My grandfather Barney — or Boris in Russian — came to this country in 1908. His father, a tavern owner in Minsk, had been murdered and robbed, in what would today be considered an antisemitic hate crime. Barney was a master carpenter, who underwent a rigorous apprenticeship in Minsk. As a carpenter and union member in Roxbury, Massachusetts, he became radicalized and sympathized with the growing socialist movement in the US. He dreamt of returning to his homeland to build the revolution. In 1931, in the height of the Depression, my grandfather and grandmother sold everything and borrowed money from Barney’s brother to make the journey with their children back to Leningrad. They boarded a ship from Boston, with their two daughters — my mother and aunt, ages five and three — for the long voyage across the ocean.
I have spent a great deal of time imagining that journey — the chill autumn air on the ship, the crowded berth, the seasickness that must have ensued. I have wondered what my grandmother Sarah must have felt during those two weeks; she suffered terribly from depression. Her own mother was raped and murdered in a pogrom in the Ukrainian shtetl of Gornostaypol. The Ukraine, where Sarah lived with her mother, was an unstable place after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. The civil war was fought in the Ukraine, and for a while the White army and Ukrainian nationalists were able to drive the Red army out. Ultimately, the Bolsheviks took control of the Ukraine, and the retreating and defeated White and Ukrainian nationalists pillaged the Jewish shtetls, equating Jews with Bolsheviks. It was during this violence that my great-grandmother lost her life. My grandmother Sarah — now motherless — came to the United States in 1921 to join her father, who had deserted her years before. It is no wonder my grandmother suffered from depression, which only worsened when it compounded with the post-partum experience of having her first child. My grandfather brought his family back to the USSR, convinced that this move would heal his wife and give all of them a new beginning in the land where the first socialist revolution had occurred. I imagine he was excited that his beloved Russia had become, as of 1922, the USSR (the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics).
My family history is filled with wanderings back and forth from Russia/the USSR and the US during the twentieth-century; it became the backdrop for my historical novel, Forget Russia. While a great deal has been written about the Eastern European Jews who had immigrated to the US, far less exists about those Russian Jews who returned to the USSR, excited to be part of the Revolution. As I researched what life was like in Leningrad in 1931, I could imagine them in the communal apartment they would likely have lived in; shared with perhaps ten other families, each family relegated to one, perhaps two rooms, and a single bathroom and kitchen for all of them. Bed Bugs were common and filth in the bathroom was expected. Yet, initially these Russian Jews felt hopeful and welcome in the USSR; they had returned to their homeland looking for jobs that eluded them in depression-era US. Baseball teams were formed, and the Americans had the opportunity to share their beloved game with eager Soviets wanting to play. My grandmother had once mentioned a café called Narod, or People. I imagine it as a place where young people gathered and shared their dreams for the future.
Yet, initially these Russian Jews felt hopeful and welcome in the USSR; they had returned to their homeland looking for jobs that eluded them in depression-era US.
In reality, in 1931, food was quite scarce in Leningrad. Collectivization was occurring in the countryside, which caused famines among peasant farmers and food shortages all over the USSR. Starving peasants filled the city hoping to find some respite from hunger. While The Daily World and some Yiddish newspapers spoke of the USSR as a type of utopia, life there was incredibly harsh even though living conditions under the Tsar were even worse. By 1936, these Russian Jews and other Americans who had been so welcomed were imprisoned or sent to labor camps on Stalin’s orders. The American government did little to help them. My own grandparents only stayed nine months. If they had stayed a year, they would have lost their US citizenship and never gotten out. They likely would have perished either from World War II or from Stalin’s purges. So, they packed up once more, and took the long journey by ship all the way back to America, with their two small girls, very sick then with whooping cough. As I did extensive research into this time period for my novel, I began to see that in all likelihood, my grandfather, though he could never admit it, must have felt great disillusionment. Kulaks, who were the more prosperous land-owning peasants, and anyone with family ties to small businesses before the revolution were considered enemies. My grandfather’s own father had owned a tavern. I wonder if that family history may have caused him some worry when he was in Leningrad. While the family story goes that my grandmother insisted they leave, I see now that he must have known deep down she was right, and my grandmother acted as the unlikely hero of the family, saving us all, in her own quiet way.
Perhaps, if each family looks into their own history, they too will find an unlikely hero that no one knows about, someone whose overlooked actions saved them. Through the twenty years of writing and researching my novel, I have come to see that understanding the dreams and longings, the disappointments and tragedies of our ancestors, is central to understanding ourselves.
L. Bordetsky-Williams is a Professor of Literature at Ramapo College of New Jersey. She is the author of the historical novel, Forget Russia. She has also published the memoir, Letters to Virginia Woolf, three poetry chapbooks, and The Artist as Outsider in the Novels of Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf.