlantic Ocean to America. But she soon learned that luck had been on her side when she read the headlines a few days later and discovered that her boat-the RMS Titanic-has sunk!
Agnes Rogers was my great grandmother. I appeared on the scene three generations later, grateful for the travel complications she endured some 88 years ago. Her amazing story has since become mine to tell. Family connections like these bring history to life! These ties also make me want to read more and question more, in order to fully discover my association with this and other historical events.
My family roots tangle across Europe and Russia, and converge in the Midwestern United States around the turn of the last century.
As a link to past history and present adventures, I am fortunate to have known my Baubie (Yiddish for grandmother) Hannah Kroll, for 24 years and counting. This incredible woman has been alive for the entire 20th century and possesses a fabulous perspective on world events. She also has an amazing web of stories to tell!
She is the youngest of 8 siblings, and I am the youngest child of her youngest son. She was 5 when she crossed the Atlantic from Manchester, England, with her family, and would meet her husband Harry Kroll years later on the south side of Chicago. Although Papa Harry died the year I was born, Baubie is a vivacious 94-year-old Wonder Woman. She has dedicated her life to volunteer service, working for the past 25 years with the visually impaired.
Baubie's love for helping people has always been complemented by her love for learning about them. Her life's travels have taken her around the globe where she always liked "being with the people themselves." As her 4 sons and 11 grandchildren have scattered themselves across the USA, she still has a busy travel calendar filled with weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs, Passover Seders and the births of great grandchildren. She is a priceless link to my family history and a daily inspiration to me in the fearless way that she lives, full of love and energy.
I didn't spend much time asking my other grandparents about life stories while I had the chance. I was either too young or too foolish. I know only that Baubie's father Bernard Lewis, originally from Russia, moved to Manchester, England to avoid conscription in the Russian army. In Manchester he met the woman I would be named for, Rebecca Leibovitz, who had moved from Latvia to join her brothers in England. In 1910, Bernard moved to the United States to find work, and sent for his wife and 8 children to join him a year later.
These three grandparents passed away before I enrolled in junior high, so their stories are scattered sound bites my parents have since shared with me. I can only guess the reasons my "Greats" immigrated from Poland, Russia, Lithuania and Germany to the United States. A carpenter, a meat packer, an insurance salesman, and a man holding special religious duties at the Jewish temple must have relocated to the Midwest in hopes of something better than they had before. They could have been drawn here by dreams of prosperity, hopes of religious freedom, and the potential for better education or better jobs than their countries of origin had allowed them. Were their dreams realized? What did they miss most about their homelands? What disappointments and struggles did they face in their new country? So many answers have been lost since they have passed away!
Then there are the simple facts that I know about my grandfathers, which leave me endlessly curious for more. I know that my grandfathers were both born in the United States. Papa Harry became a lawyer, starting a widespread family tradition of going into law amongst his sons and their children. Grandpa Al was a serviceman in World War II. Although he never spoke about that experience, we know that he was one of the US soldiers to liberate victims from Hitler's concentration camps.
The questions I would ask these men today are countless. I have realized the history that was lost with them. And so, I encourage each of you to take advantage of the living history that surrounds you while you can!
The stories of where you came from are history themselves. The stuff you read about in your social studies books sometimes seems to be a collection of irrelevant dates and facts until you consider the impact these events had on the people, perhaps YOUR people of that time. The food they ate, clothes they wore, meetings they went to and the ways they worshipped show a snapshot of human history. By tracing and studying your own roots, you create for yourself a truly valuable personal history class that comes alive with emotion and meaning. That knowledge may inspire endless questions, giving you the opportunity to learn more and more!
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