Sunday, December 23, 2018

The Rosenbloom Envelopes From Penza

Testing artifacts
The age of genetic genealogy has featured two basic verbs - "spit" and "swab." It's how we submit our DNA samples to the testing companies. The two have one thing in common. The subject must be alive, or at least dead-but-not-yet-buried.

We would like to know the DNA of our dead ancestors and several analytical tools have helped with that. I have had success with GEDmatch's Lazarus based on a combination of descendants and non-descendant relatives. Others have phased a missing parent, using children and the available parent. Visual Phasing works out grandparents based on grandchildren. But these are indirect methods that don't produce the full set of chromosomes for the missing ancestor.

The genetic genealogy community has been talking and asking about artifacts almost from the beginning. Grampa's hat has a bit of hair. Can we do anything with that? Only if there are follicles - and it would be a special, expensive project.

But what about that same spit that we already use, if applied to an envelope flap or a stamp. On one hand, this DNA is protected from the elements. On the other hand, how do we even know that the envelope was sealed and stamped by the actual letter writer. More than five years ago, Roberta Estes wrote about her attempts to get DNA from her long-deceased father and serendipitously acquired letters mailed by her grandfather. Roberta writes:
At the time my grandfather mailed those letters to my father, in the 1960s, my grandfather was living alone, so he should have licked the envelope and the stamp himself.
I called Bennett Greenspan at Family Tree DNA.  He referred me to a private lab that “does things like this,” called Trace Genetics.  Before you start googling, the company was subsequently sold and has now been defunct for years.  However, at that time they were doing custom processing of private forensic samples.
Yes, anything like that is considered forensic.  Anything you have to extract DNA from before you can have it processed in a regular lab is forensic work.
So, I got an estimate, took out a loan, and told them to go ahead.  You think I’m kidding, but I’m not.  The cost was in the $2000 range FOR EACH ATTEMPT.  So, we tried the envelope first.  No DNA.  Then we tried the stamp.  We got DNA, but it was female, so we knew it was contaminant DNA.  Think of how many people handle an envelope in the processing and delivery of mail, not to mention all the people who had handled it since.
Then we tried a second envelope.  No dice.
TWO THOUSAND DOLLARS! With less than 50% chance of success! Even if it's the person we think it is. For most of us, that is off the table.

Letters from Penza 
We actually have nine envelopes sent from Penza (Russia) where my great-grandfather lived his last years. Sometime during or (more likely) after the First World War, my great-grandfather and namesake Israel David Rosenbloom left - or was exiled from - Borisov (Barysaw) in today's Belarus and ended up in Penza, 680 miles away. With him were his second wife Yenta and her daughter Sonia (Sousha Chana) Resnikov and her family. The daughter they had together, Mera, was probably with them at first but by 1929, she was a physician living in Moscow. Also in Moscow was Israel David's daughter Alta Kaplan, from his late first wife Etta Bryna.

Israel David and Etta Bryna had two other children in the United States - my grandmother Sarah in Vandergrift Pennsylvania and Chaim Benzion (Uncle Hymen) who lived in Brooklyn. There was correspondence between the family in Russia and the family in the US during the 1920s, but only Uncle Hymen's copies survive.

I have nine envelopes and five letters addressed to Uncle Hymen. Fortunately he opened most of them with a letter opener, so the sealed flaps are largely intact. I scanned the nine envelopes and sent them to a company who offers this service and between three and seven were considered suitable for DNA extraction. The ones I list here as "maybe" were the result of comments like "if this was your only sample for this person we would attempt extraction on it."
Three are considered suitable for DNA extraction. Maybe four others. The identity of Mendel Wolfson is unknown.

There are five letters. I have copies of the Yiddish originals and translations into English of all five. I think that they are numbered in the order they were translated. Translations were done by various people, all arranged and paid for by Uncle Hymen's daughter, Cousin Ethel Klavan.

Letter #1
A six-page letter dated 30 September 1930 and opens "Dear Brother Yankev," so it would have been
Lieber Bruder Yankev
written by the step-daughter Sonia Resnikov. She mentions writing to their mother - whom we know to have been in Penza - so she was elsewhere. We knew that her brother had come to the US but never had much success looking for him. She mentions his wife and children, whom we know nothing about. In any event, this doesn't appear to be from one of the nine envelopes. It is an interesting snapshot of life in Stalin's USSR and perhaps I shall post the translation separately.

I don't know why Uncle Hymen had this letter. Perhaps his step-brother lived with him for a time, though they are not together in the 1930 census. The same census has a Jacob Bandes family living on Eastern Parkway, about two miles away, who may or may not be the step-brother.

Letter #2
"Israel David Rosenbloom" in his own hand?
A two-page letter from Israel David Rosenbloom to his son Uncle Hymen ("Chaim Bentshe"). He mentions that his grandson "Alta's Jakov" visited, met a girl and married her and that they have a daughter, making him a great-grandfather. The implication is that this is the first great-grandchild. This daughter died in childhood, and we do not know exactly when she was born.

The family knows that Jakov's wife Fania Pinskaya was from Penza and this confirms my assumption on how that came about.

Letter #3
A letter that is less than a page and a half in the same handwriting as letter #2. The letter is undated but the translation is stapled to a copy of the December 1928 envelope. I am not sure if that attribution is correct. The letter thanks Uncle Hymen for the $10 that he sent for Passover, eight months earlier than the date on that envelope.

The letter concludes "Regards from Alte and her children. She already has 2 grandchildren from her two sons, both girls." The second granddaughter is still living (in Moscow) and she says that she was born 23 August 1928.
I think the handwriting is the same on all three of these letters.
Letter #4
Lieber Kinder - Dear Children
This two-page letter opens "Dear Children" is specifically signed "Your mother, Yente." It is confusing and that may be the fault of the translator. The date "27th" appears at the top. The handwriting is the same as in letters 2 and 3, so it appears that one of the couple did the writing for both of them.

Letter #5
This two-page letter is definitely from daughter Mera to Uncle Hyman and it is dated 13 October 1929. The translation does not cover the entire letter. Mera thanks him for sending regards with someone named Mendel and that may be the man whose name appears on the last envelope. Mera lived in Moscow, so perhaps none of the envelopes are hers.

The card
There is also a card which records the receipt in Penza of seventy-eight francs on 23 April 1929 by Israel David Rosenbloom. My cousin Katya translated the card and added "due to his illiteracy in accordance to his personal request it is signed by (signature)." The reverse side says that it was sent to my great-grandfather in Penza.

I assume that he may have been illiterate in Russian but surely he read and wrote Yiddish. Katya suggests that perhaps "he decided that in 1929 it was safer to pretend being illiterate." I mention this because it may be relevant to the question who addressed and sealed the Rosenbloom Penza envelopes

totheletter DNA
Recently there have been new developments. Blaine Bettinger blogged about this a few weeks ago and has since revised it with updates. Blaine himself has sent envelopes to an Australian testing company called totheletter DNA. This is the company to whom I showed my nine scans. Their testing process has multiple stages:
  • You send them scans of the front and back of the envelope and they tell you if it appears to be suitable for DNA extraction. That part of the service is free.
  • You place the order for A$781.50 (=US$559.90) and send them the envelope.
  • They attempt to extract DNA, which costs A$140 (=~US$100). That part of the cost is non-refundable, regardless of the results.
  • If the extraction is successful, the actual genotyping costs A$621.50 (~US$445). That is refunded if the extraction is unsuccessful.
  • The last A$20 is for the cost of returning the envelope to the customer.
The company will upload the autosomal results to GEDmatch (Genesis) as part of the service.

(MyHeritage has announced that they will be offering a similar service, but they have not yet said what their prices will be and what exactly they will be offering. Nor are they willing to give a timetable for providing these details.)

The Mission
I would love to try this extraction and genotyping on at least one of the envelopes, but US$560 each is beyond my budget. Perhaps some of my family members would like to step up and help out. I think I would send the three envelopes which they deem "suitable" and let the company itself choose the one that looks the best for a start. If that one shows matches with us - the fifteen tested great-grandchildren - of 600-1000 cM, we would know it is Israel David's DNA. If not, we could consider whether to try another. We have the advantage here of knowing that none of the other of the Penza Rosenblooms (except Mera who lived in Moscow) has any of our Rosenbloom DNA.

The three "suitable" envelopes. One even has a bit of a stamp.
Housekeeping notes
I shall be speaking, in Hebrew, for the Rishon LeZion branch of the Israel Genealogical Society on Monday, 14 January at 7 PM at the Rishon LeZion Museum, 2 Ahad Haam Street. This is not a DNA presentation, though there are a few DNA references. The topic is

מֵעֵבֶר לְסָפֵק סָבִיר
מה שיודעים, לעומת מה שאפשר להוכיח
What We Know vs. What We Can Prove

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