By Bill Schechter
Click on photo to go to "Bessie's Letters"
On July 13 1999, I finally completed my ShtetLinks Kholmich (Belarus) site. The core of the site consists of just over 100 translated letters that my grandmother, Bessie Rapoport Schechter, received in New York from her father and siblings in Belarus, from 1913 to 1935. The site is based on a book, Bessie Letters, published in limited edition for my family, eight years in the making.
On one level, the letters relate my family history. The subtext (sometimes between text) of the correspondence illuminates the larger history of Russian Jews as well as the complex emotional dynamic that existed between those who emigrated and those who remained behind.
While the letters tell these three stories - and do so simultaneously, they also have their own story, their own history. It is a tale of how love and luck preserved these letters and sent them my way just when I was ready for them.
For me, the story starts in the Bronx, not Belarus. I grew up in the "Amalgamated", a unique, democratically-managed housing project established on England's "Rochdale cooperative principles" and financed by the garment unions. Nearly everyone in my community was Jewish, and most had worked as cutters, patternmakers, seamstresses, or pressers, at one time or another. Such was our progressive, high-rise New World shtetl.
I was fortunate to grow up with grandparents who lived in my neighborhood. In fact, my Grandma Bessie lived six floors above our apartment. Afflicted by an incapacitating childhood syndrome known as "Mondayitis", which often prevented me from going to elementary school, I was frequently sent by my parents for the quick elevator ride up to Apt. 6D. After all, they needed to get to work.
Oh, many a blissful Monday I passed with my grandparents! How much better than studying math! My grandmother made certain I was well fed. Her entreaties to "Es a bissel" punctuated the day. I would climb behind her on the sofa and brush out her beautiful, wavy hair. Then, after waiting for my grandfather to finish his Daily Forward, wešd watch TV on their small black and white set. While my poor classmates slaved away, I would settle in my favorite, "Queen For A Day".
I was also allowed to rummage through my grandparent's dresser drawers which held many of their treasured mementos: a silver watch given to my grandfather for his dedicated union service, old political buttons, and souvenirs from their cross-country train trip to the national parks. One day, when I was eight or nine years old, I came upon another item. It was a large yellowed, clear plastic pouch which contained many letters. Without even opening it, I could see that the letters were written in a strange script. I may have recognized the Yiddish, but I was certainly perplexed by the Russian. I asked my grandmother about them, and she told me they came from her family in Russia. I also recall asking when she had last written to them. She told me that she had recently written to one (For a fuller recounting of this conversation, see the "Introduction" and "Postscript" to Bessie's Letters at the JewishGen Web address given below). Further questions, then or later, were turned aside, with an "Ach! Stop being foolish". None of my grandparents had any interest in revisiting their unhappy pasts. As it turned out, Grandma Bessie had not even told her two children that she had ten brothers and sisters who had remained behind in Russia. Popular interest in oral history was still decades away.
Soon after the letters disappeared from my consciousness. I canšt recall thinking about them even when I studied Russian history (and the history of Russian Jews) in college. I had lost all mental and physical track of them.
In 1980, my Grandma Bessie passed away, having survived my grandfather by 14 years. Her sons, my father Jerry and my uncle George Schechter, cleaned out her apartment, and divided up various personal possessions. A decade before, my parents had moved from the Bronx to Croton-On-Hudson, NY, and, now with my grandmother's death, the letters disappeared into my father's attic.
After my own mother died in 1989, my father decided to pack up the Croton house in preparation for his move to Brookline, Mass. Again the letters floated to the surface. A year later, I had a sabbatical from my job at a nearby high school, and I became involved in a grassroots effort to save our town's last old-time, independent moviehouse from development into a mini-mall. Attracted to the effort were several members of the recent wave of Jewish emigration from the then Soviet Union. These Russian Jews - though generally more conservative than their predecessors in my grandparent's generation - felt strongly about the sanctity of a vibrant cultural life. Speaking with great passion, one Soviet emigré told me, "A theater must never be destroyed".
In the course of this preservation struggle, I became acquainted with a young Russian man. It was at just about this time that my father reminded me about the letters. My mother's death had sharpened my sense of the importance of family history. She was a published poet, and her papers had been acquired for preservation by Boston University. My father was also getting older. If ever my family's history was to be recorded, this was the time.
My father sent me the letters, and soon I was staring at them again, the first time since I was a little boy some 35 years before. I gave the letters to my new Russian friend who promised to translate them for me. The successful effort to save our theater lasted 14 months. Unfortunately, my Russian friend had disappeared after the first few weeks - disappeared with my letters! I was rather despondent. Months later I saw him ambling down a street in Brookline. I pounced on him. The letters please! He had them at his house, he assured me, and would return them to me soon. "Let's go there now!" I suggested, and, with great relief, was soon clutching my letters again.
I made no further attempt to have the letters translated until I returned to teach school, when I asked our Russian language teacher - herself a recent emigré - to assist me. She agreed to help. During a free period, we began. But where to start? So many of the letters were undated. Just pull one out of the pile, she suggested. I reached in, selected one, and she began to translate. This letter turned out to be, chronologically, the very first one, written to my grandmother by one of her brothers on the eve of her departure for America.
Unfortunately, the school year was so busy that she only managed to translate three letters by the time June arrived. Even worse, her position was eliminated the following year. I asked her if she would be willing to translate the rest as a business proposition. She agreed to do so for a very modest fee. A year passed, and I still had no translations - and again, no letters. I called her up, intent on making it easy for her to withdraw from the project and return the letters. I told her that surely this was just too big a job to ask of anyone. After apologizing for the delay, necessitated by her enrollment in a program at Boston College, she assured me that she would complete the task. "I promised you," she said, "and I will do it". Yet another year would pass before the call finally came that the letters were ready. Instead of writing down the translations, she had recorded them on audio tape. I sat in front of my computer, plugged in my tape recorder, put on the ear phones, and got ready to transcribe. I was not prepared for what I was about to hear. My family history, until this instant locked up in these letters, began to flow into my ears, long lost voices speaking to me in the wonderful Russian-Jewish accent of my translator. I canšt really describe that moment when barriers of time and space disappeared.
I became obsessed, much to the amusement of my family. I could not finish the transcriptions before we left for our own family trip to the national parks of Utah and Colorado. The cheapest plane tickets we could find required us to go first to Las Vegas. On the plane ride I kept my earphones firmly clamped on, transcribing feverishly onto long yellow pads. I was wandering around the already surreal cityscape of Las Vegas turning over and over in my mind the incongruous tales of a small Belorussian shtetl. I remember one day crossing an elevated pedestrian walkway that led to a particularly bizarre casino. The translator had been unable to make sense of a particular sentence. It was from the pen of my grandmother's father: one day, he said, people would tell their story while reading the "ag-ga-da". Ah-ga-da? Some ancient Jewish prayer? All day I had been preoccupied with this word. Las Vegas? I wasnšt even looking. Then on the walkway, the epiphany came: The word was "Haggadah"!
Months later my father and I published the first 40 or so complete letters that had been translated and compiled as the first edition of Bessie's Letters. It was a Xeroxed and stapled affair. We were excited. But as the weeks passed, we realized that our excitement had trumped our judgment. There were mistakes in the placement of the letters, many of which were undated. Still, I didnšt think I had the energy to revise the project. But as weeks turned into months, I heard a voice which became louder and louder. It was my voice, and it was saying, "What about the other letters?" The other letters indeed!
Only half of the letters had been translated. The other half were the incomplete Russian letters and all of the Yiddish letters. What tale did they have to tell? In the letters we had published, family members had alluded to a terrible incident, a theft which had left them impoverished "with only their underwear". They never really directly described the incident though. Did the untranslated letters contain the secret. The voice said, "Yes".
The following year a student from Russia was enrolled in one of my history classes. She offered to translate the letters, and did so in her beautiful English longhand (much nicer handwriting than any of her American peers!). She refused to accept any money. The incomplete Russian letters added a great deal, but no smoking gun. I knew the Yiddish letters would have to be translated, and I just knew that they would contain the secret of some awful event. It turned out that I was right, but first we needed to find a translator.
Brookline is almost half Jewish, and there are many people in the town who can read Yiddish, but as it turned out there were very few who could read Yiddish script, from several different pens no less. Happily, after a long search, we managed to find the right person.
Finally, by the summer of 1998, all of the letters had been translated, and the secret was finally revealed in Letter #66. Dear reader you will have to turn to it yourself. We published the whole of the letters, after reshuffling them, as the second and final edition of Bessie Letters. We also added a greatly expanded appendix containing all of my grandmother's immigration documents, background concerning the shtetl, a family tree, photographs, etc. This time we had the work bound as a book, and distributed it to my family during the High Holy Days, 1998. For eight years, this project had immersed my father and me into what seemed like a holy task.
And, so you ask, how did I find the name of my grandmother's ship, a photograph of it, and a copy of the manifest? How did I finally find out the name of her mother who had died many years before Bessie's departure to America and who was never mentioned in the letters?
Ah, but Reader, this is yet another story!
Copyright © 1999 Belarus SIG and Bill Schechter
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