The Vasilishki Families Kopelman and Yanowski

by Varda Epstein

Chaim Yerucham Kopelman was a poor scholar in the town of Vashilishok. My mother thought that he was an orphan, but cousins say his mother was alive at least until 1914. My guess is that his father had passed on when he was quite young. In Jewish law, one who has lost a father is considered a Yatom, an orphan.

Chaim Yerucham set his eyes on the lovely Chana Sarah Janofsky, the daughter of well-to-do baker, Mordechai Shmuel, and his wife, Taibe Leah. Chaim’s only capital was his good Yiddishe Kop so he penned a scholarly letter of Torah and sent it to Mordechai Shmuel. Mordechai Shmuel was amused but impressed and consented to the alliance of the young couple.

In 1896, Chaim’s brother, Max immigrated to the States, first residing in New Kensington, Pennsylvania, a town north of Pittsburgh. This is the reason that Chaim ended up settling in that same town. I know that Max moved to Vandergrift Heights at the time that town was laid out, somewhere between 1912 and 1914. Max had three children, Dorothy, Jean and Sam.

Chaim, now Haiman, came to the States through Baltimore port in 1898. He was to work hard as a peddler and earn the fare to bring his wife and two small children. All went well and he succeeded in earning the money needed for his family's fares.  At this point, Haiman received an entreaty from his mother in Vashilishok. Haiman’s sister, Zelda, needed money for a dowry.

Haiman sent the hard-earned fare that had been intended for Chana Sarah, Ellis, and Nathan, to his mother to use as Zelda’s dowry (she later immigrated to New York, married, and had two children; Ruth and Sam Kubrin). Chana Sarah was furious that Haiman had given away her fare and that of her two children, but she set her mind to the task of finding a way to reunite with her husband.

She earned her own way to the Goldene Medina, by starting her own leather findings business and bringing herself, now to be called Anna, and her two children, Ellis and Nathan, to America. Anna not only earned the fare for her and the boys, but also made enough money to have velvet suits made for the boys. She wanted them to arrive in America in style.

Ellis was five, and Nathan, three, in 1901, when they made their way, steerage class, by way of the Port of Baltimore, to New Kensington, Pa. Haiman went out the next day to buy the boys 50 cent wash suits made of cotton to replace the embarrassing velvet suits that made them look like "Greeners." Haiman wanted his boys to look American.

In addition to earning enough money for three fares to America and velvet suits for her boys, Anna had also saved $500.00 intending to use this money to make a down payment on a house with an extra room in the front for a store. The next time Haiman wrote up his peddler's list of wares to replenish, Anna handed him some money and told him to buy twice as much. These wares she placed in her storefront window. She sold these goods and this was Anna's start in the American business world. Eventually, my great grandparents moved the store to larger premises and called it Kopelman’s.
Anna forgave Haiman for the mishap with the fare and bore him four more children: Mary, Evelyn, Ethel and Margaret. Margaret had a twin brother who died the day after his birth.

A tragic death befell the family. When Mary Kopelman was 13, she died in a fire. Various relatives have different versions of this story. One cousin says that Mary and a friend were playing dress-up in the attic when a veil caught fire. Mary’s clothes came ablaze and she ran out into the street in a panic. A cousin told me that a train engineer saw her and stopped his train in hopes of assisting her, to no avail.

My mother suggests a slightly nefarious version of this family tragedy, and told me that the playmate pushed Mary into a fire. Mary’s gravestone refers to her manner of death. She is said to have perished in an, "Esh Zar." This means literally, "strange fire," but according to tradition connotes a pagan sacrifice that is not pleasing to God.

I had a friend scour the New Kensington papers of that era. Not one word is written about Mary’s death. This was surprising to me. I would have thought this to be front-page news in a small town like New Kensington. Mary died in 1916.

Anna and Haiman were, by now, well and truly established in America. At some point, Anna’s nephew, Jake Yanowsky came to New Kensington to try his luck. Jake was born in Palestine and was the son of Shlomo, Anna’s younger brother. I suppose Jake wanted to try life in the Goldene Medina, too. He served in WW1 and then died a tragic death from spinal meningitis at the age of 32, unmarried and childless, on Dec. 13, 1928. His gravestone resembles a tree stump, symbolizing the fact of his being cut down in his prime.

As Anna’s business flourished, the Kopelmans bought several properties in Palestine. A house and a kiosk were purchased for Anna’s brother, Michel. Michel went to Moscow as a young man and was brought to Palestine after WW2. He lived in the house Anna had purchased on David Yellin St. in Jerusalem. My mother remembers going with her father to the post office to mail a care package for Michel. My grandfather thought that Michel was living in poverty. Word filtered back to my grandfather that Michel was fine and had no need of their charity.

Anna also bought a home for her elderly parents who wished to make Aliya from Vashilishok so as to spend their final years in the Holy Land. After the death of Anna’s parents, another brother, Shlomo, lived in this house with his wife and seven children. Michel and his wife were had at least three children, one of whom became a doctor, one of whom was conscripted and likely died during WWI and one more son. None of the children were able to leave Moscow. When Michel's first wife died, he married a Holocaust survivor from Shavli.

Anna and Haiman left the house on David Yellin St., to the Diskin Orphanage. Haiman was one of the founding members of the Mizrachi Religious Zionist movement, a staunch supporter of the Jewish State and attended the first Zionist congress.

When Anna was five, her mother, Taibe Leah, took her and her younger brother, Shlomo to visit with their uncle, Rav Shmuel Salant. Rav Salant told Taibe Leah to leave Shlomo with him and that he would oversee his welfare and make a mentsch of him. After several years passed, Taibe Leah and Mordechai Shmuel decided to come to Palestine to live there. Because Ottoman law forbade men from entrance to Palestine, Mordechai Shmuel came into Palestine, hidden in a coffin. The family stayed in Jerusalem, while waiting for their farmhouse to be built in Petach Tikva.

One day, Mordechai Shmuel decided to see how the construction of his farmhouse was coming along. He went on foot but never arrived—Arab ruffians attacked him, beat him about the skull and tore up his Tallis in their disappointment at not finding much cash on his person. Mordechai Shmuel woke up three days later in a hospital in Jaffa, and determined to bring his family home to Vashilishok. His thinking was that Palestine was too dangerous and his job was to shield his family and raise them in a safe place.

His son Shlomo was happily ensconced in his learning and didn’t want to return with them. According to my Israeli relatives, Mordechai Shmuel ripped his clothes (Kria) and sat Shiva on Shlomo, but Shlomo’s mother, Taibe Leah sent him some money whenever she could. Many years passed and Shlomo’s father, my great great grandfather forgave his son. Today, Shlomo’s descendants number some two hundred souls.

Shlomo Yanowski at about 60


The house on Zecharia St.


One of my Israeli cousins remembers the visit Haiman made all the way from New Kensington, PA, to her grandparents’ home in Palestine. Leah, later called Danielle, was taught to be seen and not heard. She peeked out of the kitchen door and watched Haiman arrive. He proceeded to hand out gifts to everyone in the family.

When all the gifts were in the hands of their respective recipients, Haiman looked up and noticed nine-year old Leah/Danielle, the granddaughter of Anna’s brother, Shlomo. Haiman went to her, crouched down at her level, complimented her on her beauty, and then made a heartfelt apology for not knowing about her existence. Because he had not known about her, he had not brought her a gift. Haiman went straight out to find a present for her, though he had only just arrived from an arduous journey.

Danielle never forgot my great grandfather's kindness. Years later, making her way to California, she stopped in New Kensington. The family had a dinner in honor of her visit. Danielle noticed that Haiman was absent. It was explained to her that he was now in an old age home. She insisted on being taken to see him the very next morning. Danielle smuggled weapons for the Etzel in Pre-state Palestine and she and her first husband opened the first Laundromat in Tel Aviv. She later married Shimon Erem, a retired Israeli general. Today the two live in Beverly Hills.

The tombstones of Taibe Leah and Mordechai Shmuel Yanovsky who are buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

This is a photo of (Nachum) Shlomo Yanowski with his intended, (Chaya) Devora Schick at their engagement party.  He is dressed in Yerushalmi formal dress (in a Shtreimel and Kapota). Devora was descended on her mother's side from the famed Salomon clan of Safed, who remain in Israel ten generations after the destruction of the Second Temple that led to the dispersion of the Jews from the Holy Land. On her father's side, Devora is related to the famous rabbinic personality, the Maharam Schick. Devora's younger sister married Shlomo Stampfer, the first mayor of Petach Tikva and a close friend of Shlomo Yanowski.

One of Shlomo's sons was killed in the Etzel bombing of the King David Hotel, as he was delivering invitations to his former British coworkers for his engagement party that was to be held that night. He became one of the few Jewish casualties of this infamous bombing. Another son, Shmuel Mordechai, named after his Vashilishok grandfather, created the HaPoel Jerusalem Soccer team and was its first captain.

I have a High Holiday prayer book, its cover of olive wood, and carved by blind orphans. This was brought back from Haiman’s trip to Palestine. My mother has a paperweight, an ink-blotter, and a jewelry box made similarly of carved olive wood from the same period, brought back as well by Haiman, her paternal grandfather.

Both Anna and Haiman took separate trips around the world, each on their own. Their large family and their business precluded their traveling together. During Anna's trip through Italy, a man came up to her crying with joy. He had been a former customer in New Kensington but had moved back to the Old Country, in his case, Italy.

Haiman decided that he would pay a visit to Vashilishok to see his aging mother. In preparation for this trip, he grew a beard, so as not to shame his mother with his American, clean-shaven face. After this leg of his trip, he traveled on to Egypt, arriving on the eve of WW1, in 1914. Of course, no ships were sailing to America once war broke out, so Haiman got stuck there in Egypt, one of a handful of Americans. Anna had to wire him money. His sojourn there lasted nine months.

The family joke is that exactly nine months after Haiman’s return to New Kensington, Anna bore him the last of their children, twins, though only one survived infancy.

Here is a photo of Haiman on camelback in front of the Sphinx of Giza. The man on the donkey is a mystery. The family was told that he was Professor Elliot, later dean or president of Harvard who had a hall named for him at that institution. I was told that he gifted my great grandfather with a complete set of Shakespeare, complete with his inscription.

Unfortunately, my contacts with the Harvard archivists have laid this myth to rest for a variety of reasons. His identity remains unknown to me. Haiman and this man supposedly became quite close because they were two of only a handful of Americans stuck there in Egypt at the outbreak of the war.

New Kensington was a mill town and was populated with a melting pot of immigrants. Ellis was athletic, maintaining an interest in all types of sports until his death at aged eighty-seven. He put his brawn to good use, defending his younger brother Nathan from the tougher young riff-raff of their town.

Ellis was also a genius. His teachers would write a long sum on the blackboard with numbers of many digits for the students to solve. His hand would be up with the correct answer before the teacher’s chalk left the board. He was bored in school and felt he knew more than the teachers. Grandpa quit school at age thirteen. Until the end of his days, Grandpa Ellis denigrated the teaching profession. Ellis had a favorite saying, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach."

When I became a teacher, I always remembered this and felt a little bit guilty.

Haiman tried to find a profession for Ellis. He apprenticed him to a ritual slaughterer. This was an unfortunate decision. Ellis became sick at the sight of blood. I remember hearing this from my grandfather, though my mother and her siblings don’t remember this.

Ellis then worked in a factory that made pots and pans. His job was to rub animal fat on the pots to season them. These two jobs were fodder for his growing distaste for organized religion. Ellis sneered at his father’s attempts at observing Kashrut, pointing to the non-kosher fats being rubbed on the pots before they even entered a Jewish kitchen. Today, living in Israel, I understand the reason why pots here have Kashrut supervision. Elizabeth, Ellis’ wife, remained an observant Jew, keeping a strictly Kosher home and never failing to light Shabbos candles in spite of her husband’s mistrust of organized religion.

Ellis worked at a variety of jobs starting with a long stint at Kopelman's, the family department store, and he used his earnings to put his siblings through college. His sisters became schoolteachers, obtaining degrees at the University of Pittsburgh. Anna wanted Nathan to attend Pitt med school, but he had his heart set on attending Jefferson Medical School. Since his mother, Anna, wouldn’t hear of his going to Jefferson, he decided not to go to med school and went to work selling shoes. Anna caved in and allowed him to apply to Jefferson.

Ellis decided to strike out on his own and opened his own wholesale hosiery business on Fifth Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh. He was apparently quite successful. Ellis' eldest daughter, Marie, remembers living quite well at that time. Elizabeth had beautiful clothes and a live-in maid.

Ellis lost his business in the1929 crash. He sold odd lots and men’s wear. He also bought and resold stock in stores that were going out of business. Much later, he went to work for Metropolitan Life, selling insurance. Part of his territory was on, "The Hill,” this being the famous hill of the television show, Hill Street Blues.

This was a very rough, mostly black neighborhood, now undergoing regentrification. Grandpa liked to regale us with tales about his customers on the Hill, for example, the two brothers, Artie and Benny Fischel. And there was also a gem of a story about the twin daughters of one of his black customers, who were named Orangeade and Marmalade. The children of Ellis' black customers were wont to call Ellis Kopelman, Mr. Coconut. One of Ellis’ customers had a child who came home with a note from his teacher, for the purpose of collecting charity. The child’s mother told him, “You tell that teacher to put you on the gittin’ list instead of the givin’ list.”

Ellis liked to hold forth on a variety of subjects and had a wonderful sense of humor. Among us cousins, we used to joke that he was the true author of all the jokes in Reader’s Digest and that this was his main and secret source of income.

One of the stories I remember hearing from Grandpa was a word-by-word recitation of the approximately six-line conversation he had everyday with the family’s non-Jewish servant back in Vashilishok. The conversation never varied and was the extent of the Russian that Ellis managed to pick up. He would come home from school and she would ask him, “How was your day, today?”

He would answer, “Very well, thank you, and yours?”

She would respond, “Also good, would you like some milk and cookies?”

I can’t remember the exact wording, but he would relish the retelling of this story, speaking the conversational lines in Russian. Grandpa seemed to always have just a hint of a mirthful smile on his face as he held forth. Grandpa liked an audience and would always pepper his speech with, “Y’hear, y’hear?” to make sure his audience was paying attention.

Some of Grandpa’s jokes were seasonal. Every Pesach Seder we dreaded hearing him joke about, “Charoses of the liver.”

When my grandfather was nine he developed a cataract in one eye. Anna took Ellis to the best eye surgeon in Pittsburgh, but he lost the sight in this eye. A friend of my grandfather’s had the same problem. His mother took him to a, "local yokel," and the friend kept his sight. Grandpa somehow managed to obtain a drivers license but totaled the car on his way home from the test. He never drove again. This was probably a good thing.

Ellis married Elizabeth Shaffer, the only one of my grandparents who was American born, having been born in Pittsburgh, PA. Her family also hailed from Vilna Guberniya, shtetl unknown. The family surname was originally Sakutsky, so my hypothesis is that some point, the family may have been in Sakut, though Sakut, of course, is not in Vilna Guberniya.

Elizabeth was called Lizzie at birth, but a wise kindergarten teacher told her on the first day of school, “From today, your name is Elizabeth.”

Though Elizabeth had heart disease due to a bout with rheumatic fever at a young age, she bore Ellis four children. The eldest two are twins, Marie and Violet. Twins appear with great frequency in my tree. When I made contact with my Israeli relatives, and traded trees, I was excited to see many sets of twins on that side. The tree of Anna's sister Nechama, who followed her sister's path and immigrated to the United States contains 7 sets of twins.

For some reason, both Ellis and Nathan had inserted into their English names the middle initial: A. Nathan told people that his initial stood for Austin, possibly after a popular car of long ago, but Ellis would get a sly grin when asked about the, ‘A,' and say that it stood for, ‘Action.’

Nathan graduated from Jefferson Medical School at the top of his class in 1921, just 20 years after immigrating to the US.  He was the first Jewish doctor to be admitted to the medical staff of Citizens General Hospital in 1922, and served as chief of the medical staff of that hospital for 25 years. He also served as president of the Westmoreland County Medical Society and was a councilman for the city of Arnold, PA.

I credit my success in my research to Uncle Nathan. On one of my trips back home to Pittsburgh, my mother had some family over to visit with me and Uncle Nathan spoke about the family. He had me spellbound that afternoon and set me off on a twenty year search for my Israeli relatives. I hooked up with them, at last, some four years ago.

More than one hundred years after Anna came to New Kensington, her grandson, Jim, son of Nathan, can still be found in this town, the last of this line bearing the Kopelman surname. Other descendants of Anna and Haiman live mostly in the Pittsburgh area. Ellis’ youngest child was the late Myron Cope, the most famous man in Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh has a devoted sports crowd. Myron inherited his father’s love of athletics and was a color commentator on the Pittsburgh sports' scene, and author of several books and articles on sports. The change in his surname dates back to a time when it wasn’t easy to get jobs with a Jewish last name. In my research, I discovered that a Kopelman clan hailing from Grodno also had a radio personality, who similarly changed his surname. He chose the moniker: Dan Elman.

I got a chill when I realized that my uncle had chosen Cope, Dan had chosen Elman and together these surnames spell the original surname of Kopelman. The family historian of Dan Elman's Grodno clan, Syvia Epstein, kindly shared information and the photo here of the Fargo, North Dakota Kopelman building, funded by her late mother through the life insurance policy of her husband. The building is an historic landmark.

My mother always said that anyone with the name Kopelman must be a relative. After reading the book, There Once Was a World, by Professor Yaffa Eliach, I penned a note to the author, asking if the Kopelmans in her book might be relatives. I was pleasantly surprised to receive a phone call from Professor Eliach who told me that my mother is indeed correct. All the Kopelmans from Grodno, Olkenik, Eishyshok, and Vashilishok are related. Professor Eliach has in her possession a Pinkas (town record) dating back to the early 1700’s that prove that Kopelmans were in Vashilishok at that time. I hope to post the pinkas on this page once I receive a copy.

Professor Eliach further told me that prior to immigration to Lithuania, the Kopelmans hailed from Germany. I have been searching out Kopelmans, Koppelmans, and Coppelmans, and have been building up quite a database, in hopes of making a match between trees. I have been seeking out Kopelmans from all over the US, Europe and Israel, and requesting family trees from those I find. My hope is to confirm what Professor Eliach tells me: that all the Kopelmans are related.

I mentioned to one of the Grodno Kopelman clan that I had written to her cousin Jeff. She answered, “Oh, you mean Yerucham?”

I was excited to learn from Leah Luczak, nee Kopelman, that all the men in her family had this Hebrew name, including the patriarch: Jacob Kopelman.

My great grandfather’s name was Chaim Yerucham and I had found these two names separately and in tandem among the ALD census listings for Kopelman. Yerucham is not a very common name and it is my belief that this shared name is a possible proof of a relationship between the Vasilishki and Grodno Kopelman clans.

Surprisingly, one branch of Kopelmans refuses to countenance the possibility that the Kopelmans of Vasilishki are related to one another. This branch has members of the clan in Israel and Switzerland. A now deceased member of this family had told her descendants that not all of the Kopelmans from Vasilishki are related and this might as well have been inscribed in gold for her descendants.

In the ALD, one can find 120 Kopelmans listed on the 1858 census, from around 20 families. One of my twin aunts has the unusual Yiddish name of Faila. I found two Failas listed on the census and asked Professor Gerald Esterson about the origins of this name. He is an expert on given names and has created an online searchable database of given names. Jerry had never heard of this name before!

After some sleuthing, it turns out that Faila is a match to my aunt’s English name, Violet, having the same meaning and originating from the German word; Veil. While the name does appear in some Polish Jewish trees as Fela, the name is quite rare and seems only to be found in the Kopelman tree in its more Germanic form. Perhaps this is a throwback to my newfound German heritage.

At any rate, my Aunt Vi inherited her father Ellis’ sense of humor. She once asked my grandmother why she saddled her with such an odd and un-Jewish name. Elizabeth answered her that she was born in the spring when the violets first bloom. To which aunt Violet made the riposte: “And if I’d been born in December would you have named me Santa Claus?”

An abbreviated family tree

/                  \

                                                                                                         Taibe Leah – d.1919, m.           Rabbi Shmuel Salant 1816 - 1909
                                                                                                 Mordechai Shmuel Yanovsky – d.1911
                         7 children, including Nachum (Shlomo) Yanowski b.1872 – d.1944 
                                                          m   Chaya (Devora) Schick b.1873 – d.1956 
                                                  and Chana Sora (Anna) Janofsky b.1877 – d.1939 
                                                    m. Chaim Yerucham Kopelman b.1871 – d.1952, 
                                                   great grandparents of the author

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