Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Fur Coat

Sonia (Sure) Litvak was born in Zvil (Novohrad-Volynskyi), Ukraine in 1925. AHEYM interviewed her in Rivne, Ukraine, in 2003. Sonia was discussing the extreme poverty during the Great Famine (Holodomor) in Ukraine, 1932-1933. She explained that despite the terrible conditions, no one in her family died from the hunger, because her grandmother had managed to save some money for the family.

Sonia's grandmother was a "bube," a kind of midwife and folk healer in Zvil. It is interesting to note that this profession was sufficiently lucrative for her to be able to save up a significant amount of money, enough to sustain the family in years to come. The story Sonia tells in the clip took place in 1918, during the Russian Civil War. Sonia's grandmother had hidden her savings in a fur coat. A "Denikinovets," a soldier from the army of Anton Denikin, entered the house and tried to take the coat. When the grandmother resisted, she was beaten, and she died two days later.

General Denikin was commander of the Volunteer Army, one of the many factions fighting for control of Ukraine during the Civil War that broke out in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution. The Volunteer Army, commonly known as the Whites, was made up mostly of conservative officers from the tsarist army. They opposed the Red Army's efforts to extend the Revolution and fought for the maintenance of the rights of property owners and priests. During the battles, attacks on the Jews, among other minorities, were quite common. One survey counted 688 cities, towns and villages affected by pogroms. Many of these locales suffered multiple pogroms, as armies and brigands came and went. The pogroms were attributed most often to Ukrainian nationalists, though the White Volunteer Army is said to have been responsible for about twenty percent of the attacks, with Sonia's grandmother being one example of the latter.

Because of the grandmother's bravery, Sonia's family kept the hidden money and used it to survive the Famine.

--Asya Vaisman

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Lemon for Sukkes

Semyon Later was born in 1919 in Smotrych, Ukraine, where he received an extensive Jewish education. He attended both kheyder (religious Jewish school) and a Soviet Yiddish school. When AHEYM interviewed him in Kamianets Podolsk in 2003, he remembered how his family observed Jewish holidays before the war.

Semyon begins by recalling two of the Four Questions traditionally recited by the youngest child in a family during the Passover Seder. He mentions that he would recite these questions at his grandfather's house. He then talks about the rituals involved in the celebration of the Sukkoth holiday, which he mistakenly remembers as Shavuoth. Semyon insists that instead of the traditional esrog (citron), his family would buy a lemon for the holiday. Likely the lemon was the closest approximation of the esrog that was available to the family. Semyon additionally recalls eating his meals in the Sukkah.

--Asya Vaisman

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Three Generations of Religious Expression (Gaysin, Ukraine)

Mira Murovanaia was born in Nikolaev, Ukraine in 1926. During World War II, she was evacuated to Central Asia. After the war, she moved to Gaysin, Ukraine, where the AHEYM team interviewed her in 2002. Mira worked as a pharmacist in Gaysin for 45 years before retiring in 1990.

In this fascinating clip, Mira describes a broad spectrum of Jewish religious belief, practice, and custom of Soviet Jews before and after World War II. Her mother, though she believed in G-d "in her heart", felt that Jewish practice compromised her status as a Communist Party member.

Mira depicts a different manifestation of Jewishness in her account of holidays at her in-laws'. In this context, Communism and Judaism coexisted, as revolutionary and religious holidays both found their place in the home. Mira's memories of these holidays, however, are not marked by traditional observance, but rather by the foods that her mother-in-law taught her to prepare. The observance of holidays "without praying," as she says, suggests a more secularized form of celebration.

Finally, in her grandson's generation, Mira describes the reclamation of Jewish tradition by youth in the late Soviet period, reflecting the era of increased freedoms and social experimentation.

--Sebastian Schulman and Asya Vaisman

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Prayer and Schooling in Berdichev

Efim Grigoryevich Skobilitskii was born in 1919 in Berdichev. In this clip from a 2002 interview, he talks about his mother, a Rabbi's daughter, who acted as a "zogerin" in a synagogue. The "zogerin", as Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and Michael Wex write in the YIVO Encyclopedia, was "a cross between a prompter and cantor, her position was informal, honorific, and unremunerated, though indispensable; she led less literate women in Hebrew and Yiddish prayers in the women’s section of the synagogue." Efim's mother was able to fulfill this role, because she had received a formal Jewish education.

At the end of the clip, Efim talks about the Yiddish-language school that he attended. He notes that there were a number of non-Jews at his school, who, as a result of their education, could speak Yiddish better than Russian. For more on Soviet Yiddish schools, see here.

--Asya Vaisman