Averbukh, Kuppershmidt (1860 – 1930s)

Averbukh, Kuppershmidt (1860 – 1930s)

Sheina Gitel Averbukh, nee Kuppershmidt. Belaya Tserkov. Abt. 1920

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My mother’s maternal grandparents.

Like her paternal ancestors, my mother’s maternal family put down roots in various townlets of the Kiev region, most founded in the 11th century, shortly after Christianity had come to the land. The area sat within the Pale of Settlement and contributed more than its fair share to the total of thirty thousand Jews murdered in Ukraine in the late 1910s-early 1920s pogrom years.

(In her interviews to Dr. Lawrence Coben for the book Anna’s Shtetl, Anna Spector, a native of Korsun, recalled that  “…the Jews of Belaya Tserkov, about sixty miles from Korsun as the army marches, had huddled in their shul for safety during the first pogrom. The pogromshchiki had locked the doors, trapping the Jews inside, and set fire to the building.”)

Her grandfather Velvel Averbukh lived in Belaya Tserkov; her grandmother Sheina-Gitel Kuppershmidt lived in the nearby Tetiev.

The Great Square, Belaya Tserkov. Postcard of Andrei Polishchuk. Provided by Moshe Murahovskiy. http jewua.org

The Big Synagogue. Belaya Tserkov. Postcard.

Entrance to the town of Tetiev, by Oleksandr Oberemok

Tetiev (or Yarmolinche) Synagogue. The times of the Pale of Settlement. Postcard

The groom’s rebbe himself approached the fathers with the shidduch idea. It was an honor, testimony that the combined yikhes would be greater than the sum of its parts, and an acknowledgment of his pupil’s scholarship. In a sign of respect to the Rebbe-shadchan, the parties omitted the general derfragen and avoided the subject of the non-existing dowry. In answer to health queries, the towns’ elders guaranteed no predisposition to lung weakness or behavioral oddities, menaces that once overlooked would haunt forever.

The groom’s handsome mother caused a stir by demanding to view the bride, an old maid of twenty-one. An absurd notion considering that appearance was of no consequence. She was persuaded to shush.

As expected, the wedding canopy blotted out the bride’s heritage, even her family name retreated beyond anyone’s recall. A century later, Sheina-Gitel’s youngest grandchild remembered hearing that her maiden name was Kuppershmidt. Still, I could not identify her parents and siblings, because the archives listed no Sheina-Gitel Kuppershmidt.

Velvel’s rules for naming his children – no middle names; no memorialization of ancestors – helped me uncover her father’s first name, maybe. Or, rather, the two exceptions that he allowed did. One: he honored his grandfather in his middle son’s middle name. Two: his youngest son, known exclusively by his middle name, had in his death certificate a never-used first name, Gersh, not a Torah name or one found elsewhere on the Averbukh line. Assuming the same reason for both instances, Gersh would be Sheina-Gitel’s father whom Velvel consented to memorialize.

Velvel, officially Shmul-Volf, was the older of two sons of Shmerel and Rokhel Averbukh. His children picked Volf for their patronymic, Volfovich for boys or Volfovna for girls. Shmerel’s knack for telling the quality and content of fabric by touch ensured adequate income. In that pre-synthetic world, he played judge in wholesale textile deals. He was not ambitious. Business, he liked to say, was for the stomach; Torah learning was for the heart. His scholarship earned him much esteem; Velvel always introduced himself Velvel Shmerel’s.

The bride and groom first saw each other at their chuppah. Rather, in Sheina-Gitel’s words, she saw the middle of his kittel, and Velvel saw the top of her bowed head.

You Are Ours!

My bábushka and her siblings spoke of their parents’ nuptials with pride, humor, and such insight into the characters involved and into the mechanics of the match that it was easy to forget that the event had predated their birth.

I never got bored of their endless Sholom Aleichem-like tales, their deliciously untranslatable Yiddish, unforgiving observations and acerbic humor. I chuckled at obsolete customs and old-fashioned names, but only realized a lifetime later that those tales were not entertainment, they were my legacy. By then, the details had faded. By then, I also learned of the loss of Velvel’s oldest son’s manuscript chronicling our ancestry.

Exhaustive research populated the tree with the Averbukh records stored at the Kiev archive. It failed, however, to uncover any descendants, and not a single hint surfaced that shed light on the lineage that Sheina-Gitel and Velvel’s union was meant to preserve. Their Pale of Settlement life was irrevocably gone.

Pre-shtetl, surnames Kuppershmidt and Averbukh placed these families in what is now Germany. We will never know when or where they migrated from or to what region. Family names came into use in that part of Europe in the 1500s. The new custom was taking hold slowly. Jews enjoyed even more leeway for delay than Christians – the first of several decrees that compelled them to adopt German surnames came in 1787.

The reluctance did not extend to the learned and the esteemed for whom a hereditary name was a dynastic stake in the ground. To Jews in that category, aka yikhes, surnames also offered a dependable way to maintain their pedigrees, their most prized possession, just when protection of scrolls and journals was becoming impossible, what with widening dispersal, expulsions, abrupt departures, epidemics, fires. Oral tradition, despite its inherent memory slipups, proved to be equal to the task. In Russia, it endured until the Bolshevik Revolution declared the past irrelevant and discouraged spreading knowledge of yikhes. The stubborn Averbukhs transmitted their family history in the form of amusing tales.

Archival data helped estimate when my Averbukh ancestors set out east and when they reached their destination. The first “Russian” Averbukh was born in 1755. He was the great-grandfather of my great-grandfather Velvel. Given the journey of at least a thousand miles in horse-drawn carriages, his parents had left the German lands with their elders around 1740, long before the decree required Jews to adopt a surname.

(Several prominent rabbinic Auerbach dynasties, dating from the late 15th century, originated in Germany and spread throughout the world. Their progenitor, Moses Auerbach, served as the court Jew to the bishop of Regensburg in Bavaria. No branch of such caliber could be classified as minor but mine (if related) would have been one of its many invisible boughs.)

Pre-Germany… The paternal DNA test by Velvel’s great-grandson revealed a bird’s eye view of surname-less Averbukhs’ wanderings.

Averbukh Paternal DNA: Haplogroup R-L266. Report by 23andMe

“The lineage is concentrated in India, Iran and parts of Central Asia. …have also been found … in Turkey, Palestine, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, the Caucasus, Greece, Italy, and even Russia. …in Roma populations in the Balkans. Roma… originated in India… …also present in a Kuwaiti Bedouin population called the Awazim. … brought into the Awazim … during the migration of the Roma people from India to Europe…”

The Averbukhs occasionally mentioned their Spain or Mediterranean origin. They made light of it, in my presence. In the padlocked Soviet Union, the very idea of foreign roots strained credulity.

Ironically, casual acquaintances had no doubt of my ethnicity: Ukrainian. In a flowery headscarf, especially, a textbook Ukrainian peasant. People in grocery lines confided in me their aversion to Jews and the most anti-Semitic university professor was duped when he let me pass the exam in his subject on the first try. It did not occur to me then that my features reflected an Indo-Iranian link common to both ethnicities.

On the other hand, my Georgian acquaintance and I looked remarkably alike. And when I told a passerby who addressed me in Georgian that I didn’t understand the language he exploded, in Russian, “Embarrassed of your mother tongue? Shame on you!”

Outside of the Soviet Union, I discovered that my appearance did, indeed, point to the Caucasus and more.

While in Rome waiting for our U.S. entry visas, rarely a day went by without someone asking me for directions and expressing surprise that I did not understand Italian. Our landlady was adamant that I had Italian blood in my veins: “Maybe your grandmother, maybe your grandfather? Ask your parents, they will know.”

Similar encounters became a frequent occurrence in the American melting pot.

“Are you sure you are not Spanish?”

“You are a dead ringer for someone I knew in Turkey.”

One elderly man sounded bewildered: “You are not Greek? So, who are you?”

An immigrant from Azerbaijan hugged me with tears in her eyes: “It’s been so lonely among strangers! And here you are: you are ours!” Ours? A Mountain Jew, of course. She boasted that her clan, originally from Persia, had resided for thousands of years in the same remote village where I would fit right in. She pooh-poohed my insistence that our Persian or Caucasus connection was improbable: “That’s absurd! I’m not blind. No question: you are ours!” In a dozen years, the DNA stared me in the eye, but the story that she was eager to share and that may have been part of mine had been lost.

One day at work I ran into a new coworker who resembled my great-aunt, Velvel’s daughter Dinah, so closely she could have been her twin. The woman, originally from India, was surprised – to her knowledge, there were no Jews in her family. She belonged to Zoroastrianism, a religion that preceded Judaism. It started in Persia then found refuge in India. Under her sweater she wore tzitzit, ritual fringes worn by observant Jewish men and, it turned out, Zoroastrian women. Had Averbukhs’ forefathers sprung from Zoroastrians? Be it as it may, the evidence of their link to India was Dinah’s face.

Middle East, Persia, India, the Caucasus, Greece, Italy, and more – quite an itinerary!

Velvel and Sheina-Gitel – the Couple.

Whether his mother eventually approved of her daughter-in-law’s looks or not, Velvel, from all accounts, did. Sheina-Gitel had a chiseled face with a miniature nose, dark eyes, and straight hair pulled into a fist-size bun in the back of her head.

She was remembered as a person that everybody gravitated to for conversation.

Hasid. Painting by Lazar Krestin (1902). Image similar to that of Velvel Averbukh as remembered by his children.

Velvel’s narrow face dominated by a bony nose, a resplendent black mane and beard, and large, searching, very black eyes overpowered Sheina-Gitel’s tranquil appearance. And in stature, she, short and zaftig, presented quite a contrast with her husband’s tall frame.

Their environment, abundant in poverty, overcrowded living and anxiety, and lacking in nourishment, adequate clothing, fresh air and physical activities, stunted children’s growth, as did the early marriages and inbreeding. The height of the Averbukh men placed them, they felt, many metaphorical rungs above the majority of their landsleit.

The few people that dared to gravitate to Velvel and the fewer yet that he accepted were those who counted: scholars. He took no notice of anybody outside that circle nor, gazing above most heads, stooped to acknowledging them, for that matter. As was the fashion for a sage he walked with his hands clasped behind his back, looking straight ahead, expecting the stream of kleine menschelekh (little people) to part before him.

Sheina-Gitel conscientiously reported the townfolk complaints of his disrespect to Velvel and got the same explanation: “why would I waste my time on a fool?” It was easier to apologize for her husband than deliver the endless grievances to him. He was yikhes, a Yeshivah melamed, brilliant and learned and possessed of an extraordinary memory, a respected Hasid, he was handsome and he was tall and so imposing in his shtreimel – if he wasn’t entitled to aloofness, who was?

Shtreimel (Photo from www.polishforums.com).

Velvel enjoyed his wife’s company. A wife, he repeated, should be beautiful and smart because then the children would be beautiful and smart, and the husband would hurry home after work. Eine gute veib shtelt auf die fiss und eine shlechte veib volgert von die fiss (a good wife raises her husband to his feet and a bad wife knocks her husband off his feet.) Brusque under the best of circumstances, Velvel addressed Sheina-Gitel softly, never interfering with her household decisions.

Sheina-Gitel ensured that all their children memorized the Hebrew alphabet at two and read fluently by four. Then the girls remained at her disposal whereas the boys graduated into Velvel’s homeschooling. A person of little restraint, Velvel scoffed at Sheina-Gitel’s focus on manners she quietly introduced to the children beginning at a very young age.

For a woman reared in a poor shtetl family, she possessed an uncanny sense of etiquette and dignity that could not have been more pronounced had she been bred with governesses and in aristocratic society. When she coached the children on the proper way to enter and exit the room, to address people of different age and status, to unobtrusively change a topic, and demonstrated how to say yes or no with eyes and body language, Velvel snorted dismissively—but he approved.

Friday was the busiest day for Sheina-Gitel, her daughters and pre-bar mitzvah sons, what with bringing more water from the well than on other days

Water well. (Photo from http://mv74.ru/travel/ozero-arakul.html).

Water well. (Photo from http://mv74.ru/travel/ozero-arakul.html).

Koromyslo (yoke) used to bring two pails of water from the well or river. Painting A Young Girl With a Yoke by O. A. Romanova (https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/Коромысло)

Koromyslo (yoke) used to bring two pails of water from the well or river. Painting A Young Girl With a Yoke by O. A. Romanova (https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/Коромысло)

– they owned one yoke – scrubbing the house clean, bringing in the firewood, putting on the samovar, preparing and serving the Sabbath meal. Velvel usually invited a few pupils and, on becoming a dayan, the visitors that happened to come for advice that day.

After the meal, the men sat back and engaged in a vociferous debate of religious and philosophical matters that flowed well into the night. Sheina-Gitel got up and signaled the girls to collect the dishes. “Sitz a bissele (stay a little,)” Velvel asked. “Allein teet sich nicht (nothing gets done by itself,)” Sheina-Gitel invariably replied with sarcasm that escaped him.


Velvel’s Commandments.

The world, per Velvel, consisted of two categories of people: the few families comparable to his and the kleine menschelekh (little people), an expression defying definition that had nothing to do with people’s physical attributes or role in society, but with a mind not capable of rising above the everyday bustle, of distinguishing between consequential and transient.

These two categories could no more blend than an eagle with a cat. And if one tried to blend—in Velvel’s vocabulary, marry out—then the cat gobbled up the eagle and launched a cat family. Not the same as marrying outside the faith but, within the same faith, close. Ven man kumt aroys fon a katz makht man meow (he who descends from a cat is doomed to meow.

Velvel based his reign on the principles entrusted to him to enrich and to transmit to his children. Or, some of his descendants argued, not principles but commandments passed through enough generations to enter their genome.

Some principles he placed above others: what you did when nobody was watching was important; and whether you cultivated a mensch inside you; and that you held yourself to higher than elementary standards because not filching bagels at the market did not make one leitish. On a less abstract level he particularly valued common sense that, like truth, could not be quashed forever. He particularly detested lying and stinginess: Redn mit a lygner als vie redn mit a shtimmer, man kent aroys vissendik (talking with a liar is like talking to a mute, you won’t learn anything from either); with a karg spouse, a home becomes a prison.

Velvel’s remarkable intuition bordered on clairvoyance. His children felt like recipients of a scroll at birth, a guide to requisite and unacceptable thoughts, actions, and traits. An absolute master of his domain, Velvel did not punish his brood, he asked, “suppose you’ve prevailed – now what?”

Punishment was not his role. His role was to make his children contemplate the consequences, to presage dangers posed by zind. Causing shmerz knowingly was one of those zind, as was, of course, avoiding a mitzvah. But he defined nothing as black-and-white. Mitzvah, for example, was not to be confused with yielding to any request. It had to be real help in real need. Ein shikkeren goy pishn feern (leading a drunken peasant where he could pee) did not qualify as a mitzvah. A desire to show off or acceptance of compensation in any form disqualified it.

Velvel instilled the fear of a word, the most painful, the most crushing weapon. He instilled the view of one’s home as a separate and self-contained world. When he made a gesture of turning a key to lock his mouth, no torture would make his children share a story outside the family. The most chilling consequence caused by one’s action he verbalized as es shoot zu kinder (it will affect your children.) That fate petrified me when I was small as much as it petrifies me now.

The adage “be careful what you wish for” did not begin to compare with “suppose you’ve prevailed – now what?” A great-grandchild born twenty years after Velvel’s death, I have turned to this question to guide me in all my dilemmas and I have not made an important decision without validating my reasoning against it.

Growing up with my grandmother’s “as my father used to say” I cannot keep a conversation going without “as my great-grandfather used to say,” even if I occasionally suppress it in a company of strangers to avoid funny looks. Will my descendants remember to credit their wisdom where it’s due? After all, how many are fortunate to have a great-great-great-grandfather that has their back?)

Velvel and Civil War, Revolution, Pogroms.

Belaya Tserkov. House on Verkhnyaya Street aged from mid-19th century. Year 2007-2011.

Belaya Tserkov. House on Verkhnyaya Street aged from mid-19th century. Year 2007-2011.

Velvel and Sheina-Gitel first settled in a half of a house on Zlatopolskaya Street, then in a small house on Verkhnyaya Street where they lived for the rest of their lives.

Similar houses on that street that I saw in 2007 did not appear, from my American perspective, spacious enough to accommodate more than four people, if that. Obviously, they had accommodated many more plus Sabbath guests.

Sheina-Gitel gave birth seventeen times. The first five children were born about two years apart. The interval held due to her built-in contraception system: she did not get pregnant while breastfeeding. One of the five, a girl, died in her teens.

The next twelve deliveries ended in nine children that perished in infancy and three, the youngest, that survived. The baby of the family, Esther, was born after a five-year gap caused by an infection that required visits to a  Kiev gynecologist – do not economize on a doctor, attorney, or teacher, was Velvel’s credo. Esther joked, “thankfully, Mama got cured and I was born.”

As common as child death had been in that time and place, Velvel mourned each long and painfully. He mourned the baby and the future scholar or the future mother of a scholar. Distant and authoritarian while his children were well, he transformed into a mother-hen when they got sick, spending sleepless nights with them, rocking them in his arms, taking them to doctor Aizenshtadt, an expensive local physician considered by Velvel both knowledgeable and a mensch, which in his language meant empathetic and tactful.

As the family grew, Velvel and Sheina-Gitel looked to complement his melamed wages. Velvel ridiculed the tsaddiks that limited their lives to praying without contributing to their children’s upbringing. He took in private pupils, boys who strove to expand their Torah knowledge.

Sheina-Gitel arranged to sell tichels from a neighbor’s clothing stall.

Belaya Tserkov's market square. End of 19th century.

Belaya Tserkov’s market square. Postcard. End of 19th century.

The enterprise brought in almost nothing until the oldest child, Khanah, turned five and began to care for the younger siblings.

Merchant row. Berdichevskaya Street, Belaya Tserkov. End of 19th century. Postcard.

Then Sheina-Gitel made a similar arrangement with a stall owner at the opposite end of the market.

Stores on Berdichevskaya Street, Belaya Tserkov. End of 19th century. Postcard.

Belaya Tserkov's gostiny ryad (shopping arcade). End of 19th century.

Belaya Tserkov’s gostiny ryad (shopping arcade). Postcard. End of 19th century.

Of course, the complicated logistics exhausted her and destroyed her lapti faster but the double exposure generated a reliable trickle, particularly timely during Velvel’s long sabbaticals he took every year or two to visit with his rebbe who held court possibly in the town of Ruzhin.

During the civil war, armies and gangs of all stripes, and some gentile neighbors entertained themselves by robbing and torturing Jews. Velvel’s brother, Mordecai, followed his daughter’s family to Petrograd where his descendants still live.

Velvel’s children sat out the incursions in the cellar. The household owned nothing worth taking. Their ancient samovar was snatched in one of the first raids. The looters suspected it was made of silver because it shined. Sheina-Gitel’s rule to polish it every day came back to bite her.

As the family dared to hope they had escaped the worst, Velvel’s ample salt-and-pepper beard attracted the attention of one of the roaming contingents. In the presence of Sheina-Gitel, the beard fell on the ground and under the hooves of impatient horses to the uproarious laughter of the warriors du jour. They were in a forgiving mood: the joker, proud of the precision of his cut, wiped off his saber on Velvel’s clothes, and the group galloped away, still laughing.

At that moment, Sheina-Gitel said later, Velvel shrunk in height; his arrow-straight back bent and never unbent again. She helped him into the house where he sat over his books from dawn to night for the last months of his life. The beard did not grow back much.

He died in his sleep, a broken man, his dynasty crumbled, his wisdom and foresight inadequate to keep it together. Sheina-Gitel, the remnants of the family and a few landsleit that had not yet fled the shtetl gathered at his funeral.

Velvel’s Dynasty.

Within a few years all the Averbukhs migrated to big cities, except Tsiporah (Polina), my bábushka. She stayed with Sheina-Gitel who could not contemplate existence outside Belaya Tserkov.

Sheina-Gitel died in the mid-1930s in her sleep, like her husband. Tsiporah and a neighbor were present at the burial. The rest of the family lived too far away to make the trip.

Of the Averbukh children that reached adulthood, Khanah and Tsiporah (Polina) were buried in the Kiev Kurenevskoye and Berkovtsy cemeteries, respectively; Yankel-Shmul (Kutsya) in Belaya Tserkov; Avrum (Abraham) in Philadelphia; Esther in San Francisco; Dinah in a mass grave during the World War II siege of Leningrad; Gersh-Leib (Lev) was cremated in Leningrad. For everyday consumption in the Soviet Union, they used a patronymic Vladimirovich / Vladimirovna which was a Russified form of Volfovich / Volfovna that appeared in their papers and on their gravestones. All their descendants live in the United States.

In 2021, almost a century after Velvel Averbukh died, the Jewish Religious Community “Mitsva” of Belaya Tserkov published The World of Jews of Belaya Tserkov: History, Sights, Personalities, researched and written by Dr. Evgeny Chernetsky.

The World of Jews of Belaya Tserkov, by Evgeny Chernetsky. Published by the Jewish Religious Community “Mitsva” of Belaya Tserkov. 2021

It came out in Ukrainian, Russian and English. I edited the English edition. Read it here:                                             The world of Jews of Belaya Tserkov, by Evgeny Chernetsky. 2021.

The reference book Jews of Belaya Tserkov, pp. 75-76, lists seven Averbukhs residing in town (https://appledoesnotfall.com/references/). I was not able to establish my relationship to all of them.

Read about the lives of the surviving Averbukh children  on their individual pages:

Khanah Averbukh (1880 – 1953)

Avrum Averbukh Auerbach (1883 – 1963)

Kutsya Averbukh (1888 – 1915)

Tsiporah Averbukh — Gnoyensky, Averbukh (1883-1972) — my bábushka’s, story

Dinah Averbukh (1899 – 1942)

Leib Averbukh (1900 – 1976)

Esther Averbukh (1905 – 1983)

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