This blog started with a photograph. A family portrait of adult siblings with their parents. The photo also instigated my search for my hidden Jewish ancestors.


The Photo that started it all

Here, in my great grandfather’s long beard, head covering, and black robe, I saw for the first time visible proof that I descend from Jews. It took a long time, but I managed to identify everyone in the photo, including my grandmother (Babcia) who appears in the bottom left, her hand resting proprietarily on her mother’s wrist.

Based on their clothing and ages, I have guessed this photo was taken sometime around World War I. But I just came across some new information about my grand uncle Philip, the man standing to the right, that throws this date into question. Let me walk through what I have figured out.

Two Pifko brothers came to America, Abraham in 1906 and Philip in 1907. Here they are with Abraham’s wife and children and some other relatives:

BerthaPiwkoNathanPaulineEwa c1908

The Pifko brothers around 1908, New York. Front from left: Philip, Abraham, Paulina, Ewa, Bertha, Nathan. Back from left: Raphael Kolski, Sam and Max Alexander

This photo is easy to date; everything fits together. It must have been taken after Bertha and the children arrived in New York in May 1907, and Philip arrived in December 1907, but before Abraham and Bertha had their fourth child in October 1909. The style of Bertha’s dress is also consistent with this time period. Census records add another piece of supporting evidence; in 1910, all the people in the photo lived in the same household in Manhattan. So the photo was taken sometime between 1908 and the middle of 1909.


Philip and Abraham Pifko in the US.

In another photo of Philip and Abraham (on the right), they look a bit older, and Philip has grown a mustache. In my last post, I said that Philip is on the left, but my cousin Joan, who knew Philip when he was older, says she’s pretty sure he is on the right, driving the car. She also has no idea why his complexion was labeled “light brown” on an official document I found. His skin was not dark.

The photo that started this blog, and my search for ancestors, would seem to have been taken next, sometime around 1914-1918. Except it seems strange that Philip visited Poland during World War I.

Then, while looking through Philip’s documents on Ancestry.com, I clicked on a passport application from 1920. It was for both him and his wife Goldie, to go to England and France. According to what is written, Philip became a US citizen in January 1916, and resided in the US uninterruptedly since arriving in 1907. In response to a question about where he has lived outside of the US since his naturalization, the space is stamped, “I have never resided outside of the U.S.” Below, in response to a question about previous passports, it’s stamped “I have never had a passport.”

So this got me wondering. If Philip didn’t leave the country between 1907 and 1920, could the photo have been made later than I thought, in 1920? Could it have been when he traveled on this passport?


Goldie and Philip Pifko 1920, passport application photo

I found this passport application a while ago, but it didn’t occur to me until now that it might have a back. Sure enough, when I clicked to the next page in the database, there it was. The back of the form includes a place where a lawyer verified the truth of everything on it. There is also a handwritten note, “Applicant says he will not go to Russia or Poland. Instruct Amer consul [American Consulate] at France and England.” And even more convincingly, Philip and Goldie’s photo is attached at the bottom.

At age 37, Philip clearly seems older than in any of the other photos. His hair is receding (and, by the way, his skin does not look particularly dark).

It seems unlikely, after all, that the photo was taken in 1920. Could it have been taken before Philip’s departure in 1907? I went back to the photo itself, to reconsider all the details. First, I checked everyone’s ages. In 1907, my grandmother would have only been 13, but clearly she is older in the photo. The boy in front, sitting between his grandparents is Nathan Kolski, whose mother Regina died when he was born; several of my cousins have confirmed his identity. But Nathan was born in 1905, and he is definitely not a toddler in the photo. He almost certainly isn’t 15 either, making it unlikely the photo was taken in 1920. Also, the oldest sister Liba was 20 years older than Babcia. It’s really hard to tell for sure, but I would say that none of the women who are standing in the photo look as old as 48. Perhaps a couple are around 40. So again, considering everyone’s ages, it seems most likely the photo was taken around 1915, when Babcia was 21, Nathan was 10, Liba was 42, and Philip was 32.

It is also worth noting that the youngest child in the family, Malka, is missing, making me think the photo was taken after she died in 1913. Otherwise she would have been in it.

Next, I looked at the way everyone is dressed. Clearly, there is a great deal of variation between my great grandmother’s conservative dress and my grandmother’s short hemline and high heels. The dresses of the younger women flow; they are not fitted and buttoned up like Bertha’s in the photo from 1908. Fashion catalogs from the period show that during World War I, fashions changed markedly. Hemlines went up, waistlines became higher, and clothes used less fabric to conserve resources for the war. Other characteristics from the period include the “V” neckline with a lace inset, as well as attractive high heeled shoes, like Babcia and her sisters wear. The clothes date this photo back at my original estimate, 1914-1918.

I even considered whether I could be mistaken about the identity of the man standing to the right. Could it be the spouse of one of the sisters beside him? But several relatives have identified him as Philip, and he looks like Philip based on the other photos. Rachel’s husband Pinkus Kolski looked completely different. I don’t have a photo of Nunia’s husband, so I can’t compare.

But if the photo was taken around 1914-1918, how can Philip have been there? Occam’s razor says when there are multiple explanations, the simplest is probably the best one. The simplest explanation in this case is that Philip was indeed in Poland at some point during World War I. Maybe the photo was taken in celebration of his visit. Maybe a space was left between Jacob and Nunia to symbolically mark where Abraham, the brother who stayed in the US, would have stood. Maybe it was taken for Abraham, so he would have a memento of his kin back in Poland. That would explain why the photo was passed down in Abraham’s family. Many years later, his grandson made copies for my grandmother and other branches of the family.

Does that mean Philip lied on his passport application? Maybe not. If he traveled to Poland before he became a US citizen in 1916, maybe he didn’t need to report it on the form. And if that’s what happened, maybe I can pinpoint the photo more specifically to 1914-1916, before his hair had receded quite so much, and before the US entered the war. That seems like the simplest solution, even though it still doesn’t explain why Philip went back to Europe in the middle of a war.