By Deb Silverthorn
When Pincus Kogutt stepped onto American soil on Dec. 8, 1912, he never could have imagined his family’s future. That future brought to life the concept of l’dor v’dor — generation to generation — as more than 50 of his descendants gathered in Bay City, Texas, to celebrate their history on that exact date, 100 years later.
While the celebration recognized Pincus, who left Mezrich, Poland, to escape conscription into the Russian army, World War I prevented his wife, Leah, and the couple’s first two children from joining him until 1919. Once together in Bay City — located about 90 miles southwest of Houston in Matagorda County — the family expanded to include Albert, Sarah and baby Sam — a longtime Dallas resident who turned 87 years old Dec. 9.
It wasn’t until 1922 that Pincus’ brother Sol could emigrate to the U.S. through Galveston (returning to Poland a year later to marry and come back with his wife, Dora). In 1927 or 1928 — the records conflict — a third brother, Isaac, landed in Buenos Aires during a time when U.S. borders were closed to immigration. There, he met his wife, Elke, and they paved the way for their future family in Montevideo, Uruguay. While Pincus and Sol’s families have primarily remained in Texas, Isaac’s family moved to Israel in the 1960s.
The family gathered Dec. 7 in Bay City, and the next afternoon brought them together at the Beth David Center. As the family, many clad in T-shirts posting a photograph of the Pincus and Leah Kogutt family (created by cousin Meredith Bradley Ramos), shared photos, stories, and research, the sounds of generations’ past seemed to come to life.
“When I was younger, Beth David Center is where we went for Friday night services,” said Sam, the only surviving member of his immediate family, noting there wasn’t a synagogue, with a rabbi or Torah, per se, in town.
Beth David Center was created in 1941, serving Jewish families in Bay City. It was also a spiritual and recreation center for Jewish soldiers stationed nearby during World War II. Bay City residents often attended High Holy Days, bar mitzvahs and other services at the now-defunct Congregation Shearith Israel, nearly 25 miles away in Wharton.
Among the ideas that earlier generations couldn’t have imagined would be how such a reunion would be coordinated. The third and fourth branches of the family tree helped the occasion blossom.
“It was nice to get as many people to come together for an occasion that wasn’t a bar mitzvah or wedding. Those are great occasions, and blessings, but here we had a chance to visit for the sake of just visiting and reminiscing,” said Dallas resident Maury Guzick. He and his daughter, Lauren Laborde, coordinated much of the event after noting Pincus’ arrival date through their research on family history.
“Between great meals, and Saturday’s gathering, lots of information, photos, history and great stories were relayed,” Guzick said.
The senior branches of the family tree — Sam, Reuben Kogut (Sol’s son) and Sid Schwartz (husband of the late Sarah Kogutt Schwartz and, at age 94, the most senior member present) — provided stories of the olden days and advice on lasting marriages and strong families.
“‘Be good to each other,’ was the underlying message,” Laborde said. “It was touching to hear their respect for each other, for their spouses and for the hard work that they’d put in all of their lives.”
The Internet was crucial in organizing the reunion, said Laborde, who lives in Houston with husband Todd and 2-year-old daughter Braelyn, the youngest family member to attend.
“We used Ancestor.com, Facebook, the Yad Vashem website, Skype and email to connect,” she said. “We used scanners and now Shutterfly to share lots of pictures as everyone had pieces to add to the scrapbook.”
The Kogut/Kogutt family tree had 496 entries before the reunion planning began, many researched and posted by California-based Karen Kogut. That number has increased to 578 since Laborde joined the search.
The family tree seems split only in the spelling of the family’s last name. One “t” and two “t” Kogut(t)s abound. History reports that the manifest of the ship on which Pincus traveled had the name spelled with one “t,” but all paperwork after his arrival shows two. The later-arriving Koguts don’t appear to have had the alteration.
“One ‘t’ or two, it doesn’t really matter,” said Sam. “We’re all Kogutts, and we’re all family. That’s who we are.”
On the Saturday night of the reunion, Sam and his wife, Irene, hosted a birthday/Chanukah dinner. Sunday found a brunch and Skype session that connected relatives in Dallas and Israel, as well as those on a cruise in Spain. Some family members traveled to Wharton to visit the Shearith Israel cemetery, which is being tended to by Houston’s Congregation Beth Yeshurun after absorbing the shul in 2002.
“Walking through the cemetery, I realized I knew almost everyone buried there,” Sam said . “Celebrating this weekend with my generation and the three following is something I will never forget.”
“Our family ‘shtetl’ may have spread far and wide from the days of Mezrich and Bay City,” said Laborde. “But during the weekend, we found ourselves back in the day, meeting new relations and rekindling connections with others. My great-grandparents would be proud of how close our family is and how important we feel it is to celebrate that connection and our start in this country.”