The invasion of Ukraine is personal for me…as it is for many of us

We are all gripped – feeling both horror at Russian president Vladimir Putin and immense pride in the strength of the Ukrainians – by the ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

Readers of this website are likely aware of my personal connections to the sovereign democratic nation of Ukraine. My mother’s father – the man who became Samuel Joseph Kohn – was born in the central town of Shpola in 1904. This is during the period when the eastern edge of the Russian Empire was a vast Jewish region called The Pale of Settlement.

And while my mother’s mother – born Ida Gurmankin, though she later became Irene Goldman – was born in Philadelphia in 1914, Ida’s mother Rachel Debra Shore was born in Uman in 1895. Her first husband, my maternal great-grandfather Jacob “Jack” Gurmankin, was born in Kherson in 1893. This photograph was taken at the wedding of Jack Gurmankin and Rachel Shore in Philadelphia in 1913.

Other ancestors of my mother’s were born or lived in the cities of Kyiv, Lviv, Odesa and Zlatapol.

In other words, ALL of my mother’s family came from the part of the Pale of Settlement which now comprises the nation of Ukraine.


Readers of this website – and just about everyone with whom I communicate – know I have written a soon-to-be-published book called Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own. The Introduction to Part I (The West Philadelphia Story) details the history of the Pale of Settlement, while Chapter 2 (The Dancing Rabbi, The Philly Cop and the Baker’s Daughter) relates the stories of my mother’s ancestors.

A short time ago, I read with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that Kherson was the first major city in Ukraine – probably – to be captured by Russian forces.

This is what I wrote about Kherson – and Jack Gurmankin – in Chapter 2:

“    Within two years [of joining the Philadelphia Police Department in 1931], however, Patrolman Samuel Kohn had met his match: the outwardly-charming and attractive eldest daughter of an immigrant baker.

  1. The Gurmankins

The town of Kherson,[i] in modern-day Ukraine, is located on the west side of the Dnieper River about 15 miles east of where it flows into the Black Sea. It was founded in 1778 by Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin, commander in chief and governor-general of New Russia, now southern Ukraine, to help guard Russia’s new foothold on the Black Sea, becoming its first naval base and shipyard in the region.

     This shipping and shipbuilding center attracted a mass migration of Jews from northwestern portions of the Pale. In 1799, there were 180 Jewish townsmen, 39 of them merchants. By 1847, there were 3,832 Jewish residents. Fifty years after that, fully 30% of the town was Jewish (n=17,755), as were more than half of the secondary school students and a majority of merchants. Moreover, Kherson had become an active center of the Zionist movement. Today it has a population of nearly 300,000,[ii] on par with Pittsburgh, PA.[iii]

     I do not know which ancestor of Eleazar, later Lazer or Louis,[iv] Gurmankin first arrived in Kherson, nor when Lazer was born, nor when he married a woman whose first or last name was Bresia.[v] However, this sentence I wrote in 1980 suggests he was one of the successful Jewish merchants who thrived in Kherson in the second half of the 19th century:

Whatever [Eleazar] was, he had money. He would walk around the village with a gold-tipped walking stick.

     The only child of Lazer and Bresia Gurmankin was born in Kherson on May 15, 1892.[vi] Yaakov, later Jacob, quit school after fourth grade.[vii] In 1905, when Jacob was 13, pogroms swept through Kherson. Four or five years later, according to my 8th grade report, Lazer died, likely in his late 40s. Here is what happened next:

Then in 1911…his mother re-married a doctor. Jacob got mad and booked himself a first-class trip to America. The conditions were, obviously, very good. Nothing very out of the ordinary happened, and…he went right to South Philadelphia.

     I cannot confirm when his father died or if his mother then married a doctor; the 1930 Census records he immigrated to the United States in 1911. The impetuous and daring 19-year-old Jacob, who preferred “Jack,” found work first as a pharmacist then as a baker.[viii] He also switched to “Goldman,” the surname his four daughters used; by 1940, though, he had switched permanently back to “Gurmankin.”

[Jack and Rachel had four daughters – my maternal grandmother being the oldest – between 1914 and 1923. The story then continues…]

     The “Jacob Goldman” who worked for Bainbridge Drug Company in 1924 may be my maternal great-grandfather. It was located at 16th and Bainbridge, two blocks west of Broad Street, putting it just outside Jewish South Philadelphia. In 1930, the Goldmans lived in a three-bedroom, one-bathroom, two-story row house built in 1900[ix] at 3008 Fontain Street, in Strawberry Mansion. Jack Goldman rented this house, presumably monthly, for $33 (~$484). They did not own a radio. He and Rose could speak, read and write English, though they still primarily spoke Yiddish and had not become American citizens; it is unclear either ever did.[x] Jack works for a salary at a bakery, while Ida, now 15 and having dropped out of Simon Gratz High School (“Gratz”), roughly an 11-minute drive northeast, works as “bell clerk” in a “leather goods factory.” Her three younger sisters are still in school.

     Family fortunes improved over the next few years, because by 1935, Jack, Rose and their three youngest daughters had moved to a nicer three-story rowhouse built in 1915 at 2220 Natrona Street, about four blocks northwest.[xi] The eastern edge of Fairmount Park was half-a-block west. Jack earned $2,000 annually (~$34,300) in a “retail bakery.”


     On July 11, 1947, Dr. Jack Levenstein of 2415 N. 33rd Street – two blocks north of the Natrona Street house – began treating Jack Gurmankin. In the next four months, the latter entered Feinstein Nursing and Convalescent Home “for aged & conval. Kind, intelligent care.”[xii] This private boarding house was run by Isaac E. Feinstein at 5644 Walnut Street; Congregation Beth El was just one block west. As secretary, later President, of the Philadelphia Association of Nursing and Convalescent Homes,[xiii] Feinstein and his fellow for-profit convalescent boarding house operators faced criticism from city officials, particularly Acting Fire Marshall George Kington (to whom we return), for inadequate safety precautions.[xiv] Thus, on March 11, 1949 they unanimously endorsed Pennsylvania Senate Bill 332, “providing for licensure and regulation of private boarding homes operated for profit.”[xv] Nonetheless, I suspect Feinstein’s Home was well-run and welcomed Jews facing discrimination elsewhere.

     It was here Jack Gurmankin died on November 2, 1947 from cerebral thrombosis – a blood clot in the brain – brought on by hypertension; he was only 55 years old. Curiously, he was buried the next day, not in established Jewish cemeteries Har Nebo or Chevra Bikur Cholim (1853 Bridge Street), but in Mt. Sharon Cemetery, in the suburban Delaware County town of Springfield, 11 miles southwest. I find no other family member buried there.

[Following the death of her first husband, Rachel Gurmankin remarried – and was ultimately buried next to her second husband. I conclude this section thus:]

I do not know whether Jack Gurmankin was impulsive and domineering, courageous and hard-working, or something in between. What I recall hearing, however, is that when his eldest daughter saw a chance to marry and move out of her father’s house, she grabbed it. Make of that what you will.

Whatever his character, however, he was my maternal great-grandfather. And he was born in Kherson, now ostensibly under Russian control (again).

That makes this invasion personal for me.


Until next time…please wear a mask as necessary to protect yourself and others – and if you have not already done so, get vaccinated against COVID-19! And if you like what you read on this website, please consider making a donation. Thank you.

[i] This paragraph and the one that follows drawn primarily from, and Accessed August 24, 2019.

[ii] Accessed August 27, 2019.

[iii] Accessed August 27, 2019.

[iv] He is listed that way on Jacob Gurmankin’s death certificate.

[v] The only place I have ever found her name is on her son’s death certificate. The name hand-written under “Mother/maiden name” appears to be “Bresia.” This is not a typical Jewish name, though it could be her surname, named for the city Brescia in Italy. However, no significant population of Jews has lived there since 1571. Accessed August 24, 2019.

[vi] His headstone and death certificate state he was 55 years old when he died on November 2, 1947, while a November 19, 1947 Social Security claim lists “May 15, 1892.” However, the 1930 Census suggests he was born between April 15, 1893 and April 14, 1894, while the 1940 Census implies April 4, 1890 to April 3, 1891, but only if the number hand-written under “Age at last birthday” is “49.” It could easily be “44.” Why does this matter? Well, that is the age his wife Rose would be as of April 3, 1940, not 47, as was written for her—which is exactly how old Jack Gurmankin would have been that day, had he been born on May 15, 1892. Census enumerator Abraham Dodek could easily have reversed the order of the numbers.

[vii] 1940 Census

[viii] My 8th grade report notes that he helped “found the first baker’s union (in Chicago).” I can find no evidence at all for anything even close to this story, and, in fact, I actually crossed that factoid out on his genealogy project data sheet.

[ix] Accessed August 25, 2019.

[x] 1930 Census

[xi] Accessed September 23, 2019.

[xii] “Boarding,” PI, October 2, 1944, pg. 22.

[xiii] “Isaac E. Feinstein, retired social worker,” PI, December 23, 1976, pg. 4-d.

[xiv] “Boarding Homes For Aged Are Hit As Fire Hazards,” PI, March 4, 1949, pp. 1.

[xv] “Nursing Unit Backs Licensure Bill,” PI, March 12, 1949, pp. 3.

7 thoughts on “The invasion of Ukraine is personal for me…as it is for many of us

  1. Hi Matt,

    It is interesting seeing how your family is intertwined with Ukraine. Josh also has been posting quite a bit about Ukraine on Facebook.

    On another note, I was shocked to hear about Josh’s younger brother Roger. My condolences to you and your family. It was a senseless tragedy.

    My best to you, Nell, and the girls,


    Sent from my iPad


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Lori,

      Thank you for this.

      What I did not mention was that my paternal grandfather Morris Berger was born in Pruzhany, in what is now Belarus, in 1893. I got it all covered. 🙂

      (My father’s mother’s family was from what is now Latvia, possibly Poland as well.)

      I am still processing the details of Roger’s death. I barely knew him, though we caught up some at his dad’s funeral back in 2016. So sad.

      They send their best back.

      Be well, stay well,



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