Throughout the decades of my genealogy research, there have been a few cousins with exceptionally common names (think Cohen, Friedman…), making them more of a challenge to find. With the family name Schneider, Leon was one of them. What turned out to be both fortunate and fruitful was finding Leon when I did. By the time I located Leon, he was the one living descendant from the brood of my mother-in-law’s aunt, Esther Schneider from Plainfield.
The best clue my mother-in-law left was that her Aunt Esther’s son Frank married a woman named Ada, and when Frank died, his widow moved back to Allentown, Pennsylvania, with their only child. I took it from there.
Being a consummate researcher is part and parcel of the job of a genealogist. Public records online mistakenly revealed a Leonard (not Leon) Schneider living in Allentown and listed his close relative as Ada. With the help of a friend in Allentown, I got the number of Leon’s maternal grandaunt. Speaking with this jovial nonagenarian was rewarding in more ways than one.
As we talked on and on she announced that she felt as though she had always known me, like I were part of her family. She offered the history of the first store in Vegas, which she and her husband owned, called the Bull Shed. There, they sold the first line of faded denim jeans at $2.95 a pair. Allowing her to banter on, after that claim to fame, she fed my genealogy hunger with the background of her grandnephew whose name she assured me was actually Leon.
She touted Leon as a well-educated gutte neshuma, with a Wharton MBA, who boarded in a rundown part of Allentown with his elderly aunts and willingly came by to do her banking and other errands. Filling me with any and all family-tree facts, Leon’s grandaunt revealed that she was at a hotel with Leon’s mother when Grandaunt Esther made the shidduch for her son. She went on to tell me that Leon was tall and nice-looking like his father, who was a quiet man who would sit by himself and do his legal work.
Excitingly, soon after that conversation, a letter based on my findings, which I had sent to “Leonard,” garnered a reply from Leon. Although he responded, he stopped short of agreeing to meet. That was until he heard me on the radio. Legitimizing my stance and standing in the family enticed Leon to agree to a get-together when we were back in town.
The conversation at our one opportune dinner meeting was congenial and meaningful. It led to many “aha” moments. One was the fact that he never knew when he was growing up in Plainfield that his dentist was a cousin. Another was hearing that a man who lived with Leon’s grandparents and worked in their dry goods store, while not directly related to them, was actually my husband’s uncle Dovid.
There was more. We learned that after his grandparents were gone his parents regularly had the Yiddish-speaking Dovid over for dinner. Leon smirked upon learning that his father, my mother-in-law’s cousin, was the attorney on the closing of the house in which my husband grew up. A relative in the business unquestioningly helping family was the way things were done in the 1940s when they purchased their house in Elizabeth.
A generous gentleman, Leon, a retired, self-described couch potato, insisted on picking up the meal tab, after willingly answering any questions I gingerly posed about his family. He was surprised at the things I already knew about them. His father was one of four children, all gone by then. The eldest of the four was a young woman who died in childbirth. Next in line was another female, who married, but was afraid to have children due to her sister’s fate.
While Grandaunt Esther’s two sons each married, the first had no children and the youngest, Leon’s father Frank, had been married before, but the union was annulled, and then he married Ada. According to Leon, his grandmother put her two sons through law school.
I drank up the additional details, which Leon was game to provide. Leon never married, although he told us that he came close a couple of times.
Leon was a freshman at Rutgers in New Brunswick when my husband was a senior. Did they ever pass each other on the quad not knowing that they were blood relatives? My years of family research have had many pay-offs and one was having my children arrange to officially meet some of their cousins, from even further degrees of separation, at their college campuses.
We have the pictures for posterity, as well as the ones my husband and I took with Leon. As he sat across the table, Leon acceptingly watched as I entered notes into my smartphone. I made sure to confirm that he never fathered any children so if the day ever came that Leon left this world, I would be sure there were no unknown survivors of the Schneider line.
Six years have passed since my husband and I met Leon in Allentown, but I kept sending yearly greetings until the last photocard with a message written on the back was returned as “undeliverable” and stamped “deceased.” While Leon had been hard to find, now it is a mystery about his death and burial.
I’ve already tried to uncover the mystery surrounding Leon’s untimely passing through my friend in Allentown but to no avail this round. The old aunts living at his address are listed in obituaries. The state archives no longer divulge a cause of death.
While continuing to search for more details on the mysterious ending of one family branch, I ponder who will say kaddish for Leon. When I say the Yizkor prayers, I will think about Leon and how the story of Grandaunt Esther’s family ended with a final stamp. “Deceased.”
By Sharon Mark Cohen
Sharon Mark Cohen, MPA, is a seasoned genealogist and journalist. A contributing writer at The Jewish Link, Sharon is a people person and born storyteller who feels that everyone is entitled to a legacy. Visit sharonmarkcohen.com.