The Shenkin Family History
From Sonia Handelsman, Bessie’s Granddaughter:
Samuel Aginsky’s mother (also named Basha) married for the second time and had two sons: Label and Bernie, and a daughter: Dora. When her second husband died, the family brought the mother and her three children from Russia to this country. She then married for a third time and had children with her third husband. I do not know how many or what sex – I think they were living in South Africa.
Samuel Aginsky was the oldest son. He was apprenticed to a cabinet maker at a very young age to learn a trade. He was drafted into the Army but ran away after a few weeks and had to leave the country. He had married Bessie Shenkin (in Russia) and they had two children – Pesach Chaim, (Peter) and Ida, (Elaine). He left Bessie and the children in Russia to go to England where he worked at his trade to earn the money for family passage to America. He was doing very well in England and wanted to stay there. However Bessie said, "No way, because everyone in England gets tuberculosis," so they went to America, where they had a third child, Bernard (Bert). Sam and Bessie, being the oldest children in both their families, brought all their brothers and sisters to America. Bessie told us how people slept all over their apartment, even in the bathtub.
Although Sam was a cabinet maker, he worked as a carpenter. He became a carpenter contractor and, subsequently, a builder. At first, they lived in an apartment in Harlem. Later they bought a two-family house in the Northeast Bronx, in an area called Edenwald. Lilly and Phillip lived with them in the other half of the house. The two families were very close. Phillip was especially devoted to Sam and all the family.
Sam and Bessie went to night school to learn English. They both could read and write Yiddish. When Bessie was in her 70s, she wanted to learn how to write in English. She asked me to get her a book that would teach her. I did, and she learned to write in English, but it was difficult.
From Mary Agins, Bessie’s Granddaughter:
When Grandma was in her 90s, I used to go to her house for dinner every week. One night when I got there, she asked me if I liked spaghetti. I said I did and she said, "Good; because I made it for dinner," and she put a soup bowl in front of me with what looked like hot tomato juice with noodles floating in it. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so I just shut up and ate (drank) it!
Sometimes my daughter and I would meet there after school and Grandma would whisper to me, "Lend me $20 – I want to give it to Linda." It didn’t take me long to figure out that I went home $20 lighter and Linda went home $20 richer!
When Grandma didn’t seem to be her usual self and I’d ask her if she felt all right, she usually answered, "I can’t find my place today." A few weeks ago, I wasn’t feeling quite right and I thought to myself, "I just can’t find my place today." Then I thought of Grandma and I smiled.
When my daughter was small, my parents and I lived in the same building and she used to go see them a lot. When I arrive to pick her up, both she and my father (Pete) looked as if they had been playing with makeup. Their lips and fingertips would be bright red, and there would be an empty bag of red-shelled pistachio nuts on the table, with a very neat pile of empty shells next to it. To this day, whenever I see pistachio nuts, I think of my father and my daughter and I have to smile.
And now, this may start an argument, but my grandmother Bessie made the best Gefilte Fish in the whole world!
From Annette Feldman, Sadie’s Daughter (Posthumously):
Jacob (Isaac) Shenkin was born in Russia in 1840. In 1870, Jacob was in the Russian Army. He was the personal representative of construction over all Russia under the command of the Czar. As a token of his appreciation, the Czar gave Isaac a beautiful cameo mounted in heavy gold. It is an unusual ring and is still in the family. He died when he was 94.
Jacob met and married Rebecca Steen in 1861, a beautiful and talented violinist who was the only child of an Orthodox Rabbi. Together they had four sons: Nathan, Max, Herman and Herbert, and four daughters: Bessie, Lily, Sonya (Sadie) and Mollie. All of the sons became architects and builders. They were all born in Minsk, a region of White Russia, non-independent Belarus, formally the Soviet republic of Byelorussia. Many people do not know that prominent Russians spoke French and went to France on vacation at that time.
Sonya was born in Minsk in 1885. When she was 15, she was attractive and very popular. She was approached by two women and a man who told her they were activists and were against the present government. They pleaded with her to help them by delivering documents and important information to designated places and people, and she agreed. She became a courier for the socialists and did it for a year. Her family knew nothing about this. One night at 3:00 am, Mr. Cohen, a neighbor and friend of the family, came knocking on Jacob’s door. He warned him that Sonya was being watched and told him to get her out of Russia as quickly as possible. Two days later, Sonya was on a ship bound for the United States.
The ship was crowded and she was placed in steerage, which was an awful experience for her. Upon arrival at Ellis Island, steerage passengers were given a health examination. They particularly dreaded the hook used to raise the eyelids during the examination. Those not accepted due to health reasons were immediately returned to the countries they came from. The other passengers above steerage were examined on board the ship. Almost 50% of Americans can trace at least one ancestor to Ellis Island, a tiny island in upper New York Bay. More than 12 million immigrants, most of them poor, came through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954 – nervous, fearful and hopeful.
Sonya went to live with her sister and brother-in-law, Bessie and Sam, in New York. Their brother, Nathan, who arrived two years earlier, was already living with Bessie and Sam.
Harry Aaron Leaf was born in Russia in 1871. He was trained as a Rabbi in Europe, came to America through London and went to college in Georgia to become a math instructor. Later, because of money from his father’s leather business, he became a department store owner in Georgia. He went to New York with some of his buyers from different departments on buying trips and on one of those trips, he met Sonya through friends. He fell in love with her beauty, maturity and wonderful personality. He proposed, was accepted and married her in 1902. He left her with Bessie and Sam and returned to Georgia to buy a home for her. He engaged a steady housekeeper and a tutor for her, then brought her to Georgia. He wrote and spoke five languages, and was witty and affectionate.
Harry and Sonya had six children, two of whom died in infancy. They had three sons; Herbert, Jimmy and Alex, and a daughter, Ann. Ann married Sam Feldman, a successful dress designer from Wilmington, Delaware. After a coronary occlusion, he received a large severance pay from his company and opened the Ace Dress Shop in Wilmington. It was less stressful for him as Ann and several salespeople helped with the business. The house they purchased on Madison Street and the business were six months old when he died.
Sam and Ann had two children, Paul and Audrey. Audrey had two children; Bobby (a doctor) and Stanley (a corporate attorney).
Jacob and Rebecca’s son, Max, died in 1955 after falling from a high building (that he was in charge of) while inspecting it. Unfortunately, another son, Herbert (who graduated from Cornell and became an architect in 1960) suffered the same fate as he, too, fell from a great height while inspecting construction going on. He fell into a barrel of nails and died shortly after. Their daughters, Lillian and Molly were designers. Both had very unusual ideas and became very successful.
The Shenkin family remained a close, happy family, meeting every Saturday evening in Sonya’s boutique when they were in New York. After closing, they would go out together. One car took the lead, calling out, "Follow me." They even spent as many vacations together as could be arranged.
From James Leaf, Sadie’s Son:
My father, Harry Aaron Leaf, was from Savannah, Georgia, where he owned several saloons. He met my mother, Sadie, at a party while in New York on a business trip and fell in love with her immediately. They married in New York, then returned to my father’s house in Savannah. After a few years, he sold the saloons and opened a department store for men and women’s wares, which was followed by other stores. We moved often, which made going to school very difficult.
About 1925 we moved to New York to be near my mother’s family and took an apartment on Lexington Avenue and 100th Street. About two years later, we moved to the West Bronx. Harry Leaf died in the early 30s.
I met Anita at a pool in the Bronx when I was 15 years old, and married her six years later. I joined the Marines when I was 17, and during my four-year tour was stationed in Haiti, Nicaragua and China. After my discharge, I boxed professionally for a while, then went to work for a Wall Street bank for 11 years, during which time I was drafted into the Army one week after Pearl Harbor. I was shipped to Europe, eventually finding myself on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. Not long after my discharge, I went to work for the Cosmopolitan Insurance Company, and worked my way up the ladder to a Vice Presidency.
Anita and I retired to Tamarac, Florida, where we lived happily until she died of Alzheimer’s Disease in 1992. I still live there.
From Audrey Clyburn, Sadie’s Granddaughter:
When I was seven years old, I had such a bad mastoid infection that I was deaf in both ears and they did not think I would make it. Aunt Bessie had met a doctor from Austria and she got him to see me. He operated on me at a private hospital and saved my hearing and my life. If it hadn’t been for Aunt Bessie, I wouldn’t have made it.
Aunt Bessie came to visit us all the time. One day she came for a visit all dressed up in a mink coat, but her shoes, dress, hat and purse did not match. I always had a big mouth and, of course, I told her nothing matched. The next time she came, she only came to the door so I could see that everything matched. My mother could have killed me! (Nobody talked to Aunt Bessie that way.) Aunt Bessie told her to leave me alone – that at least I was truthful and not afraid to speak my mind. She was always a sweet, dear woman to me.
One year we were invited to Aunt Bessie’s for Thanksgiving. Uncle Sam was taking an English class and the teacher had told him to learn a new word every day and to use it in a sentence. His word for the day was vicious and when he was carving the turkey he said, "Oh my, what a vicious bird!" We all bit our tongues to keep from laughing.
From Ruth Breidenbach, Herman’s Daughter:
In the early days of my parents’ marriage, my father was in the Army and was stationed in Sandy Hook, NJ. My mother (Gussie) went there to spend a weekend with him and she later told me that is when I was conceived.
I was born at home and I weighed 2½ pounds at birth. Because I was so small, my mother put olive oil all over me and covered me with cotton. Then she put me in the carriage and pushed it in front of the window, so I would get the warmth of the sun. Because I was a very poor eater, my mother indulged me and let me eat what I wanted and I drank my milk from a bottle until it was time for me to start school. She told me I could not take my bottle to school and, from that time on, I would not drink milk at all, nor did I like any dairy products.
My father was very close to his brother, Max. My parents, my brother (Bernard) and I were at Max’s house very often. Sometimes, when Nathan and his family were there, the brothers would talk in the livingroom and Tutzi, Beatrice, Gertrude, Bea and I would play in Tutzi’s room upstairs. One night, they made a circle and put me in the middle. They pushed me from one to the other, teasing me playfully and saying I didn’t belong to their family because I was so tiny and thin.
I remember Max always saying to my father, "Let’s take our wives and children and go out for Sunday dinner. We’d get into two cars and follow Max. Many times we’d land at a restaurant in Philadelphia or New Jersey. My father always said to Max, "You’re crazy and so am I to follow you so far for dinner, but I love you," and they would hug and kiss.
My father was very close to Aunt Molly and took me there every almost every Sunday while my mother cooked dinner. The whole family said I looked just like Aunt Molly.
Herbert was the youngest of the brothers. When I was a child of five or six, he started to pinch both cheeks until I cried. He said he loved me so much, he couldn’t help it! So, whenever we were together, I would run and hide from him, but he always found me.
When Jimmy (Leaf) came home from the Marines, I was about 12 years old. The whole family was at Sadie’s house for the party. Herbert grabbed me and pinched my cheeks and gave me plenty of kisses. I cried because it hurt, and Jimmy came over and hugged me and told Herbert, "Please don’t love her so much!" To this day, Jimmy and I are very close. We get together very often and call each other every week.
About 10 or 15 years ago, Tutzi and Harold (Klosty) were in Florida on vacation and they came to see me. I called Jimmy and he came over and we had a nice visit. I never heard from her again. I called her many times, but she was never home and then her line was disconnected. I have no idea where she is or if she is still living.
Now for the best part that intertwines our family: I was married at The Towers apartment building on University Avenue. In the building, there was a large party room. I stayed at Aunt Bessie’s until the ceremony and Aunt Elaine and Uncle Leon came in to stay with me awhile. Of course, the whole family was there.
There’s so many more pictures in my mind of different times with all my aunts, uncles and cousins. We were really a close family. I hope I have put smiles on your faces as you read all this!
From Bernice "Buddy" Radliff, Molly’s Daughter:
I was told that Basha was an only child because her mother’s other pregnancies ended in miscarriages. Also, her mother was a well-educated woman.
Bessie was the first to arrive in the United States, then came Isaac and Nathan. Basha and the children followed in 1908 on the SS Baltic of the Red Line Company. They traveled in steerage and my Mother remembered a barrel they brought with them because it was necessary for them to supply their own food. The conditions were revolting. Once each day, the holds were opened and they were allowed on deck for a short "stroll." All were seasick. The only one of the family who was not sick was Moe (the youngest). He ran throughout the area waving a herring under the noses of all who were sick.
They were processed through Ellis Island and went to live in a brownstone in Harlem.
Molly and Sadie peddled carrot and ginger candy in the neighborhood made by their mother. At 16 years of age, Molly went to work as a seamstress in the Triangle Dress Factory. Luckily, she quit one week before the infamous fire to work for another factory.
My mother remembered her mother complaining of raging thirst so severe, that she would fill a pot with water and drink the entire contents. The family knew she was diabetic, but at that time treatment was unknown.
At 17, my mother met my father, Albert Morgan. He was drafted into the army in 1917 to fight the "Big War."
Grandmother Basha died in 1919. My mother was sitting shiva when her father told her he was leaving shortly for a visit with his daughter Sadie in Atlanta. He wanted to see my mother married before he left. (He wasn’t taking any chances!) Our grandfather married numerous times.
From Ellen, Molly’s Granddaughter:
I love the information put together about the family. I wonder if anyone has any recipes from the family that they would like to share?
From Karen, Molly’s Granddaughter:
I remember that after school, my mom and I used to stop by my grandmother’s apartment in Chevy Chase off Bradley Boulevard. She used to cook and sew for us and tell me stories about Casper, the Friendly Ghost. She is also the one who got me started watching the soaps. Although I don't watch them now, I did for a couple of years because of her.
She would tell me stories of her mother, and how much she loved her and that she died of diabetes just short of the discovery of insulin. We used to take naps together and every time she would lift her head and peek, I would say, "Go to sleep, God damn it!" Geez, I was only four, I think, but it was always a running joke with us, and she would repeat that back to me when I got older.
She lived with us for a while, and I would always go into her room and lay down on the bed next to her and listen to classical music. (She loved it.) She was happiest when she felt useful – sewing and cooking, or making one of her beautiful needlepoints or afghans. She made the greatest stuffed neck, mongies, which I still can't find as good as hers anywhere in this world, and matzoh balls that were hard as rocks, but the Morgan family loved them that way. To this day, we’d rather have them like that, than the way they’re suppose to be (light and fluffy). She made great roasted chicken, potato latkas, split pea soup; all still the best anywhere. She used to sit in the kitchen and grind her own hamburger in the grinder and I would sit and watch her with fascination. Her back and arthritis would hurt her, but she would try not to complain. My mom said she learned to cook from her.
She played a significant part in my life and was always there for me, no matter what was going on. She was my favorite grandparent and I loved her very much.