A Genealogical Study
IZRAEL MEJEROWICZ PIECHOTA:
RADZILOW COMMUNITY WITNESS
THE CIVIL REGISTRATION PROCEDURE
Civil registration was brought into effect in what is now Poland in 1826 and, in those days, there was no limit as to when an event had to be registered. Marriages were almost always registered on the evening of the wedding or the following morning, and deaths were always registered very soon after the event had taken place, presumably to ensure a prompt burial. However, it was not unusual for births to be registered several years after the child was born, and fathers would sometimes register a number of their children on the same visit to the register office.
The system of civil registration in the heim was always very different from that in Western societies today. Instead of a certificate of birth, marriage or death being a pro-forma with categories to be filled in, it would take the form of a paragraph of prose. Depending on the time period, this would be written either in Polish (before c.1867 and after c.1917) or in Russian (between these two dates).
For example, in order to register a birth, the father of the child would appear before the registrar, together with two witnesses, and present his child in person as proof of his or her existence. The registrar took down the relevant details of the child and his or her parents, as well as those of the witnesses. For the adults, this was name, age and occupation, though the ages given were often inaccurate. The document would then be signed by those present who could do so.
THE WITNESS’S ROLE
The role of witness seems to have been a relatively formally arranged responsibility. Witnesses would tend to appear in pairings for almost every birth, marriage or death for a period of some years, then both would be replaced by a new pairing. This was not always the case, but it was certainly a noticeable trend. It appears not to have been necessary for a witness to have physically witnessed the event in question, only that they witnessed the registration of the event.
When asked for their occupation, many witnesses described a role similar to that of a shul shammas. This was recorded in a variety of ways, often as “sexton”, or “synagogue worker”. Many may have held the equivalent of wardens’ posts today. It is not known whether witnesses received any financial reward for fulfilling their responsibilities.
Izrael Mejerowicz Piechota – the Man
Izrael Piechota was probably born in the 1790s in Radzilow. Prior to the 1820s, surnames were not compulsory, and most families used patronymics to identify their father, rather than having an inherited surname. So, as Izrael’s father was Mejer, he was known as Izrael Mejerowicz, in the same way that his Hebrew name would have been Yisrael ben Meir. With the compulsory introduction of surnames, Izrael’s family took the name Piechota, meaning “infantry”. One reason for this could be that one or more family members may have served as part of an infantry battalion during the long years of compulsory military service. For most of the mid-19th century, many people were known with both their patronymic and their surname, with the former acting much as a middle name does in Western society today. Consequently, Izrael’s name is most often written Izrael Mejerowicz Piechota.
His first marriage, to a girl named Baszka Jankielowna (this being the patronymic in the female form), yielded a daughter in the early 1820s, whom he registered in August 1826. However, by 1829 and the birth of his second child, Chajka, he had remarried a Fejga Herszkowna. Including Chajka, he had at least nine children with Fejga over a period of about 21 years. Sadly, three of these died in infancy, including one on his first birthday. Five daughters of Izrael are known to have married and had families, producing a host of descendants of the surnames Bejnsztejn, Kowalski, Tobiaszora, Bufensztejn and Fiszbin.
One aspect of Izrael’s life revealed by his long period as a community witness is his occupation: he was a butcher. Obviously, being from the Jewish community, he would have been a kosher butcher, and this necessitates a certain level of halachic knowledge, so Izrael would have had to be well-read in the Torah and Talmud in order to do his job correctly within the bounds of Jewish law.
Sadly, no photos from Radzilow are known to exist from the era during which Izrael lived, so we can only guess as to his appearance. In accordance with halacha and regional culture, he will have had a full beard, which probably showed a fair amount of grey or white by the time of his death.
Izrael’s daughter, Szejna Rochel Kowalska, named her first son Izrael Moszk c.1858, so it is thought that Izrael Piechota died shortly before that, in his 50s. By the time of his death, his work as a butcher, witness and as patriarch of a large family would have meant he was a well-known community figure, and his funeral is sure to have been well-attended.
Izrael Mejerowicz Piechota – the Witness
His first appearance in the records I have collected to date is in May 1826, when he and Dawid Calecki witnessed the marriage of Dawid Kowalski and Krejna Chemnicka. Coincidentally, a son of this marriage would later marry one of Izrael’s own daughters (Szejna Rochel), and Izrael thus became their mechuton! During the late 1820s, Izrael was often paired with Calecki, though most of Izrael’s appearances are in the 1830s and 1840s, during which he was most often paired with Fajba Dubljn, a tanner.
In total, Izrael was a witness to a minimum of 15 events in Radzilow – 9 births, 4 marriages and 2 deaths – spanning 25 years, with his final appearance being at the birth of his nephew, Uziel Zelik Piechota, in November 1851.
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