Gather 'Round my "Virtual Hearth" for Some Family Stories

Today for many of you, whether you celebrate Christmas or not, is a day many will spend time gathered with family. And, for many of you who are reading this, it could also be a very difficult time of year or perhaps you are far away from family. Please know you are NOT alone.

Sometimes, simply imagining or knowing that there are those who came before you, knowing that there are generations and hundreds of people who are out there who came before you, can help you to not feel so alone. Sometimes this image and feeling gives me comfort in tough times, too. It’s also a beautiful reminder in joyous times.

As I had mentioned the other week, one of the ways in which you can learn about your family story is through family autobiographies or audio/videos (you’d be surprised as to who has what!)

Last year, when I was learning some family stories from my aunt, she showed me a copy of the 1983 Levine Cousin’s Club newsletter. My great-grandfather, Samuel Israel Levine, was one of NINE children! So you can imagine the need for the cousins to come together every year to see each other. I remember going to a few when I was younger, but today the tradition seems to have continued in a private Facebook group!

Uncle Joe Levine

Uncle Joe Levine

The newsletter was honoring one of Sam Israel Levine’s younger brothers Joseph Levine aka “Uncle Joe” on his 75th birthday and he shares “The History of the Levine Family”. Uncle Joe died after I was born, but I honestly don’t remember if I met him, but I feel like I know him just by reading his words. It was dictated and someone in the family typed it out.

In it he describes the town where he came from, most of the names of the people in the family including some of my 3x great grandparents, their children and their spouses and their children. He describes what his siblings and their spouses were like. He describes his journey over to the United States and so much more!

I’ll only share a small excerpt as it’s very long (about 6 minutes on audio).

But matter what, I’d love for you to join me as I share an excerpt from my great-great-uncle’s telling of one of the branches of my story. Gather ‘round the virtual hearth, and perhaps imagine that this story is also part of your story because we are all part of the tapestry of the history of the world. This story IS part of your story.

Click play and/or read his words below :)

If you prefer to listen than read click below.

Excerpt from “The History of the Levine Family” as dictated by Joseph Levine, 1983


The story begins in a small Russian town, Molodechna. This was a small market town, about 37 miles northwest of Minsk in Russia [today both are in Belarus]. Molodechna is of equal distance from the large city of Vilna. It is interesting to note that it was in Molodechna where, in December of 1812, Napoleon issued his orders for the retreat of his army, which had attempted to conquer Russia.

Molodechna was a town which had a central square where the large Russian church stood. Fanning out from this square were four streets, each of them named after a city located farther away in the direction in which the street ran. One was Minsk Street; another, Vileka Street; the third was Horadok Street; and the fourth was Vilna Street.

When I grew up in Molodechna, where I was born July 20, 1907, there could not have been more than approximately 1,000 people living in the town, with perhaps 90 percent of them Jews.

It was in Molodechna where Grandfather Mendel Brown [Jaclyn’s 3x great grandfather] (in Russian itw as Bruin) was married to Shifra Swartz. They were the parents of six children. The oldest was my mother, Chivya (Sylvia)…

Now I want to record the story of how my mother and her four [remaining] children left Molodechna and came to America after a journey of almost two years.

World War I started in 1914. At about the same time, Mother received passports to come to the United States with her children. Because of the war, we could not leave Molodechna, where we remained for one year. During this time, the Russians apparently lost many battles, and late in 1914, we began to see retreating troops marching through the town, as well as hundreds of heads of cattle, which the Russians were driving away from the battlefields.

One day, when I was in the chedar (like a Jewish boys’ elementary school), our rabbi suddenly ordered all of the children to run to their homes as quickly as possible. I was then about seven years old. We had a house in the center of town. As I ran toward my home, I saw people running toward the railroad station, carrying what few belongings they could. When I came home, Mother and we four children left the house, and we too ran to the railroad station.

A train with small freight cars was parked at the station, and people crowded into the train. Mother later told me how she threw what few belongings she carried into the freight car. Interestingly, one of the first things Mother took with her was a package with some of the fine bookbinding tools which Father had left for her to bring to America. Mother told me how, as the train filled up, she suddenly realized that she was leaving with four children, not knowing where they were going. She felt that she did not have enough food, or even clothing, for the children. She then talked to one of the men, and the two families decided to take a chance of leaving on a later train.

Leaving the children of the two families in a house near the railroad station, Mother told me how she and this other man began to look for a Russian with a wagon. Fortunately, they found a Russian with a large wagon which he was supposed to pick up a load of barbed wire. They gave him a substantial sum of money, and arranged for the Russian to drive them- during the night- to their respective homes, where they planned to pick up some food and clothing which they left behind. In order to get to the houses, the Russians had to drive around the outskirts. Mother described to me how, when she came to our house, it was already filled with Russians. With some difficulty, they got into the house, and Mother picked up a bag of bread and some articles of clothing. They then drove around the other part of town and came to her friend’s house, where they were able to get what they needed.

I remember that it was early morning, as the sun was rising, when we children and the children of the other family and the man’s wife, stood near the railroad station as we saw a wagon coming our way. Mother waved to us, and when the wagon came to the railroad station, we were all reunited.

Fortunately, a train pulled up to the station, and it was composed of what looked like open coal cars. After a wait of some time, the train began to pull out. We, of course, did not know where we were going.

I remember, as the train was leaving Molodechna, we saw smoke coming from one or more buildings which were on fire in the center of town. For all I know, our house could have been one of those buildings on fire.

It began to rain shortly after we left Molodechna. Between stops at every station enroute, we picked up more passengers. The train finally came to what I later learned was the city of Minsk. All of us were marched from the railroad station, and we came to what I later learned was the synagogue square in Minsk. On this square stood three large synagogues. We were directed to one of the buildings, which was filled with men, women and children. All of the benches in the synagogue were covered with the belongings of the refugees. Fortunately, after a day or two, my mother located one of the brothers of my father who lived in Minsk. We then moved to his small, crowded apartment, and we remained there until we started a journey which took us across Russia and Siberia, into the city of Harbin in Manchuria. From Manchuria, as I will describe later, we started another journey, which took us to Korean, Japan, across the Pacific Ocean, and finally to the United States, where we landed February 12, 1917.