People did not (and still often do not) talk about the bad things in their past, but kept them carefully locked away, especially from the next generation who puzzled over the silences and inconsistencies in their lives. Family secrets and even completely rewriting the past was common, especially in the stories of immigrants, who felt they were protecting their families from their sense of loss. And many descendants, even three or four generations later, prefer to leave their unknown skeletons in the cupboard, even if they feel haunted by a lingering sadness and the mysterious gaps in their knowledge. Finding out also opens the possibility of discovering lies, something people fear finding as it is so at odds with their family loyalty. However, the late October pogroms that followed the 1905 revolution in Russia had a huge effect on the Jews of the Pale, both in reality and symbolically, initiating a wave of emigration, a tsunami, which tipped precarious ethnic balances across the world. By far the worst pogrom at that time was in Odessa. Although Jewish immigrants often spoke about the pogroms as a reason for leaving Russia, it was only in the vaguest and most general of terms. Had many of these people experienced a pogrom or had they heard about one second hand? How many families had actually been affected by the pogroms? How many people had actually died? And who were they? Possibly, because so much effort has been put into listing and remembering the victims of the Holocaust to keep its memory alive, the pogroms have been neglected and even forgotten. And so I set out to find out about the 1905 pogrom in Odessa, thinking that two of my uncles might have been two of its young victims.
A book that particularly influenced me in starting this search was Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano, a novel based on an advertisement placed in a 1941 Paris newspaper asking if anyone had seen a teenage girl, ‘age 15, height 1 m 55, oval-shaped face, gray-brown eyes, grey sports jacket, maroon pullover, navy blue skirt and hat, brown gym shoes’, missing from a convent school. A Jewish girl. What might have been a little escapade in any other time could have important implications in Paris in 1941. But it is the search for the story behind a forgotten, ordinary person in less than ordinary times that intrigues me so much. And because so little story emerges, the imagining of what that story might have been.