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Life and Times of Moses and Rose Simner: 1856-1950, The

By Marvin L. Simner, Ph.D, July 2008

This report is a sequel to a previous report entitled "The Life and Times of Ellen and Jacob Cohen: 1870-1950" (Simner, 2008). In keeping with the purpose of that report, the present report offers a further personal glimpse into several additional factors that may also have affected the lives of many Jews who resided in the northern portion of the Pale of Settlement during the latter part of the 19th century. Following a brief overview of the family history, this report focuses on how forced emigration within the Pale may have led to the family name, how the family’s occupation in Vilnius may have prompted their decision to emigrate to the United States and, finally, how the choice of a departure date may have affected their lives and possibly even their survival on route to America.

Using procedures similar to those employed in drafting the previous report, some of the background information on the family was obtained from several family members. The dates, addresses, and ages were gathered largely from documents such as death certificates, city directories, and US Census reports. Information on the origin of the family name along with possible reasons for departure from Europe came from a number of sources, all of which are cited below. To avoid duplication, information on other closely related matters such as how arrangements were normally made to travel from the Russian Empire to America in the late 1800s may be found in the previous report at lifeandtimes_cohen5.htm.


Moses Simner was born on January 10, 1856, in Vilnius (Vilna) Lithuania. Other than the fact that his father was a rabbi, nothing is known about his past. What is known, however, is that Moses had a brother named Opka whose daughter, Becky, eventually moved to New York City. I was told that Opka was a diminutive expression for Abraham. If Moses referred to his brother by this name, it is possible that his brother was younger than Moses. He also had another relative named Straus who was a rabbi in Cannonsberg, Pennsylvania, and he may have had still another relative in Philadelphia in the stationary business.

Moses married Rose Paravosky (date unknown) who was born on December 20, 1866 (place of birth unknown). They had a daughter, Anna, who was born in Vilnius in 1882, along with one or two other children who, according to the family, were "developmentally delayed." Apparently, due to US Immigration Policy, Moses and Rose were forced to leave these children behind when they immigrated to North America. While in Vilnius they operated a tavern or saloon.

Moses, Rose, and Anna landed at Ellis Island in April, 1892, along with 1,468 other Jewish emigrants from Eastern Europe (Joseph, 1969). It is perhaps worth mentioning that since Ellis Island opened in January 1892, the Simner family was among the first group of immigrants to be processed through this receiving center.

After arriving they traveled to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where his name appeared for the first time in the 1894 City Directory. Why they chose Wilkes-Barre is unclear, however, the first Jewish settlers in Wilkes-Barre were orthodox and were from Pren, Lithuania (Levin, 1999) which was close to Vilnius. Hence, the Simners may have known about Wilkes-Barre and have chosen to settle there for linguistic, cultural, and religious reasons. Indeed, Moses was very active in Congregation B’nai Jacob, which was the first Orthodox Congregation in Wilkes-Barre and which was often referred to as the Prenner Shul after the Lithuanian hometown of its founders. The synagogue he attended was erected in 1885 and was located at 133-35 South Welles Street in an area largely populated by recent immigrants known as "the Heights" (Levin, 1999) because of its hilly terrain. Wilkes-Barre must have had a fairly large Jewish population at the time because the 1920 census shows that of the 28 languages spoken by the residents, Yiddish and Hebrew were the 6th most frequently used languages.

Although his initial occupation is unknown, in the 1894 Directory Moses was listed as a glazier residing at 41 Lincoln Street in the Heights. During the early years the family remained in the Heights but changed residences quite often: in 1895 they resided on North Mead Street, from 1896 through 1900 they lived at 184 Stanton Street, and in 1904 their address was 89 North Sherman. In 1908 they moved to 87 North Sherman Street and between 1915 and 1918 their address was 126 Logan Street.

Moses continued to work as a glazier at least until 1899. He might have acquired these skills while in Vilnius since this was a fairly common occupation among Eastern European Jews. According to statistics compiled by Joseph (1969, p. 188) being a painter/glazier was among the 10 most frequently listed principal skilled occupations for Jews who arrived at Ellis Island between 1899 and 1910.

Upon arrival in Wilkes-Barre, Moses and Rose had five more children (Esther, 1894; Dora, 1896; Joseph, 1898; Rae, 1900; Samuel, 1904). On June 18, 1900, Moses became a citizen and from 1901 through 1908 he operated a grocery store at 89 North Sherman Street. At the time there were three other grocery stores only a short distance away on North Sherman (at numbers 38, 69, and 73) also operated by Jewish merchants. I was told that the reason he opened a grocery store, despite the nearby competition, was to ensure that there would always be food on the table even during difficult economic times.

In 1908 Moses suffered a stroke, and 15 months later, on June 8, 1909, died of pulmonary congestion. Following his death Rose continued to operate the store with the help of her daughter, Esther. She also took in boarders at least until 1918. Rose died on December 16, 1954. Moses and Rose are buried in B’nai Jacob cemetery in Wilkes-Barre. The Simner family name, along with the Cohen family name, is inscribed on the American Immigrant Wall of Honor at Ellis Island.

All of the Simner children attended Coughlin High School in Wilkes-Barre. Anna became a milliner, married Jacob Williams, and opened a women’s wear store at 37 East South Street while Dora became a bookkeeper/stenographer and worked for Jacob Williams who was part owner and manager of the Penn Printing and Stationary Company in Wilkes-Barre. She eventually became a salesperson in Anna’s store and later became the owner of the store. Esther married William Halpern, who was a boarder in the Simner household in 1917. William subsequently opened Halpern’s, a men’s clothing store located on East Market Street. Joseph’s first wife died during childbirth. He later remarried and spent most of his life in sales. Samuel married Lena Cohen and eventually established Sam’s Home Furnishings in Syracuse New York. Rae married Jerry Norton, who was a musician, and lived in New Jersey. In 1956 Anna died followed by Samuel in 1957, Esther in 1976, Joseph in 1981, Rae in 1987, and Dora in 1993.


The name Simner is a toponym which is a surname that stems from a place or location where a person originated (Beider, 1993). According to Beider, this family name derived from the shtetl Simno (the Yiddish spelling was Simna), which today is called Simnas. Simnas is located in the Alytus district of Lithuania approximately 17 miles from the city of Alytus and currently has a population of less than 5000. (For a recent description of Simnas, along with pictures, go to The Jewish community in Simnas, which immediately prior to World War II numbered approximately 200, was annihilated by the Nazis on Saturday, September 13, 1941. The immediate events leading up to the annihilation, which took place in the woods outside Simnas, is described in the book Hope in Darkness by Aba Gefen (1989) who was from Simnas and survived.

In the 1800s Simno was situated in the Kalwarya district, Suwalki guberniya (province), which was one of 15 guberniyas in the Pale of Settlement. A Jewish settlement had existed in Simno at least as early as the eighteenth century (Schoenburg and Schoenburg, 1991). Documents dealing with the payment of head-tax indicate that 325 Jews lived in Simno in 1766. Although Moses was born in Vilnius in 1856, in that year the Jewish population of Simno was 736.

In all likelihood the Jews who settled in the Simno area were originally from Germany. The influx began in the 11th century and continued through the 14th century. By the end of the 15th century Yiddish was the language of usage as were the German Ashkenazi customs and traditions. In the mid-17th century there was a further influx of Jews from Poland fleeing the Chmielnicki Cossack uprising (1648-1652) and by 1676 there were approximately 32,000 Jews in Lithuania (Schoenburg & Schoenburg, 1991, p. 22).

When and why did the Simner family leave Simno and eventually settle in Vilinus? Laws were passed at various times during the early and middle part of the 19th century that called for the expulsion of Jews from villages to district centers in the different guberniyas. Among the laws was one that ordered the expulsion of Jews living within 35 miles of the German border (Greenbaum, 1995, p. 178). Suwalki guberniya bordered on Germany and Simno was not far from the border. Although this law was allowed to lapse in the 1840s it is possible that the family may have been forced to leave Simno around this time.

How did the surname originate? The suffix “er” was often added to place names thereby creating an adjective intended to indicate that the person holding the name was originally an inhabitant from a particular town (Beider, 1993). It was also not uncommon for “e” to appear in substitution for the final vowel. In fact in some guberniyas as many as 30% to 40% of Jewish surnames derived from place names had the “er” suffix. Thus it would seem that the surname Simner was probably generated to indicate that the Simner family came from the shtetl Simno.

Why was it necessary to know where one came from? In 1827 Nicholas I ruled that all Jewish boys at the age of twelve would serve in the Russian army for 25 years and that each Jewish community was given a quota of youths to provide to the army (Greenbaum, 1995, p. 174). It was also around this time that Jews began to use surnames derived from towns. In fact, in 1844 all Ashkenazi Jews in the Pale of Settlement were required to adopt surnames (Shoumatoff, 1985, p. 90). Thus it could be that surnames indicating place of origin were given to immigrants from distant communities around the 1840s so that any children born to the new arrivals would be counted under the quota in the town from which they emigrated. If this is the case it could be that the name "Simner" might have been coined by members of the Jewish community in Vilnius to prevent any children born to the Simner family from coming under the Vilnius quota and instead, remaining part of the Simno quota.

As mentioned above, the family operated a tavern or saloon in Vilnius which was a very common occupation among Jews at the time.
From the 16th to the 19th centuries the production and sale of alcoholic beverages was a major industry in Poland-Lithuania and Russia...The Jews entered this industry under the arenda system in the rural economy in which by the 16th century they played an essential role. The Jewish tavern keeper became part of the regular socio-economic pattern of life in the town and village (Gross, 1975, p. 134-135).

Between 1772 and 1795 about 85% of the Jewish residents in rural areas of Poland-Lithuania were engaged in the production and sale of alcoholic beverages. However, during this time and throughout the 1800s a stereotype of the Jewish tavern keeper as the responsible agent for drunkenness among the peasants was strongly held.

The allegation against the Jew as "the scourge of the village," intoxicating the ignorant peasant because of his vile disposition, became a spurious slogan for social reform for both the rulers of Russia and their Polish opponents. Elimination of Jewish taverners started before the partitions of Poland, and continued with the approval of the Russian governors (Gross, 1975, p. 137).

Although it was still possible for Jews to lease taverns in the 1800s, it became increasingly difficult for Jews to make a living through the sale of alcoholic beverages. For example, legislation passed in Russia in 1835 prohibited Jews from selling alcoholic beverages on credit to peasants and cancelled all of the peasants’ debts to Jewish taverners. Additional restrictions were put in place in the early 1880s.

By 1888 there were some 650 laws that specifically affected the rights and restricted the freedom of Jews. Among these were laws that affected all businesses. For instance, Jews were no longer allowed to do business on Sundays and Christian holidays which meant a substantial loss of income for Orthodox Jews who also closed their businesses on Saturdays and other Jewish holidays. With respect to the liquor business, in 1891 the Minister of Finance awarded the government a monopoly on the sale of liquor which automatically excluded Jews from this trade (Greenbaum, 1995, p. 192).

In view of these repressive measures it is not altogether surprising that Moses might have been forced to find another occupation and for this reason became a glazier. Since being a glazier was not a very lucrative occupation it is also not surprising that the Simner family would have elected to emigrate. Thus, in April1892, Moses, Rose, and Anna, along with many others forced into similar low paying jobs, boarded a ship and sailed for New York to begin a more promising life.

Beginning in 1855 newly arrived immigrants were processed through Castle Gardens south of Battery Park in Manhattan. Prior to the opening of Ellis Island on January 1, 1892, and following the closure of Castle Gardens, immigrants were processed through the Barge Office, also located in Battery Park. Had the Simners departed Eastern Europe one year earlier than 1892, they would have been received at the Barge Office where conditions might have been far worse than at Ellis Island, at least according to this account which appeared in the New York Times on June 30, 1900, when the Barge Office re-opened after the fire that destroyed Ellis Island in 1897.

People who visit Battery Park for the first time and see the big crowd in from the Barge Office cuffed about by policemen ask this question ("Why do they treat those people like dogs?"). The policemen, if the question is put to them, inform the inquisitive ones that it is none of their business, while the Barge Office officials themselves are wont to treat any complains with silence and contemptuous disdain.

The state of affairs that is witnessed by casual lookers-on outside (the Barge Office) is a fair index of what is transpiring within the building and on the further side of it at the water’s edge, except that the discomfort to which immigrants are subjected in the interior is caused rather by lack of room than by willful intent. Those in authority say that the completion of the new buildings at Ellis Island will mark an end to the misfortunes that newly arrived immigrants are overwhelmed with, and that after the new quarters are opened there will be no necessity for herding together the incomers like sheep (

Of far greater importance, though, if they had chosen to depart Eastern Europe near the beginning of 1892 their treatment could have been even worse. On February 8, 1892, nine recently arrived Jewish immigrants living in a boarding house at 5 Essex Street in the Lower East Side of New York city were diagnosed with typhus (Markel, 1997). Several days later eleven other boarders, at the same address, who had been in contact with the original nine, were also diagnosed with typhus. Shortly thereafter, a number of Jewish boarders at 42 East Twelfth Street exhibited the same symptoms. What was common to all of these people is that they had all sailed on the ship Massilia.

Because at the time little was known about the origin of this contagious disease, the New York City sanitary police located the remaining immigrants from the Massilia, regardless of their state of health, and moved them to a quarantine hospital referred to as a lazaretto. The hospital was located on North Brother Island in the East River.

A trip to the lazaretto was justly perceived as one to be avoided at all costs. The Massilia Jews and their contacts, of course had no such option. The roundup had only one objective: the rigid isolation of the unfortunate immigrants. The scenes of removal were heartbreaking and filled with anxious screams of fear, protectiveness, and fever-induced mania. If children were discovered to be ill with typhus, a healthy adult -- almost exclusively the mother -- was allowed to accompany them. These frightened immigrant mothers held on to their sick babies with fierce maternal governance and unknowingly placed themselves at high risk for developing typhus.

Those less co-operative were exposed to more forceful methods. The sickest of the typhus victims were carried out of the United Hebrew Charities boarding homes immobilized in special rubber bags with a drawstring at the neck. Both the ill and those who had close contact with them were then driven at rapid speed, by the horse-driven, black-wagoned Health Department ambulances through the snow - and manure-covered streets of Lower Manhattan up to Willard Parker Hospital on East Sixteenth Street...(from there) they boarded the New York City Health Department tugboat...(which then) transported its "pestlial cargo" up the ice-cold East River to the quarantine island (Markel, 1997, p. 57-59).

By April 1, 1892, approximately 1,200 people, mostly Russian Jews, were transported to this overcrowded hospital where they were forced to remain for 21 days or "until the last case had developed among them, which ever came first" (Markel, 1997, p. 59). Of the 1,200 about 1,150 were healthy upon arrival. Of the healthy people, 49 developed typhus and six died.

As a further consequence of the epidemic, on February 13, 1892, the health officer of the port of New York issued a policy that called for the detention and quarantine of all subsequent East European Jews coming through New York Harbor, regardless of their port of embarkation. When this news reached Europe, because of the possibility that the ships themselves might be detained in quarantine for three or more weeks, which would have meant a substantial loss of revenue, several of the major transatlantic lines "announced a temporary cessation of Russian Jewish, but not other, immigrant groups" (Markel, 1997, p.74). This embargo on the transport of Jewish immigrants remained in effect until April, 1892, when it became evident that typhus was no longer a threat.

How might these events, which transpired between January and March 1892, have affected the Simners? It will be recalled that April 1892, was the month the Simners landed at Ellis Island. Because it is unknown when the Simners arrived at the port of embarkation, if they had arrived in, say, December 1891, however, they might have sailed on the Massilia which left on January 2 and landed on January 30. Had they been on the Massilia, of course, they would have been exposed to typhus and could have died. If they remained healthy, they would have experienced all of the hardships associated with the quarantine outlined above.

On the other hand, if they arrived in February or March the embargo and its subsequent withdrawal could very well be the reason they landed at Ellis Island in April 1892, and not sooner. In other words, had the Simners arrived at the port of embarkation in anticipation of departure on a ship scheduled to leave in February or March, they might have been forced to remain at the port until the embargo was lifted. Thus although they might not have originally planned to sail in April, they might have been compelled to do so as the result of the circumstances surrounding the typhus epidemic in New York. Unfortunately, because there are no family records dealing with this matter, this too remains an unanswered question.

What is clear, however, is that if they had departed somewhat later that year, their fate could have been even worse due to a far more deadly epidemic that began to appear that summer: cholera.

Awaiting the "cholera ships" sent from Hamburg and headed toward New York Harbor in late August were the Tammany Hall-appointed health officials of the Port of New York, members of the New York City board of health, and physicians from the US Marine Hospital Service. What ensued was a political struggle among federal, state, and local public health officials, all of whom wanted control over managing the public’s health. At the center of this event was the imposition of a strict quarantine over the Port of New York, a measure that among other things resulted in the confinement of thousands of healthy people on steamships and isolate islands, the harsh treatment of immigrants...and the involvement of President Benjamin Harrison, who for the first time in American history issued an executive order that brought immigration almost to a halt for a period of five months (Merkel, 1997, p. 88 and 90).

By the end of September 76 people had died at sea of cholera while another 44 had died after landing (see page 30 in Markel, 1997). Moreover, by the end of December, only 198 Jewish immigrants were allowed to depart in New York, which is a substantial decline relative to the previous July when 5,673 Jewish immigrants landed (Markel, 1997, p. 140). Although this epidemic, like the previous typhus epidemic, was eventually contained, clearly1892 was not a good year to emigrate.

In conclusion, there was a brief four month window of opportunity that presented itself in 1892, namely, April, May, June and July. With considerable good fortune, Moses, Rose and Anna managed to arrive at the port of embarkation in time to take advantage of this window. Had they arrived either too early or too late, it is quite possible that this review of their lives and that of their other children in America could have resulted in a very different set of outcomes.


Marvin L. Simner is a Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Western Ontario in Canada. Marvin was born in Wilkes-Barre, PA, and spent his early years in Syracuse, NY. After completing post-doctoral training at Brown University in 1969, he moved to Canada with his wife to assume a faculty position at the University. Prior to retirement in 2002, his teaching and research responsibilities focused largely on children at risk for early school failure.

Marvin has had a long standing interest in Jewish history in general and in the history of his family in particular. Following retirement, he was able to combine both interests into an exploration of the reasons for the departure of his grandparents from Eastern Europe and their eventual settlement in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton area. Marvin also edited a booklet in 2006 that focuses in part on his early experiences in Syracuse. This booklet, entitled Growing Up Jewish in the 15th Ward: Recollections from the 1920s through the 1950s, is available from the Onondaga Historical Association in Syracuse.

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about the author
Marvin L. Simner, Ph.D

Marvin L. Simner is a Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Western Ontario in Canada. Marvin was born in Wilkes-Barrie, PA, and spent his early years in Syracuse, NY. After completing post-doctoral training at Brown University in 1969, he moved to Canada with his wife to assume a faculty position at the University. Prior to retirement in 2002, his teaching and research responsibilities focused largely on children at risk for early school failure.

Marvin has had a long standing interest in Jewish history in general and in the history of his family in particular. Following retirement, he was able to combine both interests into an exploration of the reasons for the departure of his grandparents, Ellen and Jacob Cohen, from Eastern Europe and their eventual settlement in the Wilkes-Barrie/Scranton area. Marvin also edited a booklet in 2006 that focuses in part on his early experiences in Syracuse. This booklet, which is entitled Growing Up Jewish in the 15th Ward: Recollections from the 1920s through the 1950s, is available from the Onondaga Historical Association in Syracuse.

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