Louisiana’s German Jewish History and One Family’s Probe into Its Past

November 15th, 2013 by Germain Bienvenu

Special Collections provides numerous avenues and opportunities for historical research, with genealogy among them. Recently, a Louisiana native, whose family has a lengthy connection to LSU, discovered a part of his family history among our holdings.

Jay Silverberg, a Thibodaux native now living in Northern California, has been piecing together the lives of his ancestors who were among the many thousands of German Jewish immigrants to Louisiana in the mid-1800s escaping from the social and economic upheaval that was wracking their homeland. As Silverberg notes, “Emanuel Meyer’s story, and the story of numerous other ancestors, is coming to life for me and my family through precious records donated in the 1970s to Special Collections at Hill Memorial Library.”

Jay’s historical and genealogical journey began 50 years ago in his pre-teen years as he explored the attic of his grandparents’ Baton Rouge home only blocks from the LSU campus. He opened a trunk on one of those adventures and found letters that his father had written to his mother during World War II.

During the past year, he has written about those letters for his family. In his research, he found a separate batch of letters in Special Collections, those from his German progenitors writing to family members who were establishing roots in Louisiana that remain throughout the state. The newly found but much older letters are among 26 boxes of records from a general store Jay’s ancestors operated in the mid-1800s in the Clinton-Jackson-Bayou Sara area. The letters, which are written in old German, are a part of what Special Collections has accessioned as the Meyer Brothers Store Records (Mss. 2909).  They were discovered in an abandoned St. Francisville bank building and donated to LSU in 1975.

Letter addressed from Germany to relatives in "Amerika" and "Bayousaira"

Letter addressed from Germany to relatives in “Amerika” and “Bayousaira”

Both sets of letters have become key components of Jay’s lifelong interest: to learn and write about his family’s history. His parents’ letters are the central focus of the first part of his family’s story, titled “Letters from Momma and Daddy.” They are accompanied by genealogical and historical information that include Gumbo pictures and details about his parents’ lives when they attended LSU and lived in Baton Rouge during the 1930s. Numerous other citations gleaned from cemeteries and archival records in libraries across the United States, including LSU’s Middleton Library, are also presented.

During Jay’s initial research, he noticed a reference to the Special Collections letters in the footnotes of a book titled The Business of Jews in Louisiana, 1840 – 1875, which includes information about his family.

Jay tells us that the Special Collections letters, based on the handful of 170 pages translated thus far, “have been as revealing historically and genealogically as were my parents’ letters. The Meyer correspondence is written in what’s referred to as Sṻetterlin, referencing old German handwriting that is largely undecipherable to today’s Germans and requiring a knowledge of the distinctive characteristics of the letters that translate to modern-day letters. Other parts of the correspondence are written in what scholars refer to as Judeo German written in the Hebrew alphabet.”

Passages from Meyer correspondence written in Sṻetterlin and Yiddish

Passages from Meyer correspondence written in Sṻetterlin and Yiddish

As best as Jay can determine, the Meyer Brothers Store Records have been cited publicly only in academic research. The author of The Business of Jews has told Jay that he used only the business records and the few letters in the collection written in English for his research. The letters have never been translated, at least not for public use. Jay plans to use the contents as part of an article for a Southern Jewish historical volume, adding details from still more records and archived newspapers at Special Collections about The Felicianas during the period his ancestors were making a life that would one day lead him to his grandmother’s attic.

Jay Silverberg has resided in Petaluma, CA, for 27 years. He had a 20-year career as a newspaper editor and reporter and worked for 19 years for public affairs agencies in San Francisco and Washington, DC, supporting corporations and non-profits with their public policy and crisis management issues. He continues to work with a few clients on various public policy and crisis management projects while pursuing his family’s history.  

 

 

 

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