Struggle and resilience take center stage in Lisa Brahin’s Tears Over Russia, a meticulous attempt to reconstruct not only a family’s roots in present-day Ukraine and their travails on their way to America, but also the intricacies of the world they left behind. Using interviews, legal and historical documents, and literature from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, Brahin retraces the formation of her family and the loss of their hometown, Stavishche, to mounting antisemitism in the first half of the twentieth century. In doing so, she provides us a unique narrative that does not endorse or glamorize immigration to the United States (or the “Goldene Medine”) and does not shy away from depicting the emotional and physical toll of the period’s pogroms on Ukraine’s Jews. Ultimately she concludes that “… if there were no adversity, pain, or suffering, or a story to tell, it is doubtful that anyone would venture across an ocean and leave their world, with everything and everyone they love in it, behind.”
Brahin’s work comes at a time when more of us are considering our relationship with our family’s past than ever, aided by greater access to archival materials and the advent of affordable technologies for at-home DNA testing. Yet what makes this particular genealogical work unique is not simply the author’s deft use of a wide variety of primary and secondary sources — photographs, interviews, biblical and academic publications, government records — but also her ability to paint vignettes of intimate, personal moments. Repeatedly, we are shown conversations, gestures, emotions like guilt or fear; our five senses are engaged. We perceive not only a hunger to rebuild a way of life now destroyed but also a nostalgia for that life. Throughout, Brahin implicitly asks us to think about the purpose of genealogy, and where the boundary is between uncovering and inventing a narrative for one’s community, one’s family, and one’s sense of self. Everyday objects — particularly photographs — become sites of memory and truth, but also of speculation.
This is not to say that Tears Over Russia glorifies shtetl life. Indeed, we are not spared from looking on as characters barely survive abject poverty, mass murder, war, and the humiliation of a refugee status. Nor is America lionized; its bureaucracy, policies of discrimination, and culture of assimilation are foregrounded along with the dream of freedom from the violence of Ukraine. At a time of a record refugee crisis in Ukraine and the prospect of further mass migration, Brahin offers us an opportunity to reflect on the possibilities and limitations of the American Dream, and the dreams our forefathers saw extinguished in pursuit of it.
Joshua Kruchten is an educator and current doctoral candidate at NYU specializing in the literature and history of early modern Europe.