Updated: May 9, 2018
By Frederick Hertz -
My great-grandfather David Blumenfeld arrived as a 20-year-old tailor with his mother and siblings in 1884, traveling from Western Latvia (Courland) to reunite with their father, who had arrived the prior year. After sojourns in Michigan, Minneapolis, and Chicago, he settled in South St. Paul in 1902 and ran a men’s clothing store until his death in 1955. Over the decades he also wrote many novels, poetry books and essays, some of which were self-published and the bulk of which went missing upon his death.
Some 50 years later the box of unpublished manuscripts turned up in the basement laundry room of our Episcopalian cousin in Seattle, having been passed from various family members over the years. The best of these volumes is a novelized family story, entitled Diary, which opens in the 1840s and tells the family story until 1921. Its discovery has taken us on a remarkable family journey: reuniting the Jewish descendants with the non-Jewish cousins, and eventually, reconnecting us with our distant cousins in California and Israel – including some who survived the Shoah in Latvia and emigrated to the United States as Soviet Jewish refusniks in the 1980s.
Along the way we have journeyed to Latvia to visit David Blumenfeld’s home town – a still-intact East Prussian-era village – to stand in front of his childhood home as well as that of his father, walking on the same cobblestone streets and visiting the former local synagogue, now a gymnasium where the women’s galleries are the upper bleacher seats. We have traded stories with the descendants of his cousins who migrated to Palestine in the 1920s, comparing our personal histories and our shared values and origins. We have found the ship records of the family migration, the death records of the ancestors in Latvia, and the photos of relatives across the globe.
Perhaps of greatest importance, we’ve been able to “wake” David Blumenfeld, and hear in his own words why his family decided to leave their rather comfortable lives in Latvia, why they chose to come to Minnesota, and how they struggled for nearly two decades to find a viable and even prosperous life in the land David referred to as the “Continent of Glory.”
You can find a video recording on youtube of a talk given by Frederick Hertz about the discovery of the Diary and the family history project that grew out of the discovery.