A Cohen-Family 4th of July Mystery Solved, Thanks to Judie and Ancestry.com

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Grandpa Alex “Sandor” Cohen

Judie has actively been building her family tree and discovering the various connections in her large extended family for years. It even turns out her family lineage and Kevin’s crossed paths a number of generations ago, but from what she tells me, that is fairly common when you have family lines that haave been in the US for hundreds of years, coming down through the same states at around the same time.

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As she wrote about in this post regarding ancestry.com’s Macintosh software, she has a remarkably large family tree that’s been put together over the past forty years, both through her efforts and those of her now deceased maternal grandmother and uncle.

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My family is far smaller, and the information that is available is more than a bit limited. You see, my father’s side of the family came to the United States in the early 1900s, and rarely, if ever, spoke about life in the “old country”. In addition both of my parents had just one sibling, so there was never a large extended family, at least not that I’m aware of. In fact an extended family was one of the many wonderful things that I gained when I married Elana, since she comes from a far larger family and the majority of the extended family stays in relatively close contact with one another.

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There was always a bit of a mystery for me with regard to the story my grandpa Alex told about coming to this country. According to grandpa, he jumped from a merchant marine ship in New York Harbor in 1917.

His birthday was July 4, 1900 which meant that he was just 17 years old, and in the Russian merchant Marines. For grandpa, who was so proud to be an American, it always struck me as a bit too coincidental that his birthday was July 4, 1900 but, then again, there is just as much possibility of being born on July 4 as there is to being born on July 3 or July 5, so I never questioned it all that much.

When grandpa died, one of the keepsakes that I took from his home was a painting that he did in 1923 of the ship that transported him to the US. The name of that ship–the Vaterland. It isn’t a great painting, but it is a key piece of my family history, and I treasure it. I keep that painting in my study at Temple as a constant reminder of how fortunate I am to live in this incredible country. Despite all of the current challenges the US faces, it is still a remarkable place to live and I’m proud to be an American.

About a year after my grandfather died and I had taken that painting, I was visiting a friend in his New York . I walked into his office suite, took one look at the picture on the wall, and I asked him why he had a picture of the Vaterland. He told me to take a closer look at the New York Times reprint. It turned out that the ship was not the Vaterland, but rather it was a US troop ship called the Leviathan. I was confused, since the two ships looked exactly the same. Later that day that initial confusion was resolved, but a new question was introduced.

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You see, the ship on my friend’s wall was indeed the Vaterland. In 1917 the United States government seized that ship, reequipped it, and then changed its name to the Leviathan; it then served as a US troop ship during the war.

SS Vaterland, a 54,282 gross ton passenger liner, was built by Blohm & Voss at Hamburg, Germany, as the second of a trio of very large ships of Imperator class for the Hamburg-America Line’s trans-Atlantic route. She was launched 13 April 1913 and was the largest passenger ship in the world upon her completion, superseding SS Imperator, but later being superseded in turn by the last ship of this class, SS Bismarck, the later RMS Majestic.

Vaterland had made only a few trips when, in late July 1914, she arrived at New York, NY just as World War I broke out. With a safe return to Germany rendered virtually impossible by British dominance of the seas, she was laid up at her Hoboken, NJ, terminal and remained immobile for nearly three years.

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Here’s how Wikipedia describes the Leviathan

SS Leviathan, originally built as SS Vaterland, was an ocean liner which regularly sailed the North Atlantic briefly in 1914 and from 1917 to 1934. The second of a trio of transatlantic liners built by Germany’s Hamburg America Line for the transatlantic passenger service, she would sail as Vaterland for less than a year before her early career was halted by the start of World War I. In 1917, she was seized by the U.S. government and renamed Leviathan. She would become known by this name for the majority of her career, both as a troopship during World War I and later as the flagship of the United States Lines.

All of that was good well, except for one thing–my grandfather claimed that he jumped from the ship in 1917, but by the time he claimed to have done so the ship had already been seized and renamed.

Somewhere along the way, my grandfather either lied or became confused. Unfortunately my grandfather and grandmother were both deceased, and he had told my father the same story; I resigned myself to never being able to find the truth.

That was “before Judie”, however. Last week Judie spent some time working on her family tree using her Annual World Deluxe Membership subscription, which gives her full access to all the information on ancestry.com. Did I mention that genealogy is a huge hobby of hers? Anyway, she took it upon herself to map out my nuclear family. She kept IMing me and asking for more details, and we got a little bit carried away and added in as much information as I had.

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Information from Elana’s side of the family began to pour in, but there was very little information from my side of the family. I began using some of ancestry.com’s services to try to find marriage and death records, and along the way I saw that one of the types of available information were ship manifests … and one of the ships whose manifests was accessible was … the Vaterland.

I began to search for my grandfather.

Alex Cohen–no information

Alexander Cohen–no information

Alexander Kagan (one form of my family name in Russia)–no information

Alex Kagan–no information

Alexander Kaganitchki (makes me appreciate that they change the name to Cohen)–no information

I was about to give up, when I remembered that my grandfather’s Hebrew name was not Alexander, but rather Sandor.

Sandor Cohen–information available

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I picked up the phone and called my father, “Dad when grandpa would introduce himself to other people, did he introduced himself as Alex or as Sandor?”

My father paused briefly and then said, “It was pretty consistent that he would use Sander. Why?”

“Because I found the ships manifest from when he first came to America.”

“Hey dad, do you know what port he sailed from?”

“Hamburg, Germany.”

Wow wow wow!

Unfortunately I was on my iPad, and it wasn’t able to pull up the rendering of the manifest. As soon as I got home I raced to my computer, pulled up that page — and lo and behold on the page was information that Sandor Cohen had come to the United States on the Vaterland out of Hamburg Germany.

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But that isn’t even the most interesting part of this.

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No, the most interesting aspect of this was that the manifest revealed that my grandfather lied. Not to my father and me, but rather he lied when he first came to this country.

If he DID come on the Vaterland (which I assumed was true since he took the time to paint the picture of it), he must have come in 1914! Why? Because that was the ONLY YEAR that particular crossing was made.

You see he did not come in 1917. He came in 1914, long before the ship was seized by the US government. As a 14-year-old, I suspect that he was worried he would not be allowed into the country. He was a minor, and there wasn’t family here to accept him. So he lied about his age, made himself an adult, and he became an American.

It is a story told in many families across America from every religion, race and nation of origin — the lengths that a particular immigrant relative would go through to become a US citizen. We are truly a national melting pot.

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So one of what I am sure will be one of many family mysteries has been solved; all thanks to Judie and ancestry.com.

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About the Author

Dan Cohen
Having a father who was heavily involved in early laser and fiber-optical research, Dan grew up surrounded by technology and gadgets. Dan’s father brought home one of the very first video games when he was young and Dan remembers seeing a “pre-release” touchtone phone. (When he asked his father what the “#” and “*” buttons were his dad said, “Some day, far in the future, we’ll have some use for them.”) Technology seemed to be in Dan’s blood but at some point he took a different path and ended up in the clergy. His passion for technology and gadgets never left him. Dan is married to Raina Goldberg who is also an avid user of Apple products. They live in New Jersey with their golden doodle Nava.