Sorrow, Rage, Frustration and Restitution: The Reasons Behind a ShtetLinks Page
By Michelle Frager
Related to: Snitkov (Town)
|This original drawing of the Snitkov synagogue by Michelle Frager is based on preserved architectural and photographic evidence. More information is at the Snitkov ShtetLink webpage.
No reproduction without the express permission of Michelle Frager
Not an Intellectual Exercise
Being neither a writer, historian, or a member of a notable family, I always believed there was little I could do about these family issues, common to virtually all the greater 20th and 21st Century Jewish family. I wrote checks in support of those who support Jews in need, wrote letters, signed petitions. And in the 1970s, tiptoed into genealogy.
That brought more open discussions with our elders than any time before, uncovering formerly covert parts of their old lives. But surprisingly, instead of 'closure', the more we learned of our family's unwilling role in history's vilification, the angrier and more frustrated we American generations grew.
Then, two years ago, while researching online at ShtetLinks, something 'flipped'. From one moment to the next I was not looking at a research screen, but at a personal opportunity. A mind-boggling opportunity when I thought about it, to reverse history's efforts to obliterate our family, its background, it's honor, its unassuming but legitimate place in history.
It alone could not undo the violence of centuries, but it could give back the respect stolen. At the very least it could restore, for my family, for their town, and for as many relatives and neighbors as I might name, their own lives as Russian Jews in their piece of the Pale - they lived once, in this way. Here. In Snitkov.
Politics is Always Personal
An unrecognized impetus had appeared months before, while the ideal was still personal research. Miriam Weiner and her Routes to Roots research firm had presented us with a movingly specific document: the first page of the 1892 Jewish tax list for Snitkov - headed by my great-grandfather, Pinchias Treiger. With help we read how, like the other ten families on the page, he lived in a "wooden house", had this "income", and paid these "taxes". More than any of my late father's stories, more than the several Russian-imprinted, nearly sacred, photos of strangers, this official specificity stunned us.
I think now that, more than anything else, it was the column listing extra Jewish taxes he and his neighbors paid simply for being Jews that smoldered. Talk about making the theoretical concrete, about linking the personal to the political with real anger. We kept thinking about the immediate context for this life in this place - little Snitkov in the south-western depths of the Russian Empire which my father remembered so warmly. (Well, at 9 years of age, he wasn't coping with the degradation of that tax.)
This paper, added to the loss of our last immigrant elder a year earlier, this insult in permanent ink to our oldest known ancestor, this eventually became the underpinning of ShtetLinks Snitkov, and the making of our own restitution.
The Unanticipated Dynamics of Researching Shtetls
Taped interviews with my late father provided an idea of life there from a child's perspective - the house, the neighbors, the trades, the inter-religious relations and so on. With these for a foundation, I confidently began looking around for scholarly resources to provide the historical background I was sure existed. No. There turned out to be barely anything re: Snitkov. And of course, I was limited to English. Yes, we'd uncovered a path through our history, but it seemed the one to our Treiger family's milieu remained hidden.
Weeks of research produced only a short list of information scattered over various archives and collections: a synagogue photo here, a pre-Holocaust paragraph somewhere else. Then - an entire poetic reminiscence of the town by one of its émigrés, Y. L. Melamed, published in the 1930s, available at specialized libraries in New York! Halevai! It was in Yiddish. Oh. Obviously, without a ShtetLinks page, only impassioned researchers like ourselves would ever see these.
The long plod went like this:
* First search: a Yizkor book. If there is one, I've failed so far to learn of it.
* Then: JewishGen. Using the home page search box produced a couple of excellent statistics from the terrific Litin ShtetLinks page. But photos or deeper information on my small town were not scattered freely around JewishGen like freiliche sweets. And I thought: If JewishGen has so little.... But after a while, this let-down actually energized me - when I finished the page, there would be information out there.
* Posting to the JewishGen Ukraine SIG and searching the JGFF for Snitkov families, identified some other Snitkovites, some already familiar. I now knew not to be surprised when they also had only slight knowledge. But theirs added to my limited information. There was one bad experience, an email from someone unfamiliar who sounded suspect, who seemed to have posted to the SIG only once or twice. After two exchanges, rightly or wrongly, I cut off communication. I don't think he's posted since. Online, even here, I felt caution was the best bet.
* Despite being a native New York Jewish genealogist, only now did I come to appreciate the public library's Dorot Jewish Division. Not least its online catalog: in English or not, their onsite books, pictures collections and titles, were educational simply by the catalog entry descriptions. If anything looked promising, I'd go up to see it. (The novel experience of protracted physical proximity to the ultra-Orthodox men who frequent the Dorot reading room was unexpectedly helpful, too. Despite our vast worlds of difference and careful indifference, their presence, their various regional headgear, their span of ages, illuminated my research surprisingly.)
* Other critical search tools: the rest of the New York Public Library (NYPL) online catalog, librarians and departments; the Center for Jewish History in NYC, web search and image queries re: Snitkov (not limited to Google and Yahoo), which had led to the poetic memoir, as well to online catalogues of Jewish universities and Holocaust museums or centers otherwise unknown to me. There are more of them, in more places, than I'd expected.
* The poetic memoir -- the biggest thing I'd learned of -- was not at NYPL. But through the valuable, nearly universal, library service, InterLibrary Loan (ILL), they borrowed the book on my behalf as a cardholder, from a Pennsylvania university. Fee: $1.00.
Technology Novices Can Build Web pages
I knew almost nothing of HTML beyond boldface, italic, and paragraph. So, simultaneously with the sleuthing, I began learning the basics of web page design. I didn't work where the expertise existed, and I didn't own a web design program. Either would have lessened the pressure considerably, but the family didn't want to help buy a program (pricey) though they'd willingly paid larger amounts to cover the overseas family research. It was hard, and had this been some other project I might have let it stretch out much longer. But I did it over the same months as the research because I wanted any part of the site I was working on to be created directly in that format as I went along. Time wouldn't be saved, but I'd see what I had as it went along. My teachers? ShtetLinks Help pages, and various online pages found through searches, devoted to explaining the process simply with examples. Learning to control the copy and typefaces, add a background to pages, insert a photo or table, was thrilling.
The Thrill of Snitkov V.1.0.
Last year, I had little material compared to some ShtetLinks sites, and more than others. It seemed imperative to keep researching and learning HTML. I dreamed of a magnificent testimonial. But the delay in publishing began to bother me, us - the whole intent was to honor the lives and struggles of our forebears, which meant publication. Otherwise, everything would stay in the family, on my hard drive and in my pocket-paged binder, till some future unknown golden moment of fullness.
Quite honestly, I had trouble coming to grips with the obvious conclusion to this: upload an in-process project. I'd never submitted an in-process project as complete. But then I realized this wasn't a proposal or a book. It was 'Snitkov.Version 1.0.'
Once this sank in, given my still-low technology capabilities, the help of ShtetLinks' aptly named Help Desk and its volunteer web master was critical. Although we had false starts on both sides, they ultimately moved the project through the final, and thus for me simple, aspects of sending my computer files to the web itself. To my relief, the web master first uploaded them to JewishGen's intranet, excluding the public, where I could see them 'live' and make any related last minute changes. A very few changes, and then he uploaded them to the public at ShtetLinks. Really live.
"Really live." One runs from the desk shouting at innocently engaged family members in other rooms, or grabs the phone. No one who does this in the workplace can understand that it's not like completing an email, memo or plan. No one who's never done this for this reason can understand the amazement and fulfilling sense of completion. How amazed are my oldest relations, who like me were raised by former inhabitants of what had in their lifetimes been the Pale and then a bleeding ground. Despite the tireless efforts and murders of the Russian Empire, and the Holocaust and USSR in its wake, at the last the bastards failed. They did not erase the existence of our family and it's world.
At ShtetLinks Snitkov today there's nothing as grievous as a pogrom record from a kahal, a list from Dachau, the tortures and murders by Einzatsgrup D of my great-aunts, Golda and Bella who were exterminated, and my aunts Ennye - captured and killed when she left her Christian-hidden family because she felt she looked too Jewish for their safety, and young Surah, who died of infections while fleeing to the east, nor does it contain purge reports or gulag records. It is an innocent community's return to the light of recognition, memory and honor. And love. One hundred and twelve years after my great-grandfather Reb Pinchas Treiger paid his 1892 taxes – his punitive Jewish taxes, so carefully recorded – he, his family, and his neighbors are at least partially restored, as respected elders of our worldwide family.
Addendum: Mundane details that may be of no interest whatsoever
It may be obvious, but...
* Organization: Between the research and technical learning, a complete project binder, the pocket-pages variety, grew stuffed beyond the gills with careful and sometimes not so careful notes on processes and facts. Pockets and paper clips, not staples, became tools of organization and re-organization.
* Research: The most important notes of all - the sources to be consulted - were kept absolutely scrupulously. Each page covered only one title: author/catalog numbers/publication/location, or web URL/upload date; each individual page also had lines for dated notes on when I eventually consulted them, what I’d found in them, and where I’d filed those notes, xeroxes or printouts; or whether the source had proved a bust. Dating was particularly helpful for websites as a guide for timing future tries, when they might have been updated. No source page was discarded, to avoid duplicate searches in the future. Among the most important subjects for online/catalog searches were maps, history, images, microfilm.
* Technology: In the same notebook, two pocket pages were reserved for technical information on creating a web page. Some of the most helpful lessons were from JewishGen’s ShtetLinks Help pages. They are an invaluable source, especially for complicated things like creating a direct link to a MapQuest map from a click on the page’s town name. Other helpful sites, found through Google/Yahoo/et cetera web searches for “web page design” or “web page creation” were printed out, again with the source - the actual URL of the site - printed on the page so I could find it again if I wanted more. Because it’s flexible and can be personally tailored, I recommend this print-out approach over books if you don’t have a web publishing program.
Michelle Frager, ©2005 email@example.com
Michelle Frager, Snitkov Webmaster