LITTLE BOY FOUND: The fantastic voyage of a 111-year-old tombstone ends where it began
©2006 Ellen Notbohm. Contact the author for permission to reproduce in any way, including re-posting on the Internet.
Expanded from Ancestry magazine, July 2005
It would be a remarkable odyssey in any age: the century-old headstone of an 11-year-old Jewish boy had been separated from its gravesite for nearly fifty years. On a brittle fall afternoon it came full circle in a one-of-a-kind re-dedication ceremony, having spent the last 35 years in the guardianship of a non-Jewish Portland family. How that family came by happenstance to be stewards of a Jewish child’s gravestone, and how the stone eventually made its way home after more than five decades is a detective yarn that went from dead end to happy ending in the space of just a few days.
August 13, 2003
“Here’s a local ‘mysterious’ story….”
Mom knew I loved a mystery. Attached to her email was a missive from the Jewish Genealogical Society. “JGSO received this message from Stuart Harris,” it read. “If you have any information, please contact Mr. Harris directly.”
“I have a rather odd question,” began Mr. Harris’ memo. “My parents purchased a home in northwest Portland in 1969. In a detached garage was an old tombstone for Willie Senofsky, born April 1880, died April 3, 1892. The sellers of the house said they had found it while fishing. They had made a few unsuccessful efforts to find out where it belonged (probably in the late 1950s or early 1960s), then gave up. My parents owned the house for over 30 years, and when they sold it a couple of years back I was given Willie’s tombstone. I have assumed the Senofsky family was Jewish because the back of the tombstone is written in Hebrew. Any suggestions appreciated.”
Willie’s story melted my insides. Forever 11, he moved right into my heart, in the space between our own 11- and 15-year old sons.
It took only moments to locate Willie’s family in the 1880 census. Willie was born in Oregon. His parents, Joseph and Mira (later changed to Dina), were born in Poland about 1849 and 1845 respectively. Brothers Louis and Morris and sisters Sarah and Bessie were born in New York between 1871 and 1876. Portland business directories for 1890-91 revealed that Joseph Senofsky was a shoemaker with a shop at 11 Morrison Street. The family was boarding several blocks away at 10 Mill Street. Louis was a clerk at E. Meyer & Company, Morris worked for The Sunday Mercury newspaper, and Sarah was a dressmaker.
After that, the trail went cold. The Senofskys, with a new daughter, Esther, but sans Willie all appear in the 1895 Portland census. But there seemed to be no trace of them after that. There was no record of any of the Senofskys, not in any census from 1900 to 1930, in Social Security death records or in the Oregon Death Index, which began in 1903. I had to question whether the family had remained in Oregon. It was heartbreaking, but it seemed Willie could be out there somewhere in an unmarked grave, alone.
Stuart was nine when the Harris family moved from southern California to Portland. The house they bought was up on a hill just outside of town, on an acre and a half. The house was built in 1955 by the people from whom the Harrises bought it, the Joneses. There was a detached garage, and behind it there was a mock grave. “It was like some freshly dug stuff – maybe even bark dust, and the tombstone was underneath the eave of the garage there,” Stuart remembers. Of course the Harrises asked, “What is that??” And the Joneses reply was: “Oh, our boys found this tombstone while fishing.” One of the boys had snagged his line, went out to unsnag it and found it stuck on a big flat stone. They pulled it out and brought it home. Their parents called around trying to find out where it went, had no luck. And the boys, teenagers then, had put it out there just behind the garage and made it look like a grave. Diane Harris moved the tombstone to the garage. “To me,” recalls Stuart, “the ‘woods’ as we called our big backyard, were already scary, without a fake grave. That was a big reason why Willie’s stone was put in the garage—it was spooking us kids.”
August 14, 2003
Wee Willie Senofsky is running upstairs, downstairs through my cerebral landscape. It is impossible not to speculate how an 11-year-old child might have died in 1892. Perhaps, associatively, because of the stone being discovered in the river and the family’s living and working just a block from the river, I imagined an accident – a drowning or perhaps a horse-and-buggy collision. Stuart imagined an illness, perhaps cholera.
The family appeared to have vanished most convincingly. My husband and I carried on an evening of wild conjecture. Had they in fact left the area? Was it for business reasons, or was Willie’s death devastating enough that they simply fled the aching memories? Were they wiped out in the 1918 flu epidemic? Did they change their name? A nationwide search reveals only a scant few Senofskys scattered around the country, and seemingly none with direct ties to this family.
By this time, we were both irrevocably in love with little lost Willie. Finding him had ceased to be an if. We knew it had to be a when.
Stuart doesn’t remember when in his young life he first thought it, but at some point came the realization that Willie someone who had died when he was only 11.
“It was sad. And the way the stone was written seemed different from other stones I had seen: Willie. It wasn’t William.” The inscription on the stone was also somewhat unusual: Sacred to the memory of Willie, beloved son of Mr. and Mrs. J. Senofsky. “The other thing that intrigued me about the stone was the Hebrew on the back.” As it turned out, a boy in Stuart’s fourth-grade class had just begun a Bar Mitzvah lessons. Stuart offered, we have this tombstone with Hebrew on it, and the teacher said well, you ought to bring it in to see if Mike could read it.
“So I put it in a shopping bag and I carried it on the bus – Willie went to school for show and tell!” But Mike was not able to decipher much.
August 15, 2003
An important discovery – documentation of Willie’s death exists in the Oregon Historical Record Index in Salem. The full record should list a burial site. Willie could be going home very soon.
Don and Diane Harris sold their house and moved into a condo around 1997. The children were summoned to winnow down “30 years of stuff.” describes Stuart. “My mother said, someone needs to take Willie, and since I lived just three miles away, I took Willie – and a really nice dining table.
“We put Willie in our garage and there’s he’s been. We’d do projects; I’d be in the garage and see him and think, we really ought to do something. It’s sitting here, and someone must care where this tombstone is.”
August 17, 2003
Ahavai Shalom cemetery is barely a mile from my home. “I walked through the old children’s section of the cemetery today,” I wrote to Stuart. “It isn’t hard for me to imagine he could be there. The section is populated by souls similar to Willie – children who died long before their parents would have been expected to – and there are gaps in the row of stones. The residential neighborhood that is there now certainly would not have been there in 1892. His stone could have been vandalized, dragged off by animals or washed away in a deluge of some sort, ending up in the river.”
The cemetery chapel is usually open, but for whatever reason, on that day it wasn’t. There’s a plot location book right inside the locked glass door. I have the strong sensation of being a walking cliche so close and yet so far.
My father was the founder of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Oregon. He is buried here as well. He’s the real catalyst in all of this. I never did any genealogical sleuthing while he was alive. There was no need; he was doing it. Such is the lot of the genealogist. One to a family! But whatever the chronology, I picked up and carried on his work with our family tree.
And if Willie was here, in this cemetery? It could all end up being very serendipitous. I’m not a channeling sort of person, but on that day I felt it couldn’t hurt. In the 1980s, Dad had researched a book on the history of the congregation. He spent untold hours in that cemetery. He knew every headstone. Is he here? I asked silently, standing very still in the sun next to Dad’s grave. Just tell me if he’s here somewhere.
Ultimately, the impetus for Stuart to make the final push to find Willie’s home came from the same place mine did – his own ancestors. “We went to Tennessee and saw my great-grandfather’s grave,” he tells me. “It was interesting – it seemed like every time my great-great-grandparents read a book, they had a child who ended up with the author’s name. So there’s a George Washington Harris, a Ralph Waldo Emerson Harris, an Edgar Allan Poe Harris – all these Harrises with comical literary names. Then I received a pile of genealogy stuff from my uncle. Kind of like Willie’s stone, it’s been sitting on the floor next to my desk in my bedroom. Willie, I just got to a point where I had to so something about it. Had procrastinated long enough.”
August 18, 2003
The Oregon State Archives turns around the request for Willie’s death certificate via email in less than four hours. Now we know: not by accident or epidemic, Willie died of inflammatory endocarditis, a bacterial infection of the heart.
The document tells me the why but, disappointingly, not the where. Place of interment is stated as merely “Hebrew cemetery.” But field of possibilities has narrowed: there were only two Jewish cemeteries existing in Portland in 1892.
Today, the chapel at Ahavai Shalom is open. The plot book is open. I am able to give the Harris family their answer via email:
“I am so happy to report that I’ve just come from visiting Willie and he has been practically in my backyard the whole time. Willie is buried at Ahavai Shalom cemetery in a marked grave along side his father, mother and brother. He is less than 50 yards from my father, so I have walked past him dozens of times. It is the happiest possible ending. Willie was never lost. He was with family all along, and he is with them now–his and mine!”
It had taken a minute or so of contemplating the plot book to realize that the family buried in the plot was identified as Senosky. No typo. Here was the reason I had been unable to locate family records after 1895: at some point after that, they dropped the “f” from their name and became Senosky rather than Senofsky. (On-line record searches have revolutionized genealogy, but if the database is not soundexed, a variance of one letter can spell the difference between success and roadblock. This case is a perfect illustration.)
Willie’s original grave marker had been replaced to accommodate the spelling change and be consistent with the marker stones of other family members in the plot. How the original stone ended up in the river remains a mystery for now.
Once the name change had been identified, further information about the family cascaded from census records, birth, marriage and cemetery records, obituaries. Four of Willie’s five siblings and their spouses are also buried in the same cemetery, in the spaces between his grave and my father’s. The family had remained in Portland for at least three more generations and had been prominent in the clothing trade, newspaper publishing and music.
Still remaining was the question of what to do with the stone in the Harrises’ garage. It was an alabaster work of art, lovingly worded, beautifully embellished and in exceptional condition. Our rabbi allowed that it was a bit of a puzzler: “I never had such a situation. To my knowledge, there’s no tradition about disposing of gravestones. A gravestone has no sanctity other than to simply mark the place where someone is buried . . . (but) it certainly should not go back in the river.”
But our rabbi emeritus was emphatic about the resolution: the stone belonged back in the cemetery. It would close the circle. The final resting place of Willie’s stone should be . . . Willie’s final resting place.
The last word would be Stuart’s. “Terrific solution,” he declared. Any feelings about giving Willie up, I asked, after all these years? “No,” he told me, without hesitation. “The stone is a great monument but it’s not my monument. What more could I do other than give him a better place in the basement?” he adds wryly. “No, for me it’s interesting enough for me to know about his life. But I’ve always wondered, how did the stone end up in the river?”
How, indeed. No less a sleuth than Sherlock Holmes can only tell us, “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
So the stone returned to Ahavai Shalom cemetery and Willie Senofsky became the rare person whose grave is marked by two stones. Most of the people attending the re-dedication of Willie’s stone on November 2, 2003 were meeting for the first time. Skies grumbling threats of early snow retreated and the sun smiled on a group whose only connection was ageless love and respect for a child who died long before their own parents and grandparents were born. We don’t know much about him beyond his vital statistics. But more than I can convey in the confines of this article, Willie attracted, pied-piperlike, a concentric circle of people who followed the story as it unfolded and truly cared about the outcome of the search. Willie’s is a story about ties forged across three centuries between public records and private feelings, between Jewish and non-Jewish families, between the former and the future in the timelessness of his story.
Willie’s gift to me was a more profound understanding of my father than I ever had when was he was alive. I undertook the search for Willie with a mother’s heart, but I came out the other end of it as a better daughter. During his years with JGSO, Dad tirelessly researched bits and pieces of local genealogy for the far-flung strangers who wrote from around the country, hoping for insights into their Oregon ancestors. There were really two sets of footsteps walking the cemetery that summer day looking for Willie. I’ve seldom been closer to Dad than I was that day, because I finally understood with clarity why we help others connect with their forbears: because every life that was, matters. Especially one that was over too soon.
Halfway around the world, at about the same time Willie’s original headstone was being replaced, the tomb of another long-obscure child was being discovered. The child was King Tut, and the inscription on his tomb read: “To speak the name of the dead is to have them live again.”
Willie Senofsky lives.
I traced several generations of Willie’s family through The Oregonian obituary index at the Multnomah County Central Library. An abridged version of this story appeared in The Portland Jewish Review, asking for contact from any surviving relatives. By nightfall that same day came an email from grandniece Sue Friedman of Portland. Granddaughter of Willie’s sister Bessie, she knew about the siblings born in New York and Portland, but was unaware of Willie’s existence.
Several weeks and a couple of phone calls later, we met for coffee. Sue shared family photos going back 100 years and I shared documents and anecdotes gathered in the search for Willie. We talked, among other things, about how much we frequently do not know about our own families.
A few months later, I was further delighted to receive an email from Sue’s cousin, Shirley Tams. She wrote of being well acquainted with Willie’s brothers, and of the grandmother she never knew, Willie’s sister Sarah, a victim of the 1919 flu epidemic. Of her great-uncle, she wrote:
“Thank you for your interest in Willie. I never knew he existed, but he rests in peace.”