Families revisited

After the Pogrom

After the pogrom 1910 Minkowski

A number of people have contacted me about the Odessa families I have written about to say how happy they were to find out more about their family. Most did not know their grandparent or great grandparent had been from Odessa and had lived through the 1905 Odessa pogrom. They added additional stories and some sent photographs. I updated one story, which had already been written about online, with a few additional facts.

In one case I felt there was a lot of discomfort with acknowledging that their grandparent had had a hard time in Odessa and in New York. Emigration was never easy, especially when it was not done by choice. It was all the more difficult when people were not educated and did not understand any English.

In another case, I had not been sure about several of the records and one that I thought might be correct was not. I asked if I could write an update correcting the story but did not receive a reply. This story of a group of young siblings, whose parents had died in Russia, being fostered separately, had actually turned out better than one could ever have imagined.

I very much wanted some of the stories of people in the pogrom records told because most of the stories have been forgotten, as they were never told. At that time, in the early 1900s, forgetting was felt to be better than passing stories on as it was hoped the sadness would not be passed on to the next generations. Many people still believe this is the best way, although it has been found that often emotions are passed on whether descendants know the stories or not and sometimes not knowing can be more disconcerting than knowing. Not knowing often leaves a gap, a confusing emptiness of not knowing who you are or where your family was from. However, I was also uncomfortable thinking about the descendants who might not know and might not want to know about their family. All the information I found was freely available public information but I was still bringing it together and in that way forming a story that had been hidden.

In the middle of originally writing this, I read a book review (Guardian 13 July 2019) of Last witnesses: unchildlike stories by Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarusian author who won the Nobel Prize for literature for her series of oral histories of Russia’s wars, life in Russia after communism, and Chernobyl. Last witnesses is about children caught up in the Second World War. After her first book about soldiers who fought in Afghanistan and their families, she was sued by some of the people she interviewed because the soldiers’ heroism is not portrayed, although the book is simply a compilation of they had said. Later she wrote that she attended the court, not to apologise but to ‘ask their forgiveness for the fact that it is not possible to get out the truth without pain’.

I do believe the truth should be told but I also believe in being sensitive to the feelings of the families involved. When emotions of past trauma are passed down to future generations, whether the stories are told or not, each child in the family receives a different inheritance from their parents and reacts to it in their own way. Some children are picked out as the ones to confide in. Others are not. Some want to find out more about their stories and some do not.

And so I will try to pick and choose my way in telling some stories, hoping the good outweighs the bad. The hope is that we can all absorb the emotions from the past and integrate them into our lives, into the vast range of emotions we will feel throughout our lives, the happiness, sadness, anger, grief, joy, fear….

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