Once you start looking into your family history, there’s no way to avoid sad stories. My paternal grandmother’s family are the Kerstmans. My great grandparents were Isadore Kerstman and Anna (Khiena Liba) Lepiansky. Izzy and Anna were both immigrants, from Russia and Lithuania respectively. They met in New York, and were married in December 1914. Three and a half months later, Anna had her first child, Sophie.
No one in my family has told me about this first child. I was unaware of her birth until I started searching birth, marriage, and death records online for the name Kerstman. Kerstman is not a common surname. It’s a word for Santa Claus in Dutch, but that’s most likely not the source of the name in my family. Most likely, Kerstman in my family was a misspelling of Kurzman or Kurtzman — a common name meaning “short person” in Yiddish and German. Izzy’s surname was consistently spelled Kerstman by the time he was in the United States.
The search led me to burial records for a Sophie Kerstman, aged 19 days. The lack of other Kerstmans in New York at the time suggested that Sophie was a previously unknown child of Isadore and Anna. The timing was right, reinforcing the possibility of a match. I ordered the death certificate from the New York City Department of Records to see if I could find additional clues.
The death certificate confirmed my suspicions. Sophie Kerstman was the daughter of Isadore Kerstman and Anna Lopinsky, living at the same address I’ve already discovered for this family. Sophie was 19 days old when she died on 11 April 1915, and the cause of the death is listed as prematurity. The natural inclination is to consider that medical advances, nearly one hundred years following Sophie’s birth, could probably have allowed Sophie to survive had she been born today.
Sophie was buried in Mount Richmond Cemetery. Mount Richmond is operated by the Hebrew Free Burial Association, an organization that allows those without much financial flexibility to receive a burial. The cemetery is still in use by the organization today. Isadore and Anna were newcomers to the United States and had not yet achieved the point of affording to live on their own — they lived with many relatives in a tenement. (The location of the tenement is in what is now Bushwick Park in Brooklyn between the pool the baseball diamond.)
They probably appreciated the community’s ability to take care of its members.
As I wrote above, none of my relatives have mentioned Sophie Kerstman to me. Perhaps it was a sad story that the family did not like talking about. Perhaps my grandmother and her brother and sister did not even know about Sophie.