ISAAC AND BASHA SHENKIN
A Narrative By Gertrude Stein
May 5, 2000


Isaac and Basha moved from Eitkunan, East Prussia (which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and no longer exists as such today) to Minsk after Isaac finished work on the Russo-East Prussian Border. (He was the only Jew allowed to work on the border.) Their daughter, Anna Lida (Lillian “Lilly”), was born in East Prussia in 1889 and Philip (born 1886) and his brothers, Samuel (born 1879) and Isaac, were born in Minsk. To the day he died, Philip was proud to be a “White Russian.” His father died when he was nine months old and his mother (as was the custom of the time) remarried soon after, and her children from her first marriage were left to fend for themselves. Although blind, an aunt eventually took Philip to live with her and Philip worshipped her for the rest of his life. Philip’s mother had three more children by her second husband – two sons, Label and Bernie, and a daughter, Dora. By the time her second husband died, Philip was living in the United States, and he brought his mother, Label, Bernie, and Dora here as well.

Because Philip was virtually homeless for a long while, Lilly’s parents took him in for many years. Lilly always said she first saw and fell in love with Philip when she was four years old and loved him from that time on. As Lilly grew up, she was allowed to work for the only Jewish shop in the area, embroidering beautiful jackets for the officials. She also taught the officials how to shoot. In the meantime, Philip had become a radical and when he was found out, had to leave the country. The Czar had promised the Jews certain privileges and when he broke those promises, the Jews gathered to petition him for what he had promised. As the Jewish people congregated in the courtyard to petition the Czar, they were shot by his Cossacks. Lilly said the only reason she survived was because she was shielded by the bodies of others.

Philip then left Lilly to wait for a Polish farmer to help them cross the border. Instead of helping them, the farmer stole their food and their money and they had to find their own way to the border. From the border they made their way to a ship for America. Philip’s brother, Sam, had already spent a year in England before going on to America in 1902, where he found work as a carpenter and arranged for a place to live, while he waited for his family to join him. Sam and Bessie (Lilly’s sister, born in Russia in 1880 and whom he had married before he left Russia) had three children; two of whom were born in Russia, Pesach Chaim (who later took the name Peter) and Ida (who took the name Elaine). A third child, a boy named Benjamin, was born in America and took the name Bernard (Burt). Bessie said that when she was 16 years old in Russia, she managed a general store – a position of great responsibility for a 16-year old girl.

Elaine married Leon Alterman and they had a daughter, Sonia, and a son, Newton. Burt married Ethel Goldstein, but they had no children. Peter became a builder like his father. He married a gentile woman, Mary Lillian (Lillian) Dove, and they had two daughters, Mary and Irene. Pete, his wife Lillian and their daughter Mary often visited Philip and Lilly, who loved them dearly. Because Pete had married outside his religion, a breech lasting many years developed between him and his parents, Sam and Bessie. Philip and Lilly became surrogate parents to Pete and Lillian and surrogate grandparents to their daughter, Mary. My sister Bea and I grew to be very close to our cousin Mary. We believe that is partly due to two brothers marrying two sisters (Sam married Bessie and Philip married Lilly) and partly because of the amount of time we spent together when young. Although separated for a while, many years later when Mary, Bea and I were all living in Florida, we had more good times together.

Philip and Lilly didn’t want to be thought of as greenhorns, so as soon as they got off the boat in America, they went to night school. They also hired a teacher to help them with their English. Philip studied penmanship until he died at age 74, because although naturally left-handed, he was forced to write right-handed for a long time, which impacted his handwriting. He was way ahead of his years and a wonderful person. When he died, his son Herman cried and said, “Not only have I lost a father, I’ve lost a friend.” I called him my Rock of Gibraltar.

When Philip had saved $500, he opened his own cabinet business. Then he became a builder, building many apartment buildings in the Bronx: Featherbed Lane, Lincoln Towers on the Grand Concourse, two buildings on Morris Avenue, Davidson Avenue, Selwyn Avenue, Gunhill Road and North Street (where he kept his office). All the buildings were six stories tall, with elevators, except the five-story building on Morris Avenue. He also built some private homes in Franklin Square, New York and the Columbus High School in New York City.

Philip was the founder of the Bronx Builders League and became the founding member of the Fenway Golf Club in Westchester, New York because at that time the Fenimore Golf Club did not accept Jews. Philip and Lilly loved music and from the day they could afford it, they always had season tickets to the opera.

Herman (Philip and Lilly’s son) graduated high school when he was 15 years old, but had to wait until he was 16 to enter law school. He won a scholarship to Cornell. Their daughter, Martha, won scholarships to the Sorbonne, Cornell and the University of Mexico. Gertrude went to private school in Pawling, New York and learned to play piano. Bea danced on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera and Hecksher Theatre under the tutelage of Alexis Koslov, a famous Russian dance teacher who had taught the Czar’s children.

Sam and Philip Aginsky both built homes for their families in the Edenwald section of the Bronx. Sam built on Murdock Avenue and Philip built on Hill Avenue. Then, in 1927, Sam and his son Pete built an apartment house on University Avenue in the Bronx (The Towers). Because of the subsequent breech when Pete married Lillian, they did no further building together until 1947, when they healed the rift between them and built two apartments on Sedgwick Avenue overlooking the Harlem Ship Canal.

In the interim, there was very little building going on due to the Depression, so Pete built two liquor stores in the Bronx and hired a man to manage each store. (He said people will always drink, even during a depression!) He bundled his wife (Lillian), child (Mary) and cocker spaniel (Paddy) into a car and set out to tour the U.S., Canada and Mexico, with instructions to his managers to wire him money each week! In 1954, Pete built a large apartment building on Kingsbridge Terrace, also overlooking the Harlem Ship Canal. When it was finished, he and Lillian moved there. They lived there until Lillian’s death in 1969 and Pete’s in 1974.

Burt married Ethel Goldstein and they had long and illustrious careers as anthropologists; Burt at City College of New York and Ethel at New York University. They had no children, but remained very much in love until Ethel died in California in 1990. Burt followed her in January of the Year 2000.

Philip built an apartment building on the Grand Concourse (Lincoln Apartments) and brought his family to live there until he rebuilt the house in Mount Vernon, where we lived for years and where Martha was married to LeRoy Davidson in a beautiful garden wedding. We then moved to Walton Avenue. From there Lilly and Philip moved to Sedgwick Avenue and finally, in 1957, to Hollywood, Florida, where Philip passed away in 1958. Lilly remained in Hollywood until her death in 1972.

Lilly was born in 1889 in East Prussia and married Philip in New York, where all four of their children were born. With the help of the family already in America, her parents and her brothers and her sisters followed her here: Nathan (a builder), Sadie, Max (killed in a building accident), Herman, Mollie, Morton “Moe”, and Herbert. When Lilly’s parents first came to this country with Lilly and Philip, they all lived in Harlem (a very beautiful area at that time) before moving to Merrick, Long Island, New York, where Herman and Martha were born. Bea and I were born in what was then called Four Corners, Long Island.

Martha contracted polio when she was eight years old. After wearing metal braces on her legs, she was operated on at 12 years of age. She had a second operation on her leg in later life, in addition to an operation to remove a brain tumor. A survivor, she recovered from all operations, but her leg troubled her for her entire life.

In Mount Vernon, Martha had a girlfriend whose mother had a brother named Alan Jesse. He was later known as Lionel Stander and had a supporting role in the television series, “Hart to Hart”. I used to spend much time listening to Jesse (as he was called) talk about how hard it was to get into the movies, but when he finally made a name for himself, he didn’t want to know us anymore.

Beatrice and I went to summer camp and went on many tours while there: Ausable Chasm, Niagara Falls and Fort Ticonderoga. Herm went to the brother camp. After that, he would spend each summer working for an attorney until his graduation from college.

After Martha married LeRoy, they spent time living in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and India, getting caught in the War of Pakistan. Martha was the first white woman allowed in Nepal. Their son, Gregory, traveled with them extensively and is now an antique dealer living and working in Bainbridge Island, Washington with his wife Natalie (a CPA) and their ten-year old son, Sammy.

Bea married and went to California to live. She had a son, David, (who died of cancer at age 34) by her second husband, Ralph Landrum.

Philip Aginsky was born in Minsk in 1886 and died in Florida in 1958. Lilly Aginsky was born in East Prussia in 1889 and died in Florida in 1972. Herman Agins was born in New York in 1910 and died in New York in 1988. Martha Davidson was born in New York in 1911 and died in California in 1994. Bea Frankel was born in New York in 1920 and died in Florida in 1988.

Gertrude’s husband, Alan Stein, was born in 1909 in Russia/Poland (the border was always shifting), and won a Purple Heart in the battle of the Remagen Bridge during World War II. When he died in Florida in 1996, they had been married 46 years.

Bessie Aginsky was born in Russia in 1880, came to the United States in 1903 and died in New York City in 1974. Samuel Aginsky was born in Russia in 1879, came to the United States in 1902 and died in New York in 1949. Peter Agins was born in Russia in 1900 and died in New York in 1974. Elaine Alterman was born in Russia in 1901 and died in New York in 1977. Bernard (Burt) Aginsky was born in New York in 1905 and died in California in the Year 2000.