Finding Your Family's Ghosts In Your Own Backyard

Oct 28, 2017

Seattle Writer Rachel Kessler started this discussion by reading a passage from an essay she wrote  that was recently anthologized in a book Ghosts of Seattle Past.

“I ride down Yesler every day to get to the library where I research and write. At this point I decided to investigate my own family's history which it turns out is connected to Yesler way and 17th. ‘How far back do you know your family?’ The genealogy librarian opened up the ancestry search engine on the computer in front of us. I knew I had a great-great-grandfather named Herman Kessler. My dad told me that he was a Klondiker and Jewish. I had never paid much attention to these old stories. Several articles in The Seattle Times popped up. The librarian opened the most recent, an obituary. A large black and white photo of a robust older man with round spectacles and a trim Vandyke beard whose deep set eyes and full lips pressed together in a smirk, called to mind my quick talking uncle, my dad's older brother. Although my uncle is much more fun than this silver haired gentleman appeared. His gaze penetrated through the photo emulsion process, the intervening 70 years, the low resolution newspaper scan and accused me Where had I been? Why had I not paid attention? His face was not handsome; puffy yet dignified. ‘Heart attack takes Herman Cussler at 77,” The libraian read the obituary out loud, as I scanned ahead, my heart rate accelerating into a gallop as Herman’s life opened up before us.

‘Herman Kessler, a leader in Seattle's Orthodox Jewish community, died of a heart attack yesterday afternoon in his apartment 2014 Yesler Way. Mr. Kessler was born in Austria and came to Seattle in 1889 and a sailing vessel. He was president of the Congregation Bikur. He was also president of Seattle Talmud, Torah Hebrew School…Honorary pallbearers will include Mayor Earl Millikin, Superior Judges…Funeral services will be held at 11 o’clock Sunday in Bikur Cholum Synagogue, 17th Avenue and Yesler Way.’

‘Your Herman was a big man,’ said the librarian.

‘Yesler Way - that's my neighborhood! I said.

The next day on my ride downtown, I investigated the apartment address from the obit. There it was, on the north side of the street, a three-story block-wide early 1900s apartment building, painted peach with orange accents, across the street from a coffee shop I frequented and Pratt Park. Every day I rode right past the place where my great-great-grandpa died alone on his birthday.

The address of the old synagogue is right where the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute stands. I locked my bike to a stop sign and climbed the stairs to the formal western entrance. The grand building's former life as the synagogue now became apparent in its architectural details. Classical lines. Palladian arched windows and a shallow dome above the square center. This is how bricks and stone say Temple.

Immediately right of the three sets of doors a large polished granite rectangle amidst the smaller cream-colored brick facade caught my eye. I scooted around behind a trashcan and saw text engraved on it.

‘Cornerstone laid May 1915 Herman Kessler.’

Hyas muckamuck for sure.

Without knowing it I had been riding my bike alongside the buildings my ancestors built and died in. Oblivious to my own history, here I am, traveling in these ghosts’ old rutted routes. My great-great-grandfather probably traversed Yesler Way every day and now I do.”

Rachel Kessler spoke to Gabriel Spitzer about how she reflected on that, and what she has learned since.