Online ghosts – an old photograph, Moldavanka, and a little girl

When I first read about people scanning historical archives on the internet in the 1990s, I realised that the mysteries about my family past might be solvable. Even at that early stage I began to imagine that my family ghosts might be lurking somewhere in cyberspace, and I could find them if I persevered. Every document I discovered, every signature, every piece of information, the truths and lies, was a tiny bit more evidence of these ghosts. At one point I even found records of people on my 1812 family tree of a rabbinical family from the Pinsk and Minsk areas. But one thing I never found in cyberspace were photographs. No one applied for a passport at the time when photographs were necessary. No one made an online family tree with photographs. And of all the millions of old family photographs online, possibly bought from second-hand shops, flea markets and car boot sales, or in history archives, no one from my family has appeared. Old photographs online, with or without a name attached, are a bit discomforting. Dare I imagine who they might have been and what their lives might have been like? Why are they not in a family album or in a shoebox, passed down from generation to generation? Who has finally given them to a charity shop or put them on a stall at a flea market? Didn’t they feel that the essence of that person is there in the photograph? Was the family lost in the war or the Holocaust? Were there no descendants? Did someone simply not care? And so I have thought a lot about using photographs of people I may find online, or of using any of my own old photographs, and I dither, but tend towards wanting people to be remembered.

Odessa masyukov b. gotlib studio 1918

Isaak Masiukov 1918

Above is the only online photograph of someone in Odessa with one of the names from the pogrom death records, a rare name, someone who would have been a child at the time of the pogrom and was only a teenager or young man in the photograph. It was on a website with historical Jewish photographs, not on a personal family history website. His name was Isaak Masiukov. The photograph was taken at the time he was drafted into the army during World War I so he may or may not have survived the war. The person who died in the pogrom was Abram Isaakovich Masiukov, 36, a private in the army. Was Abram’s father, Isaak, the grandfather of the Isaak in the photograph?

Maciukov fond 315.73 1918 conscription

I M Masiukov conscription 1918 fond 315

The army conscription list in Fond 315 of the Odessa archive is available online but I found the name when searching for Масюков because someone had copied the names and page numbers from Fond 315 onto a Russian genealogy website. He was listed as I M Masiukov, so was not the son of Abram, but may have been his nephew as he shares the name Isaak. Isaak looks about 18-22 in the photograph so would have been born in the late 1890s. The photograph made me realise that I would like to find something related to each person in the pogrom death records – whether a family photograph, a family record in the archives, an address – to find out, maybe, what job they did or how many children they had. Or in my imagination, something more tangible, as if something tangible could be hiding in cyberspace. How I would like to walk into their houses and see how they lived and watch them go through their day.

russian album

One book which has influenced me more than any other in looking into my family’s past is The Russian Album by Michael Ignatieff. His father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were the same ages as mine, and although they came from Russian backgrounds that were unimaginably different, the feelings he has about the past and his family, feelings he must to some extent have developed from his past, mirror my own very closely. His great-grandfather Nikolai Ignatieff was the Minister of the Interior after the assassination of Alexander III in 1881, he organised the secret police, the Okhrana, so that many more terrorists could be arrested, and in May 1882 issued laws forbidding Jews to move outside the Pale, acquire land, trade in alcohol, or open shops on Sunday. He supposedly told the discontented Jews who said their lives were like the Jews under the Pharaoh, ‘So when is your Exodus and where is your Moses?’ (Ignatieff 1987) The Jews obviously found their Moses and hundreds of thousands left the country. His grandfather, Paul Ignatieff, brought up by such a domineering father, was known for his liberal attitudes and was the governor of Kiev at the time of the 1905 pogrom.

Michael Ignatieff writes:
For many families, photographs are often the only artefacts to survive the passage through exile, migration or the pawnshop. In a secular culture, they are the only household icons, the only objects that perform the religious function of connecting the living to the dead and of locating the identity of the living in time…Yet the more negotiable, the more invented the past becomes, the more intense its hold, the more central its invention becomes in the art of making a self. Eventually there are a few of us who do not return home one holiday weekend, go to the bottom drawer, pull out the old shoe box and spread the pictures around us on the floor. p2

Photographs do not always support the process of forgetting and remembering by which we weave an integral and stable self over time. The family album does not always conjure forth the stream of healing recollection that binds together the present self and its past. More often than not photographs subvert the continuity that memory weaves out of experience. Photography stops time and serves it back to us in disjunctive fragments. p6

Memory heals the scars of time. Photography documents the wounds. p7

Very slowly, it dawned on me that instead of them owing me the secret of my life, I owed them fidelity to the truth of the lives they had led. Fiction would have been a betrayal. I had to return and stay close to the initial shock of my encounter with their photographs: that sense that they were both present to me in all their dense physical actuality and as distant as stars. In creating them as truthfully as I could, I had to respect the distance between us. I had to pay close attention to what they left unsaid; I had to put down a marker at the spots that had not been reclaimed by memory. I could not elide these silences by the artifice of fiction. p16

And most of all:
I have not been on a voyage of self-discovery: I have just been keeping a promise to two people I never knew. p185

odessa map 1888 mold names 2

Moldavanka 1888

Checking the name Masiukov on the 1902-3 Odessa directory I discovered an M Masiukov, probably Isaak’s father, who owned one very large house in the heart of Moldavanka, 8 Rizovskaya, and in 1904-5, he also owned the house behind and around the corner, 20 Raskidailovskaya. Did Abram Isaakovich Masiukov live or die in an apartment in either of those beautiful houses on their peaceful tree-lined streets?

8 ryzovskaya st masiukov

8 Rizovskaya Street

20 raskidailovskaya masiukov

20 Raskidailovskaya Street

And then my eye caught the next name on the list, a much more uncommon name which did not come up in the directories, the Ellis Island database or the US records. It was a little girl called Brana Leib-Berkovna Maftul, 9, the daughter of a Kishinev citizen. None of the rest of her family is in the records. The name comes up with four items on the Jewishgen website, three people who voted in the 1906 Duma election in Kishinev and the birth of one child in Kishinev, the brother of Brana, Itskhok Leib-Berkovich Maftul, born in 1894. Brana must have been born in 1896 in Odessa so she is not in the Kishinev records. If names appear nowhere else, there are usually a few in the Yad Vashem database and there are four Maftuls, three from one family from a town south of Kishinev, in Moldova, and the fourth was evacuated from a town to the east of Kishinev, in Ukraine. At least Brana’s father was known and now her brother is known, unlike Boris Pasekov, the 8-year-old about whom nothing is known. But I expect there is no photograph of Brana in an old family album or shoebox somewhere, even if her family survived the pogrom.

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