A Bittersweet Day
They appear on a postcard with the romantic look of a turn-of-the-century Victorian family, although their names are anything but Victorian. Hyman, Manya, Slava, Nathan, Clara and Berra (later Ben) Chernoy all posed for the picture around 1905, looking young and fair and without any realization that their journey from Russia to America would have such lifesaving consequences for the next generation. But they left one strange legacy, an inscription on the back of the postcard which read "When I will die, when I will be no more, when my bones in the earth will crumble, you will remember me. When all people forget me, you will remember me."
It took eight decades for one of their descendants, genealogy enthusiast Lori Miller, to get their poetic declaration translated and another 10 years to track down and spread the news to the rest of the family. Thus on Sunday, May 19, the descendants of those six Chernoy siblings gathered to honor that inscription.
About 140 people, from shiny-haired tots to balding octogenarians, traveled from as far away as Winnipeg, Canada, and Hilo, Hawaii, to the campus of CSUN to revel in their heritage and tell the story of their family.
Some brought tattered black-and-white photos of elderly relatives, carefully preserved with notes asking "Anyone know who this is?" Others brought carefully printed documents of their family trees, along with requests for additions and clarifications. Children rushed back and forth, engaging in a game of tag with their newfound cousins while their 30-something parents renewed their friendships with the other "kids" of yesteryear.
"I thought this would be interesting and it is, especially for my daughter who is 6," said Dana Chernoy, 32, Nathan’s granddaughter who came in from Tuscon, Ariz., to take part in the celebration. "I’m a single parent and we’re the only ones out there [in Tucson]. I wanted to show my daughter she’s part of a large family, too."
The reunion was the brainchild of Miller, an amateur genealogist who volunteers for the Jewish Genealogical Society of Los Angeles and for the Web-based JewishGen.com. For many years she used to visit her great-aunt, Clara Katzel, at the Jewish Home for the Aging. When Miller was visiting her aunt more frequently, toward the end of Katzel’s life, she began to ask more questions about their family, which hailed from what is now Belarus and the Ukraine. Clara told her about being one of 11 children of Shmuel Mendel and Leah Raise Chernoy and about how six of those children immigrated to America between 1905 and 1922.
"During her last two years, I saw her every week and wanted to find something to talk about. I realized there was very little I knew about our family so that seemed like a natural topic," Miller explained.
After Katzel’s death in 1990 at the age of 94, Miller inherited her aunt’s belongings from the Jewish Home. Among the effects was a bag of pictures, including a postcard-like photo with what appeared to be a Russian poem on the back. Several years passed and it was not until Passover 1993, while hosting a couple visiting from Azerbaijan, that Miller was able to get the poem translated. She mulled over the prospect of organizing a family reunion, discussing it with her cousin, Lynne Warheit, who lived in Michigan. A year ago, Miller, with Warheit’s help, began tracking down family in earnest, finding most of her generation (the second that was American-born) living in California and in Michigan, while the third generation was "scattered all over the place." She began to send out monthly flyers to her far-flung cousins with details about the lives of the six Chernoy siblings, eventually solidifying the date for the reunion in May 2002.
Miller was most proud of the candlelighting ceremony held during the reunion. She found an adult child of each of the original six Chernoy siblings to give a little speech about their parent (she gave the speech about "Aunty Clara," who had no children of her own). Then a light was passed from that person to the youngest in their line of descendants (in some cases, to the parents of the babies to light in their honor). It was a fitting tribute, each candle a glowing pledge to Hyman, Manya, Slava, Nathan, Clara and Berra Chernoy that they did, at last, get their wish.
They were remembered.