Sephardic Jews in Lithuania and Latvia
by Kevin Alan Brook

part 1 in SHEM TOV, newsletter of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Toronto,
volume 32, number 1 (March 2016)
on pages 4 and 7

part 2 in SHEM TOV,
volume 32, number 2 (June 2016)
on page 8

      Records indicate that some Sephardic Jews settled in the northeastern reaches of Europe. In this article, I would like to establish the trajectories of numerous Sephardic families into the Baltic states. Please note that the places discussed are located within the contemporary borders of Lithuania and Latvia but were part of Russia prior to those nations’ declarations of independence in 1918.

      Sephardim had already arrived in the Baltics just five decades after the expulsions from Spain (1492) and Portugal (1497). The Jews living in the city of Vilkaviškis in southwestern Lithuania established a synagogue in 1545 whose Holy Ark held Torah scrolls that some congregants had brought with them from Spain.

      An early Sephardic inhabitant of Latvia was the merchant Jacob Abensur from Denmark who lived in the region called Courland (modern western Latvia) and in the city of Riga (in the Livonia region of central Latvia) in the late 1600s.

      Several generic family names are known to indicate ancestry from Spain and Portugal. In 1885, Rachel Leye Sfard and her husband, Perets Aronovich, welcomed their son Tovya into the world in the city of Kaunas in south-central Lithuania. Golda Sfard lived in the city of Marijampolė in southwestern Lithuania before she married Icko Meerovich in 1846. The Sfards’ connection to Marijampolė and Kaunas continued in later decades. Bliuma Sfard lived there [clarification added October 2016: in Marijampolė] with her husband, Simen Barunski, as of the first half of the 20th century, and their son Judel got married in Kaunas in 1938. A Spanir family resided in the city of Raseiniai in west-central Lithuania in the 1840s and 1850s. Jews with the surname Portugies lived in Vilkaviškis.

      The Sephardic surname Abohab, meaning “donator” in Arabic, transformed into the forms Abugov and Abuhov in Ashkenazic communities. Alexander Abugov was born in 1888 in the city of Šiauliai in northern Lithuania and was working as a merchant when he got his Lithuanian Internal Passport card in 1920. Movsha Shliomo Abugov and his wife, Khaia Ita, welcomed their children, Gdalia and Samuil Abugov, in Vilnius in 1908 and 1912 respectively, although the family was originally from Mahilyow, Belarus. One of the students attending the Jewish Vocational School in Dvinsk (now Daugavpils) in southeastern Latvia had the surname Abugov.

      A branch of the Sephardic Algazi family lived in Prienai, a city in southern Lithuania. Leiba Movsha Algazy and Eliyash Volf Algazy were born in Prienai to Mnukha and Shlomo Algazy in 1827 and 1835 respectively. The couple’s daughter, Ita Algazy, worked as a teacher’s assistant in a Jewish school and married Judel Jablkowski in 1844 in Marijampolė. Szolom Algaze was a rabbi in Prienai in the middle of the 19th century and one of his sons, Eliezer Yitzkhak Algase, served as a rabbi in Balbieriškis, about 41 km away. Other members of the Algazi family were rabbis in Mediterranean region cities like İzmir, Istanbul, and Jerusalem. Two children of Volf Algazy and his wife, Gitka, were born in Prienai in the 1860s, while six children of Khaim David Yedvabnitski and his wife, Mnukha Algazy (daughter of Yorki Algazy), were born there in the 1890s and 1900s. A famous descendant of the Algazys of Prienai is the American actor Robert Downey, Jr.

      Delion, also spelled Dylion, was the Eastern European Jewish version of the Sephardic surname de León. As of 1890, Itsyk Leyb Delion and his wife and two children, Saul Yakov and Reveka, were living in Kaunas, and Itsyk died there in 1913. Families named Dilion were presumably using a different spelling of the same name. Jewish males with the surname Dilion lived in Kaunas, Ukmergė, Rokiškis, and Vilnius during the 19th and 20th centuries.

      Elion, equally Sephardic, was found among Jewish men living in Kaunas, Šiauliai, the town of Kražiai in western Lithuania, the city of Telšiai in northwestern Lithuania, the village of Židikai in northwestern Lithuania, and the city of Žiežmariai in south-central Lithuania during the second half of the 19th century. For example, Yosel Elion, from Žiežmariai, married Khana Leya in Vilijampolė in 1855.

      The potential exists that Litvaks surnamed Zakuto and Zakuta were related to the Sephardic Zacutos of 1600s Poland who were presumably related to the 15th-century Spanish Jewish astronomer Abraham Zacuto and to his kin living in Holland, Turkey, and beyond. An example of a Zakuta residing in Lithuania was Abram Jankel Zakuta of Užventis who died in 1925.

      It is also possible that some of the Maiman and Maimon families in the Pale of Settlement were related not only to the Maimans of Galitzia but also to the Sephardic Maimons of Greece and Turkey. Some Jews with the surname Maimon resided in Lithuania, and as of 1897 the salesman Abram Mowscha Maiman lived with his wife in Daugavpils, the birthplace of their three children, who also resided there in adulthood.

      Alba was used as a surname by both Sephardim and Spaniards. The Jews Movsha Alba and his son Zundel lived in the city of Pasvalys in north-central Lithuania as of 1855 when they were neither able to work nor pay tax.

      A Jew named Yulian Kastro resided in the southern Lithuanian city of Alytus as of 1908. The surname Kastro was also found among Jews in Florina, Greece, and with the spelling Castro among other Sephardic Jews as well as among Sephardic Conversos. The Spanish name Castro translates to “fortress” in English.

      Multiple marriages took place in Kaunas in the 1930s between foreign-born Sephardic men and native Litvak women. Yekhuda Khaim Azoulai, born in Safed, Israel to Itsik Azoulai and Khana Dirkhi, married Khana Glazer in 1930. In 1935, Moshe Alfasi, born in Jaffa, Israel to Meir Alfasi and Chane Khaliv, married Reiza Porozovski, and two days later Abraham Alfassi, born in Jaffa to Rivka and Simon Alfassi, married Freida Salit. In 1937, Shlomo Jousev Adahan, born in Jerusalem, Israel to Josif Adahan and Mirjam Amos, married Rive Pris.

      George Mason, an American genealogist, had learned from oral history that his Jewish 3rd- and 4th- great-grandfathers from 1800s Vilkaviškis with the surname Mozessohn had ancestors with the surname Orabuena and that this line came from Spain.

      Some families in Eastern Europe didn’t preserve their original Sephardic surnames, or the names got daughtered out, and some families didn’t remember that they had Sephardic ancestors and have no documentation about it either. By turning to genetic evidence, we can help uncover a person’s partial Sephardic heritage.

      All of the recent ancestors of Joshua Weinstein, another American genealogist who is a retired psychology professor, were Litvaks who were immersed in mainstream Ashkenazic culture. They lived in the Lithuanian cities of Kėdainiai and Ukmergė and in either Mikališkis, Lithuania or Mikhalishki, Belarus (the latter village is near Lithuania and was part of Vilna province under tsarist Russian rule). Joshua had no knowledge of any Sephardic ancestry prior to testing his autosomal DNA with Family Tree DNA and uploading his data to GEDmatch. On a particular triangulating identical-by-descent segment painted mostly East Mediterranean, he matches fifteen Hispanic people, including a Mexican-American whose roots are all from the northeastern Mexican state of Nuevo León back to the early 1700s at least, well before any Ashkenazim arrived in the region, who were barred until Spanish rule ended in 1821, but Sephardic Conversos were documented to have settled there in the 1500s and 1600s. Additional Mexicans match the segment, plus a Costa Rican. Their shared ancestor must have been Sephardic. Joshua also has five more triangulating segments matching Mexicans and two triangulating segments matching Puerto Ricans. Hardly any Ashkenazim permanently settled in Puerto Rico before the 1930s, as they were prohibited from entering until the Royal Decree of Graces of 1815 and would have been required to swear allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church until 1870, whereas Sephardic Conversos had been there continuously since the early days of the island’s Spanish colony (established in 1508).

      Judith Simon, a co-administrator of the two Iberian Ashkenaz projects at Family Tree DNA, grew up fascinated by the oral history related by her culturally Ashkenazic maternal grandfather, Shaya Brozgol (who changed his name to Sam Gold), that his ancestors on his father’s side included Sephardic Conversos who left Spain during the Inquisition. Brozgol was born in 1892 in Rēzekne, a city in eastern Latvia where his ancestors had also lived during the 1700s and 1800s, and married another Ashkenazic Jew from there. The family’s story of Sephardic heritage led some of Shaya’s cousins to move to Spain. Judith and several members of her family had their autosomal DNA tested, and two male paternal descendants of her Brozgol line had their Y chromosomal DNA tested. Family Tree DNA and GEDmatch provided matches that confirm the story. Judith, her brother, and her maternal aunt Pearl Freed share a triangulating identical-by-descent autosomal segment with seven Latin American Hispanics, and Pearl has several additional segments that match multiple Hispanics including Mexican-Americans with deep roots in northeastern Mexico and a Puerto Rican. The Brozgol Y-DNA lineage is also suggestive of Sephardic ancestry since not only does one of their closest matches (Belarusian Jewish) have an oral history that their paternal line came from the Ottoman Empire, but they also match Hispanics from Mexico and Texas whose most distantly known paternal-line ancestors centuries ago had Spanish first and last names. However, estimates vary widely on when the common Y-DNA ancestors of the Brozgol men and the Hispanics lived, making the autosomal results more definitive.

      Brian Collins’ late father James was never aware he had Jewish heritage, as he had been switched at birth, came home to a Catholic household, and later grew up in a Catholic orphanage. Brian’s 23andMe DNA results and those of his siblings led them to discover that James’ biological parents were Lithuanian Jews from Daugai and Žiežmariai, although some of the earlier generations lived in Lyntupy in the Vitebsk region of northeastern Belarus. Brian’s mother’s ancestors going back centuries were Americans of Irish, Scottish, and English descent following several different Christian denominations. Brian carries a triangulating identical-by-descent autosomal segment that’s shared by multiple additional Ashkenazic Jews as well as a Jew whose recent ancestors all lived in North Africa (Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria). It is known that many Sephardim settled in North Africa after their expulsion from Spain in 1492, although a small number of Ashkenazim did too in the 1500s and after resulting in North African Jewish surnames like Escanasi, Asquinazi, Squinasi, and Esseknasi. Brian’s brothers Ed and John share a triangulating segment of Jewish character with many other Ashkenazim as well as three non-Ashkenazic Mexicans.

Bibliography:

      vital records from the Russian Empire and Lithuania transcribed for LitvakSIG’s All Lithuania Database, litvaksig.org and JewishGen’s Latvia Database, jewishgen.org
      Avraham, Alexander. “Sephardim” in The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, electronic edition, October 14, 2010, yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Sephardim
      Beider, Alexander. A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from the Kingdom of Poland. Avotaynu, 1996.
      Beider, Alexander. A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from the Russian Empire. Avotaynu, 1993 and 2008.
      Beider, Alexander. “Jewish Surnames Adopted in Various Regions of the Russian Empire”, Avotaynu Online, October 2008, avotaynuonline.com/2008/10/jewish-surnames-adopted-in-various-regions-of-the-russian-empire-by-alexander-beider-2/
      Dardashti, Schelly Talalay. “When oral history meets genetics”, The Jerusalem Post, March 30, 2008, jpost.com/Features/In-Thespotlight/When-oral-history-meets-genetics
      Davidi, Joel S. W. “The Difference Between The Sephardic Nosach (rite) and the so-called ‘Nusach Sefard’”, The Jewish History Channel, ha-historion.blogspot.com/2009/02/difference-between-sephardim-and-nusach.html
      Mason, George. November 02, 2008 email archived at archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/read/Y-DNA-HAPLOGROUP-G/2008-11/1225746263
      Salinger, Ralph and Josef Rosin. “The History of Jewish Vilkaviskis: The Earliest Years, 1300-1795”, jewishvilkaviskis.org/History_1300.html
      Yarin, Jim. “Efron Family History: Appendix G”, efronfamilyhistory.com/AppendixG.htm
      Yavnai, Yosef. “I Dreamt of Being a Farmer in Eretz Yisrael” (in Hebrew) in Ayarah hayetah be-Lita: Dusiat bi-re’i ha-zikhronot, pp. 27-44. Igud yots’e Lita be-Yisra’el, 1989.

Kevin Alan Brook is a historian in Connecticut, U.S.A. who has written on Eastern European Jewish themes, the Karaites, and the Khazar kingdom in books and journals and on his website Khazaria.com. His article “Sephardic Jews in Galitzian Poland and Environs” appeared in Shem Tov’s September 2015 issue.

June 2016 update: Brian Collins also has a second North African Jewish match on a different segment. Brian, his brothers Ed and Bill, his sister Gerry, and one of their first cousins and her daughter, along with a second cousin of my mother and several more Ashkenazim share a segment that phases and triangulates with a Jew who was born in Tunis, Tunisia. This Tunisian Jew shows no sign of Ashkenazic ancestry.

October 2016 update: The segment that Joshua Weinstein shares with Mexicans and a Costa Rican is also shared with an Algerian who had a Jewish grandmother from Tlemcen, a city in northwestern Algeria.

October 2016 update: Jules Feldman informed me that the marriages between Lithuanian Jews and Middle Eastern Jews with partial Sephardic roots in Kaunas in the 1930s were probably among the many marriages arranged at that time for the purpose of helping Lithuanian Jews to move to the land of Israel, which at that time was controlled by the British and did not yet have an automatic right of return for Jews from the world to settle in, and that some (but not all) of these marriages resulted in prompt divorces as they weren't motivated by the usual reasons of love or having children together.

Other articles in this series:
Sephardic Jews in Galitzian Poland and Environs
Sephardic Jews in Central and Northern Poland

Disclosure: Compensated affiliate of genetic testing companies and bookstores