I recently completed an oral history of my father, who was born in Tetiev in the Ukraine. Before the oral history, I was never that close to my dad. Like a lot of fathers and daughters, we had lived together and loved each other, but kept a lot unsaid.
Cyberspace helped me. I used the Internet, not to perform some fancy nethead acrobatics, but to help me uncover what happened three quarters of a century ago in the little Ukrainian village where my father’s family was massacred. Technology helped me build a bridge to a lost world.
When I was growing up, my dad was often moody and sad. In my little kid’s mind I had figured out (correctly) that this was because he was working to exhaustion at his dull factory job, but if there were other reasons too, I was now determined to find out what they were.
Since he is well into his 80’s, I decided not to delay. If I didn’t start asking questions soon, the answers would be lost forever I especially ached to know more about my father’s mother Golda, since I am named for her
My dad’s not a talker. So, I knew almost nothing about his early life. I had gathered that his parents died when he was young and that a younger brother had somehow “gotten lost.” I also knew that he had arrived in the U.S. from Romania in his early teens under somewhat mysterious circumstances and that the brother and sister who came with him were sent to the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in Manhattan, while he “started life.” That was pretty much all I knew.
I took my tape recorder and drove over to his condominium in Pleasant Hill, a suburb of San Francisco. We sat down at his kitchen table, I pressed “record,” and my usually taciturn dad started talking.
He told me about Tetiev, the little shtetl where he was born. He used to visit his grandmother, who, as he put it, would feed him “a little sardine.” His father would invite the uncles over for lekekh un bronfn [cake and whiskey] on the holidays. He told me how, during the first pogrom in 1919 when his father was murdered, he huddled under blankets in the middle of the day, pretending he had typhus so the Cossacks would leave him alone.
He told me about the final pogrom in 1920, when his grandparents were locked in a synagogue and burned alive. He raced out of his home in the middle of a winter night with his mother, his two brothers, and his sister. As they tied, they were set upon by wild dogs and dove into a haystack, but when they reassembled his brother Yossel wasn’t there. His mother set her baby down in the snow and went back to look for the lost boy but never found him.
He told me how his mother went crazy then, and wandered the streets looking for her lost son. She was put into the insane asylum in Kishinev, so he and his remaining brother and sister said good-bye to her there and sailed to America. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society sneaked them off the boat when it docked in Providence, R.I., so they could avoid an Ellis Island inspection. He later got word of his mother’s death and wore a black band on his arm. He told me how he survived as an orphan in New York at the age of 14. “Petlura,” he insisted to me, “Simon Petlura was their man. He was the one who made the pogroms.”
When my father stopped talking, I looked at him, finding it hard to believe that all this had happened to the man across the table—to the ordinary (I always thought) father who bought me a special cookie every Sunday morning of my childhood when he went to Starling Avenue in the Bronx to buy the Sunday Times and a piece of cheesecake, to the standard-issue dad who had taken the IRT subway to work every morning and trudged home again at day’s end.
My daughter Tamar, then majoring in history at the University of Vermont, and I were hungry to learn more. We vowed to each other to find some written record of his story—in particular an account of his final day in Tetiev when, as he told me, “All the houses were on fire, and my mother and the four children, we all ran. It was in the middle of the night. I remember my mother telling us to just leave everything and run, and, as I turned back, I saw the whole town was in flames.”
Three thousand miles apart, Tamar and I started searching libraries electronically from our computers. I searched through “melvyl,” U.C.’s on-line catalog, while she worked U.V.M.’s inter-library loan facility at her end. The few books that we did locate were covered in mildew and hadn’t been checked out of the library in decades, one for over half a century. Hunting through them took quite a while. (Indexes, I learned, are a recent invention.) We e-mailed each other daily, reporting promising leads.
Then she found it. In a book published in London in 1927, she discovered rare eyewitness accounts of the final Tetiev pogrom. Everything—the town in flames, the Jews burned in the synagogue—was exactly as my father had described it, exactly as he had remembered it from the time he was a small boy.
On the Internet, I started reading the news group “soe.genealogy.jewish” to see what more I could unearth. At first, I didn’t find anything, so I decided to post my own notice. One Friday afternoon at work, I posted a brief note saying that I was writing an oral history of my dad, and I wanted to hear from anyone who had information about Tetiev. I included my home e-mail address, shut down my computer, and raced home to boot up my little laptop.
Unbelievably, I already had an e-mail response at home. The respondent, a physician at Duke University, mailed me a section of a document called Scrolls of the Slaughter by A. D. Rozental, translated by Stephen N. Roth. It contained an actual list of people killed in the Tetiev pogrom, along with their ages and occupations. As I read the list, the little ghost shtetl woke in my mind like Pinocchio come alive.
These were some of the murdered Jews’ occupations: cobbler, baker, farmer, shopkeeper, hatter, water drawer from town well, bookstore owner, egg merchant, fish merchant, flour business merchant, teacher, furniture store merchant, stationery store merchant, clothing store merchant, saddler, ritual slaughterer, coachman, liquor and beverage store merchant, moneylender, blacksmith, cantor, carpenter, sexton, shoemaker, hide merchant, wagon maker, tailor, grain and produce merchant, food store merchant, groats maker, candy store merchant, and musician.
I wondered what my grandchildren would think if they someday read next to my name on such a list, “systems writer that documented software used to measure the credit-risk and market-risk of financial derivatives.” Groats maker has more lasting power.
When Tamar and I showed my dad our discoveries, it was hard for him to believe that his long ago, tragic night had actually been witnessed by someone, assigned an official date of occurrence, and made part of recorded history. “I’ve lived with these things all my life,” he said quietly.
One Sunday night a few weeks later, he came over for dinner as he did every Sunday night. After dinner, as was our custom, we watched “60 Minutes” on the TV—my husband plunked on the rocker, my father and myself on the couch. The program featured a segment showing the current rise of anti-Semitism in Ukraine. I felt relieved that we were sitting safely on my couch.
The odds that we would ever have been alive and together if my father had not left Tetiev seemed very small. On the TV, we heard the terrified Jews of Lvov, Ukraine, saw the street being renamed for Simon Petlura
Gail Todd is a technology author of eight books currently writing Terminal Days, about her experiences as a woman in the computer world. Her book Lunch Time Walks in Downtown San Francisco, due out in 1998, is about—nu?—taking lunch time walks in downtown San Francisco. She is also the author of a book of poems, Family Way, published by Shameless Hussy Press.