My sister Kathie discovered our first real paper documentation about my Dad’s family probably circa 1993 or so. It may seem like a “minor” issue to find birth and marriage certificates, but in a largely pre-internet era, it was really quite a feat and gave us at least minimal hope we might be able to find some answers. While Kathie shared some of the information with my mother, everyone felt it was best not to upset my Dad by telling him what we had found.
My father sadly passed away in 1994, just shortly after I had gotten married. His sole surviving brother Pat came out to Salt Lake City for his service, and Pat and I and a few other people sat out in our backyard in Mt. Olympus Cove chatting when Pat suddenly shared a little factoid that he had never mentioned before. Out of nowhere he disclosed that he and my Dad, along with Charlie and Kay, had been placed in a foster care agency called the Hebrew Sheltering Guardian Society. It was a name that stuck with me and which years later finally provided some significant dividends. Kind of incredibly, Pat himself died just a couple of weeks later, thereby shutting down any further avenues of “living” research (I had in fact been importuning Pat to get family history documented before it was too late–and then, of course, it was too late).
Probably circa 1996 or so, when dialup was still the norm and I along with many others were members of America Online, AOL offered a free weekend of ancestry research on Ancestry.com’s still nascent census databases. They had the New York census data from 1930, and after hours of research I was able to find my Dad and all of his siblings at their various foster homes in Manhattan and Brooklyn. It was here that I discovered that my father’s assumed middle name of Bernard had not in fact been his foster family’s surname, but his foster father’s first name. The family name was Nachmonson, and I called many New York City Nachmonsons, leaving countless messages but unfortunately receiving no responses. (In just another example of how far my father went to hide elements of his upbringing he didn’t want anyone to know, his foster brother Nate Nachmonson evidently came out to visit Salt Lake City when my Dad and Mom had just moved there after World War II and my sister Kathie was a baby. My Dad told my Mom his foster brother’s name was Nate Bernard. I would love for some enterprising genealogist to track down the Nachmonsons and see if they have childhood pictures or memories of my father.)
(Update: Intervening years have granted me connection to my Dad’s foster family, and interestingly they did indeed ultimately take the surname Bernard.)
As early search engines became more and more responsive, I kept searching for the Hebrew Sheltering Guardian Society, always coming up empty. Then, incredibly, around 2002, almost a decade after my Dad’s death, I got a hit: the Hebrew Sheltering Guardian Society had become the Jewish Child Care Agency, and it was still extant in Brooklyn. I called them and was put in touch with a woman named Leona Ferrer. I told her I believed my father and his siblings had been placed there and that I was wondering if we could get relevant records, since we were trying to solve some family mysteries. “Ah, family mysteries,” Ms. Ferrer responded, as if she had been down this particular path many times previously. This connection turned out to provide us with some of the most staggering information we had uncovered yet.