Wednesday, September 24, 2014

RMS Republic And Our Grandfather Louis

Due to the intrepid detective work of the THC Sister we've recently discovered that our paternal grandfather Louis Stoler (THC wrote about our maternal great-grandfather in Our History And My History) arrived in Boston during the summer of 1905 as a passenger on RMS Republic.  The Republic was the product of the shipbuilders Harland and Wolf of Belfast, Ireland who built Titanic a few years later.  Launched in 1903 by the Dominion Lines, after its first two voyages it was acquired by the British White Star Lines, the later owner of Titanic. 
RMS Republic(From

White Star built a very successful business model marketing to emigrants traveling in third class, providing inexpensive, safe and clean accommodations along with good service, giving it the best reputation of all the shipping lines among emigrants.  Advertising heavily all over Europe and organizing feeder routes from ports in Germany, Holland and the Scandinavian countries to funnel emigrants to Liverpool, White Line operated five main immigration routes to the U.S; three ending in New York City, one in Montreal and the fifth in Boston, this last being the route our grandfather took.

Republic is best known to passenger steamship fans because of its last voyage.  In early 1909 the ship left New York sailing for Mediterranean ports.  Off the south coast of Nantucket on the dark wintry morning of January 23 Republic was proceeding cautiously in heavy fog when, at 5:47 AM, the Lloyds Italian liner SS Florida, carrying 800 Italian immigrants, appeared out of the gloom and struck the Republic amidships.  What ensued made history.  Fatally punctured, Republic used its newly installed Marconi wireless telegraph system to alert nearby vessels, becoming the first ship in history to issue radio distress signals.  The US Coast Guard cutter Gresham and the White Star Liner Baltic responded and, along with the Florida, which was still floating, rescued all 1200 passengers and crew with the exception of six killed in the collision.  Thirty six hours later the Republic sank while under tow.

The White Star Line still exists, merging in 1934 with Cunard Line with the combined company now part of Carnival Corporation.  You can read more about the White Star Line and the voyages of the Republic at here and here.

Why was Louis Stoler on the Republic and why did he emigrate to America?  Louis died in 1933,  didn't talk much about his past with family, and we have little documentation, so what follows is a likely tale but one that can't be confirmed in all its details.

Louis and his family were from somewhere in the Minsk district of what was then Russia but is now Belarus.  In 1905 Russia had the largest Jewish population in the world, more than 5 million people, most descended from Jews expelled from Western Europe and who moved east at the invitation of King Casimir of Poland in the 14th century settling in lands that were part of Poland or the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth until the 17th and 18th centuries when the Polish Kingdom first began to shrink before finally being disassembled by Russia, Austria and Prussia in 1793.

Once Jews came under the rule of the Russian Empire they were restricted to living in certain designated portions of the country known as the Pale of Settlement.
(The Pale, from Wikipedia; the colors and numbers indicate the % of Jewish population)

Even within the Pale, Jews were restricted to living in specific cities and villages and barred from many trades and activities.  Until 1827, they were also barred from serving in the Russian military being compelled to pay double taxes in lieu of service.  The reform minded Nicholas I (1825-55) instituted a new policy requiring Jewish community leaders to provide a set number of annual conscripts from among Jews aged 12 to 25 for twenty five years of military service, the standard conscription length for the Russian Army at the time.  By the latter part of the 19th century the age was raised to 18 and the term of service limited to 5 to 10 years.  While the Czars initially implemented the policy to encourage religious conversion very few Jews did so.  The regime for the Jewish soldiers was tough, but bearable, under Nicholas I and his successor, Alexander II (1855-81).  However, under the last two Czars, Alexander III (1881-1894) and Nicholas II (1894-1917), both anti-Semites along with much of the senior military leadership, treatment became harsher.  If you'd like to know more about the circumstances under which Jews served in the Russian Army read here.

Louis Stoler was one of those conscripts.  The family lore always had it that he'd been in the Russian Army and we located this picture in which Louis (on the left) is wearing what we've recently confirmed is a Russian military uniform from that period.
By 1900 Jews constituted about 5% of the Russian Army compared to about 4% of the overall population.  About 14% of the population of the Minsk area was Jewish and the recruits were selected from the poorer and less skilled portion of the population.  Exactly when Louis was conscripted is unknown but as he was born in the early 1880s it is unlikely he'd been in the army for more than 3 or 4 years by the time the Russian Revolution of 1905 occurred.  The Jewish Pale had already been subjected to a renewed series of pogroms (attacks on Jewish people and property done with the tacit encouragement or forgiveness of the authorities) beginning in 1903, when the first revolutionary riots broke out in Moscow and St Petersburg in December 1904 in the midst of the Russian-Japanese War of 1904-5.  In January and February of 1905 Russia suffered a series of catastrophic land and naval defeats at the hands of the Japanese and the violence and strikes intensified, including several mutinies in the Navy.  It was in the midst of this chaos and upheaval that Louis decided to desert and make his way to America, a journey an older brother made several years earlier.  How he got out of Russia and to Liverpool we don't know.  It is possible that he made his way via Hamburg in Germany, one of the main feeder ports for Russian Jews coming to America, and thence on to Liverpool.

Louis was part of a huge wave of emigrating Russian Jews from 1880 to the mid-1920s, though most were not deserters, adding an element of danger and risk to his escape.  During this period more than 2.2 million Jews left Russia with about 80% coming to the United States.

Once he arrived what was he to do; how would he survive?  As a young man with military experience it appears he decided to apply his training and a few weeks after landing in Boston we find him in Trenton, New Jersey enlisting for a three-year hitch in the United States Army!  He left the service for a few months after finishing his enlistment and then re-enlisted for another three years, finally being discharged as a sergeant in 1912.  At some point in this period he served with his regiment, which may have been the 23rd Infantry, in the Philippines; in the U.S. he was primarily stationed in Georgia .  Here's a picture of him while in the U.S. Army; he's the guy standing on the far left. Russia to America to the Philippines and serving in two armies all in the space of less than five years!
At some point while in Georgia, Louis was joined by a young woman, Bessie Gordinitzky, whom he had known in Russia.  They married and Bessie learned English working as a housekeeper for local families.  Many years later my father mentioned that his mother spoke English with a Southern accent.

For some further speculation why Louis and his wife left Georgia after his discharge from the army in 1912 see Strange Fruit (you'll need to scroll down into the post to find the part about him).  He and Bessie had brief stays in Chattanooga, Tennessee and Lexington, Kentucky before moving to White Plains, NY around 1916.  In 1923 they moved, with their four children, to Darien CT where they opened a store in Noroton Heights, that was run by the Stoler family until the mid-1970s.

In the course of this research I accessed some Belarus and Jewish Genealogy databases but was unable to find any record of Louis or his immediate family.  What I did find discloses the fate of most of the Jews who never left Belarus.  The only records of Stolers (there are also many Stolars, Stolairs and Stolinskys, and there was even a town called Stolovichi) were of nine Stolers murdered by the Germans and their collaborators in the town of Novogrudok, about 70 miles from Minsk, on August 7, 1942 (their names and ages were Benjamin (10), Chaim (30), Gita (25), Hirsh (28), Meier (17), Moisiei (6), Moisiei (54), Musia (34) and Shosel (12)), and of two Stolers known to have fought with the Partisans against the Nazis; whether they survived is unknown.  Of the estimated 800,000 Jews of Belarus in 1939, 90% were killed by the Germans.  Most of the survivors served in the Red Army, fled from the German advance in the summer of 1941, or were among the small number of Jewish partisans who survived (the best known of whom are the Bielski Brothers who later emigrated to America; their story is told in the 2008 film Defiance, starring Daniel Craig).  Many of remaining Jews of Belarus emigrated after the collapse of the Soviet Union and today there are only about 12-15,000 left in the country.

We are forever grateful to Louis for deciding to come to America when he did.  Thanks grandpa!

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