I pieced together the basic Bierman family tree after interviewing dozens of Biermans and Bermans around the United States. The earliest member of the family I was able to identify was Jacob Bierman, who was born sometime before 1824 and died before 1861. Jacob married Shifra and had, by my count, five children: Isaac, Sherna (Jennie), Herschel, Fredel (Frederick), and Shifra (I do not know why Shifra had the same first name as her mother, as it was strictly forbidden to name a child after a living parent; perhaps her mother died in childbirth). I am not certain in which order the five were born. At least four of them emigrated to the United States in the late-nineteenth century.
There has been some hesitation among members of our family to accept that Fred Bierman was indeed one of the sons of Jacob Bierman. The idea that the two may have been related has been floating around Saint Louis and Minneapolis for decades, and so I decided to investigate the question directly. I have come across three facts that confirm Fred was indeed Jacob’s son. First, in her family genealogy Joy Marcus claims that Sam Bierman, Fred’s older son, is Herschel Bierman’s nephew. That would make Fred and Herschel brothers, and we know for a fact that Herschel was Jacob’s son. Second, according to Arthur Bierman, at least two of Herschel’s children, Motel and Mechel Berman, were present at the wedding of Sam Bierman and Hattie Grossman in 1906. This proves that Fred was closely related to the other St. Louis Biermans. Third, Rosalee Borus, in a 1995 letter to Joy Marcus, stated that Fred sent his boys Sam and Ike to live for a period with Mechel Berman at his farm near Minneapolis. I believe this is enough proof to include Fred as well as his sister Shifra among Jacob’s children.
Daniel Bierman, the son of Moshe (Morris) Isaac Bierman, who was the grandson of Herschel, claims that “Bierman” was the original spelling of the family name and that it derives from the family’s one-time trade as innkeepers (bier = “beer”). (Is it possible that the Biermans were somehow involved in the brewery at nearby Yampol? It is not to be ruled out that it was actually the family business!) Daniel’s hypothesis makes sense since his father Morris, born in Minneapolis in 1893, changed his name from “Berman” to “Bierman” when he became an adult, insisting that the latter was the family’s original name. Meanwhile, Morris’s father, who had immigrated from Europe, retained the name “Berman” his entire life. In addition, I know for a fact that at least two children of Jacob Bierman—referred to by Bermans as “Jacob Berman”—carried the Bierman name. They were Fredel and Shifra, and they traveled to St. Louis, Missouri together and started a new life there.
On the surface it would seem that the U.S. Immigration Service haphazardly assigned the name “Berman” to many members of the family as they arrived, which would explain why the Biermans and Bermans are in fact the same family. However, the reality is far more interesting. Jordan Bierman, a patent attorney in Scarsdale, New York and the son of Herschel (Harry) C. Berman (17 Mar 1892-6 Oct 1970)—who in turn was the third child of Jacob Dov Berman, son of Herschel—related to me a fascinating anecdote. His father Harry told him that the Biermans were originally brewers in Germany. The story goes that one day a Bierman committed murder and the family was forced to flee to the Russian Empire, where they settled in Kornitsa. Upon their arrival they immediately changed their names to “Berman” in order to conceal their German origins. A few generations later, in the United States, Harry and his brother Morris (see preceding paragraph), in the period around World War I, changed their names “back” to Bierman. Thus, there seem to have been Bermans in Kornitsa even before anyone emigrated to America. If Jordan is correct, “Berman” is not simply an Americanized form of “Bierman”, but a Russian disguise contrived in order to evade the long arm of the German authorities!
John Marcus, a first cousin of Daniel Bierman, told me that in Ukraine the Biermans had a wayside inn with a brewery, confirming and adding credence to what Daniel and Jordan reported. There was a legend that the Biermans did not drink water, only alcoholic beverages! Perhaps the Grossmans and Biermans first became acquainted when a Grossman spent the night at the Bierman inn as he was passing through Kornitsa. The question makes for interesting speculation!
Let us now turn to Jacob and Shifra’s five children. I have no concrete information on Isaac Bierman (Berman?). In the 1890 Minneapolis directory I found a cigar salesman named Isaac M. Berman, living and working at 703 ½ Washington Ave. S. In the 1895 directory there is a baker named Isaac Berman, probably the same man, living at 1115 Washington Ave. S. Between 1905 and 1915 he lived and worked at 1501 S. 5th Street with three people, presumably his children, Marie, Blanche and Meyer. However, I cannot be sure that this is the same Isaac, son of Jacob, under consideration. Indeed, I am not even certain that Isaac emigrated to America.
As for Sherna “Jennie” Bierman, not to be confused with the Jennie Berman who married Louis Grossman, I have only her name and nothing else. I cannot confirm whether she went to the United States, remained in Ukraine, or ended up in another country.
Herschel Bierman was born before 1840 and died in Kornitsa sometime after 1875. He must have been an honored man because three of his grandchildren were named after him. He married a woman named Bayla who lived and died in approximately the same period. According to Joy Marcus, Herschel and Bayla married in the 1850s and had twelve children, six of whom survived. These were Chaya Riva (Aug 1856-24 July 1935); Jacob Dov (1861-6 Oct 1912); Mechel or “Michael” (1866-1933); Motel or “Max” (1867/72-?); Aria or “Harry” (1873-1946); and Shaina (after 1874-?). All of them were born in Kornitsa and emigrated to Minneapolis in the-late nineteenth century.
I was able to learn more about Fredel “Frederick” Bierman than any of Jacob’s other children, mainly because he was only 26 years old when he arrived in St. Louis, and then lived to be over 70. Fred (henceforth I will refer to him by his Americanized name) was born in Kornitsa in 1866—this, according to his grandchildren Arthur and Leonard Bierman. There he married Rose “Rachel” Leah Skolnik (sp?) and had two boys, Samuel Lewis Bierman (27 Mar 1886-20 Nov 1965) and Isaac (Ike) Bierman (1891-1961), before emigrating to the United States in 1892. According to Arthur, Fred went together with his sister Shifra, about whom I know absolutely nothing. They fled to America in order to escape from the pogroms as well as the Russian draft. Once Fred showed Arthur a conspicuous scar below his knee, which seemed to have had something to do with his flight from Europe. Francis Yedidia, corroborating her younger brother Arthur’s account, claims that Fred came over as a very young man in order to avoid serving in the military. Arthur is certain that Fred did not bring his wife and children with him, but sent for them not long after he arrived. Unlike his brother Herschel’s children, who ended up in Minneapolis, Fred went to St. Louis, Missouri. Francis claims that he did not even stop in New York, but headed west immediately.
According to Perri, whom I already cited above, most Jews arriving from Europe remained in the eastern United States. However, numbers of them ventured inland to places like St. Louis with the help of immigrant aid societies and government agencies such as the Missouri State Board of Immigrants. As the new immigrants settled down and became established, they sent money back to Europe to help other family members make the journey to America. By 1900, there were about 40,000 Jews living in St. Louis, among whom was Fred Bierman.
In my interview with him over the telephone on March 8, 1998, Arthur Bierman told me he does not know why Fred settled in St. Louis. “He seems to have come not knowing anyone there... Fred was a very tall red-headed man from ‘Kornitzah, Russia’ (spelled by him)... [He] was in the scrap business, incorporated in St. Louis in 1904 as Fred Bierman & Sons. Prior to that time he started out as a peddler. He prospered in his business until the Great Depression.” According to Arthur, Fred taught himself English and easily inserted himself into society, becoming naturalized some years after his arrival. He was highly thought of in the community. He was not very religious as a young man, but became more so as he got older. He belonged to a synagogue called Hamedrish Hagotel (sp?). Leonard Bierman told me that Fred went to shul on Saturdays.
Fran Bierman Yedidia, born 1908, photo circa 1913
I interviewed Francis Yedidia at her home in San Francisco on March 3, 1998. According to her, Fred was about 6’2” tall, with red hair, like his son Samuel. In St. Louis he made his money in the waste material business. She does not know whether he arrived poor and uneducated or not, but he started the business as soon as he came, right away, and worked until the day he died. With his earnings he brought over many of his relatives from the Old Country. “He was known in the family as one who was interested in helping. And he was fun... He was very jolly. Loved to have fun, take his kids to the movies, feed them things they weren’t supposed to have—candy.” Francis asserts that he did not speak Yiddish at home, but knew it quite well. He could also speak a little French. He was very enterprising and well known in the business community of St. Louis. Fred Bierman & Sons bought metals from steel companies and other firms and then resold them. The company came to be quite large. They did a lot of business with the railroads. When Francis was a little girl she loved to go to his office and “play office”. Fred and his family lived on West Bell in a big house with post horses out front. “It was an old house—a rooming house—with a garden out back and fruit trees.” Trains passed through his back yard. One day in about 1937 Fred went to the office after having his beard trimmed, which he always did on Thursdays. Tragically, he was killed by a switch train that backed up as he was walking across the tracks.
Of the five children of Jacob Bierman, the most significant as far as the Grossman family is concerned are Herschel, Fred and their respective wives, Bayla and Rose. Several of their descendants married Grossmans in both Volhynia Gubernia and the United States.
I shall now focus on the six children of Herschel and Bayla, all of whom carried the name Berman and lived in Minneapolis. (Could it be that Herschel was the one who committed the infamous crime in Germany?). The oldest of the six, Chaya Riva Berman (Aug 1856-4 Jul 1935), married Jacob Grossman (Dec 1855-27 Feb 1934) in 1873, probably in Sudilkov. This was the first Grossman-Berman union of which I am aware, and the first in a long series of such unions. As I stated above in the chapter “Town of Origin”, Jacob emigrated to the United States in 1892, followed by his wife and five children in 1895.