Monday, March 8, 2010

Amanuensis Monday: Interview with Sissie Feinstein - December 1987

Amanuensis: A person employed to write what another dictates or to copy what has been written by another.

I continue my project to transcribe family letters, journals, audiotapes, and other historical artifacts. Not only do the documents contain genealogical information, the words breathe life into kin - some I never met - others I see a time in their life before I knew them. If you choose to join me in Amanuensis Monday and post your transcriptions, feel free to add a link to your post in the comments.

This week I start a transcription of another family history tape. This one is quite different from the tape my maternal grandfather and his siblings created in 1977. Ten years later, in 1987, a professional oral historian was hired to conduct individual interviews with my grandparents. My paternal grandmother, Belle "Sissie" Feinstein, was 73 years old at the time of her interview.

Below are the first ten minutes.

Note: I have contacted the oral historian, and while she thinks what I am doing is great, she desires not to be identified. At one point below my grandmother refers to her by name, so I have edited that out.


: It’s December 29th, 1987 and I’m at the home of Sissie Newmark. Tell me your full name
Sissie: Well, my real name is Belle Feinstein Newmark, but I’ve been called Sissie all my life.
Interviewer: Why?
Sissie: Well, I had a brother that was a year and a half older than I, and he said “we have a Sissie in the family.” And I also had a cousin who was named Belle at the same time. So between the two of us, they called me Sissie and they called her Belle.
Interviewer: Were you named after anyone?
Sissie: Yes, we were, after my mother’s mother. My grandmother.
Interviewer: Her name was Belle?
Sissie: Belle.
Interviewer: We’ll talk about her in a little bit. When were you born?
Sissie: August 14, 1914.
Interviewer: And where?
Sissie: St. Louis, Missouri.
Interviewer: In a home?
Sissie: Yes, on Shawmut.
Interviewer: Was it an apartment or a house?
Sissie: I think…I’m not sure. I think it was a two family.
Interviewer: Like a flat?
Sissie: Yes, two family.
Interviewer: And so the doctor came to your house.
Sissie: I guess, I think so.
Interviewer: Your mom didn’t talk about that?
Sissie: No, but I’m pretty sure I was born at home.
Interviewer: What hundred Shawmut.
Sissie: I don’t remember, was there a 1400? I don’t remember. Something like that, I’m not sure.
Interviewer: How far west was it?
Sissie: Ahhh. How far west?
Interviewer: Near Kingshighway?
Sissie: No, it was further west.
Interviewer: Union?
Sissie: Further west than that. It was between somewhere around, not Hamilton.
Interviewer: Clara
Sissie: Something like that, yes.
Interviewer: Would the building still be there?
Sissie: Who knows.
Interviewer: I think you should go explore it with your children.
Sissie: I think maybe I should, but I have no idea in the world if it’s still there, I haven’t been there in years.
Interviewer: Maybe with your grandchildren.
Sissie: I wouldn’t know where to look, but I’m going to try. I know I’ve been back there.
Interviewer: Have you?
Sissie: But it’s been so long. It’s been so long.
Interviewer: Well, it would be an excursion.
Sissie: Yeah, I think it was 1400, right around there.
Interviewer: What was your dad’s name?
Sissie: Herman Max Feinstein.
Interviewer: Do you know when he was born?
Sissie: Um, let’s see now, he would be 101 now. So that would make it 1886. 1886, I think that’s right.
Interviewer: And where was he born?
Sissie: He was born in Poland.
Interviewer: Do you know where?
Sissie: No.
Interviewer: What part of Poland, did they talk about whether it was near Russia or Germany?
Sissie: It was probably near Russia.
Interviewer: In a town, village.
Sissie: He came here at such an early age, that, I think he was 4 when he came here.
Interviewer: With his family? With his parents?
Sissie: I think so. I wouldn’t swear. He’s…There’s a question as to whether or not his name was Feinstein. At times I hear stories that he picked up the name from someone that was right in front of him.
Interviewer: That’s cute.
Sissie: Yeah. There were a few brothers that came together.
Interviewer: Earlier?
Sissie: No with my father.
Interviewer: With your father.
Sissie: There were cousins that came later, with a different name like Odelson. Someone said his name was Dudelzak, but might have been teasing, but I think it was Odelson before it became Feinstein.
Interviewer: So that’s possibly the family name.
Sissie: What Odelson? I think so, somewhere along the line.
Interviewer: Well, he didn’t talk about with whom he came?
Sissie: No. If he did I don’t remember.
Interviewer: Who were these brothers?
Sissie: None of them are, well one is still alive. There was Ben, Harry, Aaron
Interviewer: And you knew these guys.
Sissie: Yes.
Interviewer: As you were growing up. Three brothers.
Sissie: No no. Aaron is still alive, he’s the youngest. He had two sisters. Pearl and Rose. Let me see if there was another brother.
Interviewer: Was this a close family?
Sissie: Yes, at one time it was very close until one of them married out of the faith. Then they sorta split up. But they grew up together. And the grandma, I remember the grandma, his mother. I don’t remember his father. His father’s name was Seymour Feinstein.


Interviewer: And the grandma?
Sissie: I think it was Anna.
Interviewer: Describe her to me.
Sissie: I really didn’t know her too well, but she was, you know, I really didn’t know her that well.
Interviewer: But she lived at the time you were born
Sissie: She lived while I was growing up, I think my husband remembers her too
Interviewer: That’s interesting
Sissie: She lived with her daughters, with Pearl and Rose.
Interviewer: What did Seymour do when he came to the United States?
Sissie: I don’t know.
Interviewer: You didn’t hear?
Sissie: All I can remember is his picture.
Interviewer: Did they live in St. Louis
Sissie: Yes.
Interviewer: From their first journey?
Sissie: Right.
Interviewer: Did anyone talk to you like the uncles about their trip to the US?
Sissie: No
Interviewer: Or what they did in Poland?
Sissie: No. I was really never close to that side of the family for some crazy reason.
Interviewer: Well, that’s possible.
Sissie: Yeah, I know them all very well. I knew them all very well. But I was never close to them.
Interviewer: Well, Aaron still lives.
Sissie: Aaron still lives.
Interviewer: In St. Louis?
Sissie: No he lives in New Jersey.
Interviewer: With children, that you know?
Sissie: He never had any children. He was married several times.
Interviewer: So it’s possible that although they all called themselves Feinstein, that might have been picked up at Ellis Island, or some place?
Sissie: That’s right.
Interviewer: Do you believe that your Dad came over to the US with his family.
Sissie: Yes. I know he came with his brothers. He must have been more than four, what am I thinking about that they picked up the name of Feinstein. You know what, [interviewer's name], I’m having a problem remembering, honestly.
Interviewer: Well these are our ideas, alright, so your Dad grew up in St. Louis. Where did he grow up.
Sissie: On Burd Avenue, in a home.
Interviewer: Well, alright. What position in the family was your dad, with these brothers and sisters.
Sissie: Ahhh, about lets see, Harry was older, and Ben was older. He was third.
Interviewer: Third. Alright, so did he discuss his growing up, living with all these kids.
Sissie: No.
Interviewer: Did he work as a young man?
Sissie: Yes, he worked. He worked for a, he was a driver. That’s how my mother met him. He was driving a laundry truck.
Interviewer: As a young man.
Sissie: Yes.
Interviewer: Well, then lets go back a little in time. Did his father have a store or anything.
Sissie: I don’t know, I doubt it.
Interviewer: What did his brothers do?
Sissie: Uhmm, let me think, I have no idea in the world. I know Aaron had a meat market on the east side, somewhere. But I have no idea what his brothers did.
Interviewer: How much education did your dad have?
Sissie: Just, I’m sure that grade school, possibly have been some high school, but I don’t remember
Interviewer: Or Jr. High.
Sissie: Yeah, something like that.
Interviewer: But he read and wrote
Sissie: Oh Yes.
Interviewer: And he spoke perfect English.
Sissie: Perfect
Interviewer: Because he came as a young man
Sissie: Yes. Perfect English.
Interviewer: Did he talk about working as a real young kid?
Sissie: No
Interviewer: Delivering newspapers, or various things?
Sissie: No.
Interviewer: What school did he go to?
Sissie: I have no idea.
Interviewer: Alright, they lived on Burd avenue, and stayed there awhile.
Sissie: I think he stayed there until he got married. Until he married my mother.
Interviewer: Did it sound to you like he had a happy childhood.
Sissie: He never complained, so I guess he did.
Interviewer: He was close to his family.
Sissie: Very.
Interviewer: How religious were they?
Sissie: father really wasn’t religious. His mother thought she was. [...] My father was very active at the … I can’t even remember the name of the synagogue.
Interviewer: Downtown?
Sissie: No, it was out west.
Interviewer: Would you call it an Orthodox or Conservative?
Sissie: At the time I think it was Orthodox. I think they thought they were.
Interviewer: More traditional.
Sissie: Yes.
Interviewer: Did they live in a neighborhood mainly peopled by Jewish people.
Sissie: As far back as I can remember it was not just Jewish people. I can only remember from Burd Avenue on.
Interviewer: And it was a mixed neighborhood.
Sissie: It was right across from the school. I thnk I started school there.
Interviewer: What school? [pause] So, after you were born, you lived in the same neighborhood.
Sissie: After I was born we bought a home on Burd, but a little bit North on Burd of where they lived.
Interviewer: General neighborhood.
Sissie: Right.

  • I find it interesting that when asked when her father was born, my grandmother figures it out by computing backwards from how old he would have been at the moment. It seems backwards from how I, and I assume most people would do it. We would know when he was born, and from that figure out how old he would be today. The simplest explanation I can come up with for this, is my grandmother knew her father was 28 years older than she was. So she started with her own age, and went from there. In the transcript you don't 'see' how quickly she does this, but even at age 73 she was pretty quick with numbers. She'll later say Math was her favorite subject in high school.
  • While she thought the 'Dudelzak' surname was a joke, I have found the passenger manifests for Selig Dudelsack and his brother Judal (Julius) Dudelsack. Julius changed his surname to Odelson. It's not clear why Selig chose 'Feinstein.' Family lore says the individual in front of him in the immigration line was named Feinstein. However, I have searched the Castle Garden records, and no Feinstein family is recorded as coming in at the same time. Though it's possible the online Castle Garden records aren't complete. He traveled alone under 'Dudelsack' in 1890. His wife, mother, and children followed in 1891 under the surname 'Feinstein.'
  • There is no evidence that her grandfather, Selig, ever went by the first name 'Seymour' while alive. However, all the grandchildren who were named after him were named 'Seymour,' including Sissie's younger brother. [It is a common Jewish practice to name someone after a deceased ancestor by choosing a name beginning with the same letter(s). It was also common to 'Americanize' a name in the same fashion.] So it isn't surprising that she said his name was 'Seymour.' She was six months old when he died. I suspect she knew he went by 'Selig,' but her memory was just playing a trick on her.
  • Herman was actually the second oldest child in the family. Ben was younger.
  • Sissie mentions her only memory of her grandfather is a photograph. I would love to have that photograph! Her words give me hope that I might someday see his face.

1 comment:

Heather Wilkinson Rojo said...

This is fascinating! Last year I transcribed a tape my grandmother left, telling about her childhood in Yorkshire before emigrating in 1915 to come to Massachusetts. I should dig it out and post some of it!