"Although Nancy Miller calls this book a memoir, it is in many ways more a family detective story, tracking a set of clues back into the past and across the globe. Or, perhaps better, it exemplifies how writing a memoir can move an author onto the openly shifting grounds of memory. . . ." from a review by Joanne Jacobson in The Forward 9/20/2011
Her mother’s large family – the Millers – were always a part of her life. Her father, Louis Kipnis, seemed not to have any close family. Because she was so disconnected from her Kipnis roots, and also because she was a committed feminist, she had elected, when she was younger, to relinquish a claim to the Kipnis name and adopted her mother’s Miller name as her last name. However, once both of Professor Miller’s parents died, she inherited the family archives – the letters, photos, and documents that had been stored in her parents’ dresser drawers. What she found concerning the Kipnis side of her family intrigued her: letters in Yiddish she needed to have translated, photos of presumed family members she could not identify, and documents that provided some answers but raised further questions.
She knew her father had had an older brother who had moved from New York to Arizona because his son had very bad asthma. She also knew she had never met her uncle and didn’t remember her father ever visiting him. Did anything happen that caused the brothers to be distant in ways that superseded geographical distance? Who were all these other relatives she had never met and why had she never even heard of them?
In trying to answer these questions she takes her readers on the same zigzag trail she ended up going on herself. She went straight ahead, became sidetracked, had to double back, got stalled, put the puzzle pieces aside, then started again after taking a fresh look. She met family members she never knew existed, consulted experts, hired researchers, and traveled to destinations all over the globe – to Tucson, Arizona, towns in the Ukraine, and to Israel - to follow clues.
During the course of the memoir she learned many important lessons which she passes on to her readers. For example, she learned that just because she was interested in uncovering her Kipnis roots, she couldn’t expect that others would be as interested or as enthusiastic or even cooperative. She learned that she often was working on erroneous assumptions. This involved a certain kind of tunnel vision that often impeded progress. And finally she learned that she had to come to terms with the fact that she couldn’t uncover every bit of information she was hoping to find, or that she expected to find. She had to concede that the wholeness of the past is finally irretrievable. Some questions would never be answered.
And she raises the important question about why she engaged in this quest at all. She devoted inordinate numbers of hours to the search which stretched over years, and she spent substantial sums of money on travel, on research, and on researchers. Although married, she has no children, neither does her one sibling, so there are no direct descendants to inherit or be enriched by what she uncovered. But she felt the need deep in her psyche – she craved a connection to her ancestors that was precipitated when she opened the dresser drawer. Perhaps, she suggests, it’s the preoccupation of an older person whose future is limited but whose past stretches back generations. She can now link her life to theirs.
To read an interview with Nancy Miller about her memoir, click here.
For more information on the Kishinev progroms, click here.
This memoir includes an extensive family tree, most of it reproduced in list form below.
Author’s paternal grandfather’s side of the family
Moishe Mordecai Kipnis – son of Harry; married Zirel
Raphael Kipnis – son of Moishe and Zirel; married Deborah (Dora) Cohen
Chaim (Harry) Kipnis – son of Raphael and Deborah; married Sore (Sarah) Peak
Raphael Kipnis – son of Chaim and Sore; married Sheindel (Sadie) Scholnick
Samuel Kipnis – son of Raphael and Sheindel; married Rose Epstein
Julian Kipnis – son of Samuel and Rose; married Billie Ruth
Sarah Kipnis – daughter of Julian and Billie Ruth; married Tillman Castleberry
Shannon Castleberry – daughter of Sarah and Tillman; married Joseph Davenport
Kelly Castleberry – son of Sarah and Tillman; married Stephanie Ware
Kellan and Caiden Castleberry – children of Kelly and Stephanie
Louis Kipnis – son of Raphael and Sheindel; married Mollie Miller
Nancy Kipnis (Miller) – daughter of Louis and Mollie; married Sandy Petry (author)
Ronna Kipnis – daughter of Louis and Mollie
Zirl (Beckie) Kipnis – daughter of Chaim and Sore; married Louis Jacknis
Rose Kipnis Jacobson – daughter of Zirl and Louis
William Kipnis – son of Zirl and Louis
Itzock (Isidore) Kipnis – son of Chaim and Sore; married Beatrice Gordon
Frank Kipnis – son of Itzock and Beatrice; married Dorothy Sokol
Israel Kipnis – son of Moishe and Zirel; married Esther
Abraham (Berel) Kipnis – son of Israel and Esther; married Sarah Greenstein; second marriage to Sarah Maidonick
Feige and Sadie Kipnis – daughters of Abraham and Sarah
Author’s paternal grandmother’s side of the family
Judah Scholnick – married Sarah Spack
Shaindel (Sadie) Scholnick – daughter of Judah and Sarah; married Rafael Kipnis (see above)
Sarah Scholnick – daughter of Judah and Sarah
Gert Scholnick –daughter of Sarah; married Joseph Elieson
Sarah Ann Elieson – daughter of Gert and Joseph
Samuel Elieson – son of Gert and Joseph; married Nina
Fredi Scholnick – daughter of Sarah; married Tom Goldbloom
Sam and Nathan Goldbloom – sons of Fredi and Tom
Dvorah Scholnick Weisman – daughter of Juda and Sarah
Etyushele Weisman – daughter of Dvorah
Author’s maternal grandfather’s side of the family
David Miller – son of Willie
Abraham Miller – son of Willie
Fay Miller – daughter of Willie
Mollie Miller – daughter of Willie; married Louis Kipnis
Nancy – daughter of Mollie and Louis (author; see above)
Family of author’s uncle Sam Kipnis’ wife Rose Epstein
Rachel (Ray) Epstein – Rose’s sister; married to Jack Ellison
Brownie Ellison – daughter of Rachel and Jack; married to Joseph Ebner
Michael Ebner – son of Brownie and Joseph
Sarah Ebner – daughter of Brownie and Joseph; married to Bernard Frieden
Miriam Frieden – daughter of Sarah and Bernard
Friends and Acquaintances
David R. Zaslowsky
Fima Ephraim Rabinovitch
DeWitt Clinton High School, NYC
Talmud Torah Anshe Zitomir, NYCZitomir Talmud Torah Darchei Noam, NYC
New York City, NY
Kishinev, formerly capital of Bessarabia, now Moldova
Pechora (Dead Loop), Ukraine
Ein Hemed, Jerusalem, Israel