Family Friday: Elias Firester

Elias Firester was born on June 27, 1881 in Suceava in Bukovina, Austria (now Romania)–known also as Suczawa in Polish or by its Yiddish name, Shots.

Map showing Suceava, Bukovina and surrounding territories

Map showing Suceava, Bukovina and surrounding territories

Elias was the first-born child of Leiser Firester and Malka Braunstein Firester (see Firester Family Outline and Flo’s Family). By the time Elias was 14 years old, he had four younger siblings: brother Max (Marcus/Mordecai) and sisters Frieda (Frume Sure), Anna (Chane), and Lea.  Elias spent his childhood in Suceava close to his maternal grandparents Marcus “Mordechai” and Frume Sara Braunstein and their extended family, including his aunt Mindel Braunstein Leib.

Bukovina was a multi-ethnic region. The region’s 1880 census data reported that 12% of the total population was Jewish with the remainder being Ukrainian (42%), Romanian (33%), and German (19%), with many of the Jewish residents concentrated in cities. The Jewish population in Suceava was almost half of the total (in 1910).

Ethnographic map of Bukovina in 1910

Ethnographic map of Bukovina in 1910 (click to enlarge for details)

Since the 1860’s, when Elias’ mother Malka was a young girl, the economic and political conditions in Bukovina had surpassed those in neighboring Galicia, Bessarabia, and Roumania. The constitution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire of December 21, 1867 removed all restrictions from the Jews. Article 6 of the law stated:

Any citizen of the state can take up residence in any part of the state and acquire real estate of any kind as well as take up any profession allowed under the law.”

Elias spent his childhood in a Jewish community in Suceava that was prosperous and secure. There were opportunities for Jewish retail and wholesale merchants, manufacturers, professionals, doctors and attorneys. Elias’ father Leiser earned his living as a grain merchant.

Author Fred Stambrook summarized the conditions in Suceava in a paper he presented to the Universisty of Manitoba:

The attitude of the state authorities and their own economic success gave Bukovina’s Jews a feeling of self-worth in an era of stability. They really were the most fortunate Jews in Eastern and East Central Europe.”

Education was widely available to Jewish residents and Elias enrolled in the public high school, the “Gymnasium.”

1898 Report on high school in Suceava, showing Elias Firester enrolled in the German Division.

1898 Report on high school in Suceava, showing Elias Firester enrolled in the German Division.

The Gymnasium’s secular curriculum included instruction in German, Romance languages, Mathematics, and Geography. Elias was taught “the old testament” in his religion classes while the Catholic students were taught catechism.

Elias received a well-rounded education, but it seems that after high school, Elias became a baker.

Sometime before November 1904, Elias left Suceava and Bukovina. If he had remained in Suceava, he would have been subject to conscription into the Austro-Hungarian army.  The army law of December 5, 1868 imposed military service on all men between 19 to 42. He would have been obligated to serve three years of active duty with the military.

Elias travelled to Glasgow, Scotland where he boarded the Allan State Line’s SS Numidian on November 5, 1904. The Numidian was capable of carrying 1180 passengers. On this trip, though, there were only 136 passengers on board since winter travel was not a popular time to cross the Atlantic.

The Numidian landed in New York City on Friday, November 18.

Ship manifest listing Elia Schwartz as a passenger on the SS Numidian, leaving Glasgow on November 4, 1904.

Ship manifest listing Elia Schwartz as a passenger on the SS Numidian, leaving Glasgow on November 5, 1904.

Elias did not travel under his own name. Instead, he told the shipping inspector to list his name as Elia Schwartz. He stated his age was 21 rather than his actual age, 23. He also said he was a citizen or subject of Roumania, with his last residence in Jassy (Iasi), Roumania. These discrepancies might indicate Elias was indeed evading conscription back home in Suceava.

When asked who purchased his ticket, he stated his sister Lena Schwartz. Unbeknownst to the authorities, Lena was not Elias’ sister. Lena was Elias’ future wife. As discussed previously in Family Friday: Lena Itzkowitz Firester, Lena Itzkowitz was a young lady from Iasi, Roumania who had immigrated to New York City in March of 1904, using the name Lena Schwartz.

Elias was released to Lena’s custody. Ten days after he arrived at Ellis Island, Elias married Lena Itzkowitz.

To be continued – Family Friday: Elias and Lena Firester



Map of Bukovina and surrounding territory, by Daniel Katz, at

History of the Jews in the Bukowina – Geschichte der Juden in der Bukowina, Edited by Hugo Gold, Tel Aviv, Volume 1 (1958), Volume 2 (1962)

The Golden Age of the Jews of Bukovina, 1880-1914, Fred Stambrook, Department of History, University of Manitoba, October 2003, Working Paper 03-2.

Bukovina Society of the Americas website, accessed June 18, 2015 at

Indexed records for Braunstein and Firester family members in Suceava in JewishGen Romania Database at

Ober-Gymnasiums in Suczawa, Programm des Griechisch-orientalischen Gymnasiums in Suczawa. Victor Nussbaum, Harvard University, 1895. Accessed at June 17, 2015.

Military Culture and Popular Patriotism in Late Imperial Austria. By Laurence Cole, Oxford University Press: United Kingdom, 2014. Accessed June 18, 2015 at

Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1820-1897; Arrival: New York, New York; (National Archives Microfilm Publication M237, 675 rolls); Records of the U.S. Customs Service, Microfilm serial: T715; Microfilm roll: T715_514; List C, Line: 4; Elia Schwartz

U.S. Supreme Court of Kings County, Petition for Citizenship, Elias Firester, Petition #63653, August 29, 1921.

Marriage Certificate, Elias Firester and Lina Iscovich, November 28, 1904, Manhattan County, City of New York, USA, Certificate Number 24434


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