|Many of our family,
including other children of Usher and of his brother, Lazar Elia, arrived on these shores
well before this story begins. Later research has uncovered some of their
stories. Hirschel Uberstein, Carl's father-in-law, stayed in Gorodok and was killed
about 1929 by
[thugs or outlaws] according to my father, Larry Rogers.
Hirschel and his wife, the former Rivka Hyman, may well have had several more children than the five who
eventually found their way to the United States. Pressed by the threat of the draft,
Morris, the oldest of those who came, was the first to arrive. The year was 1901, although
1905 is the year of arrival indicated on his death certificate. Japan was soon to attack
Russian-controlled Port Arthur (now called Lu-shun), initiating the Russo-Japanese War on
the Pacific coast over 4,200 miles to the east of Minsk.
younger than my grandfather Morris by some 15 years, was still a toddler when
he left for America. So
of course she would remain at home with her parents. Our focus is on the period of Carl and
Dora's life together. While their story in America is one of success and a full and good
life, our narrative centers on their environment in Russia, including Carl's
many brushes with danger and his family's numerous frightening experiences.
From Krasnoye to Gorodok
Carl and Dora knew each other from the time they were
children. Carl was about 10 years old when he was sent from his village, Krasnoye
(Kraz-nick), to neighboring Gorodok (Horr-o-duck), 8.9 miles southwest. It had been arranged that he study
there for his Bar Mitzvah and live in the home of his teacher. The
years passed, Carl was Bar Mitzvah, and he became friendly with the
Rubenstein family, including Dora Rubenstein, the youngest of Hirschel's children. Carl and Dora would finally marry after World War One.
Shtetls and stadts
Carl wanted to be sure I understood the difference between
a "shtetl" and a "stadt." Minsk and Vilna were stadts or provinces in
the Pale of Settlement where Jews were forced to live, and they were also the names of
major cities. A shtetl was a townlet (a little town or village), and Jews typically lived
in shtetls unless they had specific permission and the papers to live elsewhere. Gorodok,
Krasnoye, and Radoshkovici (see map) were shtetls.
The Jewish population
Despite oppression, the Jewish populations of
both Minsk and Vilnius reportedly reached 40% of the total population by the
eve of World War II. Gorodok is situated between those two cities -- 35
miles northwest of Minsk and 150 miles southeast of Vilnius.
'Fiddler on the Roof'
Forests dominated the landscape, Carl said. Between the
town and the forest, peasants grew corn and tended their cows. Visions from "Fiddler on
the Roof" come easily. The place to go when it was time for fun, according to Dora,
was the mill on the lake at the end of one of the streets on which "Christians
lived." The mill was where 40-pound bags of barley and rye would be taken for turning
into the flour used to bake bread.
Fun at the mill
At the mill there was a special rope, and the youngsters
would take turns pulling on it. The rope would send them swinging outward Tarzan-style,
and they would then "come up on the third floor," Dora said, enjoying her memory
of the fun they had.
The quiet life
What was life like in their shtetl? During intervals in the last quarter of the 19th century
and the early years of the 20th century when there happened to be no ongoing war,
pogrom, "it was
quiet," Carl said. He drew a small circle to represent Gorodok and two
intersecting lines for its main streets.
Left: Digital photo I took of "Gorodok"
video, which was excerpted from film, "Image before my eyes." For more
digital photos and details about both -- available through Brandeis
University's National Center for Jewish
Film -- see our expanded
After reviewing these notes and
reading about the pogroms, I wondered about "quiet;" as compared to what?
Gorodok's residents numbered "about 200
Jewish families and 50 non-Jewish peasant families, and there was one
policeman and a government office." In the central area of the village was a single big house occupied
by "a wealthy Jewish family," and on the northern periphery, two synagogues:
one Hasidic, and the other, Orthodox.
The town paid taxes, and when a problem
arose, the troublemakers, Carl said, "would be called to the office."
"Pogroms" -- which came to mean what thugs and outlaws perpetrated on Jews'
property, and on them in the way of bodily harm -- were commonplace. Gorodok's ratio of Jews to non-Jews may
have made self defense
possible, but only sometimes.
Below: Hirschel and Rivka Rubenstein,
with their youngest daughter, Dora
Morris' father, Hirschel
Rubenstein, had been killed by thugs, and I was unable
to uncover any details. He was a tanner and traveled to Minsk in the course
of business. I got the impression from my father that Hirschel met his end either
en route to, or on the way home from, Minsk.
Trouble on Tuesdays;
The Jewish area lay chiefly in this region
and to the northwest, but as Dora said, it was essentially a two street
town. "Sometimes the Christians [peasants] would get drunk, such as on
Tuesday which was market day, and also on Christmas, New Year's and Easter,"
she said. "They didn't like the Jews, and they would make trouble."
In 1998, Shirley Karben, her daughter,
elaborated: "According to my mother, this sort of thing happened almost every Friday night,
and also on market days and holidays." But it was "only when they got drunk, and
it was always local with the pogroms; they were never official." (The
word "pogrom" came to be associated with these random anti-Semitic outbreaks
Carl and Dora's first child, Shirley (1919 - 2000), was
great help in this endeavor. During the last three years of her life,
however, Shirley would complain that those with
whom I should have spoken had died, and often she would add, "15 or more years ago."
Dora's nephew (my father, Larry Rogers) always maintained, "They never talked
about life there." After reading about the horrible slaughter of Jews year after year
in incident after incident, I asked him again. Why is the Holocaust constantly with us and
not the pogroms, as well? He had no answer beyond acknowledging that this is so.
Politics Russian style
Morris Uberstein was born in 1883, two years after the
assassination of Czar Alexander II by "a revolutionist's bomb." The
story goes that he was not killed by the blast but afterwards, when he left
the carriage to help a wounded soldier.
II had been a comparatively mild Czar, but the climate was roiling with
His successor, Alexander III, immediately increased the oppression of
minorities, oppression that was "particularly severe in regards to Jews,"
according to Funk and Wagnall's Universal Standard Encyclopedia (1931-1957).
Jews "were forced to live in certain areas, not permitted to enter specific
professions, and killed in great numbers in pogroms fomented by the
The term "Cossack" comes from the Turkish word
for adventurer but came to mean "predatory horseman." It originally referred to
"a people of the Soviet Union principally of Russian and Ukrainian stocks." In
the latter part of the 19th and the early part of the 20th century, the czarist government
used Cossack troops "to perpetrate pogroms against the Jews."
Poverty and emigration
Belarus, whose capital city is Minsk, had
been "laid waste" by the Napoleonic invasion. Thereafter it continued
suffering "great poverty," which spurred mass emigration to the United
States in the 19th century, "notably among the Jews."
Morris was 11 years old when Nicholas II ascended to the throne in 1894.
Again, the history books note, there was "an increase of autocracy,
oppression and police control."
Morris had emigrated just in time to sidestep the
Russo-Japanese War. In its takeover of Port Arthur, Japan overwhelmed Russia's forces;
domestic strife added to the "complete defeat" of Russia, and the revolution
began to build. There were demands for reform, demonstrations, strikes and
movement was crushed in 1906, regrouped, and was again repressed.
A revolution "was being prepared by the
radical parties" when the outbreak of World War I occasioned its "temporary
Czar Nicholas II and his family had only four
more years to live at the time of this elaborate festival to celebrate the
Romanov dynasty's 300 years in power.
In 1913, Dora
was 15 years old, and Carl was 18 years old. The end of the Romanov
dynasty was only four years away. Carl had obtained an apprenticeship to a furrier,
in Volozhin, which is 16.2 miles west-southwest of Gorodok.
World War One
would break out a year later.
A 30-mile walk
almost certainly was working in Volozhin and not in Gorodok at the time his
uncle was drafted. In 1914, his uncle, who lived in Radoshkovici, was taken into the army. His aunt then had no choice but to go to Carl and ask that he take over his uncle's shop.
She told Carl the pay would be $10 a
week. "So," Carl said, "I took a 30-mile walk to Radoshkovici."
Volozhin is 28.7 miles west of Radoshkovici.