Belarus SIG Newsletter

Issue No. 1 - November 1998

Where to find: Descriptions of Polotsk, Vitebsk gubernia

Genealogy should be more than the mere gathering of dates and names. If that is all - we will not be much wiser. The skeleton of dates and names should - as far as it is possible - be depicted on a backdrop of knowledge of our ancestor's life, the place where they lived, the social structure of the society, and much, much more. Only then will we feel akin to our forebears.

Mary Antin: The Promised Land (1912)

Mary Antin was born in Polotsk in 1881 and in her book "The Promised Land" (first published in 1912, latest edition 1997 by Penguin Books Inc. ) (ISBN 0-14-018985-8), she vividly describes her life in Polotsk until she and her family emigrated.

After reading it, you almost feel as if you have been there. So much so, that the black-and-white photographs from Polotsk seem to be redundant. You seem to know the people, and lingering in your consciousness is the fragrance of the deep-red Dahlias in her grandfather's garden, of:

"...the wild flowers that grew on the grassy slopes of the Vall..." and "the small daisy, popularly called "blind flowers" because it was supposed to cause blindness in rash children who picked it..."(p. 68)

The last part of the book is dedicated to the tale of emigration and the struggle to find a new life in the promised land, America. That too is an interesting story - Mary Antin shares with us the hopes and dreams that make the immigrant's life endurable.

Only a few examples can be quoted here, but the book has - fortunately - been reprinted and is therefore still available.

"Among the medieval customs which were preserved in the Pale when the rest of the world had long fogotten them, was the use of popular sobriquets in place of surnames proper." (p. 36) With these words Mary Antin takes us for a journey through the Pale, through the years, and she introduces us to her family and invites us to her parentsí wedding and lets us witness their struggle of daily life: "Let me spread out my family tree, raise aloft my coat-of-arms, and see what heroes have left a mark by which I may be distinguished. Let me hunt for my name in the chronicles of the Pale". (p. 36)

"Ours was a quiet neighbourhood. Across the narrow street was the orderly front of th Korpus, or military academy, with straight rows of unshuttered windoes. It was an imposing edifice in the eyes of us all, because it was built of brick, and was several stories high." (p. 66)... "In the summer-time I lived outdoors considerably. I found many occasions to visit my mother in the store, which gave me a long walk. If my errand was not pressing - or perhaps even if it was - I made a long stop on the Platz, .... . The Platz was a rectangular space in the centre of a roomy square, with a shady promenade around its level lawn. The Korpus faced on the Platz, which was its drill ground. Around the square were grouped the fine residences of the officers of the Korpus, with a great white church occupying one side. ...." (p. 68)

It was not far from the limits of Polotzk to the fields and woods. My father was fond of taking us children for a long walk on a Sabbath afternoon.... The first landmark on the sunny, dusty road is the house of a peasant acquaintance where we stopped for rest and a drink. I remember a cool gray interior, ..." (p. 69-70)

After this short appetizer I wish you some pleasant hours in company with Mary Antin.

Elsebeth Paikin

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