Perhaps it was a sunny morning, when my great-grandfather David left his shtetl for the last time. Perhaps the wind swept in from the nearby lake. Perhaps that morning his mind drifted over the things he was leaving behind in Central Ukraine, the intimate world of the shtetl, his family, true love and the graves of his ancestors. Perhaps he was able to shake off these dreary thoughts by focusing on his promise to bring his family over with him when he had saved enough to do so. Perhaps instead he worried where the boat would carry him and how he would survive the first few days in the “new world.” Perhaps thoughts such as these accompanied my great-grandfather David Chertow as he left the shtetl of Sokolivka for good in 1902, choosing emigration over a future without prospects in Tsarist Russia.
The late 19th century was a time of great upheaval in the Russian Empire. Stark questions had to be answered: Could Russia integrate the diverse religious and ethnic groups which made up its vast territory, or would it instead resort to populism and discrimination? The empire took an especially aggressive attitude to its Jewish subjects, subjects who almost exclusively inhabited the “Pale of settlement” in the western marches of Russia. As a result of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, a wave of pogroms spread across the Pale, pogroms which affected its major cities: Odessa, Kyiv and Warsaw. To compound Jewish suffering, the new tsar, Alexander III introduced the infamous “May Laws” of 1882 which considerably restricted Jewish social and economic opportunities. In the years that followed, the Russian government brought in other repressive legislation including restrictive quotas for Jews seeking to participate in state education. These measures, and further pogroms in 1903-1906, drove many Jews to question their presence in Russia and to look for other options.
Of course things were not all bad for Russian Jews at the time. Modernisation did come to parts of the Russian Empire and Jewish communities there were influenced by movements such as the Jewish enlightenment (the Haskalah) and the spread of Zionism. Despite this, many chose a life elsewhere: between 1880-1924 approximately two and a half million Jews left Russia, two million of which eventually made the journey to the United States.
On balmy summer evenings in Chicago I first heard my great grandfather's story. In the moments of the after-dinner hush, my brother and I curled up by the side of our grandma Evvy's sofa and waited for the tales of her “pappa” to start. We learnt how David had left Sokolivka to avoid military service in the Tsar's army, how he had not known at first where the boat from Europe was taking him and had, not speaking a word of any foreign language, brought with him a Spanish and an English dictionary.
We learnt how on making it to the United States, Pappa had tried to be a tailor but his hands had been too strong and had ripped the fabric. We learnt how he had successfully taken to the diamond trade and travelled across Europe before the great depression hit. We learnt how he saved enough money to bring over 22 members of his family to the US to start a new life. We learnt how brothers, sisters, aunts, grandparents, uncles, cousins and distant relatives all made their way across the Atlantic.
And my brother and I discovered that David Chertow had made sure to send for his love, Eva Futernick, and that they had married in America, and had been happy there.Although life was initially tough, most Jewish immigrants who made their way to America came to believe in the American dream and a land where ethnic origin did not play such a central role, where discrimination existed but Jews experienced much more freedom and possibilities. If you worked hard enough, you could make it, and my great-grandfather worked very hard. Soon America became “home”, my grandmother Evelyn came into the world in 1917 and she herself married just before the outbreak of the Second World War.
When my grandfather Sydney returned from the war they did what most other Americans did, they had kids. My father Scott was born in December 1945. As he grew up my father turned his back on the American dream that his grandparents had believed in so fervently. For wasn't this America bombing other countries in the name of freedom? After meeting my mother Adrienne, they eloped to Europe, got married in Paris and finally settled down in Lancaster, England. In May 1980, one year after the death of my great-grandmother Eva, I first saw the light of day.
“Over there”, i.e. Ukraine, receded into the background of my family’s narrative. My great grandparents had been reluctant to talk much about what they had experienced in the lands that they had left. America meant freedom and opportunity or more simply, home. What was the point of discussing the poverty and discrimination of the past? Despite this, little bits of information were passed down. My grandma heard how her grandfather had been in partnership with a German Baron in Sokolivka, had owned a mill, and leased a lake for 99 years from the Russian government. As a child, thes stories of Sokolivka, however lacking in details, were fascinating, exotic and surreal. The shtetl felt far removed from reality. It was a place I believed I would never visit.
When I finished university in the summer of 2001, I decided not to take the typical career route which many around me sought. What was money, a car and a simple life to me? I thus tried my luck at pastures new, enrolling to do an English Teaching for Foreigners course. I first planned to teach in the warmth and vitality of Spain. However, when jobs in Spain seemed difficult to come by, I happened upon Eastern Europe. No experience was needed there: why not, I thought. So I packed my bags and took a 24 hour bus to Bratislava, Slovakia and ended up staying there for 18 months. Eastern Europe was great: a bit of work, independence, language learning and the opportunity to travel, and travel I did, all across Slovakia, and also to Poland.
With the pressure from my father to think about a “proper career,” I eventually made the decision to move to Poland. Here was a big Slavic country with more opportunities and an intriguing history. In 2004 I went back into higher education to do an MA at Jagiellonian University in Krakow. Here I was in my element and I became enthralled with the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. In the February of 2005 I first visited Ukraine and fell in love with the country for its unlit streets, its chaotic taxi drivers, its street food and its history. My research interests had inexorably pushed me towards the East: a visit to Sokolivka certainly seemed more viable.
But that time was still to come. In the autumn of 2008 I spent some time working on my family tree. I conversed with my grandma and second cousins via email, I looked at US censuses and Ellis Island ship records, I found genealogy sites about Sokolivka and even happened upon the memorial book of the shtetl on the New York Public Library Website. During this period the idea of visiting Central Ukraine burned bright but I needed a good excuse to go there. That excuse came this summer when I was accepted onto an academic summer school in Zhytomyr, barely 200 kilometres away from Sokolivka. I resolved to visit the shtetl, partly for me and partly as a gift for my grandma who is still alive at the venerable age of 94.
After the summer school in Zhytomyr had ended, I got the chance to spend some time in Kyiv, the wonderfully elegant capital city of Ukraine, with its winding streets and neo-classical facades sitting somewhat incongruously next to Ferrari dealerships. I also got the opportunity to visit Babi Yar, an uncomfortably haunting trench in which centuries of Jewish life had met its end in the city during the Nazi occupation of 1941-43. But how to get to Sokolivka from Kyiv? Before I had left my home in Warsaw for Ukraine, a Ukrainian friend of mine informed me that Sokolivka lay on the main high-way between Kyiv and Odessa.
“You won't be able to get a direct bus to Sokolivka,” he said “but there will be plenty of buses to the district capital of Zashkiv, from there you can easily get to your destination.” I listened with excitement and trepidation, I was finally going.
So on the morning of the 13th of July I set off for Zashkiv by bus from the main Kyiv Bus station. The bus on which I travelled was comfortable enough and I fell into a nice, deep sleep. When I woke up we were almost in Zashkiv and I got off and prepared to ask some locals how to get to Sokolivka. I found some young ladies who spoke some English and they went into Zashkiv's, rather decrepit, bus station to get help for me. I was expecting to travel by taxi but they discovered a bus was going there. We went back outside and…to my surprise it was the same bus that I had travelled in from Kyiv! I got back on and 20 minutes later I arrived at my destination, I found myself looking up at a big sign proclaiming “Sokolivka” in Cyrillic. But how was I supposed to get from here to the main Jewish site in the town, the Jewish cemetery?
Only two other people had got off the bus at the same time I had. I really felt like I was in the middle of nowhere. Using my broken Russian I was, however, able to talk to these people. I explained that my family had lived in the area 100 years ago and also managed to ask where the cemetery was. One of the ladies I spoke with took out her old mobile phone and rang her husband who relayed information about the location of the cemetery. She directed me down a path on which a tied-down goat was standing guard, I thanked her profusely and set off down the lane.
But where next? I still couldn't find the cemetery so I asked a man who had come out of his house to enjoy the sight of a stranger with a laptop bag, backpack and suitcase walking past. Could he direct me to the graveyard? The man, who had lots of metal fillings in his mouth, turned out to be very nice, even carrying some of my bags to the cemetery. The sight that stretched before my eyes when we reached our destination was fascinating. Closest to us stood a monument to 24 Jews that were murdered by the Nazis during the war in the village. The man who helped me explained how his mother had witnessed the massacre but she had long since passed away.
He then left me alone to take in the cemetery which was serenely located by the side of a large lake. Gravestones were dotted about here and there. Either the Nazis or simply time had meant the cemetery had fallen into ruin. There was nothing left for me to do but to wander about, take as many photos as possible and try to absorb the meaning of the place. I had thought about the shtetl for years, but when I was finally there all that came to my mind was the tranquillity of the setting, I unfortunately didn't feel any innate connection to what lay before me.
So I set off to the nearby town of Uman, and then back to Poland, with pictures and a story to tell, but disappointingly nothing of any real gravity to report.
Several weeks later I visited my grandma in Chicago to report back on my journey. I suppose I thought she would be fascinated by it all. When I showed her the pictures she unfortunately seemed disinterested and even upset. Her entire body language seemed to suggest that her parents had left the region for a good reason, what was the point of going back?
In some ways I understand her, even agree with her, was there any reason for my visit? What did I actually gain from the trip, a story I suppose. And maybe, just maybe, I was able to share something with my great-grandfather who had stared out over the same lake 110 years ago. Or perhaps that's just sentimental nonsense.
This article was submitted as part of New Eastern Europe’s 2012 “East to West” Report Competition and received the prize of “Honourable Mention”.
Christopher Lash holds a PhD in History from the University of Manchester. His PhD thesis focused on the transfer of eastern Poles from what is now Ukraine to the western lands awarded to Poland at the end of the Second World War. His research interests are in Central and Eastern European history, the social and cultural history of war, ethnic cleansing, displacement and commemoration. His article on property in the Polish western lands will be published in Europe-Asia studies in the new year and he plans to publish a monograph on displacement in immediate post-war Poland. Christopher is currently an assistant professor in international relations at Lazarski University, Warsaw, Poland.