The terrible numbers are known to us all: six million Jews died during World War II. Pitifully few of those living in Nazi-occupied Europe survived. But there was one large group of European Jews that did live to see the end of the war.
After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, around a million Soviet Jews – including up to 400,000 from the territories of Eastern Poland recently annexed by the Soviet Union – were either evacuated by the Soviet authorities or managed to escape on their own to the Central Asian republics of the Soviet Union, enabling them to escape almost certain death. Those who made the journey constituted the largest group of European Jews to survive World War II, and many later emigrated to Israel or elsewhere.
Conditions during evacuation were harsh, with cramped, overcrowded living quarters and terrible poverty, while disease was rife. Many succumbed to epidemics including typhus, dysentery and cholera, others to crime and despair. Some were arrested and thousands were deported to remote internal frontiers as “class aliens”. According to some estimates, as many as 300,000 of these deportees perished as a result of disease or starvation.
The majority of the of evacuees arrived in 1941-1942 in Central Asia – the Soviet republics of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan – and the region of the Urals mountains. The Uzbek capital Tashkent was one of the main refugee centres, and many passed through the city before moving on to other towns and villages, while some wound up working on collective farms.
Published first-hand accounts of the experiences of evacuees are rare. Until recently, I knew that members of my own family had escaped from Kiev to Central Asia during the war years but had never heard stories of their experience there. My cousin Irina, who was born in Kiev in 1952 and lived there until the 1990s, has filled me in on some of her mother’s and grandmother’s recollections of their wartime experiences in Kokand, Uzbekistan.
The authorities organised mass evacuations of Soviet citizens, particularly the cultural, technocratic, and educational elite, as well as entire industrial plants, away from the advancing front. The Soviet government and leading institutes were transferred to Kuibyshev, now Samara, some thousand miles southwest of Moscow.
But Irina’s grandfather had been arrested in 1938 as an ‘enemy of the people’ and sent to the gulag. The Soviet authorities had no interest in helping his wife Mira (known to me as Miriam) and two children, Musenka (Moishe) and Sulamia (Sveta), escape to safety, so they had to make their own way. They owe their survival to Mira’s brother Avram – a respected doctor and the youngest sibling of my great-grandfather Meyer.
Avram secured places for them on a cart with his wife’s brother, travelling east from Kiev to the city of Izyum in eastern Ukraine, and from there they were able to board a train bound for Kokand. They were robbed during the journey, and all their warm clothes stolen.
Once settled in Kokand, Avram managed to find a job in the hospital for his sister. Sulamia went to school and 16-year-old Musenka to a further education college. They lived on a thin gruel of flour and water that Mira was able to bring home from work, and Musenka received a white bread roll at college each day, which he gave to Sulamia, who was suffering from typhus. One day during Sulamia’s illness, when she was alone in the family’s lodgings, a burglar broke in. He left again empty handed: the family was so poor that they had nothing to steal. In 1943, Musenka was called up, first to a military academy in Turkmenistan, on the Afghan border, and then to fight. He was later killed in action in Poland.
Mira and Sulamia returned to Ukraine after the liberation, together with Avram, first to Kharkov and finally back to Kiev, in defiance of the authorities, which had refused them permission to return to the city.
However grim Mira and her family’s experience, they were some of the lucky ones. Avram’s assistance in finding transport and work for Mira saved them a worse fate. Accounts of the lives of Jewish evacuees in Central Asia are few and far between, so it is impossible to generalise about their experience. But it is known that many congregated for days or weeks in and around train stations, sometimes forced to keep moving when they could find no place to shelter, with the area already overwhelmed by the mass evacuations. Some were able to find work, but many did not. Jobs were often temporary and a large proportion of mostly men worked in the black market.
The largely Muslim Central Asian population was undergoing its own difficult and ambivalent process of Sovietisation, and was understandably bewildered by, and often resentful and suspicious of, the sudden influx of “western” evacuees. In spite of this, the local population could also be astonishingly generous given their own poverty and deprivation, sharing their food and inviting the newcomers to join their wedding celebrations.
Retired journalist and genealogist Bert Shanas, who has kindly shared his research with me, has unearthed several stories of members of his family evacuated to Central Asia from Ukraine during the war years.
Rochel Chasina and her mother fled Zhitomir for Kazakhstan. Before they had even got as far as Kiev, their train was requisitioned by the Soviet army, leaving them stranded in the middle of nowhere. Finally, they reached Kharkov, where they spent a month in a refugee camp, before fleeing again when the Germans drew nearer, this time to a small village near Stalingrad. “The trains were crowded; everybody was trying to flee the approaching Germans, and in those days when you got on a refugee train, you never knew for sure what your destination was. You only knew that the general direction was east,” Rochel recalled.
As the front drew closer, she and her mother spent more than two weeks sleeping on a bench at the station. "You had to be at the station all the time because you never knew when a train that could mean your escape would arrive.” A freight train took them to Uralsk, in western Kazakhstan, where they shared a room with two other families. “We had been wearing our shoes for protection for the entire month of the train trip. So when we took them off in the room, patches of our skin and flesh came off with the shoes because everything had been frozen together,” she remembered.
Rochel looked for a job, but owning only summer shoes, she was unable to work in winter when the ground was covered in snow. She and her mother both overcame serious illness and finally, a cousin found her a job at a military hospital in Novosibirsk, Siberia, about 1,200 miles to the northeast. There they were able to join other family members, living eight to a room. In 1946, they began a perilous three-year journey that would take them from Russia through Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Germany and France, and finally to Israel.
Another of Bert Shanas’ relatives, Rosa Zaydenberg, fled from Kiev to Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan, a journey that took around four months under constant attack from German bombers. Once she finally arrived, Rosa had no warm clothes and no place to stay. She tried to sleep on a bench at the train station, but was chased away and ended up sleeping in a public phone box. She soon found work in a factory and in 1942 was able to bring other family members who were surviving in dreadful conditions in Fergana, Uzbekistan, to join her in Alma-Ata. She rented “one corner of one room” for the three of them, paying rent in the form of food for the landlord’s dog, which she scrounged from the factory where she worked. The family returned to Kiev in the summer of 1945.
Another Shanas relative, Faina Sheynise, went on hunger strike to persuade her stubborn father to leave Kiev when the occupation began. He had refused to depart, insisting that praying daily at the synagogue would keep him safe. At last, he agreed to flee and the family reached the chaos of Kiev’s train station shortly before the Germans arrived. They boarded a train heading to Kubah, in the Caucasus mountains, and as the invading army continued to approach, moved on to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and finally to Osh in Kyrgyzstan, close to the Chinese border. There Faina worked as a seamstress and took a job in a food store. Much of her family got separated during the war, with one sibling in Moscow and two others in Siberia. Faina had no desire to return to Kiev after the war. “Not after Babi Yar, where they killed so many thousands of Jews,” she said. “I just couldn’t go back there,” she recalled. She remained in Osh until 1991, when she emigrated to the US.
Faina’s niece, Ida Rosentsvaig, was a baby when the war broke out. She and her family managed to get on an already packed train heading to Siberia, where they spent most of the war in the town of Anzhero-Sudzhensk. Later, they were able to join Faina in Osh. “I remember how warm Osh felt after Siberia and all that snow, and suddenly we had enough food!” she recalled. But Ida’s mother became sick and spent two years in hospital from 1946-1948. Ida was left to fend for herself, while her brother – treated as an orphan – was adopted for a time by a local childless family. Eventually the children’s mother recovered and the family settled in the city of Andijan, Uzbekistan.
With grateful thanks to Bert Shanas for allowing me to use his research for this article.
Most Jews in North America and much of Europe can trace their roots back to the Russian Empire, once home to the world’s largest Jewish population. But how many of us actually understand how our families ended up there in the first place?
The basics are fairly well known. After the Roman sacking of Jerusalem in 70AD, Jews scattered across the Roman Empire, which covered most of southern and western Europe and north Africa. By the time of the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 4th and 5th centuries, the Jewish diaspora had spread right across Europe. The split into two distinct communities: the Sephardi on the Iberian Peninsula and the Ashkenazi along the Rhine in Germany occurred around the 10th century.
During the Crusades in the 13th-15th centuries, Jews were expelled from much of western Europe, including from England in 1291, France in 1343 and much of western Germany in the early 15th century. Many fled east, to the one country that offered a safe haven for Jews – Poland. Here King Casimir the Great (reigned 1333-1370) welcomed Jews for their trades and skills and protected them as “People of the King”.
But by the 18th century, Poland was a weak and failing state, preyed on by its more powerful neighbours: Prussia, Austria and Russia. These three great European powers divided the country up between them in the three Partitions of Poland of 1772, 1793 and 1795. The area to the southwest of Kiev where my family came from became part of the Russian Empire under Catherine the Great in the second partition of 1793. Since 1991 it has been in independent Ukraine.
Bert Shanas, a retired journalist turned genealogist from New York, has traced his family history to shtetls southwest of Kiev from at least the mid-1600s, and it is from his research that I have borrowed the contents and title of this article. The typical Ashkenazi Jew from this region, Shanas says, has an ancestral line that began in Africa, migrated to the Middle East, and from there into Europe, through France, to present-day Germany and into Poland, to an area that went on to become Russia then Ukraine over the course of some 200,000 years.
Using a combination of DNA testing, recent scientific studies, archaeological discoveries, and biblical and historical scholarship, Shanas has traced the likely route his ancestors would have taken. His male family line would have had its origins in east Africa 60,000-70,000 years ago – around present-day Ethiopia, Kenya or Tanzania. Major climatic changes would probably have forced his ancestor to journey to the northeast in search of an adequate food supply, most likely travelling in a group of around 200 people. They would have crossed the Red Sea – then a smaller, shallower channel – into present-day Saudi Arabia and continued eastwards along the coast of the Arabian Sea until they reached the Indus Valley, the area that is today Pakistan.
Thousands of years later, it is likely his ancestors would have broken off from the group and headed north through Iran to settle in what is now Turkey, around 40,000 years ago. About 10,000-15,000 years ago, they would have moved on to the Middle East, where Jewish history began – with Abraham, who came from the city of Ur in Babylonia, now southern Iraq - around 3,200 years ago.
Shanas believes that following the Roman conquest of Jerusalem, his ancestors would probably have travelled from the Middle East through Turkey, Greece and Italy, then north through France around the year 1400 and from there to Germany. Around 1500, they would have moved east again, into Poland and by 1600-1700 were settled in the area near Kiev.
DNA analysis indicates that Shanas’ female family line probably ended up in Poland by a different route, trekking north from the area around present-day Kenya or Ethiopia around 60,000 years ago, through Sudan and Egypt into the Middle East. They would have survived the last Ice Age somewhere around Mediterranean Europe and once the glaciers retreated, spread throughout Europe between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago.
His ancestral line would probably have migrated to the Caucasus mountains then arced over the Black Sea into the Balkans. From there the DNA trail branches in two directions, the first heading north into Finland, passing through Poland on the way, and the second going west along the Mediterranean through France and Spain, into Portugal. DNA analysis shows that his genetic female ancestors were not grouped in great numbers in any one spot, but were scattered across eastern and western Europe, and their exact route to Ukraine is unclear.
A study of the origins of Ashkenazi women by Professor Martin Richards at the University of Huddersfield in the UK and cited by Shanas in his research, found that in at least 80% of the cases studied, the DNA of Jewish women traced back to Europe – unlike that of men, which traced back to the Middle East. Richards concluded that the vast majority of Jewish men who fled the Middle East for Europe after the Roman conquest did not take women with them. Instead, they married local European women, who then converted to Judaism.
With grateful thanks to Bert Shanas for allowing me to use his research for this article.
Old movies can tread a fine line between feeling dated and irrelevant, and providing a fascinating insight into a time and place that is long gone. Ost und West (East and West) is the earliest surviving example of Yiddish cinema, shot almost a century ago, in Vienna in 1923, and most definitely falls into the latter category.
The film deals with the thorny issue of assimilation that has troubled Jewish communities for hundreds of years, as a wealthy New Yorker and his boxing-enthusiast daughter return to the old country for his niece’s wedding in a traditional, observant household. The most fascinating aspect of the film for me was to see scenes of how our ancestors would have lived: how they dressed, what their houses looked like, the food they ate, their Sabbath table. The household is a relatively affluent one in cosmopolitan Galicia, but the images still resonate strongly for those of us with family ties further east.
As well as being intriguing from a historical point of view, the film is, in parts, laugh-out-loud funny, even for a modern, sophisticated audience. It throws up some hilarious faux-pas by the worldly Americans as they encounter traditional shtetl life. Even the suitably obese father – who one assumes grew up in the Orthodox community – cannot find the right page or passage in his prayer book, while his daughter Mollie takes a novel to the Temple to stick inside hers, while the rest of the family prays fervently on Yom Kippur.
Unable to cope with hunger during the long day of fasting, Mollie sneaks out of the synagogue to raid the fridge, stuffing her face with the meal intended for the family to break the fast, then hiding the leftovers under the table, to be discovered by the pet dog and cat! But Mollie’s playful disruptiveness ends up getting her into more trouble than she could have imagined as a mock wedding game becomes real and she finds herself accidentally married to a young, pale-faced yeshiva student.
This scene has great resonance for me as my great-grandmother found herself in a somewhat similar situation. The educated and impeccably dressed daughter of an affluent grain merchant, she spent more of her time reading modern novels than the Torah, but was forced into an arranged marriage with a Talmudic scholar who had been brought up in a Rabbinical court. Her initial horror at the match eventually turned to affection, and my great-grandparents’ marriage worked out in the end, as did that of the fictional Mollie and Ruben in East and West.
East and West is one of a great number of Yiddish films of the 1920s and 30s that entertained audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, although those made earlier than 1923 have not survived. New York was the main centre of the Yiddish film industry, enjoying a ‘golden age’ in 1936-39, when more than two dozen films opened, only for this to be curtailed abruptly by the onset of World War II. The films capture the language and lifestyle, as well as the values, dreams, and myths of the world of American Yiddish culture. Yiddish films were also made in Poland, Austria and Russia.
Filmmaking was a direct offshoot of Yiddish theatre, which had played a significant role in the life and culture of Jewish immigrant communities for many decades, and many popular stage actors were later immortalised in film. Molly Picon, the female star of East and West, began her career in Yiddish theatre in Philadelphia at the age of six and was one of few stars of Yiddish stage and screen to cross over into the mainstream American film industry, notably playing Yente the matchmaker in the 1971 production of Fiddler on the Roof.
East and West “breathes true Jewish character”, even though “it does not satisfy – one might say, thank God – high literary expectations,” wrote the Viennese journalist E G Fried at the time of its release.
Fried also cited the authenticity of the musical accompaniment, which drew on Jewish folk motifs. How much of that music remains in the version of the film we can view today is not clear. It is a silent movie set to a musical score produced by Henry Sapoznik and performed by Peter Sokolow during the process of restoration. Like many works of Yiddish cinema, the film only survived in fragmentary versions, and was reconstructed by the Filmarchiv Austria, funded in part by the American Film Institute Film Preservation Program and the National Endowment for the Arts.
The film is available to watch from Rarefilmm, the "Cave of Forgotten Films". You can find it on their Facebook page here https://www.facebook.com/groups/1177986749024623 by typing "East and West" into the Search box.
As another lockdown Passover begins, I’ve been reflecting on this Passover story that dates back nearly a century, to the late 1920s. My great-grandmother’s cousin Babtsy arrived in Winnipeg, Canada, with her husband Moishe and four children at the end of their long journey from Kiev, which at that time had recently become part of Soviet Ukraine.
Babtsy and Moishe had survived a terrible pogrom in their home town of Khodorkov in 1919. The town’s Jews had been rounded up and herded to a sugar beet factory beside a lake, then forced to keep going deeper into the lake until they drowned or froze to death. Babtsy and her family had hidden in a basement and, when it was safe to emerge, they found houses smouldering around them and the lakeside littered with pale corpses. Barely stopping to grab a handful of belongings, they fled to the railway station and took the first train to Kiev, where they remained for several years, living with Moishe’s parents.
Owing to a mixture of errors, misunderstandings and delays, it took three and a half years from the time they first lodged their application to emigrate to Canada to their eventual arrival in Winnipeg. Remarkably, our family has around 50 pages of documentation relating to this process, consisting of letters between the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society Western Division in Winnipeg, its head office in Montreal, and the Canadian Department of Immigration and Colonization in Ottawa. I have written about this in a previous article, which you can read here.
Once Babtsy, Moishe and their children finally arrived at the Canadian Pacific Railway Station in Winnipeg, they asked the station master to call the phone number of Babtsy’s cousin Faiga. Faiga had been the first member of our family to leave the Russian Empire for Winnipeg back in 1907 with her husband, Dudi Rusen, and one of her brothers. Dudi was an ambitious young man. Once in Winnipeg he bought a pushcart and based himself on a street corner to sell fruit and vegetables. He worked hard and after a while had raised enough money to buy a truck, then within a few years he was running his own wholesale produce company. Faiga and Babtsy had not seen one another for more than 20 years.
Faiga and Dudi, with their children and grandchildren, were in the middle of a Passover Seder when the station master rang on that spring evening. Dudi answered the phone and told him to put the newly arrived family in a taxi and send them straight to his home at 107 Hallett Street. To great excitement, everyone budged up around the table to make space for the relatives from the Old Country so they could join the Seder, and celebrate this latest escape of Jews, to a new Promised Land, alongside the ancient exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.
This Passover story is narrated in the following clip by Monty Hall, the host of TV’s Let’s Make a Deal. Monty was Faiga and Dudi Rusen’s grandson and was at their house that evening during Passover. In the video, Monty describes his tremendous excitement at reading my book, A Forgotten Land, and discovering that it was about his own family. Monty contacted me after he read the book and we had a long telephone conversation, during which he recounted this Passover story to me.
After many years hosting Let’s Make a Deal, Monty Hall engaged in philanthropic work, helping to raise close to a billion dollars for charity. He features in both the Hollywood and Canadian Walk of Fame, and the Walk of Stars in Palm Springs, California, and was awarded the Order of Canada in 1988. He died on 30 September 2017 at the age of 96.
I recently heard about an extremely unlikely link between the crazed Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and my home county of Cornwall, an idyllic rural backwater at the furthest southwest tip of England.
After 85-year-old Lana Peters died in Wisconsin on November 22nd 2011, the true identity of this elderly and unassuming lady came to light. She was none other than Svetlana Iosifovna Alliluyeva, Stalin’s only daughter, and had previously been a resident of Cornwall. Here she moved between the industrial town of Redruth and the coastal village of Mullion on the county’s southerly Lizard Peninsula, where my family and I spent our holidays last October before being shuttered again into lockdown. In Mullion, Svetlana lived in sheltered accommodation and one of the few people who knew her real identity was the local doctor.
Svetlana had defected from the Soviet Union in 1967 at the age of 41, denouncing communism and initially moved to the US. She moved home many times during her life, seeking to escape from the glare of publicity.
Her upbringing was disturbing enough to unhinge even the most loyal of daughters, as Svetlana lost one member of her family after another to the whims of her increasingly paranoid father. Aunts and uncles were summarily jailed or executed as enemies of the people and when Svetlana was six years old, her mother Nadia committed suicide. Svetlana grew up understanding that Nadia had died of appendicitis and only discovered the truth ten years after her mother’s death. Her brother Vasily died of alcoholism at the age of 40, while her half-brother Yacov died in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp – after Stalin refused a prisoner swap – having earlier failed in an attempted suicide.
Stalin nicknamed Svetlana Little Sparrow and photographs from her childhood show her sitting on the lap of an affectionate father, a little princess at the court of the Red Tsar. But when, as a teenager, she made the mistake of introducing her boyfriend – a Jew no less, and 22 years her senior – to her father, he was charged with spying for the British and sent to a labour camp in Siberia, where he perished. The relationship between father and daughter soured and Stalin never met Svetlana’s first husband and only met their son, his grandchild, for the first time when he was four years old. Still, Svetlana was at Stalin’s birthday party in December 1952 – where he humiliated her, as had become his custom – and attended him at his death the following year.
Once Stalin’s crimes were officially denounced, his acolytes and relatives – including his daughter – lost the wealth and prestige they had previously enjoyed and Svetlana took her mother’s surname, Alliluyeva, and became a teacher in Moscow.
Svetlana refused to be bowed by the horrors of her upbringing, but shared something of her father’s temperament, switching from charm to rage at the flick of a switch. She led a frenetic life, marrying four times and repeatedly moving from place to place to avoid publicity. She had to throw off her minders to escape from the Soviet Union in 1967 – leaving her two children behind – to defect to the US, where she was greeted by fascinated crowds at Kennedy Airport and was feted in New York and Washington, where she denounced Communism and the Soviet regime.
Svetlana made a fortune from the memoirs she wrote, but subsequently lost all her money and spent the last thirty years of her life in poverty. She moved to the UK in the 1980s but struggled to settle in one place. She defected back to the Soviet Union for a spell, but clashed terribly with the son she had abandoned, who remained an avowed Communist. Svetlana then returned to America before finding herself back in the UK. She tried and failed to settle in both Cambridge and London, where her misery and inner turmoil resulted in an attempted suicide by jumping off London Bridge in 1991. And then to Cornwall, living a quiet life and subsisting mostly on the dole, before moving back again to the US, to settle in a retirement flat in a small dairy town in Wisconsin.
Her remarkable story is told in the 2015 biography Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva by Rosemary Sullivan
The story of the Jewish shtetl is well known. These once vibrant communities that were so widespread across Eastern Europe until the 20th century were destroyed, first by pogroms and resulting waves of emigration, and later by the anti-religion policies of the Soviet Union, with their final remnants wiped off the face of the earth by the Holocaust.
But not so, it seems. A new documentary from the Russian filmmaker Katya Ustinova explores the existence of shtetls in Ukraine and Moldova right up until the 1970s and even beyond. Shtetlers premiered last year and was available to view during Russian Film Week USA in January. Unfortunately, is not yet available in Europe, so I am still awaiting an opportunity to watch it.
As the film’s website says, “In those small and remote towns of the Soviet interior, hidden from the world outside of the Iron Curtain, the traditional Jewish life continued for decades after it disappeared everywhere else. The tight-knit communities supported themselves by providing goods and services to their non-Jewish neighbours. The ancient religion, Yiddish language and folklore, ritualised cooking and elaborate craftsmanship were practised, treasured and passed through the generations until very recently.”
Ustinova is a Russian-born documentary maker living in New York who previously worked as a producer, host and reporter for a Russian broadcasting company in Moscow. Shtetlers is her first feature-length film. Ustinova’s grandfather was a Jewish playwright, but her family did not identify as Jewish until her father, a businessman and art collector, founded the Moscow-based Museum of Jewish History in Russia in 2012.
On discovering modern artifacts from shtetls in the former Soviet Union, Ustinova and her father came to realise that some Jewish communities had continued to exist for far longer than they had thought.
Shtetlers tells the stories of Jews in these forgotten shtetls by means of nine first-hand accounts of people who lived in them. In 2015, Ustinova visited several former shtetl residents, who have since scattered around the world.
Many of the stories in Shtetlers help break down the myth that only enmity existed between Ukrainians and Jews. Without distracting from the fact that many Ukrainians committed atrocities against the Jewish population before and after – as well as during – the war, the film reminds us of those gentiles who loved and cared for their Jewish friends and neighbours.
Meet Vladimir. He was not born Jewish, but converted after his mother – who is honoured at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Centre – sheltered dozens of Jews during the war. Growing up among Jewish neighbours, their culture imbued itself into gentile homes, and he remembers his mother baking challah during his childhood. Vladimir emigrated to Israel and now lives in the West Bank as part of an Orthodox Jewish family.
And Volodya and Nadya, Ukrainian farm workers still resident in a former shtetl in Ukraine, who remembered their Jewish neighbours so fondly that they decided to adopt Jewish customs, like making matzo brei and kissing the mezuzah attached to the doorway of their house – which once belonged to Jews – when they enter.
Emily, a Jewish shtetler who survived the war, escaped from a concentration camp and was saved by a gentile friend – the sister of a Ukrainian police chief – who brought her family food while they were in hiding. And then there’s the queue of Russian Orthodox Christians coming to Rabbi Noah Kafmansky to solve their problems and obtain his blessing, because “the Jewish God helps better”.
In the five years since Ustinova filmed Shtetlers, many of the people she met have passed away. “Their memories are a farewell to the vanished world of the shtetl, a melting pot of cultures that many nations once called their home,” the website says.
The trailer is available on the Shtetlers website: shtetlers.com/
And numerous extracts from the film, as well as some gorgeous animated clips, can be found on the Shtetlers Instagram page: www.instagram.com/shtetlers/
I recently watched a film adaptation of French author Irène Némirovsky’s marvellous World War Two novel Suite Française. It’s a fabulous book and I have written about it before, here.
The novel was written in 1941-42, while Némirovsky was living in the village of Issy-l’Eveque, having fled Paris when war broke out. The author envisaged a book of five parts, a mammoth work of a thousand pages constructed like a symphony, taking Beethoven’s Fifth as her model. She wanted it to convey the magnitude of what she was living through, not in terms of battles and politicians, but by evoking the domestic lives and personal trials of the ordinary citizens of France. The five stories would be separate but linked, with a handful of characters weaving in and out of the narrative.
She completed only the first two sections before her arrest. The first depicts a disparate collection of Parisians as they flee the Nazi invasion and make their way through the chaos of wartime France, while the second follows the inhabitants of a small rural community living under Nazi occupation.
Némirovsky’s parents had been wealthy, assimilated Russian Jews who fled the St Petersburg high life in December 1917 – having lost their fortune following the Bolshevik revolution – and settled in Paris, a city that was already home to many Russian emigrees who opposed the new regime. A lonely, solitary child whose mother showed her not the slightest sign of love, Irène grew up to despise and disdain her parents’ prosperous Jewish milieu.
Once in Paris, she enrolled at the Sorbonne and soon became an acclaimed writer, publishing her first novella in 1927. Titled L’Enfant Genial, it told the story of a Jewish boy from the slums of Odessa who seduces an aristocrat with his poetry. In 1939, in light of the increasing likelihood of war and violent anti-Semitism across Europe, she and her children converted to Catholicism. But this was not enough to save her. She was first taken to the concentration camp at Pithiviers, in the Loiret region south of Paris on 13 July 1942, then deported to Auschwitz the following day, where she died on 17 August.
That Némirovsky’s children survived the war was nothing short of a miracle, and all the more so that they kept what they thought was their mother’s wartime diary – written in tiny handwriting to save ink and paper – as a memento, guarding it carefully as they fled from one hiding place to another. The two girls did not read their mother’s work, finding it too painful to look at, until decades later when they discovered not notes or a diary, but a literary masterpiece.
Suite Française was finally published in French in 2004 and in English two years later. The film, from British director Saul Dibb and starring Kristin Scott Thomas and Michelle Williams, was released in 2015. It deals only with the second story in the book, set in the fictional village of Bussy, where the affluent middle-class Angelliers are forced to play host to a German officer during the occupation.
Tim Robey, reviewing the film in The Daily Telegraph, described Scott Thomas – playing the senior of the two Angellier ladies – as “more terrifying than the Nazis”. Némirovsky’s description of her character is more impressive even than Scott Thomas’ portrayal:
“This older woman had such a transparent, pale face that she seemed to have not a drop of blood beneath her skin; her hair was pure white, her mouth like the blade of a knife, her lips almost purple. An old-fashioned high collar made of mauve cotton, held rigid by stays, covered but didn’t hide her sharp, bony neck which pulsated with emotion like a lizard. When she heard a German soldier’s footsteps or voice near the window, she would tremble from the tips of her small pointy little boots to the top of her impressively coiffed head.”
Ma Angellier’s son Gaston is a prisoner of war and she holds each and every German personally responsible for his fate. Imagine her horror, then, when her daughter-in-law falls in love with the officer billeted in Gaston’s study.
Robey in his review describes the film as a “jarringly sweet Second World War romance… It is thoroughly easy to sit through, when it should probably have been harder”. He is absolutely right, the film is entertaining enough to watch, but it fails to show any of the cynicism, ambiguity and complexity of Némirovsky’s novel – and it changes the ending in such a way that pushes it far beyond the realms of realism or possibility. The upshot – read the book, and watch the film if you like, but don’t accept it as an accurate representation of the author’s intentions.
Antony Blinken is on the cusp of being appointed Secretary of State in the new administration of President Joe Biden. One thing many people may not know about Blinken is that his great-grandfather was a Yiddish writer of some repute.
Meir Blinken was born in 1879 in Pereyaslav, Ukraine – coincidentally the same shtetl as Yiddish literature’s most famous name, Sholem Aleichem. Blinken gained a Jewish education at a Talmud Torah, before attending the secular Kiev commercial college, part of a joint educational project founded by Ukrainian and Jewish businessmen. He worked as an apprentice cabinet-maker and carpenter, before switching to become a massage therapist. Indeed, he is listed in the Lexicon of Modern Yiddish Literature with the trade of masseur. His son Moritz, Tony Blinken’s grandfather, who became an American lawyer and businessman, was born in Kiev.
Blinken Senior emigrated to the US in 1904. His first story, written under the pen-name B Mayer, was published a year earlier, in 1903. Once in America, his sketches and stories appeared in a range of literary, progressive socialist and labour Zionist publications, including the satirical magazine Der Kibetzer (Collection) and Idishe Arbeter Velt (Jewish Workers’ World) in Chicago. In all, he published around 50 works of fiction and non-fiction.
Blinken’s books include Weiber (Women), described in the lexicon as a prose poem, Der Sod (The Secret) and Kortnshpil (Card Game). A collection of his short stories published in 1984 and translated by Max Rosenfeld, is still available. His writing dealt with thorny topics including the effects of poverty, poor living conditions, religious strictures, inadequate education and the lack of understanding that immigrants feel about their new country.
Most controversially, he was one of the few male Yiddish writers to address the subject of women’s sexuality, writing about marital infidelity and sexual desire and hinting at the sense of boredom felt by housewives. Another subject he tackled remains controversial to this day: showing empathy towards abortion.
Writing in a review of Blinken’s work in the 1980s, the journalist and author Richard Elman pointed out that among Yiddish authors writing for the largely female audience of Yiddish fiction, Blinken “was one of the few who chose to show with empathy the woman’s point of view in the act of love or sin”. Elman and others believed that the greatest legacy of the author’s work was that it vividly evoked the atmosphere and characters of the very early Jewish diaspora in New York.
According to a 1965 article by the journalist David Shub in the Jewish newspaper The Forward, Blinken was the first Yiddish writer in America to write about sex. In the same article, he wrote that Blinken was also an editor’s nightmare!
By the time of his death in 1915 at the age of just 37, Blinken had opened an independent massage office on East Broadway, in the heart of what was at that time the city’s Yiddish arts and letters district. While his writing was very popular among Yiddish-speaking Americans of his own generation, Blinken’s star quickly waned after his death.
Photo credit: Ukrainian Jewish Encounter
I wish I could begin my first article of 2021 with a Happy New Year, but unfortunately everything feels very bleak out there. The UK has headed deeper into lockdown and the US is reeling from an unprecedented attack on its democracy. So perhaps we could all do with a little humour. The articles in my blog often tell terrible tales of suffering and loss, so by way of contrast, here’s something funny and uplifting to help take our minds off all the doom and gloom in these cold, dark days.
Talking to God is a 2019 film written and directed by Maya Batash, who also stars in the lead role as Rebecca, an insomniac New Yorker who will try anything to find happiness – and to help her get to sleep. Nothing works until she joins a bunch of equally desperate women on a trip to Uman, the town in Ukraine where the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) has become a pilgrimage site for religious Jews. The picture was partly filmed on location in Uman.
But don’t worry, this isn’t a moralistic tale to convert the viewer to Orthodox Judaism. Surrounded by praying pilgrims at the Rabbi’s tomb, Rebecca remains utterly unmoved. But after a while she realises she’s sleeping better, in spite of the stiflingly hot dorm room she’s sharing with a dozen other women, one of whom crunches crisps (potato chips) noisily in the middle of the night.
In search of the answer to the universal question, “What makes us happy?” she discovers The Fixer, a cheery fiddle player who lives in a tiny shack in the forest and looks like he belongs in a Sholem Aleichem adaptation. The Fixer’s narrative is a modern a take on a short story written by Rabbi Nachman himself, A Tale of Faith. In the original, a king goes on a quest to find out if his subjects are truly happy and discovers that the happiest man in his kingdom is completely destitute.
“I wanted to connect the two stories,” Batash told the Jewish Press in December 2020. “I tried to modernise Rabbi Nachman’s story and connect it to this modern-day one-woman journey. Since we don’t live in an age with little villages with a king, I turned the character into the king of Hollywood. The basic story premise and message is still there.”
The movie mogul is a thoroughly nasty – and unhappy – character, while the Fixer, played by Australian Zebedee Row, is imbued with such an innate joyousness that you just want to bottle it up and take a drop when you need something to cheer you up. “I think people in the world need to laugh more. The world can be a serious place,” Batash says.
The moral of the story is that “A person must enlist all his strength to be joyful at all times. It is human nature to be drawn to depression and sadness because of life’s daily events.” And I’m sure that’s good advice to all of us struggling through these dark, depressing times.
When I first began writing my grandmother’s story and turning her recollections into what would eventually become a book, the title I originally had in mind was The Breadbasket. To me, this encompassed much what the people and places in the book were about. Ukraine was known as the Breadbasket of Europe because of its huge grain production.
My great-great-grandfather Berl was a grain trader. And bread, or lack of it, played a big role in the family story, from the mill my family owned in the latter part of the 19th century and early 20th, to the prosperity Berl built through his thriving business, to his wife Pessy’s ability to make a ball of dough dance as she kneaded and shaped it in mid-air, and the challah on the Sabbath table.
And later, there were the Bolshevik grain requisitions, the great hunger that followed the revolution when there was no bread to be had and my grandmother travelled the land with a basket on her back, bartering food to keep her family alive.
But a literary editor who guided my early manuscript advised me to ditch the title. You need something more evocative and compelling, he said. Several weeks later, I finally settled on A Forgotten Land. This was a success and I was pleased with the change. The new title evoked the terrible loss suffered by towns and villages across a wide swathe of Eastern Europe, along with the people who lived there and their way of life.
In the Pale of Settlement of the Russian Empire, pogroms, war, famine, disease and emigration had torn Jewish families apart from the 1880s onward and seared the heart out of Jewish communities. The Nazis, of course, would do the rest, not just there but across Europe. The Pale did indeed become a forgotten land, a network of once vibrant communities whose people had all emigrated or died.
Three-quarters of a century on from the Holocaust, many people are working hard to bring to light the remnants of the deserted shtetls, to remind us of these communities that have been forgotten for so long. I will highlight just two projects, but please feel free to add others to the comments at the end of this article.
The first is a blog called Vanished World, which documents Cologne-based photographer and writer Christian Herrmann’s travels around Eastern Europe and elsewhere in search of visual traces of the Jews who once lived there - destroyed or misappropriated synagogues, overgrown cemeteries, tombstones in the street paving, traces of home blessings on door jambs.
“Neglected Jewish cemeteries, ruins of synagogues and other remains of Jewish institutions [are like] stranded ships at the shores of time. The traces of Jewish life are still there, but they vanish day by day. It’s only a matter of time until they are gone forever,” he says. His articles and photographs are both a commemoration and an act of justice towards the men, women and children who died as innocent victims in the Holocaust, and an act of justice to those who survived as well.
Christian’s photographs are beautiful and his commentaries on his travels tell a repeated and all-too- depressing tale of crumbling synagogues that were later used as museums, offices or factories during the Soviet era, fragments of tombstones incorporated into buildings or unearthed during construction works, and long-forgotten Jewish cemeteries that are now parks or wastelands.
Another project is taking place in Ukraine, where Vitali Buryak, a software engineer from Kiev, has taken on the immense task of attempting to catalogue hundreds of shtetls. He began by creating lists of every settlement with a historical Jewish population of more than 1,000 for each gubernia (province) in central and eastern Ukraine. “My plan is very simple – to write at least a small article for each place on my list,” he says. His articles include old photographs and maps, archival documents, historical references and information about local families as well as numerous photographs of his own.
Vitali only recently learnt of his own Jewish roots, and decided to offer his services as a tour guide for Jewish visitors from abroad. One of his early tours brought him to the town of Priluki. “Priluki is the place where I was born, and my grandma is still living there. I contacted the head of the local Jewish community and he showed me places that I didn’t know about before! In my city, where I was born! My grandma didn’t show me the synagogues, she didn’t show me Jewish cemetery, she didn’t show me the Holocaust killing sites, or the sites of the ghetto. I’ve walked on this street, I’ve seen this building before. But I didn’t know it was a synagogue. And it was a shock for me,” he recounts.
“I decided to make this website in dedication to the Jews of Ukraine. The purpose of it is the gathering of information and resources from the remaining Jewish communities in Ukraine, as well as the ones that have been destroyed” Vitali says.
Vitali’s website can be found here http://jewua.org/
And the Vanished World blog can be found here https://vanishedworld.blog/
One hundred years ago
2017 marked the centenary of the Russian Revolution, an event that heralded the country's 1918-21 Civil War and a period of terrible suffering for my family and others who lived through it. This blog began as an investigation of current events affecting Jews in Ukraine today and comparing them with historical events from a century ago. It is broadening to include personal experiences and my exploration into Ukrainian history as my research for a new book, set in the country, develops.