Family secrets: the toy shop

There were several pages in the records where the names were unknown and one of these pages consisted completely of women. Otherwise, there were very few women in the records. At the bottom of the page one of the unnamed women was later named as Sluva Korsunsky, about 35, wife of Leib Korsunsky from Bobrinets. I had tried putting several names from the list into Google to see if anyone had written about individuals who had died in the pogrom but found nothing. However, there was a story about Leib Berkovich Korsunsky in a 2005 edition of the Odessa magazine Tikva, told to the author, Oleg Gubar, by Korsunsky’s granddaughter, after he had written an article about various Odessa streets, including the ‘Passage’ off Deribasovskoy Street ( Leib Korsunsky was described as a forgotten, ordinary man, a man who owned a toy shop in the ‘Passage’.

passage odessaguide

passage pink odessaguide

After a description of the shop, the apartment above and the workshops in the courtyard, acquired at the turn-of-the-century, the story moves to 1905 and the calamitous pogrom. According to the story, the ‘Passage’ had gates at both ends and a policeman who knew Korsunsky kept guard so the troubles passed them by. Immediately after the two sentences about the pogrom, the story moves on to the granddaughter’s young aunt Emma and how she was so beautiful she was put in the toy shop window instead of the dolls, and how she ran away from her nanny one day but the friendly policeman brought her home. Why did the granddaughter tell these two stories of her aunt directly after the two sentences about the horrific massacre in Odessa? What was not being said in this story? Who is keeping the secret, the granddaughter or the grandfather?


As well as translating and listing the pogrom victims, I was also translating an index of Odessa births from 1902. Wondering whether Emma or one of her siblings might have been born in 1902, I looked through the index and found a Korsunsky daughter whose first name was very faded but began with an E. Someone in this family did not want to tell the story of the death of Sluva, Emma’s mother. Had Emma, three years old, run away from home possibly in search of her mother one day after she disappeared. The story lies there between the lines once you have seen Sluva Korsunsky’s name in the records.

korsunski e 1902 birth close

Корсунский Э Korsunsky E

The end of the article moves on to after the revolution when the Bolsheviks have taken over in Odessa, requisitioning the now optical and toy shop for the state. Korsunsky returns to the shop and asks if he could have a box of old photographs of his children. The shop girls find the box and mockingly tear the photos to shreds and throw them in his face. He is broken by this experience, becomes ill and dies soon afterwards. Were these photographs of his children when they were very young, studio portraits that were common at that time, and did they include their mother? Knowing that his wife died in the pogrom and that she was never spoken of afterwards, her memory completely hidden from her grandchildren, one can understand how tearing up the photographs would have been like tearing his memories of his wife into pieces.

Before the author of the article starts telling the Korsunsky story itself, he writes: ‘The fate of the lonely ‘little man’ in a historical context gives more understanding of an era than voluminous, dull, scientific monographs. And I feel a genuine moment of joy when, in some or other story, a seemingly minor character unexpectedly acquires the traits of a living person who has the indisputable right to be immortalised on an equal footing with the well-known.’ And then, a few lines later, he adds that the superbly recalled stories he heard about Korsunsky showed that he was not such an ordinary person.

I felt that the author had expressed my own thoughts beautifully. I am fascinated by the stories of forgotten people, many of whom wanted their not so ordinary stories forgotten. I want to find the ghosts between the lines. Although there was much in Korsunsky’s story that was beyond the ordinary, and he certainly lived in times that were far from ordinary, the crux of the story is missing, and now the story of the barricaded passage in 1905 and the children’s photographs finally come together and make sense. My own family story cannot even be a ghost between the lines as so little is known.

In the weeks after finding the story of the toy shop, I continued putting different keywords in English and Russian into Google to try and find out more about Sluva Korsunsky. I found another Sluva Korsunsky who had died in the early 1950s in Argentina, so possibly she had been remembered unless it was another relation or someone else entirely with the same name. And then I found a poem written by Tatiana Korsunsky called ‘May dream’ (2009)( It begins, ‘Once again I dream this dream: in my old house came the pogrom.’ It continues with a young boy hiding in his cot and his grandfather, the author’s great-grandfather. And then she says, ‘Why do I dream that dream, my old house and a pogrom there?’ She wakes up in her quiet Hanover apartment. Her son is 24. ‘Why do I dream this dream?’ The title comes from the ending, a scene of a May day carousel and the sight of old uniforms, half-fascists, half-beasts. Is this a dream, is it the truth?

The Odessa pogrom and the records

So I began to look up Odessa 1905, and discovered the 19-23 October pogrom. I read books and articles by Robert Weinberg (‘Workers, Pogroms, and the 1905 Revolution in Odessa’, 1987, The Revolution of 1905 in Odessa: blood on the steps, 1993) and John Klier and Shlomo Lambroza, (Pogroms: Anti-Jewish Violence in Modern Russian History, 1992), who were mainly interested in the politics of pogroms,, the year of strikes and unrest, the tensions between different groups, particularly workers, and the lead-up to the pogrom, but not in the people’s experiences. Weinberg has some fascinating insights into the differences between the politicised skilled workers interested in rights and revolution in contrast to the angry unskilled and often unemployed workers who were looking for a scapegoat like the Jews, many of whom were also unskilled workers, and the advantage to the government of such a split. To find out more about the pogrom itself, I turned to the newspapers of the time, which I expected to be exaggerated but also to hold kernels of truth. I looked for memoirs and autobiographies, and found two Russian published reports of the Odessa pogrom, one written in 1906, Одесскiй погромъ и самооборона, The Odessa pogrom and self defence, and the other in 1925, Еврейские погромы в Одессе и Одесщине в 1905 г., The Jewish pogroms in Odessa and surrounding area in 1905, by C. Семенов, which uses official reports, quoting from witnesses with their names and addresses, mostly streets in the Moldavanka area.

jan dudas flickr moldavanka 2008

j dudas moldavanka
j dudas moldavanka flickr

I wanted to get closer to what actually happened in various parts of the city, to look at old maps and photographs, and walk down the streets on Google Streetview. I wanted to get a little closer to seeing what had happened. While trying to find out more about Odessa I discovered websites with old maps, old postcards and photographs, photographs of the old buildings in the centre street by street, and old directories from the early 1900s. I studied the directories closely finding two other people with exactly the same name and patronymic as my grandfather but there was no sign of my family and eventually I realised that the directories covered only a very small proportion of the people Odessa, probably only the property owners themselves. I also wanted to try and get closer to what my grandparents life might have been like in Odessa, where and how they might have lived. The directories were filled with advertisements and I looked for shoe-shops, shoe factories and other shops the family may have used.
Link to directories 1899, 1900, 1901, 1902-03, 1904-05, 1906, 1908, 1910, 1911, 1914

weinshtein ad 02

grinberg ad 2
Odessa directory вся одесса 1902

I also knew that in New York my grandfather had grown grapes in his garden and made wine, and I thought this must have been something he had learned in Odessa, so I looked for places they might have lived on the edge of the city, places where the houses had gardens. The Odessa Jewishgen website began a project of translating birth and death records that people had given to them and I started doing some of the translating, eventually moving on to translating the 1902 birth index after they acquired the entire index of the Jewish birth, marriage and death records from 1875 to 1920.
I was hoping that the birth records would have the patronymics, the middle name which is also the father’s name, as I didn’t know the first names of the two children I was looking for and the last name was one of the most common Jewish names. Unfortunately there were no patronymics until 1906 so there was no way I could work out who my uncles might be. I did have a look at the birth index for 1905 to see if I could find the youngest son, Mikhel. There were no Mikhels in 1905 but towards the end of the year there were two Mikhails, so I asked a Ukraine researcher if she could check those records for me and I found they were not my family. That can only mean that Mikhel was not born in Odessa and the family probably left around the time of the pogrom in late October or early November. But was no closer to finding the two children who died. I also checked the 1905 death index to see if there were more deaths in late October but there weren’t. I finally discovered in an article on the Odessa archive website that there were pogrom death records somewhere in the records but no one seemed to be able to tell me where they were. Then one day when I was looking at a map of Odessa to see where various landmarks were, like the Jewish area Moldavanka, the synagogue and the Jewish cemetery, I came upon some recent photos on the internet of a monument to the victims of the 1905 pogrom in the Jewish cemetery, not just the large stone gate -like structure I had seen before, but a series of large stone slabs covered with the names of people who died in the pogrom. ( )

1905 monument

pogrom monument 1

Using different search terms in English and Russian I tried to find more photographs of the monument or lists of the names on the monument. I used the word ‘list’ (список) and various terms for ‘dead’ (смерть) or ‘killed’ (убитый ) and words for ‘monument’ or ‘memorial’, памятник, мемориал. I finally found several more recent photographs, one showing the names close-up, on a Russian website run by a tour guide. There were also pictures showing that this was a huge quadrangle of stone slabs. (

pogrom monument 2

Мемориал жертв погрома 1905 г.
Memorial to the victims of the 1905 pogrom

It was on this Russian website that I saw the word жертва ‘victim’, which I added to my search terms. Eventually I came upon an article about an Odessa writer, Simon Hecht, a student of Isaac Babel, whose parents were said to have died in the 1905 pogrom ( The author checked in the Odessa archive, didn’t find the parents’ names, and concluded that they must have been living elsewhere at the time. It did not occur to them that not every death during the pogrom was registered. A reference was given to the page numbers of the 1905 pogrom death records in the Odessa archive, possibly the only online reference to the exact whereabouts of those records.

pogram memorial-3

Список погибших во время погрома 1905 года в Одессе занимает в книге одесского раввината об умерших 23 листа . Но записи о смерти мужа и жены Гехт там нет. (ГАОО, Ф. 39, оп.5, д.118, л. 323—344.)
The list of those killed in the time of the Odessa 1905 pogrom fills 23 pages of the Odessa rabbinical book of the dead. But records of the deaths of the Hecht husband-and-wife are not there. (GАОО, F. 39, оp.5, D.118, p. 323—344.)

Now, having the actual page numbers, the researcher who had acquired the Odessa births, marriages and deaths index for the Jewishgen Odessa website, photographed the pogrom records as well. After several years of trying to find some evidence of my grandparents in Odessa, here at last was something tangible from the pogrom that they may have been caught up in. I didn’t expect to find anyone from my family in these records, as I felt these were not complete and they may have lived on the outskirts of the city, possibly in one of the little places by the sea, but I felt I finally had a piece of their history.

I read through the names in the death records expecting to find many families with small children and babies as mentioned in numerous newspaper articles. Seeing that most of the names in the records were young and middle-aged men, and that there were only 12 children up to age 15 and 5 under age 5, I wondered who these people were, and whether they came from one area of the city or were killed on one day. Were some of the men in the records in the self defence units or socialists encouraging the recent strikes, people the police had been keeping an eye on? Or were they simply in their workshops or shops on the ground floors, the first people the hooligans would have come upon? Wanting to answer these questions, I went back to the directories, articles and databases to see if I could find out where these people might have lived and who they might have been. Wanting to honour all the people who died in the pogrom, I wanted to prove that this figure was not the final number of deaths even though it was the only hard evidence that seems to be available. As I began to search for evidence of these people’s lives, the most obvious thing I noticed was that it was very rare to find the people themselves anywhere, in the directories or on a list of Jewish business people, or remembered anywhere on the internet. Finally I found one story which was extremely moving for the story itself and even more for the story it didn’t tell.

Секреты Одессы: погром 1905

This blog is a place to record my search for the victims of the 1905 Odessa pogrom, who they were and what their lives might have been like. As far as I know none of this list of 300 Jews in the Odessa rabbinical death records has appeared online before, and, in fact, none of the researchers I contacted who used or worked in the Odessa archive seemed to know the whereabouts of this list. Nor did they mention that there is a monument at the Odessa Jewish cemetery with the names of those in the rabbinical 1905 pogrom death records carved on large stones. Several pictures of the stones have appeared recently online but no one has recorded the names or put photographs of the series of stones online.

Monument to the victims of the 1905 Odessa pogrom

The list of 300 deaths is probably only one group of those who died in the pogrom, a group who were recorded in the rabbinical records and probably the group who were buried in the Jewish cemetery. Many others would not have had that fortune. One common figure for the number of Jews killed is around 400, the number in a police report, and another figure, 800, comes from the Russian Jewish journal Voskhod. The governor of Odessa himself, Neidhardt, who felt the Jews, especially the socialists, were responsible for the pogrom, estimated that there were 2500 deaths (Robert Weinberg The Revolution of 1905 in Odessa: blood on the steps, 1993), and in the newspapers around the world figures anywhere up to 15,000 dead were mentioned. Although there are a few stories written by witnesses of the Odessa pogrom, as far as I know, there are no stories by the families of people who lost relations in the pogrom. These ghost stories of people who died in the pogrom exist only between the lines if they exist at all. And although there are several academic studies of the Odessa pogrom, there is no social history of the people who lived through the pogrom, of how it spread through the city and surroundings, and who was affected. Some people become interested in history because of the family stories of the past that they have heard repeated again and again through the generations. Others become interested because their families tell no stories. This search for records of the 1905 Odessa pogrom arose from a complete absence of stories about where my grandparents had lived in Russia before they emigrated in 1906.



Odessa 1914 Baedeker