Jan 18, 2023
In Moyshe Kulbak’s novel Zelmenyaner, there is a chapter recounting some of the customs and unique features of the novel’s large eponymous clan in Soviet Minsk a dozen or so years after the Bolshevik Revolution. Among references to geographic locations associated with different members of the family who had moved elsewhere, a place called “Nuyrok” is mentioned: “Aunt Khaye-Matle and her husband have lived in Nuyrok for the last thirty years. America is where she had gone off to, but Nuyrok is where she settled down.” 1 1 Moyshe Kulbak, Zelmenyaner: tsveyter bukh (Minsk: Melukhe-farlag fun Vaysrusland, 1935) 102 (my translation). The scant attention the novel pays to the aunt in some faraway place with a garbled name is par for the course: the text, after all, focuses on the family’s core in Minsk during the years of Soviet modernization and industrialization.
Kulbak’s novel is literary fiction but there are plenty of narratives of Jewish families from the former Pale of Settlement, some of whose members had left for the New World before the revolution and who continued to figure in family lore through stories told by those who had stayed in what eventually became the Soviet Union. The fictional Khaye-Matle is, as it were, a kind of progenitor of most of the United States’ Ashkenazi Jews with origins in the former Pale—and someone never heard from again by her relatives who, having remained in the old country, became Soviet Jews.
But, on occasion, evidence of further correspondence does turn up—even with a century’s delay.
I recently visited Portland, Oregon, to give a talk about my new book How the Soviet Jew Was Made, in which I tackle the question of how those Jews—including Kulbak’s fictional Zelmenyaners—who remained in the former Russian Empire after its collapse, became Soviet.
Sasha Senderovich, How the Soviet Jew Was Made (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2022).
While in Portland, I visited with my cousins. They are a part of a large clan of their own: ranging in age from their late sixties to their early eighties, the four siblings I reconnected with on this trip are all Portland natives—all four still live in town with multiple children, grandchildren, and even some great grandchildren. Their mother was the first member of the family to be born in North America (in Canada), in 1915, shortly after her father Misha’s emigration from Trostianets in Ukraine’s Vinnytsia region, in 1912; she moved to Portland as a child in the early 1920s.
My Portland cousins’ grandfather Misha was the oldest brother of my great grandmother Mira. Misha left the Russian Empire, followed by a brother just below him in age a year and a half later, but six of their younger siblings—including Mira, the youngest—remained in Ukraine. Eventually, World War I and then the Russian Revolution happened, the Bolsheviks took over after a protracted and bloody struggle, Mira and her other five siblings moved from Trostianets to Ufa, in the Ural Mountains in Russia’s interior—likely not long before a massive pogrom in Trostianets in 1919; in her book, Legacy of Blood, Elissa Bemporad writes specifically about the pogrom in that shtetl that year.
Elissa Bemporad, Legacy of Blood: Jews, Pogroms, and Ritual Murder in the Lands of the Soviets (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019) 57-62.
In Ufa, Mira, her siblings, and their—and the newly American Misha’s—parents Shmuel-Leyb and Miriam, eventually lost track of their faraway progeny, probably as early as the late 1930s when correspondence with Western contacts became dangerous for Soviet citizens. The American and Soviet branches of the family—which, by the 1980s, included me—re-established contact during Perestroika. Eventually my immediate family relocated to America, too—about eighty-five years after Misha had left and, according to family lore, planned to promptly bring his parents Shmuel-Leyb and Miriam together with his younger siblings over.
In the house of one of my Portland cousins I saw the reproduction of an old photograph of Miriam and Shmuel-Leyb, our common ancestors. The photo was likely taken in Ufa, in the middle of Soviet Russia—approximately a hundred years ago, in the first half of the 1920s. It’s a studio photo with a kind of stereotypical “old world” backdrop: we can see the onion domes of a small and probably wooden church, a tree, and the top of another building. The way Miriam and Shmuel-Leyb are photographed is strange: given the technology a hundred years ago, it took time to hold one’s pose for an exposure, so it seems like the couple is frozen in the middle of some kind of a melodramatic scene. Miriam looks sternly and, perhaps, plaintively, directly at the camera while Shmuel-Leyb—his outstretched arms planted firmly on Miriam’s shoulders—looks directly at her, as though to support, console, or, perhaps, somehow reprimand her for her excessive sadness. In the foreground, on the floor at Miriam and Shmuel-Leyb’s feet, is a large sack—and it’s likely on account of this sack that the melodramatic scene is captured on camera in the first place.
The story—as told by one of my Portland cousins a hundred years after this photograph was taken—is that the sack on the floor was a package from America that had been sent by Misha. Miriam and Shmuel-Leyb apparently brought this package to the studio to take a picture of themselves with the parcel from their American son. I had never seen such a photograph anywhere before so I don’t know whether this bit of photographic staging was Miriam and Shmuel-Leyb’s own idea or, rather, a convention of the time—invented, perhaps, by other parents who remained in the Russian Empire / the Soviet Union, who received similar packages from their emigrant children from America, and who wanted to send photographs of themselves with the packages back to America as a kind of receipt of postal delivery. Whatever it was, this photograph hangs a hundred years after it was taken in the home of one of Misha’s grandchildren in America, so the image that was intended to acknowledge the American package’s arrival in the Soviet Union in its early years did make it to America, very much acknowledging that the package had, indeed, arrived.
It is impossible to tell what’s inside the sack on the floor that made it from Misha the American by steamship and then train and then probably a horse-drawn cart to Miriam and Shmuel-Leyb. Misha would have heard about pogroms across his native Ukraine in the years after the Bolshevik Revolution; he must have heard or assumed that his parents and siblings had lost their home, become displaced, and lacked basic provisions.
The pogroms that occurred in Ukraine during the Russian Civil War were widely covered in the American press and discussed in the United States; see Jeffrey Veidlinger, In the Midst of Civilized Europe: The Pogroms of 1918-1921 and the Onset of the Holocaust (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2021) 6-9.
The package from America probably contained shelf-stable foodstuffs and, perhaps, warm clothes.
We’ll never know exactly what was inside the sack on the floor. But, perhaps, by way of embellishing this rediscovered family story further, the parcel on the floor—coupled with the befuddling glances of the people who hauled it over to the photographer’s studio—go a long way to show the historical chasm in the experience of Jews from the Pale of Settlement, a divergence of historical trajectories with some family members becoming American Jews and others, Soviet. From Miriam and Shmuel-Leyb’s point of view, perhaps, their son Misha could, after his departure, be accessed only through such a parcel he mailed—while to Misha’s American Jewish descendants, Miriam and Shmuel-Leyb would eventually become the mythologized and sad-looking people who saw the receipt of a package from their emigrant son as an event worthy of a studio photograph. Shmuel-Leyb lived until 1936 and Miriam, until 1943; they both died of old age, far away from their native Ukraine. Both are buried at Ufa’s old Jewish cemetery, the final resting place of many others who, like them, were displaced from the former Pale of Settlement early enough to be spared far more tragic fates during the Holocaust.
In some ways, after seeing this old family photo from a hundred years ago and an ocean (and quite a bit of landmass) away, I see my book How the Soviet Jew Was Made as, in part, a text about what happened to Miriam and Shmuel-Leyb, depicted in this photo at the dawn of the Soviet age, after their son left for America and couldn’t do much more than send them an occasional package.