A Search for Roots Leads to the Stars

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Moishe Silberkasten


"In March 1995, I was doing some joint scientific research with a colleague at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. After a long day of work, we went downtown to visit the Mormon Family History Library. I had never been there before."

So begins the genealogical journey of Professor Daniel Wagner. Wagner, a professor with the Materials and Interfaces Department, has been on the Weizmann Institute faculty since 1985.

Natural curiousity, a chance visit to the world-renowned Family History Library in Salt Lake City (which houses the world's most complete collection of family data), and two years of dedicated investigation yielded a family tree whose boughs date back to 1739.
But the twists and turns of how he discovered his family history has more the ring of a Hollywood adventure movie. Indeed, one discovery led to the big screen. It turns out his estranged great­grandfather was one of the stars of Yiddish film.

Wagner suddenly remembers a family anecdote.

"My father always quipped that our family name should be Silberkasten, not Wagner. I never paid much attention to it, actually," explains Wagner. It seems Wagner's great-grandfather had run off to America at the beginning of the century. He left behind a wife, Malka, and their 3-year-old son, David. Malka later married Ben Zion Wagner, who formally adopted David, Wagner's grandfather.

"I decided to see if there really was something to the family legend," Wagner continues. "I started searching for the name Moishe Silberkasten, but kept drawing a blank. After several frustrating hours, I was about to give up. Then I decided to give it one last shot. It came to me to try alternate spellings and when I checked out the Social Security Death Index, Sylvia Silberkasten popped up on the screen!"

While Sylvia wasn't exactly the name he'd been tracing, it was close enough to draw him further into his search. Finding this one remote thread, he started his research from scratch, once again scouring databases, census lists and immigration records.

"Then, finally, I found him." After checking hundreds of meters of microfilm, the name Moishe Silberkasten appeared on the list of passengers who went through immigration services in the Port of New York. Back in Israel, Wagner discovered a valuable website which focuses on Jewish genealogy. [See sidebar p.4.] Putting out the word on the site's mailing list that he was searching for Moishe Silberkasten resulted in a response from a woman in Brooklyn. She replied that a Morris (Moishe) Silberkasten is buried in the Yiddish Theatrical Alliance plot in her borough's Mt. Hebron Cemetery.

Crosschecking the New York archives of the YIVO Institute and the Yiddish language Daily Forward newspaper, Wagner learned that his kin was actually one of the Yiddish stage's leading actors, appearing with the famous troupe of Maurice Schwartz.

Every genealogist's dream: The object of Wagner's search springs to life through reviews, interviews and articles, including photos of Silberkasten and his troupe alongside Charlie Chaplin and Albert Einstein. Notes Wagner, "His sudden death on the road in Detroit was considered big news, with full-page articles highlighting his career."

Wagner then scoured a filmography and found three films listed in which Silberkasten appeared. Digging deeper in a second appendix, there was a list of restored movies, including one in which Silberkasten starred. So the next stop on Wagner's contact list was Boston's National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University. Wagner asked by e-mail whether he could see the movie the next time he was in Boston. "They warmly welcomed me to visit Brandeis, but they said that the movie was available on video," relates Wagner, excitedly. "I bought a copy of Vu ist Mein Kind?,  a film in which he'd played.

"Exactly one year after I searched the computer at the Mormon Center in Salt Lake City, I was watching my great-grandfather on the television monitor, alive, speaking, moving...a curious mixture of my father and grandfather, the same voice as my grandfather's."

Truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction. A search that could well be entitled "Where is My Great-Grandfather?" led Wagner to "Where is My Child?"

Real-life drama is enacted 60 years after one Moishe Silberkasten flees family and Warsaw to seek fulfillment on the stage and screen. Until the time when, through the marvels of 20th century technology, he is reunited with his great-grandson, a scientist whose skill lies in the artistry of the sciences. Did Wagner inherit the Silberkasten touch? His colleagues report that he's a first-rate performer, bringing to life his own domain, material sciences.

And this is the story of how Wagner, applying the same meticulous research to genealogy as to science, magically materialized his long-lost great-grandfather.
Genealogical Journey

http://www.weizmann.ac.il/wagner/Family.htm (Wagner's home page) http://www.avotaynu.com/ (Jewish genealogy

http://www.jewishgen.org/ (Best site for Jewish genealogy)

(Excellent for genealogy in general)
http://www.CyndisList.com/ (Fantastic site with 27,000 genealogy links)
http://www.navitek.com/igs/ (Israel Genealogical Society)


Wagner Takes it to the Limit

Why can't we build super-tall skyscrapers or elevators to the moon? Well, for one thing, we don't have the right kinds of materials, substances that would have to be ultra-lightweight and incredibly strong. What material might fit the bill? Carbon-based fullerenes.

They have a quality that makes them particularly attractive to materials science. Because of the strength of their chemical bonds, they can form molecular chains of virtually unlimited size. As such, materials created from fullerene macromolecules are believed to be extraordinarily strong. But saying they're strong isn't good enough.

The question is how strong? In order to be useful for science and engineering, a material's strength must be precisely tested and quantified. Professor Wagner, a member of the Materials and Interfaces Department, is an expert in just that ­ taking the fullerenes to their limit. He has created a unique experimental technique which allows him to probe the strength of the fullerenes.

Mechanically compressing and stretching the material at various levels of stress, Wagner examines the fibers through an electron microscope to see how many cracks are formed. By observing the position and density of the cracks, Wagner determines the strength of the fullerene fibers. So what about that elevator to the moon? Some day, passengers may well hear this: "Going up. Step right in."