The Oreckovsky Family: From Russia to America


by Len Traubman

In 1871, my father's grandparents, Nettie and Bernard Silberstein from Hungary, were the first Jewish newlyweds to make their home in Duluth, Minn., when it was a western frontier town with mostly Native Americans in the region. He established the first synagogue and the dry goods store that set the standard of quality for merchants who followed.

A decade later, my mother's grandfather, Joseph Oreckovsky from Russia, was sent soon after the first pogrom of 1881 to find a home in America for the family. With his brother, Israel, he came by ocean steamer, then on foot, rail, and boat across Canada along the north shore of Lake Superior to Duluth. "Why Duluth?" people ask. There are many opinions. No one knows. But we do know how, from the more worldly, literate Germanic Silbersteins, and more orthodox, spiritual, earthy Russian Oreckovskys, came the earliest models of Jewish religious, cultural, economic, and philanthropic leadership in Duluth.

It is about the Oreckovskys that I have just finished - "Thank God," my wife says - a 300 page, 200 photo hardcover illustrated genealogy of an immigrant family who, with hard work and love, brought many dozens of their kin to Duluth from Russia, now Ukraina. They had almost all reached Minnesota by 1890.


In the beginning, in the Russian Empire of the early 1800s were Abraham and Hykeh Oreckovsky, then their children - Anna, Samuel, Isaac, Beryl, Raphael, and Sarah. We lived in villages and shtetls, like Novoukrainka and Revutskoye, in the rich farmland between Odessa and Kiev, near Yelisavetgrad, now Kirovograd. At first we spoke Russian and Yiddish, then English, some better than others. We devotedly helped each other get from Russia to Duluth, Minnesota and Superior, Wisconsin, then to establish homes and businesses.

In 1995, eight generations and more than 900 descendants and 400 marriages later, we continue to discover our past and carry on the vision, pioneering spirit, and determination of our ancestors.


About the book, people often ask, "Why did you do it?" They next inquire, "How did you organize it, involve other family members, and publish, all in just two years?"

Examining my own heart and motives, I suppose I was born to write this volume. I embarked on it realizing that the elders with their knowledge would soon be gone. My own character and soul, and surely many others', had been forged in great part by the people and their stories. And if I didn't do it, it looked as if it would never be done. The story of pioneer Jews would be lost for all time. I could not tolerate that possibility.

The manuscript's research and preparation was a huge, cooperative project involving many relatives, old and new friends, Jews and Gentiles. Within the 300 pages are some answers to the "whys" and "hows". On the Copyright Page: "A project of the heart, prompted by the need for story in these times, inspired by those who loved enough to keep the stories and photographs, compiled in thousands of hours with the generous cooperation of many, finished with the support of my dear wife, Libby, and by grace."

In the Introduction: "'Story' is important. It is about lives lived, lessons learned, wisdom gained. It communicates who we are, what we value, what we're made of. Our collective story binds us together with each other and the whole human family."

"The Oreckovsky (pronounced 'oh-reh-KHOV-skee') family story is full of human adventure. We learned from our mistakes, read the signs of the times, and were always willing to respond and change. There was, throughout, abundant love and devotion for one another and for the communities where we have lived."


Since the '60s, in my 20s, I had been keeping family information, photos, memorabilia, and old interview notes on scraps of paper. Exactly two years ago I discovered computer genealogy software and began entering family tree information - names, dates, places, narratives. Within a few months, my goal became to write a book. It was as if a mission had been handed to me; to be honest, I am missionary minded by nature, a "one" if you know the Enneagram personality chart.

I went to my first meeting of our San Francisco Jewish Genealogical Society, scratching lecture notes furiously about research methods - U.S. National Archives, Library of Congress maps, state and county vital records, city directories, court documents, old newspapers. I did it all, nights and days and weekends, when I wasn't treating patients in my pediatric dental practice or continuing our volunteer efforts with Israeli-Palestinian and Armenia-Azerbaijan peace dialogues. Early mornings before Cheerios and bananas were great times to phone from San Francisco to the East Coast for oral history interviews with the elders, and to ask for old photos. Evenings were best for West Coast relatives. Days were mostly for libraries, evenings for transferring notes to the computer. History revealed itself; the story unfolded.


Landing on the Atlantic Coast in 1883, my great-grandfather "Little Joe" and his brother Israel, sons of Samuel and Esther Bazelon Oreckovsky, walked most of the way to northern Minnesota along the construction route of the new Canadian-Pacific Railway. They peddled dry goods and watches to workers. Trying to walk Lake Superior's north shore in winter, frostbite stopped them half way. In Spring, 1884 they arrived by boat in Duluth Harbor, among the first eastern Europeans there.

They soon sent for Israel's wife Lena and son Solomon, and many other Oreckovsky relatives. Among them was Joseph's first cousin, Hannah Oreckovsky. They promptly fell in love and married. Their daughter, Mary, my grandmother, was the first of us born in America. She was to become our mid-20th century matriarch and keeper of family tradition. From these beginnings, there were soon several hundred relatives and dear friends from Russia in, of all places, Duluth.

"Little Joe" established a clothing shop, Israel a jewelry store. Some were peddlers and sold second-hand goods. But "Big Joe" founded Duluth's prominent First Street Department Store mercantile business, and expanded his success into real estate and mining. He generously helped many immigrant Jews and Gentiles. He also gave an annual November dinner party for the orphans at the Duluth Children's Home, where he was known as "Mr. Thanksgiving." All this time, cousin Yosef Mendel Oreckovsky, well-trained in Russia, was assistant rabbi at Orthodox Temple Tifereth Israel and later helped found Congregation Adas Israel, the "Fourth Street shul."

Women of substance strongly influenced their families and the community. Sarah Oreckovsky Averbook, petite and less than five feet tall, left Russia on her own with two children and an infant. They forded streams and hid in chicken coops, finally sailing from Hamburg to join her husband Azreal in Duluth-Superior. He was a tailor and "yeshiva bukher," and student of the Torah and Talmud. It was Sarah who became the very smart family businessperson and bought property with every penny she saved. She also had a reputation for always having a kosher meal for travelling Jewish immigrants and peddlers.

Gabriel's wife, Lena Polinsky Oreckovsky, was the president of Oreck's Department Store and one of the leading businesswomen in the upper Midwest. In another vein, matriarch Anna "Mimi Yente" Oreckovsky Shapiro (1836-1916), Moishe Shaiya's wife, "..although blind and crippled..remained a brilliant woman. She was very wise, and people used to come seeking her advice. She often had two or three visitors at her side. And Grandma always had some money wrapped up inside a handkerchief for charity. She never turned down anyone in need." The Oreckovsky women and their daughters were taught to support Jewish life in Duluth - Hadassah, Council of Jewish Women, Women's B'nai B'rith, and temple sisterhoods.

My beloved grandmother, Mary, although asking her seven children to marry within the Jewish religion, herself was rather progressive. She added to her interests Eastern Star, and was known for opening her home to PTA meetings bringing together families of various backgrounds.

On "Charles D. Oreckovsky Appreciation Day" in Duluth, this most benevolent of Oreckovskys was honored for "participation in almost every drive and project for the betterment of our people." Born in Russia, he came to Duluth at age seven. "Charlie O." helped found the Community Chest, Fatherless Boys, Heart Fund, Council of Jewish Agencies, and Covenant Lodge of B'nai B'rith. He was a tireless worker for St. Mary's Hospital, Temple Emanuel, and the Red Cross. These narrative profiles document just a few of the women and men in this family who helped each other come from Russia and contribute to American life.


More helpers for the book came forth. During the two years, copies of old photos flew back and forth across the country, as relatives and friends identified long-gone faces, and translated Hebrew and Yiddish writing; I could do the Russian. The task of gathering, duplicating, and safely returning the original precious photographs added no small dimension of responsibility, even anxiety.

With my home computer and modem, I logged on to the local genealogy bulletin board network and JewishGen, the international Jewish genealogy computer network. Helpful data and research ideas flowed in from helpers all over North America and the world. Near the end, I made computer electronic mail contact with a young Jewish journalist living near our shtetl! In his Ukrainian archives he found old 1800s Russian documents about our family. He sent photocopies for the book with a traveler, and more data by e-mail.


My mother had already told me stories about her great-grandfather, Raphael Oreckovsky (1844-1936), the patriarch. He had been a principled and successful wheat merchant in Russia, compromising neither on grain quality nor his agreements and promises. She remembered the family gathering around "The Zeidah" every Sunday; "He would crack hazelnuts, put them in the bottom of glasses he would fill with wine, then kiss the children as he served each of them a glass."

The new found documents from Russia also revealed that, prior to following his children to Duluth, he had also been a spiritual teacher, the "Elder of the 5th House of Prayer" in Novoukrainka. Other papers showed that the family's previous home in the late 1700s or early 1800s was to the west of Ukraina in Kishinev, Bessarabia, now Moldova. Due to the end of the Cold War, increasing global collaboration, and communication technology, we gained new knowledge of ourselves across the Atlantic Ocean and former Iron Curtain, and it was satisfying.


I had to decide if I should live a reasonably normal life and do the project in a prolonged five or so years, or do all the research, interviews, writing, graphics, and 200 photos in an intense, unnatural two years. I chose the latter. Promising the family a deadline and delivery date helped the book "happen." I guess the decision depends on one's personality. For me, total focus helps my creativity and problem-solving process. The result: exhausted satisfaction, in search of sleep.

The scary part was anticipating the mechanics and cost of printing a book. This was a whole new world unknown to me. I gained knowledge by first getting estimates from several printers. Fortunately I found a friend who knew graphics, and a skilled, supportive printer's representative to finally hold my hand and guide me through the steps.

More decisions. Hard or soft cover? Regular or coated paper? Print just enough or a surplus? Seeing the richness of the photographs and stories, I chose a beautiful red linen hardcover, coated paper to honor the photos, and an excess of books for the children who follow in our footsteps, proving it was a project of the heart (and not just of rational economics).

People ask, "What did you leave out?" To limit the book in size and cost, I chose to focus on the stories and photos of only those born in the 1800s and very early 1900s. The newer generations are recorded in the last half of the book, but it will be for another time and author to tell and illustrate their stories.


The 600 books arrived from the printer last December, 1994. Deep satisfaction and thoughts rushed in: I wish my grandmother, Mary Oreckovsky Oxman, who cared so deeply about family and kept so many photographs, could be alive to see it; the money to research and publish - not a trivial amount - now seemed very little in proportion to the significance of this gift to posterity; and what a great use of one's life and time, to discover, record, and pass on people's stories and roots - to have forever.

The day before I sent the manuscript to the printer, I was moved to add a portion of text in a small box on the book's last page. It summarized how I am now influenced by my Jews of Duluth, and what it means to me - and perhaps to you - to be a Jew in our times.

"From those women and men
of great spirit, intelligence, and strength
who came before us and said 'yes' to life,
may we embody the best of their qualities.
In gratitude for their lives lived,
let us now continue to build a world
based on love, and on our inherited wisdom
about the oneness of the Creator and of the Creation
in all its fabulous diversity of nations, races, religions, species.
As sure as the Oreckovskys and families like them were
pioneer people with vision and courage in changing times,
so can we follow in their footsteps, living our lives
in awe of all that has come before us,
and in devotion to each other and our
precious global living community,
knowing who we are."

This article was published in Jewish Book World, Fall 1995, by the
Jewish Book Council, 15 East 26th Street, New York, NY 10010-1579

Man uncovers family history through use of Internet
Tri-City Herald -- Washington -- 25 June 1995
An article about the writing of this book

Creating Our Family Tree Book
SHEMOT: The Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain
London -- October 1995
Another publication describing the books creation

Book description and ordering information

Editor: Lionel "Len" Traubman, DDS, MSD

The Oreck Foundation, San Francisco, CA; December, 1994
322 pages; 200 photographs; graphics and maps
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 94-69454
ISBN 1-881529-05-3
$35, plus $5.00 packaging and handling (a non-profit project)
Mail orders to the author.

Author contact information:
Len Traubman, DDS
1448 Cedarwood Drive
San Mateo, CA 94403
Phone: 650-574-8303
Fax: 650-573-1217


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