Bridgeport Connecticut, Czar Nicholas I, Druskininkai, East Bronx, Eastern European Jews, family Geneology, ILGWU, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Jessie Taft, Lithuania, Morris Eli Taft, South Bronx, union organizer, Vilna, word press,, Yiddish melodies

Little apple, Big Apple, mayhem, murder and music: my family’s history and genealogy

While shuffling papers within a folder labeled “Piano tuners/technicians,” I stumbled upon two pages clipped together, titled “Descendants of Zalmen Tapruakh (1835-1915) and Michelle Tzinn.” (1850-1915) These were my maternal great grandparents.

Tapruakh means “little apple.” (Ironically, I lived in the Big Apple for the first 30 years of my life)

The genealogy papers were a miraculous find considering my own futile efforts to trace the family’s Eastern European roots.

One of my third cousins, once removed, Leon Ginenthal, succeeded where I had failed. He did the arduous research and came up with a hair-raising narrative.

First the backdrop:

During the reign of Czar Nicholas I, the Conscription Law of 1827 mandated that each Jewish community had to provide a disproportionately large quota of recruits for the czar’s army. These recruits had to serve for 25 years starting at age 18. Juvenile conscription began with 12-year olds.

The “Kahal,” an executive arm of each Jewish community, was empowered to obtain recruits. Its agents often did so by kidnapping children to fill the community.

Zalmen had been “sold” into the Czar’s army as a little boy in place of a wealthier Jew’s son. It is assumed that the more affluent family was from Druskininkai, a town in Southwest Lithuania. The story has it that Zalmen therefore took the name Druskin.

Losing contact with his family in the process of prolonged military service, he eventually left the army, became a tailor and married Michelle Tzinn, a caterer, among other things.

Zalmen and Michelle lived in the basement of an old building in the Jewish Quarter of Vilna, Lithuania. They died during a famine sometime in 1915.

About Vilna before WW II

“By the start of the 20th century, a Jewish renaissance was rising. In addition to the scads of synagogues, libraries, schools, theaters, museums, medical facilities, scientific institutions, and publishing houses were established. Yiddish was soundly the lingua franca. Moreover, it was regarded as a secular culture and therefore an alternative to traditional Judaism.” (Wikipedia)

Vilna was known for its musicians, poets, intellectuals, philosophers, and labor organizers. The great violinist, Jascha Heifetz was from this prominent city.

More about my great grandparents

Zalmen and Michelle had 6 children, apparently born in Vilna. One of these was my grandfather, Morris/Moishe Eliazar. His birthdate was 1879.

His oldest sister, Golda, married her second cousin, Myer Myers and emigrated to Bridgeport, Connecticut sometime after 1905. (I remember meeting Golda when she was well into her 80′s. She lived in Seagate, way out on Long Island, and was deaf and blind at the time.)

Morris “Eli” was sent out as an apprentice at the age of 7 to the Passamentere (tailor/clothing venue) and eventually served in the Russian Army during the Russo-Japanese War.

Jailed with Dzerzhinsky, who was later head of the Secret Service, Morris fled Vilna after the 1905 Revolution and came to America. He married his second cousin (my grandmother) Rebecca Berhnardt/Bernardovitch/Muzakant. (At long last, the musical connection, though I have no idea who played what instrument on this side of the family) I’ve already debunked the myth of a family owned piano factory but who knows whether there was a family Fiddler on the Roof in the Jewish Quarter.

I’ll get back to “Fiddler” later in the narrative. There’s an ironic tie-in. (Just a note, that I played the violin for 7 years at the prodding of my Russian grandparents who hungered for musical remnants of the Old Country) They managed to pass down some beautiful folk and freedom songs that I sing to this day:

“Zog Nit Keynmol”–the song of liberation from the Warsaw Ghetto; “Schluf Mein Kind,” (Sleep, my Child) a lilting lullaby, “Die Mezinke Aus Gegeben,” (The Youngest Daughter is Getting Married) among others.


Morris worked as a machinist/tool and dye maker and started a union in Bridgeport Connecticut, where he, too, landed after being checked in at Ellis Island. Apparently Tapruakh, became TAFT upon his brother Sam’s earlier arrival, making the family name more American than European. Immigration officials found it easier to write these simpler names down rather than fathom how to spell a complicated Russian surname.

Ironically, my maiden name, “Smith,” was converted at Ellis Island when my paternal grandfather, Zelig (aka “Charlie”) arrived in the U.S. at the turn of the century. His spouse, Bessie, nee Baron, from the Ukraine, brought along her Rabbi father, and two brothers.

Grandpa Charlie, (Zelig) who supposedly ran away from the Cheder, an Orthodox religious school, made his way to New York City where his brothers, followed. One landed in the deep south, setting up a successful department store chain.

Back to the Taft side:

According to family histories, Morris lost his job in Bridgeport, Connecticut during WW I because he refused to buy war bonds. As a consequence, he wound his way to New York City to seek his fortune where he found employment in the Garment District as a tucker and pleater. From there he launched his career as a union organizer calling ILGW strikes in defiance of a court ordered injunction. I have one of the leaflets he created, as well as his pro per legal papers that miraculously blocked a Restraining Order!

The fruit didn’t fall far from the tree. Morris’s second daughter, Jessie, my mother, is pictured chained to a pillar in Manhattan’s Taft Hotel.

“A front-page photograph in the Oct. 26, 1936, edition of the Daily News captured the defiant, young face of Jessie Taft as she stood chained to the balcony of a New York City hotel. With her fists raised high, still encased in chains, Taft demanded that the hotel stop sending its linen to the Sutton Superior Laundry where workers were on strike against abusive conditions and substandard wages.”


My mother’s father, Morris, was quite literate. Self taught and a prolific poet, he and Rebecca produced 4 daughters, Espera, Vera, Jessie, and Libby named for Hope, Truth, Justice, and Love.

Known to me as “Pop Taft,” he resided with my bubbe Becky on Tremont Avenue, near Bronx Park. (East)

My paternal grandparents, also lived in the Bronx, but near Southern Boulevard on Longfellow Avenue. This was considered the South Bronx, that bordered another side of Bronx Park with its famous zoo.


My great-uncle Sam, born in 1852 was one of Morris’s brothers. Allegedly, he was involved in the assassination attempt on General Victor Von Wahl, the Governor of Vilna. Von Wahl had ordered the flogging of 26 demonstrators (among them 20 Jews) on May 1, 1902 after they had participated in a May Day Demonstration.

Following the flogging, the central committee of the Bund (Jewish Socialist Workers Party) had published a Manifesto calling for revenge.

Sam was among a group of workers that organized an assassination attempt independently since the Vilna Committee of the Bund refused to support terrorism.

Sam was supposed to do the shooting as he had a steady hand and nerve. Hirsch Lekert, a shoemaker, demanded that he be allowed to do the shooting since his younger brother was one of the Jews flogged. Hirsch had a drink before the assassination attempt and ended up only wounding Von Wahl.

Lekert was sentenced to death by a military court and hanged. Sam was jailed, but survived to come to American sometime after 1902 but before 1905. It is thought that he actually started the family’s use of the name Taft. (His emigration preceded that of my zayde)

Sam married Ida Gitlin in 1907 and had six children.

(Ironically, I had 6 children as well)

Sonya (my great aunt) was Zalmen and Michelle’s last child. She was born in 1895 and came to the US in 1912. Living in Seagate with her second husband, Lou Orens, a printer, they often opened their house to Russian immigrant artists, musicians and writers. The song, “Those were the Days,” was written by the son of Saul Raskin, an artist friend of theirs.

The tie-in to Seagate is through my alma mater, the New York City High School of Performing Arts. One of my English teachers, Bel Goldstein, later known as Bel Kaufman, and author of the bestseller, Up the Down Staircase was present at these gatherings where the works of Sholom Aleichem were read and celebrated.

I remember speaking with Bel Kaufman about the convergences at Seagate and she chimed in with some colorful details.

Kaufman was later involved with the production of Fiddler on the Roof which was incubating at the time before its long run on Broadway.


The cultural flavor of Grandpa Taft and Bubbe Becky

They always brought bittersweet chocolate when they visited us in the Marble Hill projects in the Bronx.

Grandma Becky cooked in a very healthy style, buying lean meat, and steaming her vegetables. Not a trace of salt or spices could be found in her cuisine.

By contrast, bubbe Bessie, my paternal grandmother, bestowed rich-tasting milk chocolate on her visits, greatly pleasing my brother and me.

She also served fatty flanken, and all kinds of tasty marbled meat every Friday night as she lit candles and intoned the prayers. Her chicken soup had floating fat globules, while chicken legs were feathered and un-skinned. Layers of butter were thickly spread on slices of challah bread and dispensed at frequent intervals.

Odddly, bubbe never sat at the table with us. She hid in the kitchen awaiting requests for seconds and third helpings of her delectable dishes.

No doubt, Grandpa Zelig (aka Charlie) who died of a stroke at 72, met his demise due to a diet high in saturated fat, but he lived to the hilt, savoring every last, mouth-watering serving of grandma’s cuisine.

A freight man, he toiled on the N.Y. Central railroad tracks for 50 years, succeeded by my father, Carl, who did the same. In those days, it was uncommon for Jews to be hired in this industry, but with the name Smith, it was surely an easier passage.

Grandma and Grandpa’s South Bronx flat bordered a Schule, with a window peering into the main prayer area. I would part the curtains and watch the men with pais (long sideburns) davenning (bobbing back and forth as they prayed.) My grandmother would gently nudge me away from the area, as grandpa blasted a monstrous short wave radio set at Radio Moscow frequency in full volume. The hissing would drive bubbe crazy. She would scream “Schweig!” which meant shut the damn thing off!

In retaliation, zayde would curse religion when bubbe murmured prayers in Yiddish at the shabbat candle-lighting. He always questioned God and religion, evoking the death of 6 million Jews in Nazi Germany.

Bessie ignored him and continued praying.

Bubbe lived into her 80′s and showed latent artistic talent. But she will be best remembered for the lilting Yiddish lullabies she passed down to me:

My uncle David, her younger son, was a gifted fine artist who supposedly drew murals all over the sidewalk at 4 or 5 years old.

Yet, it’s puzzling why his name was “Smiton” and not Smith. (Two brothers with different last names?) To be sure, our family’s mystery will not be solved in this lifetime or the next.

Here’s a sample of my uncle’s work: (He illustrated my Moonbeams piano collection:) He also covered TV trials of illustrious people, sketching “live” courtroom proceedings. (Lt. Calley trial, The Diet Doctor case, etc.)



As a final supplement to this family spread, I was told by my parents that my middle name was Mildred to honor Michelle in the narrative. Fortunately, decades after I was born, I discovered that the name never made it on the Birth Certificate in time, so all the years I was writing Shirley M. Smith, I was lying. Talk about identity problems in this family. Between Smith, Smiton, Taft, Tapruakh, and rest, a psycho-analyst would have a field day.


Morris Eli Taft. Papers,
Collection Number: 5187m
Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives
Cornell University Library
Contact Information:
Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives
Martin P. Catherwood Library
227 Ives Hall
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853
(607) 255-3183
Fax: (607) 255-9641

Compiled by:
Kheel Center staff

EAD encoding:
Casey S. Westerman, 2005
© 2004 Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University Library
Morris Eli Taft. Papers, 1921-1927.
Collection Number:
Taft, Morris Eli
Forms of Material:
6 sheets.
Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Martin P. Catherwood Library, Cornell University.
News clippings, broadside, speech delivered by Morris Eli Taft.
Morris Eli Taft was born in Lithuania and served in the Russo-Japanese war. After emigrating to America in 1911, he found employment in the needle trades.
News clippings, broadside, speech delivered by Morris Eli Taft.
Taft, Morris Eli
International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. Local 41 (New York, N.Y.)
Strikes and lockouts — New York (State)
Labor unions — Clothing workers — New York (State)
Industrial relations — New York (State)
Clothing workers — New York (State)
Form and Genre Terms:
Access Restrictions:
Access to the collections in the Kheel Center is restricted. Please contact a reference archivist for access to these materials.
Restrictions on Use:
This collection must be used in keeping with the Kheel Center Information Sheet and Procedures for Document Use.
Cite As:
Morris Eli Taft. Papers, 1921-1927. 5187m. Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Martin P. Catherwood Library, Cornell University.

—– Forwarded Message —–
Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives
Cornell University Library
Contact Information:
Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives
Martin P. Catherwood Library
227 Ives Hall
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853
(607) 255-3183
Fax: (607) 255-9641

11 thoughts on “Little apple, Big Apple, mayhem, murder and music: my family’s history and genealogy”

  1. My mother was Anita Bernicker, nee Baron. She came to the U. S. with her grandfather, Aunt Bessie’s father. She lived with Aunt Bessie for a number of years after her grandfather’s demise. My father, Sam Bernicker, was the brother of Sarah Fischer, Aunt Bessie’s neighbor. A shiddach was made and Anita Baron became Anita Bernicker. Irene and Sandra Bernicker, Anita and Sam’s daughters, have fond and vivid memories of our beloved Aunt Bessie, Uncle Charley and their offspring. One of Cousin David Smiton’s oil paintings had a special place on the wall of our Longfellow Ave. apartment. It was later moved to our Forest Park Queens apartment, where it was again prominently displayed, alongside a picture of my mother as a small child with Bessie’s brother, my mother’s father. He never came to America and my younger son, Abba Velvel, Eric Sigman, bears his name. Thanks so much for the memories. Fondly, Sandra Sigman


    1. This is incredible! Grandma Bessie was indeed Bessie Baron and I meant to mention that in the blog. And yes, Anita was someone I had heard a great deal about and may have met h on one occasion. Was it true that Bubbe Bessie was from the Ukraine as she had often mentioned? She was very artistic, as I noted in her advanced age, a gene that had to be passed on to my Uncle David Smiton, her son. So Grandma Bessie matched up Anita with Sam? If so, how amazing!

      This is one for the record books. Are you able to give me copies of photographs you mentioned of Bubbe Bessie’s brother?

      Did you read my family genealogy that is linked to the blog. little apple, Big Apple, Murder, Mayhem and Music? It traces mostly my mother’s side of the family to Vilna.

      Where did Bessie’s family come from?

      This has always been a mystery.

      Thank you so much for getting in touch with me. My mother, Jessie is still alive and kicking at 97…living in NYC.

      My brother, Russell who your surely knew is also residing in the Big Apple.

      Glenn Smiton lives up in Westchester, I believe and his wife Mary Jane keeps Uncle David’s paintings.

      Warmest Regards, Shirley Smith Kirsten


    2. I remember the exact paintings of my uncle David that were hung in the Longfellow Ave. apartment: One looked like a tree stump with flowers.. This was an oil painting. And the other was a Rembrandt copy I believe. If I remember correctly there was also a still life of fruit in a bowl.. .very colorful.

      Speaking of fruit, Bessie had some fake, waxed fruit, that cousin Glenn once took a bite into.. When we visited for Friday night meals, I always gaped at a hole in the apple.

      By the way, the short wave radio stood conspicuously in the dining area, which was the living room. It was always blasting.

      Shirley Smith Kirsten


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