Monday, December 19, 2011

What They Saved: Pieces of a Jewish Past by Nancy K. Miller 2011

"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

Nancy K. Miller (born 1941), scholar and Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, has written a very useful memoir for those of us who are involved in genealogical research. This memoir is about the process of the search itself as well as the results.

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 Did anything happen that caused the brothers to be distant in ways that superseded geographical distance?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
Harry Kipnis
    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
Willie Miller
    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
David Linetsky
Max Meyerson
Fima Ephraim Rabinovitch
Yitzhaq Feller
Samuel Traub
Olga Sivac

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
Bratslav, Ukraine
Peschanka, Ukraine
Podolsk, Ukraine
Pechora (Dead Loop), Ukraine
Tulchin, Ukraine
Ein Hemed, Jerusalem, Israel

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Mirador: Dreamed Memories of Irene Nemirovsky by Her Daughter by Elisabeth Gille, published in French in 1992; published in English in 2011 (a novel)

"Although, of course, 'The Mirador' carries with it all the emotional weight of a daughter’s grieving monument to her mother, it also makes no effort to accuse or to apologize for Némirovsky’s fraught relationship with her Jewishness, a subject of which Gille is not only aware but one that she bravely confronts head-on." from a review by James K. McAuley in the Harvard Crimson, 11/15/2011
The Mirador, written by the younger of the writer Irene Nemerovsky’s two daughters, is an intriguing and largely successful literary experiment. Elisabeth Gille, who was five when her mother was deported, has written a fictional memoir. She has imagined her mother’s voice and has her mother tell her story, starting from her mother’s childhood in Russia up until she is seized by the Nazis from where she is living in a small town in France.

This fictional memoir is divided into two parts: In Part I the imagined voice of Nemerovsky narrates her privileged life growing up in Russia. Gille, who was born in France in 1937, conducted extensive research. She is wonderful at bringing to life the heady days of pre-Revolutionary Russia enjoyed by the elite which included her mother’s family. She paints pictures of engrossing cultural and political scenes, detailing how the Nemerovskys spent their time entertaining and being entertained. But times became difficult for Russian Jews; anti-Semitism lurked right below the surface and when there was any kind of economic pressure and political unrest, the lives of all Jews were restricted and they were often the victims of violence. Anticipating the difficulties for his family during the upheavals created both by World War I and the Russian Revolution, Nemerovsky’s very wealthy banker father managed to move his assets to Stockholm and smuggle his wife and daughter to France with their jewels sewed into the linings of their clothes.

Part II, which takes place in France where the family arrived in 1919 when Nemerovsky was 16, starts with Nemerovsky’s education, and moves on to her gradual triumphs as a writer, her marriage to Michel Epstein- a fellow émigré from Russia who had the means to maintain the very comfortable lifestyle Nemerovsky was accustomed to - and the birth of their two daughters. In the 1930’s as Hitler’s threats increased, Nemerovsky saw no reason to leave France. She considered herself French, never having identified as a Jew. And felt well-placed amongst the intellectual elite.She felt no connection to the poor foreign Jews flooding into France from Easter Europe.  But gradually she was forced to acknowledge the threat of Hitler’s reign in neighboring Germany. Gille gives an interesting and useful historical overview of encroaching Nazism in France, and she shows how Nemerovsky finally saw herself being hemmed in more and more by the government’s pronouncements against Jews. In July of 1942, in the midst of writing the novel Suite Francaise (which was finally published posthumously in its unfinished state in French in 2004 and  in English in 2006), the Nazis seized Nemerovsky and she died in Auschwitz at the age of 39.

Gille’s experiment of creating her mother’s voice and re-creating her life gave Gille the opportunity to get to know the mother she never really knew. She gleaned information from all of her mother’s writing, conducted interviews, and consulted historical sources in order to re-create her mother and her family as well as her life in Russia in the first two decades of the twentieth century and in France in the next two decades. 

Gille creates a layered structure that works to intensify the tragic outcome. Each chapter starts with a page that contains a date followed by a paragraph in italics. These preliminary paragraphs are about the author – Elisabeth Gille. The first is about her birth, and each subsequent paragraph at the beginning of each chapter details a moment in her life that take the reader right up to 1991. These paragraphs act both as a parallel condensed memoir and as commentary on the larger story of her relationship to her mother and her mother’s premature death.

Although it reads like a memoir, we must think of this as a novel. We cannot assume that every scene, every characterization, is exactly as Irene Nemerovsky herself would have rendered it. It’s impossible for a reader to sort out fact from fiction. But it seems that Gille was aiming for accuracy – she was trying to explain her mother to herself and to a larger audience. In forcefully recreating her mother's short life, she ably depicts a personal and public tragedy.

This English translation published by the New York Review of Book also includes an Afterword by Rene de Ceccatty in which he discusses, amongst other topics, the challenges Gille took on in writing in her mother's voice. It also includes an interview de Ceccatty conducted with Gille.

To learn more about Irene Nemerovsky, her writing and her family, as well as to see photos, click here.

Irene Nemerovsky’s father’s family
Boris Nemerovsky – married Eudoxia Korsounsky
    Leon Borosovich Nemerovsky – married to Fannie
        Irene Nemerovsky - daughter of Leon and Fannie; married Michel Epstein; author
            Denise Nemerovsky-Dauple – daughter of Irene and Michel
            Elisabeth Epstein Gille – daughter of Irene and Michel

Irene Nemerovsky’s mother’s family
    Jonas Margoulis – married Bella Chtchedrovitch
        Assia Margoulis – daughter of Jonas and Bella
        Fannie - daughter of Jonas and Bella; married Leon Borosovich
            Irene Borosovich – daughter of Leon; marries Michel Epstein (see above); author

Irene Nemerovsky’s husband’s family
Efim Epstein
    Samuel Epstein – son of Efim;  married to Alexandria Ginzbourg
        Natasha Epstein– daughter of Samuel and Alexandria
    Paul Epstein – son of Efim
    Sophie (Mavlik) Epstein – daughter of Efim
        Victor ? – son of Sophie
    Michel Epstein – married to Irene Nemerovsky (author)
Rhaissa Epstein – sister of Effim Epstein; married Alfred Adler

Boris Kamenka
    Daria Kamenka – daughter of Boris
    Hippolyte – son of Boris
Mila Gordon
Helene Gordon – sister of Mila; married to Pierre Lazareff   
Harry Baur
Daniel Halevy
Emmanuel Berl
Tristan Bernard   
Kiev, Ukraine
    Podol neighborhood of Kiev
Odessa, Russia   
    Moldavanka ghetto, Kiev
Moscow, Russia
St. Petersburg (Petrograd), Russia
Paris, France
Issy-L’Eveque, France
Auschwitz, Poland