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This web page concerns the life of one family in the shtetl of Kholmich, in what is now Belarus, during the years 1913-1935. It is based on 102 letters in Russian and Yiddish that my grandmother, Bessie (Rapoport) Schechter, then living in New York City, received from her father and her many siblings who had remained old country. The letters are set against the background of revolution, war, and famine. While many of the details concern particular events pertaining one family’s life, the letters also tells a larger story typical of most Russian Jews: life within the shtetl, anti-semitism, pogroms (see letter 66) , hardships without end, under one taskmaster or another. The letters also illuminate the emotional tensions between those who emigrated and those who remained behind, a complicated dynamic ignored in much immigrant literature.
Kholmich, which is located near the Dniepr River, is about 45 km ssw of Gomel and 204 miles sw of Minsk. In 1897, it had 2315 residents, of whom 1380 were Jews. Its only significant Jewish institution was a school for girls. There is no reference in the letters to a synagogue there. Most probably Jews worshipped in the larger town Rechitsa, where the town’s records were (and are still) kept. Kholmich was, indeed, a very small town, referred to by one of grandmother’s sisters, without nostalgia, as “the back of the beyond."
My grandmother arrived in America on August 2, 1913 on the SS Campania. The first letter in the book was written to her just before she left for the United States. The other letters started arriving after she had settled in New York. The web page contains the contents of a book my family just published called Bessie's Letters. Only the book's appendix containing immigration and personal documents has been omitted.
Note: New information has become available as the result of a miraculous family reunion in November 2004. However, we decided not to revise the entire web site. Rather, we thought it would be valuable for readers to see how a family research project progresses, including the fits and starts, the wise surmises, the lucky hunches, and the wrong turns. The link, “Happy Ending, New Beginning,” will lead readers to the new material.
The Untranslated Letters
What they look like
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