Stories of Not Asking and Not Telling

 (click on thumbnails to read chapters 1-6)

“Stories of Not Asking and Not Telling” is an ongoing journey into the recovery of my ancestors’ lives, disappearances, ideologies, and migrations through excavated archival documents, letters, photographs and postcards. It is an attempt to explore the complications of broken inheritances, the reciprocity between political repression and familial amnesia, and the experiences reflected in the wider history.

I was born in Moscow during the 1980 Olympic Games. The authorities pushed the Muskovites out, the idea was to empty the capital. I was due so my parents stayed.

I did not speak till I was three years old. Was it the ‘silenced city’ I came into existence that delayed my language mechanism to kick off? Or was it my family environment? Possibly both?

Growing up I recall not understanding what it was to be Jewish, why my nose was the way it was, why my surname [Gefter] was different from many others, why some kids called me derogatory names. Despite occasionally celebrating Jewish holidays at the flat of my ‘third grandmother’, my environment did not quite connect with the remnants of the ancestral language, culture and history. Neither did it connect to much else. There were no family stories, no documents, no photographs of the world before the Russian Revolution, and barely anything about the 1920s-1930s. My perception of history was something that belonged to the textbooks, that ended in the past. Besides, unlike anyone else in my family circle, I did lots of sport, what added to the confusion of who I was and of the world around. 

I went to Israel for the first time in January 2000. On the top of the Mount Carmel my father’s friend asked what were my plans. I surprised myself by saying I wanted to go to Europe. “But nobody waits for us in Europe?!” – his words hung in the air. On my return to Moscow, I became driven like never before – I had to find the way to get to Europe. 

Years passed before I felt the urge to look into the past of my family. It is ironic that the further we get from the past, the more accessible it is. Documents are being digitised every day, databases become searchable, search engines become more sophisticated. This is how I uncovered the traces of Aizenbergs, Blumenfelds, Gefters, Goreliks, Guttzeits, Drabkins, Erenbergs, Katznelsons, Mermelsteins, Tsirlins of my family. By the 19th century their European migrations eastwards were stopped by the Pale of Settlement, to which the Jewish population of the Russian Empire was residentially restricted. They lived in cities and towns in what is present-day Belarus, Ukraine and annexed Crimea. In the early 1900s some followed the American or the Eretz Israel dreams, and some (my direct branches) witnessed the Russian Revolution. The following decades became most atrocious as my family members perished in the Stalin purges, in the Holocaust, at the WWII front and from starvation during the Leningrad siege. In later years, under various circumstances, some family members moved to the US and Israel. Yet, no one returned to Europe, where our ancestors lived for centuries. Is Europe my path? I have pursued it for the past 20 years, most of which from another edge of Europe, from yet another capital of a former empire, from London, the city that shaped me.

Genealogical research is more than filling blanks on the family tree. It is the search for others, for their experiences that made us ‘us’, for the psychic forces that move through generations that have an immediate effect on our lives. It is the study of the prehistory of self. The discovery of the deep self that existed before we were born. 

What is Jewishness and what is it to be Jewish? It is a mixed phenomenon, Jews escape categories. Jewishness has different expressions – religious, cultural, historical, political – but is not reducible to any of those. The person who grows up without a religion is not deficient in Jewishness. What is both beautiful and difficult about being Jewish is that it is a dynamic thing. 

For me it is a certain way of being in the world. To inherit Jewishness means to find my way into and through it for myself. I set off on a journey not knowing where I was going. It was not the destination that defined it, rather, my tolerance for incomprehension, my willingness not to know entirely why, my intuition to follow my own curiosity.

It is an ongoing process. Every now and then I discover a name, an archival record, a trace, an online article, a physical object, a connection. I invite you to join me on this journey as we transition into the next decade of the 21th century.

London, January 2020

I would like to thank all those who contributed to this research – archivists, historians and many wonderful people in Berlin, Bobruisk, Detroit, Jerusalem, Kerch, Kherson, Kyiv, London, Lviv, Mariupol, Minsk, Moscow, New York, Odessa, Riga, Rovno, Saint-Petersburg, Simferopol, Tel Aviv, Tomsk, Vienna, Vilnius, Vitebsk, Zhitomir. The list of people and places is growing as I am writing these lines. A special thanks goes to Mikhail Rozhansky for the invitation to participate in the 2018 Baikal School of Social Research Working Languages of Memory (my first public discussion of the project in Russian), and François Guesnet  for the invitation to talk about my research at the 2019 Jewish Roots Workshop in London (the first time I presented the project in English in the framework outlined here).