Aunt Sophie's Letter
(Grebënki, Ukraine)

49°57' / 30°12'

Translation of Tante Sonye's briv

Written by: Sophie Horn (nee Proger [Prager])

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Project Coordinator and Translator

Leonard Prager z”l

This is a translation of “Tante Sonye's briv”, written by Sophie Horn (nee Proger [Prager]), Brooklyn, New York

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Aunt Sophie Horn (nee Proger [Prager]) was born in 1900 in Grebenki, Ukraine (58.2 km SSW of Kiev),
and died in 1968 in Brooklyn, New York.
May her soul rest in Peace.

“In 1962, when my wife Barbara and I were living in London (at 23 Sinclair Gardens, London W14 [Shepherds Bush]), we wrote to Tante Sonye (Aunt Sophie) and asked her to write down all that she could recall about her family, the Progers (Pragers), and her shtetl Rebinke (Grebenki). On 18 October 1962 (from her home at 341 Remsen Avenue, Brooklyn 12, NY), Tante Sonye sat down and wrote a sixteen-page letter in Yiddish in which she tried to satisfy our request.” (Leonard Prager)

Aunt Sophie's Letter

18 October 1962

Dearest Leonard and Barbara:

We received your dear letter and read it with much joy and with many tears -- with joy and pride in having a nephew who is interested in us and in our former life across the sea, and with tears that your dear parents are not alive to share your letter with, for it would have given them much pleasure. An hour, a day does not pass that I do not think of them. Your father was always a devoted brother to me and your mother a devoted sister. Their joys were mine and their sorrows were also mine. And the reverse was also true -- my joys and sorrows were theirs.

I now suffer much grief because of Uncle Dave's sad situation. If your parents were alive I could bear this a lot more easily; as it is, I am alone and I don't know what to think. He still has work but business is slack; he fears he may be laid off after Christmas and he knows no other work. Receiving unemployment compensation will reduce his social security. He needs to work two and a half more years since his papers give his age as two years older than he really is. Moreover, he can receive unemployment compensation for only a few months. My mind gives me no rest as to what will happen afterwards. He doesn't want to trouble me and asks me not to worry, assuring me that nobody dies of hunger. (1)

I shall try to answer your questions about our shtetl in the old country and about the family I once had. Certainly I would have had more patience ten years ago and together with your parents could have written an entire book. I shall now begin.

Rebinke was a small shtetl [text: “shtetele”] with 100 Jewish families. It was surrounded by villages of Christians where Jews were forbidden to live. Rebinke was in the Province of Kiev and was located 60 verst (= miles) from Kiev on one side and on the other side was the lovely Jewish town of Byela-Tserkov [literally 'White Church'] which the Jews called Shvartstime ['Black Pollution'], where we used to buy shoes, clothing, furniture and everything we needed and could afford. My father, may he rest in peace, was born in Rebinke. He had five sisters, all older than him. He was the baby of the family [text: “mezinik,” 'the last child to be married off'] and his name was Shmuel. His parents, having finally been blessed with a kaddish, were extremely fond of him and instead of calling him Shmuel, called him Tonile-Tosile and everyone called him Tosi and no one knew his name was Shmuel. (2)

My father, may he rest in peace, had a very good mind and he wanted to study [“gevolt lernen”]. The greatest rabbis were his teachers, for there was no yeshiva near us; and he also studied with great Russian teachers. When he married my mother he had rabbinical ordination [original: smikhes rabones (= semichat rabanut)] and could also be a bookkeeper, that is an accountant. My father was nineteen years old when he married. His mother, Sore-Feyge, had lived to see him engaged but died before he married. My grandfather was named Moti-Ber. My mother, Brokhe, who was called Broshke, was eighteen when she married. (3) She came from a shtetl near Barditshev, where she had completed gymnasium. She knew Hebrew very well and she was a remarkable beauty. None of her children resembled either her or my father, who was also very handsome. In all the years we lived in Rebinke they were highly respected.

There wasn't a single woman as educated as my mother: whenever some one needed a letter written or an appeal or petition to Tsar Nikolai, my mother wrote it. In the synagogue she showed the women the place in the prayer book and helped them follow the cantor during the service [i.e. she was the zogerke] and everyone idolized her. My father had a sister who was married to a rabbi in Pittsburgh [PA]. When I arrived in America he was no longer alive. My aunt was still living and I was invited to stay with her for a week. Her daughters told me that when my mother arrived in Rebinke, where they lived then, she taught them how to read and write Yiddish and Russian and how to say their prayers [davenen] and they told me many good things about my parents.

Of course, you remember that we have a cousin, Ite, in San Francisco. She too told me that my mother had taught her everything she knew. Her mother was my father's sister and she lived in the second house from ours. Since there were twelve children in their house it was not possible to send them to school. My mother had someone watch her own children and invited the others into our house a few at a time and taught them and they thought the world of her. All the parents with children in America or sons in the Russian army came to my mother to write letters for them. She never accepted money, but when Christians asked her to write for them they often brought a few pounds of potatoes. This was worth a great deal to them, since it was very hard to earn a livelihood.

In Rebinke we lived in the house which had been my grandfather's. It was a very old house. It took quite a few years before my father rebuilt it somewhat and added two rooms. We owned an inn. Rebinke lay on the road to Kiev and drivers with their horses and wagons would stop and spend the night. We had place for the horses and wagons under a roof and we also had room for the people to sleep -- not a great deal of room, but enough for those who spent the night. Every two weeks there was a large market day in Rebinke, to which would be brought all kinds of merchandise and cattle, horses, sheep, pigs. People from many towns would come to buy. At such times our inn was packed full, but in the intervening weeks it was not full, and in this manner we supported ourselves. To make life a bit easier, my parents always managed to have their own cow.

Your father was sent to school, because he wanted to learn Russian subjects, in addition to what he learned in the Jewish kheyder. Jews were practically never admitted to the school. Perhaps as many as five Jewish children were admitted. Some years later when I was growing up, when your father had long left school, I was with the utmost difficulty and effort also admitted. School meant public [i.e. elementary] school with one year of high school and no more [i.e., seven years of schooling]. Upon completing this schooling your father and I had private tutors.

I don't recall how old your father was when he went to work in your mother's father's dry goods store, which is where he learned that business. He was still quite young and your mother was seven years younger, indeed a little girl. I don't know how long he worked there. But I do remember that he went to work in another store which was bigger and richer. And when your mother wasn't quite eighteen she and your father became engaged, and two years later, in 1916, they were married. I shall leave the subject of your parents now and return to them later.

Your Uncle Sam [Shimke] and another brother of mine, Sholem, were older than me. But they didn't want to continue school beyond the kheyder -- perhaps because, young as they were, they had to earn a livelihood. Life was hard. There were six of us children at home. My mother had eleven children, five of whom died very young. When at age fourteen I completed the Rebinke school, my parents tried to continue my education with the help of private tutors. At age fifteen I was teaching other children and thereby earning enough money to buy my clothes.

Your Uncle Dave was quite young when World War One broke out. Studying was hard for him and he had no patience for it, he just didn't want to go to school. When he became a bar-mitsve [Hebrew: bar-mitsva 'thirteen years old'], he was apprenticed to a tradesman in Kiev. He liked business very much. Now I return to the subject of your parents.

After their wedding, your father started his own dry goods business with the money from the dowry your grandfather [i.e. my mother's father -- L.P.] had given him and the business went pretty well. Not long after that your Uncle Sam, though still very young, also opened a dry goods store. I stopped giving lessons and together with my parents waited on customers. Life became a lot better, but unfortunately this good period did not continue. The Bolshevik Revolution took place in 1917 and Russia had a series of different governments. First there was Kerensky, but the Bolsheviks didn't want him and while the two sides fought one another, the Germans took over our part of the Ukraine, routing both sides and establishing order. They stayed only seven months and we liked them very much, but after seven months they had to leave the Ukraine. Then various groups fought to wrest power from the Bolsheviks. There were Petlura's bands and Denikin's bands and their first aim was always to murder the Jews. I cannot tell the complete story, so let me try to summarize.

When the bands had routed the Bolsheviks from the Ukraine, they started to rob Jewish stores and homes and to kill Jews. We had to leave everything and run away to hide among good Christians. Just to save our lives we hid in cellars, in attics [“oyf di boydems”] and under wooden grave markers [“hiltserne matseyves”] in cemeteries. During the period that we lay hidden and they could not find us, they killed many Jews and burned down all the houses. When they left Rebinke and went on, the good Christians who had saved our lives let us know that we could come out of our hiding places. The shtetele being reduced to ashes and there being nothing to return to, our good Christian friends gave us bread and we walked the eighteen miles to Byela-Tserkov. The situation of the Jews there was the same. During the day things were quieter but at night they [the pogromists] would break into Jewish homes and beat and kill and steal the few pairs of shoes and such belongings that still remained.

At that time we had money buried in the yard in Rebinke. My father, may he rest in peace, risking his life, disguised himself as a peasant and traveled to Rebinke to recover the money. Luckily he succeeded and he bought a house and we had a roof over our heads. This was right after Sukes [Sukkot 'Feast of Booths'] and at that time a flu epidemic broke out. People died like flies. We were all sick. In the course of six weeks we lost our parents, my twenty-two year old brother Sholem, my fourteen-year old sister Rokhl and your parents' first child, the two-year old Zalmen. I am not able to describe what we survivors endured.

In mid-winter of 1920 the Bolsheviks drove out the Denikin bands and life was a little easier. But there was no way to earn a living. Almost all the Jews stood in the market with trays trying to sell soap, matches, cigarettes and candy to the peasants. Every two weeks your parents traveled with goods to the Rebinke market-fair. And thus we eked out a livelihood until May when the Poles entered the Ukraine and the Bolsheviks retreated. Now we again suffered greatly, since the Poles always hated the Jews, called us all Bolsheviks and Communists and sought our death. They stayed a whole summer, until the Bolsheviks chased them out and regained control of the Ukraine. Soon after that summer, on October 15, my Aunt Golde and her children and I left for America.

I'll tell you what followed when I see you. I don't have the patience to write. We lived through so much that I feel as though I am three hundred years old. All that we went through is no imagined dream. Enough. Writing this has not improved my health. Your devoted Aunt Sophie and Uncle Harry wish you and Barbara good health. Bea and Herb and their children send warm regards. Leonard, don't lose this letter. Perhaps, generations from now, someone may be interested in Yiddish and may want to read the original.

[Aunt Sophie]


1) Uncle Dave was worried over all his life by his sister and brothers, but Uncle Dave outlived them all by a great many years -- he died in Philadelphia several years ago aged over 90. In his last years he devoted much of his time and energy to helping immigrants from the Soviet Union find their way in their new homes. A reluctant student in his youth, he remembered enough Russian and Ukrainian in his old age to help newcomers. [L.P.] Return to text

2) What is the origin of the name Tosi and why did everyone use it even when Shmuel was a grown and highly respected adult? Meyer Wolf [private communication] has come up with the most likely explanations so far -- he looks to Slavic. He writes: “The problem with Tonile-Tosile is in knowing just what it is. For instance, it may reflect some childish pronunciation of a not-very-remarkable word where t was substituted for k. On the other hand, it sounds like a common proverbial expression from Ukrainian of the form to ..., to ... ' the ..., the'. Or the -ile may represent the East Slavic diminutive ending -ula. Tosi itself means 'clapping' or 'the sound of clapping' in Ukrainian babytalk. In Yiddish, Tonye is hypochoristic for daughter.” Given how he was welcomed into a family of five daughters, a name signifying clapping of hands in merriment seems appropriate. Meyer Wolf adds that “The name that is usually spelled antoshe in Yiddish is actually antosye in much of Ukrainian Yiddish, pronounced /antosi/ with or without palatalization of the /s/. So Tonile-Tosile might be a double diminutive: tonile < [an]ton + ile, tosile < [an]to[n]si + ile.” Ironically, the name Tosi is found in Yiddish literature in a most surprising context: the teller of Mendele Moykher Sforim's Yidl refers to Mefisto (= Mephistopheles, Satan) as Tosi (Part One, Chapter 12). [L.P.] Return to text

3) It is through this remarkable woman of storied beauty, intellect and character that we possess our only traceable genealogy. Brokhe (Hebrew: Brakha) was a member of the Berlin family in a line of distinguished rabbis extending at least as far back as the Bal HaToysfes [Baal Ha-Tosefot 'the annotator'], Rabbi Elkhanan Berlin, head of the rabbinical court [Av Bet Din] of Berlin in the eighteenth century. The genealogist of the family is Allen Greenberg [husband of Marilyn nee Ruthizer, a Berlin descendant], who may be reached at [L.P.] Return to text

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