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18th Century Links to the Family of the Vilna Gaon and the Komisaruk family of Raseiniai

By Chaim Freedman, 2004

Like many Litvak families, David Hoffman’s family had an oral tradition that in some way they were descended from the family of the Vilna Gaon. When Chaim Freedman had asked for contributions to his book "Eliyahu’s Branches, the Descendants of the Vilna Gaon and his Family" Hoffman submitted some notes about the relationship and letters which had been solicited from family members in the 1970s.  But lacking evidence of the exact connection at the time, the family was listed in Freedman’s book as having "possible connections based on oral tradition". Later Chaim was able to locate one of the ancestors buried on The Mount of Olives in Jerusalem and so reopen research of the possible link.

Chaim Freedman’s family originated in the Raseiniai district of Lithuania; as the coordinator of this group of researchers for the LitvakSIG, he and Hoffman developed a collegial relationship over the next few years.  As Hoffman accumulated additional documentation about his family, he published it in his Family History Journal and sent copies to Freedman.  Freedman became very supportive of Hoffman’s efforts to obtain early 19th century Russian Empire revision lists and 1784 and 1765 censuses from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Together they had traced some lines of their families back to the 18th century.

 Rabbi Eliyahu The Vilna Gaon (1720-1797)

Research of the family of the Vilna Gaon was published in 1997 by Avotaynu as Chaim Freedman’s book “Eliyahu’s Branches, the Descendants of The Vilna Gaon and His family”.

There Freedman explained that number and order of birth of the Gaon’s children and their ages was not consistent in the sources. Aside from some biographies, it is necessary to study texts that, although their specific purpose was not to record the biography of the Gaon or his family, they  include passages from which familial information can be interpreted. These texts include in particular the introductions to books written by the Gaon.

The number of children recorded in these sources ranges from a minimum of two sons and one daughter to three sons and five daughters. It seems quite certain that only three sons survived to adulthood. Five daughters can also be established, but there may have been others.

The dates of birth of the Gaon’s children are significant in order to establish or counter claims of families that they are descended from one or other of the children. The time period between the earliest known ancestor of claimant families and the birthdates of the Gaon’s sons may preclude such a claim. On the other hand, since most of the Gaon’s daughters were older than the sons, there is the possibility of a greater number of intervening generations between the daughters and hypothetical descendant families. Therefore, there may be a greater number of possibilities of descendant lines from the Gaon’s daughters than from the sons. Given that the estimated age difference between the Gaon’s eldest and youngest child is about twenty-five years, researching the line of descent must take into account the possibility of a variation of an entire generation in the ancestral line, depending whether descent is sought from the older or younger of the Gaon’s children.

The Vilna Gaon was identified in Vilna (Vilnius) in all three censuses from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania: 1765, 1784 and 1795. 

1765 Census of Vilna showing the Vilna Gaon

Some of the daughters’ names were discovered for the first time by using these lists. But Freedman particularly wanted to find a son of the Gaon, Abraham, who was not living in the Gaon’s household in 1765.  Since he was aware of Abraham’s wife’s family, he was able to use this information to seek Abraham. 

At 59 Ulica Zydowska: Elias son of Hirsch and his wife Chaia, with four children: Joseph (not married); Berko (married to Dwera with three children Leib, Chana and Sora-Rocha); Bejla (married to Aizik son of Abraham); and Minda (married to Nowach with one child Mirka).  Also, Elias’ father Hirsch, a widow; and five servants.”

This information is consistent with what is known of Elias (Eliyahu Pesseles) and his family.  For his son-in-law Nowach it is clear that he must be recently married to Minda and that as of February 27, 1765 - the date of the census - they only had one daughter, Mirka.  His daughter Sarah, who was later to marry Avraham son of the Gaon was not yet born, and this is consistent with Freedman’s postulated birth date of circa 1765 for her future husband.

Further information was consistent with what Freedman knew about the Pesseles family, and he was able to identify many members of the Gaon’s family.

In the 1784 census of Vilna Freedman located Abraham in the household of his father-in-law Nowach Abramowicz ( Noah Lipshitz, Mindes) , along with Nowach’s wife Minda, and Abraham’s wife Sora. 

"Nowach Abramowicz Zona Jego Minda, Zienc Abraham Zona Jego Sora,
Czeladniczka Nechama"

Translation:
"Nowach son of Abram his wife Minda, son-in-law Abraham his wife Sora,
servant Nechama
"

In this entry no children appear with Avraham, further indicating the proximity of the marriage to the date of the census.

Finally the 1795 list records Avraham a son of the Gaon with his age as 30. That means he was born in 1765, exactly the year stated in Freedman’s book and calculated by him from complex and often obscure references. This date is about 15 years later than the date "used" by other sources. Now the three lists 1765, 1784 and 1795 support Freedman’s scenario for the configuration of the Gaon’s sons.

Komisaruk Family of Raseiniai.

Chaim Freedman’s great-great-great-great-grandfather Berel Komisaruk, was identified from the patronymic of his son Zelman Berelov Komisaruk (Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Komisaruk, 1798-1853) in the 1858 Revision List of the Jewish agricultural colony Grafskoy in Ekaterinoslav Guberniya: 

 

Oral tradition held that the Komisaruks were  a prominent family of scholars and communal leaders in Kovno. Lithuanian records prove that the family came from the city Rassein which was located in Kovno Gubernia (province). When the Jews were compelled to adopt a surname in 1804 Berel and his brothers or their father registered their surname as "Komisaruk". Later generations used various forms of this name: Komisaruk, Komesaroff, Komisar, Comisaroff, Comisarow.

The identity of Berel’s father was obtained from a list dated 1846 of people who were unable to pay taxes (LitvakSIG’s All Lithuania Database). In Berel’s case this was due to the fact that he had already died in 1843. His father’s name appears as David.

 

This identification of David enabled other members of the family to be identified in the 1816 Revision list, and from that to link back to the 18th century censuses of 1784 and 1765. 

The 1816 Revision List for Rassein city includes two family groups with heads of family Velvel, son of David Komisaruk:

Under the family group of Leib, who was missing in 1816, appears his brother Berel, son of David Komisaruk. 

Since Berel’s son Zelmen appears under his father’s family group, and it is noted that he "came from over the border in 1812" this seems to indicate that the family moved around between Rassein, nearby Girtagola, as indicated by the 1784 census, and perhaps other places. Berel was not registered in his own right as a family head, probably due to his recent arrival in Rassein.

The Komisaruks appear in two different sections of the 1816 census. Velvel appears under the main category of "Meshchani" - burghers or city citizens, whereas Leib and Berel appear under the small category "Rukidelniki" which is a currently obsolete term indicating "craftsmen". While tradition tells of the family’s activities as tax farmers and rabbis, it appears that some of them engaged also in some type of craft.

Berel’s son Zalmen is recorded in the 1816 census of Rassein city as the then only child of Berel and Ester Komisaruk. A note is appended to his name "came from over the border in 1812". He probably spent his youth in his father’s town Girtegola, then moved to Rassein in 1812 when he married Yokhved, a daughter of Rabbi Menakhem-Mendel of Girtegola and Rassein. Where he was immediately prior to 1812 that might qualify as being "over the border" remains to be seen. One can theorize that at the age of Barmitzvah (13) he was sent to learn with his scholarly maternal grandfather Rabbi Yehudah Leib in Serhei ( son of the Gaon of Vilna) which was in the Province of Suwalki. This practice was repeated in later generations where members of the Komisaruk family were sent to study in other towns.

Summary of records where the name of Berel Komisaruk appears:

1784. Census of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Rassein district, Girtagola  village: appears as the second son of "Dawid Mejorowicz".

1816. Revision List of the town of Rassein, Rassein district: Appears under the Head of Household, "Leib, David son Komisaruk", his elder brother.

1846. List of people who did not, or were not expected to pay their taxes. The reason given in Berel’s case was that he "died in 1843". The recording of his name "Berel Davidovitch Komisaruk" in this list facilitated bridging between earlier documents bearing that name and later ones referring to his son Zalmen as "Zalmen Berelovitch".

1847/8.Lists of Rassein Jews who applied and were approved to become farmers in Novorussia (south-east Ukraine) where Berel appears as the patronymic of his son "Zalmen Berelovitch Komisaruk".

1848. List of taxpayers in Rassein where Berel appears as the patronymic of his son "Zalmen Berelovitch Komisaruk".

18th Century Ancestors of the Komisaruk Family

David Komisaruk’s  name having been discovered from the patronymic used with his sons’ names in various Rassein records, the earliest being the 1816 Revision List for Rassein city, David was sought in the 1784 census. There is no relevant "David father of Leib, Berel and Velvel" on the 1784 Rassein city census. But, although this list precedes the adoption of surnames, it is possible to identify this exact family configuration in the 1784  census in Girtagola village. In 1816 they appear in Rassein as “Son 1 Leyba, Son 2 Berel, Son 3 Welwel.”

This is exactly the same birth order as that derived from their ages on the 1816 Revision List.

When David died has yet to be discovered; he does not appear in the 1816 list for either Rassein or Girtagola.

An earlier generation was thereby also discovered, David’s father Meyer as it appears as the patronymic of his son "Dawid Meyerowicz" in the 1784 Census.

It was customary in Lithuania/Poland or Russia and those territories under its influence, to refer to people by their first name together with that of their father. Surnames were adopted in the Russian empire after legislation in 1804. Since Meyer lived and probably died prior to that date, he bore no surname, yet he can be identified in documents by connection with his son David who apparently was the first member of the family to adopt the surname "Komisaruk".

Meir’s date and place of death have yet to be established. He can be identified in the 1765 census of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania as "Major Joselowicz", the only person in the district of Rassein whose personal name coincided with the patronymic of his son David Meyerowicz.

Indeed Major or Meyer had a son David who appears in the 1765 census, together with his wife Khana, which was also the name registered for David’s wife in the 1784 census. At that time Meir was living in Rassein city. At some subsequent date his son David moved to the village of Girtagola, as recorded in the 1784 census.

According to the 1765 census Meyer had children other than David, but their subsequent surnames, which apparently differed from that adopted by David, have yet to be established by comparison between the 1784 and 1816 censuses. Biographical information has not been discovered yet in archival resources in Lithuania, but may be sought in the Lithuanian Historical Archive in Vilna (Vilnius). Oral family tradition claims descent of the Komisaruk family from a line of rabbis and communal leaders. Meyer’s family appears as the third family of 180 who are recorded in the entire Rassein district. Those families recorded at or near the begining of the list were usually influential in the community.

From the patronymic of Meyer/Major in the 1765 census another earlier generation Josel was discovered. Although ages are not recorded, it can be estimated that Josel was born in the late 17th century

Sources:

Jewish Family History Foundation: 18th century record and 1816 Revision List.Provided by Dr. David Hoffman and Professor Eric Goldstein.

Kaunas Regional Historical Archive (Lithuania): 19th Century records until 1848. Extracted by the Komisaruk Family Research Group managed by Professor Melvin Comisarow, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Zaporozhe Archive (Ukraine): 1858 Revision List of Grafskoy.

about the author
Chaim Freedman

Chaim Freedman’s family originated in the Raseiniai district of Lithuania. David Hoffman coordinated the Raseiniai researchers for the LitvakSIG and they developed a collegial relationship over several years. Hoffman accumulated documentation about his family’s oral tradition of a relationship to the Vilna Gaon. He discussed this with Chaim Freedman, who was studying the family of the Gaon. Freedman became very supportive of Hoffman’s efforts to obtain early 19th century Russian Empire revision lists and 1784 and 1765 censuses from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Together they traced some lines of their families back to the 18th century.