The Odessa Holocaust and the Russian Nan.

Magen DavidTwo serendipitous emails have provided the latest clues in my long-running investigation into the origins of one of my great-great grandparents.

Two years ago (can it really be that long?) I blogged about my great-great grandfather, Charles Stephen Friedman/Freedman/ Freeman (1842-1906). The question was – was he Swedish (and Christian) as he and most of his descendants claimed, or was he a Russian Jew as one of his grand-daughters, Bella Beck née Freeman, insisted. Before mentioning these ‘serendipitous emails’, I’ll first rehearse the arguments in the 2012 blog post and briefly mention my subsequent efforts to find more about the pendant .

Was he Russian?

In favour of him possibly being Russian rather than Swedish, I had his violin which was manufactured in St Petersburg in 1850, and I had my autosomal DNA tests which showed that I closely matched the DNA of several Russians. Nothing conclusive there – the violin could have been exported to Sweden and bought there, and the autosomal DNA which matches several Russians could, in theory, have come down to me through any of my ancestral lines. Though, having said that, all of my other lines are British for at least 6 generations, and the Russian DNA matches are close enough to indicate a connection well within those 6 generations. The Russian connection has to be through Charles’ line as he was the only possible ‘foreign‘ ancestor in the last 6 generation. I had written to all my DNA matches in the hope that we might be able to establish paper trails to connect us genealogically. This had proved hugely successful in a handful of cases but, sadly, not with any of my Russian matches. None of them even replied to my e-mails – hardly surprising I suppose as I wrote to them in English.

So, in early 2012, I had two pieces of evidence – the violin and the DNA – supporting the notion of Charles being Russian, but they were far from conclusive.

Was he Jewish?

In favour of Charles being Jewish I had his surname which morphed from Friedman in 1861, to Freedman in 1872, to Freeman in 1873, and I had his Star of David/Hamsa pendant, a Jewish good-luck charm. Against that we had the fact that Charles married in Sunderland Parish Church in 1872 and baptised his children – though I understand that many Jews arriving in the country in the mid 1800s did become Christian. There was even a well established society in the country dedicated to converting Jewish immigrants.

So, in early 2012, I had two pieces of evidence – the surname and the pendant/good luck charm – supporting the notion of Charles being Jewish, but again, they were far from conclusive.

Summary and Further Work

At best, all I could say back then was that Charles might have been a Russian Jew – but could equally well have been a Swede from Gothenburg as he claimed. I wondered – and this was just wild speculation – if both could be true – viz Charles’ father and/or mother were Russian Jews (explaining the violin, the Jewish pendant and the DNA matches) and they’d moved to Gothenburg, Sweden where Charles grew up. That would be consistent with all the known evidence.

Following the blog post I was contacted by two people with identical pendants to mine (in one case a picture verified that it was indeed identical), and by a third person who claimed that “a friend had one just the same“, but none of these people knew anything of the origins of their pendants, they were just family memorabilia. I found a fourth identical pendant mentioned and illustrated online – identical apart from being plated, giving it a silver colouration. Frustratingly, this pendant had been purchased at a car boot sale, so yet again there was no information on its origins. I sent descriptions and detailed photographs of my pendant to the British Museum and to Manchester Jewish Museum in the hope that their experts could offer some information on the pendant – but nobody in those venerable institutions had seen anything like it. The pendant remained a mystery.

On the possibility of Charles being a Russian Jew – further enquiries verified that it was not uncommon for 19th Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe to baptise and raise their children as Anglicans in the UK, with those children having little if any idea of their parents’ early religious life. Nor was it unknown for Jewish families from Russia to move to Sweden, and sometimes to subsequently move on elsewhere. One family history researcher wrote “I have cousins that were born near Bialystok, in what was Russia at the time (1870s). When they married, they had their first few children in Russia, then moved to Helsingborg, Sweden, where they had more. They lived in Sweden for five years, and then immigrated (sic) to the US to be near a brother.

So that was what I knew in the summer of 2012. Charles could have been Russian and he could have been Jewish – on the available evidence it certainly looked possible, but, before I could really take the idea seriously, like Oliver Twist, I wanted more!

Serendipitous Email #1

A few months later I received an e-mail from Emmelie, the daughter of, and contact-person for, Helga Sch—mann, one of my autosomal DNA matches. Because of her obviously Germanic names, I initially assumed that Helga was German, and Emmelie’s email address seemed to confirm this. As I read the email, however, it became clear that this assumption was quite wrong, Emmelie’s mother was Russian and Jewish. Her story goes back to late 1941, the darkest days of World War II in Odessa, Ukraine (historically part of Russia) when German and Romanian forces were rounding up and murdering Jews – tens of thousands of them – in what was to become known as the Odessa Holocaust. One family, knowing what was about to happen to them, hid their daughter and she was later spotted wandering alone and handed over to an orphanage. The child was found to be carrying a note bearing her name and date and place of birth – Galina Praher born 4th of April 1938 in Lipovenki (near Odessa). After some time in institutions, Galina was fostered, somewhat ironically, by a German couple, and she grew up with them in Bavaria under her new name, Helga.

So DNA connects me unmistakeably to that little girl, the daughter of Russian Jews. I have Russian Jewish relations – and, as discussed earlier, any such connection has to be through my great great grandfather, Charles.

A little footnote to this tale. When I was in contact with Emmelie in 2012, they knew nothing of Helga’s ancestors except for the family name Praher and the fact that her parents were Jewish and had died in 1941 at the hands of those Nazi monsters. Today I had another look at Helga’s profile on the DNA testing company’s website, and I see that Helga or Emmelie must have been doing some research into the Praher family as the profile now lists some ancestral surnames besides Praher. One of those additional ancestral surnames is Friehahn !! Can I – dare I – see a similarity between that and Friedman? An intriguing idea!

Serendipitous Email #2

Two days ago I received an email notifying me of a new comment by a Jay Williams relating to my Charles Stephen Freeman, Swede or Russian Jew? post. The notification email contained the text of the message, so I didn’t have to look online to read it. It was about the Star of David/Hamsa pendant and was very exciting – in fact, I nearly fell off my chair as I read “My nan who was Russian gave me a pendant identical to yours in 1986 …” . I felt like rushing outside and shouting “Jay’s nan – WHO WAS RUSSIAN – had an identical Jewish good luck charm.” Jay knew no more than that, but wow! Now I can link an identical pendant with a Russian Jew. Perhaps it isn’t too much of a leap to suppose that my pendant had once been owned by another Russian Jew – Charles, or his dad, Erich.


Bella Beck’s lone voice telling me me that her grandfather was a Russian Jew, not Swedish as everyone else claimed, really is looking more and more likely to be the truth.



2 thoughts on “The Odessa Holocaust and the Russian Nan.

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