By Stacey Dresner
EAST LONGMEADOW – When Amy B. Cohen’s grandson Nate was born in 2010, she began to think about her family roots.
“I distinctly remember, after the elation of having a grandchild, looking at him and thinking, Oh my God, will I live to see him grow up? It was the first time my mortality just smacked me right in the face,” she says. “My parents came to the hospital when he was born and I realized these are his great-grandparents, and I thought, what’s he going to know about them? How long will he get to know them?”
Cohen realized that she knew almost nothing about her own grandparents and nothing at all about her great-grandparents.
“I decided I should learn about them and write it down so that my grandson would know something of his history.”
Cohen soon embarked on an in-depth genealogical search and started a blog to share her findings.
Her research led to her novel, Pacific Street, “a mix of fact and fiction,” based on the lives of her mother’s maternal grandparents, Isadore and Gussie.
Pacific Street takes place between 1899 and 1915. The action occurs primarily in New York City although it also covers Isadore’s childhood in Romania and his escape from the oppression he and his family faced in that country.
While Gussie was born in New York City, her parents were born in Poland, and she faces the problems many children of immigrants face, being the bridge between her parents and their new country.
Although the skeleton of the story was inspired by Cohen’s genealogical research, much of the story and the characters in it are fictional.
“This is a story for our times — a story that is appropriate for adults as well as young adults,” Cohen said. “It illuminates the risks and the struggles faced by new immigrants and shows not only what America provided to them, but also what they contributed to America.”
Cohen herself grew up in Westchester County, N.Y. She moved to Longmeadow with her husband in 1983 and they raised their two daughters there, attending Temple Beth El.
An attorney, Cohen taught law at Western New England College for 32 years, but she says she always loved writing.
“From the time I learned to read I wanted to write a book. I used to write short stories when I was a kid. And then I just got busy with school. I did a lot of writing for school but not writing for pleasure,” she said.
Once she retired from teaching, she had time for her genealogical research and to write that book.
But to learn about her ancestors, Cohen had to start from scratch.
“My parents are both the youngest siblings in their family and their parents were the younger end of their families. So everybody else was gone. My aunts, my uncles, my grandparents – everybody was gone. There was nobody to ask and my father – he had a pretty good sense of his family’s general history but not a whole lot – and my mother knew almost nothing. She barely knew what her grandfather’s name was.”
Around the same time, Cohen began seeing commercials for Ancestry.com and television shows like “Who Do You Think You Are” and “Finding Your Roots.”
“I said, ‘Oh, I can do this!’ I did the free trial on Ancestry for two weeks, thinking I just have to spend every spare minute on it and try to get everything done in two weeks. I quickly realized I didn’t know what I was doing and I was making a lot of mistakes.”
She put the project away for a while. But then in 2012, she and her husband, Harvey Shrage, went on a trip to Yellowstone National Park for her 60th birthday. They flew home out of the airport in Salt Lake City where the Family History Library, the world’s largest genealogical library, is located.
“I said, ‘Let’s just go there and look.’ We had an hour before our flight home and I talked to this woman there. It got my wheels turning again.”
Once she got home, she began her research in earnest but it took about a year for her to find a couple of second cousins that she had never known about. “That’s how long it took. It’s not something you do in two weeks. But I was hooked.”
She spent that first year only searching for her mother’s maternal side.
“I couldn’t find a lot because they came from Poland in the late 19th century and there weren’t records in Poland and I don’t know Polish,” she explained. “But I found all of these second cousins and we had a reunion in New York City for those who could come. Then I moved on to my mother’s father’s side, then my father’s mother and so on.”
She got some help from well-known genealogist Renee Stein.
“She taught me to look for living descendants. Don’t just look for the records of the dead people — see if you can find out if they have any living children or grandchildren.”
It was her newly-found cousins who inspired her to start her blog.
“They were all really excited and wanted to see what I was finding, so I would email it to them,” she says. “One of the cousins said it would be much easier if you did a blog and we could check the website.”
Cohen’s blog now includes threads from several different branches of her family that she has discovered, and messages and posts from distant relatives also researching the family tree.
“The blog helps me organize my research because once I have to start writing stories about the research I realize, ‘Oh I never checked this,’ or ‘where were they in 1920? I have 1910 but I don’t have 1920.’ So it has been a real help. And I love writing, so it’s been a great way for me to use all those things I really like to do.”
She began writing Pacific Street with the information she gathered about her grandparents.
“There were a couple of things I learned along the way about my grandparents that I hadn’t known before and they struck me as a good story for a book,” she said. “I was writing these biographies on the blog – all non-fiction, basically relying on the information I could find.”
One interesting piece of information she had about her grandfather was the story about how he left Europe.
“My mother knew my grandfather had been 15 when he walked out of Romania, on his own, without parents, without siblings. She didn’t know how he did it, but he always said he walked out of Romania.
“What I learned while doing research was that there was a whole movement out of Romania of people who were so oppressed. So young people started this movement called the “Fusgeyers” who walked together from Romania, through Hungary, through Germany, and up to Hamburg and took ships out to America. I don’t know, but I assume he was part of that movement, so I put that into the book so that I could write about that movement.”
The book also depicts her great-grandparents’ lives in America.
“They both had hard lives and they had a hard life even after they were married,” she said. “But I learned a little bit about their personalities and I wanted to bring them to life. Again, my grandchildren were my motivation. I wanted to write this not for [grandsons Nate and Remy] now, but for when they are teenagers. I wanted to tell the story of my grandfather coming to America, my grandmother growing up as the child of immigrants in America, living in New York, and how they met.”
She started writing Pacific Street in 2014 after her retirement. She wrote mostly in her home office when she had the house to herself, sitting down at 8 a.m. and writing all day. During the summer when they vacationed on Cape Cod, she would write from the cottage’s front porch. She was often inspired by the stories about Gussie and Isadore – “Sometimes it really flowed and I would be there…I would be them.”
She finished the book in 2016, and found an editor to help her clean the book up and with anachronisms.
“Like the work “Okay.” [The editor] said they didn’t say things like ‘Okay’ in 1900. I didn’t know that,” Cohen laughed.
She self-published the book through CreateSpace, part of Amazon, because she was told that to get a commercial publisher to take it, she would have to change or delete some things – parts of the story that she wanted to make sure were a part of the record. “I wanted this to be about my grandparents not a bestseller,” she said. So far, she has sold 200 copies.
She did hear back from a Jewish book publisher who asked if she would consider rewriting Pacific Street for the 9- to 11-year-old age group. She does plan to do that, as well as write about her father’s maternal grandfather.
“When we went to Germany in the spring, it gave me a visual so I could imagine what it was like being a little boy growing up in this village and then coming to the United States in 1881,” she said. “The next one may be a conglomeration of stories about these German Jews who came in the 19th century, mostly peddlers who became merchants. It is a different kind of story. My father’s family did well once they had their feet on the ground in the United States. And there are some incredible stories I could tell.”
Pacific Street is available on Amazon.com in both paperback and ebook formats at amazon.com/dp/1541170369.