..to the second & final edition
This final edition of Bessie's Letters contains more than twice the number of letters in the first. With the help of my father, Jerry Schechter, who read this manuscript several times and offered many thoughtful suggestions and criticisms, the order of the letters has also been significantly reshuffled. There are now only one or two significant letters whose placement remains uncertain. Though we are less confident about the precise dating of the letters-sometimes our mathematical calculation of the time elapsed between known "landmarks" just didn't work out-we think we know the general range of years. The Introductory Notes have also been rewritten and expanded.
The last of the letters translated were wholly in Yiddish, and it was difficult to find a translator equal to the challenge posed by handwriting of the various authors. We were fortunate to have finally found two very talented translators who were. All along I had the suspicion that somewhere in this last batch of untranslated letters there would be something extraordinary, perhaps a more vivid account of the family's travails. This suspicion drove me to complete the task which history had dropped into my hands. Moreover, my suspicion was confirmed.
In newly-translated Letter #66, the unidentified author (probably one of Bessie's sisters) recounts the full story of the "robbery" alluded to in the first edition. It ends up being a chilling account of a pogrom. Perhaps the writer felt that such details could be more safely "encrypted" in Yiddish. We also learn in the new letters that another of Bessie's siblings, Chaim, the stalwart mainstay of our Russian relatives, had unsuccessfully sought to come to America. His efforts to emigrate to Palestine also failed. Apparently, Bessie's arrival, on the SS Campania, on August 2, 1913, came just in the nick of time for all of us. Just three-hundred and sixty-three days later, Germany declared war war on Russia, and World War I began. The global conflict effectively closed German ports to Russian emigres, and made the Atlantic crossing more perilous from any point of embarkation. The ill-fated Lusitania was the most famous, but not the only passenger liner to be sunk by German U-boats. Not surprisingly, the number of Russian-Jewish immigrants to the the United States plunged from a quarter-million in both 1913 and 1914 to a tenth that in 1915. A year after the war, the figure had dropped to about 1400, never to rise again. Nativist immigration laws effectively locked the "Golden Door."
Look through this keyhole. Here is part of the story of one branch of your family. There is nothing in these letters to suggest that this story is a-typical, where Russian Jews are concerned. Herein you will find preserved the tenacious efforts of one family to survive the tumultuous upheavals of war, revolution, famine, and anti-Semitic attacks. Add to these seismic events the more mundane shocks of life: isolation, boredom, loneliness, marriage, divorce, unemployment, childbirth. In the main, they were there for each other, these many brothers and sisters, though the relationship between the emigrant and those left behind ends up being far more complex than I had imagined.
The completion of this project ends many restless nights for both my father and myself. To live with these letters as intensively as we have has meant much tossing and turning over every detail, large or small. Where does this letter go? What did Hanna mean when she said...? Who wrote this letter and what lies unsaid between the lines? Frame by frame, a family documentary was being created in our minds. How sad to realize that within five or so years after the last letters, with the Nazi invasion of western Russia, most of the authors of these letters and their children must have perished. Twenty million Russians died in World War II and our relatives were literally on the front line. For those who survived the invasion, there awaited the Nazi death camps, the largest complex of which were located in eastern Poland, just across the border of Byelorussia. The statistics are stark: In June 1941, the Germans captured the entire area of the former "Pale of Settlement" with its population of 2.7 million Jews. By February 1943, only 250,000 Jews were left. Of these, during the next two years, 100,000 were killed in the concentration camps
The moral of the story, if there is one? It may be nothing more than this: Life can be hard. Help each other. Family ties are important.
As I read and re-read the letters, I can't help but be struck by the needs of the "prisoners" of Kholmich for something new and fresh in their lives. What did they think their relatives found in the ghettoes of Harlem or the shops they worked in?
All written material © Bill Schechter, 2016
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