[Continued from previous post: “….My mother was born on or about July 16, 1904 in or near what was then Vilna, Russia, to Vladimir Vainschtain and Berta Isaakovna Vainschtain (nee Shulman). I say this as if it were all fact, but much of it is inference. As you will see.”]
PLACE OF BIRTH. I say my mother was born in (or near) Vilna because that’s what she said, on more than one occasion. And because my father never contradicted her. The business about being born in Baku set forth on her “Declaration of Alien About to Depart for the United States” [see previous post] must have been a lie of convenience. It was a dodgy time in which to live. She was traveling with my father and his brother out of a country recently occupied by the Red Army, and the Communist Party had come to power. Baku was their place of residence at the time they left and therefore their point of embarkation for Constantinople. They had permits for travel from Baku to Constantinople, but no documentation of travel to Baku from points of birth and/or earlier residence, which would have been essential had they identified a birthplace and/or prior residence other than Baku. Notably, my mother was not alone in her “misstatement.” Both my father and uncle also declared on all their emigration papers that they were born in Baku — although in fact they had been born in Ekaterinoslav (now Dnepropetrovsk), in the Ukraine.
I therefore believe Vilna. Whenever she would mention it, in response to my questions, she also always added that Vilna was “now” part of Poland — a transfer of sovereignty which had occurred in 1920, and which she would not have been particularly aware of had she been born elsewhere. I may have first heard this from her prior to 1939 or 1940, while Vilna actually was still part of Poland. But if so, I must have been quite young, because I was only eight or nine when the Soviets took Vilna back from Poland. But after she came to America in 1922, my mother lost interest in events across the ocean. She was here, Vilna was there, and whatever was currently going on there didn’t matter any more. Although Vilna was captured and occupied by the Germans during World War II, and then after the war became Vilnius, part of the Soviet Republic of Lithuania, her birthplace remained “Vilna, now part of Poland” for the rest of her life.
When I was a little girl myself and curious about my mother’s own childhood in Vilna, she told me her father had a “yeast refinery.” I think she meant a processing or manufacturing facility for yeast. Her English, though reasonably fluent, was not entirely precise. I also recall her mentioning her father had money and that she and her parents lived on an estate which had at one time belonged to a landowner with serfs. (If true, this ownership of serfs would have been prior to the 1860’s, when serfdom was abolished.) She seemed proud of this heritage, although she never made clear whether her father owned or leased the estate, and the subsequent history of the Vainschtains leaves this point murky. She added that the descendants of the serfs, most of whom had stayed on the land after being freed, worked in the “refinery.”
My mother was ten when she left Vilna, so I don’t know how trustworthy is her story. But there must have been something to it. She once recalled she had had a nurse. A nanny or governess? That does suggest money. I am sure, though, that her point in telling me about the estate and the descendants of serfs was to make clear that she did not come from a ghetto. (Having money would also have helped in this respect.)
There was indeed a ghetto in the town of Vilna. (You can see old photos of it on the Web.) However, my mother explained quite clearly on several occasions — which means it was important to her — that about ten percent of Russian Jews were permitted to live among the general population. These were the doctors, lawyers, and others who contributed something of value to the Russian economy. Evidently, she wanted me to know that her father, my grandfather, was one of the valued ten percent. Once I asked how those descendants of serfs felt about working for a Jew. She assured me that her father was very good to them. “They earned a decent living, why should they complain?”
Setting aside hypothetical problems of labor relations, about which she could not have known much one way or the other, but assuming a kernel of truth in the “estate” and the “refinery” (whether or not my grandfather owned the former), I therefore infer that my mother’s parents lived – and lived well — in the neighborhood of Vilna, but not in the town itself.
MY MATERNAL GRANDPARENTS’ NAMES. At no time did my mother explicitly tell me her father’s name. She never mentioned her mother’s name at all. Could it be because the names were so “Jewish?” Despite the protections of money and the yeast refinery and the nurse, she had to have learned early on that “Jewish” was not a good thing to be. Even while she was still in or near Vilna, there had been that ghetto in town, about which she surely must have heard. She must also have overheard whispered parental discussions about the pogroms that swept through Russia in 1905 and 1906, when she was a baby. Her mother’s brother – whom she may not have remembered but would have heard of – had even left for good in 1908, to make a more secure life in America. However, she did tell me, several times, there were separate schools for Jewish girls and for Russian girls, and only a few places for Jewish girls in those schools for Russian girls, hotly sought after and hard to obtain.
“How did anyone know you were Jewish if you didn’t tell?” I asked when still a little girl myself, innocent of the implications of names.
“It was on your papers,” she said.
Papers? What papers? “Everyone had to have papers,” she said.
[An aside: In her late forties, answering a question about her maiden name on a department store employment application in New York City, she translated “Weinstein” — which is what “Vainschtain” had become on Ellis Island — into what she thought was the Russian equivalent: she put down “Vinogradova” in the appropriate blank. She was actually proud of this deception, and told me about it when I came home from college during Thanksgiving. For the record, she was wrong; “vino” may have meant “wine,” but in Russian “grad” means “city.” However, she would have shrugged if I’d pointed this out to her. She had managed not to put down a “Jewish” maiden name — a name she thought might have prevented her from getting the job.]
Or perhaps the actual names of my grandparents just never came up. My mother never reminisced, without being asked, about an early life in which she had experienced much unhappiness. But if I had asked, she would have answered. Why didn’t I? I never asked about my grandparents on my father’s side either. They were over there, aging and dying behind an Iron Curtain, and by the time I started to think about them – too late, too late – they were dead, and even my father, the more voluble of the two, had ceased to speak about his youth and lost parents.
What my mother did tell me (when asked) was her patronymic. I wanted a middle name. Everyone else in school had one; why not me? Well, actually I did, she said. They just hadn’t put it on my birth certificate. That’s when she explained that in Russia all middle names were formed from the father’s first name. If you were a boy, you added “-vitch” to it, if a girl, “-ovna.” My father’s name was Michael – Mikhail in Russian. So my middle name was Mikhailovna. Accent on the “k-h-a-i-l.” Pronounced to rhyme with “heil.” (As in “Heil Hitler.”) I was Nina Mikhailovna.
I didn’t care for it, not one bit. And what was her middle name? Maybe I would like that one better and could borrow it. “Vladimirovna,” she told me. Accent on the “d-i-m.” Pronounced “deem.” That was even harder to pronounce. And just as hard to spell. So she made me a list of girl’s names starting with “M” – Miranda, Marianne, Mabel, Melinda, and so forth. I chose Melissa, although I abandoned it several months later because it didn’t seem right to pick your own middle name in the kitchen.
But from then on I knew my grandfather’s first name. Vladimir. And of course his last name was the same as that maiden name set forth on all her papers of transit — Vainschtain, Vainschtain, Vainschtain — and also on the Fabre steamship line manifest of passengers traveling to America in November 1922. (The name she would later try to hide.) What I don’t know – and never will – is his patronymic, although she must have known it and could have told me, if I asked. Nor do I know when he was born, or where, or to whom, or how he came into his yeast “refinery.” He is simply Vladimir Vainschtain, who lived outside the ghetto on an estate and had money.
About my mother’s mother – my grandmother — I heard a little more while I was growing up, but not much. She was my grandfather’s second wife. I always used to assume he was a widower when he married her, although my mother never specifically said so. Now that I think about it, I was probably right. I don’t know how difficult it was to divorce in Czarist Russia, but I suspect it wasn’t easy. Moreover, there was no animosity between the children of my grandfather’s first marriage and my grandmother, which suggests that their own mother had passed on before their father married again.
My mother once told me that this was also a second marriage for my grandmother. She only mentioned it once, when I was asking if her mother was Jewish, too. Not always, said my mother. A somewhat unusual answer. It seems Berta Isaakovna had converted to Russian Orthodoxy in order to marry her first husband, who was gentile. So for a while she wasn’t Jewish any more. But then she became Jewish again in order to marry Vladimir Vainschtain!
Nothing more was ever said about this gentile first husband who demanded a conversion from his bride near the end of the last decade of the nineteenth century. Did he die? Did they divorce? Was the marriage annulled because of some defect in the conversion? (Is that last supposition my own romantic speculation about the unknown?) Since my mother never mentioned half-brothers or half-sisters through her mother, any such marriage must have been without issue, and probably relatively short. My grandmother was still young enough at the time she became Mrs. Vainschtain to bear two children, five years apart. [An aside: My father left in his desk when he died in 1986 a list of birthdays and dates of death known to him; he estimated that Berta Isaakovna, my mother’s mother, was about sixty-six when she died in 1942. That would put her date of birth in 1876. If this is correct, she was twenty-eight when my mother was born.]
Two conversions within, say, six or seven years? Or, more likely, a conversion to Russian Orthodoxy, later deemed null and void? (Once a Jew, always a Jew?) Or could my mother have made the whole thing up, in order to claim some wisp of connection with non-Jewishness? Romantic though her dreams may have been, I find it hard to believe she would actually lie to me. Omit or elide past unpleasantnesses? Yes, that she would do. But spin out fantasy as actual fact to a listening little daughter? No, that was not my mother.
If her story was true, then I had a grandmother who was both assimilated and pragmatic. Yet my mother never mentioned the name of the resilient heroine of this gossamer tale of two marriages. I discovered my grandmother’s first name and patronymic – Berta Isaakovna — in translations made for me in the mid-1990’s of letters to my father from his family written many years previously, in which they mention several visits my mother’s mother paid to them. And I have extrapolated her maiden name from her brother’s signed statement that he would take responsibility for his niece, my mother, upon her entry into the United States; he signed himself David Shulman.
At any rate, and irrespective of their putative prior marital histories, Vladimir Vainschtain and Berta Isaakovna Shulman (whatever her first married name may have been) were married early in the twentieth century. And on or about July 16, 1904, somewhere in or near Vilna, they became parents of a baby girl.
They named her Meera. [To be continued….]