Interrogating Memory, Confirmation Bias and … My Great-Grandfather

After Nell first suggested in early July 2017 I write a book – and this essay popped into my head – I simply wanted to flesh out the separate facets of my film noir “journey” into a larger book, perhaps with a little family and local history for context. But, as everyone who reads this site now knows, I ended up spending three-plus years researching and documenting the histories of my legal and genetic families (and Herman Modell, the Philadelphia attorney who arranged my adoption), primarily through online tools like Ancestry.com and Newspapers.com. What I learned, and how I learned it, are now the first five chapters of Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own.

As I note in Chapter 1 (From Tragedy to Triumph…and the Tailor’s Daughter):

For more than 50 years, this was all I knew about my paternal great-grandfather [David Louis Berger]: he was a “truck helper,” he was born in “Russia” in 1869, he died from heart disease on October 23, 1919, and he was buried in historically-Jewish Har Nebo cemetery in Philadelphia.

I knew vaguely that “Russia” meant the vast Jewish area of the western part of the Russian Empire called the Pale of Settlement – and thus “Russia” could not help me to pin down with any geographic precision where Louis Berger had been born.

We learn elsewhere in Chapter 1 that “Louis” Berger did not die from heart disease – he died from a stroke (described in contemporary accounts as a “hemorrhage of the brain”) induced by a bullet, fired from the gun of the local sheriff, that penetrated his arm. In fact, this was one of the first things I learned when I interrogated the memory of a cousin, newly re-discovered in my researches. And when I interrogated THAT memory, I discovered some discrepancies between the “family” story – which for some reason my father, also named David Louis Berger, had never told me – and the contemporary accounts. Indeed, the death of Louis Berger made the front page of the October 24, 1919 edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

As I built family trees in Ancestry, meanwhile, I used their extraordinary range of documents and public record databases to fill in as many life-story blanks as I could. The original handwritten pages from the decennial United States Census, available through 1940, were perhaps the most informative, but so were city directories, death certificates (and obituaries on Newspapers), public address listings and – for immigrants like my not-so-distant ancestors – citizenship documents. While the Declaration of Intention (DOI) is earlier chronologically, the Petition for Naturalization (PFN) is the more detail-rich, giving an intrepid researcher full name and current address; current occupation; date and place of birth; arrival date, port of entry and name of ship; name and birthplace of spouse; names of living children, plus their dates and places of birth; the former national leader being renounced; date of declaration and petition; and the names, occupations and addresses of two witnesses, almost always relatively close family members with some standing in the community.

The PFN of Louis Berger – who had formally dropped “David” by now – dated October 6, 1906, is a prime example. When I found this document in September 2017 – well, first I was confused by the mismatch between the dates of birth of my paternal grandfather Morris Berger (and three siblings) and records I had in my possession, as I note here. But then I learned the specific name of the town in which both my great-grandfather and his wife – born Ida Rugowitz on June 12, 1870:

Pruzana

Eagerly checking the Internet, I discovered what I thought was a match in Przasnysz (Pruzh-nits), in modern-day Poland, which was indeed in the Pale of Settlement in the second half of the 19th century. I then set my sights on – among other familial researches – puzzling out the name of the ship which had carried my great-grandfather, great-grandmother and four of their children (or three, depending where Anna actually was born) from Liverpool to Quebec in the late 1890s – but for that story you will have to read Chapter 1.

At some point in the next few months, I learned my great-grandmother Ida Rugowitz Berger had an older brother. Born Tzadik in July 1862, presumably in the same town as his sister and future brother-in-law, he later called himself Charles. He was the first member of these two families to immigrate to the United States, arriving in Philadelphia in 1886, quickly becoming a successful baker and community leader. I noted with some interest here the location of one of his bakeries.

Charles and Ida had at least one other sibling, a brother named Daniel born on April 10, 1882. I have not yet been able to locate either the DOI or the PFN for my great-granduncle Charles Rugowitz, but I found both for his 20-years-younger brother Daniel.

Eureka, I thought! There it is – the same birth town, which looks very much like “Prushance” in the PFN and “Prushantz” in the DOI. That is just another misspelling of “Przasnysz,” I told myself.

**********

Here is how I describe “interrogating memory” in the Preface.

At one level, interrogating memory is just a fancy term for “fact-checking.”

But it is much more than that. “Interrogating memory” could be considered the love child of psychoanalysis (patiently probing memories) and the epistemological underpinnings of epidemiology (questioning and verifying everything), raised on a steady diet of persistence and a genuine love of history and mystery.

Or to put it even more simply, it is using every technique in your critical toolbox to answer the question, “Hold on, is that really how it happened?”

I later use analogies to critical thinking and Bayesian statistics – in which one’s initial estimates of a statistical association are periodically updated with new information; we call it “updating your priors.”

A major obstacle to these related processes is “confirmation bias,” the tendency to seek out or interpret new information in a way that confirms (rather than challenges) one’s existing beliefs, stories or facts. This is the exact opposite of what I mean by interrogating memory: all preexisting beliefs, stories and facts need to be constantly reevaluated with new and/or updated information, regardless of how deeply embedded such beliefs, stories and facts are within one’s personal narrative.

One explanation for the ubiquity of confirmation bias is its efficiency for processing the constant stream of information with which we are regularly bombarded, especially in the age of the Internet, 24-hour cable news, YouTube and a wide variety of social media. Even for a trained researcher like me, the sheer quantity of information available just on Ancestry was a little overwhelming – and that is before taking into account persons with similar names living in the same area at the same time (Ancestry’s green-leafed record “hints” are both a blessing and curse in this regard) and multiple English transliterations of similar-sounding “Jewish” place names, first told to some unfortunate clerk in Russian, Yiddish or Polish.

I was thus perfectly content to read the birth town of my great-granduncle Daniel Rugowitz as being the same as that of my great-grandfather, and for them both to be English transliterations of Przasnysz. The former simply “confirmed” what I had already decided was the truth.

**********

This past May, a man whose name I recognized from Ancestry contacted me through this website. He was a descendant of Charles Rugowitz who kindly wanted to compare notes. We have corresponded multiple times since. On August 27, he forwarded me a link to the May 1953 edition of The Brooklyn Jewish Center Review, singling out the article “The Story of Mr. Rugowitz: The Life and Progress of An Immigrant,” written by a second cousin named Alan Lipscott; the name was new to me. This well-written piece centered on the tireless efforts of “Mr. Rugowitz” to help other “greenhorn” immigrants from the same “Russia” (i.e., Pale of Settlement) village acclimate to the United States and eventually become American citizens, just as he himself had. Indeed, Mr. Rugowitz framed the very DOI and PFN I maddeningly still seek – calling them his “first papers” and “second papers,” respectively – to hang over the “mantlepiece in the parlor.”

One detail confused me, however, the name of this village, the name I expected to be some English transliteration of Przasnysz: Shershow. The article later describes the way Mr. Rugowitz founded, following the deaths of many recent Jewish immigrants including his own 26-year-old son Julius in the 1918 influenza pandemic, the Prushin Shershow Benevolent Society.

Oh, I thought, “Prushin” must be an English transliteration of Przasnysz.

Except, when I checked a map of Poland, there was no town anywhere near Przasnysz with a name remotely close to “Shershow.”

There was, however, a town called Sarasova – Sharashova in Russian – about 200 miles east in modern-day Belarus, which was also part of the Pale of Settlement in the second half of the 19th century.

And about 10 miles east of Sarasova is the town of Pruzhany, which sounds a lot like Prushin.

My heart sank when I saw that. Had I really been wrong about the place of birth of the Bergers and Rugowitzes for nearly four years?

I returned to the naturalization documents, quickly realizing that the “Pruzana” written on Louis Berger’s PFN is a lot closer to Pruzhany than Przasnysz.

But what about Daniel Rugowitz’ documents? Surely the town names on them are English transliterations of Przasnysz, right?

Well…not so fast.

Looking more closely at Daniel Rugowitz’ PFN, I realized that the man who completed this form, Deputy Clerk H. K. Shellenberger, wrote “c” and “e” identically in cursive. Compare the “c” in “Mercy” (637 Mercy St.) and the final “e” in “Bessie” (Daniel’s wife’s name). This could easily be “Prushanee,” not “Prushance.”

Clerk Henry G. Liberton completed the DOI for the Yiddish-speaking Daniel Rugowitz. And I now think the final two letters in the “I was born in…” town are not “tz,” they are “ee” written in an interesting way. Compare the letter I thought was a “z” to the final letter of the word “none” on the previous line – and then to the “z” in “Rugowitz” above, with its long left-slanting tail, to the final letter in the birth town name. They are not even close; that is clearly not a “z” ending the name of the birth town, it is an “e.” And compare the letter before it to the “e” in “Mercy.” Their similarity leads me to conclude, quite reluctantly, that these folks were born in Pruzhany, in modern-day Belarus, not Przasnysz, in modern-day Poland.

**********

The coup de grâce arrived in the form of a new Ancestry “hint” a short time ago.

Four new “hints” for Charles Rugowitz had been posted to his page. One was the record of a man named “Zadig Rogowicz” who sailed from Hamburg, Germany on the Hero, bound for New York City, on August 24, 1886. This man is 25 years old – putting his year of birth in 1860 or 1861, roughly the July 1862 when Charles Rugowitz was born – although the immigration year is given as “1885” in the Lipscott article.

And his place of birth is “Pruzina, Polen.”

For a brief moment I thought, “Really? Poland? Oy, what a relief.”

But then I recalled Pruzhany – some 25 miles east of the border with Poland and situated in the “Grodno” region in the map above – was actually under “Polish” control for most of its existence prior to being subsumed by the Russian Empire after the Third Partition of Poland in 1795, and then was under Polish control from 1919 to 1939; there was no “Belarus” until later.

And with that, I essentially conceded defeat and admitted my error.

It is still possible I will uncover some definitive link between the Bergers/Rugowitzes and Przasnysz, sparing me the somewhat disheartening task of rewriting a few paragraphs early in Chapter 1 – but I sincerely doubt it. All the evidence points in the direction of Pruzhany, Belarus being the birthplace of my father’s father Morris Berger, two or three of his siblings, his parents, and their respective families.

Until next time…please be safe and healthy – and if you not already done so, please get vaccinated against COVID-19!

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