Gnoyensky, Gabinsky (1852 – 1930s)

Gnoyensky, Gabinsky (1852 – 1930s)

Leib Gnoyensky. Kharkov. Year 1919.Bosya Gnoyenskaya. Kharkov. Year 1926.

Next: Averbukh, Kuppershmidt

My mother’s paternal grandparents

Like her maternal ancestors,  my mother’s paternal 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.

My mother’s grandfather Leib Gnoyensky was born in Korsun. In 1866, following his bar mitzvah, he married Bosya Gabinskaya. She was fourteen, a year older than her groom.

(Bosya might have started out as Basya. The tweak was intended to eliminate confusion with her namesake sister-in-law, Leib’s sister.)

Korsun. House aged from mid-19th century similar to those where the Gnoyenskys lived. Year 2007-2011.

Korsun. House aged from mid-19th century similar to those where the Gnoyenskys lived. Year 2007-2011.

As tradition demanded, their fathers had arranged the union long before the newlyweds reached puberty. No age was too young to secure a child-in-law from a suitable lineage. Plus, the longer the child-bearing stretch the higher the chance of producing numerous sons who, G-d willing,  would not simply sail past diphtheria, tuberculosis, scarlet fever, dysentery, but also dodge the draft into the Tsar’s army.

Gnoyensky lineage was truly unique – they carried a surname that, allegedly, no one else in the world did, not even royalty. The story of establishing their dynasty was being faithfully passed down.

Bosya was twenty when her first live followed six stillbirths. Those first six, she had remarked, erased her smile. (My mother and other Bosya’s grandchildren remembered her stern look and severe façade made harsher by her deep-tanned complexion, firm gait, and frosty sense of humor that came out as a dressing-down.)

Leib and Bosya had six children:

Dovid (David)

Simkha (Semyon)

Khaya (Khayusya)

Bentsion (Bena), my dédushka – “Gnoyensky, Averbukh (1883 – 1972). 1. Belaya Tserkov – Bride and Groom.

Rakhil (Babele)

Grigorij (Grisha).

This branch had a passion for nicknames that had nothing in common with the given names – Babele for Rakhil, Donya and Babunya for Sheindlya and Asya.

Pillars of the Community

The size of the town, the various residency and religion-based restrictions, and the general wariness of authority stifled outsized business ambitions but, by shtetl standards, the Gnoyenskys lived comfortably. They dealt in everything: honey and molasses, leather and household goods, groceries and fish. Bosya took charge of the grocery store. She was literate in both Yiddish and Russian, fairly uncommon for a woman.

The clan craved an active role in the community. Bosya set up a charity that collected dowries for orphaned Jewish girls. Her great-uncle served, at some point, as the Korsun rabbi.  The solid businesses of the Gnoyensky, Gabinsky, Budyansky, and their extended relations qualified their owners to  vote. They funded construction and expansion of prayer houses and schools.

Once, the Kiev gubernia sued a group of Jewish merchants, Leib’s father included, for starting construction of a religious school without permission. The defendants claimed ignorance of needing permission to use Jewish charity funds. A barrel of honey delivered to an appropriate official bolstered their argument.

Below are pages 1 – 3 of the court document pertaining to that case, dated June 9, 1867. My great-great-grandfather, Iosif Gnoyensky, is one of the defendants. Other names in bold are those of the Gabinsky (his daughter-in-law) and Budyansky (his son-in-law) clans who supported the claimants.

Within their orthodox world, Leib and Bosya considered themselves forward-thinking. They spoke Russian fluently. They subscribed to a Russian newspaper. They daughters went to the gymnasia. They married off the older, business-minded Khayusya, to a watchmaker-jeweler with good prospects. The younger, Babele, read secular books.

Bosya envisioned professional success for her sons. Rumor made their oldest, Dovid, into a mechanical engineer in the Soviet Union, though he was remembered as a store clerk. The youngest, Grisha, did not finish the gymnasia and thrived as a middleman finding sources of “stuff” for the companies that hired him, a valuable role during Soviet shortage of everything. Before the Bolshevik era, Bosya’s yearning for prestige found two takers, Simkha and Bena. They went to what is currently Poland or Lithuania or, rumor claimed, Sorbonne to attend a yeshiva and study bookkeeping. Bena thought of becoming a rabbi. Simkha dipped his toes in both choices but, his parents found out too late, chose ballroom dancing.

Semyon (Simcha) Gnoyensky.

Semyon (Simkha) Gnoyensky.

Their dismay waned when they saw him upon completion of his studies: trim, compact, straight-backed, in a fur-collared coat and a top hat, and with a walking stick—in Bosya’s eyes, he embodied a conqueror of the shining new world that awaited him.

Simkha opened a dance school and a banquet hall in the town of Uman that he outfitted with a chandelier worthy of Tsarina’s eyes, in his words. The officers of the Tsar’s army garrison stationed in the city frequented his establishment to drink and cavort with the ladies of the Gentile high society. His wife took care of their four children with the help of a maid and a cook.

To entertain the blue-blooded company he waltzed on his tiptoes on the banquet table. Officers’ bets on whether he would break any glasses generated a side income for him. Babele and Grisha visited Simkha and his wife Ida in Uman in 1908.

Simkha (Semyon), Ida nee Milner, Grigoriy, Babele Gnoyensky. Text on back: “Writing five lines and only ask to love and not forget us and remember often-often. In memory of our dear parents. Simkha, Idochka, Rakhil Gnoyensky. Uman. 1908.”

Then Babele came again at the peak of Simkha’s success in 1913.

Rakhil (Babele) Gnoyensky. Uman. 1913

“In good and eternal memory to dear S.L. (Simkha lvovich) and Ida Yefimovna from their loving sister R. (Rakhil/Babele). Asking not to forget the original and keep the copy. In memory of my visit to Uman. January 9, 1913. R.L. (Rakhil Lvovna)”. Photo of Rakhil on front of card.

The revolution and the Civil War put an end to showbiz. (The dance bug bit a number of Gnoyensky men and me. No wonder my grandmother smiled slyly when I, an introvert and a homebody, insisted on taking a classical dance class in high school. The astronomical tuition of fifteen rubles for three months seemed irrelevant, while asking occasionally for 30 kopeks to buy a movie ticket made me feel nothing short of a leech).

In 1919, violent pogroms drove Leib and Bosya out of Korsun. They settled in Kharkov, then the capital of Ukraine, where all their children, except Bena, had escaped earlier. Leib passed away soon. Bosya could not get accustomed to her obscurity in the big city. No passerby greeted her “guten tog (good day), Madame Gnoyenskaya”. A street address was necessary for mail delivery whereas in the olden days “Mr. Gnoyensky, Korsun, Kiev gubernia” had said it all.

Postcard sent Oct. 26, 1913 written by Bentsion Gnoyensky to his parents, Leib and Bosya in Korsun. Photo of Rakhil Gnoyenskaya on the front of the card. Belaya Tserkov. Year 1913.

Leib and Bosya’s Children I Met

When I was twenty, my mother sent me to Kharkov to spend my university winter break with her father’s youngest siblings, Babele and Grisha.

She spoke of them often. They had nursed her father when he was dying of typhus. After she finished the obligatory seven-grade education, they gave their penniless half-starved niece a home: Babele provided room and board; Grisha’s connections and bribes secured her a spot in a trade school then a bookkeeping job.

Grisha was to meet me at the train station. My job was to get off the train and wait. We had no photographs of each other but I was assured that he would recognize me.

I proudly wore my first adult coat: black wool, straight-cut, calf-length, a thin  v-shaped mink collar; and my new black narrow-rimmed top hat with a white button on one side.

It snowed heavily that day. The passengers dispersed within minutes of the train arrival leaving me alone and fretful.

The single person in sight, a portly man in a gray felt hat, began to walk haltingly toward me, melted snow flakes and tears mixing on his cheeks. “Bena? Bena?” he whispered, again and again and again, his eyes disbelieving. “This coat. This hat. You look like he did when I had picked him up here.” Like his brother Bena forty-seven years earlier.

I stayed at Grisha’s house and spent evenings at Babele’s. Their grandchildren took me sightseeing. Almost every evening we all gathered for a tasty meal and genial banter. Grisha danced nimbly the all-the-rage Twist copied from the teenagers at home parties. Despite his age and wide frame, he moved smoother than I did. Babele tempted me, unsuccessfully, with ancient photographs and difficult-to-follow yarn.

(When I was thirty, both Babele’s daughters audaciously traveled to Kiev to say goodbye mere days prior to our emigration from the Soviet Union – risky times for hobnobbing with traitors. Consumed by the dread of being prevented at the last moment from leaving the country, I could barely grasp the reality around me. In about two decades we met in Israel following Lusya’s immigration. It took an effort to recapture the buried shadow of that visit.)

DIGRESSION:

Above is what I have known about my direct Gnoyensky branch – learned at my mother’s knee or lived through – with a sprinkle of details acquired later.   

Below is the chronicle of coincidences that brought to life the Gnoyensky tree – a windfall of previously unknown branches and deeper insight into my direct branch. Apples do not fall from the tree but unless illuminated they fail to notice each other.

Albert Einstein defined coincidence as “God’s way or remaining anonymous.” In other words, it’s the pseudonym under which the higher authority acts.

To navigate through the Gnoyensky tree, follow the map: https://appledoesnotfall.com/the-tree-of-gnoyenskys/.  You will thank me for this advice.

No Gnoyensky Apple Left Unturned

Year 2004

Fast forward 38 years from my trip to Kharkov. I was a grandmother and close to the age that Babele and Grisha were then. That generation was gone. Of my mother’s generation, one first cousin of hers, Babele’s daughter Lusya, lived in Israel. In her 80s, she was the Gnoyensky matriarch. I kept in touch with Babele’s granddaughter and Grisha’s grandson.

Betting that their roots would ultimately pique my young’uns’ interest I recorded my memories, labeled keepsakes, scanned old photographs, and drew a family tree, a rather barebones one.

Year 2005

Off to Israel to get Lusya’s feedback. She pronounced the tree woefully inadequate.

Where was her oldest uncle Dovid? A loner; his only daughter died childless.

Srul Dovid Gnoyensky.

And uncle Simkha? He became Semyon and had a large family, a son or two of his ended up in Donetsk, of all places. Nothing exceptional, but they belonged on the tree.

And where was her aunt Khayusya?

Babele and Khayusya.

(That name was the subject of anxious whispers featuring arrests, searches and jewels. Growing up, I had eavesdropped on enough of them to blacklist her.) Yes, obsessed with money; tightfisted: refused to feed her grandkids after school; children in and out of prison; the news of her son’s death sentence triggered Babele’s stroke. “So what? She was my aunt,” Lusya declared, “and she deserves lenience for connecting her brother, your grandfather, with your grandmother.”

Lusya summarized the present geography of the siblings’ offspring:

Khayusya’s headed to Israel and the U.S.;

Grisha’s to Germany;

Bena’s to the U.S. (my mother and I);

Babele’s to Israel (Lusya and her daughter);

Simkha’s… No, he was not a figment of imagination. Lusya recalled him visiting his mother Bosya, her grandmother.

Year 2006

However unimpressive, the tree inspired Lusya to dig out the few forgotten photographs inherited from Babele and sent me the scans in a small album. On the phone, she attached names to faces, with the exception of the group of “probably relatives” on the last page. Two young women, two preteen boys, and a preteen girl. The preteen girl resembled my mother.

Speaking of coincidences… Within days after the album arrived, my daughter learned the last name of Anna, her children’s art teacher – Gnoyenskaya (the feminine form of Gnoyensky).

A perfect opportunity to test the veracity of the claim that all the Gnoyensky in the world were related. As Anna was leafing through Lusya’s album I braced myself for the test to fail. Then she pointed to the younger boy in the last photo: “This is my grandfather Simkha!” “Probably relatives” were, indeed, relatives!

The children of Simkha, Anna’s father in Moscow and her aunt Natasha who, incredibly, lived nearby, were unaware of relatives beyond his father Shmul and siblings Vera, Tema, Rosa, Khaim, and, not in the photo, Shimon. Khaim, adopted by Vera, had ceased to be Gnoyensky; his children immigrated to the U.S. Tema’s descendants lived in Crimea; Shimon’s in Russia, Germany, and the U.S.; Rosa’s son Misha in Berlin – it was Rosa who resembled my mother.

Neither had I given a thought to family beyond my great-grandfather Leib, my grandfather and his siblings, one of whom, too, was Simkha. Both were aka Semyon.

How were these namesakes related? My great-uncle taught dance in Uman. Natasha’s father was an economist in Moscow. Their fathers, Leib and Shmul, left Korsun for Kharkov and Astrakhan, respectively. (My grandmother had suggested I should meet a cousin in Astrakhan when my Volga River cruise stopped there. I was nineteen and too busy for relatives).

Year 2007

The majority of Jews burst out of their shtetls and into big cities in the 1920s leaving behind nothing but cemeteries. The farther their past retreated though, the more idyllic and wholesome they saw it. My generation only shrugged at the notion to cherish those backward places.

To get a firsthand feel for the olden days and to strike gold in the kin department I prescribed myself a spree through my ancestral shtetls. In Korsun, the head of the Jewish community personally knew several Gnoyenskys of whom one descendant survived, allegedly, somewhere. He showed me the lot where their house used to stand. We toured the cemetery where I saw my mother’s maiden name on gravestones. He promised to comb the historical materials his organization had collected for more information.

Year 2008

While traveling in Germany, my daughter noticed a road sign with “Gnoien” on it. A speck on the map – the root of my mother’s maiden name!

The first Gnoyensky recorded at the Russian archive was born in 1768. Jews in Germany did not adopt surnames until required by law in the early 1800s. Thus, my clan had hit the road east still surname-less. They met the surname era in Russia and, per oral history, fashioned their last name by affixing the generic -sky to the name of a Russian town, likely one of the staging posts en route to Korsun. It had to have taken at least three post-Gnoien generations to lose any nostalgia for the place of origin and reflexively follow Russian naming conventions.

Nonetheless, when inaugurating a dynasty, its founders opted to advertise their lineage and honor the hamlet of their forefathers.

Town of Gnoien in north-east Germany. Year 2008.

A hamlet so unremarkable that unless you hailed from it you were not aware of its existence. Hence, the uniqueness of the surname.

According to the census, that first Gnoyensky was the great-grandfather of my great-grandfather Leib.

Year 2009

Off to Israel to wrench extra clues from Lusya. Mission failed. After I left, a crucial bit of information popped up in her mind: my great-grandfather Leib had a sister, Basya – Basya-Mintsya, to be precise!

Incidentally, Basya-Mintsya had twelve children. Reacting to my stunned silence (my mind was spinning at the amount of effort the new research would demand), Lusya chuckled, “Don’t you worry. Only nine survived to adulthood.” And incidentally, Zina, one of Basya-Mintsya’s grandchildren, formerly from Kiev, now lived in Israel – was I interested in her phone number?

***

Zina interrupted my introduction: she had an uncle Bena, meaning her grandmother’s son! He had perished at seventeen in the same typhus epidemic as his first cousin and namesake, my grandfather. By the way, didn’t Lusya mention that my second cousin, Khayusya’s grandson, had also settled in Israel?

All her life Zina had kept passionate, if lonely, track of every blood relation she knew or heard of. In me, she found an eager audience, at last.

Zina remembered her grandparents, Basya and Shimon Budyansky. (So, the surname Budyansky I’d heard constantly in my childhood belonged to a relative!) She owned a trove of ancient photographs to die for and instantaneously recognized every face. In the same Google fashion, her mind served up minutest facts: dates, idiosyncrasies, skeletons in the closets, position on the tree, et al – no detail was insignificant. Notebook and thumb drive in hand, I arrived in Pittsburgh where she was visiting her daughter. She bore a resemblance to my mother and to Rosa in the photo of five siblings.

Speaking of details… The marriage of one of Zina’s uncles to his first cousin Khayusya’s daughter intertwined Basya’s and Leib’s branches – my tree was not simply getting larger, it was getting intricate.

***

Whereas Lusya had glossed over the juiciest chapters of her aunt Khayusya’s adventurous line, Zina had no such compunction. The Soviet reality had condemned Khayusya’s brood, cursed by business acumen and addicted to using it, to outlaw status. With prosperity unattainable legitimately, entrepreneurship was a crime, by definition.

Their lives revolved around tipoffs from a suitably recompensed police about looming searches. Upon each warning, an army of minions scattered near and far to deposit valuables with terrified candidates. (That explained my mother’s rasping into the phone “do not ever call me again” then slumping in a chair, pale and trembling!) Once the danger passed, the return of the stash and the negotiation of gratuities presented its own challenges.

Occasionally, a scenario proved less manageable. Rumor pinned the unsolved murder of one of Khayusya’s children on the siblings in punishment for secreting precious stones from the enterprise. In due course, they excavated the loot out of the victim’s bed frame. Waves of widely publicized trials featuring foolhardy, mostly Jewish, underground entrepreneurs regularly swept through the country. One wave dispensed a death sentence to Khayusya’s son.

The newspaper “Soviet Ukraine” denounced his reprehensible ambitions and branded him “a rogue to the very bone, vile scum, and a predatory animal whose putrid essence was finally revealed” (Evgenia Evelson. Sudebnye_protsessy_po_ekonomicheskim_delam_v_sssr_1986__ocr Grigory Gnoyensky Freiberg).

“Second Economy” in the USSR (Trials of the 1960s), by Evgenia Evelson. Overseas Publications Interchange Ltd. London, 1986. (Russian title “Legal Proceedings in Economic Cases in the USSR. 1960s). Pp. 294-295 : Case of Grigory Freiberg, son of Khayusya Gnoyensky.

Khayusya, a short round-faced grandmother with an ever-present bunch of keys fastened to her waistband, evaded the police radar. Not a soul knew where she salted away a sizable portion of the family riches – what her children didn’t know at interrogation time couldn’t hurt them.

Then she died. She had fired her handyman when he asked for a ruble instead of fifty kopeks to deliver rain water to wash her hair. Schlepping a heavy pail herself in cold weather led to pneumonia. Supposedly, she expired clutching the keys. What they opened remained unknown.

***

Zina, envious, listened to my saga about running, miraculously, into the descendants of Basya’s and Leib’s brother Shmul. She marveled at the photo of “probably relatives”— a survivor of the Bolshevik revolution, two world wars, a civil war, and emigration – that made that miracle possible. For once, I could identify everyone while Zina only recognized Rosa at whose house she used to stay eons ago when vacationing in Moscow. She cried for joy at the news that Rosa’s son was alive.

My report prompted Lusya to turn over the photo.

The inscription said: “In good memory to my devoted first cousin Rakhil (aka Babele) Gnoyenskaya with love from Vera Chornaya (nee Gnoyenskaya) and Tema Gnoyenskaya.” Here was incontrovertible proof, if any was needed, that Shmul’s children were first cousins to my grandfather and his siblings and to Zina’s mother and her siblings. Typical for early 20th century, the photo was a postcard. Vera had ordered at least two; she mailed one to Babele and kept the other.

***

Next stop: Berlin. Misha, now bedridden, had shown no interest in Natasha’s genealogical updates or in meeting me. I begged her to beg him. He relented.

Misha’s daughter waited for me at the train station. She was bundled up to her eyes against the blustering wind and rain. In a déjà vu moment, she was the single person on the deserted platform, just like my great-uncle Grisha in Kharkov forty-three years before.

We exchanged not a word on the way to Misha’s house. A hospital bed took up almost his entire room. His eyes widened and glistened with tears. He glanced at a framed photo on the wall of a woman knitting, her profile my mother’s: “Come sit by me. You remind me of my mother.”

When saying goodbye, I was startled to see his daughter’s face – her father did not take after his mother but she did. Her heart had lodged in her throat, she said, when her grandmother’s face emerged from the train. And I was the age Rosa was when she passed away.

***

Apparently, the power of coincidence did not extend to uncovering my great-uncle Simkha’s line. The hour had come to lend it a hand.

An internet search “Gnoyensky in Donetsk”, in Russian, produced Gnoyensky E. A contender for the impressive master of sports in chess designation, a winner of local competitions, a member of a chess club (phone number provided). Simkha’s grandson and my second cousin!

I went with a hunch that the initial E (phonetically “Ye”) stood for Yevgeny, by far the most common of the few Russian given names beginning with this letter. The man on the phone said that Yevgeny Yevgenievich was not at the club.

The patronymic supplied the name of Simkha’s son. Or did it? Simkha, a shtetl Jew, would not name his son Yevgeny. Also, why would his grandson have the same name? In the Ashkenazi tradition, that meant that the father had died prior to the birth of his son but Lusya never mentioned that Simkha had lost a child.

I asked to please tell Yevgeny Yevgenievich that he had a second cousin in Chicago and to give him my email address. The man on the phone suggested writing to the club instead because my relative was computer-illiterate.

August 4, 2009

Subject: Information for Gnoyensky

I’d like to connect with Gnoyensky and here is my information. My mother’s maiden name was Gnoyenskaya. Her father, Bentsion, nicknamed Bena, after whom I was named, had a brother Semyon who moved to Donetsk with two sons. I haven’t been able to learn more about this branch, even the sons’ names. If Gnoyensky won’t mind, I’d like to call him; please send me his phone number.

 

August 5, 2009

Subject: Information for Gnoyensky

Unfortunately, I don’t know Gnoyensky’s phone number. He occasionally comes to the chess club. I know that he is a physician specializing in cardiology. I’ll find his phone number through the club’s administrators. Will let you know as soon as I do. It shouldn’t take long.

 

August 13, 2009

Subject: Information for Gnoyensky

I’ve been asking everyone – surprisingly, no one knows how to contact him, and he hasn’t been to the club lately. I was certain that I’d find him easily because he has regular chess partners and, generally, is well known in the club. I’ll find him eventually but, apologies, it will take some time.

 

August 15, 2009

Subject: Information for Gnoyensky

Yevgeny Yevgenievich (Yefraimovich) Gnoyensky came to the club today and ran into me. His father was Yefraim Semyonovich, his grandfather Semyon (Lvovich?), his grandmother Ida. His phone… His address…

 

Mystery solved! The real name of Simkha’s son was Yefraim; Yevgeny was for simplicity. The same logic applied to the patronymic: Simkha was known as Semyon, so his son was Semyonovich; Simkha’s son was known as Yevgeny, so his son was Yevgenievich.

As with all my newly acquired kin, Yevgeny and I spoke with innate trust and comfort. Comfort of finally catching up after a long silence. Comfort rooted in the tree we shared.

Then came an email from St. Petersburg:

September 6, 2009

Subject: From Gnoyensky in St.Petersburg

My name is Anastasia, I am the daughter of Gennady Yefraimovich Gnoyensky. I learned your email address from Anna. I found Anna after my uncle Yevgeny (from Donetsk) told me that you’d called him.

Gennady and Yevgeny Gnoyensky, grandsons of Semyon (Simkha).

Year 2010

Of the multitude of relatives in Zina’s world she was particularly close with two of her first cousins, children of another Basya’s daughter, both originally from Kiev – Lusya, like Natasha, lived near me; her brother Boris, in New York.

My first conversation with Boris: “Hello, my name is Bena.” “So is mine.” He was born Bentsion and was Bena to his parents, in spite of the name change.

The Chicago Lusya and the Israel Lusya, second cousins, both petite and feisty, had similar voices, mannerisms, build, taste in clothes. Boris’ features, sense of humor, a dancer’s fluid movements were reminiscent of his mother’s first cousin, my great-uncle Grisha. Before we met they did not know that their grandmother’s maiden name was Gnoyensky.

Another jaunt to Korsun netted a connection with Klavdia, the local historian and newsletter publisher. On the pages 539 and 540 in the town’s business directory for year 1913, she found the Budyanskys, Gnoyenskys, Gabinskys.

Korsun Business Directory, 1913, page 539

Korsun Business Directory, 1913, page 540

The Story Is Bigger Than the Tree

Year 2016     

Without the priceless nuggets from Klavdia’s archive my Gnoyensky story would be less complete, less alive. Eager for more, I told her about my website hoping to dislodge more hidden nuggets. And a giant one did emerge: the Budyansky branch on my tree triggered a memory of a book where she saw that last name.

The book, Anna’s Shtetl, came out in 2006. Dr. Lawrence Coben based it on around 300 interviews with Korsun native, Anna Spector, at the time in her late 80’s, about her life before she immigrated to the United States as a teenager. He said, “…I asked Anna how ordinary life was arranged in her shtetl, Korsun—in kitchen and bedroom, in marketplace and school. I asked her how people made a living; how they shopped and cooked and ate; how they washed their clothes and where they slept, and what kind of light they had at night.” Her answers painted a picture of Korsun pre- and post-Bolshevik revolution and the Civil War.

Dr. Coben had reached out to Klavdia for details of local history. In appreciation, he sent her an electronic copy of the book. She read it so diligently that ten years later, prodded by my tree, she recalled the names of the families described in it.

This book was my story, too. It was gratifying to come across Gnoyensky-related morsels. Anna remembered Sheyndl’s maternal uncle, my great-grandfather Leib, “an important and devoted member of the more old-fashioned Hasid community.”

Sheyndl’s father, Shimon Budyansky, a Hasid with modern leanings, “owned the larger of the two stores in the marketplace that sold tableware. He did a good business in pots and pans, cups and saucers, dishes, plates, and soup bowls.”  The beautiful daughter of this crème de la crème family and with a projected dowry of one thousand gold rubles fell in love with a boy from a poor family. Worse, his religious upbringing was shallow and prospects uncertain.

The pair eloped. Dowry forfeited. Shakespearean passions with a happy ending! A big scandal in the shtetl era. A romantic decision in any era. It must have been Sheyndl’s idea—just look at her first cousin Bena’s courtship of my grandmother. The Gnoyenskys carried a romantic gene! (Klavdia wrote a feature Romeo and Juliet of Korsun: in Book and in Real Life for her newsletter.)

Anna never forgot the three big pogroms that rolled through Korsun. The town Jews learned from the mistake made by the Jews of Belaya Tserkov who had huddled in their synagogue and were burned alive. In anticipation of the first pogrom, “besides forming a defense force, the Jews of Korsun had prepared… when it was still in the rumor stage by worshiping in small groups—ten people in one house, ten in another—instead of gathering in a shul.”

One episode the day after the third pogrom particularly stuck in her mind. A few peasants “appeared, searching leisurely for any remnants that they and their fellow looters had overlooked.” Basya-Mintsya was sitting on the steps of her house and talking to a group of women. “It was out of character for the wife of a successful businessman, a woman who lived in a fine house built only about ten years before the revolution, to sit on her front steps… A soldier in uniform started up the steps, carrying his rifle. … He came up the step on her left, walking casually, as though he were a member of her family. She shifted the least bit, leaning away from him, gathering in her skirt so that he would not step on it, the action of a woman who had nothing more to lose. Behind the uniformed looter walked a peasant woman carrying an empty sack on her shoulder. Mrs. Budyanska did not look around at the soldier or at the woman. Those two walked up the steps, on their way into her house, its windows already stripped of their curtains.”  “Even though the curtainless windows exposed the emptiness inside, her house was the best one on the block, a magnet for late-coming looters.”

“In this final pogrom, the looters stole everything that had not been taken in the earlier two. It was the pogrom that left in Anna’s memory the symbolic image of Mrs. Budyanska sitting on her front step, shifting her skirt out of the way of the feet of the soldier… and the peasant woman with empty sack.” Even when facing catastrophe Basya maintained her attitude of “snobbish, acting like royalty condemned to live among commoners.” That heart-breaking scene embodied the tragedy that the Jews in the region were going through.

Impoverished by the pogroms, Basya and Shimon left Korsun. They spent the rest of their lives in Kiev with their daughter, romantic rebel Sheyndl; their disapproved-of son-in-law provided room and board.

Year 2018     

In family research, every find is a hard-won prize. In my case, prizes had anticipated my need and had come with impeccable timing. The lucky streak has not ended – I got discovered! Discovered thanks to my website that had grown into a sanctuary for fading memories and an encyclopedia of bygone eras and of my journey. Discovered by the daughter and niece of Anna Spector of Anna’s Shtetl, the first cousin of the man who married Basya-Mintsya’s daughter Sheyndl.

Anna’s Shtetl, by Lawrence A. Coben. The University of Alabama Press, 2006. Based on interviews with Anna Spector Dien.

Anna’s living and breathing Korsun represents the Pale of Settlement universe the way a drop represents the body of water from which it was taken. The children of that universe are my kinsfolk; blood cousins or not, we feel comfort and instinctive understanding with each other.

Next: Averbukh, Kuppershmidt

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