A Picture Worth a Thousand Tears
How a single photograph healed a Jewish family.
By Jonathan R. Herman
When I remember my maternal grandmother, my Bubbie Anne, I alternate between thinking of her as an “old soul” and as “forever young.” In one respect, she seemed so utterly adult, and it was hard to imagine her ever being anything else. Her home was always immaculate, almost antiseptic, with a vaguely aristocratic, vaguely antique tinge. She refused to learn to use a microwave oven, even when the controls consisted of little more than an on-off button and a manual dial, preferring instead the slow and deliberate preparation of her inimitable Old World dishes—chopped liver knishes, potato latkes, chicken fricassee, kasha varnishkes—the recipes she jealously guarded as though they were esoteric ritual secrets. And yet she could just as easily turn childishly playful, even giddy, taking a sneaky delight when one of her grandchildren said something irreverent or risqué. In response to my clinical, preadolescent attempt to warn her about seeing an “R-rated” movie, which might show “bare breasts,” she affected mock indignation. “So? I see them every night when I take a shower.” When I teased her that I was her fifth (and least) favorite grandchild, behind the oldest, the youngest, the “smart one,” and the only girl, she initially protested the accusation that she played favorites, but then chose to play along. “Number Fii-iive,” she would sometimes call to me when she wanted my attention, as though it were my long-standing nickname.
But mostly, she was fiercely loyal to and protective of her own, and she could shoot a poisonous stare at anyone who maligned her family. It was she, more than anyone else, who never lost confidence in my oldest brother, whose teenage angst chased him into early adulthood, causing him nearly to flunk out of college. When he finally called her to say that he had been accepted to medical school—the second time a grandchild had called to share such news—her reaction was priceless. “Rob!” she cried out euphorically to my grandfather, “I’ve got two of them!” And that was just fine. If she could shoulder the family’s troubles so reflexively, none of us would ever begrudge her taking ownership of our joys and successes.
Yet, it wasn’t until recently that I fully realized the world of hurt she carried with her for most of her life.
My grandmother Anne Rivkin was born Anna Miriam Oxengoren in 1905, in Zhabokrich, Ukraine, the elder of Moishe and Rochel Bronstein Oxengoren’s two children. When Anna and her younger brother, Hershel, were both fairly young, their father died, and their mother married Toyva Veltman, a widower with four children. The two families were, for all intents and purposes, assimilated. Rochel and Toyva had one child together, Roza, Anna and Hershel’s half-sister. Their hometown, Zhabokrich, “a tiny, quiet backwater village in Ukraine’s (Podolia) region”1 in present-day Vinnytsia Oblast, was about 180 miles northwest of Odessa. It was a fairly typical Russian shtetl, one of hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of small rural villages with significant Jewish populations that dotted the eastern European countryside through the early twentieth century. According to archival records, the Jewish community in Zhabokrich traced back to the middle of the eighteenth century, when there were a half-dozen Jewish families living there, but that number swelled to well over a thousand people by the beginning of the twentieth century, accounting for just under one-fifth of the town’s total population.2 The Jewish part of the village was in the center of Zhabokrich and consisted of six long streets, surrounded on all sides by the Ukrainian Christian population.
The image of the Jewish shtetl has been permanently etched into the contemporary imagination by the writings of Sholem Aleichim (and especially the iconic musical Fiddler on the Roof), which portray poor, unevenly educated but pious Jewish families eking out marginal livings, amiably resolving internecine disputes, and maintaining a precarious peace with their Gentile neighbors. Much of this certainly rings true for Zhabokrich, where the Jews did function largely autonomously in an area that did not yet have electricity, and where families shared patches of soil on a collective farm and grew their own vegetables. But Zhabokrich differed from Sholem Aleichim’s Anatevka in many ways, and not only because their rabbi wasn’t the dotty and comical figure from Fiddler.3 The town was home not only to farmers, but also to tradesmen and white-collar workers, with some men working in manufacturing and industry.4 Zhabokrich also had a Jewish school, with education offered through the tenth grade; parents who could afford to do so might send their older children for private education in larger cities like Odessa or Vinnytsia. It was in this environment that my grandmother Anna grew up, and where her stepfather, Toyva Veltman, owned a large house and made his living providing food and accommodations for travelers—the shtetl’s equivalent of a bed-and-breakfast. The family evidently had relatively comfortable financial circumstances, for at one point they sent Anna away to a private school, probably the Mykolaiv First Mariinska Gymnasium.5
It was around this time, during the Russian Civil War—the turbulent interregnum between the collapse of the Russian Empire and the formation of the Soviet Union—that Jewish shtetls like Zhabokrich were under attack from pogroms, acts of organized violence against the Jews that were in reality far more destructive than the “little unofficial demonstration” depicted in Fiddler. In late 1917, for example—one source identifies it (ironically) as the day of the Russian Orthodox celebration of the Presentation of the Virgin—”a group of young Ukrainian peasants armed with iron rods stormed the village and viciously beat all the Jews they could lay their hands on.”6 A far more devastating, and protracted, pogrom occurred in the summer of 1919, when soldiers from the short-lived Ukrainian People’s Army, most likely in retreat after clashes with Polish forces, menaced the town for two days. “They confiscated money and valuables from the Jews, destroyed personal belongings and torched homes and slaughtered livestock. At least twenty-five Jewish women were brutally raped, while men who attempted to resist were beaten to death. Many were left crippled.”7 At some point, when Anna was fourteen or fifteen, she was attacked and nearly raped by soldiers, though it’s difficult to know with certainty if it was during this particular, well-documented pogrom. Regardless, the episode signaled just how dangerous and threatening the region had become for Jews, especially vulnerable teenage girls. Due to the political instability, it was also a time when many Jews managed to find their way out of Ukraine—at least one of the Veltman family’s relatives had already immigrated to Canada—and Anna’s mother’s two sisters and their families were making independent plans to leave Zhabokrich and settle in the United States. Seeing little hope for respite from the pogroms, Rochel convinced her sisters to take her own two children with them. And so, armed with phony documents identifying them as their Aunt Rebecca’s children, Anna and Hershel left for the New World while still in their teens, separated from their parents and nuclear family. Anna entered the United States with the name Anna Palatnick, settling in Hartford, Connecticut. She would have to grow up fast.
In 1924, while still in her teens, Anna married Robert Rivkin, my grandfather, a Latvian immigrant some eight years her senior, who had left his own homeland, not out of fear but from wanderlust. My Zadie Rob was a warm, soft-spoken gentleman whose personality included a combination of ambition and buffoonery. He fancied himself a charismatic public speaker, but he was really an introvert who spoke slowly and with a slight stammer. He loved to play the violin, but he never developed even the slightest ability to keep time.8 A pair of stateside uncles, not quite sure what to do with him, had sent Rob to Providence, Rhode Island, where he was apprenticed to a jeweler and learned watchmaking. He opened a modest jewelry store in Hartford, and, at least according to him, fell in love at first sight when Anna came into the store on an errand. They were an odd couple from the first, and they spent the rest of their lives thoroughly devoted to and dependent on each other. Anna and Rob started a family quickly. In 1925, they had a daughter, my mother Mae, followed a few years later by son Seymour, who would be alliteratively nicknamed by his boyhood buddies and forever known simply as “Rip” Rivkin. The family was close, though when my mother was growing up, she was always acutely aware that something most of her peers could take for granted—the ongoing presence of grandparents, first cousins, uncles and aunts—was not a part of her immediate world. Anna’s brother, Hershel, the only one of Anna’s or Rob’s siblings in America, was not quite the “Uncle Harry” my mother or grandmother would have wanted. An early convert to the communist cause, he cared little for family ties, disappeared for lengthy periods of time, and only periodically reemerged to stand on a box outside the local Jewish market and preach about the imminent revolution of the proletariat. He eventually left for good, and I had no idea he even existed until I was well into my teens. The family did work hard to maintain especially close ties with the more distant relatives in town, and during the Depression, they often opened their home or offered support to members of their extended family.
During the late 1920s and 1930s, while my grandparents were raising their children, Anna regularly corresponded with her family, especially her mother, back in Russia. She also shared whatever modest Depression-era prosperity she and Rob managed in America, periodically sending home what would now be called “care packages,” which likely contained dry goods, medical supplies, clothing and fabrics—anything that might have been expensive, subject to shortage, or otherwise hard to obtain back in Ukraine. We do know for sure about one immensely important item that Anna included in one of these shipments around 1937: a photograph of her nuclear family—Anna, Rob, their children Mae and Seymour—taken in front of their home in Hartford. We know about this package because it marked a critical, and traumatic, moment in my family’s history, since it was returned several weeks later. There was no accompanying letter, no forwarding address, no explanation of any kind as to why the delivery was refused, and the mystery was exacerbated by one confusing clue. The box had apparently been opened, and, though all of the provisions remained, the family photograph had been removed. Did this mean that the photo was somehow lost in transit? Did someone open the package, remove the photo, meticulously reseal it, and send it back? And what did this suggest about the fate of Anna’s mother and the rest of her family? All of eastern Europe had become increasingly destabilized by that time, and Russian Jews were often trapped amid looming battles among anti-Semitic regimes.9
Certainly, it must have been excruciating for Anna as Europe plunged deeper into war, and then even more so when the sickening details of the Nazi genocide came to light in the war’s aftermath.
After the package was returned, Anna desperately tried to reestablish contact with her family, writing letter after letter, none of which was ever answered. She never heard from her family again, and she never learned what happened to her mother, or to any of her other relatives. Certainly, it must have been excruciating for her as Europe plunged deeper into war, and then even more so when the sickening details of the Nazi genocide came to light in the war’s aftermath. No doubt she learned things in the scattershot way that everyone did during that period, through grainy images in newsreel footage, through snippets of the Nuremberg trials, and through the tormented eyes of the most recent European immigrants, who gradually began to settle in Hartford neighborhoods and who wore numbers tattooed on their arms. And whatever news the family finally did learn was never good, such as when Rob’s brother in Russia, a successful and outspoken physician, was executed for political rabble-rousing. For my mother, this amplified her sense of emptiness. At least during her early childhood, there had been grandparents out there, somewhere, whose mysterious, disembodied voices occasionally came to her through handwritten letters in a language only her parents understood. After 1937 or so, those voices fell silent, leaving her with sadness, anger, and a profound sense of injustice.
Had my grandmother had access to the types of research and archival materials that are available today, she would have learned that, just a few years after she lost contact with her family, her hometown of Zhabokrich was the site of one of the many mas-sacres that Jews suffered at the hands of the Nazis. German troops took over Zhabokrich on July 2, 1941, and, after a few days, left behind a well-armed Romanian occupying force. The details of what occurred three weeks later, between July 26 and July 29, are now a matter of public record, but, as with all official records, it fails to do justice to the extent of the atrocity. The horror began when all of the Jews in town—at least all of those the occupiers could find—were driven from their homes and forced to assemble in the main square of the village.
Once all were assembled at the square, they were subdivided into four groups. Romanians took the first group—men only—drove them onto the former kolkhoz—”Lenin’s Way”—and shot them point-blank with machineguns. The bodies were then thrown into empty potato storage bins. 160 people!
The remaining groups were distributed between three basements: the first, the biggest, was under the house of Duvid Gershkovich; the second was under the house of Khuna Rabinovich; and the third was under the village shop, next to the house of Hannah Maizler. Romanian soldiers closely surrounded each group and, under the rifles with cold shining bayonets, the people started on their last road—to be shot in the basement. The trip was not long—in Zhabokrich everything is close by. Many went hand-in-hand, in silence; mothers kept their quiet, as if understanding, babies in their arms. The older people loudly prayed. They were asking their God for forgiveness and protection. . . .
The nightmare in Zhabokrich continued for three days—searching, catching and killing each and every single Jew! People were trying to hide in ravines, in bushes, in woods, in fields, in the cellars of their homes—wherever they could. Most of the local Ukrainians did not take part in these bloody actions, but the majority of them were totally indifferent to what was happening. There were also cases in which some kind individual souls gave help and assistance to their former neighbors and friends. Their brave and honorable actions saved the lives of some of Zhabokrich Jews.
On the other hand, there were some groups of Ukrainians who actively participated in the massacre. They helped Romanian soldiers to find and catch hiding desolate Jews.10
In all, Israel’s official memorial to Jewish Holocaust victims, Yad Vashem, catalogues the shooting deaths in Zhabokrich of 445 Jews, though at least one source claims the number to be closer to 600.111 Yad Vashem has also preserved the testimony of Manya Brodeski-Titelman, who was nine years old when she survived the massacre, for the simple reason that she happened to lose consciousness in one of the basements when the shooting began and collapsed into the pile of corpses already there. Days later, when the surviving Jews were slowly coming out of hiding, Brodeski-Titelman among them, they were required to perform a gratuitous task that served as an addendum to the carnage. “One day, the police ordered both adults and children back to the cellars to remove the bodies of those killed in the massacre. The bodies were in a terrible state of decomposition, and the horrified prisoners were forced to bury them in a mass grave. Manya identified her mother’s body by the red boots she had been wearing.”12 Another survivor who was forced to take part in this grim task, an eleven-year-old boy, recalled that the work took an entire week to complete.13 During the remaining war years following the massacre, the Zhabokrich shtetl collapsed into the two-street Zhabokrich ghetto, where Jews continued to suffer random violence and sadistic indignities while trapped behind barbed wire. Jews could only leave the ghetto in forced labor groups, with few alternatives before them: “If you protested you were shot dead.”14 And, of course, the Zhabokrich massacre was replicated in shtetls throughout the Vinnytsia region; the records read like a chronicle of a species that had suddenly relinquished its humanity, succumbed to a collective madness, and sunk to the uttermost depths of depravity. In Voronovitsa, more than 820 Jews shot to death; in Ilyintsy, more than 1,500 Jews shot to death, many of whom were tortured; in Pogrebishche, 1,760 Jews shot to death; in the city of Vinnytsia, more than 15,000 Jews shot to death.15 The lists grind on interminably.
My mother, Mae Rivkin, married my father, Joseph Herman, a navy veteran, aspiring optometrist, and sometime entrepreneur, in 1946. When Mae was pregnant with my oldest brother in 1950, she told her mother, Anna, that she planned to name the child after her grandmother, Rochel—Anna’s mother. Anna forbade her to do so. In Ashkenazi Jewish tradition, it is customary to name a child after a beloved, deceased family member, and to name my brother after Rochel would have amounted to a public acknowledgment that Rochel was dead. “We don’t know,” Anna would tell my mother, “she might still be alive.” It was more than a decade since she had last heard from her mother, but it was still too painful to accept the truth that was all but certain. A year or so later, my mother was pregnant again, this time with the “middle” brother, and again she asked her mother if she could name him after Rochel. Again, Anna refused. Finally, in 1957, the last time my mother would have a child, it was Anna who brought the matter up, shortly after I was born. “Alright, it’s been long enough already.” It took nearly twenty years, but she was ready to admit the worst and honor the memory of her mother in the best way she could. When I was born, I was given the Hebrew name Raphael (many American Jews have “separate” Hebrew names, which may or may not be linguistically related to their English names), and it was always understood that the initial “R” was in memory of Rochel, that I was my great-grandmother’s namesake.
The custom of naming children after deceased relatives does not seem to have a canonical or theological basis, and anecdotal evidence verifies that there are numerous interpretations of it.16 Some say that naming a child after someone who is alive somehow usurps the living person’s soul; others simply state that it is inappropriate and disrespectful. In any event, the custom of naming a child after an ancestor creates an interesting tension between the past and present. On the one hand, it maintains a sense of continuity from generation to generation, both a reminder to the living of relatives who came before and a promise that each person will not be forgotten after his or her own death. On the other hand, it creates a sense of mystery, as the ancestors whose names we carry are never part of our own memories, but are available to us only in stories, pictures, and our parents’ recollections. In my case, I always sensed a peculiar incongruity. I was named for someone whom neither my parents nor brothers had ever met, someone that only my Bubbie Anne knew and remembered, but about whom she seldom spoke. It was indeed hugely important that I was named after Rochel, but Rochel was a phantom to me, and to all of us.
Bubbie Anne died in 1979, after a short and painful bout with pancreatic cancer, which she contracted shortly after her husband (Zadie Rob) had a serious stroke that permanently impaired his ability to speak and to swallow. During Bubbie Anne’s final days, when she was wasted terribly by the disease, she became delirious. At one point, she grew agitated and began rambling in Russian, her native language, but one my mother seldom heard spoken in the home. And she cried out for her mother, something else none of us had ever heard before. This was the same cry she had been making silently for forty years, and her cry went unanswered, just as it had gone for all those years before.
In March 2006, my mother, who was eighty-one at the time, telephoned me with important news. I detected in her a kind of tearful elation; the last time I had sensed this emotion was when she was waiting for me and my wife, Ellen, behind an airport security gate, clutching a small doll with Asian features, watching for us to reach the top of the escalator with our newly adopted Chinese daughter. My mother told us that she had been contacted by a woman about my age, who spoke with a thick Russian accent. Her name was Rita Veltman, and she was calling on behalf of her father, a man close to my mother’s age, who spoke only Russian and Yiddish. Naum Veltman had emigrated from Russia to the United States in 1989, and he had spent the last sixteen years feverishly trying to locate one lost branch of his family tree, providing the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) with the only clue he had to their identities: the single photograph that Anna had sent to her mother more than a half-century earlier.
In what seemed like a stranger-than-fiction miracle, my mother learned that Naum Veltman was the grandson of Toyva Veltman, the second husband of Anna’s mother, Rochel, which made him my mother’s “step-cousin.” Rita filled my mother in on a half-century of extraordinary family history, how most of the family had in fact survived the massacres, how they had dodged extermination camps (but not forced labor), and how generations of relatives now live in New York and California, as well as Canada, Israel, Russia, Germany, and Australia. Understandably, my mother was overcome by emotion. “All my life,” she said to Rita, “I’ve been waiting for this call.” This is why she survived cancer, she told me on the phone, so she could live to see this. After spending most of her lifetime with a quiet sadness that she had no grandparents, uncles, or aunts, and only a small (but loving) extended family, my mother could finally boast to us with the kind of innocent giddiness that I had sometimes seen in my grandmother, “Now I have more family than anyone!”
And Rita Veltman, my second cousin who contacted my mother out of the blue, was named for Rochel, the great-grandmother after whom I was also named.
My mother had several conversations in the following days with Rita and her sister, Linna, writing down information, trying to keep track of names, peppering them with questions, and providing information about her own family and history. A few months later, she and her second husband, Walter (my father had died twenty years ago), flew to San Francisco for Naum’s eightieth birthday party, an extravagant multilingual affair where, at least according to her, they were greeted like the guests of honor, escorted through the city, and welcomed effusively back into the family from which they should never have been separated. They looked at photographs and met the relatives, matching the faces to the names my mother was still sorting out on the family tree. A year after Naum’s party, Rita’s daughter Galina was married, and Mae and Walter again attended what amounted to another family reunion. The families had been united three generations before, and, as far as anyone was concerned, they were again a single extended family today.
The story of what happened to my grandmother’s family, how the photograph survived all these years, and how Naum Veltman finally located my mother is complicated and tragic, but it is also inspiring. It begins in 1937, when my grandmother Anna sent that final package. As it turned out, the shipment was refused, not because the family was displaced or killed, but because the Soviet government had instituted an unofficial major policy change:
In the first decade after the Russian Revolution, the new elite chose ethnic tolerance as their strategy, and generally succeeded in implementing it. In the 1920s and early 1930s, Stalin called upon the Russians to combine “Russian revolutionary élan with an American business-like approach to everything.”
But in the mid-1930s, Stalin replaced ethnic tolerance—which the Bolsheviks called “internationalism”—with an ideology of Russian chauvinism and anti-Semitism.17
Because of this, any contact with the United States, especially for a Jewish family, was considered quite dangerous, possibly resulting in the loss of one’s job, or even arrest, and officials would normally prevent such shipments from getting through at all. However, by this time, Anna’s half-sister Roza, who had remained in Ukraine when Anna left in 1919, was doing some sort of important work for the government.18 This position evidently gave Roza a degree of influence: not enough for her Jewish family to send and receive ongoing communication from American relatives, but enough for her mother to be able to keep the photograph in the package.
It was only a few years later that the Nazis occupied Ukraine, and it was luck more than any government position that saved the family from the 1941 Zhabokrich massacres. Shortly before the war, much of the extended Veltman family had left the area and settled some two thousand miles away in Nizhny Tagil, just east of the virtual Europe-Asia border. On the eve of the massacres, and before the Germans and Romanians collapsed the Zhabokrich shtetl into a ghetto, those family members still living there—Toyva and Rochel, Toyva’s son Joseph and his family, including fifteen-year-old Naum and his brothers—fled the town in a horse-drawn cart, seeking relative sanctuary in Bershad, about twenty-five miles to the east. However, they discovered that the Nazis had already occupied that town, which left them with little choice but to return to Zhabokrich. Astonishingly, they arrived there late enough that the massacres had already occurred, but not so late that Naum Veltman, along with his father and at least one of his brothers, escaped the tragedy of burying those killed in the massacre. They lived out the remaining war years in the Zhabokrich ghetto, a squalid and brutal existence, where the family did not entirely escape casualties.19 One especially tragic victim was the sixty-four-year-old Toyva Veltman, Rochel’s second husband and the family patriarch, whom a grandson described as “a tall, strong, handsome man with his white beard immaculately cut” who “prayed every day” with “a beautiful singing voice.” One day, Toyva was inexplicably summoned to the office of the German occupation force, where he was badly beaten by the Romanian politzai. According to his grandson, “he just managed to stumble home, he asked his daughter-in-law Surah for a warm tea, when she came back bringing him a cup of tea, he was already dead.”20
On March 17, 1944, the Zhabokrich ghetto was liberated. Of course, the end of the Nazi era did not put an end to Russia’s institutionalized anti-Semitism, and the country’s remaining Jews faced an ongoing climate of hostility.21 Jewish intellectuals endured periodic purges, like the infamous Night of the Murdered Poets in 1952, when more than a dozen writers and activists in the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee were executed after years of imprisonment, torture, and forced confessions.22 Naum Veltman’s younger brother described the Russian Jewish experience this way: “Every day we felt like second-class citizens. Even to pronounce the name Isaak was an embarrassment.” But the family endured, adapting to the realities facing Jewish life in the Soviet Union. The now twice-widowed Rochel survived the ghetto and lived briefly with her stepson Joseph’s family, before moving to Nizhny Tagil in the late 1940s to spend her final years with her daughter Roza. She died there in 1955 or 1956. Bubbie Anne’s intuition was right, after all. Her mother had still been alive when my two older brothers were born, and it would indeed have been contrary to Jewish tradition to name either of them after her. But by the time I was born, she really was gone.
The pieces of the story lay dormant for the next few decades, until Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy reforms—glasnost and perestroika—paved the way for a new wave of Jewish emigration out of Russia, often sponsored by or routed through Israel. In late 1989, Naum Veltman, along with his wife, Dora, and daughter Rita’s family, managed to jump through all of the financial and bureaucratic hoops necessary to immigrate to the United States, ultimately settling outside of San Francisco; his other daughter, Linna, and her family followed several months later. But before he left the soon-to-be former Soviet Union, Naum paid one final goodbye visit to his Aunt Roza, Anna’s half-sister, who was by then into her seventies. It was during this final encounter that Roza unearthed and gave to Naum something he did not know existed: the Rivkin family photo, the one her mother had received more than fifty years earlier and which she herself had quietly protected for the thirty-plus years since Rochel’s death. Her plea to Naum was straight-forward and heartfelt: “Find our family.”
A chance reunion in New York of several Zhabokrich survivors led to a discussion about paying a long overdue tribute to the victims of the massacre.
Naum had not exactly anticipated being handed such a mission on the eve of starting his life over. He was already in his sixties, moving to a country where he did not speak the language (and he had hearing problems, to boot) and where he faced financial uncertainty. Indeed, up to that point, Naum had been only peripherally aware of having family in the United States. After all, Anna and Hershel (who were not his biological relatives) had left Ukraine six years before he was even born, and he was not yet into his teens when the family’s contact with the United States came to its abrupt end. What’s more, he received from Roza precious little with which to undertake this task: a half-century-old photo, with only the words “Anna Rivkin with husband and children” written on the back. But Naum took his family commitments seriously, and he accepted the assignment without hesitation, promising Roza that he would invest whatever time and money the search required. “I have to make it work,” he said.
Once Naum and his daughters’ families adapted to life in the United States and he began searching in earnest, it became clear just how difficult the task would be. Anna and Rob had both been dead for a decade. And even if Naum had known their children’s names, that piece of information would not necessarily have made things much easier. My Uncle Rip died just before their arrival, his widow lived out of state, and my mother had been going by her married name for more than forty years. Naum soon turned to various agencies for assistance, with mixed results. The first one he hired abruptly went out of business and never returned the original of the family photo. Naum persevered, relying on photocopies. Other agencies worked like methodical detectives, unearthing troves of material culture: census documents, old telephone directories, even the record of my grandfather’s brief ownership of a small hotel in Rockville, Connecticut. After fifteen years of dead ends, the trail led in 2006 to Uncle Rip’s son, my cousin Ron, the only living adult descendant of Anna and Rob who still had the family name Rivkin. But Ron was initially nonplussed by the phone call. He didn’t really know anything about the family’s European background (his father was only seven or eight when the families fell out of touch), he had never heard the name Veltman before (my brothers and I hadn’t, either), and he wasn’t entirely sure HIAS had found the right man. And then they showed him the family photo. He immediately recognized our grandparents and their young children. Ron was pleased about the contact, but he also suggested that the one who might really be pleased, and who obviously knew the family history better, was my mother, his Aunt Mae. This was an unexpected bombshell for the Veltmans, who up to that point had no idea whether or not my mother (Naum’s first cousin) was still alive. Rita admitted later that she telephoned my mother with some trepidation, wondering if the connection between the two branches of the family would be as important to Mae as it was to Naum. Needless to say, she was relieved, and elated, when my mother acknowledged that it was the call she had waited for her entire life.
The reunion of our family is, of course, but one small piece of a much larger story, the story of a world still struggling with the memory of the Holocaust, still seeking ways to commemorate the unspeakable tragedies and to nurture the occasional sparks of life that spring from its dust. Until recently, the village of Zhabokrich showed few signs of ever having been home to a Jewish community, few signs of ever having been the site of a shtetl, a ghetto, or a massacre. All of that began to change in 2003, however, thanks to a chance reunion in New York of several Zhabokrich survivors, which led to a discussion about paying a long overdue tribute to the victims of the massacre and its aftermath. And so, just as Naum was nearing the end of his search for our family, his brother Isaak returned to Sydney, Australia, to spearhead an international fundraising drive that culminated just a few years later with the construction of a memorial that stands today and has been integrated into the local culture of Zhabokrich: “Though there are no more Jews in Zhabokrich, the non-Jews are celebrating the memorial as their own. They have been using this memorial as a landmark. It has been photographed during celebrations and wedding ceremonies in the town.”23 Underneath the towering candelabrum and beside the gently landscaped grounds, the plaque reads simply, “Eternal memory to the victims of fascism,” with the dates of the German invasion and the Zhabokrich massacre. Since then, a second memorial has appeared, near what was once the old market square, identifying the dates of both the massacre and the liberation of the ghetto.24
My great-aunt Roza died shortly before Naum Veltman made contact with my mother. Naum died in 2008, and his wife, Dora, followed in 2012, but not before the subsequent generation could continue what he had set in motion. One of my brothers has been to Sydney, where he met Isaak Veltman and his wife, Lilia (a distant relative of Manya Brodeski-Titelman, the woman whose account of the Zhabokrich massacre is recorded at Yad Vashem), his daughter, Irina, and her children. My family has spent time in New York City with Isaak’s kindhearted son, Igor, and his wife, Alla, whose college-age son regularly offers my seventeen-year-old daughter sage advice on Facebook.
But for me, the most emotionally significant encounter occurred in late 2011, when the national American Academy of Religion conference was held in San Francisco. While there, I met Naum’s daughters, including the one who (like me), was named after our great-grandmother Rochel. It was an odd experience, to meet people about whom I knew next to nothing, and still to feel such an immediate sense of connection, that mysterious sense of “family.” Repeatedly, while regaling me with family pictures and artifacts from the extended search, the sisters stressed that the mission could not end simply with their late father having found my mother, but that it was up to us, and our children, to see that the family would never be torn apart again. At that moment, I realized that I now carry an obligation, one that is not a burden, but a privilege. For it is indeed a privilege to be able to honor Naum Veltman’s commitment and hard work in finding my family, to fulfill further my mother’s lifelong aspiration to recover and reunite with our lost family, and perhaps above all, to provide a kind of symbolic healing to the hurt my beloved Bubbie Anne suffered for so much of her life.
- Emanuel Garber, Fragile Jewish Existence: A Ukrainian Childhood’s Recollection of the Holocaust, trans. Eugene Mozias, ed. Robert Krauss (Seagull Press, 2005), 10.
- The Encyclopedia of Jewish Life Before and During the Holocaust, ed. Shmuel Spector, vol. 3. (New York University Press, 2003), 1504–1505.
- Rabbi Natan ben Baruch Stanislavski assumed his position in 1912 at the age of forty. Zhabokrich also enjoys a modicum of literary immortality, appearing in Moshe Glaser’s Yiddish stories. See Chester G. Cohen, Shtetl Finder: Jewish Communities in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries in the Pale of Settlement of Russia and Poland, and in Lithuania, Latvia, Galicia, and Bukovina, with Names of Residents (Heritage Books, 1989), 126.
- Encyclopedia of Jewish Life, 1504.
- The Mykolaiv First Mariinska Gymnasium originally opened as the Mykolaiv Mariinska Women’s School and operated continuously through 1918.
- Garber, Fragile Jewish Existence, 10. The perpetrators also reportedly robbed their victims (Encyclopedia of Jewish Life, 1504).
- Garber, Fragile Jewish Existence, 10.
- He traveled to the United States with money sewn into the lining of his clothes, but, despite these precautions, it was stolen in transit.
- This was before the 1939 Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact.
- Garber, Fragile Jewish Existence, 51–52. Another survivor of the massacre recalls that the shootings took place in five basements. Jeffrey Veidliner, In the Shadow of the Shtetl (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), 193.
- Faina A. Vinokurova, “The Holocaust in Vinnitsa Oblast,” in Miriam Weiner, Jewish Roots in Ukraine and Moldova: Pages from the Past and Archival Inventories (Miriam Weiner Routes to Roots, 1999), 333–334.
- “Torchlighters 2007,” Yad Vashem Quarterly Magazine 45 (Spring 2007): 11.
- Garber, Fragile Jewish Existence, 77.
- Isaak Veltman, personal correspondence, translated by Irina Reznikov, August 28, 2013.
- Sephardic Jews do not follow this tradition and instead frequently name children after living grandparents.
- Vladimir Shlapentokh, “Russian Anti-Americanism,” The New York Times, October 5, 2009.
- Though not a typical path for a Jewish woman, Roza had studied engineering and had secured a government job; much later she would become the general engineer at a large tank-manufacturing plant.
- Garber, Fragile Jewish Existence, 99–141.
- Isaak Veltman, personal correspondence, August 28, 2013.
- As one Estonian man has put it, “During the decades of Stalin’s murderers they stuffed our mouths and cut off our tongues, and we were unable to speak Yiddish, forbidden to read or write or learn about Jewish history and literature.” Quoted in Aaron Lansky, Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books (Algonquin Books, 2005), 241–242.
- Joshua Rubenstein, “The Night of the Murdered Poets,” The New Republic, August 25, 1997, 25–30.
- Isaak Veltman, “Isaac’s Story,” Hatikvah: The Magazine of the North Shore Temple Emanuel 11:12 (December 2004/January 2005).
- Recent tourists to Zhabokrich have located the old Jewish cemetery; in still another stranger-than-fiction coincidence, a June 2013 blogger (who may be another distant relative) posted a photo of a headstone bearing the name “Veltman”; marlatravels.blogspot.com/2013/06/a-series-of-fortunate-events.html.
Jonathan R. Herman, MTS ’84, PhD ’92, is an associate professor and the director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Religious Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta. He is the author of I and Tao: Martin Buber’s Encounter with Chuang Tzu (SUNY Press) and Taoism for Dummies (Wiley and Sons).