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Finding the Heroes in Your Family: A Perspective on the Research Methodology for The Little Russian

Whenever I speak to a crowd at a community center or library, book group or synagogue, people always want to know how they can find out more about their families, about their origins and what life was like in the old country for their grandparents and great grandparents. I thought it might help if I told you about my research, how I went about doing it and what sources I found most useful. I started out with my father and uncles. Like so many of you, I waited too long and lost my chance to go to the source, my grandmother. She was long gone by the time I knew I wanted to write, The Little Russian. So everything I learn at first came from them, the second generation.

Unfortunately, in the telling and retelling of my grandmother’s story much of the detail was lost. Different versions circulated through the family, each with their own defenders and detractors. Also, since I was writing a book, I needed to know more than cursory descriptions. I needed to know what it was like to live back then, the sights and sounds, what a yarid (market day) smelled like, what it was like to go morning prayers in a smoky synagogue on a snowy morning in the Pale. I needed to know all the everyday details of life in a shtetl on the Dneiper River; all the little triumphs and setbacks, the dreams for a better life, the little feuds and jealousies and, of course, the tragedies. Before I started to write I had to feel as comfortable in Little Russia at the turn of the last century as I do here in the beginning of this one. It was a tall order and here’s how I did it.

I went to the Charles E Young research library on the UCLA campus, plunked down a little money to become a Friend of the Library and got my library card. Then I made friends with the research librarians. That part was easy since they are there to help. The librarian took me down to the map room and for the next few days I made photo-copies of every map I could find of Russia, Ukraine and Poland of that time period. I spent a day pouring over them until I had a sense of the geography.

I started out with general history to get a feel for the country and the relevant cultures of the time. My favorite book, one that I read several times, was Black Night White Snow, by Harrison Salisbury. It was extremely helpful in giving me an understanding of Russia, the history and the politics, both on a grand and personal scale that led up to the Bolshevik Revolution. The Russian Revolution by Richard Pipes was also helpful in understanding Russian history, especially the years following the Bolshevik Revolution. For cultural references I turned to Natasha’s Dance, by Orlando Figg. Galya, the superstitious nanny, came out of reading that book.

When I was ready to focus on Ukraine, especially the political influences on the Jewish population I turned to: A Prayer for the Government by Henry Abramson; and A Century of Ambivalence by Zvi Gitelman; and for the Ukrainian perspective: Borderland by Ann Reid. These books gave me a general overview of the period that was helpful, but now it was time to get specific.

Since my grandmother spent nine formative years in Moscow living in the home of a wealthy Jewish merchant I turned to Merchant Moscow edited by James L. West and Iurii A. Petrov, The Moscow Business Elite by Jo Ann Ruckman and Capitalism and Politics in Russia, by Thomas C. Owen. For the Jewish perspective on this experience I read Beyond the Pale by Benjamin Nathans. For Russian social customs and life I read a memoir, Three Generations, by Vladimir Polunin and Between the Fields and the City, by Barbara Alpern Engel. Engel’s book especially gave me insight into Kata Chaneko, the peasant woman Berta befriends in the train station when she’s trying to get to Vladivostok. For an understanding of city life of that period I read two interesting books: The City in Late Imperial Russia, edited by Michael Hamm and Kiev written by Michael Hamm. I modeled Cherkast on Kiev.

Now it was time to turn to Little Russia. Since memoirs are the most helpful in providing details and the routine of daily life I read the definitive memoir of that period, Rememberings by Pauline Wengeroff. Two other memoirs were helpful: Jewish Life in the Ukraine, by Michael Charnofsky and Kaminits-Podolsk & Its Environs translated from the Hebrew by Bonnie Schooler Sohn. For specific details on the Russian Civil War and it’s affect on the Jewish population I read The Enemy at His Pleasure, by S. Ansky and The Russian Jew Under the Tsars and Soviets, by Salo Baron. And to get a combatant’s perspective on the war I read: A Russian Civil War Diary : Alexis Babine in Saratov, 1917-1922 / Donald J. Raleigh, editor. For everyday details on what is what like to travel in Russia at that time, I have a Baedeker’s guide book: Russia: A Handbook for Travelers 1900. And of course whenever I read a source book I always checked the bibliography in the back for other titles that might be relevant.

I also found books of old photographs that were helpful in forming my descriptions of the period: Before the Revolution by Mikhail P. Iroshnikov, Yury B. Shelayev and Ludimlla A Protsai. Yiddishland by Gérard Silvain and Henri Minczeles and The Jewish World of Yesterday edited by Rachel Salamander. There are also related sites online that contain images of the period.

You might want to also try the Center for Jewish History and The Jewish Historical Society online. Also one publication I didn’t use, but you may find helpful is: Shtetl finder: Jewish communities in the 19th and 20th centuries in the pale of settlement of Russia and Poland, and in Lithuania, Latvia, Galicia and Bukovina and with the names of residents by Chester G. Cohen. It’s in the Young Research Library at UCLA and the call number is DS135.R9 C58.

I hope this helps. Good luck and happy hunting. May you all find the heroes in your family.

Comments 8

  1. Ms Sherman. Thank you for such a lovely book. I have thought of writing everything I know about my families memoirs too. But as you say there is not specific detail and the story is told in different light each time. I thought It would be impossible. But you have Berta’s prevailing spirit and found a way to make it true. I cherish this book. You have given me inspiration to start on my own book. At least to try to seriously write all the memoirs I can and not give up on trying. You are a heroine to me.

  2. Loved your book. My great-grandma, Ida Shamberg Hoffman, came to America from
    Bessarabia around 1890 and settled in New York”s Lower East Side. She often spoke about
    life in Bsssarabia and their fear of the pogroms.

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  3. I just started reading “The Little Russian” but have not gotten beyond Chapter 3 yet.
    Just from what I’ve read so far I think we share a similar view of the past and a desire to either recapture or honor it somehow in our time and place. I wouldn’t call it pure nostalgia, but rather a nostalgia for a time and place that we never experienced first hand.

    I’ve found that the Jewish concept of memory and remembrance–“zachar”–was the best way to approach such attempts. Zachar is both historical chronology and the imperative to remember.

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