Thursday, August 18, 2011

Juxtaposing History and Family: Cause and Effect

In yesterday’s blog entry I wrote about the Pale of Jewish Settlement and the repressive laws that led to a major mass migration.  Today I had an opportunity to access the Jewish Chronicle, a very useful UK publication I dicovered at last year's conference.  I decided to drill down and see how the political climate had affected the community in which my grandparents lived.   I took a look at Kamenetz Podolsk in the Ukraine, home of my maternal grandparents as it was a large enough area to be recorded in the publication. 

One of the earliest entries I found was in 1898.  Here it noted that the director of the Gymnasium (school) had been instructed to expel seven Jewish students from the school.  The reason – their parents did not possess the right to live in the town which is less than 50 kilometers from the frontier.   Jews had been expelled from border areas to assure they wouldn't easily escape the Pale.  Was my eleven year old grandfather among them?  I think about the street I visited on which he had lived at the time of the Russian census just a year earlier.  Perhaps these expulsions account for the movement of my family between Kamenetz and the nearby Chotin area, something that had always puzzled me.

The Chronicle goes on to say that Jewish merchants of the first Guild outside the Pale may employ Jewish clerks.  The police interpret this to mean that only the clerk, not his family may live outside the Pale and have been known to send his wife and children back to the Pale.  The merchants of the first Guild are those merchants who met the requirements to live outside the Pale.

The oppressive laws had their effect.  By approximately 1895 my grandmother’s uncle was the first to immigrate to London.  There he had two children and then went on to New York in 1898 followed by his family.  A procession soon began.  His brother-in-law joined him in NY in 1902 naming the uncle as his closest relative in the US. Soon 1903,1904 and 1906 saw the arrival of the uncle’s sister and my grandmother’s brothers.  In 1911 my grandfather came to avoid the draft leaving behind his new wife and child.

Continuing through the Jewish Chronicle I found that in 1913 in response to the anti-religious legislation in Russia the Jewish school teachers had decided to keep the schools open on Saturday (the Jewish Sabbath) and close them on Sunday.  The laws required businesses to close on Sunday and that in conjunction with closing on Saturday adversely affected their businesses.  Presumably it drove other practices such as adjusting school hours.

In 1914 the Austrians entered Kamenetz-Podolsk and imposed heavy “contributions” on the town. They took the mayor and several prominent residents hostage, many of whom were Jewish.  As there were insufficient funds, both Jews and Christians brought articles from the churches and synagogues.  It then notes that after Austrian atrocities, the return of the Russian Army was “hailed by the Jews with delight”.

By 1920 there were reports on the pogroms that had occurred over a two year period.  A prominent Ukrainian Jew noted that these were beyond the pogrom excesses with which Jews were so familiar.  He states that “during the last two years the Jewish population of the Ukraine is being systematically, persistently exterminated.”  The Kieff  (Kiev) Red Cross reported that “the general surrounding circumstances have given to the pogrom wave an unheard of range of cruelty, bloodshed, tragic doom and no escape. This wave has for its objective the entire annihilation of Ukrainian Jewry and in several instances whole communities, men, women and children have been put to death”.   Jews were deprived of all means of locomotion and thus communication with the outside world.  It went on to talk of Jewish passengers on trains that went through Kamenetz Podolsk being taken from the train by soldiers and shot.

Family folklore is that my grandmother’s first child died in a pogrom.  In any case she was on a boat by 1921 being brought to America by her brothers, presumably to escape the dangers of Eastern Europe.

Understanding the historical events as they are juxtaposed with my family events begins to paint a picture of cause and effect.  It allows me to understand the environment that influenced the lives of my family.

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