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.
A group gathered at HIAS's New York offices to learn about Jewish agricultural collective managers and agronomists in Southern Ukraine. The collectives were liquidated during the Stalinist purges of 1937.
Mikhail Mitsel, a JDC archivist who immigrated from Kiev in 1998, wanted to share the story of the kolkhozi and keep alive the memory of the 70-year anniversary of the tragic event during which 1.7 million were arrested and 700,000 were killed.
The Seminar of Jewish Genealogy for Russian-Speaking Jews was founded four years ago by two people, Valery Bazarov, 65, and Dmitri Margulies, 83..
Bazarov, a former journalist from Odessa who emigrated in 1988, is HIAS director of Location and Family History Services. His family tree includes members in America, FSU, Argentina and Israel. His own family tree has members in the U.S., the FSU, Argentina and Israel.
Margulies, a journalist and teacher, made a Russian-language documentary with English subtitles, “Through Russia, Turbulent Times," centered on seven generations of his family during the 19th-20th centuries.
The group has grown from 20 to 80 members and meets monthly for lectures and to discuss members' research. Although many are retired, younger people also participate.
I have known Valery for a long time and have always been impressed with his knowledge and helpful assistance - he has contacted long-lost Talalay relatives for me in the FSU, and hee also speaks at every International Conference on Jewish Genealogy.
“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.”
Valery believes genealogy is “therapy for generational amnesia” for both Russian and American Jews, as research encourages people to get more involved in Jewish history and tradition. It also encourages intergenerational contact as children and grandchildren learn family history from parents and grandparents, and the younger generations can assist with technology.
Leonid Leitis, 75, and his wife Bella of Moscow immigrated in 1995. He recently published The Plisetskis Markovskys and Messerers: A Genealogy in English and Russian. At the 2006 International Conference on Jewish Genealogy, he discussed how Russian Jews were forced by politics to cut themselves off from their own family roots.
He voiced the same things I have heard from my own relatives in Mogilev, St. Petersburg, Moscow and Novosibirsk: Afraid to talk about ancestors and those who went to America, they destroyed letters with addresses and photographs, although some families hid some items.
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.
Valery called me a few months ago to tell me his idea to strengthen communication and ties between Russian and North American Jewish genealogy communities with a summer 2008 congerence, possibly in Odessa.
What a good idea to enable North Americans to do research onsite with individuals who hold the same passion that we do. It is a win-win situation, bringing the two genealogical communities closer together and enabling future cooperation.
“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."