A Philadelphia private investigator becomes one of the region’s top genealogical detectives
Fred Blum doesn’t wear a trench coat. He didn’t grow up reading Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. With an effortless smile and a soothing voice, he comes across more mild-mannered math teacher than hard-boiled private eye.
But the 63-year-old is a detective. He wields the kind of analytical mind that’s well-suited to uncovering hidden facts and making connections that others miss. Since 1988, he has been licensed by the state, in accordance with the Pennsylvania Private Detective Act. His firm, B&R Services, is highly sought after by attorneys, primarily those for the defense, who need to track down witnesses who can help their clients’ causes — think Kalinda Sharma on The Good Wife — minus a lot of the sensational drama and the boots.
During the first 30 or so years of his professional life, his hobby had been fixing up antique cars. But in 1998, his path took an unexpected turn when a chance encounter with a distant cousin awakened within him a passion — an obsession, really — with genealogy. And who better to unearth the past than an honest-to-God private investigator?
Since then, Blum has scoured archives, traversed continents and maintained a constant presence on the Internet to construct a family tree that contains hundreds of names and goes back to 1810. In the process, he has tackled the greatest mystery of his life: the story of his maternal grandfather — the only grandparent Blum ever knew — whose past was shrouded in secrecy.
Yet it is what he has done for others that may be more compelling. As president of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Philadelphia since 2005, he has volunteered his time to help hundreds of people — including Philadelphia lawyer Mark Aronchick and Hollywood actress Goldie Hawn — uncover their roots going back generations. In the process, they have discovered vivid details about the lives of the men and women who came before them. On top of that, he has assisted organizations such as the International Red Cross and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum reunite families torn apart by the Shoah.
“I do it because I have the skill,” said Blum, a married father of two grown children. “I have an investigative mind. And I figured, why not help people to reconnect with family? I was able to reconnect my family. It would be nice to do the same for others, especially those who have lived through the Holocaust.”
With websites like ancestry.com and jewishgen.org just a click away and the popularity of shows like TLC’s Who Do You Think You Are? and PBS’ new Genealogy Road Show, there are more people involved in genealogy than ever before, doing the kind of research once almost exclusively the domain of historians.
The roots of genealogy’s popularity
In some ways, Blum’s story is an examplar of this trend. In other respects, the fact that so many people still turn to him for help shows just how complex and painstaking a process genealogical research can be — and how it helps to have a detective on your side.
For many Jewish Americans, an inquiry into the identities and lives of their ancestors provides a glimpse of the modern Jewish historical experience by personalizing much grander narratives. Nearly everyone who does this kind of work ends up looking toward their ancestors for clues about their own characteristics. And one doesn’t have to look far to find real questions about the nature of history and memory in the modern Jewish experience.
For example, someone who really tries to learn about their forebears must be prepared to find out some hard truths and decide whether to pass that information along or keep it in the vault, according to Helen Epstein, whose 1997 book, Where She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for Her Mother’s History, chronicles three generations of family history in Central Europe. It begins with her great-grandmother in the middle of the 19th century and concludes with her mother’s survival at Auschwitz and other death camps.
“Few people have an interest in telling their children that their grandfather was a crook or that their grandmother had a lover. Jews, like all minorities, don’t like to wash their dirty laundry in public,” Epstein wrote in an email. “Similarly, the details of modern Jewish history from ‘the old country’ have often been sentimentalized in America or else totally forgotten. Life was characterized by extreme poverty and misery and helplessness. The history of the Russian pogroms, for example, and their aftereffects on survivors, has not been told well.”
Referring to Yosef Hayim Yershalmi, the late Columbia University historian, Epstein said it may be what he “had in mind in when he argued that the gathering of facts and the shaping of stories into collective memory are inherently at odds with one another.”
In the history of American genealogy, it is hard to overestimate the impact of the landmark 1977 TV miniseries, Roots, based on the book of the same name by Alex Haley, explained Tammy Hepps, a Cherry Hill, N.J., native who is a board member of jewishgen.org and founder of the genealogy site, treelines.com. The story, tracing successive generations of African-Americans, starting with the kidnapped and enslaved West African tribesman, Kunta Kinte, resonated with Americans of all backgrounds, said Hepps. Many Jews, she said, were at that time just secure enough as Americans to want to learn about the world their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents left behind.
The Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Philadelphia was founded in 1979. At monthly meetings, members helped one another get started on what was a very difficult task, considering that most of the records they needed were locked behind the Iron Curtain.
Epstein said that the fall of communism in the late 1980s “made it possible to freely use archives and visit Central and Eastern Europe. It’s hard to imagine in these days of genealogical tourism that it was almost impossible to get to some places behind the Iron Curtain.”
Blum, a tall, soft-spoken man who has an impressive collection of rock-and-roll memorabilia, grew up in the Oxford Circle section of the city in what he described as a “Jewish ghetto.” His father, Max, worked for the city court system and his mother, Beatrice, now 94, was a Philadelphia Police Department clerk. In high school, Blum was hard-working and mechanically inclined but didn’t have much interest in books. When he graduated from Northeast High School in 1967, college was the furthest thing from his mind.
Instead, he got a job at a company that filed court documents for lawyers. Though he was just 17, he soon was asking himself why he didn’t set up his own similar business. He founded B & R Services, which at first focused only on document filing but later expanded to include private investigative work. Today, Blum and his partner, investigator Diane Cowan, employ 35 people. The firm is based out of a building Blum owns on 13th Street near Locust, in the heart of what is now known as Midtown Village.
Sure, he works for lawyers, but what about, say, if someone comes to him and wants to know if their spouse is cheating? He won’t do it. “Nobody is ever happy,” he said. “If a woman suspects her husband is having an affair, and we find out that it is true, or not true, she is still not going to be happy.”
The germination of a calling
Through his work, he has had contact with some of the most well-known and powerful lawyers in the city, including Lewis Katz, the onetime owner of the New Jersey Nets who is now part of the group that owns The Philadelphia Inquirer. Katz is a major funder of Jewish causes, including two JCCs in the Garden State that are named for his parents, Betty and Milton Katz.
Back in 1998, Blum’s company was hired by Katz’s law firm as an outside contractor. When he once happened to see Katz in his Cherry Hill office — Katz was almost never there — Blum mentioned he recalled his parents telling him the two were distant relations. Katz was intrigued and asked Blum if he could find out the details. This was the beginning of Blum’s genealogy odyssey.
He was inexperienced and it took him about four months to crack the case. He consulted census records, interviewed family members and even hired a researcher in Ukraine. He learned that Meyer Blum, who was Katz’s grandfather, and Blum’s grandfather, Alec Blum — both of whom died before Blum was born — were technically half-brothers who were raised as full siblings.
Blum began researching his father’s family. But he soon decided that, with his mother, Beatrice, still alive, he really should be looking at her side of the family.
Besides, her father, Jacob Schrage, was the only grandfather he had ever known. Blum remembered Jacob as a kind, attentive man with a Yiddish accent who spent his life going from job to job, never really finding success. Schrage died in 1969 at the age of 82, when Blum was 19. Blum recalled being upset at the time, but it wasn’t until decades later that he really understood that his last, best link with the past was gone.
“My grandfather came to the United States in 1913. He hardly knew anybody. He didn’t speak the language. He left an area where the Jews were hated. He went and started a new life,” said Blum. “Believe me, I wish I could talk to him. I wish I could have conversations with him now.”
Schrage had always told his four children that he was born in Vienna, his mother died in childbirth and his father remarried a woman with six children. He said that his family didn’t want him and, when he was 13, sent him to live with an uncle in Leipzig, Germany. Schrage said he never had contact with his father or stepsiblings again.
Blum began by working off a family tree his uncle Leon had put together in the 1980s. He flew to Salt Lake City to do research in the Mormon Church’s Family History Library, though he later learned he could have gotten the same information at the National Archives in Philadelphia. (The Church of Latter Day Saints is well known for keeping genealogical records. One of the major tenets of the faith is that the dead can be baptized, so it is common practice for Mormons to look at their own family trees, as well as other family trees — including those of Jewish families — to search for individuals who were not baptized.)
Through a complicated series of twists, turns and false starts, Blum discovered that the only true part of Schrage’s story was that he left home at the age of 13. He had troubles with his father and was sent to live with his uncle Samuel to learn the fur trade. He wasn’t born in Vienna, but rather in the town of Radziechow, in what was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but which today is situated in western Ukraine. (Learning the name of an ancestral town is an important step in the process and can unlock many other doors.)
He also learned that his great-grandmother most certainly didn’t die in childbirth and that his grandfather actually had eight younger siblings. Schrage had denied his own family. It was as if he had erased his past and, decades later, his grandchild was trying to recreate it. What would cause someone to tell such a lie about his past, and to cut off all ties with family members?
That kind of answer wouldn’t come from records or archives, but from talking to real people. Through his research, Blum not only heard for the first time that many family members perished in the Holocaust, but that there were more than a few he had never heard of who survived. He learned that Jacob had an elderly sister living in Rehovot, Israel, a cousin living in Winnipeg, Canada, and that a man in Long Island named Joseph Deschrage was the son of Jacob’s younger brother, who was known as both Abraham and Adolph. He was born Josek Schrage and died in 2011 at the age of 94.
Already a married man, Joseph spent 20 months of the war hiding in the forests outside Radziechow. Driven to the point of madness by the isolation, he slipped back into the town and was hidden for about four months by a Christian couple, the Tokarskis, whom he had known before the war. (Blum visited Zosia Tokarski in 2002 and, in 2003, shortly before she died, she was visited and honored for her deeds by a representative of Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial.)
Joseph and his future wife met in a displaced person’s camp after the war. They moved to the United States and had two children but, according to Blum, had an unhappy marriage and divorced years ago.
When Blum first contatcted Deschrage in 1999, the older man got quickly and brutally to the point: He blamed Blum’s grandfather, Jacob, for the family’s inability to emigrate and, consequently, for their deaths in the Holocaust.
Undaunted, Blum and his mother drove to New York to meet Deschrage, who began the meeting in an accusatory fashion. As the three started eating, though, they warmed to each other. Deschrage told them a version of the story they would hear from other newly discovered family members as well. Jacob had tried to go into business for himself, but he got badly in debt and faced financial ruin, or worse, if he didn’t return the money. As Deschrage told it, Jacob borrowed the money from Adolph, Deschrage’s father. He repaid his debts, left the country in 1913 — and they never heard from him again. The family, Deschrage said, was never able to financially recover and, three decades later, most members perished in the Holocaust.
Did it happen like that? Were parts of Deschrage’s story true? Despite all Blum’s skills, he has had to reconcile himself to the reality that he’ll never know the whole truth.
“It’s something that I just store away. I’m never going to be able to get the answer to that,” he said. Meanwhile, he and Deschrage developed something of a father-son relationship. “My mission with Joseph was to show him that the descendants of Jacob are good people. I ended up giving him great peace because he learned about my family. He became very special to me.”
This experience was so powerful that Blum kept devoting more time to genealogy, to his own research, to the society he has led since 2007 and to helping others.
His journey took another unexpected turn in 2005, when he saw an advertisement in the Jewish Exponent. The International Red Cross was trying to help Holocaust survivor Shlomo Adelman locate his father’s sister’s family. Adelman, who lives in Israel, knew that his aunt had immigrated to Philadelphia in the 1920s, but he had had no contact whatsoever with that branch of the family since 1941.
Blum decided to lend his skills to the effort. He went through census records, Social Security death indexes, city directories, passenger-arrival indexes and naturalization records. Within two weeks, he had found Adelman’s long-lost cousin, Bessie Zauber, from Ventnor, N.J.
Since then, he has cracked more cases for the Red Cross and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. In 2011, the museum launched the Remember Me project, an effort to use social networking and crowdsourcing to identify and locate more than 1,000 displaced children who were photographed after the war by various relief organizations to help find their families. Many of these images are now part of the museum’s collection.
“These children are the youngest survivors of the Holocaust,” said Jude Richter, director of the project. “We wanted to do what we could to locate them to document and record their story for future generations.”
So far, they have found 360 survivors in 14 countries. Blum is responsible for having located about 20 of them, putting him in second place behind a Canadian volunteer who had been hidden in France during the war. Among those Blum located was Tibor Munkcasy, now known as Tibor Sands, who remembers the original photograph well. It was taken at Kloster Indersdorf, a displacement camp near Dachau, Germany; the image was used for his passport to England. Munkcasy’s brother, Martin, was a prominent photographer for Harper’s Bazaar who eventually succeeded in bringing Tibor to the United States.
When Richter first spoke with Blum, he gave him three cases to look into. “He found them all within a day,” Richter recalled. “This is somebody who has access to information that we don’t have access to, and he has a skill set that we don’t have. He understands how to approach survivors — he has everything you could want for working on this kind of project.”
Creating future heirlooms
Blum rarely turns down a request from anyone who asks for assistance in a genealogical quest. On his own dime, he has accompanied his good friend Mark Aronchick — a well-known Main Line attorney and power broker in the Democratic Party — to search records in Utah and New York. Among other discoveries, they have found a photograph from Aronchick’s great-grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary and are using the image as a kind of Rosetta stone to identify other family members.
“We’ve really come up with a lot of good stuff,” Aronchick said. “The more you come up with, the more there is to keep looking for, I hope someday to get to the level he has gotten to with his own family.” Noting that he learned one of his cousins was a founder of an amusement park, he said, “You can’t stop with these stories after awhile. If you have any interest in where you came from, it’s too fascinating.”
With genealogy, Blum likes to say, one is never finished. That sentiment echoes the thought from Pirkei Avot, a tractate of the Mishnah, that one is not required to complete the task — but neither may one desist from it.
Bryan Schwartzman is senior writer for the Jewish Exponent. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.