Saturday, March 26, 2011

Jewish Life in the Soviet Union

Currently I am doing a series of oral histories in a Jewish elder facility focused on the topic of identity and legacy.  One of the facilities is home to many Russian immigrants and I have had several interesting interviews in recent weeks.  One in particular has stayed with me.  The person I interviewed, Boris, told me first of the death of his parents and sisters at the hands of the Nazis.  First they had to build a bunker for Hitler and then were executed upon its completion.  Boris held out a picture of a beautiful woman, his sister, the only picture he has of family.

He then related a story about his father-in-law who had a Russian passport prior to the revolution.  By Russian he meant that it said he was Christian.  His father-in-law’s parents had converted and married in a church in order to get the benefits of jobs and education which were frequently barred to Jews.  After the church wedding they went home and had a Jewish service.  After the revolution his father-in-law went to the authorities and asked for a Jewish passport.  He believed that he would now be able to exist as a Jew without discrimination.  Unfortunately that hope was not fulfilled.

Boris related how he and his wife had chosen to have their son take his mother’s name which was not a Jewish name as it was derived from a town.  They made this choice to protect him from discrimination. After they followed their son to the United States his son took back his father’s Jewish name and lives proudly today as a Jew.

These interviews have heightened my interest in learning about life in the Soviet Union as a Jew and that interest was furthered by a wonderful book titled Ester and Ruzya: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler’s War and Stalin’s Peace by Masha Gessen.

The author of this book is a journalist who traces the story of her two grandmothers, close friends before their son and daughter married producing the author.  Both Jewish, one was born in Bialystok and went to Russia to study, the other was a Russian Jew by birth.  Ester, the Polish Jew, loses her father and fiance to the Nazis, but her mother is deported to Russia saving her and giving Ester a small nucleus of family.  The story relates the challenges of being Jewish both in pre-war Poland and in post-war Russia.  Many of the pre-war incidents she references echo the stories I’ve gathered from Dora, my friend who came from the Polish town of my grandfather’s birth.  I had not fully appreciated the deep Zionist stirrings in the Polish communities nor how much the doors of other countries were slammed in the faces of Jews who sought escape prior to the war.  Limited numbers were allowed into Palestine and in the five years prior to Hitler’s rise in 1933 the US issued just 33,000 visas to Europe’s Jews.  The post 1924 visa files that I now access in family history research exist only because the US was shutting the door. 

Many of the Jews who survived were those who were able to make their way to Russia or were deported to Russia.  Yet living in Russia brought compromises and challenges.  One grandmother is a censor of international correspondents and is in the unique position of reading the uncensored news even while she must literally toe "the party line".  Taking a stand against reporting on others can mean danger not only to oneself, but to one’s family and joining the party is necessary for survival, but not necessarily sufficient.  Throughout this the obstacles strewn in one’s path to securing education and employment as a Jew are daunting.  The Zionist stirrings are viewed as challenges to the Russian state and Jews were targeted with deadly anti-Semitism.  My interview with Boris comes into sharper focus as the outcome of this virulent history.  Many of the children immigrated to seek freedom from discrimination and the parents followed in their wake.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Ordering Visa Files

As of late I've been busy preparing for my travels to Poland. Today I received enlargements of all of Dora's photographs which have an odd power in their grainy quality. There is one of her and her father which was clearly folded four ways to fit in a shoe throughout the war. We'll be bringing these photos and Dora's story to Poland together with my paintings to tell the story of the former Jewish community.

On another topic, a month ago I ordered a visa record from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service for a cousin of some sort who had left Glasgow for the Chicago.  My quest is to tie him back to the Belarus shtetl of Dunilowicz and thus solve a long time family mystery of a link to relatives in the UK. Yesterday I received the first step in this process, the case number for which I paid $20.  Then I pay another $35 in order to get the visa file which should contain a birth record.  It took one month to get through this first step.  All ordering is on-line so very simple to execute.  I always wonder what the mailman thinks is the story behind this correspondence from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service that comes to my home.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Who Tells the History?

Last week I attended the conference of the Council of American Jewish Museums (CAJM)  in Philadelphia.  There I had an opportunity to visit the new National Museum of American Jewish History.  There were many topics of interest at the conference and as the focus was on story it tied closely to the type of artwork that I do.  Museums are exploring the use of oral histories as a way to tell the story and Holocaust museums are evaluating the question of how to teach about the Holocaust when the survivors are no longer present. 

Hovering over all of these discussions is the fundamental question of who tells the history and what is the story?  Is it told differently if it is a museum focused upon the Jewish experience, the African – American experience or other museums grounded in the ethnicity that they represent?

I put that question to the test as I toured the Museum of American Jewish History.   I was curious as to how they would addressed America’s response to news of concentration camps in WWII.  They accurately noted that the State Department had willfully obstructed the flow of information about the plans of the Nazis and prevented actions being taken to rescue Jews.  Information was provided to them as early as 1942 which they not only failed to respond to, but buried.  Would this show up in a museum with a broader focus?  What about quota systems for Jews that prevented them from gaining entrance to schools solely on the basis of their ethnicity?  There is history that is uniquely told by those most affected by it and I came away feeling that this new museum did an admirable job of telling it.