top of page

You are who you think you are, right?

Updated: Jul 21, 2021

I've spent the past couple of weeks researching a new book. I can't say when it will be ready yet, but I plan for it to be historical fiction, set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. If you like books written by Barbara Erskine and Susan Howatch (like I do), then I think you'll love this book.

What I loved about Susan Howatch's books, was her ability to deliver a good saga, told from various perspectives. Perspective is a pretty big theme in my life (you'll see that in my first book, [RE]BIRTH: Self-Transformation over Tea and Tarot).

While, what drew me to Barbara Erskine's books, was that her stories would be about a contemporary woman, mystically experiencing the life of another woman who lived centuries before. You get a hint of my first homage to Barbara Erskine in The Velvet Portal.

Here's the synopsis, as it stands presently!

Once upon a time, a man and a woman lived in a little town, a shtetl, in Lithuania, with their young family. The man's name was Zisel, his wife's name was Hannah Leah, and they lived in Laizuva. There was a railroad station in their town; and it was 159 miles NW of Vilnius, capital city of Lithuania. But, back then, Lithuania wasn't the place we know now. It had been sliced off Poland in partitions made by their three neighbours - Russia, Prussia, and Austria.

Black and shite phots of a woman (at left) and man (at right), taken around the turn of the century (19th to 20th).
Hannah and Zisel (or is that Cecil? Or Hans?)

Not only were Lithuania's neighbours becoming aggressive; because the Russian Empire had taken over their part of the world, there were many other chaotic changes to deal with. But I digress! How did they meet? Who were their parents?

I have no idea how they met, but it's likely that a matchmaker was employed to find each a suitable spouse, and they had the chance to meet one or two possible candidates before liking the look of each other. You see, they were Jewish; and where they lived was a pretty Orthodox place, so this is the story I'm going with. I have found people and websites that suggest Zisel's father's name was Ovsey/Ovsei, and Hannah's father was Moshe (but nothing on their mothers, as yet).

There have been family legends, and question marks galore; and my head is full of mysteries. But I look at my photos of Hannah and Zisel, and I ask them for help. Each time I do, they give me a morsel of new information, and a new crumb-trail to follow. They want me to know them; I just need to ask for help.

So, one tradition in those times, was for parents to get a matchmaker to help find their children a suitable spouse. Another, it seems, was to name your first-born son after your grandfather (but not if he was still alive). One of Zisel's brothers named his first son Louis, which is a variation on Leyb (his second son was Moritz). Zisel and Hannah named their first boy Maurice, and the second boy was Lewis; so maybe Maurice was a variation on Moshe or Mauritz, or something similar. Was it a coincidence that the first two boys of those families (ie, they were each others' first cousins) were given names that were variations on Leyb and Moshe? I wonder if the brothers married sisters or cousins (it's been known to happen!)

B&W photo of three men in 1880s
The Brothers Novozhenets (Great-Grandfather in the middle)

Zisel's brother, Yankel (Jacob), went to America with his son (Louis) to avoid Louis being drafted into the Russian Army. Louis escaped on a dead man's passport (that entered my mind as a great name for a novel). Yankel returned to his wife in Lithuania (she was taking care of their other children, by being the baker for their little shtetl, Klikl). Just hearing their story, I can see a desperation for a better life in Yankel and Louis, and a resolute character in Yankel's wife Riva. But, wait, what about Zisel and Hannah?

Well, they spoke Yiddish and Polish (and a little Russian), and lived a devout Jewish existence. He was born in 1859ish and she was born in 1862ish. The reason I'm unsure of the exact dates, is because they would have lived by a Hebrew calendar at home, a Julian calendar as part of the Russian Empire; and (you and) I live with the Gregorian calendar. After much confusion, I just decided to make peace with the fact that I'd never crack that nut!

But, here's the thing that captures my imagination. It occurred to me that they were alive during the Industrial Revolution (which got to the Russian Empire later than the rest of Europe), and just before the Russian Revolution. If you want an easier way to conceptualise that time, think Victorian era.

This was a time of great hardship, especially for people who were not Russian Orthodox. That included Jews, but it also included Catholics and Moslems too. When Hannah and Zisel started having their babies, they were living under Russian rule. The Russians enacted what became known as the May Laws. This meant that the anti-Semitism that was already running rampant was basically state-sanctioned.

At the time their first daughters were born, their part of the world was being ravaged by pogroms. Pogroms were riots, mostly by peasants, designed to attack Jews specifically. The May Laws gave the peasants the right to evict the Jews if they so desired. So, Jewish families would experience vilification and physical attacks, their homes would be burnt, and they'd be forcibly removed. Homeless, they would try to leave the Russian Empire for a safer life.

Now, I have not got all this information just off the internet; from Wikipedia. I've sought help from people who are genealogists, historians and those who are knowledgeable in Jewish faith and tradition. I have talked with family members as I find them. I'm learning history and genealogy on the run!!

This is a tricky challenge!

You see, Zisel came to Australia by himself in 1885, but his name (Zisel Novozhenets) was spelled phonetically (for the person writing it down, I can imagine them not hearing it properly fifty times, and just giving up). Zisel would have been educated in a Hebrew school back home, and though he could speak Polish and Yiddish, with a bit of Russian, he would not have had much English (least of all a way to spell his surname in English).

So his name is one of the tantalising, nebulous mysteries of my research so far. He changed it after he got to Australia, but there's nothing to say how he got the new name. Back then, you didn't need to change it by Deed Poll, or change your birth certificate or passport. Back then, you were lucky to have documents showing who you were. No, he just needed to live life with the new name. "Hello, my name's Bob Cohen." "Oh, nice to meet you Bob. My name's Hans Sussman, but you can call me Cecil." Yep. That's all you needed to do.

Then, in 1887, Hannah came to Australia with the first three kids, with the new surname.

I've used Trove to find information on their lives here in Australia. I can see from this, that they settled on a farm outside Taree. Zisel (now Hans Cecil Sussman) applied for a cattle and horse brand, had bream and prawns in the creek on his property, and they had a hall for parties. There were "Fancy and Plain" Balls to raise money for charity, that were advertised in the papers. They were outraged about the Boer War (that might have had something to do with Zisel's brother Yankel settling there with Riva and their kids). All this in newspapers. It made me think about our lives now, and what we put in the "papers". It's all on social media, and I wonder what those who come after us will think of our lives!

I've chatted with a first cousin, a second cousin and a third cousin for more information, because (and here's the reason I don't know much) my Grandma was disowned by her mother for marrying my Graffy. Graffy was Catholic, and Great-grandmother Hannah didn't approve. We were cut off from that side of the family; cut off through the Spanish Flu, the Great Depression, both World Wars. Cut off when my grandparents' second daughter died in infancy. It hurt my father deeply; and rightly so. Grandma only found out her mother died in 1949, when she read it in the paper (excluding her name from the surviving family).

So, this research has been an adventure of discovery for me; a chance to put the past to rest, and the hatchet to be buried. It's been a long time coming. I've learned that my great grandparents were pioneers; tough individuals who bravely launched themselves into very unknown territory. They lost their second son, aged nine, in a cart accident. And then, Zisel died in 1906, aged about 49(ish). He and Hannah had only packed up their ten children and moved to Newcastle in 1903, after getting a licence to run a hotel on the trainline.

B&W tram on left, hotel on right and a crowd of Federation partiers between
The Waratah Hotel, now the Stag and Hunter, Mayfield

The first time I walked into that pub, I got goose-bumpy; feeling I was surrounded by my family.

So, now, I want to write about their lives, from the perspectives of some of the women in the story. Hannah is number one in this tale. I look at her photos and see an incredibly strong woman. My Grandma, Gertie is in there too, and her life holds just as many tantalising mysteries as her parents. I wonder why she waited until 30 to get married, when a marriageable age back then was 18-20. I've been told that she managed the hotel for 8 years after her father died. I'm looking through postcards that her cousins and friends sent her from around the world, to thread together that mystery. She received postcards from Israel, America, and South Africa. It looks as though she had a wanderlust, an insatiable desire to discover other countries and distant cities. And, maybe in there, there was another flame that could not be fanned? Or, maybe, she wanted her mother's blessing .... after all, she knew my Graffy for at least 7 years before they finally tied the knot. How do I know? I read his postcards .... xx

Feel free to like, comment, and share ...

Please remember, if you like what I have to say, please feel free to purchase books and meditations, and to leave a comment! Two happy reviews on Amazon and other online retailers earn subscribers a 50% discount on their next book (if both are purchased from this website).


bottom of page