Family secrets

I began looking into the 1905 Odessa pogrom about 10 years ago while puzzling through the Russian words on a torn old document of my grandfather’s, an ornately illustrated craft guild certificate from 1905. I had no idea where my grandfather had been living when he left Russia in early 1906. It was a subject that was not spoken about in my family.


Одесские дворы Odessa courtyards

My grandparents had married in Baranovichi, west of Minsk, in 1896 or 1897 and had two children there, Aron and Sara, in 1898 and 1901. Years later these two children never mentioned where they were born or lived in Russia. My grandfather’s New York naturalisation form lists Kiev as his last residence in Russia. However, the craft guild certificate in front of me clearly said Odessa and was dated 1905. The date 1902 was written on a blank space on the line above the date.

Rabinovich guild  1

Rabinovich guild 2

Craft guild certificate

The only other document that was kept was the family’s Minsk passport which was dated April 1906.


Rabinowitz passport 2

The family left on a ship from Liverpool to New York in June 1906. I knew that my grandmother had had three more children in Russia after Aron and Sara, two boys who died in Russia and another son, Michel, who was born in late 1905, a few months before they left for America. The two boys who died must have been born between around 1902 and 1904. Their names were never mentioned. I also could not find out the birth date of the youngest son, who drowned near his home when he was 23. His father gave the information for his death certificate but left blank the day and month of his birth. Only 1905 is written in the space. Why would my grandparents, who had finally received this most important guild certificate, leave Odessa at this moment? This was the only piece of evidence with the name Odessa on it and they had preserved it throughout their troubles because of its importance for my grandfather who was trying to set up a machine-made shoemaking workshop in Odessa. Up until 1902 Singer sewing machines were imported from America, but in 1900 Singer had built their first factory in Russia and production of sewing machines began in 1902 when my grandfather probably moved to Odessa and applied to set up a small workshop or factory. Why would they leave when my grandmother, with her four young children, was about to give birth to another child? And having travelled across Russia to settle in the beautiful cosmopolitan city of Odessa (where Jews could live a more modern life, often speaking Russian instead of Yiddish and sending their children to schools with a modern Russian curriculum), why would this middle-class family suddenly throw their dream away? They had nothing when they arrived in New York and for many years my grandfather eked out a living as a scrap-dealer.

odessa balconies

odessa petrokino

It was not just the strangeness of this family suddenly leaving everything at such a crucial moment that provoked this search. It was not just the complete silence about where the family had been living and everything to do with their lives in Russia, the lack of photographs, the lack of knowledge of even where the older three children had been born. It was the way the parents’ silence affected their children, filtering through the minds of the three daughters, two born later in America, evolving into their own separate fantasies about who they were and where their family had come from.

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