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The Journeys of David Toback

By Ira Leibowitz

Related to: Proskurov (Town)Book Reviews

Translated from the Yiddish by Carole Malkin. New York:  Schocken Books, 1981 (216 pps.) [Originally published in Winter 2000 Mishpacha, Vol. 19, No. 4].

None of the following may be reprinted or republished without permission of the publisher.

Veteran genealogists know that pinpointing the geographical origin of an ancestor is often a frustrating task.  David Toback's memoirs will not encourage them.  Toback's father, a miller, had difficulty finding work, so the family moved frequently.  Toback could not name some of the towns in which he had lived.

For the genealogist who hungers to sense life as it was, however, "Journeys" offer much to appreciate.  Here is the twelve-year-old Toback observing market day in Shumskoye, Ukraine, circa 1887: "The peasants -- dressed in flaming red trousers and blue coats and carrying staffs or sabers -- brought in fresh produce to sell the Jews in exchange for supplies, and their wagons were filled with dark red beets, green cabbages, potatoes, and onions.  Others had cages with cackling, fat chickens.  The Shumskoye hawkers buzzed around the peasants with their dry goods, and cried, "I will sell it to you cheap;" if they got pushed away they just came back again, tore at clothes, and pleaded more insistently."

These memoirs are also instructive for those of us who wonder how so many of our forebears could have cast off the comforts of family and culture for the terrifying strangeness and uncertainty of a new land.  A continuing thread in Toback's account of his rather peripatetic life in Ukraine and Moldova -- which included stints in Proskurov (Khmelnitskiy) and Kishinev (Chisinau) -- is the caprice and almost casual cruelty of Jewish life in imperial Russia.

When a young Russian servant becomes pregnant and names the Jewish man for whom she works as the father, a local priest whips up the peasantry by vilifying all Jews.  Conviction and jail are certain until the servant confesses that the baby's father is in fact the priest.  By czarist decree a prosperous Jewish merchant is suddenly banished from his Moscow home and business and now has to beg to survive.  The Jewish community has hopes for new Czar Nicholas II, but, unlike his predecessor, he does not ignore pogroms -- he encourages them.  Toback's last straw comes when a forest fire destroys his profitable logging business.  He emigrates to the United States -- a tortuous story in itself -- and begins anew. 

Reviewed by Ira Leibowitz [Jan 2001] 

  • Last Modified: 06-08-2012
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