A Shtetl Storyby Judith Fein July 31, 2012
By Judith Fein
When I was 10 years old and other girls were playing with dolls, I was obsessed with the shtetl my grandmother came from. I begged my parents to take me to Brooklyn, so I could sit next to her, feel the softness of her skin and ask her about her village in Russia.
My grandmother was not forthcoming. Nor did she know exactly where her shtetl was located, because it was an isolated village, and the only time she ventured any real distance from it was to come to the United States when she was l7.
“Grandma, where do you come from?” I would ask.
“What was it like?”
I conjured up an image of a dark, dank, unwholesome place in Russia with sinewy alleys and people dressed like rag-pickers.
“Tell me what you ate, gram.”
“Where did you buy it?”
“There was a market once a week, on Tuesdays. We had beans, potatoes, beets, corn….” her voice trailed off. She went into the kitchen to stir the chicken soup, and I watched the yellow chicken legs float to the surface and then disappear. When they emerged again, they bumped up against the gorgel and the puppik, the neck and stomach of the chicken.
“Are you hungry, mammaleh?” she asked.
When I nodded, she opened the refrigerator and took out a jar full of schmaltz — rendered chicken fat — that was speckled with burnt onions. She spread half an inch of schmaltz on a piece of rye bread and handed it to me.
I loved everything about my grandmother: the Yiddish newspaper that was folded on an overstuffed, upholstered armchair in the living room; the front parlor, where I slept, and which looked out over the street; the pantry closet that smelled vaguely of matzo. And most of all, I loved that she came from Minkowitz. She was a foreigner who hailed from a mysterious place, and the slightest details she divulged became indelibly imprinted on my brain.
“Gram, did you go to school?”
“No, mamasheyna. We weren’t allowed to. I stood at the bottom of the hill, looking up at the school where the Russian girls studied. They wore blue uniforms. I wanted to be educated like them.”
“What did you do all day?”
“When I was 10 years old, like you are now, I was drying tobacco leaves in the field.”
“Tell me about your house. What did it look like?”
“The floor was made from goat dreck.”
“Where in Russia was it, Gram? Do you know the name of a nearby city?”
I made a mental list of what I knew about Minkowitz. Tuesday market. Drying tobacco leaves. She lived at the bottom of a hill. The Russian girls went to school on top of the hill. The floor of the house was made of goat dung. Kamenetz Podolsk. I repeated the scant facts over and over, clinging to them, imagining what they looked like, felt like, smelled like. I began to wonder if I hadn’t lived in Minkowitz in the past.
I started trying to imitate the sounds of Yiddish, since I couldn’t speak the language. Instead, I invented a sort of bogus Yiddish. I would call my grandmother, and, when she answered the phone, I would cheerfully ask, “Grandma, vus habastups-du?”
“Judie, “she would say sadly, “I don’t understand your Eedish.” That’s how she pronounced it. EEdish.
The next time I called, I greeted her with the bogus, “Grandma, hoison boisin galempt.”
“I just can’t understand your Eedish.”
When I was 19, I was bedridden with mononucleosis and hepatitis. I didn’t have the energy to roll over or kick the covers off when it got too hot. My grandmother got on a train, which was unusual for her, and came to see me in Queens. She sat next to my bed, on a folding chair, and informed me that she finally figured out why she didn’t understand my Yiddish. “Because you go to college and you speak an educated Eddish.”
My obsession with Minkowitz never diminished. When I went to live in Switzerland and formed an experimental theater troupe, I wrote a play about Minkowitz. The audiences were very attentive, and people often told me they found the play to be very unusual and esoteric. I can still hear the echo of the actresses intoning, “And the floor of the house was made of goat shit.”
My Swiss boyfriend at the time started calling me, “Minkowitz” as a term of endearment. “Minkowitz, do you want to go to a movie tonight?” he asked. “Minkowitz, let’s go into the country tomorrow.”
It seemed pretty normal to me. Why not call me “Minkowitz?” It was so vivid and real in my mind that I became convinced I had a past life there.
A few times a year, I would take a train to Paris and spend time with a family I knew there. Before returning to Switzerland, I would always make a stop in the Marais, the old swamps of Paris, an area that was anything but fashionable then. My destination was Goldenberg’s deli, where I loaded up on bagels, matzo, gefilte fish and a jar or two of herring.
Once, I was on a train with two plastic bags emblazoned with the Goldenberg’s logo at my side. A burly man with hair the color of a coconut shell and a melon-shaped face sat across from me, staring at the bags.
“Etes-vous des notres,” he asked in a thick, guttural accent. “Are you one of us?”
The words made me cringe, as though the world were made up of “us” and “them.”
“Oui,” I said politely. And then, interested in his foreignness, I asked, “Where are you from?”
I leaned forward with conspirational intensity.
“My grandmother comes from Russia, but I don’t know where her village was.”
“What was the name?”
“MINKOWITZ!” he exploded. “I can tell you so many things about Minkowitz.”
At that moment, there was a loud whistle and the train squeaked noisily to a halt. The man looked up and leapt out of his seat.
“This is my stop. I have to get off,” he said, and he ran from the train.
Years later, I was living in Los Angeles and dating Paul, whom I later married. He wanted to introduce me to his parents, and we met at a Chinese restaurant. I was panicked because, oddly, I couldn’t find anything to talk to them about. I sipped my hot and sour soup slowly, trying to figure out a suitable topic of conversation.
“Where do you come from?” I finally piped up.
“New York,” said his mother.
“Philly,” replied his father.
“Um…uh…where did your parents come from?”
His father was munching on an eggroll. He finished a mouthful and said, “A small town in Russia.”
“What was the name of the town?” I inquired.
I fell off the seat, clutching a chopstick in my right hand. When Paul and I got married, we exchanged vows and held both ends of a silver-plated spoon from Minkowitz that was a gift from his father.
Soon after our wedding, Paul started to do riffs on our former life in Minkowitz. We worked it into a routine.
“What did we do in Minkowitz?” I would ask.
“We plucked chicken. There was only one chicken in town,” he answered in a thick Yiddish brogue.
“What did you do for a living?” I inquired.
“I was a raisin sorter. And sometimes, for the holidays, I sold liquid icon cleaner door to door.”
Minkowitz was our town. I asked a prominent rabbi at the University of Judaism if he had ever heard of such a thing. Two people in Los Angeles whose ancestors came from the same shtetl.
“Never,” he said.
My grandmother died soon after that. I was in Kauai, and she was in New York. I spoke to her in the hospital, where she was in great pain, asking her if she was afraid to die. She mumbled “yes,” and I told her how she would be walking into the light. Twenty minutes after we spoke, she was gone. One of the last things she said to me was, “Mammalah, I love you more than life.”
One day, when I was hunched over my computer, I got an email offer for five pen pals from five countries for five dollars. I winced. I hardly had enough time to go to the bathroom. Then I thought about it. Maybe it could somehow bring world peace to correspond with folks from other climes. I wrote back, “Yes, I will take you up on this offer, but I need five literate, intelligent people.”
I was connected to five men. They were literate enough, but four of them were nuts. One was angry at women, another oversexed, a third kept asking me about John Dewey and a fourth compared himself to Alexander the Great. The fifth one, Andrew, was openhearted, bright and a resident of Russia.
By the second exchange of emails, I was grilling him about Minkowitz.
“It’s in Ukraine,” he wrote. At the time, Ukraine was part of Russia.
“No, I wrote back. My grandmother would have told me if it were in Ukraine. It’s in Russia.”
“Ukraine,” was the one-word reply.
And then I didn’t hear from Andrew again. I figured I had insulted him or committed some other e-faux pas.
Several weeks later, a thick envelope arrived. Inside was a huge map of the Ukraine with Cyrillic writing. By some coincidence, I had taken three Russian lessons when I was 15 and could decipher the letters. In the southwestern quadrant, there was a circle around a tiny place —Minkivtsi, otherwise known as Minkowitz. Besides the map, Alex had enclosed an envelope with photos. He had borrowed a car and driven hundreds of miles from L’viv, where he lived, to Minkowitz. I trembled as I opened the envelope to look at my grandmother’s dismal homeland. The photos tumbled onto my desk. Minkowitz looked like Switzerland! Rolling hills, animals grazing, sun-dappled fields of green. There were several photos of tombstones, but Andrew apologized that he couldn’t decipher the writing. Andrew is Russian Orthodox. The letters were Hebrew.
“I asked the school director if there were any Jews left,” Andrew wrote, “and he said there weren’t. Just as I was about to leave, an old woman came hobbling up to me. She said the last Jew had left Minkowitz in the 1970s and went somewhere, maybe Israel. The last Jewish person’s name was Kornblatt.”
Kornblatt!? That was my grandmother’s maiden name.
I tried grilling my mother about Minkowitz, but she had absolutely no interest in it and didn’t particularly want to talk about it. When she grew up, she wanted her parents to speak English, not Yiddish. She wanted a mother who was Americanized and wouldn’t embarrass her during open school week. Instead, she had my grandmother, who had one foot still on the boat, in the steerage section.
“If you want more information,” she offered, “find out about the Minkowitz burial society. I am sure there is one.”
I tracked it down and found out there were two members still alive, and they were brothers. I called the first one, and he screamed and cursed at me before hanging up. Alas, he was suffering from dementia.
My Minkowitz-obsessed heart was pounding as I called the last link. He was old, ailing and unable to speak for too long, but he told me that Minkowitz was indeed in Ukraine, and it was on the river Ushitsya.
Years went by. I wrote stories about my grandmother. I dreamed about the shtetl. Paul and I elaborated on our Minkowitz routine.
And, then, a few months ago, I decided it was time to go to Minkowitz. You’re probably wondering why I didn’t go before, especially since I am a travel writer. The short answer is: I was afraid. Afraid of what I would find, or what I wouldn’t find. Afraid the experience would be too powerful, or too disappointing. As Paul said, “I guess you aren’t ready.”
I wrote to Andrew and told him I was going to Ukraine to find Minkowitz. He insisted we stay with him as long as we wished. I demurred, said I couldn’t possibly impose on him and his wife Oksana, and finally agreed. I hounded him until he told me something he would like me to bring — jazz CDs. I discovered JewishGen.org and tracked down a guide named Alex, who seemed to have the most expertise about Eastern European Jews and Ukraine. He said he would have no trouble taking me and Paul to Minkowitz, and, after many emails back and forth, we decided to extend the trip to one week so I could immerse myself in the land of our ancestors.
“Please,” I wrote to Alex, “understand that I am interested in everything and want to explore the world of shtetls, but the heart of the trip is Minkowitz.”
Two months later, we entered the world of Eastern Europe as it existed in 1910, when my grandmother sailed on the President Lincoln to Ellis Island, and until the brutal end of the shtetl culture during World War II.
I met rabbis and a gypsy baron, Jews, gentiles and caretakers of ancient rabbinic tombs. Before we spoke about anything else, I always told them I came from Minkowitz. Most of them smiled and said I looked Ukrainian.
I thought about Minkowitz in the abstract but had no solid idea of what I would find. Several people warned me it was probably a modern town, and they hoped I would not be disappointed. I never referred to our itinerary. Days melted into other days. I was exposed to so much, was trying to absorb information and experiences so quickly, that I didn’t realize we were spending the night in Kamenetz Podolsk. We arrived at dusk. I expected it to be a small, run-down, provincial town, but instead I crossed the bridge over a huge, gaping canyon and entered the Old City, which is now a spectacular UNESCO World Heritage site.
I jumped out of the car and started walking on the cobblestone streets, wondering which buildings existed in my grandmother’s time. Alex said many of them had. Had her father gone there to get passports for his family to travel to America? Had my grandmother ever been there, as a child? Did they see what I was seeing — the colorful houses, the administrative buildings, the glorious churches, the sinewy streets, the old defensive walls, the tower?
The next day, when we awoke, Paul announced, “It’s Minkowitz day.” I hardly heard him. I was busy scouting for brochures, visiting churches, looking for an item for my extensive folk art collection. We ate lunch. Paul was puzzled. “You’ve wanted to go to Minkowitz all your life, and you are stalling. We don’t have much time.”
I was silent. “I understand,” Paul intoned. “You have to be ready.”
It was afternoon when we arrived in Minkowitz. A large white sign on the side of the road announced the name of the town in Ukrainian: Minkivtsi. The car was still moving as I jumped out, encircling the sign with my arms. And then I began to cry. Tears poured down my face and onto the front of my shirt. Alex and the driver looked at me quizzically. I couldn’t speak.
We drove down the main street of Minkowitz and passed a well in front of an old, abandoned, white building.
“Paul, I need you to take a picture of that well, and that building.”
“Why? “ Paul asked. He is a photographer, and the site didn’t look inspiring.
“Please, I’m begging you. Just do it.”
“The building looks interesting,” Alex said. “Let’s go take a look.”
We walked past the well and examined the front and side of the building. The windows were broken, the stucco was cracked and fading. I noticed that Alex had crossed over to a large, administrative-looking building next to it and was talking animatedly to a pleasantly plump woman in a lavender shirt with ruffled sleeves and a white skirt. He motioned for me to join him and introduced me to the woman, Natalia Olijnyk, who was the mayor of Minkowitz.
“I am from Minkowitz,” I blurted out.
“I know,” she said, and we hugged each other. I started to cry again, and I couldn’t stop.
“Don’t worry,” Alex whispered to me. “You are safe here. No one will hurt you.”
How could I explain why I wss crying?
The mayor invited me into her office and called out to her assistant. Together they perused the large archival book that listed family names. In the l970s, they found the name Kornblatt.
Was the Kornblatt related to me? I started to sob.
“What is the building next door? The one with the well, ” I blubbered at the mayor.
“A tobacco plant. It’s closed now, but the women and girls used to sit out back, drying tobacco leaves, hanging them on ropes.”
Tobacco leaves! Just what my grandmother had told me.
“Was there a school here, where Russian girls studied and wore uniforms?”
“Let me show you,” she offered. Then she smiled and said, “You know, if you had arrived two minutes earlier, I would not have been walking from the building, heading home for lunch. If you had come two minutes later, I would have been gone, having lunch. It was perfect timing.”
Close to the mayor’s office was an old school building. There were tasteful designs embedded in the limestone facing, and large windows lined the front and sides.
“When was the school built?” I asked the mayor.
“It was during the Czarist period,” Alex and the mayor agreed. When my grandmother would have been there. But was it the school she recalled?
The mayor got into our car, and we drove down a hill, where she pointed out all the houses that belonged to Jews. They were made of small wooden boards, covered with mud and then stuccoed over. Some of them were inhabited, and others were abandoned. We were at the bottom of a hill. Just as my grandmother had described. I got out of the car, stood on the dirt road among the houses and looked to the top of the hill. There was the school we had just seen. The school my grandmother looked at with envy when she was a poor Jewish girl and the Russian school girls wore starched uniforms.
The mayor offered to introduce us to Nina Simionovna, a woman in her late 80s and one of the oldest inhabitants in the area, who might remember something. We went to her house. Nina had trouble walking, but, leaning on a walker, she beckoned me to sit next to her outside of her abode.
She poured out her memories of the Germans and Ukrainian police shooting the Jews and pointed to where they fell on top of a hill.
“My father and I went there after the shooting,” she said. “The ground was moving.”
“Moving?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied. “Some of them were still alive, and they were breathing. My father planted trees in memory of the Jews. Look. They are still there.”
We looked together at the trees on the hill and then sat for a moment in silence. I could see her eyes floating back to the past.
“Nina,” I asked her, “do you remember what the floors of the house were made of when you grew up?”
“Yes,” she said, smiling. “Animal manure.”
Goat shit! Somewhere, in a land beyond life, my grandmother was nodding.
I walked down more of the dirt streets of Minkowitz, speaking to locals with hand signs, aware that it was late in the day and we soon had to leave. It was blazing hot, and we stopped at the only convenience store/café we saw in town for a drink. I announced that I came from Minkowitz and was returning 102 years after my grandmother left.
Two bearlike Russian men sat at a table drinking. They waved us over and began to hug me and kiss me, pouring cognac for Paul, Alex and me. Bottoms up. They were already several sheets to the wind, and they got louder and friendlier, and soon we were munching pickles and laughing, and they were saying how Ukrainian I looked, and how wonderful it was for me to come back after 102 years.
“What is that field across from where we are sitting?” I asked.
“It’s where the Jewish market was,” they replied. “It still takes place on the same day. Tuesday.”
I stifled my sobs. The school my grandmother had looked up at. The place her family lived at the bottom of the hill. Goat dung for floors. A tobacco plant where women and children dried leaves. And now, the marketplace where they bought beans and corn and beets.
A hundred and two years had passed, and I had come home.
IF YOU GO:
If you’d like to visit your family shtetl, our highly recommended guide is Alex Denisenko: firstname.lastname@example.org.