Bensman Family

 

By Allen B. Saxe

Bottom Left: Rieshe (Rose) Sussman Bensman, Ida Bensman Kahn, Joseph Bensman, John Bensman, Louis Bensman.

Top Left(behind Rieshe): Max Bensman, Solomon Bensman,Jessie Bensman Saxe, Frieda Bensman Green, David Bensman, Michael Bensman.

Middle Row: Between Solomon and Jessie is Albert Bensman.

As the grandson of Louis (Yuda,Yehuda) Bensman, I grew up knowing his brothers; Joe,William, Abe, their children and grandchildren. (See below). In the hush tones of family secrets another great uncle was mentioned though his name was never voiced.

We were also told that our grandfather had other siblings who had remained in Lepel but their names were not impressed into our memories.It was assumed that they had perished during WWI. The one acknowledged relative was Leo Bensman who was a first cousin to my grandfather. He too had come to Sheboygan but then moved to Duluth. Leo Bensman maintained contact with his cousins in Sheboygan and became a major supporter of Jewish institutions in Duluth (see photo below).

Our great-grandparents were David and Feiga Bensman of Lepel, Belarus.The stories of the Bensman family always began with them. Their names were continued in every generation. We were also told that our great grandfather was a brick maker. My research has now documented a much longer and clearer history taking us back three generations before David Bensman. We now know that our earliest documented direct ancestor was Borukn Bensman. Borukh had three sons (Leyba, Zalman, and Abram-Meyer). While we do not have Borukh's date of birth, he probably was born in the late1700's. 

Abram-Meyer was born in 1800 and was our next documented direct ancestor. His wife was Ginda Leybova. They also had a daughter Lifsha and four sons (Itska, Yankel Zalman and Borukh). Abram-Meyer was approved by the civil authorities to be afarmer. This occurred in 1853 and it literally took an "act of Congress". Zalman was born in 1822. Abram-Meyer's son Zalman was allowed to continue as a farmer. This gave the family certain privileges and an exemption from military service which would continue until 1880. Zalman was the father of David Bensman (our great grandfather). 

David Bensman was born in 1850. He had moved from Lepel to a nearby village where he did have his own house and worked in a brickfield. David and Feiga had the following children: Zalman (who remained inBelarus), Yuda ( Louis), Vulf (William), Abel (Abe), Orsey (Joseph), and Mota (the evasive great Uncle mentioned in the first paragraph above). There were also three daughters (Itka, Dvora, and Relya). 

Our grandparents and parents assumed that the Bensmans who remained in Lepel (Zalman, Dvora, Itka and Relya)  did not survive WWI.We have now learnedthe miraculous story of how some have survived WWI, WWII and Stalin and how some of their descendents are now in the United States, Israel and other countries in Europe. While we now know the general history of our family in Lepel back tothe 1700's, my work will continue. I have learned more details of Mota (Max) Bensman, however I have not yet confirmed whether he had any descendents.  Connecting the various other Bensman families in the United States will proceed. While our roots in Belarus are more clear, work will also focus on our earlier history.

 

Leo Bensman
middle: Leo Bensman

updated: August 1, 2001

The Louis and Rieshe Sussman Bensman Family

 

Louis (Yehuda) Bensman was born in Lepel, Belarus. He and his brothers Joseph, Abe, William and Mota (Max) settled in Sheboygan in the early 1900's. Rieshe Sussman Bensman's sister's family (the Katchkeys) also settled in Sheboygan.

The photograph above, taken in 1924, shows Louis and Rieshe with their 10 children. Louis and Rieshe lived in Sheboygan from 1902 till 1921, when they moved to Two Rivers, Wisconsin. Louis returned to Sheboygan in 1950 and bought back his house there.

Most of Louis and Rieshe's children (Solomon, Jessie, David, Johnnie, Albert, and Ida) settled and raised their families in Milwaukee. Frieda raised her family in Fond du Lac and Joseph raised his in New York. The 10 children of Louis and Rieshe had much smaller families than their parents!

Joseph Bensman's memories of growing up in Wisconsin are recounted in Creators and Disturbers, edited by Bernard Rosenberg. Click here to see an exerpt taken from Chapter 22, The Sociologist on the Cutting Edge.

Almost all of the children of Louis' brothers remained in Sheboygan. With all their uncles and aunts in Milwaukee and the cousins in Sheboygan, the 16 grandchildren of Louis and Rieshe were surrounded by Bensmans.

Today Wisconsin is still the home for many of the descendants of Louis and Rieshe Bensman. However the Northeast and Southeast have become home for several. One family made aliyah to Israel and lives on Kibbutz Malkiyya.

The descendants of Louis and Rieshe Bensman are working with the descendants of Joseph, William and Abe to record the Bensman family history and to find the descendants of Mota (Max).

For further information contact Allen B. Saxe by email .


The Abraham Bensman Family

Abraham (Avram), Joseph, Louis, and William Bensman were brothers. There may have been another brother (Mosel, known as either Max, Michael or Morton). Mary Maza and Abraham Bensman were married. They came from Lepel, Belarus in 1911 to Sheboygan. (They told their children, Lithuiania [they indeed were Litvaks]). William Bensman's children were Evey (married to Milt Rudnick); Caroline (married to Chubby Petashnek); John, Frances and Celia.

 

William and Sophie Raffelson Bensman

Joseph Bensman's children were Paul, Ben, Sol, Meyer, Sylvia (Chickie), Emily and Dora.

Abraham and Mary had David (1913); Jean (1915); Israel (1916); and Rosie (1918). The family moved to Two Rivers, Wisconsin, where Abe worked in brother Louis Bensman's shoe store. They were shoe-makers. They later seperated. Abe's mother, Mary, died 1937, the year their first grandson, Marvin (to David and Rose Swerdlow Bensman) was born. Rose and David had a daughter Laeh in 1943. Jeannie married David Horwitz (their children are Mary Lynn (named after Jean's mother), Michael, and Rachel); Israel married Ruth (Tootie) Berman (from Green Bay and their children are James, Kerry and Amy). and Rosie married C.J. Wyatt during WWII, a sailor. Rosie Bensman Wyatt had Richard, Karen and Jo Lynn and returned to Sheboygan where she now resides.

Around 1940-41 Abe, David and Rose Swerdlow Bensman, and their children, Marvin and Laeh (McHenry), moved to Sheboygan. In 1948 Avram died at their home at 1334 Marie Ct. David Bensman was a newspaper publisher, high school printing teacher during WWII, radio and appliance store owner, record company owner (Polkaland Records) and started WSHE radio (950 kHz) in Sheboygan. He died in 1963, Israel Bensman (printing teacher at Central High School) in 1964, Jean Bensman Horwitz in 1973, and Rose Swerdlow Bensman in 1975.

David had owned and managed the Two Rivers Free Press during his high school years, as well as B&B Sound System. Additional work opportunities took him to Sheboygan, so the family relocated. Abe moved to Sheboygan soon after the death of his wife, and lived with David,Rose, and their children until is death.

Around 1940-41 David took a job teaching printing at North High School in Sheboygan. He commuted from Two Rivers and while in Sheboygan stayed with his brother Israel and wife Tootie. Izzy was teaching printing at Central High. Abe, Rose Swerdlow Bensman, and their children, Marvin and Laeh (McHenry), moved to Sheboygan around 1945. In 1948 Avram died at their home at 1334 Marie Ct. David Bensman was a newspaper publisher (The Free Press of Two Rivers), high school printing teacher during WWII, as well as an appliance store owner, record company owner (Polkaland Records) and started WSHE radio (950 kHz) in Sheboygan. He died in 1963, Israel Bensman (printing teacher at Central High School) in 1964, Jean Bensman Horwitz in 1973, and Rose Swerdlow Bensman in 1975. Rose Bensman Wyatt continues to live in Sheboygan.


 

For further information about this family contact Marvin R. Bensman by email at mbensman@MEMPHIS.EDU or contact for the William Bensman Family Alan Rudnick at arudnick@excel.net.


Memories of My Grandfather: Joseph Bensman

Born: May 2, 1881 in Lepel, Russia

Died: May 27, 1969 in Sheboygan, Wisconsin

By Stephen J. Bensman

The following is a memoir based upon conversations that I had with my grandfather,Joseph Bensman, during the mid-1960s when we talked together while I spending time in Sheboygan working on my dissertation for the doctorate in Russian history. I am contributing it to the Jewishgen Shtetlinks web pages for Sheboygan, Wisconsin and Lepel, Belorussia, because it contains valuable information on the life of the forbears of the Sheboygan Jews in Russia and on their early days in the UnitedStates.

One of the first things I ascertained from my grandfather was the precise location in Russia from where my family originated. I had always suspected that it was the town of Lepel', because family tradition had it that we came from "Leple" and in the locative case in Russian Lepel' becomes Leple. Thus, to say in Russian, "I live in Lepel'", one says, "Ya zhivu v Leple." To ascertain this, I sat my grandfather down with a detailed map of the then Soviet Union and named the towns around Lepel'. It turned out that he knew all the towns around Lepel' for about 25 miles out and then did not know the small towns but did know the big ones like Vitebsk and Minsk.

I had further confirmation of this recently, when the assistant to the Slavic Bibliographer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison wrote me that the name Bensman is specific to the towns of Lepel' and Rechitsa according to the book by Alexander Beider (A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from the Russian Empire, Teaneck, NJ, Avotaynu,1993, p. 128-129). It is a Cohen name deriving from the Yiddish word "benchn" or "to bless" and meaning "one who blesses." Other forms of the name are Benchman and the Russified Bentsman.

I have translated Tsarist encyclopedia articles on Lepel', which are posted on the Web. If one reads them and this, one will see that the encyclopedia articles corroborate what my grandfather told me. These articles also confirm the family story that my great grandfather Aaron Holman emigrated to Sheboygan from "Leple" in the 1880s after losing 500 gold rubles on venture to float a log raft to market as such ventures were a common economic activity in the Lepel' region. On a visit to Israel I found out at the Tel Aviv Museum that the Germans declared the Lepel' region "Judenrein" (Clean of Jews) in 1942-43.

During our conversation, I questioned my grandfather very closely and managed to get a fairly good picture of the Bensmans in Lepel, Russia. They operated a brick kiln. They not only made bricks, but they knocked down houses to salvage bricks. In doing so, they always checked the wooden beams in the houses they destroyed to see if any money had been hidden in the rafters. This was common, since Lepel' lies on the main invasion routes, and people were always having to have to hide. Napoleon's Grand Army passed through Lepel'. The Bensmans burned the rafters to operate the kiln. However, the Bensmans could not make ends meet from just operating the kiln My grandfather had to do other work. Among the jobs he did were the following. First, he ran teams of horses to drag logs out of the forest during the cutting season in winter. Since he was smart, he managed to rig the chains, so that he could drag out two logs instead of the usual one log. A merchant would then buy the logs and smack his mark on it with a special hammer. Second, he farmed. Jews could not own land, so he rented land from the Lepel' municipal council. Third, he worked as a navvy in Vitebsk, digging foundations. Since he was Jewish, he was always given the task of digging where the latrines of former buildings had emptied. Finally, he was a mean horse trader. My grandfather's skill at horse trading was so well known, that when he was drafted in the Russian army, the intention was to assign him to the cavalry so he could buy and sell horses for it. As a general rule, Jews were not put into combat units but were assigned to the quartermaster corps, where their skills as traders, tinkers, tailors, cobblers, etc., were found very useful.

The Bensmans were extremely lower class and uneducated. That is probably why they lost the tradition of being Cohens. They were not able to read or write. I showed my grandfather a Russian newspaper, and he commented that he had seen something like it once. It also brought to mind the local nobleman who had a bike, which amazed the peasants and caused them to laugh when he rode it. My grandfather did not even know his own birth date until the Russian Army told him it when he was summoned to service. My grandfather could speak some Russian heavily influenced by Polish as was common in Belarus, but he did not know the words for directions like north, south, east, west. These were concepts entirely alien to him. He always oriented himself by what directions lay the major towns and cities, and even in the US he gave directions in these terms on where to go fishing. The Bensmans were not like the other Jews, for they were more integrated into the local gentile population than most other Jews. In Russia my grandfather was involved slightly with the Socialist Revolutionaries, who specialized in blowing up Tsarist officials. He told me that the Socialist Revolutionaries used to meet in secret on an island in one of the lakes of the Lepel' district.

My grandfather was a hard man tutored in a hard world. I saw him on his death bed: he was totally without fear. He told that once in Russia he drove an iron pole through his foot while breaking the ice to fish. All he did was to stuff moss in the foot and continue. From him I learned a lot about life among the common people in the Lepel' district. For example, once he told me a rural knee-slapper popular among the peasants of the Lepel' district. It was a joke about a peasant with a sick bull (byk, in Russian) sent to see a doctor named Bullov (Bykov) to get it cured. He also told me about a peasant who stole a horse in winter but stupidly left tracks in the snow so the other peasants could trace him. When they caught the thief, they beat him so badly that one of his eyes popped out. This story impressed me, because during my research for my dissertation on Russian liberals during the Revolution of 1905, I read a memoir describing how the police broke up a meeting, beating a man so badly that one of his eyes popped out, and I got the idea that this was a common thing in the Russia of this period. Moreover, he told me how due to a lack of fodder, the peasants used to house their cattle for the winter at the state vodka monopoly, where they were fed the mash used to make the vodka. The cattle were stoned for the entire winter, and a common entertainment was to watch the drunken beasts released in the spring and come stumbling out like a bunch of drunken bums. Moreover, my grandfather was an acute social observer, and he accurately described to me one of the causes leading to the Russian Revolution: how the population was growing in Lepel' and forcing the land to be divided among more and more people without an increase in farming technology, causing poverty and famine. Given his illiteracy, I was impressed with his astute observations. However, at times he had to break into Russian to explain things to me. For example, when he told me why he could not own land, he simply said, "Ya ne byl krest'yanin." This means "I was not a peasant," and the root for the Russian word peasant is "krest" or "cross", giving it the connotation of "a person of the cross", and a poor person had to a member of this social estate to belong to a household which could own land in the Lepel' district. You can see the complexity of what he was trying to say and why he just used the simple Russian phrase, hoping that I would catch his meaning.

My grandfather's decision to come to the US was motivated by his being drafted into the Russian Army in 1902. He was advised by his brother Max to stay out of the Army. Max knew the Russian Army, because he had served in it for 5 years. The thought of Max in the Russian Army caused my grandfather to laugh when he remembered how Max's "shinel'" or "military great coat" was too big for him and how every time he sat down on it, his ass would hit the big buttons meant for the waist in the back, causing him to jump up. My grandfather and Max hatched a plan, by which my grandfather was to remain in the center of the column away from the guards at the front and back on the march which began at dawn from the reception depot to the Army, and then Max would drive a wagon of hay close to the column, so my grandfather could jump in. During the night at the reception depot, my grandfather met a member of the revolutionary intelligentsia and let him on the plan. Everything went according to plan, both my grandfather and the intelligent making their escape, and Max took my grandfather to the train station where he caught the train to Hamburg. At the border my grandfather asked a peasant woman with long skirts whether he could hide behind them under the seat so he could make it across to Germany. He told her that he was an Army deserter who would be shot if caught, and the woman agreed. This was the beginning of the Revolution of 1905, and the Army was combing the countryside with punitive detachments, so the danger was real. My grandfather made it to Hamburg and then to London, where many Jews from Lepel' district had established themselves. He worked for one of them, whom he knew through cheder, in a junk yard until he got enough money together. He then went down to the docks, where there were two ships--one for the US and one for Argentina. He flipped a coin, and the coin came down US, so I was able to be born.

My grandfather first settled on a farm in Steinthal, Wisconsin, with his brother William, raising dairy cattle. However, a dog they had came down with rabies andbit the cattle, which had to be destroyed. As a result of this, both my grandfather and my father had a passionate hatred of dogs. After the rabies incident, my grandfather moved to Sheboygan. There his wife Fannie started a grocery store in the front room of their house on 12th Street, while my grandfather peddled. Being good with horses under winter conditions, he used to take a sledge full of goods to sell to the farmers, who in those days were snowed in and could not make it to town. The farmers would let him sleep at night in their barns. The grocery business prospered, and my grandfather built it up to around 9 small stores, in which he would put relatives or other Jews as managers. The Jews played an important role in the food business in Sheboygan due to my grandfather. The amazing thing was that he was able to do it without being able to add or subtract.

As an interesting aside, back in the 1920s my grandfather was approached by Chicago gangsters, who wanted to used his stores as warehouses for the liquor they were running down out of Canada. One of them offered my grandfather a huge wad of bills, but when he reached in to get the wad, he opened his coat so my grandfather could see the artillery he packing in his shoulder holster. My grandfather politely declined. Probably smart, because not only was there the danger of the police but also that a rival gang could come out of Chicago to wipe out their opponents' supply line. In another incident, according to my sister, bootleggers asked my grandfather to front for them in buying sugar, because a grocery business could buy the amount of sugar necessary to make illegal liquor without raising suspicions.

I will conclude these memories of my grandfather with a funny story told me by my father. Back in the 1920s my grandfather had a big problem with rats in the basement of one his stores. He tried poison, cats, and even a terrier, but nothing worked. The rats ignored the poison and killed the cats and the terrier. Finally, he was told about a fellow down in Milwaukee selling an animal called a mongoose that was deadly on rats. Having nothing to lose, my grandfather thought he try it, paying about $200 for the mongoose, in those days about the price of a car. It worked like a charm; in a short time the mongoose killed off all the rats with no trouble. But one day my grandfather told one of his workers to go to the basement to get a case of canned goods. The worker went down, and there ensued a whooping and a hollering with the sounds of things being smashed and overturned. Finally, the worker came up from the basement with the mongoose by the tail in one hand and a shovel in the other, saying, "Biggest gottdamn rat I ever seen, but I managed to kill the damn thing anyway." My grandfather's response was, "Oi veh!"


 

Bensman and Raffelson Families on farm in Steinthal, Wisconsin, about 1910

The above picture of the Bensman family taken at the dairy farm in Steinthal, Wisconsin, around 1910. It is at the Sheboygan County Historical Museum, but no one knows how it got there. I can only identify a few people, and all those are on the left side of the picture Starting from the left: Fannie Bensman (my grandmother) and Joseph Bensman (my grandfather) with Emily and Paul in front of them , I would guess. The old man in front is probably Fannie's father, a Raffelson, and he may have my father in his lap. To the right of Joseph are William and his wife.

The foundations of that log cabin are still there, and my father showed them to me just before his death. Steinthal means "stone valley" in German, and that is the kind of land that is there. The Bensmans were farming rocks.

Steve Bensman

 

TOP ROW. Fanny Bensman holding Emily Bensman (in a checked dress), Paul Bensman.(on the chair) , Joseph Bensman, Sophie Raffelson Bensman, William Bensman, Louis Wasserman and John Pykel.. The man on the end with the moustace is an unknown neighbor.

MIDDLE ROW. Bearded man is Max Raffelson. He is holding John Bensman or Sol Bensman. Sitting in chair is Esther Pykel holding Celia Pykel. Next to her is Lena Raffelson Moekler and David Raffelson.

BOTTOM ROW. There are three persons sitting in the bottom row. The girl in the middle in the black dress is Bessie Raffelson Marsark. Bessie is sitting at the feet of Esther and Celia Pykel. The other two persons are unknown neighbors.

These notes of identification were provided by Evelyn Bensman Rudnick, Allen Saxe and Stella Wasserman Schwartz

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Last updated on February 16, 2004 by JA