A family, a century-old mystery, and a reunion

The Pincus family reunion brought relatives from as far as Israel to a social hall in Leisure world. Photo by Samantha Cooper

Morris Pincus, born in 1866 in what is now Belarus, had three wives and nearly a dozen children. For a reason that none of his descendants is quite sure of, he traveled to South Africa around 1910 and left one of his children — his son Isaac — there in the care of some relatives and never came back for him.

Isaac’s siblings migrated to America at different times. Morris, too, eventually made it to America, after disappearing for several years. But Isaac remained in South Africa, and eventually lost touch with his family, becoming something of a legend to following generations.

But on Aug. 4, some 60 members of the Pincus family came to Leisure World, in Silver Spring, for their first family reunion — traveling from as near as Germantown and as far as Israel.

Jerry Kashtan, of Germantown, was one of the reunion organizers. Inside a Leisure World reception hall, he spread out a nearly room-length family tree, including everything he knew about Morris Pincus’ siblings, wives, children and other descendants. Those descendants scanned the tree, and placed sticky notes like yellow leaves on its branches, correcting the spelling of names, dates, or adding missing relatives.


A genealogy hobbyist, Kashtan built the tree of family information and photos with his first cousin Marion Rosenburg, of Leisure World.

“As a kid growing up, I had an [immediate] family and I got curious,” Kashtan said. ”I’m not a genealogist, I’m more of a collector of names and people. Marion and I went back and forth and exchanged information and a lot of years passed.”

They eventually hit a wall with their research, especially when it came time to dig up information on their mysterious South African relative, Isaac Pincus. When DNA testing sites like 23andMe hit the market, the two cousins were back in business.

Then there was “an explosion of information,” Kashtan said. Members on both sides of the family — the Americans and South Africans — eager to find their missing relatives, had ended up taking this test.

At the reunion, each Pincus descendant wore a name tag marked with the part of the family tree they belonged to — which Pincus wife and child they were descended from.

With soft drinks and bagels, they went around introducing themselves and discovered connections they didn’t know they had: attending the same summer camp, mutual friends or even living in the same city for years without having met.

“It’s great. You can just go up to anyone in the room and say, ‘I’m your cousin,’” said Marcia Chester, Morris’ great-granddaughter from his first marriage.

Phyllis and Nancy Balto, from Minnesota, had taken a DNA test before a trip to South Africa in 2017. They knew they had relatives there, and hoped to meet them during their visit. They didn’t. But in 2018 a match turned up: Steve Kroser.

Kroser is the grandson of Isaac, whom Morris Pincus left behind in South Africa in 1910.

Kroser had moved from South Africa to Israel and then came the United States in the 1990s. He knew had relatives here, but didn’t know where to begin his search. He hoped that genetic testing would help him find them. He got than he expected.

Two of his relatives even live in his home city of Pittsburgh.

“It’s fantastic,” Kroser said. “After living for years in this country where my only relatives were my two children. Suddenly, I have all this family. It’s opened a whole new window.”

He soon made contact with Kashtan, and the two men started a Facebook group to connect all their relatives and to share stories and photographs. Then they decided to throw a reunion.

Because so much of the family lives Maryland and Washington, they decided to hold it here. At first, Kashtan thought the reunion would be small, 20 people at most. The family’s Facebook page now has 80 members. And there is a possibility for more reunions.

“Next year in Jerusalem,” some of the Pincus descendants told their Israeli relatives. They’ll have to meet again, Kroser explained. There’s still much family history shrouded in mystery. They still don’t know why Isaac was left behind, or where Morris disappeared to.

“Most importantly,” Kroser said, “we’re going to stay in touch and keep digging.”

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Twitter: @SamScoopCooper

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