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Marche-Route from Chergassy

By Florence Nerenberg Elman

Related to: Cherkassy (Town)Stories

One bit of the story on how Flo Elman came to be born in America.

(A "marche-route" is literally "army's path", but can also mean a travel plan or itinerary.)

It was 1905 in Imperial Russia, and the warnings were everywhere. There was upheaval in the Duma, and ominous grumbling among the citizenry. The war with Japan was going badly, and rumours of impending pogroms were rife. Since “the crowned peasant”, Alexander III, had inherited the Russian throne from his assassinated father, Alexander II, his autocratic, reactionary policies found vulnerable victims in the Jews of the Pale.

My maternal grandfather Shimon was born in 1881, the very year that Alexander III’s fanatical rule of brutality began. Centrally organized riots erupted throughout the Russian Empire, and in the shtetls, Jews recoiled and hid in terror as their homes were despoiled, and their families were beaten and killed. The only response from government was to accuse the Jewish community of bringing a just punishment on themselves – commissions were appointed to investigate Jewish exploitation!!

In the wake of this outrage, Jews were subject to impossible restrictions, laws, and taxation. They were forbidden to own land and many were expelled from their properties without compensation. The only relief from a merciless police force, was for Jewish communities to pay out exorbitant bribes in order to avert the harsh consequences of atrocious laws. Whereas university education had been possible under the former tzar, Jews were now limited to a 10% quota of students in Pale institutions.

Jewish emigration became a flood in these difficult years as thousands sought reprieve from pogroms, renewed military demands, and the overwhelming financial burden of Jewish life in Alexander’s Empire. Zionism, as a political movement, swelled in growth as a possible promise of redemption. The ascension of Nicholas II in 1894 only made unbearable conditions degenerate still more.

The final straw for Shimon’s father Pesach, was the defeat of the Russian Navy in the Tsushima Straits in 1905, for instead of accepting their defeat, the military was demanding more Jewish conscripts than before. Revolutionary terrorism had broken out in all corners of the land in the wake of the dissolution of the Duma by Nicholas, and the Government responded with a political court-martial that sentenced over 1000 people to death; many of them Jews, many of them innocent.

If he could do nothing else, Pesach could save his unmarried son. With his married brother Yehuda’s passport in his pocket, Shimon was surreptitiously hustled over the border from Cherkassy, Ukraine to Czernowitz, Austria Hungary. When I was sixteen, my grandmother left me a precious legacy – the letters that were written at that unstable period, from my great-grandfather to his son Shimon. My great-grandfather was a religious man. His words express the indomitable faith and strong will he retained despite the upheaval of the “world” around him.

Even with Shimon’s flight, my great-grandfather never foresaw that this was to be the beginning of a permanent separation. His first letter was penned emotionally as the remaining family gathered in Cherkassy for Rosh Hashonah: October 5, 1905: Fast of Gedaliah, "My dear son,I’m writing to you on the Thursday before Rosh Hashonah. At the moment, I have nothing to write; there is no news whatever – only a wish for a good year with good blessings. We should all have a “Gmar Chasimah Tova” and a good blessed year among all of Israel. My dear son, I’m telling you a thousand times that right now you must have patience with all your might in order to decide for yourself that must stay over there in Czernowitz close to the border for a while. That is, even if it means the whole winter. Also, maybe if Hashem will so decree, it doesn’t matter even if you stay there for good as an Austrian, a Bukoviner. It is a thousand times better than becoming an American or Palestinian. … you’ll be close to home with one foot on this side and one foot on the other side, and we can often talk things over … And if you will keep your word about what you told me when you said good-bye, with hot tears running down your cheek, “Tata, I will always remain your son, always!” Also, remember, my son, these true and dear words. I always remember them and speak of them to all the children I will always remind them of this. My dear son, enjoy your freedom. Be happy and thank Hashem every minute and every second. You should know that you now have no responsibilities whatsoever, only the dear and sacred responsibility and yoke to Hashem and the dear and friendly responsibility to your dear parents and Derech Israel. All this is only in your hands and heart. Remember to hold them dear. You shouldn’t, Hashem forbid, lose them. Do not forget that you are the only guard, and no one will watch or keep it for you. Only your father will remind you from time to time in a letter… Have a Gmar Chasimah Tova. Your mother and the children send regards. Father, Pesach.

In a subsequent letter written in January, 1906, Pesach wrote:

"Thanks to Hashem (His Holy Name) for our small measure (“bissel”) of good health, for not abandoning us, for His help in enabling us to meet our expenses during these bitter times of troubles (“tzores”) all over the world. Nowadays, it is a miracle if a man has his piece of bread, Hashem be thanked and nothing more should be asked of Him at this time."

For the most part, personal details about the “tzores” were never revealed, but at one point in their correspondence, Pesach admits that things are “almost” bad enough to tempt him to leave as well. He never did. As the political situation became more complicated, Shimon remained with a family in Czernowitz, enduring teasing about his broken German, and snubs because of the condescension with which Russian Jew were looked down upon by their German counterparts. At home in Cherkassy, Pesach was now forced into the decision to send his married daughter and her three children to Canada to join her husband. Shimon would accompany them on the journey. Pesach worked furiously to obtain the necessary documents; birth certificates attested to by the government rabbi, Governor’s passports. His son-in-law in Canada paid for the boat tickets, which were sent by the “Paris Committee” to the “Russian Committee” in St. Petersburg. From there, they were sent to the agent in Cherkassy.

Pesach spent long hours working on the “marche-route” that the family would take on their way to the ship. He conjectured that “the connection [would] be made via Libava, in Russia, by small boat, and in Hamburg or Antwerp (it was to be in Antwerp, as it turned out) there [would] be a transfer to a large boat, the English or American one.” Shimon would have to meet the family by traveling by train, and they would accompany him to his point of departure.

It wasn’t to be that “simple”. It was March of 1907, and Shimon was still in Czernowitz. Pesach wrote: …“the whole delay has occurred because the Governor’s passport has not arrived from Kiev. It was paid for three months ago, but it is still not here. Today, a letter arrived from the chief agent, and he tells us that the passport will arrive any day now. We shall leave as soon as it is received. I shall write you immediately.”

This was not the only unpredictable delay. Shimon had met Leah in a refugee camp with others who had escaped the 1905 Odessa pogrom. He was irrevocably in love, and now refused to leave without her. On her part, she refused to marry him unless he promised to take her mother along on the voyage. Father and son shared the same stubborn streak, and Shimon was adamant. Leah and Shimon were married on June 13, 1907 in a quiet ceremony, while Pesach anxiously awaited news from him, not knowing when the marriage had taken place.

Soon afterwards, Pesach yielded with no other alternative, and two more tickets were purchased. The “marche-route” had to be revised. A letter dated June 28, 1907 reads “… we shall be leaving on Tuesday, before Shabbos Nachamu … I only received my permit this Friday – the provincial one… My present plan is that you and Leah should go to Brod, where you will rent a dwelling for two weeks, and try to earn something to pay for the food. We shall be going direct to Brod via Radomysl. We shall pick up the boat tickets in Brod, and proceed to Antwerp via Vienna. When traveling from Chernovitz to Brod, sew up all your things. Be ready with everything. Let me know how much you need, and I shall send it to you ….” More delay: “I have just received the Governor’s passport, together with the one issued to Mother. Everything is ready now, but we would not want to travel before Tishah B’Av, during the Nine Days. We shall leave for sure without delay, on Sunday, after Shabbos Nachamu. Children, have your portraits taken; inexpensive ones at this time. Be well and happy.”

From the letters, I learned that they stayed at Anshell’s Inn on the main street of Brody. It was there that the family last saw each other, heard each other’s voices for the last time, last hugged each other. It was this way for many Jewish families then. The portraits they exchanged were all they had to help them remember beloved faces they would never see again. Among my grandparents’ papers, there is a business card for the Hotel Basel on Van Wesenbekestrasse, 16, in Antwerpen, Belgien, from which they continued on their long passage. I found the manifest of the SS Montreal which left from Antwerp on the 29th of August, 1907, and arrived in Quebec, Canada on the 9th of September, 1907 at 6:15pm.

  • Last Modified: 06-08-2012
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