clare burson

silver and ash

malka/ manya/ mary

by all accounts, my great grandmother, malka/ manya/ mary tarschiss, was petite, blonde, and always impeccably dressed. she was the quintessential bourgeoise german woman. she sent her daughter helga, not to the jewish carlebach school but to the hoere maedchen schule for quintessential bourgeoise german girls. her home was beautifully appointed, but conventional for the time, filled with heavy mahogany furniture and thick dark curtains. (as a stark contrast to this, my grandmother recalls with delight a makeshift swing/ hammock hanging in the foyer – something even my decidedly not uptight parents did not dream up for me and my sister.)

most importantly, malka spoke flawless german, unlike the rest of her relatives from eastern europe who spent nights pouring over their books, copying and re-copying german words from the dictionary. (they spoke yiddish and a heavily accented german that belied their background.)

despite all of this, malka was not german born. she too had come from eastern europe.

malka was born in berdichev, a shtetl (little town) in what is now the ukraine. in nineteenth and early twentieth century russian and jewish literature and folklore, berdichev epitomized the typical jewish town. around the time my great grandmother was born, there were around 40,000 jews living there, making up 80% of the population. (it still blows my mind to think about a european town inhabited by so many jews.)

a flourishing shtetl during the first half of the nineteenth century, berdichev’s fortunes (along with its jewish population) decreased towards the end of the century. perhaps this was why, after malka’s father died of a weak heart when she was a baby, my great great grandmother left berdichev with her three young daughters and moved to leipzig, germany.

100+ years later, in june 2007, i returned . . .

on the road from kiev to berdichev, my driver (zeev – a youngish orthodox jewish man who spoke russian and hebrew but no english or yiddish) and i sat in relative silence. (his eyes were on the road. mine were on the makeshift roadside stands selling brightly colored stuffed animals or jars of forest berries. i was particularly intrigued by the bunches of branches and arrows pointing into the forest where you could presumably receive a sauna and beating – to go!)

when we finally arrived in berdichev, i was disappointed (but not surprised) to find few remnants of a jewish shtetl. we were greeted by soviet-style architecture, paved streets, neon, street cars, gas stations. (of course. what was i thinking? this is the 21st century, not the 19th.)

berdichev

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entering the synagogue, however, provided at least some semblance of continuity between my imagining of the past and the starkness of the recognizable present.

it was late afternoon. there were 3 old men waiting around for a minyan. (in the jewish tradition, 10 men – no, women don’t count – are needed in order to have a community service in the synagogue.)

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before they began to pray, zeev introduced me. the men excitedly began talking to me – in yiddish. with my background in german and my limited knowledge in yiddish were were actually able to have a conversation.

i listened to their stories:
they were all born in berdichev. one had hidden with his family in the cellar of the synagogue during the war. another had survived a shot in the head by a nazi soldier. another told me that he had a grandchild living in lakewood, nj. did i know him?

they listened to me:
i told them that i was the great granddaughter of malka tarschiss. her parents had grown up in berdichev. did they know anyone with that last name?

i was comforted to hear them all murmur in recognition. they remembered a family named tarschiss in berdichev before the war. malka must have left behind cousins, aunts, uncles . . .

as the men prayed, i waited dutifully upstairs in the women’s gallery. (6 more men must have shown up at some point . . . maybe a rabbi too? all i remember is having to go upstairs.)

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before heading back to kiev, zeev took me to berdichev’s jewish cemetery: a sprawling expanse, overgrown with robust green weeds, littered with countless gravestones – inscribed with hebrew letters – some standing, some toppled.

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10 Comments»

  Marek Bennett wrote @

Clare, one of my students is taking a family roots trip back to Poland and he’s very excited about it. The way he was talking made me think of your blog, and I’m going to link him to it!

— Marek

  aunt gloria wrote @

how were you able to tell him where you wanted to go?

very funny about the man who wanted to know if you knew his relative in n.j.
stranger things HAVE happened.

  aunt gloria wrote @

oops. i was asking about the trip to the cemetery since you said your driver and you couldn’t communicate.

  Jorge Spunberg wrote @

Hi Clare,
Very interesting your feelings. I’ve visited Berdichev several time researching my genealogical roots. The old “shtetl”, remained
quite far behind.
May be, you are interested uin visiting my site
The Berdichev Revival http://www.berdichev.org
Kind regards
Jorge
Sao Paulo – Brazil

  Alison wrote @

Very interested to read your account of your visit to Berdichev. This is where my husband’s family came from originally. Maybe we should think of doing the same trip…

  clareburson wrote @

let me know if you want tips. i used a book that was pretty helpful: jewish heritage travel by ruth ellen gruber and published by national geographic. good luck!

  Naomi Fatouros wrote @

I was interested in Claire’s story of her great grandmother Malka, because, as Jorge, with whom I have corresponded, knows, my maternal grandfather, Dr. Isidor Belkowsky was born in Berdichev. He went to Berne, Switzerland for his medical studies., and in 1896 left Europe with his new Alsatian bride, where he settled in Cleveland and practiced there as a physician. I have wondered how it was he was able to study in Bern and to write, as he did, many medical articles in German. Could he have learned German in Berdichev as did Claire’s Malka, before he left the town to study in Switzerland?

  clareburson wrote @

naomi – hi! first off, if isidor belkowsky was jewish, he definitely knew yiddish, which would have helped him immensely with his german in berne. secondly, as berdichev was the home to a number of jewish-owned international trading companies, it is safe to assume that many of its residents were multi-lingual. thirdly, it was common for 19th century european jews to speak more than just one or two languages. but i’m definitely not an expert on this, so anything more would be conjecture. did your grandfather talk about his childhood in berdichev?

  Naomi Fatouros wrote @

I belatedly thank you, Clare, for your response to my question about my grandfather Isidor Belkowsky’s knowledge of Yiddish. From what i’ve learned about Berdichev from fellow genealogists, the internet and from one or two books, and a novel. I had assumed that my grandfather, who was indeed Jewish, must have ha some acquaintance with Yiddish. Unfortunately, to the best of my usually good memory, he never talked about his childhood in Berdichev, nor his youth. In fact, I don’t remember having heard him speak at all even in greeting. He died when I was about nine.

  Naomi Fatouros wrote @

I belatedly thank you, Clare, for your response to my question about my grandfather Isidor Belkowsky’s knowledge of Yiddish. From what i’ve learned about Berdichev from fellow genealogists, the internet and from one or two books, and a novel. I had assumed that my grandfather, who was indeed Jewish, must have had some acquaintance with Yiddish. Unfortunately, to the best of my usually good memory, he never talked about his childhood in Berdichev, nor his youth. In fact, I don’t remember having heard him speak at all even in greeting. He died when I was about nine.


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