Shirt-tail Sunday: Barney Rosenblatt, Part 1

Bernard “Barney” Rosenblatt is a shirt-tail relative whom I learned about when his great-great-granddaughter married into our family. My own family tree includes a great-grandmother whose maiden name was Bindel Rosenblatt. There’s no evidence (yet) that Israel and Barney are related in any way. After all, Rosenblatt is a common name.

While Barney’s surname was a common one, there was nothing ordinary about Barney’s life. It was rather remarkable. One of his ten children, his daughter Rose Rosenblatt Witkower, certainly thought so. This is some of what she recorded in her memoir:

This tale was told to me by my father who had this experience in Africa while on a sight-seeing trip after serving in the Civil War. ‘After the war was over, my father and two of his comrades decided to see the world . . . Finally they landed in Africa…You marry my daughter or go into that big iron pot, said the Cannibal Chief to my father. My father and two of his comrades had been captured by a band of man-eating cannibals and they were taken to the Cannibal Chief . . . He told the Chief, by signs, that he would need a few days free so that he could make plans with his friends. This the Chief agreed to. There was much dancing and feasting . . . while the exhausted dancers slept, the three captives escaped.'”

This passage reads more like a bedtime story than a biography, don’t you think? I’ve often found that family stories, even far-fetched ones, have a kernel of truth. In Barney’s case, searching for the truth turned into a fascinating project for me.

Barney Rosenblatt, also known as Bernard and Bereg, was born on February 21, 1845. Barney was born in a town 18 miles southwest of Warszawa, Poland called Grodzisk Mazowiecki. His parents were Joseph and Rebecca Rosenblatt. They were probably known by the Yiddish names Josef or Josel and Rivkah in Poland.

Map showing Grodzisk Mazowiecki, Barney Rosenblatt's birthplace

Map showing Grodzisk Mazowiecki, Barney Rosenblatt’s birthplace

When he was born in 1845, the region—previously part of the Polish Kingdom—was under the rule of Russia. Barney was one of the 786 Jewish residents in his town (80.9 percent of the total). Grodzisk is known in the Jewish world as the place where Rabbi Elimelech Szapira—considered the leading Hasidic rebbe of his time in Poland—established the Grodzhisk Hasidic dynasty in 1849. The dynasty is now led by his great-grandson Rabbi Kalman Menachem, the Piaseczno-Grodzhisk Rebbe, in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel.

A momentous event occurred less than six months after Barney was born. The first section of the Warsaw-Vienna railway opened on June 14, 1845 with the railway line extending west from Warsaw and ending in Grodzisk. This was the first railway line in the Polish Kingdom and only the second in the entire Russian Empire at the time.

Just after the opening of the railway from Warsaw, an inn was built in Grodzisk next to the railway. Known as the “Foksal Villa,” it was built to resemble a small locomotive, and is still standing today. At the Foksal Villa you could wait for the train, enjoy a meal, and even dance.

Foksal Villa in Grodzisk Mzowiecki, still standing today

Foksal Villa in Grodzisk Mzowiecki, still standing today

The 18-mile trip from Warsaw took 45 minutes, a great improvement in transportation. Proximity to Warsaw turned Grodzisk into a popular location for summer homes for Warsaw residents. By 1848, the railway was extended so you could travel all the way to Vienna, Austria.

The completion of the Warsaw-Vienna railway was only a small step in modernizing the territory where Barney lived. His childhood was marked by political and economic unrest. Russia’s expansion of its railways and industrialization lagged behind Western Europe and Russia’s defeats in the Crimean War from 1854 to 1856 revealed to Russian rulers the need for modernizing its country. On March 3, 1861, an Imperial decree emancipated the serfs–agrarian slaves–in the Russian Empire, almost two years before the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States. Russia’s Imperial decree freed more people than our Emancipation Proclamation. The decree, which provided for the transfer of land to the freed Russian peasants, did not extend to peasants in the territory of Poland, though. The appearance of a weaker Russia after the Crimean War emboldened Poles to seek territorial independence from Russia.

To circumvent Russia’s restrictions on public gatherings in Poland that might encourage revolution, pro-independence groups gathered in churches. On November 11, 1861, large boisterous crowds attended church, defying  Russian authorities. Hearing the Poles defiantly singing patriotic songs, Russian troops surrounded two of the largest churches in Warsaw and arrested thousands of worshippers. In protest, churches of all denominations ordered their doors closed until further notice. Russia retaliated by arresting bishops, priests, and rabbis that were responsible for the closure and deported them to Russia.

Russia further retaliated against the uprising for independence by drafting young Poles for the Russian army beginning on January 14, 1863. Polish Jews were subject to conscription into the Russian Army.

With the threat of conscription, it’s no wonder that Barney left Poland. The 5-foot 6-inch boy with hazel eyes and brown hair might have boarded a train at the Grodzisk station. He would most likely have trans-migrated through Germany or England to begin his trans-Atlantic journey to America.

The cost of Barney’s journey had dropped dramatically after 1860 thanks to technological improvements. A new Atlantic fleet of steel-hulled steamships led to a tenfold increase in carrying capacity, and steam power decreased the trans-Atlantic journey from one month to about 10 days.

To be continued – Part 2: Barney enlists in the Union Army

Memories of Rose Rosenblatt Witkower, 1980

Grodzhisk (Hasidic dynasty) entry at

Grodzisk Mazowiecka article at Virtual Shtetl website. Accessed April 21, 2015 at

Landscapes of Mazovia website at, accessed Nov. 20, 2014.

The Polish way : a thousand-year history of the Poles and their culture, Adam Zamoyski, New York : Franklin Watts, 1987.

Compiled military service record for Bernard Rosenblatt, aka Solomon Smith, National Archives, Washington D.C.

Pension File of Bernard Rosenblatt, National Archives, St. Louis, Missouri, File No. XC 2,674,957.

Migration in European History,  By Klaus Bade, Publisher: Blackwell Publishing 2003.


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