It’s amazing what Facebook can throw up. The other day this photo appeared in my news feed, showing the grave of Vevrik Rabinovich (1864-1939), the brother of the great Jewish storyteller and creator of Fiddler on the Roof, Sholem Aleichem. In the background is the burial chamber of Shlomo BenZion Twersky (1870-1939) of the Chernobyl Rabbinical dynasty. The picture was taken in the Kurenevka Jewish cemetery in Kiev.
I have a connection to both of these men. I have been led to believe that Sholem Aleichem and his brother were the nephews of my great-great-great grandfather, Menachem Mendl Rabinovich – his sister’s children. Her name was Chaya Esther Rabinovich. It confuses me that these siblings have the same surname even after Chaya Esther’s marriage, to Menachem Nukhem Rabinovich. Perhaps Chaya Esther married a member of her own family, or perhaps my information is incorrect.
Sholem Aleichem was most famous for his short stories featuring Tevye the dairyman, which became the basis for the musical and subsequent film of Fiddler. Aleichem’s first story was published in 1883, when he was 23 years old, and he went on to write over 40 volumes, novels, stories and plays. He also performed his stories at packed public buildings across the Jewish lands of present-day Ukraine.
Sholem Aleichem often spent his holidays at a dacha in the countryside about an hour from Kiev. One summer’s day, he was lounging with a book when a woman of almost exactly the same age as him passed carrying bowls of soup. “That smells good!” he called out. Later, she returned and offered him some of her soup. That lady was Pessy Shnier, nee Rabinovich, my great-great grandmother. The two of them chatted for hours and worked out how they were related.
If any of Sholem Aleichem’s descendants come across this article, I’d be delighted if they could get in touch, and perhaps we can try to clear up any confusion about how we may be related!
The other grave in the photo is that of Rabbi Shlomo BenZion Twersky. The Twerksys were a Hassidic Rabbinical dynasty founded by Rabbi Menachem Nachum Twersky (1730-1787), a disciple of the founder of Hassidism, the Baal Shem Tov. My family has a strong connection to another of the Twersky Grand Rabbis – Rabbi David, or Reb Dovidl, Twersky of Talne (1808-1882). Another of my great-great-great grandfathers, this time on my grandmother’s paternal side, was Velvl Shapira – known as Velvele Tallner – Reb Dovidl’s chief advisor. Reb Dovidl took Velvele Tallner with him when he left his home town of Vasilkov in 1854 to become the great Rabbi of Talne.
Reb Dovidl was also the subject of a popular Jewish folk song: Reb Dovidl Reb Dovidl der Vasilkover, voynt shoyn yetst in Talne, which my father was taught to sing as a child. It’s still popular today as a YouTube search will testify. Here’s just one of the many performances available.
Monty Hall, who died a few days ago, was a distant cousin of mine. Monty was born Monte Halparin in Winnipeg, Canada, in 1921. He rose to fame as host of the game show Let’s Make a Deal and even put his name to the Monty Hall problem, a probability puzzle based on the show. I never met Monty, but apparently my grandmother used to babysit him when he was a baby.
My great-grandmother, Ettie Leah, and Monty’s grandmother Faiga were first cousins. They lived next door to one another in a large double-fronted house built by their grandfather in the village of Pavoloch, about 60 miles from Kiev. On the advice of a Rabbi, the house had been divided up by drawing lots, and my side of the family was awarded the larger part of the property.
This division of the house caused a great rift between my great-great grandmother Pessy, and Monty’s great-grandmother Bluma. Although their husbands were brothers and remained close throughout their lives, their wives were always at loggerheads and even in old age, a simmering resentment and jealousy continued between them.
Faiga and her husband, Dudi Rusen, were the first of our family to emigrate from Russia to Canada in the early 1900s. Dudi was clever and ambitious, and had long dreamed of moving to the West. They settled in Winnipeg. Dudi bought a pushcart and based himself on a street corner to sell fruit and vegetables. Soon he had enough money to buy a truck and within a few years he was running his own wholesale produce company and had bought a handsome house in the best part of town.
When my grandmother needed to escape terrible hardship in Russia following the Bolshevik Revolution and Civil War, it was Dudi who lent the money for her journey. My grandmother found a job in a factory to pay him back and try to raise the funds to bring the rest of her family over to Canada, again with Dudi’s help.
I’m grateful to another cousin of mine for posting the following clip on Facebook, in which Monty recalls a telephone conversation I had with him a couple of years or so ago. Monty called me after my book, A Forgotten Land, was published. He was tremendously excited by the book and recounted this Passover story to me over the phone. The story relates to Babtsy, my grandmother’s great-aunt, and her arrival in Winnipeg from Russia.
Babtsy and her husband Moishe had survived a terrible pogrom in their home town of Khodarkov in 1919. The Jews were rounded up and herded to the sugar beet factory beside the 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 with Moishe’s family before managing to emigrate some years later.
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 at the age of 96. May he rest in peace
Keeping stories alive
This blog aims to discuss historical events relating to the Jewish communities of Ukraine, and of Eastern Europe more widely. As a storyteller, I hope to keep alive stories of the past and remember those who told or experienced them. Like so many others, I am deeply troubled by the war in Ukraine and for the foreseeable future, most articles published here will focus on the war, with an emphasis on parallels with other tumultuous periods in Ukraine's tragic history.