Visiting Philadelphia: Many questions, but…

My “interrogating memory” project began as a July 2017 conversation with my wife Nell about writing a book in lieu of finding a new position in my two-decade-long career as a health-related data analyst. In my head, I translated her intended meaning (write a mystery—something that would sell many copies) to “I could easily expand this into an entertaining full-length book.”

That simple idea (trace the childhood and early-adult roots of my passion for film noir), however, quickly entwined with two simultaneous personal investigations: 1) the results of my genetic testing—which disproved everything I thought I knew about my paternal heritage and 2) my decision to learn the truth about my adoption, arranged prior to my birth and enacted five days after I was born, and genetic forebears.

But this “simple idea” proved more complicated, once I set my over-educated brain to the task of collating the details of those film-noir-formative events: my profound respect for investigative journalism and my doctoral work in epidemiology (to me, a branch of epistemology) led me to question EVERYTHING.

The investigations fall into two broad categories:

  1. Family history (I cannot understand my childhood without understanding the emigration of Bergers, Caesars, Gurmankins and Koslenkows from the Pale of Settlement to the Jewish “city-within-a-city” of West Philadelphia between 1890 and 1920)
  2. Childhood memories (including some I begin to investigate here).

Linking those two investigations, again, is the overriding fact of my adoption, arranged by a powerful Philadelphia attorney named Herman Modell. And the link between Modell and my (legal) father, D. Louis “Lou” Berger, is their overlapping membership in LaFayette Lodge No. 71, Free and Accepted Masons.

These entwined strands found me performing these tasks, often at the same time, over much of the ensuing 13 months:

  • Using Ancestry.com, supplemented by carefully-archived personal documents, Newspapers.com and other online research tools, to construct increasingly-elaborate trees for my legal family.
    • Contacting “newly discovered” relatives on the Berger/Ceasar side of my family (Lou Berger self-alienated from his family later in his life, meaning I knew very little about his branch of my family). These contacts were mostly successful.
  • Supplementing requests to the Orphans Court of Delaware County for information about my genetic parents with names appearing in the 23andMe “DNA Relatives” tool to construct increasingly-elaborate, if necessarily speculative, trees for my genetic family.
  • Picking the brains of friends and relatives to confirm/clarify/deny stories I “recalled” from my childhood. In the process, I learned new things; for example, I first learned about Modell from my maternal aunt.
  • Using public records (primarily newspaper accounts and advertisements) to confim/clarify deny these same stories.
  • Corresponding with a wide range of sources—my childhood synagogue (where, in my final year of Hebrew School, I wore one of my mother’s white blouses to portray a hyperkinetic Cossack in an all-Hebrew production of Fiddler on the Roof), the Masonic Temple in Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Police Department, the Philadelphia Fire Department—to ask them a wide range of questions about my legal family.

Just bear with me while I acknowledge two exceptionally helpful people affiliated with the Masonic Temple: Librarian Glenys Waldman, who patiently and carefully answered all of my e-mailed queries, and LaFayette Lodge Past Master Perry Ecksel, who sold me (for an outrageously low price) one of his two copies of a history of LaFayette Lodge published in 1971. When I mentioned to a college friend that I would be incorporating the Freemasons into my book, he quipped that that would mean an additional 10,000 copies sold. I honestly believe that if that is true, it will be less because of any Dan-Brown-style conspiracy and more because these gracious individuals made the chapter on Modell and the Freemasons that much more interesting.

Because the world really is that small, when I mentioned to one of my newly-discovered paternal cousins that I had spoken with Perry Ecksel, she noted that he was the uncle of a man her close friend had dated (or something).

*********

Almost from the start, one thought animated my investigations:

“I will need to spend significant time in Philadelphia visiting cemeteries, tracking down records and questioning folks in person.”

However, every time I thought about making this trip, life intervened. Most recently, we discovered that we needed to move from our home of nearly 11 years, meaning that I did not have sufficient time to incorporate the research aspect into my regular summer trip to Philadelphia.

The best I could do was rapidly compile an annotated one-page (front and back) list of research questions, throw some papers into a folder and, essentially, wing it. My questions fell into these broad categories:

Cemeteries. When I was a boy, I created a list of “Berger death dates” that I archived along with other genealogical materials I collected. In the process of building my Ancestry family trees, I was able to place every name on the list into the tree except for a “Nathan Berger” who died on August 14, 1944. I was able to locate the veteran death record of a Nathan Berger (Navy, Yeoman third class in World War I) who was buried in Roosevelt Memorial Park, as is my father; his birthdate was listed as November 23, 1887. His death was reported by “Miriam,” though I could not discern whether she was a wife, sister, daughter or other female relative. Presumably, I thought, the information on his gravestone (his father’s name especially) would link him to the rest of my father’s father’s family.

I also wanted to view the gravestones of family members from older generations of the male Berger line, especially my great-grandfather David Louis and his wife Ida, many of whom were buried in historic Har Nebo Cemetery. Unfortunately, without time to generate a list of every relative buried there, I was relying upon my memory.

Finally, I wanted to view the graves of two non-relatives (and their families): Modell (Mt. Sharon Cemetery) and the seminal noir writer David Goodis—also buried in Roosevelt Cemetery.

Masonic Temple. While I desired to know the number (and membership totals) of Philadelphia’s Masonic Lodges in 1925 (when Jules Berger, younger brother of my paternal grandfather Morris, was initiated), 1938 (Modell) and 1957 (my father), I primarily wanted to thank Ms. Waldman in person for her gracious assistance.

Samuel Joseph Kohn. My mother’s father was a member of the Philadelphia Police Department, rising for a few years to the rank of Detective before (as his surviving daughter put it in an e-mail) his “combative personality” interfered, from around 1935 to around 1952. That is, he was a big city police officer at the height of the classic American film noir era; in my mind, Broderick Crawford plays him in the movie.

Unfortunately, my attempts to locate his police records (outside of two brief mentions of him in Philadelphia newspapers) have proven fruitless: David Baugh of the Philadelphia Police Archives was unable to locate his roster card. Still, I thought that if I went to “The Roundhouse” (the unusually-curved Philadelphia Police Headquarters) in person, I could dislodge “misplaced” information about my grandfather.

John Rhoads Company. Founded in 1886 by a sugar merchant from Harrisburg, PA, this warehouse/storage facility specializing in used carpeting, furniture and valuable bric-a-brac was a West Philadelphia fixture (if the tenor of newspaper advertisements is to be believed) until the early 1970s. Brothers Morris and Jules Berger assumed control of John Rhoads around 1926, operating it jointly until Morris’ death in 1954, after which Jules ran it until his own death in 1958. By 1960, my father had assumed the presidency of John Rhoads, co-running it with his mother Rae.

Rae Caesar Berger died on January 3, 1972. At some point between March 29, 1972 (last newspaper advertisement I can locate) and October 29, 1974 (first newspaper advertisement for its new Upper Darby, PA location I can locate), John Rhoads burned; family stories suggested my father was responsible for the fire (perhaps to pay off rapidly-growing gambling debts). Still, it was rather a shock when my maternal aunt not only confirmed my father committed arson, but that she knew he had “hired” to set the fire: Edward “Psycho” Klayman, who died (I believe) in 1984. A quick search of Newspapers.com revealed numerous accounts of Klayman in the 1950s and 1960s, when he was arrested for selling heroin and, yes, his participation in an arson ring.

It speaks volumes about my gregarious and lovable father that he knew both Modell (state representative, Assistant City Solicitor, chair of numerous Boards) and Klayman (convicted heroin dealer and arsonist).

Curiously, for what presumably was a major fire, I cannot find a single online record of it. A December 2017 call to the records division of the Philadelphia Fire Department was never returned, though neither did I follow up as a I should.

As with my maternal grandfather’s police department files, I hoped that inquiring about the John Rhoads fire in person would make a difference.

Miscellaneous. I also sought answers to three less-key questions:

Safety Deposit Box keys

  1. After my mother died in March 2004, my then-stepfather and I engaged in a legal battle over her estate for more than a year (in her infinite wisdom, she had named us co-executor in her will), finally settling in August 2005. It is inconceivable that any of her property was left unaccounted after all of the legal maneuvering. But when I was cleaning out files and papers to prepare for our move, I came across two safe deposit box keys from Sovereign Bank (now Santander).

Question(s): Do the safety box(es) still exist, and, if so, what was in them?

  1. One night, most likely in March or April 1973, a fire broke out in the playroom of my childhood house in Havertown, PA; a few years later, a friend would nudge me during a fire safety film in our elementary school then say, “That’s your house!” It is surprising that my sister Mindy woke me up, and not my mother (I do not know where my father was)…though I am obviously grateful that she did. As for the cause of the fire, my mother’s claim she left a sit-down hair dryer on for my father to turn off is…odd.

Question(s): On what day and time did this fire take place, and what does the official fire report say about it?

Morris Berger late 1940s early 1950s

  1. According to his obituary, Morris Berger was Vice President of Beth El Synagogue, 58th and Walnut Streets in Philadelphia. Allen Meyers has called Beth El “the largest edifice” in the area, presenting in first in his chapter on West Philadelphia synagogues. Beth El merged with Beth Hillel in 1967 to form Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in suburban Wynnewood, PA. It was here that a charmingly awkward almost-13-year Moshe ben David Layb Berger was called to Bar Mitzvah on September 17, 1979.

Matthew Berger Bar Mitzvah Sept 1979

Seriously, check out the brown velvet three-piece suit, with the Eton-collared eggshell-colored shirt, as I stand proudly with my father.

Lou and Matthew Berger Bar Mitzvah Sept 1979

When I queried a helpful gentleman at Temple Beth Hillel about my paternal grandfather, I was told that his name should appear on a “brick” outside the chapel. So my last “question” was to see if I could locate this brick.

*********

It is notable that the one family research area I was NOT planning to pursue was tracking down the surviving members of my genetic mother’s family in Philadelphia.

Let me back up a second.

As I implied earlier, by May 2018 I had identified the man (dead) and woman (living) who were most likely my genetic father and mother. And having exhausted everything I could learn from the Orphans Court of Delaware County, late that month I sent my check for $20 to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, Division of Vital Records along with an application for a non-certified copy of my original pre-adoption birth record. I had deduced the existence of this record from my interactions with the always-helpful Latifah Jones of the Office of Children and Youth Services of Delaware County.

On June 19, 2018, the non-certified copy of my original pre-adoption birth record arrived in the mail. And, for the first time in my life, I officially knew the name of my genetic mother.

My reaction when I read the name, sitting at my desk in the downstairs walk-in closet I had converted into an office, was to shout, “Ha, I was right!”

If I accepted the Jungian notion of synchronicity, I would have been far less surprised that on the very same day, I was contacted by a genetic relative, a woman (call her “AC”) whose daughter was the first link to my genetic maternal family on 23andMe. As I had learned a few months earlier, AC herself had been given up for adoption (along with her older sister—to the same family—a few years earlier), and she was about to meet her genetic sister and brother for the first time.

The woman listed as my mother on the pre-adoption birth record is—officially—AC’s older sister. I write “officially,” because there is compelling, if circumstantial, evidence that my genetic mother was actually raised by her half-sister and her husband, after she was illegitimately conceived by her “official” maternal grandmother via the latter’s fourth husband—while still married to her third husband. I cannot PROVE any of this, mind you, but the genetic evidence is strongly suggestive.

As you can imagine, when AC quietly revealed to her sister not only my existence, but everything I had already learned (and surmised), the sister’s eyes nearly popped out of her head. My existence has been a closely-held secret (three or four people) for nearly 52 years, and the sister was not certain how my genetic mother would react to my discoveries.

Incidentally, I assume this is the sister accompanying my genetic mother and maternal grandmother when I was handed by a nurse to Modell (who then handed me to Lou and Elaine Berger) outside Metropolitan Hospital on October 5, 1966.

AC shared a lot of information with me from that meeting, which I have largely delayed processing because of the move, including that the sister (who still lives just north of Philadelphia) would “very much like to meet” me.

I did not deliberately avoid her on this last trip to Philadelphia so much as I sort of forgot to think about it. Still, it is telling that I neglected to look up my actual genetic aunt/cousin but I spent hours tracking down the gravestone of the man who arranged my adoption OUT of her family.

To be continued…

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