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Magaziners and Prenskys Come To America – 2

December 8, 2020

On February 10, 1914, six months prior to the outbreak of World War One. Abe Prensky renounced all allegiances to other foreign governments – in his case the government of “Nicolas II, Emperaor of all the Russias” and swore allegiance to the United States of America. Four months later, on June 11, 1914 he was sworn in as a citizen of the United States of America. Seven years after he arrived in the United States through Ellis Island, my paternal grandfather had become a U.S. citizen. Three years prior, on March 15, 1911 he had married my grandmother, Molly Jackson in a civil ceremony. Both had been born in 1888 in the Pale, that area of the Russian Empire to which Jews were restricted;  he in Grodno Gubernia, today in Belarus, she in the Vilnius (Vilna) Ghetto, destroyed like so many others by the Nazis and their Lithuanian henchmen during World War II.

The fifth of seven siblings (five brothers and a sister, Bertha) all of whom had emigrated to the United States from Grodno, he was a 24 year old plasterer, she, 20 years old was unemployed, living at 55 Forsyth St (an address that no longer exists underneath the Brooklyn Bridge on the Manhattan side). The marriage certificate No 8248 of the City of New York Department of Health stated that Abe Prensky, who resided at 330 E. 120 St., Manhattan (today in Harlem) was born in “Russia” and that his father was Chiam (misspelled – its Chaim) Prensky, and his mother Ida Pairs. Mollie Jackson’s father was named Julius Jackson – certainly the Americanization of an Eastern European Jewish name), her mother, one Lea Dubinsky.

Abe and Molly Prensky would remain married for 37 years until he died in 1947. Mollie Prensky would live on until 1971. Abe Prensky rose from being a plasterer to a contractor. He was doing well until the 1929 Depression hit, wiping him out. From then on he, his wife Molly and their two children Ruth and Herb Prensky (my father) would live in poverty. For a time, life’s pressures resulted in Abe Prensky becoming an alcoholic and an abusive husband. My father relates that on several occasions he can to blows with his father, to restrain him from beating up on Grandma Mollie. No small achievement, Abe Prensky beat the alcoholism and settled down, the abuse subsided. Abe Prensky developed tuberculosis, spent some time in a sanitarium in Denver, Colorado but never recovered. It eventually killed him. When he died, he had been in the United States forty years. Both he and Grandma Mollie are buried at the Beth Israel Cemetery in North Woodbridge New Jersey in a plot that was bought by the Congregation B’nai Israel of Millburn, New Jersey. In death, Abe and Mollie Prensky lie peacefully side by side with no indication, none, of the abuse Mollie had suffered for many years..

Probably because of the painful memories my father had of preventing his father from physically abusing Grandma Mollie, he virtually never spoke to me of his extended family relations, the Prenskys. It was only in the years prior to his death that my father shared with me the pain of growing up with an abusive father. Thanks to a carefully constructed, well researched family history compiled by William J. Prensky, a first cousin to my father, Herb Prince (b. Prensky) we know the main details of the Prensky family history going back to 1800. Growing up, I knew very little – no, none of this – until Bill Prensky sent me a copy of a family genealogy. My father, both in his impatience to assimilate to American society and because of a poor relationship with his father, rarely, if ever, talked about what turned out to be his extensive family network. Never visited any of his uncles and my cousins on that side of the family nor did I know they existed.

Graves of Abe and Molly Prensky, Beth Israel – North Woodbridge New Jersey Cemetery

Shortly after “The Prensky’s, A Family History 1800-1995″ appeared, the Prensky’s had a family reunion, if I remember correctly it was in Philadephia. Both my sisters, Sarabelle Prince and Laurie Aronstein attended. I regret to have missed it but being here in Colorado and working at the time, it was not possible. Several hundred people – all in one way or another Prenskys were in attendance. A whole world my sisters and I did not know existed and participation in which we had been denied most of our lives, came alive. We were a part of something much bigger than we had imagined.

Let us start off with the name before delving into the family history that Bill Prensky was so generous to share with us. He puts the name in historical perspective and accurately so. “Jews did not always have (family) surnames.” True enough. Neither did others. For three millenia the way that Jews could be identified was through their fathers, what is referred to as the patronymic system. Had the tradition continued I would simply be Robert Ben Herbert – my father’s first name being Herbert, the “Ben” here meaning son of.

All that changed after Russia, under the leadership of Catherine the Great at the time, took over the region. As William Prensky noted in his genealogy:

During the early 1800s in Eastern Europe systematic persecution forced Jews to abandon, in the secular world, the millennia old patronymics and adopt permanent family names. The host country’s motivation in requiring surnames served the primary purpose of readily identifying Jews (and others) for several important political functions, namely inscription into the host country’s army and the keeping of accurate census records.

Although there were a number of ways that surnames, last names were derived, essentially, they fell into two categories. They were based on geography (the region, town where people lived) or profession. Sometimes the names were based on personal characteristics too. In both the Russian and German (Prussian) areas of the partitioned regions, surnames became the rule of thumb. Take the name “Prensky”. It specifically means someone (that is where the “sky” comes in) from Pren. But where is Pren? It is unlikely to be found on any map (look as I did, I doubt you’ll find it). The reason it is not found on maps is because “Pren” is the Jewish nickname given to the central Lithuanian town of Prienai, through which the Nieman River flows. Again as Bill Prensky notes, “The name Prensky appears in Vilna, Grodno, Bielsk and Troki during the 19th and 20th centuries. Prienai…was a small village located 30 kilometers south of the city of Kovno and north of the city of Grodno. It is located on the terraced left bank of the Nemunas (Nieman) River in Lithuania.”

So with a name of Prensky there is no doubt that sometime in the family history, the family came from Prienai, Lithuania although historical records places the family line of which we are a part 82 miles to the south, in Grodno, today in Western Belarus right near the eastern Polish Border. It is from Grodno that both Abraham Prensky, my paternal grandfather and Jude Magaziner, my maternal grandfather, both hailed and it is from there that, in order to escape twenty years of service in the Russian military, that they left the Pale and emigrated to the United States, Magaziner in 1904, Prensky in 1907.

The region from which all our relatives hail prior to 1772 was a part of what was called the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth which had existed from 1569 to 1791, a run of 222 years. Grodno, Bialystok, Vilnius and Prienai were all a part of that world. Jews lived here during the Commonwealth years among other ethnic and religious communities. Most of this region – which the Russians would later refer to as “the borderlands” – would become the legal entity of “The Pale” within the Russian Empire.  Jews were found in all three of the  zones partitioned in 1795, but it was in the Russian conquered lands – that would become the western regions of the Russian Empire that Jewish concentration was the most pronounced.

While after the collapse and partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth the region would experience a dramatic economic decline, during the Commonwealth years, the region was prosperous, and in many ways this was its finest moment as it was located in the center of both a key east-west and north-south trade route. It was a midway point of a trading network that linked Russia to the east and Western Europe (which included the rich Italian city states – Venice, Genoa, etc, Germany (then the German principalities), the early Dutch Republic (the United Provinces), France and Great Britain. It also linked trade between the Black Sea to the south and the Ottoman Empire with the Baltic Sea to the north and the Nordic regions the regional power of which was Sweden.

At the heart of this prosperity (16th, 17th centuries) was what Davies’ refers to as the Polish grain trade, also called “the Vistula trade.” Grain grown in what today is central and southern Poland as well as parts of modern day Belarus and Lithuania were shipped by barge along the river systems flowing into the Baltic Sea and from taken by (mostly) Dutch and German ships to that great global entrepot of the time – Amsterdam. As Davies notes:

The cyle of the Vistula Trade began with the arrival in Danzig (modern Gdansk) of the foreign entrepreneurs. In the early peruiod they sailed in for the season, arriving on the Spring tides in Parch or April and weighing anchor in October before the winter storms. Later on, they settled settled in Danzig permanently. In the main, they represented Dutch firms, well establishe din the Baltic moederhaldel (Mother Trade). By 1650 some fifty Dutch firms maintained resident agents in Danzig…:

While the main waterway for the transport of grain south to north was the Vistula River to the Baltic coast at Danzig, other rivers flowing north into the Baltic offered the same opportunities, among them the Oder to the west and the Niemen and Dvina to the east. The Niemen, which runs through Grodno and then flows north and west through modern-day Lithuania empties into what is called the Curonian Lagoon between between Kaliningrad and Klaipeda, either one of which could serve as a port for grain shipping. Not as active as the Vistula Trade which handled at Danzig the lion’s share of the regional trade, still shipments along the Nieman (also spelled Neman) gave rise to economic dynamism along this river system and its tributaries as well. And it is here along the Nieman at different points that Prenskys, Magaziners, Burwicks, and Wychevzkys lived and for a time flourished.During this golden age of Polish trade, Kaliningrad (then called Konigsberg) dominated the Niemen basis and was a direct competitor for Danzig, exporting, as Davies notes, “the products of Lithuania and East Prussia and importing large quantities of cloth.”

Starting roughly around 1650, the Vistula Trade began to decline and with it the prosperity of the entire region, This led to a slow process of economic regression from which the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth never recovered. Davies sites the years between 1648 and 1660 as particularly destabilizing “when the Republic was submerged by wave after wave of invaders, lossses were inflicted as calamitous as those of the Thirty Years War in Germany.” Plague devastated the region during this period with Danzig losing 9000 people alone from it a siege. The Great Northern War (1700-1721) took a terrible toll as did the Wars of the Polish and Austrian Successions (1733-35), the Seven Years War(1756-63) and the Wars of the Three Partitions (1772, 1793, 1795). In all these war the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth found itself at ground zero, in the center of that great plain between east and west Europe, the same areas that would become one of the world’s worst killing grounds of the 20th century. The region failed to recover, the river trade never revived. It would be divided after 1795, partitioned by the three ruling parties of the time – Russia, Austro-Hungary and Prussia.

For the Jews – and all other peoples – ethnic groups, language families, religious movements – the next 150 years would mark a period of virtually unending and increasing turbulence. By the turn of the 20th century, as the year 1900 approached, the Jews of the Pale, including certainly my relatives, long-range choices narrowed: revolution – ie, they became socialists or communists and saw their fate tied to overthrowing the existing order, Zionism – leaving the Pale to establish a Jewish state in Palestine which some chose or migration to more westernly regions of Europe, to North America, the Caribbean or S. America. Many elements of my distant relatives stayed put in places like Bialystok (the Magaziners), Grodno (the Prenskys) and Vilnius. Most of them died in the turmoil that companied the fighting on the Eastern Front in World War One where Bialystok and Grodno were on the front lines for much of the war. Others died in the post WW1 turmoil between 191 and 1925 that resulted in the creation of Poland, Lithuania and Belarus as political entities. Those who remained were gassed by einsatgruppen mobile death trucks or lined up and shot, their bodies dumped into mass pits in the first days of Operation Barbarossa shortly after June, 1941.

The Jewish Bluestein Family, father and two sons. On the banks of the Nieman River, Grodno, summer, 1938


4 Comments leave one →
  1. Rafael Humberto Mojica permalink
    December 8, 2020 8:25 pm

    A very moving story.

  2. William Conklin permalink
    December 8, 2020 8:40 pm

    I am very impressed by your ability to chronicle the history of your family. When I was young, I didn’t ask the right questions and the information was not offered to me. I wish I could write an article like this about my family, but it is all a fog. Congratulations, Rob on having a family who understands their history.

  3. Igal Ben - Rachel permalink
    December 8, 2020 11:24 pm

    Thanks again for sharing these details.
    I appreciate your efforts.
    Igal Ben-Rachel

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