By Cindy Mindell ~
HARTFORD – For years, descendants of the Hartford-based Nassau family couldn’t find a record of their ancestors’ arrival at Ellis Island in 1912. And as the 100th anniversary of that milestone loomed, Lisa Koplowitz decided to take serious action.
The third-generation Nassau progeny and amateur genealogist was inspired by “Who Do You Think You Are?,” the NBC series that follows celebrities on their genealogical journeys.
When the show started two years ago, Koplowitz, who lives in Norwood, Mass., began researching her own family on Ancestry.com. In April, armed with her late grandfather’s birth-date and a family history edited by her first-cousin-once-removed, Avon resident Art Nassau, she tried to find out when the Nessitzkys-turned-Nassaus – Matilda and her eight children – had landed in New York to join Morris, who had already settled in Hartford.
Deciphering names processed at Ellis Island is no mean feat. There are transliterations and misspellings to sort through, not to mention the truncations and complete changes that take place. Even in the Nassau case, there were several variations on the original surname, as successive family members immigrated. One S or two? Was there a Z? E or I or both?
Koplowitz typed in her grandfather’s name, Aaron Nassau, to no avail. Then she tried Aaron Nessitsky; still nothing. “I sat stumped… and sad,” she says. “One more time, I prayed to my grandfather for help. Then I thought, it was Russia; the name probably wasn’t spelled the same.” She typed Aron Nessitzky. “My grandfather’s name was the first one to pop up on the list of possibilities. I knew it had to be him. I clicked on the link and opened the passenger manifest for the HMT Czar. And there they were, all nine of them in a row. I sat back, cried and called my mom.”
On June 11, 1912, Matilda Nessitzky arrived at Ellis Island with her eight children, Henrietta, Jonas, Isaac, Joseph, Samuel, Aaron, Benjamin, and Louis, ranging in age from 3 to 17.
Because of a misreading of “Nessitzky” as “Pessitzky” at Ellis Island, the family’s descendants had never been able to find the name on the passenger list.
Koplowitz says that she was able to have the spelling corrected in the Ellis Island archives.
Thanks to her detective work, more than 50 members of the Nassau family gathered at Ellis Island on June 10 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the family’s arrival.
How had “Nessitzky” evolved into “Nassau?” In editing the family history, Art Nassau relied on a memoir by his Uncle Isaac, who had written, “For a long time, Father had been dreaming about going to
America, but this pogrom determined him. His younger brother, Sam, had emigrated to America a year or two previously and was living in New York. At Ellis Island, the authorities named him Nesso, but Uncle Sam later changed it to Nassau.”
Family lore has it that it was Reuven – later Robert – Nessitzky, the first son to leave Russia, who changed the name while waiting for a New York bound passenger ship in England.
The eight children who arrived at Ellis Island 100 years ago had grown up in Maslja’s home town, Ivye, near Vilna. Their grandfather, Jonathan Nessitzky, was a Talmud scholar and Hebrew teacher. Among his students was Chaim Weitzmann, who credits Nessitzky in his autobiography for inspiring his love of Zionism. Their father, Moshe, was also a Hebrew teacher, and left in 1907 to join his brother, Shmuel, in Hartford. Moshe worked for five years to save money to bring over of the rest of the family. Adopting the surname his brother, now Samuel Nassau, had taken, he became known as Morris Nassau. When his wife and children arrived, Maslja became Matilda and they all adopted the new surname.
Family lore has it that Moshe’s brother, Reuben, who had immigrated to New York a few years earlier, had seen the name “Nassau” in Southampton, England while waiting to set sail,
and was the first to use it in his new homeland. The eight children went on to exemplify the American dream, Art says. Samuel and Jonas started well-known furniture stores in Hartford and Paterson, N.J. Henrietta married a farmer and owned a dress shop in Springfield, Mass. Joseph practiced dentistry in Hartford for more than 40 years and taught at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine. Benjamin won a four-year scholarship to Yale, and was joined there by Aaron and Louis. Isaac attended Wesleyan and went to Yale Law School, where brothers Aaron, Benjamin, and Louis followed him – the only four brothers to ever attend the school. Benjamin became a partner in the New York law firm, Fried Frank. Isaac, Aaron, and Louis practiced law in Hartford. Aaron was a partner in Elsner and Nassau; Louis was founding partner of Rogin and Nassau.
While some descendants remained in greater Hartford, the family has spread out across the country and even as far as Singapore. Still, seven of the eight siblings were represented at the Ellis Island reunion.