Chasing the Ghosts of My Ancestors, Letter to My Family

 As the Day of the Dead and Fet Gede approach, the days when the Ancestors return to visit with us, my mind turns to mysteries and myths surrounding my own Ancestors and our Ancestral home, Belaya Tserkov, Ukraine.
 My family left the Ukraine 100 years ago to escape pogroms and a darkening future. I had the opportunity to return to the homeland this past summer. This is the very personal story of my travels to Belaya Tserkov, Odessa and Kiev that I wrote for my family. You may not know the names, but the story may well resonate, as these things have occurred so often in so many places to so many people.

 First we went to Odessa, Ukraine, Mama’s (Our Great-Grandmother) hometown and I would guess Reba’s (Our grandmother) birthplace as well (Her birth cert says she was born in Russia). The flight over was extremely emotional as memories of Dad and his stories of growing up with his brothers, aunts and uncles resurfaced. I remembered him saying that when he asked his parents how they got out of Russia (I guess it was Russia then?), they drew stick figures of two parents and a child and said, “We ran!” Or was that something a Russian teacher told us when Nancy and I took intensive Russian at Yale one summer? I also remembered a story about hiding submerged in swamps with reed pipes for breathing tubes. But was that Dad’s family or mother’s? Memories were all mixed up. What were confused memories? What were family myths? What really happened in the Old Country in old times? I did think I had clearer memories of Mama and Papa. That Papa had pink-eye and was left on shore with a bag of coins at the age of 12 as his family boarded the ship for the US. He somehow managed to clear up the pink eye and make his way to the US, but he spoke no English. Was it Papa or Nathan who figured out when foremen would shout out names of men for day work, that he’d best step up and claim a name? Not knowing what kind of work he was signing up for, he became a taylor. I remember Dad saying people got paid .25 for a days’ work in clothing factories. So again for me, memories are all jumbled and maybe you can all disentangle them for me.

The thoughts that were strongest in my mind though as we flew to the Ukraine was that Dad always dreamed of going to Belaya Tserkov but never made it. And I remembered coming home from school one day and seeing Dad on the couch in the dark with his arm over his eyes. I asked mother if something was wrong with him and she told me that his mother had died. I went downstairs and told him I was sorry and he just said, “Yep.” I had never seen him like that.

I felt bad that I really didn’t know his mother or father or Tanta Rivele or Uncle Hy. Names and ghostly black and white photos were curious markers for the hole that was lurking in my life. I probably should have noticed this was an issue for me when I signed up for and started searching for Ancestors. But revealed no new information from Russian or Ukrainian times. Then one day it seemed important to go to the Ancestral home and honor those who came before us. I found myself welling up with tears repeatedly on the plane — partly missing dad so much and partly feeling an intensity of closeness with you all despite physical distance.

Descriptions of Odessa sounded interesting to Pres, so we went there first.  We discovered a lovely city that seemed vaguely familiar — like a smaller, quieter, cleaner Upper West Side of Manhattan. Apparently Catherine the Great wanted it to be her Southern St Petersburg and St Pete is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever seen. We spent a wonderful couple of days there and then it was on to Kiev. I was afraid Pres would find it boring and hate it because it was described as featuring rows of Soviet block housing after WWII destroyed many of its buildings. Kiev turned out to be bigger, more crowded and bustling than Odessa, but also was surprisingly lovely and fascinating. Breath-taking basilicas, amazing buildings and plazas, lots of beautiful green parks and elm trees lining all the boulevards. Interestingly though, almost no mention of Judaica anywhere. Few people spoke English and Russian language was frowned upon, but I still heard some people speaking Russian.

I woke up early the day we were headed to Belaya Tserkov (Bila Tserkva in Ukrainian) and looked up everything I could find about it on the Internet. The history is not pretty, though there are some glorious moments in there, too. The town is about 1100 years old. The treaty that established The Ukraine as a sovereign nation was signed there. Bombing in WWII destroyed all the city records, so it was ever more clear that we would not find any personal family historical records there, though I did find one still existent census document listing Jewish families from 1917, which I believe was before Nathan and his parents left. I did not find Glasanovsky in the list, but there is a Glasovsky family name — perhaps that was our name? I didn’t think we would find any family members still living there,  but my plan was to bring Dad’s photo and to put a stone on a grave in the Jewish cemetery to honor those who came before and those who suffered and died there.

We got a taxi to drive us to Bekaya Tserkov. He just sort of dumped us on the main highway at the edge of town, so we started walking down the hill. The road was pretty non-descript — modern, commercial buildings. NOBODY spoke English, though I heard a lot of Russian spoken. I was starting to worry that I had taken Pres on an ill-conceived goose chase, but then saw a white church in the distance and since Belaya Tserkov means White Church, thought we should head that way. We took a photo of me holding Dad’s photo there so he could see the name sake of the town. We tried to go into the church, but the stout woman behind the desk shouted “Nyet!” Hmmmm… things were not looking good. I kept telling myself not to have any expectations and maybe this was all we were going to find/get out of this experience. We asked everyone we saw for directions to the Jewish cemetery, but no one could understand us. Pres’ pantomimes of people dying and being buried were kind of entertaining but only baffled people more. But he was determined we would find someone who spoke English. He was going to make it possible for me to put a stone on a Jewish grave before the day ended!

We wandered into a building that turned out to be a university. The nice janitor there immediately rushed us to a room where a professor jumped up and said that while he only spoke a little English, he would take us to someone who spoke well. He led us (as though we were visiting dignitaries and not just ill-prepared American lunatics looking for traces of some hazy personal past — I mean it was really as though godette herself had taken us through that door to people who had been put there specifically to receive us. Yes, we’ve been expecting you. Come right this way…) through the university to the office of the Director of the School of International Relations., Olexandr. His English was beyond fluent and he also immediately turned his fullest attention on us as though we were visiting emissaries worthy of the highest respect. His knowledge of Ukrainian history was matched by his compassion and honesty. He utterly respected my mission to touch and be touched by our Ancestral home, but told me that we were indeed very unlikely to find any living relatives here and this was why:

At one time the population of Belaya Tserkov was 2/3 Jewish, but two of the worst pogroms in Ukrainian history took place there, each killing hundreds of Jews. Some -like our Ancestors – left, but others came back and the Jewish population rebuilt. Later the Nazis came, gathered up 6,000 Jews and murdered them all. They put the bodies in a mass grave in a field outside the town.  The children of the murdered Jews were gathered into a house while the Nazis tried to figure out what to do with them. But the children started crying and were annoying, so the Nazis ordered them taken to a field outside the town and shot. Ukrainian soldiers participated in the murder of all the children. Altogether, the Belaya Tserkov massacre was the worst incident of genocide in Ukrainian history. In 1943, the bodies were exhumed from the mass graves and burned and now no one knows where they are. Olexandr has a friend who wrote a book about his theory of where the graves are and I will ask him to send me a copy.

After the war, there were only 150 Jews left in Belaya Tserkov, though people started gradually returning. The population rebuilt, but in the 1970’s the Soviets started new, oppressive anti-Semitic campaigns and arrested and harassed people for holding seders, etc. The old Jewish cemeteries were plowed up and a football stadium was built on top. Synagogues were converted to other uses. The Jewish hospital was transformed into a general hospital. The only indications of a Jewish heritage in town are a metal Star of David on the former Jewish hospital and a stone monument in the front corner of the lot the stadium stands on to mark the old Jewish cemetery. When the Soviet Union dissolved in the 1990’s, most Jews left. Only about 1500 Jews remain out of 250,000 people who live there now. We asked if people remained anti-Semitic. He said about 1/2 the population don’t care if someone is Jewish, another ¼ aren’t happy about Jews, but tolerate their presence, and 1/4 are fiercely nationalistic and want all Jews out of their country.

On the positive side, Sholem Alechem was from there and there is the largest and most beautiful arboretum in the Ukraine there (Of course we went for a run before we left).

Olexandr closed his office and totally took us under his wing. He talked with us about Ukrainian politics — their new comedian, tv actor president (He plays the president of the Ukraine on tv) who has little experience and who speaks Russian, not Ukrainian but promises to clean up corruption. Additionally, he’s Jewish! Oleaxandr said he wasn’t so much shocked about Trump as he is that the American public elected such a man to the presidency.

Then off we went to see the stone marker at the old Jewish cemetery. The European Union has been identifying and funding the restoration/commemoration of Jewish heritage cemeteries and this was one of them. Olexandr translated the plaques on the stone (I should have written it down, but something like): “This commemorates the lives of thousands of Jews who were murdered in the BelayaTserkov massacre. You are standing on sacred ground.” Another plaque says, “May God forgive the souls of those who committed the acts of murder.” There was a little space behind the stone, enclosed by a locked wrought iron fence, that had a couple of little rows of small granite stones that seemed to be all that was left to represent the graveyard. I slipped through the fence and up to a stone altar-like form at the front. I put Dad’s photo (Him as the dashing young fencer) on the altar. My heart shattered and as they say in the Mahabharata, my throat was torn with inexpressible sorrow.”

When mother died, we all huddled together in front of her casket before the funeral. Dad was with us. In this place, the leaves of the trees all started rustling towards me. Dad seemed to whirl and gather himself and I felt the familiar huddle with all of us together again. It was deeply emotional, but the tears were about the sharing of life’s struggles which are eclipsed by limitless love. I felt surrounded by an ocean of Ancestors, all come to see who we have become. I placed my rock on the altar.

So glad I came.

The last time I saw Dad alive I told him it would take some time, but I was going to be okay. I wanted to tell him in Belaya Tserkov that I was okay now. Instead I told him that I might never be “okay,” but that I was striving every day to be the best that I can be. That felt honest and true. I generally beat myself up for never being able to do enough, be enough, give enough, make systemic change, make a real difference. But maybe it’s my path to impact individual lives, to be willing to listen to and help those who come across my life. I do what I can do and that is probably just right.

I thank Pres for accompanying me on this adventure and thank all of you for your love and support and for surviving and carrying forward. I love you all more than I can say or show. I think we should go to Belaya Tserkov together, not expecting anything but receiving so much. And now we have a friend in the university there who wants to show us the Jewish sites and practice his English.

Olexandr’s last words to us were that he thinks God and religion are two very different things.

I think he was an angel God sent us to help us find our way.

—   My brother, Andrew, subsequently wrote to clear up some of my confusion:

It sounds as if Ukraine travels brought you home in memory. Naturally. The exile was a deep rupture. All the details you learned about destruction in Belaya Tserkov explains the need for that major emigration. But it’s striking that going there gave you a connection you felt. And the professor is a great piece of fortune, helping to explain the place and then set the context for what you were feeling.

I see reactions to details that are useful. Peter’s right that with a case of pink eye it was Ed Minkof who at age 12 had to be left alone—it was in Poland. The family left to avoid everyone else losing their passage/fare for the voyage. Ed would be allowed to sail later. Over lunch at age 93 he told us that story at a deli in Queens where he consumed a Fresser’s delight sandwich (corned beef, roast beef and pastrami on rye) and many pickles. But as I remember, he already had some skill as a tailor. Once off the boat, he said, he walked around the town until he found a tailor shop, where a man sat in front of a window sewing. Ed made a gesture to that man, miming the art of sewing minus a needle and thread. The tailor waved him in. He stayed there a few months until the eye infection cleared, doing some work to earn his keep. But he said it was a rough time. Like most in the town, the tailor was poor and had little food. He shared that little. Ed said he found a rabbi who offered to share a holiday meal with him. They prayed for a very long time, while Ed anxiously anticipated the meal. The rabbi dragged out the prayers—intoning every scrap of prayer possible—until he finally turned to the kitchen, where the rabbi, his wife and Ed shared one baked potato.

Ed was glad to tell that story. He wouldn’t say much of anything about pogroms. When asked, he said, “Pogroms, what pogroms?” We described what we’d heard from Dad, who was there at the lunch, about Ed’s father, another tailor (the one Dad said designed his own outfit in America after a picture of a Kentucky colonel), reacting to an attack on Jewish settlements that forced the family to run into a gulley to avoid violent men who charged at them and set fire to houses. After thinking for a minute, Ed said, “I do remember fires.” According to Dad’s story, Ed’s dad then announced, they were leaving Ukraine (then a part of Russia) for America. He’d had enough and saw nothing better coming there. I think that was 1910. Joel was born in the States. He was ten years older than Dad, making his birth year, 1911.

Ed didn’t really explain how he found family in Philidelphia, but it’s a good thing for the family he did. He got work sewing through the Depression and generously supported the family with his earnings. That day at lunch, he complained about facing rough characters when he commuted from LI to NYC for work. Surprised, Dad said, “I thought you retired.” Ed said, “Yeah, I am retired. I don’t work Saturdays!” I remember asking what sort of work he was doing then. He asked if I knew the name Adolfo and explained there was a person that label was named for, but he, Ed, did a lot of his design work.

Ed soon moved to Florida, I think to live with a son, so there wasn’t time to see him again, especially because his time in Florida led to decline.

Like everyone else, I got Mama’s stories about what she and Papa accomplished, starting from nothing as immigrants. Not so much about Odessa, though I’ve read about that city, and it was a center of culture as well as industry and shipping and mobs! (Stories by Isaac Babel.) Mama and Papa did strive well. But the paternal side of our ancestry has strong lines, too, with special, great warmth. The thing is, I don’t know stories about the history of Dad’s paternal ancestors.