Discovering My Inner Jew, Part V: We’re Ba-ack

In 2012 I began digging into my mom’s family history, trying to get to the bottom of a mystery that’d been eluding us for generations: whether or not we’re Jewish. But then the trail, such as it was, ran cold, and the last time I wrote about the Jewish question I lamented:

The clues are there, but I can’t piece them together. I feel as though I need a lucky break.

The ultimate break would, of course, be a copy of the letter that my great aunt burned for its suggestion that we might not be what we thought. I wonder if that exists, or if the sole copy (and the information it provided) went up in smoke.

Well…I’m holding it. The letter wasn’t burned; the smoke it went up in was metaphorical. There’s a lot to unpack here, beginning with the author’s identity: her name is Ella Miriam Weiner (née Borschow), and I’d never heard of before today. But the letter itself is unequivocal: Ella Miriam Weiner was Jewish, and if I’m related to her…then so am I.

Proving that relationship will be difficult, if not impossible. But I’m a lot closer to doing it now than I was 24 hours ago.

Discovering My Inner Jew

“Discovering my inner Jew” is a book title waiting to happen–and if I’m ever able to convincingly demonstrate that the Olsen family’s descended from secret Semitic stock I’ll start sending proposals out to publishing companies. In the meantime, the work continues at the Casa de Johns–and after a few promising leads I’ve begun running up against a wall.

See, for instance, the letter I sent to a Borschow in El Paso that’s gone unanswered. See also the second letter I sent to the synagogue; it was answered, but the response just generated more questions.

There have been a couple different Borschow families that have been members of Temple Mount Sinai. I’m not sure what you are asking for. Please provide further details. Thank you.

Ah, but there’s the rub: I don’t know what I’m asking for. I guess what I’m wondering is when the Borschow name started popping up in America–in Texas, in Pennsylvania, at Ellis Island. Or even in Canada, for that matter: I’ve found evidence of German Borschows arriving in the Maritimes on board rag ships, which could corroborate the story that we’re descended from a Berlin cantor. But really, I don’t have much to go on despite registering for a couple websites which so far have been of limited use. The clues are there, but I can’t piece them together. I feel as though I need a lucky break.

The ultimate break would, of course, be a copy of the letter that my great aunt burned for its suggestion that we might not be what we thought. I wonder if that exists, or if the sole copy (and the information it provided) went up in smoke. Either way, I’ll keep on investigating. This is simply too good a story to let fall by the wayside.

Discovering My Inner Jew, Part III

I might’ve hit the mother lode.

Unfortunately, it’s in Austin, Texas at the American Jewish Archives. If grad school taught me anything–and that’s debatable, but go with me for a minute–it’s how to trawl through an archive, and earlier today I discovered the Floyd S. Fierman Papers whose contents include mention of a Robert Borschow having a bar mitzvah in El Paso sometime between 1952 and 1958. Huh. Not much in there–unless, of course, there is. Because that one collection led me to two additional resources, including a vertical file, compiled by the American Jewish Archives, containing correspondence, newsclippings, publications, and memorabilia relating to the Borschow family. Which Borschow family remains to be seen; like I said, this mother lode’s someplace in Texas. But it’s certainly promising.

This, in turn, led me to a website that bills itself as the web’s premier collection of original military records. I signed up for a trial run, then started downloading documents pertaining to the last name “Borschow.” Among them: this birth certificate. I have no idea if it’s relevant or not…but check it out:

And so we inch forward. Earlier this afternoon I sent a couple emails, including one to a synagogue in El Paso, asking if they can shed any light onto my search. Thus, the discovery of my inner Jew has resumed! Might as well put my recovery time to good use, hey?

Discovering My Inner Jew, Part II: My Great Aunt’s Written History, Continued

In the end my great aunt Annie–“Auntie Annie”–left us with ten pages of family history. These are the final two, presented out-of-sequence; the second contains what I’d imagine are the seeds to the Olsen family Jewish question (it also makes way more sense on the written page). The real work starts next, but for now…

Something I remembered—
This was told me
[sic] by Mrs. Mary Kustra one day when we had Bible Studies with Mrs. Bennett [Pastor Allan Bennett’s wife]. Mary Kustra was Mary Conrad. The Conrad family lived in the same neighbourhood as the Wasky family. This happened before 1921. Mary said that she + her sisters used to “play” with my Wasky cousins. One day Mary came over to the Wasky’s [sic]—She opened the kitchen door + she saw “all these people on their knees.” She quickly closed the doors + left. [At this point you should all get your heads out of the gutter. Seriously. Get ’em out–now.] She didn’t understand what was going on–at the time. But now she said “I know–they were on their knees praying.” What a change in that household. Where once they had wild parties–now it was a prayer meeting.

(Auntie Annie and I–and, indeed, the rest of the entire world–have slightly divergent understandings of what constitute “wild parties.”)

The Wasky family in the States
Mrs. Alex(ander) (Alexandra) Grandmother and our Mother’s (Kross) Grandfather were sister + brother
Therefore their parents were cousins
Father’s (Kross) Grandmother and Mrs. Wasky’s (Alexandra’s) Grandfather were sister + brother
Therefore their parents were cousins
So that we are distant cousins of the Wasky’s
[sic] in U.S.A. – Nancy-Walter-Sasha-+Michael (dead)
This Mike was a Teacher–he came to help on the farm + was killed by a [illegible, but looks like “Traitor”]
Aunt Harpina Wasky–husband John
Children–Sara, Sam, Annie, John (Jr.)
Nancy Grunley [this name is circled]

Again, this makes more sense on the written page. And again, I’d imagine this is the crucial page; it’s the one that provides a furtive link to the United States, and it’s there, probably in the Texas Panhandle, that the answer to the Jewish question lies. Where do we go from here? I don’t know–but it’ll be fun finding the way.

Discovering My Inner Jew, Part I: My Great Aunt’s Written History

It’s time–time to begin unraveling a centuries-old mystery that’ll (hopefully) answer an age-old Olsen family question:

Are we Jewish?

I think we are. Circumstantial evidence suggests as much–but over Christmas crucial information emerged that demands further investigation. So far it’s led me to a book called The Borschow Name in History, obituaries in British Columbia, and virtual archives in Austin, TX and Tempe, AZ. It’s led to the Texas panhandle, to El Paso, where generations of Borschows have lived since the late-nineteenth century. It’s led to the uncovering of a letter, since burned, that allegedly claimed we’re descendants of a cantor from Berlin. And it’s led to a family history written by my late great aunt that traces our conversion to Christianity. This same great aunt burned the letter, sent from a woman in Texas, that told of our apparent Judaism.

Clearly there’s a bigger story here, and so I’ve decided to start telling in…and what better place to start than my great aunt’s family history? I spent a couple nights this week transcribing it, leaving her original formatting anad grammatical errors intact (you’ll find a lot of [sic]s scattered throughout the document) and allowing the story to be told through her two-decades-old words. Fair warning: this is long (over 2,000 words). But it’s an intriguing starting point, as well as a crucial map towards an answer.

My father – Nick Cross + Mother Natalia
I decided to write a short history of my parents –and especially how they became Christians.
Father Nikita was born in Russia in a small village of NAME [sic]. It is still there + brother Steve had the great privilege visiting there [sic]. Father was born in 1892—Sept. 15. He attended the village school and doing very well [sic]. His teacher suggested he should go to a higher school. She even offered to pay for his schooling but his father Simeon, [sic] said “He can read + write; recite the Lord’s Prayer and so that is enough education.”
Father married Natalia Borchowa. She was born in 1891 according to records but it was always said that she was a year younger then [sic] father.
In 1914—Jan. I was born. That year father left for Canada.My aunt Harpina Wasky with daughter, Sarah, were coming to Canada to join her husband John Wasky. He was already here in Fort William—he had a house. So it followed that father came along with my aunt to Fort William. The house was on Stanley Ave—where the present residence of the Wasky’s [sic] is. But it was a large, yellow siding house. The war started shortly after they came here and at one time the Wasky’s [sic] had many staying with them. (This was the War of 1914.) In fact I have heard it said that there were as many as 17 people in that house. Those were War years—men had no jobs and our Aunt fed them + clothed + washed etc for them. One of the men who was there was Alexander Wasky—John’s brother. Also Mr. Lepa [sp?] was there. Then there were at least 3 more men from our Village.
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Now remember Bill + Rita + Robert?
Bill’s grandmother (Maria) and my grandfather Semen [sp?] Kross (Volaboff [sp?]) were brother and sister.
Bill’s grandfather—Kandrat (Maria’s husband) was brother to our grandmother Irena Borshowa. So we are related both through father’s and mother’s side.
So Bill’s mother was cousin to our mother + father.
Grandfather Borschow [note spelling discrepancy] had a sister—I knew her as Melianuka—she was married to Melian—there were no children + he died before I ever knew him. But she died in 1935.
Grandmother Borschowa [which is which?] had a brother who married a Jewish girl. They had 2 children—Peter + Fanny. Fanny never married. Peter married a cousin of my father + later remarried—we heard. But there were 2 girls from his first marriage who later lived in Siberia. Peter was my “godfather.” These are dead now. One of these daughters was a Dr. The name was Machnenko (Peter + Fanny). One of Peter’s daughters was a Dr in Siberia.
Most of this information was given to me by Fred’s sister Katia, when I corresponded with her [sic] I asked her many questions about people I remembered. Katia is still living but not well; doesn’t know who she is—she is a well-educated person—teacher till retired—attended schools in Moscow.
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My Father’s Side.
Father’s father was Semeyon Prochorovich Kross… [illegible]. He died July 15, 1947—age 90 yrs.
Grandmother—Anastasia Denisovna Petrochenko (maiden name). Died at 72 years (other info lacking). She had no sisters but there were brothers.
Their children
1.       Elizabeth—died 1980 Dec 1. Born Aug. 31—1886—Actually she was 96 when she died. (My info is from letters (old)). She had 1 son. Fedor—has 2 children.
2.       Nick Kross (my father). Born Sept 15—1892. Died Aug 4—1… [illegible]. Married Natalia Borchow in 1913.
Children:              Annie—Jan 1—1914; Bill (Wasyl [sp?]) Jan 1—1922; Nina (Olsen)—Jan 5—1924; John—Sept 1—1925; Steve—Augst. 22—1927; Elizabeth (Gandrud) July 30—1929
3.       Tatiana—sister to father—died young—shortly after 192… [illegible]. She had one daughter Elena—married + lives in Siberia.
4.       Fedos—died 1943 in War. –Was married 2 times. Luda who visited us is the Granddaughter of Fedos. Sasha is Luda’s mother. There were 5 others—(2 sons 3 daughters). Sons—Wasil, Ivan—killed in War II. [No third son is listed.] Daughters—Sasha (2 daughters), Sonia (2 children), Zelna [sp???] [this part is confusing]
5.       Tihon [sp??]—Died in War 1943 Sept 6. His wife died June 20—59—her information… [illegible]. Sons—Peter, Anatoli; Daughters—Nina (had 2 children/sons [?]), Valentina + Lydia (died)
Natasha—My father’s youngest sister
Married Kyrilo Skorvorodko [sp???]—who died after Steve visited them.
They had 5 sons + 2 daughters.
One of the sons is Nicholas who has been trying to come to Canada but because of his “record” can’t.
Other of Aunt Natasha’s children [sic] are Lucy, Fred, Alexander, Anatolia, Walia. Aunt Natasha is still living + was 84 in 1992.
I have more detailed info which was given to me by Fred’s sister Katia when she was still able to write to me. She is not well now—she is my age + we both attended school when I was still in Russia 1921-23. So  remember her more than the others.
My aunt Elizabeth + Tatiana [sic] were married. Their husbands emigrated to the U.S. + never heard from. Aunt Elizabeth re-married and had the one son—Fedos. But Aunt Tatiana never married agains. She had the one daughter Elena who is now in Siberia. I haven’t heard anything new about her. Yes, she is married.
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My Mother’s side—
Natalia Borschowa Kross
My mother’s mother was Irene Borshowa. She was married twice. Her first husband was Serge (Serhey) Michailovitch Sorokovoy [sp?]. He died and Irena remarried. From this first marriage was a son Semen Sorokovoy. He was the father of Fred whom we know as he visited us. The family also included
1.       Olia (born 1901). She had children 1, Anastasia (dead) 2, Irenko—1903—died young
2.       Lena (Elena) 1912
3.       Katia (1914) still living 1993
4.       Fred, 1916—Attended Moscow Inst. of Physics + Math + later Arom… [illegible]
5.       Wasil—1918—died 1982
6.       Ivan 1992—finished Tech—but war started + he had to go—he died at the front in Stalingrad (was pilot)
Two other children died young.
So this was Fred’s brothers + sisters [sic]
The father Semen Sorokovoy was in USA in Pittsburg [sic] 1905-1911. Came home + built the brick home in the village—one of its kind there.
Grandmother Irena remarried and had children—1, Harpina Wasky, 2, Natalia Kross, 3, Fred Borschow. There were other children but died young.
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They were both called “Bill” (Wasil). One was fair the other dark so they called them White Bill + Black Bill.
The Wasky’s [sic] had a large garden. Also they had a cow + pig; and chickens, geese + ducks. They had a lot of their own food this way. Westfort wasn’t then what it is to-day. There were few houses—lots of open space. Father was a “builder” so was able to get an odd job now + then.
During this time Mr. Tarnowski and a Russian pastor, Rev. Klochkoff, visited the Wasky residence. They witnessed to all who were there and read the Bible. My father was the first to accept the Lord Jesus Christ. Mr. Lopa (Mary Walker’s father) was next. Soon the 2 Bills accepted Christ + also Alex Wasky + John + later Auntie Wasky. At first our Aunt was very much against what was going on but finally “saw the light.”
Before all this father used to play the accordion. They would have a big party just about every Saturday. Some of the neighbors would join in + it was a “great time” for all. When father became a Christian all this stopped. He would not play. The neighbors said “The young Russian went crazy.” Instead of these parties there were prayer meetings in that house.
These new Christians were baptized in the First Baptist Church which at that time was on Donald Str—downtown. There’s a vacant lot there now—across the road from St. Patricks [sic] Cathedral.But then they also had an all Ukrainian—Russian—Slavic [?] meeting [illegible]. They had communion in the
[Page 7]
English meetings. I am not sure of the date when father was converted but 1917 comes to mind.
In 1921 father decided to go back to Russia. Mother + I lived with mother’s mother Irena Borschowa. She was a widow and also there was a son, Fyodor (Fred) Borschow who later came to Canada and lived in Vancouver—died in 1977.[1] You have no doubt heard us speak of “our Uncle Fred.” Annie Wasky always said “My Uncle.” He lived with them when first he came to Fort Wm—worked for Dominion Motors + then moved to B.C.
Alex Wasky + the 2 Bills also came back to Russia with father. There was another young man but he was not a Christian.
When father came back to the village we went to live with grandfather Kross (Krossoloboff [sp?]). There were 4 Christians—father, Alex Wasky + the 2 Bills. They had a prayer meeting + decided to start preaching as there was no Evangelical work there. Now “who is going to do the preaching?” All fingers pointed to father. So they began meetings—in homes—father’s sister, Tatiana, had a slightly larger room so that’s where the meetings were held. The house was filled + people stood outside + listened through windows. In 2 years there were over 65 believers. Father’s sisters + brothers + parents believed. Mother’s mother held out until after 1923 when we came here to Canada—Father received the good news. “Irena Borschowa accepted Christ.” The priest (Russian Orthodox) didn’t like what was going on + told the people in his church to take sticks + drive “these so-+-so’s [sic]” out [illegible] had the authority for 
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Questioning. This was done in the City about 7 miles from the village. The city is Novozebkov [sic; the correct spelling is “Novozybkov”]. This was at night that he was picked up. They questioned him all night + then let him go. On his way out he asked one of the officers, “Who told you I speak against the Government.” The officer replied “the Priest.” So father came home + one day with a Bible under his arm he went to the priest’s home. I think Alex Wasky was with him too. But the priest saw them coming and quickly disappeared. By the way Alex Wasky was still single. But soon he decided to marry. Our grandmother Irena, said [sic] to him “why don’t you go see Alexan[illegible]. She is a lovely girl.” Lived only 2 or 3 doors from grandma. So Alex wouldn’t go to the Orthodox Church to marry—so father performed the ceremony—It was held in the yard where the bride lived. Shortly after the wedding she walked through to the snow to the river [underlining Auntie Annie’s] to be baptized. Of course her family didn’t approve but it wasn’t long before her sister came to the meetings + then this sisters [sic] husband, Matthew, who was next to the priest in that Orthodox Church also was converted. When we left for Canada Matthew was left in charge of the meeting. He was so on fire for the Lord. Later a church building was put up with some of the money father had coming from Canada. But I was told by Fred Sorokovoy [sp?] (the one who is now dead + visited us here] that during the second world war many buildings were destroyed + that one was one of them.
*All baptisms took place on the river—right in the village
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During the 2 yrs. father was in Russia—1921-23—my brother Bill was born. He was about a year old when we came here in 1923.
Once again we came to our Aunt Wasky’s and lived there for 2 yrs. with them. Alex Wasky + wife + their baby came with us so there were 3 families living in that house. During that time father remodelled the middle of that big old 2 story [sic] house—made more bedrooms etc. But Alex couldn’t get work so he decided to go to Windsor. He got a job with Ford + later moved to the States. His baby died here in Ft. Wm. Shortly after + Alex’s wife Alex[illegible] went to join her husband in Windsor.
In 1925 father built our house on Francis St. ((1001) its [sic] still there.) my sister, Nina, your Mom was born soon in that old house of Wasky’s [sic]. She has a picture of it. I was married in 1940 + we lived in Port Arthur but in 1942 father built the house on Amelia St. For the first time they had in-door plumbing etc.
The Ukrainian’s [sic] had their meetings in homes for many years—gonig downtown to the First Baptist on Communion Sunday. I remember going with father.
There in Westfort we had Sunday School in the afternoons. My cousins attended so of course I went along + am still there since 1923. It was 1929 that I joined the church. But that is another story.
PS. Mr. Lupa married Mr. Tarnowski’s sister Catherine.


[1] Fred Borschow died on November 22, 1977 in Vancouver, British Columbia, aged 77. 

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If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! The key to unlocking this mystery is learning more about the Borschow family, which is where the investigation is headed next. Stay tuned! This is gonna be fun.