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michael pfenig

mechel, 1900/2012

In February, all I knew was that my great-great-great grandfather had come to the United States in 1889, but not what became of him after his arrival.  I didn’t know if he stayed in America, if he went home, how long he lived, when he died.  Now, in May, I know that he stayed here, lived here and died here — and he is buried here in a grave I have seen.

He went by several different names, but I think the truest to his real name (by which I mean original birth name) is likely Mechel Fenig, which is what appears on his tombstone.  Mechel lived in New York City for 11 years after his arrival in on the Hammonia and when he died of cancer on April 24, 1900 in his son Jacob‘s apartment at 211 Stanton Street, he missed being enumerated in the 1900 federal census by mere days.  A day later, on April 25th, Mechel was buried in Brooklyn’s Washington Cemetery and I visited him there 112 years (and 4 days) after he was laid to rest.

Washington Cemetery from the F line

He was buried with the First Gorlitzer Rudnicker Chevra Mach Emes, the burial society of a landsmanshaft (or Jewish mutual aid society) of immigrants from Gorlice, Poland, a town not far from Nowy Zmigrod — the spot his son (my great-great-grandfather) Frank listed as his birthplace when he became a US citizen.  The Gorlitzers were easy enough to find, but Mechel’s place in row 4, grave 3 was not.  Not wanting to admit I’d come for nothing, I walked to the very back of the plot where the graves were the oldest, still finding nothing.  Then, finally, serendipitously, I looked down at the gravestone near my husband’s feet and realized we had found Mechel.


 Time seems thinner in New York than it does here at home in California.  There, it is impossible for me to forget that my ancestors walked the same exact streets that I am walking, lived in the same exact buildings that I pass by.  Sitting in the cemetery with Mechel as the F train whizzed by on its elevated tracks over us, I felt time compress a little, too.  His gravestone is old, toppled over on its back, but I was there remembering him in the same place that my great-great-grandfather might have visited, placing a stone in the same place that Tante Czippe might have.  It is likely that I am the only Fenning (or Fenig, I guess) to have visited Mechel since his last surviving child died in 1940, but it made me feel closer to all of them being there.

Mechel Fenig (Yechial Mechel ben Zvi) (ca 1839-1900)


One Response to “mechel, 1900/2012”

  1. I like this very much.

    Posted by Paul | May 13, 2012, 5:46 am

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