From Persecution, to Palestine, to Paradise

Map of Western Russia. 1926. Public domain photo.

One day, a strange woman showed up at the door, saying that Sarah was alive, but she and her family were starving in Kiev.

My Great grandfather lost it all when the Communists took over. Joseph was born around 1899 in a village outside the city of Kiev in Russia. He had four brothers and sisters. His parents were upper-middle class, owning a farm of some 6,000 acres leased to them by a Polish count. He received a high school education and was taught much in the way of the Torah. He spoke Russian, Yiddish, English and old Ashkenazi Hebrew. His parents promised him an education at Oxford or Cambridge because Russian Jews could not go to College in Russia. However, before he got the chance, the Russian Revolution took away any chances he had of going to college. Due to the communist takeover, it was too dangerous for Joseph’s family to stay on their rich farm. Joseph’s father gave up everything and gifted the farm and everything on it to the village, but made the villagers promise they would deliver food to them in the city Uman every month.

Soon after, things got much worse. Due to the communist takeover, people in the cities were starving. Joseph’s family, however, was lucky. The villagers faithfully delivered food to them every month. However, Joseph’s older sister Sarah was not so lucky. One day, a strange woman showed up at the door, saying that Sarah was alive, but she and her family were starving in Kiev. Even though he knew that any person from the city caught outside the city with food was deemed a ‘speculator,’ or a follower of the old regime, and shot, Joseph decided to try to bring food to his sister.

He packed three large sacks full of food, and using an old connection of his, was able to get a permit labeling him a refugee and allowing him to ride a train to Kiev. He then snuck the sacks of food onto the train with the help of a minor police official, who was more than happy to help after being ‘gifted’ a bottle of vodka. Once on board, Joseph hid the sacks under some boards, and waited for the rest of the passengers. The bags went unnoticed until the last station before Kiev at Fastov, where the sacks were found by a high-ranking general, or Commissar.

“Whose bags are these?” growled the Commissar. Joseph stepped forward, terrified. “Ha! So we have a speculator,” The Commissar shouted. He then ordered Joseph and the sacks to be taken to the revcom house and locked in his room. My grandfather was petrified. He was sure he had been taken to the Commissar’s office to be shot. However, while looking around the room, he noticed a piece of paper saying ‘Sidor Afanasievitch Efrimchook of the District of Uman.’ “Why, this is Efimchook, our stable boy!” Joseph cried. Before the revolution, Joseph’s older sister Sarah had taught Efimchook how to read and write, and helped him get a well-respected job as a clerk at a beet plantation.

Then the Commissar walked in and saw Joseph holding the paper. “I suppose that by now you know who I am,” he said. “Are you really a Speculator?” he asked. Joseph then explained his mission. Upon hearing that Joseph was bringing the food to Sarah, the Commissar said, “I am going to bring the sacks to your sister… if not for your sister, I would still be an ignorant peasant boy. She taught me to read and write. Thanks to her, I am now a commissar, trusted by the big fellows in Kiev.”

They then started to Kiev. Due to Efimchook being a Commissar, they reached Sarah with ease. There, they found her whole family starving, cold, and too weak to move. The Commissar insisted on also providing wood and straw for the family to stay warm. But before he left, he said, “What I have done was just an old debt I owed, all this is contrary to everything I was told by my leaders. But I firmly believe that when the wars are over, and the power of the communists is firmly established, the dignity of man will be restored. The promised communist paradise will give bliss and contentment to all the people of Russia. Farewell.” And with that, the Commissar was gone from Joseph’s life forever.

Finally, a few years after this ordeal, around 1923, Joseph managed to get out of Russia and travel to Palestine, where he worked on a kibbutz and wrote for a popular Jewish newspaper called The Forward. However, he was not cut out for the manual labour required on the kibbutzim, and after about five years in Palestine,  Joseph moved to America with little more than his tallit, tefillin, and his dream of becoming a successful writer. Our family does not know how he got here, but it can be reasonably assumed however that he got here by steerage.

Once Joseph got to America, he moved around for a while before settling in Chicago, getting a job teaching children Hebrew for their Bar-mitzvahs. He also continued to write for  The Forward. That is where he met great-grandma Esther. I am told that when asked how he met and fell in love with Esther, Joseph would tell the story of a sweetheart he had in Russia before the war, and how she had a striking resemblance to Esther.

By the time he died, Joseph had escaped persecution and poverty in the old country, and had three beautiful daughters. But in the end, he felt he did not quite accomplish his lifelong dream of becoming a well-known writer.

This story was written by the immigrant’s great-granddaughter, a student in Palo Alto. 


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