Photo of Wendy's grandparents, Sarah Pfeiffer and Morris (Moshe) Blitz, with their oldest daughter Fanny, taken in New York City, circa 1903. Of her uncle Wolf, there is no known photo.
Like most Ashkenazi Jews, I was named for someone I never met, my great uncle Wolf (Velvel) Pfeiffer. I had spent years searching for records of him, but never made any progress until I figured out that everything my mother ever told me about our family history was wrong.
All I “knew” was that he came to Ellis Island with my grandparents, Moshe (Morris) Blitz and Sarah Pfeiffer Blitz, when they emigrated from Austria a century ago. Wolf was my grandmother's brother. But the US government initially rejected Wolf because of a physical deformity. Beyond that, it was all a blur.
The first problem was the dates. My Grandmother always told us that she came over in “1898, the year McKinley was shot.” President McKinley, of course, was shot by assassin Leo Czolgosz in 1901, three years later, but I had a rough timeframe.
So I spent countless hours scouring the Ellis Island database but never found a trace of either my grandparents or Uncle Wolf. I checked records of arrivals via Canada and entry ports other than New York, but found nothing there either. Then one night, too tired to sleep and feeling adventurous, I plugged “Wolf Pfeiffer” into the Ellis Island database search engine and expanded the search dates well beyond 1902 – ignoring the timeframe of family lore.
And there was his name, staring me right in the face: Wolf Pfeiffer, arrived at Ellis Island, November 3, 1906, on the steamship Bremen out of Hamburg, Germany. What’s more, the record showed him accompanying two children, not my grandparents. The two children were to be delivered to a brother of Wolf’s already living in the US. (Wolf and my grandmother had another brother? Who knew?) It listed this brother’s address as 336 E. Houston St., which I knew as the place where my grandparents lived on the Lower East Side in New York City (and I have the birth records of their three oldest daughters showing that address).
But what happened to Wolf? My scant knowledge of family legend led me to believe that he must have gotten into the country somehow, but the records disagreed: I found no further mention of him at Ellis Island, no trace of him at any other east coast ports, no census records, no naturalization records, no draft, death, burial, or voter records, no mention in city directories or phone books.
Growing desperate, I turned to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS -- which today houses the Immigration Bureau and happens to have an excellent historical office) and submitted a FOIA request. I asked for anything they might have on a man named Wolf Pfeiffer, and provided all the particulars I could pull together. I waited, and waited, and … finally … got an answer. DHS had nothing, but they suggested I contact the National Archives (NARA) citing such-and-such a case number and ask them.
NARA – bless them -- answered quickly. And what they had was a one-in-a-million shot: the record of a deportation hearing. Very few of the people rejected at Ellis Island knew enough – or were bold enough – to request a hearing. My grandmother – who it now appears had reached America a few years before Wolf, possibly via Canada – had been here long enough to know the ropes. My Uncle Wolf not only requested a hearing, but the file shows that he even managed to get a letter of support from a Congressman.
Reading the brief hearing transcript from 1906 is a chilling window on a long-ago disaster for my family. At the hearing, my grandmother testified and presented her bankbook to show the inspector that she could support another family member, and then the brother I had not previously known about testified that he could give Wolf a job. They deported him anyway. Why? Because the Ellis Island doctor found that Uncle Wolf had bad posture, a curved back. Because of this, the Ellis Island inspectors decided that Uncle Wolf would likely become a public charge and, as a result, could not enter the country. Instead, they decided to divide the family again and deport my uncle back to Europe.
Wolf may have hurt his case at the hearing with something he said. Wolf doubtless spoke Yiddish, so we have these words through a stenographer, who had it from an interpreter: “I did not care to come, only to bring these children,” Wolf is noted as saying. But in my heart, I believe Wolf was rejected because he looked and sounded too much like an Eastern European Jew at a time when prejudice still flourished. Had his name been William Piper, had he spoken with a different accent or cadence, we could have had a different outcome.
A hundred years later, I stood at Ellis Island, looking through a glass barrier at the room where the hearing had taken place, and held back tears.
So, after all the searching, I know one solid fact: Wolf was deported. What happened after that is a mystery. Did he return to America in first or second class rather than steerage? There would be no record. Did he enter the US through Canada? Did he never come back at all? Is that why there’s no photograph of him?
I have tried to trace my grandmother’s other brother and his children. So far, nothing. Perhaps the spelling of Pfeiffer was simplified or mangled in the documents, or the name Taube became Toby or Ruchel became Rose or Leib became Louie. Maybe they were missed or misspelled on the census. Maybe my research skills are not what they should be.
I found a record of a Wolf Pfeffer arriving in Philadelphia in 1913, but his age is off by about 10 years. And then another long shot -- I found a notation on the ship manifest of a relative who came later (another son of my grandmother’s previously-unknown brother) indicating that he had been naturalized. Perhaps I’ll get lucky tracking down his naturalization papers – which might lead me to census, marriage, and death records, and eventually to a living relative who is willing to talk to me.
But having converted a similar long shot into what is now a series of fun and rewarding relationships with many long-lost cousins on my father’s side, it’s a shot I’m willing to take.
And maybe someday I’ll find a photo and see the face of my namesake.
Wendy Griswold is a freelance writer and translator and passionate genealogist.