My mother escaped from Russia with rags on her feet. She left with her family In the middle of the winter of 1917 and walked across frozen rivers, frozen lakes, across Poland and Germany to Holland. Throughout her life, she told me that the meal of bread and milk she was given in Holland, was the most delicious meal she had ever eaten. I never knew who fed her but it was the food she remembered and savored her whole life long.
She was seven years old and going to America. The youngest in a family of seven, her mother died in childbirth a year after she was born. Because she was so young, the family considered leaving her in Russia, but her older brother, Charlie insisted that she come with the family. Perhaps that’s why Charlie was always her favorite brother.
We’re not sure, but we think she was born in 1910, the child of a poor Rabbi, living in a shtetl, Skoznitz, in the Ukraine, surrounded by a forest.
She hated her life there. It was cold, they were poor and often filled with terror.
And then there were the Cossacks…
Cossacks on horses, with sabers drawn, would thunder down the dirt streets and yell, “Let’s kill a Jew today!” And they would.
Once they yelled, “Who is the oldest man in the village?” Then, they took him into the forest, tied him to a post and chopped his head off! My aunt, Nettie, told me that the man’s sister died immediately at the sight of this.
Mother tells of another time when they ran into the forest to escape the Cossacks. They brought a baby with them. In order to not be discovered, the baby’s mother had to put her hand over her child’s face to stifle the crying. The baby suffocated and died.
Other times, roving bandits would gallop through the town looking for liquor and food.
My mother’s family would ply them with home made booze and bread until they would get so sleepy they would forget about their mission of destruction. Mother helped make the wine. She remembers stamping on the grapes just the way Lucille Ball did on her television show.
Czar Nicholas II cheated my mother and she never forgave him or any of his relations including the Kings and Queen of England!
While watching the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana, I phoned my mother to exclaim over the beauty of Lady Diana, her billowing gown, the soaring music, and the majesty of Saint Paul’s Cathedral. I loved all of the pomp and circumstance. To my surprise she said, “ I refuse to watch that wedding! I will have nothing to do with that family!” What was she talking about? She exclaimed, “ I worked for the Czar for a week and was promised a pound of salt. He never paid me and I will never forgive him or anyone in his family!” That was back in 1917. You do not mess with my mother!
Ninety years later, my husband and I sailed into St Petersburg harbor on a luxury ship. Now, I was in Russia and not sure how I felt about it.
On the one hand, I vividly remembered my mother’s sad stories and on the other hand, I was looking forward to enjoying the art and majesty of Imperial Russia. This was a personal conflict that I would experience during my entire visit.
Next time: Gold, gardens, and grim guards…
Many thanks to http://www.jewishpostcardcollection.com for the use of the first shtetl photograph.