Tears Over Rus­sia: A Search for Fam­i­ly and the Lega­cy of Ukraine’s Pogroms

  • Review
By – June 27, 2022

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.

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