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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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sholem Aleichem and the Kiev pogrom

Several families, like the Nachmanoviches from Kishinev, the Felds from Berdichev, my own family, who probably moved from Kiev, and probably many others seemed attracted to Odessa like a magnet in the first years of the new century, pulling them from further north in Ukraine, possibly with the hope of better business opportunities, more open minded views on religion and education, and the safety of an established multicultural city. Pogroms, like the 1903 Kishinev pogrom, must certainly have been a catalyst. But these stories of families’ complicated moves from one town to another are rarely told. And so Odessa grew and grew in those years up to 1905, causing a rise of underlying tensions in what appeared to be a varied and harmonious population, where people from different religions and cultures lived side-by-side across the city. Searching for safety, these families gravitated towards lively, colourful Odessa, creating the situation that would end up destroying them, fulfilling the prophecy of Death at Samarkand that you cannot escape your fate.

One well-known person who made the move earlier from Kiev to Odessa was Sholem Aleichem, after having lost his fortune on the stock exchange during the crash of 1890. He fled to Europe to avoid creditors and in 1891 settled with his family in Odessa, a city that was ideal for him in having a lively group of Jewish writers and artists. However, after three years of gaining and then losing his money again, he returned to Kiev to try his luck once more with the stock exchange. He experienced the 1905 pogrom in Kiev, and as a result decided to leave Russia.

A table of pogroms from 1903 to 1906 – American Jewish Yearbook, Vol 8 (1906-07) (http://museumoffamilyhistory.com/ajc-yb-v08-pogroms.htm) shows that there were actually two pogroms in Kiev, one on the 23 July in which 100 Jews were killed and 406 wounded, which is never mentioned, and another on 31 October, a three-day pogrom, in which 60 were killed, 369 wounded, and 2000 shops were looted. Even though Kiev was not a Jewish centre and generally thought to not have as active a Jewish community as other towns and less of a self defence league, according to this table the self defence league was heroic and suffered most of the deaths in the second pogrom.

Kiev never became the kind of Jewish cultural centre as other towns like Vilna and Berdichev because, as a commercial centre, the city had always been careful about keeping Jews from dominating business, and on and off since the 1600s, Jews were either expelled from the city, or only certain professionals and craftsmen were allowed in the centre of the city, others having to live on the outskirts or in Podol, a poor area near the port, often flooded by the river. Frequently there were raids on houses where it was thought a Jew did not have the correct residence permit. The rules could change with different government leaders and life was uncertain for many Jews, but there were far more business and educational opportunities than in small towns.

Kiev 1903 (http://toursdekiev.com.ua/ru/map)

Kiev was a city that rose steeply from the river, the Dnieper, and was also divided by steep ravines, with the poor living in the lower area, a lower-middle-class of professionals, shopkeepers, successful craftsmen and small businessman in the middle, and a few wealthy merchants and successful professionals living in large detached houses with gardens at the top.

Sholem Aleichem was born Solomon Rabinovich in Pereyaslav, a large town overlooking the river Dnieper south of Kiev and was brought up in the nearby small town of Voronko, where his father was a successful businessman until he was swindled out of all his money and had to return to Pereyaslav. Many Russian Jewish families seem to gain and lose fortunes, through bad luck, mismanagement, or the changing restrictive laws against Jews. Sholem Aleichem himself carried on this tradition of insecure finances through gaining and losing on the stock market and the insecurities of income from writing, although he did begin with a large fortune from his wife.

Kiev 1906

His daughter describes their apartment in Kiev as elegant – ‘the living-room pieces which had been imported from Vienna, the large black concert grand on which my father loved to improvise sad melodies, the vast lamp that hung over a massive dining table. For servants we had two live-in domestics, a cook and a nursemaid for my baby brother, and also a woman who came in to do the laundry… We could hardly, then, be called “poor” by any standards, except perhaps those of Babushka, who had lived with grandfather Elimelech on his estate.’ (My father, Sholom Aleichem , Marie Waife-Goldberg, 1968:111) Because of their insecure finances her mother trained to become a dentist after the children had started school. Between 1898 and 1903 the family lived at 35 Bolshaya Vasilkovskaya, a major shopping street high above the river. The building has recently been destroyed and redeveloped.

33 Bolshaya Vasilkovskaya

In 1905, Sholem Aleichem‘s family, now living around the corner at 27 Saksaganskogo, moved to a nearby hotel, The Imperial, when it was obvious, as the unrest increased after the October manifesto, that a pogrom was imminent.

27 Saksaganskogo

A building with smashed windows which was photographed during the pogrom was directly behind 27 Saksaganskogo on the next street, 5  Zhylianskaya.

Building with smashed windows on Zhylianskaya St

5 Zhylianskaya St

His daughter describes being awakened by a terrible noise the next day ‘a confused racket of clatters and clashes, of loud shouts and shrill cries. We ran from our beds to the windows on the street and looked down on the scene of brutality and murder – a gang of hoodlums beating a poor young Jew with heavy sticks; blood was running over the face of the young man, who was vainly shrieking for aid. A policeman stood nearby, casually looking on and not moving a finger.’ (161)

Another writer who experienced the 1905 pogrom in Kiev, Konstantin Paustovsky (1892-1968), wrote in his autobiography, Story of a life, about witnessing the marches, demonstrations and shootings after the Tzar’s October manifesto as a 13-year-old and the local Jews who were hidden in their building during the pogrom, a story very like that told by Valentin Kataev.

He describes how the children at his school were told that because of the Imperial manifesto it was a holiday, so they rushed out of school joining the crowds moving towards the marches. Then he hears the sound of shots being fired and is taken in hand by an older student who pushes him inside a courtyard. The last image he sees is ‘a slight young student, with his greatcoat unbuttoned, leaping on the window ledge of Balabukha’s shop and drawing a revolver.’ Then ‘We were running through narrow yards and alleys, followed by the sound of screams, shots and running feet. The daylight had suddenly dimmed, misted over with yellow smoke. My heavy satchel rattled and banged on my back. We came out into Proreznaya Street and ran on towards the Golden Gate. Two shiny ambulances swept by. People raced past us, panting and with pale faces. A Cossack patrol galloped up the street, the officer with a drawn sabre… After she had left I leaned against the railings and took off my cap. I had a terrible headache and I was very frightened. An old man in a bowler hat stopped and asked me if I was all right. I didn’t answer, I was speechless. He walked on shaking his head.’ (122)

In Irene Nemirovsky’s novel, The Dogs and the Wolves, set partly in her childhood Kiev in the early 1900s, she describes two young cousins who, as the pogrom is beginning, were sent with their maid to the house of a Christian friend, but became separated from the maid and find themselves running through alleys like Paustovsky. ‘Some Cossacks on horseback galloped across the street. In the crush that followed, Ada and Ben got separated from Nastasia. Without thinking, they threw themselves into a nearby courtyard, then another, until they reached an alleyway and ended up back on the main road. They could hear the Cossacks shouting, horses whinnying, their hooves beating the frozen ground. The children were delirious with fear. Blindly they kept running, panting, holding each other’s hand, absolutely convinced that the horde of soldiers was after them and that they would meet the same fate as the woman who had been crushed to death a few moments before.’ (47)

Sholem Aleichem and his family were in a rare privileged position as Jews to be able to watch the pogrom in safety from a hotel window. A similar view of the pogrom from the safety of a window was that of Michael Ignatieff’s grandmother in his memoir The Russian Album, a young mother in 1905, recently moved to the beautiful Lipki district of Kiev near the palace and its gardens, where her husband was a government official, soon to become governor of Kiev province. From her apartment window on Levashkovskaya Street she saw ‘a strange procession slowly approaching up the street. They were poor people mostly, marching in rows, singing hymns, carrying icons… Then the rocks began to fly through the air and the glass in the house opposite belonging to a Jewish merchant started breaking. It seemed fantastic and surreal, this sudden irruption of riot into the little frame of Natasha’s existence. As the glass crashed on the street below her and looters began climbing in through the shattered windows, the crowd sang hymns Natasha had known from childhood.’ (79) She is not aware at the time that a Jewish woman living opposite, whose children have scarlet fever, asks their valet if she can shelter her children there. The valet feels he cannot hide the children without his master’s order and does not tell his mistress until later, and the landlady is also not willing to take in the sick children who might infect the children of the house. The mother fled with her children into town, but nothing is said about what eventually happened to them.

Destruction of MB Halperin’s property Kiev 1905

(photos from Kiev Jewish Metropolis, a history 1859-1914, Natan Meir 2010)

Kiev pogrom 1905

Like Sholem Aleichem‘s family, my own Rabinovich family may also have migrated from Kiev to Odessa and back to Kiev, but unfortunately at the time of the pogrom in Odessa. Also like Sholem Aleichem‘s family they seem to have had fluctuating fortunes, my great grandfather having been one of the most successful families in the small city of Novogrudok, owning a paper mill, hotel and department store, but the family fortune seems to have dwindled in the next generation, and my grandfather possibly went to the major city of Kiev or Odessa to try and improve on his family’s shoe business in Baranovichi. For several years I have been accumulating records about Odessa in the first few years of the 1900s because my Rabinovich grandfather had carefully saved a 1905 Odessa Craft Guild Certificate, which also had the date 1902 on it, possibly the date he began working towards becoming a master machine-shoemaker. I was particularly looking for the birth records of two little uncles of mine who were born sometime between 1902 and 1904, and died before the family left Odessa just after the pogrom in early 1906. Unfortunately I do not know their first names and many Rabinovich children were born each year in Odessa. The two children were never spoken of and although the two oldest children in the family, born in 1898 and 1901, would have known their names and what happened to them, my mother never found out anything about them or even where the family had lived before leaving Russia. When, years later, I discovered that the family had left Russia in 1906 directly after the pogroms, and that my eldest uncle had had nightmares all his life from seeing Cossacks spearing Jewish babies, I wondered whether they had died in the pogrom and that is why they were never spoken about.

Finally, a few months ago, after hearing of a researcher who had copies of the Odessa birth records, I enquired about the possibility of doing a search through the records of 1902-04 and discovered that the children were not born in Odessa at all. I had become so convinced that my grandfather was in Odessa from 1902 that I thought at least one of the children must have been born there. Now I had to gather all my bits of information together, reshuffle them, and think through other alternatives for where the children were born. Possibilities, some making more sense than others, flooded my mind. One was Kiev, the place my grandfather said on his US naturalisation application was his last residence in Russia in 1906.

 

 

 

 

 

February Revolution: 1917-2017

A moment to remember the February 1917 revolution. Looking at the artwork in the proliferation of satirical journals that sprang up in 1905-6, it feels like the energy for revolution was actually at that time. But it was in 1917, when the country was already torn apart by war, that the population was ready for a revolution which was then followed by three more years of civil war and more pogroms against the Jews. It is probably difficult or impossible for some years to get the kind of meticulous records that existed before the revolution and many people would have fallen into the cracks of history.

To mark this moment I will try and put together some of the posters, illustrations and photographs from 1905 and 1917, and look at the memoirs of two young girls who lived through the revolution, one from the impoverished branch of an aristocratic family, and the other the daughter of Jewish revolutionaries. Both girls ended up leaving Russia shortly after the Civil War and ending up in England.

1905 Revolution

journal-4-december-1905-freedom

Freedom 4 December 1905

burning-books-1906

Burning books 1906

bee-1906-back-cover

The Bee back cover 1906

russian-symphony-brodsky-1906

Russian Symphony Isaak Brodsky 1906

1917 Revolution

A chronology of the February revolution http://www.vokrugsveta.ru/vs/article/3004/ :

18 February: The strike at the Putilov factory in St. Petersburg
23 February: the beginning of anti-war demonstrations

24-25 February: the general strike under the slogan “Down with autocracy!”
26 Feb: battles between soldiers, divided between support for the revolution or the tzar
27 February: The beginning of the armed uprising, a massive shift of soldiers to the side of the rebels. Establishment of the State Duma of the Interim Committee under the chairmanship of the president of the Duma, Rodzianko

1 March: the establishment of the new government in Moscow

2 March: the abdication of Nicholas II from the throne in favor of Prince Michael, who handed over power to the Provisional Government. Formation of the Provisional Government headed by Prince Lvov, who was replaced in July by socialist Kerensky

28-feb-revolutionshootinginpetrograd-nsillustratedwar04londuoft

28 February 1917

february-revolution-1917-ivan-vladimirov

February Revolution 1917 Ivan Vladimirov

Edith Almedingen wrote her memoir about her childhood in early 1900s Russia, Tomorrow will come, in 1941, never having believed that anyone would be interested in her mundane life in St Petersburg simply trying to survive on the periphery of the great political events between 1905 and 1920. Her mother had been brought up in England in a Russian aristocratic family with an English mother, and her father was a well-known professor of chemistry, from a wealthy family, but her father left the family when she was a baby and her mother scraped by teaching English. Shortly after the 1905 revolution, when Edith was six, her brother drowned falling through cracked ice in the river. Her father, who she had never known, died when she was 12, and an older brother died in the First World War. She had been living in extreme poverty with her mother after the 1909 crash and then had a few years at an aristocratic girls’ boarding school where her father had modernised the curriculum and taught science. The beauty of this book is in her descriptions of the sights, smells and feelings of hunger, cold and horror that she experienced as a teenager after the revolution as the infrastructure of the city failed and there was no longer any running water in the city, food to eat, or fuel for heating. People dressed in rags, spent most of the day queueing for bread, and went from one illness to another. Her mother died of starvation and illness in 1919.

february-revolution

1917-queue

Queue 1917

revolution

She tells a story about the brightly coloured painted signs with pictures used by shopkeepers in Russia as most people were illiterate. In 1919 the shops were mostly empty and closed but the signs remained mocking people, especially one with a “luscious purple ham, reinforced by twin coils of fat crimson sausages”. She continues:

But that morning I saw a cluster of people in front of the deserted shop, and, coming nearer, I saw a frail, grey-haired man, his thin hands coming out of the sleeves of a very shabby overcoat. Those hands clawed at the gaily painted sign. An old lady, a torn black lace scarf over her grey hair, was trying to wrench him away. Yet, though obviously feeble, he resisted her efforts, and there was something of a nightmare about those thin, blue-veined hands clinging to the painted wood. I heard a tremulous voice: ‘No, my dear, I simply must have another slice of that ham. I wish you would be a little more patient. See if I don’t cut it off neatly. If we were to leave it here, somebody else would get it, and nobody could be as hungry as you and I are’, and the thin hands went on clawing away, until blood began trickling from under the nails, and the painted wood showed white where the knuckle of the ham had been scratched. (124)

Eventually, she meets a nurse she had known early in the war when she had translated for an English charity who shares her room with her and encourages her to apply to the university. In 1922, as she was finishing her degree, precious passports for foreign travel first began to be issued. She had recently managed to arrange a convalescence in the Crimea for possible TB, but then remembered the first letter in five years she had received from her mother’s sister in Italy a few months before hoping they would meet again. Possibly they would allow her to convalesce in Italy. A couple of months later she had her passport and left Russia forever.

russian-revolution-1917-lenin-stalin-and-war

Civil War

The other memoir, Daughter of revolution: a Russian girlhood remembered, by Vera Broido (1998), was written from the perspective of a child who was only 10 when the revolution began. She had been living in Siberia with her mother, Eva Broido, who had been exiled for her revolutionary activities, but they hurried back first to Moscow and then Saint Petersburg. Vera also translated her mother’s memoir Memoirs of a revolutionary which is a much more political and factual book. This is a far less bleak book than Edith’s, partly because Vera was still a child, although often having the responsibilities of an adult, still had family alive, and, most importantly, had a family with strong connections and deep friendships with other revolutionaries who were quick to help each other. Although eventually, as Mensheviks, they were on the losing side against the Bolsheviks. Also, although they were still hungry and freezing cold, Vera and her mother had been given the apartment of a wealthy banker, who was hiding, to look after, while Edith had nowhere to live after her mother died, losing their two rooms, moving from one sordid shared room to another.

Vera emphasises the ordinary side of life at that time, both for exiles in Siberia, where her mother ran the hospital pharmacy and they knew many other interesting professional exiles, and after the revolution in Saint Petersburg, where, although there was little to eat, the arts were flourishing and they went to the theatre, concerts and the opera. She also went to school for the first time, although, by 1919, when the Civil War reached Petrograd, school simply meant sitting by a stove and getting a bowl of gruel . Vera’s mother also became ill but they were able to escape in 1920 to Berlin, where Vera crammed most of her education into one year and passed the examinations for German universities. In 1927, her mother returned to Russia with false papers for a short visit to make contact with Mensheviks who had remained in Russia, but she stayed longer and was arrested, imprisoned, and eventually shot in 1941. Vera studied art in Paris and then returned to Germany, remaining until 1933, when her whole family moved to England, where her brother was working as an engineer. Unlike Edith, Vera always had some family around her, and often old friends from Russia and their exile in Siberia.

russian-civil-war-posters-w

Be on guard!

 Like all stories of war, in both these memoirs survival depended on luck – a chance meeting, a moment of kindness, or an official turning a blind eye. At a time when she had no job and no place to stay, Edith met the nurse she had known earlier after being knocked down by a carriage and breaking her ankle. After Vera and her mother crossed the border into Polish territory, they used their last money on the train to Warsaw hoping they would find her father there. Instead they found he had moved on to Vienna and they were left penniless, wandering the cold, slushy streets with their boarded-up shops until her mother noticed a diamond earring on the ground. After more wandering they saw a small light inside one shuttered jewellers and found a Jewish jeweller there who was dubious about receiving what would appear to be a stolen diamond. However, he listened to their story and said he would put the diamond aside until a later date, but, first things first, he would get them a first-class compartment and meal on the train to Vienna. Without these chance moments of kindness the stories might have been very different.

How they lived – homes and everyday objects in 1905

I was still puzzling over how people, whether rich, poor or somewhere in the middle, lived in Odessa in 1905. Which modern inventions were filtering down to people’s houses? They may have had bathrooms in middle-class houses but was there piped water to the bath? The 1902-3 Odessa directory was filled with illustrated ads for baths and toilets. There were none in the 1900 directory or later on, so these very early years of the new century must have been the moment when indoor plumbing became affordable and the idea needed getting across to people.

1902-3 dir bath
Odessa directory 1902-3

But what about decor? Were art nouveau ideas, common in advertisements and posters, entering homes in other ways? There were very few photographs of interiors at that time as the lighting was difficult, and the interiors portrayed by painters, many of their friends’ or patrons’ houses, may have been more modern, simpler, bohemian or avant-garde than ordinary people’s houses. When I recently first saw the painting by Ilya Repin ‘Unexpected visitors’ (in Russian ‘Не жда́ли’ ‘they did not expect anyone’) in a TV programme on perception (the painting was used by a Russian psychologist in the 1960s to research ideas about how the eyes track images), I thought it had been painted in the early 1900s but the date is 1883-1888 (there were several versions and reworkings) and the room in the painting is the artist’s country house sitting room.

repin 1888 unexpected guest

Repin Unexpected visitors 1888

The painting is about the return of a political exile from Siberia. I love the way he has created this story around the incongruous figure in such a light, summery cheerful room. Possibly because it is a country house used in good weather, there are bare floorboards and the windows do not have heavy drapery. It has a feeling more of Swedish design than an overcrowded Victorian sitting room.

Carl Larsson: När barnen lagt sig. Ur Ett hem. NMB 266

Carl Larsson c1890s

And so I went back to my search of how people might have lived in Odessa in 1905, such as the artisans and shopkeepers who were probably in the forefront of those whose businesses, homes and lives were destroyed in the pogrom. First I looked through a film I had recently found online of Kataev’s The cottage on the steppe (Хуторок в степи) for images of the family’s apartment in Odessa and the smallholding they later rented at Bolshoi Fontan. The story begins with the news of Tolstoy’s death in 1910 and, soon after, the Bachei father loses his teaching job after making a speech about the greatness of Tolstoy, who had been excommunicated by the Orthodox Church. After trying various unsuccessful ways to make ends meet, the aunt, who has brought the two Bachei children up, decides on a move to a rented smallholding with several acres of fruit trees in Bolshoi Fontan.

cottage steppe 1

cottage steppe 3

The Bachei apartment on Kanatnaya

I was also able to find a couple of catalogues of household objects sold in Russia at that time.

r kent candlesticks

Robert Kent Moscow 1903

img5003_10098

Thonet Brothers

When the family begins their move to the smallholding, Petya stays with his working-class friend in Near Mills until his exams are over. There are a few outdoor shots of the cottage in Near Mills, a rare view of the little farmhouse on the smallholding, and a few scenes showing the interior.

 cottage steppe 5

Near Mills

cottage steppe 4

The smallholding

kataev steppe rocker

The cottage on the steppe

Bentwood rocking chairs and dining chairs were very common at the time. There is an ad in the Odessa 1908 directory for the Austrian-German company that originally made bentwood furniture in the mid 19th century. The company was set up by the cabinetmaker Michael Thonet (1796-1871) whose work was carried on by his sons and their factories and showrooms spread across the world.

тонет 1908 вся одесса

Thonet Brothers 1908 Odessa directory

tonet furniture

Thonet Brothers catalogue

chagall window-over-a-garden

Chagall interior 1917

The few Russian photographs of interiors from around 1900 that exist show rooms very similar to those in the Kataev film, which must have been the common style for anyone who could afford to buy furniture, either new or second-hand, and gives an idea of the everyday lives of people around 1905.

interior 1900

Interior 1900

officer's lunch st petersburg 1900

Officers St Petersburg 1900

The coastal outskirts of the city in 1905 – walking the streets of Odessa

Although Moldavanka was the centre of Jewish life in Odessa, Jews lived in every part of the city. Possibly because it was a major Black Sea port and there were people of many nationalities and different ethnic groups, it had a history of integration and assimilation in different sections of the city, along with periods of tensions between the different groups. Over the days of the pogrom, hooligans spread out to wherever it was known that Jews lived. In his famous story, The lonely white sail or The white sail gleams, Kataev describes the hooligans ransacking the Jewish shop in his apartment block on the outskirts of the centre on Kulikovo Field, and then moving down the French Boulevard to another Jewish family. The 1906 pogrom report describes hooligans going out to the summer resort, Bolshoi Fontan, ransacking and burning Jewish summer houses, and terrorising Jews still there in the autumn, who lived there full-time.

Alex Stilianudi 1918 b fontan

Stilinaudi 1918 Bolshoi Fontan

These were not the poor working class or wealthy merchants, but ordinary tradespeople, craftsmen and middle-class shop owners, teachers or civil servants. The fates of the Jews who were spread out across the city may never have been known and are therefore absent from the history of the pogrom. My grandparents were probably typical of this group and I wondered if I could work out, from various bits of gathered information, more about how and where they might have lived.

stilianudi 1910 april

Stilianudi 1910 Dacha and orchard

Putting together the various stories of my grandfather growing grapes and making wine, of my grandmother not wanting to live in Manhattan but in a house with a garden as she was used to, of my uncle talking about his village, of my grandparents settling near the coast outside New York, I began to look for writers who had lived in Odessa in the early 1900s and described their daily life there, fictionally or as memoir, especially the areas near the coast with their winding lanes and small houses set in gardens – Jabotinsky, Kataev, Babel and Paustovsky, who worked in Odessa as a journalist just after the Civil War in 1920. I wanted to be able to see in my mind what those parts of Odessa might have been like in the early 1900s, and then walk down Google Streetview looking for streets and parts of streets that still reflect something from those days. Konstantin Paustovsky describes first arriving in Odessa:

 

In a piercing North wind, on a February day in 1920, the whites fled from Odessa, firing a few parting shots at the town… The shops shut down… The busy market squares had turned into deserts of cobblestones. Only the cats, unsteady with hunger, wandered about looking for scraps. But scraps in Odessa were a thing of the past.

Black Sea Street old photo

Black Sea Street 1960s

I had been living in Dr Landman’s disused sanatorium in Black Sea Street… Yasha and I found a porter’s lodge in the same street and rented it from the enterprising landlord, an unfrocked priest called  Prosvirnyak. The Lodge stood in a neglected garden surrounded by high walls of rough stone, at the back of a two-storey building facing the street. In those un-quiet days it was as peaceful there as in a fortress…

Черноморской улицы 3

Paustovsky’s house Black Sea Street

 Before describing the events that followed, I should say something about Black Sea Street. I grew very fond of this small suburban street and believed it to be the most picturesque in the world. Even the way to it from town was a tonic against adversity, as I often experienced. I might be walking home, utterly dejected by some failure, but as soon as I found myself in the deserted alleyways around Black Sea Street – Observatory Lane, Sturzo Lane, Battery Lane – and heard the rustling of the old acacia trees, saw the ivy dark on walls gilded by the winter sun, felt the breath of the sea on my face, I at once recovered my peace of mind and lightness of heart.

These alleys all ran between the garden walls; the houses hid at the back of the gardens, behind locked wicket-gates. The alleys led to Black Sea Street, and Black Sea Street stretched along the edge of the cliffs overhanging the sea – On the right, the steep rust-red cliffs overgrown with pigsweed and goosefoot, led to Arcadia and the Fountains, towards the misty beaches on which the tides would often wash up floating mines, torn from their moorings… (Konstantin Paustovsky Years of Hope p9)

otrada 1914 dir

Black Sea (Черноморскауа) St, Otrada and French Blvd, 1914 directory

In his memoir, A mosaic of life, Kataev wrote about all the streets his family lived on during his childhood, Bazarnaya, Kanatnaya and especially Otrada, the little group of streets at the edge of the steep lanes down to the sea. An area that had once been a fishing village was being colonised by the wealthy, and, more recently, by the growing middle class.

Kataev family 1910 Gotlib

Kataev family 1910

In 1910, the Kataevs lived in an apartment at Otradnaya 10, and one of their neighbours was the very wealthy publisher and printer, Fasenko.

otradnaya 6 fasenko 1910

otradnaya 6 dom fasenko

Otradnaya St Dom Fasenko 1910

Kataev describes his friends and the games they played on the Otrada streets, including exploring empty dachas, and playing in new partly-built houses.

In Otrada, searches frequently had to be made for an escaped monkey and a flyaway parrot… In the course of a moment, Otrada, with her four nice, deserted streets, framed in white acacias with feathery leaves through which the green-tinted blue sky peeped so romantically; Otrada, with her villas, smooth lawns, and beds of fiery-red flowers, was transformed into a sort of Valparaiso.(p239)

Out of the dormer window (the attic in a new, unoccupied four-storied house) we had a splendid view of the four streets with their buildings and ‘meadows’ and the good-natured policeman in his white tunic, standing at the crossroads in the shade of an acacia-tree; of the yards behind the houses, with their sheds, their well-trodden paths through the long, wavy grass and their freshly washed linen hanging on the line; and of the stretch of grey sea beyond the roofs on one side and a section of the French Boulevard on the other, with an occasional passing carriage and the iron standards carrying the wires for the recently built electric tramway line. (p161)

Not all the houses around Otrada were mansions or apartment blocks. Quite small one and two-storey houses, with gardens and vegetable plots, sometimes nestled between much larger buildings on the lanes that slope down to the sea off the French Boulevard.

lermontovski lane off french blvd

Lermontovskyi Lane

udilnyi lane off french blvd

Utildnyi Lane off French Boulevard

Morskyi lane malyi fontan

Morskyi Lane Malyi Fontan

Further from the centre, the streets are barely paved, and the houses, anything from an enlarged shed to a two-storey dacha, are set back in larger walled or fenced gardens, obscured behind trees and shrubs.

nedjelina st 2

Nedjelina St Srednyi Fontan

Kataev’s story, The cottage in the steppe, which continues from The white sail gleams, begins with the death of Tolstoy in 1910. Petya’s father makes a speech at his school in honour of the death of Tolstoy, is labelled a communist, and loses his job. He is then offered a job in a private school designed to get wealthy children through exams, but the job does not last long as Petya’s father is ethically unable to fiddle exam results as he is meant to. Eventually they try to make a living by renting a dacha at Bolshoi Fontan with several acres of fruit trees, and with the help of Petya’s friend Gavrik and his revolutionary brother and associates, they manage, just in time, to harvest their crop of cherries. The father, who is deeply loyal to the Czar, ends up teaching history, geography and astronomy to the working class revolutionaries.

bolshoi fontan 1904 kovalevsky

Bolshoi Fontan Dacha Kovalevsky 1904

The cottage was near the dacha of the wealthy Kovalevsky, a legendary figure in Odessa history for bringing the first water pipe from Bolshoi Fontan to the city in 1853. His land was at the end of Bolshoi Fontan, the lower right section on the map, and now all that exists of his country house, water tower and pumping station, is the name of the road leading to where his dacha was, Dacha Kovalevsky Street.  http://www.citymap.odessa.ua/?30

Before the water pipe, Odessa inhabitants collected rainwater in tanks as the well water was too mineralised to be potable. However, Kovalevsky spent so much money buying equipment from England that he went bankrupt, and the water quality never lived up to expectations.

odessa naberezhnaya st dacha kovalevsky

Nabereshnaya St parallel to Dacha Kovalevsky St

Kataev describes the little dacha and smallholding the family rented:

The house itself was a five-room affair with an outside kitchen, then there was a stable, a labourer’s hut, a rain-water cistern and a shed which, Auntie said, held the wine press.

They boarded the little suburban train that passed their house and went to the sixteenth station, from which a horse-tram took them to the Kovalevsky country-house. After that, guided by Auntie, they walked a mile or so across the steppe to “their cottage. (Kataev, The cottage in the steppe: 224-5)

I imagine my grandparents living in one of these villages, probably close to or on the edge of Odessa, as my grandfather was setting up a business, possibly one of the houses set behind a picket fence on an unmade lane.

12 lyustdorfskoi

Lyustdorfskaya Rd near Bolshoi Fontan

On Google Streetview, I have wandered down the little side streets in Sredni and Bolshoi Fontan looking for areas which have not been completely rebuilt. There are scattered modern apartment buildings, but mostly the area has been rebuilt with modern individual houses with brick, metal or rendered block walls or garages along the road so little can be seen of the houses. The older houses tend to have wooden picket fences and are often blocked by overgrown shrubs and small trees.

omskaya st bolshoi fontan

Omskaya St Bolshoi Fontan

rivnosti lane walls

Rivnostyi Lane walls

rjepina st walls

Rjepina St fences

sredi fontan close

Srednyi Fontan

slavy lane 2

Slavy Lane Srednyi Fontan

I can only imagine what the daily life was like in Odessa for those who lived in the scattered houses and villages, and what their houses looked like inside. Like many of Odessa’s suburbs and outer fringes, these were city people but not city people. One of my older cousins spent her summers with my grandparents at their house outside New York in the 1930s and said the house was unremarkable and had ordinary, non-descript furniture, although there was also a samovar, and my grandparents drank their tea from Russian glasses and cooked typically Russian food. The only photograph I knew as a child of my grandparents was taken by my father in 1935, my grandfather in his old-fashioned three-piece suit, and my grandmother dressed like an old peasant woman in a long checked cotton skirt, careworn, and haggard, not what would have been expected from her middle-class background, or in a photograph of any woman in her 50s in 1930s New York.

In Odessa I imagine they had typical furniture from the 1890s, flowered or striped wallpaper and little tables covered with vases, decorated boxes and family photographs. It is difficult to find photographs of interiors from the 1890s and early 1900s and the impressionist or art nouveau paintings of the time are abstracted or highly idealised. Two of the paintings below have dates and the other is more modern.

Mirek_Aleksey_Interer

Aleksei Mirek

somov the-interior-of-the-pavlovs-country-house 1899

Somov 1899

zhukovsky interior 1914

Zhukovsky 1914

I have one object that my mother said her mother had brought from Russia, an Art Nouveau Minton soap dish, which would have come with a complete wash set of bowl, jug, sponge dish and chamber pot.

minton 3

1903 Minton Secessionist soap dish

My mother may have invented the story that the soap dish had been her mother’s or had come from Russia. Her mother may have acquired it in New York as my grandfather was a scrap dealer, but as I discovered many years after I tried to date the dish, it has a number, a tiny 3, on the foot which signifies 1903, placing it exactly when my grandmother might have bought it in Odessa. Most similar Minton Secessionist ware is not dated and could have been made any time from about 1900 to 1920. That this dish is dated 1903 is most intriguing. It suggests that my grandparents may have had a taste for modern Art Nouveau furnishings and may have had some beautiful things. It is a strange fragile object to have survived their trip from Odessa to Minsk (possibly stopping for some time in Kiev to have their baby) to Liverpool, and then finally to New York. Washing apparatus was very important for Russian travellers, especially those with babies, but travellers would have carried small tin (or silver) soap boxes. A ceramic soap dish must have been packed deeply in their luggage.

soap tin

Russian travel soap tin

Because Russian inns tended to be primitive, and distances were so far, travellers also carried tea making equipment and bedding. I imagine this is why most immigrants often speak of their families having brought their samovar, feather pillows and quilts from Russia.

It is difficult to imagine my grandmother with her beautifully dressed babies (photograph in Rabinovich birth records and the pogrom https://odessasecrets.wordpress.com/2016/01/13/rabinovich-families-part-two-birth-records-and-the-pogrom/), her Ukrainian maid, and her Art Nouveau wash set, when, to me, she was the tiny careworn peasant in my photograph. It was not until many years later that I was given a photograph of my grandmother with her parents as a 16-year-old, a middle-class girl in 1889,with her life ahead of her. That is the only photograph I have of her taken in Russia, leaving her early married life with my grandfather and the first years of their first four children a mystery.

Michael Ignatieff, in The Russian Album, has a similar late picture of the Russian grandparents he never met, who had been brought up in mansions, standing in the snow in bedroom slippers outside their small bungalow in Canada. The photographs of his and my grandparents are photographs of people who have had to leave their homes, who have been emigrants, emigres, refugees and finally immigrants, but have never truly found a new home.

I have a picture of them taken by Lionel in the winter of 1944. They are standing outside the cottage in upper Melbourne, side-by-side in the snow on a cold winter’s afternoon. They are bundled up in long winter coats that seem to pull them down into the earth. Natasha is smiling in that squinting quizzical way of hers. Her grey hair is pulled back in an untidy chignon and her long straight neck is enclosed in a black choker. Her knees are slightly bent and turned inwards, which gives her stance the awkwardness of a shy girl. Paul is standing a fraction apart, elegant as always with an astrakhan perched on his head, a carefully knotted tie and trawled moustaches. The sockets of his eyes are dark and the ridges of his cheekbones are sharp and exposed. He is not smiling. They’re both wearing bedroom slippers and they stand on the flagstones, little dry islands in an expanse of white snow. Spring is months off; the darkness will soon close about the house. It is the last picture in the album. (Ignatieff p164)

 When I look at their final photographs in the family album, standing in front of the bungalow on a snowy afternoon, I want to be there to walk with them up the path to the house, to help them out of their coats, to make them a cup of tea and sit with them by the fire. I want to hear them speak, I want to feel the warmth of their hands.(p184)

 I would like to go back in time and talk to my grandparents as they stood outside their New Rochelle house in 1936 and also walk with them up their path to wherever they lived in Odessa in 1905

Rabinovich families: part two – birth records and the pogrom

When I began this research, I did not know whether my uncle Michel was born before or after the pogrom, as his date of birth is not on his death record or anywhere else. But there was one more clue which helped me to put the pieces of this story together. One of my cousins told me a story about the oldest son, Aron, who was seven when they left Russia, and who had nightmares all his life from having seen ‘Cossacks spearing Jewish babies’. He never spoke of the past or his childhood, but did explain about his nightmares to his wife, saying that when there were raids in his village, their Ukrainian maid, who had a Cossack boyfriend, would warn them, and the children would be hidden. What did he mean by village? Where might they have lived? How many raids might they have experienced? Where were they hidden?

mali fontan

Malyi Fontan

In his memoir, Mosaic of Life, Kataev also uses the word ‘village’ when his family moved just a few streets from their home on Kanatnaya to Otrada, a group of four short streets which had originally been a fishing village on the edge of the steep lanes down to the coast. I began to think about my grandparents living on one of the small lanes running down towards the sea or at one of the fishing villages used as local resorts, the Malyi, Srednyi, or Bolshoi Fontan, and I wandered along Google Streetview, looking at the old houses that remained.

gospitalni lane

Gospitalnyi Lane (lane off French Blvd towards the sea)

gospitalnaya 1916

Gospitalnyi (Госпиталный) below first Rabinovich (Рабиновиичa) dacha

If Michel was not born until after the pogrom, the two nameless boys would have been the youngest, possibly under 1 and 2 years old in 1905, and it would not have been possible to hide them away with the older children. They would have been in their mother’s arms, easily grabbed away by soldiers. If Michel had been born before the pogrom, this story falls to pieces. But recently I asked a researcher in the Ukraine to look up three Odessa birth records for me: the two Mikhails born in 1905 (there were no Mikhels), both born after the pogrom, to see if any were my uncle Michel, and one Nakhman born in 1904, as that was a family name, and might have been one of the other boys. I found that Michel was not born in Odessa, unless it was during or immediately after the pogrom and the family did not have a chance to register the birth. The real children of the Odessa birth records I received were one Mikhail, son of an Odessan businessman Abram-Ide Khaskelecich, Nezhinskaya St 14, born 18 November 1905, another Mikhail, born 30 November 1905, son of Hersh Leibovich and Ester from Satanov, and Nakhman, son of Abram Shimonov and Zislia from Kherson, born 14 December 1904.

13 literaturna st

13 Literaturna St

literaturnaya modern map

Literaturnaya (Литературная) running down to park by sea

odessa plan 1894 literaturnaya

Literaturnaya, Srednyi Fontan 1894 – track running north from main road to sea

The stories about my uncle Aron also say the nightmares were the result of witnessing a baby being tossed into the air and stabbed with a sabre. A slightly different version of this story was that he had seen Cossacks riding into their village, taking small babies out of their mother’s arms, tossing them into the air and spearing them on their swords. This made me wonder where Aron and his sister had been hidden that he could see this scene. At first I had imagined he was looking out an attic window at some distant scene down a street, but of course it is more likely he could only see in front of his own house. Later, I began to think that they might have been in a shed looking into their own yard, or a cupboard in their house looking through a keyhole. Both stories mention babies, as do many others newspaper stories about the pogrom, but there are no babies in the pogrom death records and only 3 children under three years old.

If the two brothers had not died in the pogrom, why would my grandparents have gone to so much trouble to hide any evidence of them, to hide the birthdate of their youngest son, and everything else about their lives in Odessa? It was a very elaborate lie to keep going for the rest of their lives. The 1910 US Census has a question about the number of children a woman has had and whether they are alive or dead. In 1910, four years after they arrived in New York, my grandmother had had her first child born in the US, and she said she had had four children, and four were alive, the three that had come from Russia and the new baby. Why had she not said she had had six children, as she did on my mother’s birth certificate? I wondered if the census was done orally with the whole family around, and my grandparents did not want to mention the two missing children in front of the others. Michel was then 5, old enough to understand everything, and may not have known about the missing brothers, or anything about the circumstances of his birth and why the family left Russia. This might have been a lesson for the children that the past was not to be spoken about. And a problem for them later.

I went back to Michael Ignatieff’s Russian Album to help me think about how my grandparents might have felt after leaving Russia without their two young boys. His grandmother also lost a two-year-old son in Russia and he writes:

There was typhoid at the resort, in the water supply, in the water ices the children ate on the terrace overlooking the sea, in the milk for the littlest one’s formula. In two frightful hours, Natasha watched Vladimir come down with the disease, and she saw the life of her youngest – Paul – ebb away before her eyes. In time she managed to speak of all her losses, all her dispossessions, but never this one, never the snuffing out of baby Paul’s little life. How many times, in her most secret hours, must she have stalked that accursed ground in her memory wondering what else she might have done, how she might have deflected the falling sword. She never returned to the Crimea again, to those blessed estates of her childhood with the beautiful names – Koreis, Gaspra – but her memory must have marched back again and again to that hotel bedroom in Eupatoria, to that empty cot. When the time finally came at the end of her life to put down what happened that summer of 1909, she did not write about it at all…Through all the waystations of the life to come, she kept just one little picture in a round silver frame on her night table: the smiling image of her dead child. (p85)

I have a photo of the two eldest children, Aron and Sara, when they were nearly 2 and 4, as Aron was born in December 1898 and little boys began to wear trousers by 4. It might have been taken shortly before the third child was born in Odessa, or before they left Baranovichi.

Archie Sarah_0002

Odessa 1902?

Studio portraits of children leaning on props such as walls were very common in Odessa at that time. It looks as if someone has made a copy of this photograph cutting out the name of the photographer and town at the bottom.

odessa boy pillar wall Gotlib

Odessan boy 1900s?

When I was 6 or 7, I remember finding an old children’s book, Tige, among my parents’ books. I assumed it had belonged to my mother when she was little, although it was never mentioned and I never thought to ask. It is the story of a dog who moves from the country to live with a little boy and his family in New York City until the family finally moves out of town to a house with a garden, much to the dog’ s delight. In one of the first pictures, the little boy is dressed in a dress, as my uncle was in the photograph. It was not until recently that I thought to look at when the book was published – the date inside is 1905, and I realised that the book must have been for Aron, who was seven when the family arrived in 1906. The story mirrors my grandparents’ lives at that time, as they settled first in Manhattan and then moved out to New Rochelle. Had he been given it for his first birthday in America around Christmas 1906?

tige 1   tige 2_0002

Tige by Richard F. Outault 1905

I am quite sure that my grandparents would not have bought a book in English, a language they never learned to read or write properly. They would not have known that this story was a spin-off from a popular cartoon called Buster Brown. Was it bought by one of my grandmother’s brothers, the successful one who had had several businesses and was always helping out other family members? I doubt that there were many other books or other things in the house at first, so this is a rare reminder of their first months in the US.

This is the only photograph of my grandparents’ children in Russia. When I read Ignatieff’s description of the death of little Paul, it makes me wonder how my grandparents might have felt losing two little boys, possibly from an illness like typhoid, but possibly brutally during the pogrom. That these two boys remained nameless and no photographs were kept probably says more than any number of words. The first family photograph taken in the US was of my grandmother and the three children about two years later, when the baby, Michel, was about 3, wearing a dress as had his brother before him. The children are not as smartly turned out as six years earlier, or as most children are in studio portraits. Their clothes are rumpled and not tucked in. The little touches of a mother wanting her children to look their best are not there, although everyone, except the youngest who looks up quizzically at the photographer, is smiling.

From the little I have heard about my grandmother, I felt that something had been broken in her by the time she reached America. I gathered that she rarely went out anywhere, whether to the shops, into New York City, on a holiday, or to visit relations. My grandfather mainly worked from home or very early in the morning so that he could be at home for lunch with my grandmother, and once settled, she did not want to move or change their life in any way. And even though my grandfather was often around, when my mother, the youngest child, went to college in New York City, she felt she had to come home for lunch as often as possible because her mother was now alone. My cousin also mentioned that, in the summers, my mother would come from work to her mother’s for lunch, and then take her and my cousins to the beach, where my grandmother would sit by herself rather than talk to the other old women gossiping together.

My grandparents always lived on the same two adjoining streets in New Rochelle but none of the houses they lived in remain. Many of the houses around there do not look that different from Russian houses with their gable ends to the road, picket fences and tree lined streets.

acorn terr new rochelle

Acorn Terrace, New Rochelle

new rochelle picket fence

New Rochelle street

vershynna st bolshoi fontan

Vershynna St, Bolshoi Fontan

nedjelina st trees

Nedjelina St, Srednyi Fontan

There was one more clue to where all the children were born. In the US 1920 census, the Russian districts where people were born were recorded. My grandparents and the two elder children were said to have been born in the Minsk district, and for Michel it said Kiev. My grandfather also wrote on his naturalisation form that his last residence in Russia was Kiev. It is possible that they had left Odessa and stayed initially in Kiev to have the baby and wait until he was old enough to travel on to Minsk and then America. But it is also possible that, not wanting to speak of why they had left Odessa, they invented the story that they had lived in Kiev. When my eldest uncle applied for his first US passport around 1960 he wrote that he was born in Kiev. Was he not born in the Minsk district or had he simply decided to repeat the Kiev story?

Rabinowitz Jacob 1920e

1920 US census

I was still not sure where Michel had been born, and no closer to finding the other two uncles. Eventually, as more records come online, possibly even added to this blog from people who have retrieved records from the Odessa archive, this list will be wheedled down to a point where it might be feasible to find my uncles. Below is a list of the Odessa Rabinovich births for 1902-1904, among which are possibly the two missing boys.
1902 births
44   RABINOVICH Beila
108 RABINOVICH Rivka
293 RABINOVICH Ester
299 RABINOVICH Dina
5??  RABINOVICH Gersh
503 RABINOVICH Gersh
606 RABINOVICH Leib
535 RABINOVICH Elasha
557 RABINOVICH Pesya
576 RABINOVICH Alisa
790 RABINOVICH Gersh
858 RABINOVICH Esya
892 RABINOVICH Mal?
1177 RABINOVICH Aaron
1438 RABINOVICH Shmil
1743 RABINOVICH Khaim Mendel
1883 RABINOVICH Gersh
1942 RABINOVICH Ilya
1749 RABINOVICH Mesiya
2089 RABINOVICH Evce
1835 RABINOVICH Vitali
2232 RABINOVICH Rudolif
1991 RABINOVICH Braina
2327 RABINOVICH Iosif
2071 RABINOVICH Etel
2591 RABINOVICH Ruvin
2601 RABINOVICH Moise
2367 RABINOVICH Tsipora
2373 RABINOVICH Feiga
2415 RABINOVICH Khana

1903 births
11    RABINOVICH Gersh
122 RABINOVICH Breita-Riva
240 RABINOVICH Khvelya
620 RABINOVICH Borukh
799 RABINOVICH Manus
1079 RABINOVICH Isidor
1200 RABINOVICH Moisei
1059 RABINOVICH Beila
1253 RABINOVICH Ber
1255 RABINOVICH Yakov
1370 RABINOVICH Iosif
1585 RABINOVICH Iosel
1891 RABINOVICH Sergei
2301 RABINOVICH Menasha
2341 RABINOVICH Shimon
2422 RABINOVICH Yakov
2225 RABINOVICH Evgeniya
2430 RABINOVICH Pesya

1904 births
58   RABINOVICH Leya
110 RABINOVICH Aron
220 RABINOVICH Beilya
413 RABINOVICH Ekhatsniesh
538 RABINOVICH Usher- Ruvin
549 RABINOVICH Boris
841 RABINOVICH Avram
695 RABINOVICH Mirel
702 RABINOVICH Beila
1365 RABINOVICH Mariem
1634 RABINOVICH Falin
1480 RABINOVICH Feiga
1662 RABINOVICH Pesya
1672 RABINOVICH Sarra
2082 RABINOVICH Mordel
1885 RABINOVICH Etya
1985 RABINOVICH Leya Reidya
2011 RABINOVICH Ester
2012 RABINOVICH Etya twins
2441 RABINOVICH Mikheal
2509 RABINOVICH Nakhman
2666 RABINOVICH Iegoshia
2682 RABINOVICH Gersh Volf
2741 RABINOVICH Nakhman