Severed from their own history — its joys and tragedies — growing numbers of retirement-age Russian Jews here are on a roots journey to uncover as much as they can about how Jews from the former Soviet Union lived and died.And though they have come to the journey later than many American-born Jews, they are making up for lost time, fueled both by the Internet and a nagging feeling of incompleteness.
Several dozen Russian-speakers gathered on a recent night at the offices of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in Midtown to learn about the tragic fate of dozens of managers and agronomists in Jewish agricultural collectives in southern Ukraine. The collectives, funded by the Joint Distribution Committee, were liquidated by the NKVD (later renamed the KGB) during the great Stalinist purges of 1937.
After his lecture, Mikhail Mitsel, an archivist at the JDC who immigrated to New York from Kiev in 1998, explained to a reporter that his intent had been twofold: to share the now-largely forgotten story of the JDC’s involvement in early Soviet-era Jewish kolkhozi (similar to kibbutzim), all of which were closed in the immediate aftermath of the 1937 purge, and to keep alive the memory of the terrible event itself, during which 1.7 million people were arrested and 700,000 were killed.
“In Russia and Ukraine today, only a small group of people are aware of the extent of the horrors of 1937, while here in America, there has been almost nothing about the 70th anniversary of the 1937 purges in the Russian-language media,” Mitsel said.
“It is good that we, at least, have this seminar, where important topics like this one can be discussed and where there is a much-needed focus on preserving the history of the Jews in the Soviet Union.”
The Seminar of Jewish Genealogy for Russian-Speaking Jews was founded four years ago by two of the leading experts on historical research into the life of ex-Soviet Jewry. One is Valery Bazarov, 65, director of Location and Family History Services at HIAS, who joined the agency almost immediately after emigrating from Odessa in 1988 and recently built his own family tree for more than 300 members in the U.S., the former Soviet Union, Argentina and Israel.
The other is Dmitri Margulies, 83, a journalist and a teacher who made a Russian-language documentary with English subtitles called “Through Russia, Turbulent Times,” that weaved together the story of seven generations of his own family with the history of Russia during the 19th and 20th centuries. According to Bazarov, the idea of creating the seminar came to him during a discussion four years ago with Mikhail Nemirovsky, editor in chief of the Russian-language weekly newspaper Forum. “We have so many brilliant minds among the émigrés, great scientists and medical doctors who came to America too late in life to continue their professional careers, but could involve themselves in researching the history of Soviet Jewry,” Bazarov recalls telling Nemirovsky.The seminar started with only 20 people, but now has more than 80 participants. The group meets about once a month to hear lectures as well as to discuss how each is doing in their research into their own family histories.
Noting that while a majority of participants in the seminar are of retirement age, Bazarov said there are a significant number of younger participants as well. “The seminar is an important manifestation of the growing interest among former Soviet Jews, including those who immigrated to the U.S. and Israel and those who remained in the FSU, to learn much more about the history of Jews in Russia, which was largely closed off to us during the 70 years of Soviet power,” he said.
A gray-bearded presence whose warm smile and genial repartee belie a reputation as a reclusive scholar who spends his happiest hours doing research in HIAS’ voluminous archives, Bazarov explained he got seriously involved in genealogy and family history after being placed in charge of HIAS’ Location Services (which helps newly arrived immigrants track down lost family members and friends) back in 2000. “As I realized the full of extent of what could be found in the HIAS archives, it dawned on me that ‘location services’ might not only involve helping someone to locate a relative who arrived in America, say, two years ago, but also to help people find the names of previously unknown relatives who arrived 75 or 100 years ago. Almost every American Jewish family had someone who stayed behind, and every FSU Jewish family spoke of someone who left for America never to be heard from again.”
Bazarov believes Jewish genealogy can serve as “therapy for generational amnesia” for Russian-speaking and American-born Jews alike. “Researching family roots gets a person more involved in Jewish history and tradition, since it is necessary to reconnect to Jewish tradition to try to divine who our ancestors were and how they lived,” Bazarov remarked.
“Also, since much genealogical research is done these days via the Internet, many members of the older generation turn to their children and grandchildren for help using the ‘Net. This brings the generations closer together and gets the youngsters more closely interested in learning about their families as well.” One of the most prominent participants in the seminar is Leonid Leitis, a 75-year-old retired electronic engineer who surreptitiously investigated the history of his own extended family at his Moscow apartment for over 20 years before immigrating to New York with his wife Bella in 1995.Leitis explained that he began researching his family history in 1968 “because it was fascinating to learn how so many of my family members had lived.” But he said he continued his research in secret and at considerable risk to his own career and that of his wife because, “We had a strong feeling that if we did not do this work, this history would simply disappear.”
Leitis, who recently published an account of his extended family, “The Plisetskis Markovskys and Messerers: A Genealogy,” in English and Russian, explained in a paper he delivered last year at the annual conference of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Studies (IAJGS), how thoroughly he and other Soviet Jews were often forced to cut themselves off from their own family roots by the political system they were forced to endure for 70 years.“In the former Soviet Union people were afraid to talk about their ancestors and relatives, and destroyed family archives and photos,” Leitis stated. “My parents saved photos of relatives living in the USA, or others subjected to [Stalinist] repression, or still others who served in army of Imperial Russia, but did not make any inscriptions (under the pictures) so that, if asked, they could say: ‘I do not know who this is.’ … Until 1990 I had to hide my family tree from colleagues, especially the records about foreign relatives.”Bella Leitis, another former engineer who worked alongside her husband in researching and publishing the history of his extended family, which includes many prominent people such as ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, said that now that she and Leonid have settled down in New York, the seminar on genealogy has come to play an important role in their lives.
“We enjoy the seminar not only for its scholarly aspects, but because it gives us an opportunity to socialize on a regular basis with people who are enthusiasts about the same things we are,” she said. Albert Shekhter, 47, represented a younger generation at the seminar. Shekhter, who emigrated from St. Petersburg in 1996 and now lives in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, said he got involved in the genealogical seminar because, “I think it’s natural for any person to try to figure out who his great-grandparents were. Yet because of communism, so many of us had absolutely no idea what happened to our family.” For his part, Bazarov said that one of his primary missions in the years going forward will be to help close the considerable gap in understanding between Russian-speaking Jewish genealogists and their American-born counterparts. “Unfortunately, due to language and cultural differences, the two groups have often worked in isolation from each other, with each side seemingly reinventing the wheel,” he said. Having attended past conferences of the IAJGS in the U.S., Israel, Canada and Britain, Bazarov believes one way to strengthen ties between the Russian-speaking and North American Jewish genealogical communities would be to hold a conference next summer in the FSU; preferably in his own hometown of Odessa.
“Such a conference would mark the first time that Jews from America and the FSU participate together in a Jewish history and genealogy conference taking place in the Old Country, where both communities have their roots,” Bazarov said enthusiastically. “My dream is for our two communities to work together to uncover our common past, and, in the process, to build a sense of shared destiny for the future.”