From the Desert to the Shtetl

Posted on September 10, 2010



My cousin Linda and I have been chasing our family history off and on for more years than I can remember.  Currently, we are “on.”  Our tree is filled with people who often had to be invisible in order to survive, and, even in death, they remain elusive in spite of our best efforts to coax them out of hiding. 


We search the names of towns and shtetls.  These names have changed several times, sometimes the result of one country or another deciding that whatever dirt our family occupied was exactly the dirt they wanted.  Finally, all members of my family relinquished their tenuous hold on the dirt and disappeared.  They did so either on boats that would take them across an ocean, or on trains that would take them across other people’s dirt and would deposit them, starved and bewildered, at the last sight they would ever see on earth.  However they left, and whatever became of them after, when they left, they took the memories of their towns and shtetls with them. Later, soldiers would come and tear down the physical manifestation: the homes, schools, synagogues, and cemeteries of their lives. 


We search the names of the people.  We discover that last names were changed by the whims or impatience of others, usually an official at a desk, who dispensed with bothersome letters like “z” and “v” and molded what remained into something that sounded easier to the ear.  My family’s response was to change their given names to conform to their new last names.  Nuhumka became Anna.  Yosel became Joseph.  After awhile, they walked around with bright new American names, pronounced in their heavy Yiddish accents.


We search message boards.  Like family members who post messages during wars and upheaval, we, like thousands of people the world over, post our searches and hope that someone, somewhere, responds.  We are the safe, affluent descendants of these people.   We post our searches decades after whatever events took them away (“Looking for Fiszelow or Fiszelew family members.”  “Looking for anyone who knows of Katchinovitch (spelling?)”  “Looking for Pinsk databases before or during the war.”)  .  The result would be as though someone came to the site of the World Trade Center 100 years from now and posted a notice to say they were looking for information about a loved one who perished.


Linda and I prefer the discoveries that are painfully small to the ones that are hugely painful.  We had each deluded ourselves into believing that our small family remained relatively intact throughout the war.  We knew that our uncle and his family perished, but we knew of no others.  This latest round of discovery revealed cousins and their families.  The list of those who perished grows longer.  


I search a river, the Pripat.  Or the Pripet, or the Prypat, or the Prypet.  Your choice.  My father told me often that his father, who died many years before my birth, was born in a shtetl along its bank.  My father’s words came long before I had the desire to search.  Now he is gone, along with his siblings, and I have never found the shtetl of my grandfather’s birth.  But Pinsk, where my father was born, is on that river. 


A few days ago, I took a break from searching towns and shtetls and family names.  I started searching the river.  I made a small discovery: The Pripat winds through Belarus and the Ukraine, and is bordered by a huge area of wetlands called the Pripat Marshes.  The marshes hug a shtetl called Starokonstantinova, or Starokonstantine, or St Konstantine.  Your choice.  The text says the shtetl is “on the “Sluich River (Pripiat River basin).”  It is where my mother was born.  The river, no matter which spelling I choose, will contain whatever secrets it has always had.  It won’t tell me anything about my family or their lives.  It won’t change the things that happened to them.  But is some small, strange, inexplicable way, and, in the absence of anything I can call a “homeland,” there is something comforting in my thinking about each of my parents living either along or not far from the banks of that same, winding body of water.