Interview with Family Historian Jay Silverberg
December 16, 2020
Shortly after Jay Silverberg began researching his family history ten years ago, he learned there was a collection of letters written to his immigrant relatives stored at a university library only seventy miles from the town where he grew up. This correspondence, the Meyer Brothers Collection, is now in the process of being added to the German Heritage in Letters project from the Meyer Brothers’ Store Records, part of the Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections held by Hill Memorial Library at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, together with transcriptions and translations commissioned by Jay. We interviewed Jay to learn more about how he learned about the letters, his research into the stories they revealed, and his advice for other families with historic letters. The complete collection of family correspondence, including letters sent within the United States that are not shared here, can be found on Jay’s website, MeyerBrothersLetters.com.
Interview by Timothy Neckermann
1. How did you come by your interest in family history?
While growing up in Thibodaux, Louisiana, I developed an early interest in my family history. My mother gave me a book when I was in the sixth grade written by an ancestor, Clara Lowenburg Moses, that was filled with stories of our family. I still have the book, which was compiled and published in 1928. It left an impression on me and I knew that I had to find out more.
After I retired, I had more time to devote to my family history. I started on Ancestry.com and found that my maternal grandmother, Beatrice Mayer, had been placed with her sister in the Jewish Home for Widows and Orphans in New Orleans. It was startling to learn. None of my siblings were aware that our grandmother had been orphaned at the age of 10. I flew to Louisiana and visited the East Feliciana Parish court clerk, where I figured my great-grandparents’ estate papers would be available.
I still remember the moment the clerk handed my sister and me the file that likely had not been opened in 100 years. In it were the details of my great-grandparents’ lives in Clinton and Jackson, Louisiana, and how my grandmother and her siblings were to be cared for after their parents’ death. These records also provided names of people I didn’t know and would learn with further research were uncles and cousins of my grandmother.
About the same time, I finished a book by Elliott Ashkenazi titled The Business of Jews in Louisiana, 1840–1875. I noticed several chapters referred to people mentioned in the estate records, including a merchant named Abraham Levy and his nephews, Emanuel and Henry Meyer. The footnotes cited the Meyer Brothers’ Store Records at Louisiana State University (LSU), in particular the ledgers of the store the Meyer brothers owned in Clinton, Louisiana. I made LSU one of my next research destinations.
2. What was your experience of seeing the Meyer letters for the first time?
I remember when the ledgers and letters were first brought out on carts to my sister and me in the special collections department of Hill Memorial Library at LSU. These ledgers are quite large. They are the hand-written, day-to-day business of the Meyer store for nearly 20 consecutive years. The ledgers include all kinds of notes inside from families, asking for particular goods, letters to suppliers, even personal correspondence about home insurance. I often wondered which of my ancestors — Emanuel or Henry — had written up a particular day’s business dealings.
While the letters had been referenced in Ashkenazi’s book and by other professional historians, they had never been translated, and the details in the letters largely ignored. I remember the moment I opened the first letter and saw that it was written in German and Hebrew. I smiled, turned to my sister and said, “Oops. Didn’t think about this.” Our mother could speak and read German. We grew up studying French. I knew I would have the letters translated. I grew up as the son of a newspaper publisher. I’ve been writing my entire life, either professionally or for my own enjoyment. Once I began my research, I knew that I wanted to write about my findings. The letters were a mystery that had to be solved and translation was the only way to do it.
3. What was your favorite part of the research process?
To my surprise, the process of translating and transcribing the letters only took about six to eight weeks. The letters were written in a mix of Yiddish and German, requiring two translators, George Plohn for the Yiddish, and Barbara Guggemos, for the German. The Southern Jewish Historical Society gave me a grant to help with the translation costs.
We have about 120 letters beginning in 1855 and ending in the 1860s. Besides the letters written to the Meyer siblings from their parents and relatives in Germany, there were other letters written to their uncle Abraham Levy, and other letters written by Abraham Levy to the Meyer brothers, discussing business and personal matters. There are also a few letters from younger cousins of the Meyer brothers who had immigrated and settled in Louisiana and Galveston. I visited Galveston, researched there and visited the building in the Strand Historic District where my ancestor’s general store was located. The letters unlocked all of this information for me, led me to parish and county records in Louisiana and Texas, and provided details for professional genealogists who were able to find relevant government records in Germany.
Mark Bauman, the editor of the Journal of Southern Jewish History, asked me to write about the letters, supported by my family research. He was particularly interested in the letters because they were primary sources, which allowed for a deeper understanding and connection to the people who wrote the letters. Once my journal essay was complete, I decided to create my own website to publish the letters, the essay, and my family tree.
4. What has stayed with you the most from having your family letters translated?
The insights I gleaned from the letters touch me deeply to this day. In the very first letter, from Emanuel’s father, he exclaims: “They gave you a horse.” We are placed in that moment in 1855 and can see my ancestor on a horse, barely 20 years old, with a pack on his back, peddling just like so many other immigrants.
I realized that failure was not an option for my ancestors who came to the United States. If they did not succeed, the alternative was not very good. Their family in Germany relied on the money that the immigrants were able to send them. The letters are very personal, revealing details about my ancestors’ lives in Germany that were heart-breaking, emotional, but also uplifting. The difficulties everyone faced were extraordinary. Imagine leaving everything you ever knew, the people you loved, knowing that you’d likely never see them again.
In the only letter we have from the siblings to the family in Germany, Caroline Mayer writes how much she longs for just a moment to be with them, how her life is good but how she misses her family. I cannot imagine what that must have been like at that moment she wrote those words, knowing what she sacrificed in leaving Germany for the life she would have in the United States. Sadly for her, and despite the wealth her uncle and brothers accumulated, her life would become quite difficult for a number of years.
Despite their failings that I learned about through my research, my ancestors who immigrated ultimately thrived and were able to provide for themselves and their family, and I admire them for that. I eventually traveled to Germany and placed dirt from the gravesites of the immigrants to Louisiana at the gravesites where their parents and siblings lie. I thought the gesture was important to complete the journey, as well as the family connection to me.
5. What would you say to others who might have untranslated family letters?
Find the means to translate them. It does not take a lot to find a capable translator and there are people who will do the work for reasonable sums. There are also grants available to aid you on your journey. What’s meant the most to me is knowing where I really came from, who “my people” were, what they did for a living, and most importantly, what they gave and sacrificed in their life. The letters were a gift that opened my eyes to this rich history within my family that I would have never known about had I not had the letters transcribed and translated. If you do not take the leap of faith, you may never know what an amazing ancestry you belong to.