Gospitalnaya and Isaac Babel: fact and fiction

Looking up Moldavanka and Gospitalnaya, it is not long before the name Isaac Babel appears. His Odessa stories take place around Hospital Street during the time of the pogrom. There is an Odessa newspaper article that comes up on Google about fundraising for repairs of the Moldavanka courtyard, Gospitalnaya 23, the possible childhood home of a famous Jewish bandit who was thought to be the model for Babel’s Benya Krik,. He was born Moyshe-Yakov Vinnytsky probably at Zaporizka 9, around the corner from Gospitalnaya.

Gospitalnaya 23

Later he took the name Mishka Yaponchik and became an actor. Besides that the early life of Vinnytsky/ Yaponchik seems lost in myth, Babel always insisted that there was never one person behind any of his characters and that everything he wrote was fiction. Even his own life. He loved making up stories and never separated fiction from life. As he made up so many stories about his own past, including the short stories he wrote in the first person which people believed were autobiographical, very little is known about his early life. Possibly he didn’t think it mattered, or it mattered too much.

Isaac Babel

Babel was born in Moldavanka where his father had a farm machinery business. Shortly afterwards they moved to Nikolayev where the family business became very successful. After the 1905 pogrom, Isaac was sent back to Odessa to enter the Nicholas I Commercial School, open to Jewish guild merchants’ sons, and to live with his aunts and grandmother on Tiraspolskaya St in Moldavanka. His parents returned the next year and lived at 23 Dalnitskaya St, before moving to 17 Rishelyevskaya Street, in the centre, where his father had his business, around the corner from the Brodsky Synagogue. Because of the Jewish quota Babel was unable to attend the University of Odessa and went to the Business Institute in Kiev. This much of Babel’s life is well-known and fairly factual.

17 Rishelyevskaya Street

If there had been stand-up comics in 1920s Russia, Babel would have been one. He loved pranks and acting parts, the more absurd the better. Walking along the street he would suddenly begin to act the part of someone with a limp or a partially paralysed leg. Or begin coughing or groaning, simply to see the puzzled looks on people’s faces. And because he enjoyed acting. Possibly it was simpler than trying to be himself, which, in the days of Stalin, was a difficult thing to do as so much needed to be hidden. Fiction was easier than truth when everyone needed to hide their thoughts.

One source about his life are his letters, many of which were written to his sister who had left Russia for Belgium in 1925, and his mother who joined his sister in Belgium in 1926. His wife, Evgenia Gronfein, a painter and daughter of a Kiev merchant, who he met when he was studying in Kiev and married in 1919, also emigrated to Paris in 1925, at first with Babel. He spent time with her there in 1925 and 1927-1928 but felt he could only write back in Russia.

His daughter, Natahlie, was born in 1929 and he was not able to see her until she was three years old in 1932. In that year he met Antonina Pirozhkova, a young engineer working on the Moscow subway, who later became his ‘wife’ and had his second daughter, Lydia, in 1937.

Antonina, Lydia and Isaac

Babel saw Nathalie for the last time in 1935 when he attended the Antifascist International Congress of Writers for the Defence of Culture and Peace in Paris. He had had a son in 1926 to an actress in Moscow with whom he had had a long affair and who was the cause of his wife’s emigration to Paris. It was not until the 1960s that Nathalie went to Russia and met her sister and brother, whose existence she had only discovered when she arrived in Russia. In 1964 Nathalie wrote in the introduction to her father’s last letters The Lonely Years 1925-1939, “I grew up wishing that someday, somewhere, a door would open and my father would come in. We would recognise each other immediately and without surprise, without letting him catch his breath, I would say: ‘Well, here you are at last. We’ve been puzzled about you for so long. You left behind much love and devotion, but very few facts. It’s so good to have you here. Do sit down and tell us everything.’”

As Babel had to hide his thoughts about what was going on around him in Russia, the letters themselves cannot be honest and are certainly not revealing. They are mainly about everyday matters, his and his family’s health and endless plans to try and meet up. He also did not write to his mother and sister about his new wife in Russia, as they knew his first wife and daughter in Paris. Babel was always trying to escape from Moscow to the country where he could concentrate more on his writing and he particularly loved returning to Odessa. He had bought a piece of land on.the coast hoping to build a dacha there, but his last trip to the south coast was in 1936, from where he wrote several letters that he was working on a very personal work with a new style. He hoped to finish it within the year, but the book never appeared and he was arrested in May 1939, having written no more than a few stories since 1936. He was shot in January 1940, although his family did not know for many years.

In 2003, Robert Rosenstone wrote a novel, King of Odessa: a novel of Isaac Babel, imagining Babel’s 1936 summer in Odessa and the novel he was working on. Like Babel, it is a novel of jokes and farce, of sex, spies, crooks and serious thoughts about life and love. He uses the letters, documentary evidence and Antonina’s memoir of his final years and her search to find out what happened to him (AN Pirozhkova At his side: the last years of Isaac Babel, 1996). I think Babel would truly have liked to have been able to write honestly about his life but it was not possible to get beyond the silence and distrust of the time. On a 1935 visit Babel made with his wife Antonina to Odessa, she writes that she asked him what he was thinking about as he paced back and forth in his room, and he answered with a sweeping gesture, ‘I want to tell about all this… and use the minimum words, but nothing seems to work.’

Photos of Moldavanka

Leaning shed Moldavanka

Moldavanka gate

Moldavanka courtyard

 

 

 

 

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Ulitsa Gospitalnaya (улица Госпитальная) or Hospital Street

When I was writing about Malaya Arnautskaya, the Weitzmans and anti-semitism, I puzzled over the problems I had finding the street at the beginning of Malaya Arnautskaya running parallel to the coast, called Belinskaya on several websites, until I finally discovered that it was called Leontovicha on modern maps. Then I realised that possibly people carry on using the old names if they prefer them. And I wondered about other name changes in the streets of Odessa which I had noticed on various maps and whether any had been influenced by the 1905 pogrom, for instance the central street Evreiskaya or Hebrew Street. This was changed in 1908 to Skobelevskoi or Skobeleva (Скобелева). Another street in central Moldavanka where many families in the pogrom death records lived, and in the area investigated by the police, was Ulitsa Gospitalnaya or Hospital Street, the street of the Jewish Hospital. It is now Bohdan Khmelnytsky Street (Богдана Хмельницкого). This was also the street with the highest population density in Odessa at that time.

Gospitalnaya 45

Gospitalnaya 7

The first Jewish Hospital was set up in 1802, only a few years after the start of building of the new port of Odessa designed by Catherine the Great, which previously had been mainly a Tatar fort and small fishing port. Before that  there had been a Jewish society for visiting patients called Bikur Holim. In 1829 the hospital purchased a house on the corner of Gospitalnaya and Myasoedovskaya which had 60 beds and one doctor. A new building, the building still in use, was built in 1865.

The Jewish Hospital building

Jewish Hospital doctors 1898

The hospital was closely connected with Jewish life in Odessa. In 1905, the courtyard of the hospital was turned into a camp for the many displaced families whose homes were destroyed. They were provided with free food and medical care. In the highly populated area of Hospital Street, when the police were brought in to quell the pogrom riots, there was a battle between the police and the Jewish defence group where 11 were brutally killed. https://evreimir.com/9198/

Gospitalnaya 1904 (lower left, third street from bottom, upside down with hospital marked) http://www.retromap.ru/show_pid.php?pid=g4039

The name Gospitalnaya or Hospital Street remained from the early 19th century until 1911, when there was a 50th anniversary celebration of the liberation of the peasants from serfdom. Gospitalnaya became 19 February 1861 Street, a name which never took hold, as happened with many of the multiple street name changes over the years. And strangely the name kept ricocheting back and forth between 19 February and Hospital Street. It is interesting to think why this one small street should have been chosen to have its name changed at that time. Did they want to change the Jewish identity of this street?

Odessa 1914 Baedeker 19 February 1861 St

https://archive.org/details/russiawithtehera00karl

This is a rare map in English from the 1914 Russian Baedeker on the eve of World War I and coming revolution. Interestingly, it is also a rare map that does not indicate the Jewish Hospital on 19 February 1861 St or the Jewish cemetery just below the Old Cemetery. It does however mention the Plague Cemetery, which I had not noticed before which is called Plague Hill (Чума Гора) on Russian maps.

 

19 February Street map from 1919

https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/Одесская_ эвакуация_(1919)

In this 1919 map, just after the revolution, the individual buildings of the Jewish Hospital are clearly drawn as are the Jewish Cemetery, Old Cemetery and Plague Hill. A map from 1924 was made for the purpose of showing the name changes that followed the revolution. Many of the centre streets have been given names like Lenin and Karl Marx Street and the old history of multicultural Odessa with its Hebrew and Greek Street has been wiped away. Hospital Street has regained its name and 19 February has been written in brackets.

Gospitalnaya (19 Fevralya) map from 1924 http://kraeved.od.ua/map/odessa.php

By 1931 there were more name changes and changes of spelling. The street that crossed Gospitalnaya at the corner of the hospital, Myasoedovskaya, had now become Sholom Aleichem Street. What was Gospitalnaya is difficult to read because the first letter is on a fold of the discoloured map, but the name seems to be лютого, which I discovered is Ukrainian for February, so it has reverted to 19 February Street.

1931 map  http://www.retromap.ru/show_pid.php?pid=g4026

By 1947, the street is again Gospitalnaya. At some point after 1947 there was one more change which has lasted until today. The first appearance I have is a map from 1962 with the name Bohdan Khmelnytsky Street. Bohdan Khmelnytsky was the leader of a Cossack rebellion against the Poles in 1648. He united Ukraine and was considered a saviour but also tried to rid the area of Jews, killing tens of thousands and destroying their towns. That this famous figure in Ukrainian history, who caused possibly the greatest massacre of Jews before the Holocaust, should be used as a name for what had been called Hospital Street after the Jewish Hospital, in the heart of Jewish Moldavanka, seems quite horrific. It may have been a way of clearly stating that finally the Holocaust had completed what Bohdan Khmelnytsky had wanted to accomplish, as there were no longer enough Jews in Moldavanka to resist the name change.

As I was looking at these maps I did not recognise the name Bohdan Khmelnytsky until I looked him up and realised that I had once read about the Cossack uprising of 1648. At the base of my 1812 family tree is the very famous Jewish Rabbi David ben Samuel Halevi (1586-1667), an ancestor most people wanted to have on their family tree, especially a rabbinical family like mine, although it appears this was often only wishful thinking. On my tree, above the name of the great Rabbi is his son, Shmoul, then his son, Shimson, and then Rabbi Shlomo, the son of Yehiel, unrelated and obviously my ancestor who came from northern Ukraine like David Halevi. And to complicate matters further, the translator wrote ‘son of Shmoul’ below David Halevi but in a diagram at the end indicates that Shmoul is the son of David. It is, however, easiest to read a family tree as one generation following another, whatever the names, and my family believed that the famous rabbi was their ancestor. One sees what one wants to see until suddenly the lack of continuity pops out at you and the fantasy dissolves. Possibly none of the first three names on the tree are related or could they be?

Stem of my family tree with my variation on a 1990s translation

In the meantime I had read about the life of David ben Samuel who built a majestic synagogue in the small northern Ukrainian town of Ostrog, Volhynia. He was rabbi there for many years until he was forced to flee from the massacres of Khmelnytsky and the Cossacks.

David ben Samuel Halevi

Ostrog Synagogue

Another name that comes up when searching Hospital Street is Isaac Babel, whose well-known Odessa stories took place in that area of Moldavanka at the time of the 1905 pogrom. It is also thought that one of the models for his bandit, Benya Krik, was a gangster who lived on Hospital Street. But that will be in the next post, as I will probably want to puzzle over Babel’s relationship with Moldavanka and the 1905 pogrom… and the mysteries of his life in general.

 

 

The Rekhes family and Malaya Arnautskaya

In the pogrom death records there were two members of the Rekhes or Rekhis family from Vilna. One was Rasya Shifra Rekhis, age 8, and the other Khana Nekhemya Rekhes, age 20, the wife of a Vilna citizen. Also in the Odessa death index is a Meer Rekhis who died 9 November 1905, a couple of weeks after the pogrom. In the 1904-5 directory there is one Rekhes, S. Rekhes (Сруль Евсеевич Рехес) at 28 Malaya Arnautskaya, just across the street from number 29, where 10 Jewish socialists had been arrested a few months before the pogrom. Srul Rekhes continued to own the house until 1908 when I. Rekhes became the owner. Khana and Rasya may or may not have been among this household and their immediate family may or may not have remained in Odessa. Rekhes was probably an uncommon name and they may have all been related.

In the American records, there were only a few families called Rykis or Reikes and there was one Rykis from Odessa, William, born in 1886 according to most of his records, who emigrated in 1912. In 1915 he married Celia Kellner in New York, saying he was born in 1891 in Odessa.

 On his World War I registration William again mentions his birthplace of Odessa and says he is married and living in Manhattan. It was very difficult to find William in the records as his name was transliterated wrongly in 1920 and 1930 but eventually the picture emerged of William working in a laundry and having three children with Celia – Bessie, Louis, and Dorothy. They lived first in Manhattan on the Upper East side and, from 1930, in the Bronx.

In March 1927, when Dorothy was three years old, she appears in the records of the Hebrew Infant Home which was part of the New York Hebrew Orphan Asylum, admitted by a court order. Could it be that the family was so poor or lived in such inadequate accommodation that it was felt the child was at risk? Or was it that her mother was working? On the 1925 census, the Rykis’ were living at 323 E 101th St.

Older houses on East 101 St

On 10 July 1928 Dorothy was discharged from the Infant Home to the Hebrew Orphan Asylum and on 18 July she was admitted to the Willard Parker Hospital for infectious diseases. So how much safer was the asylum than her own home?

She remained at the Willard Parker Hospital until the middle of August 1928, but in February 1929 she was admitted to Mount Sinai hospital where she remained until the end of January 1930. She must have developed a complication from the original infectious illness. The main illnesses treated at the Willard Parker Hospital were diphtheria, scarlet fever and measles. According to a report compiled about the years 1919-1923 at the Willard Parker Hospital, there were 3940 cases of scarlet fever, 8776 cases of diphtheria and 3720 cases of measles. The mortality over the five years was 8.1% for scarlet fever, 16.2% for diphtheria and 15.7% for measles. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1320416/)

The hospital was originally built in 1885 on 16th Street near the East River. By the early 1900s there were separate buildings for each of the major illnesses treated there plus buildings for research, disinfection, toxicology and vaccine research.

The Willard Parker Hospital E 16th St (GW Bromley and Co 1920)

Photograph of fire escapes E 16th St

By the census in 1930 the Rykis family was together in the Bronx, possibly having moved away from less hygienic housing in Manhattan, but by 1940 William was no longer living with the family. Celia was still in the Bronx with the three children but William does not appear on the 1940 census. On his World War II registration he is living in lower Manhattan and his contact/next-of-kin is his place of work. Celia was working in a textile factory, as she had done in 1930. The eldest daughter, Bessie, was also at the factory, Louis was an errand boy for the factory and Dorothy, at 16, was still at school. Louis joined the Air Corps in 1942 and married in 1955. There is a newspaper article from 1951 about the marriage of Dorothy Rykis to Joseph Robb, the son of a policeman, at a Catholic Church in Hewlett, Long Island, on the south shore. There is no mention of her father.

26 June 1951 Nassau Review Star

ROBB-RYKIS

Miss Dorothe Rykis, daughter of Mrs Cecilia Rykis of Manhattan was married Saturday to Joseph L. Robb of 1248 Waverly Street, Hewlett. The ceremony took place at St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, Hewlett. A reception followed. The bride wore a nylon net gown with lace bodice and bouffant skirt. Her fingertip veil fell from a lace cap and she carried an old-fashioned bouquet.

Mrs George Capone of Manhattan was maid of honour. Ralph Robb of Valley Stream acted as best man for his nephew. Mr Robb is the son of the late Joseph L. Robb, retired New York City policeman. He is a veteran of World War 2 and served overseas with the Sixth Marine Division. After a trip to the Poconos, the couple will reside in Hewlett.

Neither William nor Celia had chosen Jewish names for themselves or their children so one presumes they had put aside their religion and possibly did not have a problem with Dorothy marrying into a Catholic family. William died in 1957 and Celia in 1962.

If William had in any way been connected with the Rekhes family affected by the pogrom, it was probably put well behind him, and his children may have known nothing about it or his life in Odessa. While he used Odessa as his birthplace in his marriage and  WW1 records, by  WW2 he says he was born in Jemnitz which is in central Ukraine. It may be that this was his birthplace but that he had previously used Odessa because he had spent his childhood there. One wonders if the Rekhes family in Odessa knew of the socialist meeting place across the road from them and whether they were in favour of such views or not. As the surnames of three members at the meeting were also names in the death records pogrom, one wonders if the police were taking the opportunity to target socialists and revolutionaries during the uproar. And were the young Chana and Rasya Rekhes just innocent bystanders or was their family also involved?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Malaya Arnautskaya and the revolution

Before launching into the links between Malaya Arnautskaya (Малая Арнаутская) Street, the revolutionaries and the pogrom, I will digress into the completely unrelated (I presume) inventive and beautiful metalwork gates on Malaya Arnautskaya.

Malaya Arnautskaya 109

Malaya Arnautskaya 94

Kataev uses 15 Malaya Arnautskaya in his children’s book, The lonely white sail, as a safe house used by Terenti, the revolutionary. When his little brother, Gavrick, finds there is an amnesty for prisoners after the 1905 manifesto by the Tzar, he goes to collect his grandfather from prison. Terenti says he cannot bring his grandfather to their house which is being watched by the police, so he should take him to 15 Malaya Arnautskaya where he should ask the janitor for Joseph Karlovich. When he finds the janitor he should say ‘How’d you do, Joseph Karlovich? Sofia Peterovna sent me to ask if you’ve received any letters from Nikolayev.’ Joseph should answer, ‘No, I haven’t had a letter for two months.’ Joseph lived in a dark cellar, with walls covered in mould.

Courtyard Malaya Arnautskaya 15

In 1905, the real 15 Malaya Arnautskaya was owned by  S Yurischich (С. Юришичъ) who also owned the house behind it on the parallel street, Novo Rybnaya, and the warren of buildings in between.

Malaya Arnautskaya 15

The numbers 15, 28 and 29 (discussed later) Malaya Arnautskaya have been marked on this 1888 Odessa map to show how central this area was.

15, 28 and 29 Malaya Arnautskaya

The jumble of tumbledown buildings in the courtyards of houses on Malaya Arnautskaya, and probably the sympathy of many Jews towards the revolutionary movement, made this street ideal for safe houses. According to the writer of the Odessa street website (http://obodesse.at.ua/publ/malaja_arnautskaja_ulica/1-1-0-254 ):

В 1902 году на Малой Арнаутской улице насчитывалось 1752 бедняка из числа еврейского населения. Это в среднем, примерно, 16 человек на каждый номер дома.

 In 1902, in Malaya Arnautskaya, there were 1752 poor among the Jewish population, an average of about 16 people per apartment.

But Malaya Arnautskaya was only the sixth of the streets with the most poor people. Gospitalnaya (Hospital Street) in Moldavanka had over 4000 people in about 65 houses. Many families affected by the pogrom lived on Gospitalnaya Street.

A list of people wanted by the Okhrana in Odessa is in an online excerpt from an article in Avotaynu Winter,1995 by George Bolotenko with references to reports of the chief of the Odessa  Okhrana to the Department of Police – Odessa Okhrana Detachment March 1905-1906.  Several family names from the pogrom death records were listed. It also mentions a meeting of the Social Democratic Committee at 29 Malaya Arnautskaya.

Azirel Nakhimov GELMAN (member of the Social Democratic Committee)
Zisia Maruksev FEINSHTEIN (19 yrs old of No.83 Preobrashenskaia Street)
Mordko Iankelev GOIKHMAN
These were members who met on January 29, 1905 at the home of the son of  Zhakar Movsheve MIKHELOVSKII at 29 Malia Arnautskaia Street. The police took ten people into custody.

The fond for this list is “102,OO: Opis 6, delo 11/pt.1, p 15; Opis 1905, delo 5.pt 4LA, pp. 17-20).

Malaya Arnautskaya 29

The entry to the side of the building seems to lead to another warren of buildings. Mikhelovski did not own the property, but in the directory there is a second guild wood merchant, Movsha Aronovich Mikhelovski, probably his father, and fairly well off. Movsha Mikhelovski had his business at Privoznaya Square, the enormous market square a couple of streets away from Malaya Arnautskaya, at the bottom right of the map.

Privoz Market

It was often well educated young people who were political organisers and held meetings, recruiting workers to the socialist parties.

Across the road from 29 Malaya Arnautskaya, at 28 Malaya Arnautskaya, lived S. Rekhes (C. Рехес). It is not a common name and there were two Rekhes’ in the pogrom death records – Rasya Shifra Rekhis, age 8, from Vilna and Khana Nekhemya Rekhes, age 20, the wife of a Vilna citizen. Also in the Odessa death index is a Meer Rekhis who died 9 November 1905, a couple of weeks after the pogrom. There were not many children in the records (although reports mention the deaths of many children) and I wondered whether the children were connected with families targeted for particular reasons or in particular areas.

Rekhes (Рехес) 28 Malaya Arnautskaya (corner of Kanatnaya)

28 Malaya Arnautskaya (corner of Kanatnaya)

There is no other information about the Rekhes family in the directories. Using several spellings, there were several possible births – Sara Rekhes 1880, Solomon Rekhes 1881, Gitel Rekhes 1884, Ida Rekhis 1891, and Solomon Rekis 1896. The family who died in the pogrom had come more recently to Odessa from Vilna.

There were no Rekhes’ on the ships travelling to New York after 1905. There was one Morris Reichick, 15 years old, from Odessa, travelling from Southampton to a brother-in-law in New York at the end of December 1905, one month after the pogrom. He was marked down to be deported because of a medical problem, possibly spinal, but there was a chance to appeal. There is no Morris Reichick in the records. There is a William Rykis, born in 1886 (although according to his marriage record it was 1891), from Odessa, living in New York, who married Celia Kellner in 1915. He had come from Odessa in 1912. It is unknown whether he was related to the Rekhes who died in the pogrom, but I will follow his life in New York in another post as it had a few twists and turns uncommon in the usual Jewish immigrant story.

There was also a literary presence on Malaya Arnautskaya at the time of the pogrom and later. At 9 Malaya Arnautskaya there lived the author and publisher Joshua Ravnitsky who worked with Ahad Ha’am in his Zionist group, sponsored by the tea merchant, Wissotzky. Ravnitsky originally published the poems of Chaim Bialik, who went to Kishinev in 1903 and wrote one of the most influential Hebrew poems on the pogrom there. Bialik later also lived at 9 Malaya Arnautskaya.

Another piece of literary history on Malaya Arnautskaya is from Soviet times but seems like a descendant of the Odessa Moldavanka stories of Isaac Babel about the criminal Benya Krik, set at the time of the pogrom but published in 1923 and 1924. A friend of Valentin Kataev, the poet Nathan Shor, who lived at 40 Malaya Arnautskaya, also became a friend of Kataev’s brother, Evgeny and his friend, Ilya Feinzilberg. They were inspired by Nathan’s brother, Osip Shor and his adventures crossing Russia in 1919, and wrote a very popular and influential comic novel together, Twelve Chairs, under the names Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov, which was published in 1928.

Twelve Chairs

Osip Shor became Ostap Bender, an adventurer and conman, in the story, the hero of Malaya Arnautskaya . Twelve Chairs was made into a film in the Soviet Union in the 1970s (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZNZkUt0ePas ).

Ostap Bender

Osip Shor

And the last piece of fame for Malaya Arnautskaya was that Vladimir Jabotinsky, author of the novel that commemorated Odessa Jews at the time of the 1905 pogrom, The Five, was, according to Wikipedia, born at 33 Malaya Arnautskaya (№ 33 — здесь родился В. Жаботинский).

The Five

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A last Russian Revolution exhibition – Tate Modern and Ilya Kabakov

It is one year since museums around the world began to celebrate the centenary of the Russian Revolution. Tate Modern had two exhibitions to commemorate the Russian Revolution which will both soon have finished. One consisted of some of the Russian posters of a graphic designer, David King, who had been collecting Soviet photographs, posters and objects since the 1970s when he went to Russia to research an article for The Times about Trotsky, and found that Trotsky had been removed from photographs. I unfortunately could not see both exhibitions, and because I had already seen several exhibitions with Russian posters, I chose the second. I was also more intrigued by some photographs I found online of King’s house where he kept his thousands of Russian pictures and objects before he died last year.

David King’s house

 

The other exhibition was of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s work. Ilya Kabakov left Russia for New York in the late 1980s and he and his wife collaborate on installations and other projects. He began as an illustrator in Moscow in the 1950s and because his art was not the accepted social realism but critical or satirical of the situation in Soviet Russia, he made models and smaller works of his ideas, most of which were about people freeing themselves from the restrictions of communism. He himself had been brought up in quite a poor Jewish household as his parents were rarely together. When he got a place at an art school as a 12-year-old in Moscow, his mother came to be near him, but without a residence permit, could not get an apartment, and tended to just sleep for a few months at a time in different people’s crowded commuter apartments, working in factories wherever she could. His mother had lost her parents through starvation after the Civil War and had a very hard time up until her son was able to finally buy her an apartment in the late 1950s.

I will begin with a few of his early and then later illustrations, followed by some of the works of the exhibition and other more recent pieces, centred around important themes. Since he went to America in 1987 he has been most known for his installations, many of which were constructed as models while in Russia. One work at the exhibition uses his mother’s memoir framed with photographs taken by a photographer uncle to create a haunting memorial to her. His work is a fitting celebration of the humour, sadness and inventiveness that can come out of poverty and tragedy.

Labyrinth –  My Mother’s Album 1990

One theme Kabakov returns to again and again is the communal apartment, particularly communal kitchens and toilets. At one point his mother worked in the laundry of his boarding school and because she had no residence permit, slept in the laundry, which had originally been the toilets, and some of the toilet cubicles remained. In 1992 he constructed what looked like a public toilet block outside of a museum in Germany which was exhibiting his work. Inside, were some disused-looking toilet cubicles and the furniture of an ordinary living room

The toilet 1992

Communal kitchen 1991

Incident in the corridor near the kitchen 1989

In the communal kitchen 1991

Another important theme is flying, freedom and escaping totalitarianism to a utopian life. One of his most well-known installations is The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment.

The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment 1988

The flying Komarov 1981

Feeling that life in the Soviet Union was unreal, Kabakov invented imaginary characters who could lead his ‘real’ life, and made albums of drawings, writings and objects for these characters such as Komarov. Some of his later installations involved objects hanging from strings, one of which was the character The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away.

10 characters: The man who never threw anything away 1988

Character album

Utopia and reality

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Mesonzhnik family: from Odessa to Arpin, Wisconsin

Slowly working alphabetically, backwards, through the death records, I had reached M, which I put into the Steve Morse Ellis Island search, with the residence Odessa and the years 1905-1908. I could then look through names whose spelling seemed similar to a name on the list, and also look out for children travelling alone, or mothers with many young children who might be travelling to meet their husband or might be widows joining another relation in America. One of these mothers was 30-year-old Feige Mesonschnik (Mesonzhnik or Месонщник) with four children under 5 – Simoche 5, Momzi 4, Moische 2 and Chaim 1 – travelling from Rotterdam on 19 June 1906. She was travelling to her husband, and I would not have continued researching this family except that I was intrigued by where they were going – an isolated settlement called Arpin, Wisconsin. And her husband had changed his name to Finkelstein. J.W. Finkelstein. How did a family from Odessa come to be travelling to Arpin, Wisconsin? Were they joining relations called Finkelstein?

Feige Mesonschnik SS Noordam, Rotterdam 19 June 1906

When I first began to research this family, I could only find a Jacob and Fanny Finkelstein of the correct age with three children of similar ages and names, Celia, Morris and Hyman, living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1910. The second child must have died and the middle child, Morris, seems to have taken the age of his older brother, being 8 instead of 6. Hyman, who must have been born around the time of the pogrom, is 5. On the 1910 census, there are spaces for the number of children born and the number alive. Every family on the page has listed how many children they had had except the Finkelsteins who left the spaces blank. Possibly their son had recently died. In the next census, Celia is working in a department store, Morris is studying medicine, and Hyman is working at a bookbinders. On the 1930 census, only Hyman, 25, is living at home with his parents and is working as a barber. In 1940, the parents are living alone although they put the absent Hyman, 35, as still living in their home. He appears on the census at the Milwaukee County Asylum and all the inmates on this page have been in the asylum for the past five years.

Milwaukee County Asylum

Although the censuses have different immigration dates on each one, 1905/6 in 1910 and 1907/9 in 1920, Jacob had gone to America a year or so before the rest of the family, so I tried to find him on the Ellis Island website and eventually found a Jankiel Mesaznik, age 30, an Odessa tailor, travelling from Trieste in October 1904. He was travelling with a friend from Odessa to the friend’s sister in Hoboken, New Jersey. Nine months after he left Odessa, his wife had Chaim (Hyman), in the summer of 1905, and she and the children left a year later for America. In the meantime, Jacob had gone to Wisconsin.

It was not until the second time I tried searching for the family that I discovered that Arpin had been a logging settlement on the new railway through Wisconsin in the late 1800s. Once the logging work was finished and the company moved on, there was an empty group of houses, shop and school. The New York Industrial Removal Office was trying to relocate Jewish immigrants outside New York City and Milwaukee was one of its first bases in the west. A rich German Jewish merchant and philanthropist, Adolph Rich, bought 700 acres north of Arpin, in the hopes of setting up a Jewish agricultural colony, which might become a magnet for Jewish immigrants in the west, a homeland for the Jews.

Arpin, Wisconsin 1920

In 1904, Rich arranged for 5 families, and then another two, to occupy the empty houses of Arpin, and begin to work 40 acres of land each. By 1906 the families were working 10 acres of land each. In an article by Louis Swichkow, The Jewish agricultural colony of Arpin, Wisconsin, Jacob Finkelstein is mentioned as one of the first group of seven families – Manny, Zefania and Jacob Cohen, Louis and Gedalia Smoller, Jacob Finkelstein, I. Classel, Samuel Pittelman, Sholem Antonovsky, and J. Weinberg.

The Pittelmans Arpin Colony 1909

The map below from 1928 shows all the owners of the lands around Arpin but none of the above. Most look German with some Scandinavian but there are none that look Russian and only one that is most likely Jewish, Jacobs.

Arpin 1928

Actually Jacob first appeared in the Wisconsin records in the 1905 census when he was boarding with a farming family in Saratoga, Wisconsin, next to another farmer called Sam Finkelstein, a widower with four children, who had immigrated to America in the early 1880s from Russia.

Wood County, Wisconsin, Arpin upper centre, Saratoga bottom right

I eventually came upon a newspaper headline about the murder of Sam Finkelstein’s wife Ida (called Rebecca in the article) in March 1905 by a Russian lodger in their house who felt he had been cheated by Sam into buying land that was not as it has been described to him. Sam, who, according to the newspaper, had previously been living at Arpin, had worked for a real estate agent in Chicago selling land to Jewish settlers, so possibly was setting up a similar type of colony at Saratoga. The lodger tried to plead insanity but was given life in prison. The trial was written up in great detail including a list of the jurors as if trial by jury was new in these western territories.

Sam, also known as Simon, married again in 1906 to a woman from Arpin, Sarah Robinowich, and possibly joined her in Arpin along with Jacob Finkelstein.

Sam, who had come to America in 1885 when he was 17, had previously been married to a Russian woman called Mary Quater and they had had 6 children in Chicago and Indiana. On the 1900 census, Sam was living with Ida in California Township, Starke County, Indiana, close to Chicago, and had had a seventh child, Samuel. One wonders whether Sam came to America with family, with a group of Russian colonists, or whether he was a lone pioneer.

California Township, Indiana

Bathers at Bass Lake (Cedar Lake) Indiana, 1900

The only discrepancy on the census is that although it says Ida has had one child, it also says that Sam and Ida have been married for 18 years. By 1905 they had a second child Morris. Sam next appears on the 1910 census as Simon with his wife Sarah in Milwaukee. They are living with the two youngest children, Simon (Sam) and Morris , who are 10 and 8. Both Simon and Sarah say they have been married once before, and Sarah apparently had two children no longer alive. She does not appear on the 1905 census so possibly had not been in America for long. She may have had as tragic a story as Simon.

Simon and Sarah do not appear on the 1920 census but in 1930 they are living together without any children. There are marriage records for Simon’s oldest son, Barney, who moved out to Portland, Oregon, and also his daughter Sadie, who, having been widowed, married again in Los Angeles in 1948. She died in California in 1956. On a Wisconsin Jewish burial database there is a Sam and a Samuel Finkelstein, one who died in 1917 and one in 1923. Possibly one of these is Simon and Ida’s son. On the 1940 census, Simon is 80 and in a chronic diseases hospital in Milwaukee on the same site as the asylum Hyman was in. Simon is a widow and has been there over five years. He died that year and is the only one in the story I found a gravestone for. It is hard to know what the man who was widowed three times and had at least eight children and may have deceived the man who killed his wife, was like, but at least one of his children probably remembered him with a marble gravestone. There seems to be no trace of Mary Quater, Ida Silberg, or Sarah Robinowich.

Once Jacob was settled in the Arpin colony, he must have sent for his wife from Odessa. They did not remain long in Arpin as by 1910 they were living in Milwaukee. Several families left Arpin, although a core remained until the 1920s. As there was no secondary school in the area, several families drifted to cities for their children’s education. Both Jacob and Simon were farmers in Saratoga, and in Milwaukee they both did manual jobs of different kinds. Jacob was a machine hand, a labourer for a cement block company, a fish peddler, and both men were watchman at one point, one for a scrapyard and one for a tannery.

Jacob and Fanny lost one of their children and then, sometime after 1930, Hyman was admitted to the Milwaukee County Asylum, in Wauwatosa, just west of Milwaukee. Conditions were probably quite basic in asylums in the 1930s, and there were bound to be unpleasant and difficult experiences, so no parent would want their child admitted unless they could not cope with them at home. Several children born around the time of the Odessa pogrom found themselves with a similar fate. One might have thought it would have been the 2 or 3-year-old who suffered most during that period, but it was the babies or even those born just after the pogrom whose mothers were in such difficult situations they could not give them the attention they needed in those first months and years. Feige was alone in Odessa with four small children aged from a few months to 4 years old in the midst of the pogrom and then preparing to travel to Wisconsin – across Europe, across the Atlantic and then across America. And when she arrived, she would have found herself in the middle of nowhere, Arpin, Wisconsin, alone in a flat empty land, with a handful of other, probably older, Jewish families. Possibly I stuck with this story because my grandmother also had a child in 1905 just before they emigrated from Russia, who drowned when he was 23, his life and the cause of his death remaining a mystery.

The only record I found at first for Jacob and Fanny’s other two children was a Chicago birth record for Morris’ son Samuel, born in 1924, when Morris was 22. His wife was Minnie Perlman, and strangely there were a couple of other Morris Finkelsteins, born at different times, married to women with variations on the name Minnie Perlman having children in Chicago at that time. But this Morris was born in Odessa in 1902. Morris had been studying medicine when he was 18 but no more records appear for him so he may have done something completely different or possibly died young. One Russian Jewish Minnie Perlman of the right age that I found in the records as a child in Chicago belonged to a family of travelling actors which was unusual.

I had not looked for Morris’ sister, Celia, because without marriage records it is difficult to trace women, but as she also moved to Chicago, her maiden name appears in the birth records of her children, and she had become Celia Sachs. Her husband, Abraham, was 10 years older and had come to Chicago as a baby around 1890. He had first worked selling shoes and later had a sporting goods shop followed by a furniture repair shop. They had three children. Abraham lived until 1980, 90 years old, and Celia until 1991 when she was 91. At some point they had retired to 1020 W. Laurence Avenue in uptown Chicago, an art deco apartment block which had been built in the 1920s as luxury hotel apartments with a swimming pool, a long way for Celia from 1905 Odessa and her parents’ new start in the Wisconsin wilderness.

1020 W. Lawrence Avenue, Chicago

How much Celia, who was 5 when she left Russia, remembered the name  Mesonzhnik, her early childhood in Odessa and the trip to America, the death of one brother and the background to Hyman’s move to the asylum, and whether she passed any of it on to her children… and if she did, whether they kept it to themselves…. who knows?

 

 

 

 

 

Hanukkah in the early 20th century

The thought crossed my mind of a holiday greeting, and then I began to think about a 1905 Odessa Hanukkah. I tried looking around the internet for something that felt right.

Antique Russian silver menorah

 

Wooden dreidels

The only image I found online of a family Hanukkah was a painting from the 1700s.

Anonymous 18th century

Then I remembered that I had an illustrated story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, born in 1902, A Hanukkah evening in my parents’ house, which began:

All year round my father, a rabbi in Warsaw, did not allow his children to play any games. Even when I wanted to play cat’s cradle with my younger brother, Moishe, Father would say, ‘Why lose time on such nonsense? Better to recite psalms.’… But on Hanukkah, after Father lit the Hanukkah candles, he allowed us to play dreidel for half an hour.

For most families, it was not the play that was forbidden on other days of the year, but gambling.

A Hanukkah evening in my parents’ house

Russian antique menorah

Russian menorah c 1894

German antique menorah

 

Polish menorah 1900

Czech menorah

English antique menorah

It was not only the antique menorahs which were an art form. The tradition has carried on in many styles and materials. The pattern of the stone wall on the silver dreidel and this 1930s menorah from Palestine made me think of a prison but must symbolise the Wailing Wall, although it is usually shown with figures.

1930s menorah, Palestine

Menorah 1940 Palestine

Modern stone menorah

Happy holidays!