Marche-Route* from Chergassy
how Flo Elman came to be born in America
Submitted byFlorence Nerenberg Elman
It was 1905 in Imperial Russia, and the warnings were everywhere. There
was upheaval in the Duma, and ominous grumbling among the citizenry.
The war with Japan was going badly, and rumours of impending pogroms
were rife. Since “the crowned peasant”, Alexander III,
had inherited the Russian throne from his assassinated father, Alexander
II, his autocratic, reactionary policies found vulnerable victims in
the Jews of the Pale.
My maternal grandfather Shimon
was born in 1881, the very year that Alexander III’s fanatical
rule of brutality began. Centrally organized riots erupted throughout
the Russian Empire, and in the shtetls, Jews recoiled and hid in terror
as their homes were despoiled, and their families were beaten and killed.
The only response from government was to accuse the Jewish community
of bringing a just punishment on themselves – commissions were
appointed to investigate Jewish exploitation!!
the wake of this outrage, Jews were subject to impossible restrictions,
laws, and taxation. They were forbidden to own land and many were expelled
from their properties without compensation. The only relief from a
merciless police force, was for Jewish communities to pay out exorbitant
bribes in order to avert the harsh consequences of atrocious laws.
Whereas university education had been possible under the former tzar,
Jews were now limited to a 10% quota of students in Pale institutions.
Jewish emigration became a flood in these difficult years as thousands
sought reprieve from pogroms, renewed military demands, and the overwhelming
financial burden of Jewish life in Alexander’s Empire. Zionism,
as a political movement, swelled as a possible promise of
redemption. The ascension of Nicholas II in 1894
only made unbearable conditions degenerate still more.
The final straw
for Shimon’s father Pesach, was the defeat of the Russian Navy
in the Tsushima Straits in 1905, for instead of accepting their defeat,
the military was demanding more Jewish conscripts than before. Revolutionary
terrorism had broken out in all corners of the land in the wake of
the dissolution of the Duma by Nicholas, and the Government responded
with a political court-martial that sentenced over one-thousand people to death;
many of them Jews, many of them innocent.
If he could
do nothing else, Pesach could save his unmarried son. With his married
brother Yehuda’s passport in his pocket, Shimon was surreptitiously
hustled over the border from Cherkassy, Ukraine to Czernowitz, Austria-
When I was sixteen, my grandmother left
me a precious legacy – the letters that were written, at that
unstable period, from my great-grandfather to his son Shimon. My great-grandfather
was a religious man. His words express the indomitable faith and strong
will he retained despite the upheaval of the “world” around
Even with Shimon’s flight, my great-grandfather never foresaw
that this was to be the beginning of a permanent separation. His first
letter was penned emotionally, as the remaining family gathered in Cherkassy
for Rosh Hashonah October 5, 1905, the Fast of Gedaliah:
"My dear son,I’m writing
to you on the Thursday before Rosh Hashonah. At the moment, I have
nothing to write; there is no news whatever – only a wish for
a good year with good blessings. We should all have a “Gmar Chasimah
Tova” and a good blessed year among all of Israel. My
dear son, I’m telling you a thousand times that right now you
must have patience with all your might in order to decide for yourself
that must stay over there in Czernowitz close to the border for a while.
That is, even if it means the whole winter. Also, maybe if Hashem will
so decree, it doesn’t matter even if you stay there for good
as an Austrian, a Bukoviner. It is a thousand times better than becoming
an American or Palestinian. … you’ll be close to home
with one foot on this side and one foot on the other side, and we can
often talk things over … And if you will keep your word about
what you told me when you said good-bye, with hot tears running down
your cheek, “Tata, I will always remain your son, always!” Also,
remember, my son, these true and dear words. I always remember them
and speak of them to all the children I will always remind them of
this. My dear son, enjoy your freedom. Be happy and thank Hashem every
minute and every second. You should know that you now have no responsibilities
whatsoever, only the dear and sacred responsibility and yoke to Hashem
and the dear and friendly responsibility to your dear parents and Derech
Israel. All this is only in your hands and heart. Remember to hold
them dear. You shouldn’t, Hashem forbid, lose them. Do not forget
that you are the only guard, and no one will
watch or keep it for you. Only your father will remind you from time
to time in a letter… Have a Gmar Chasimah
Tova. Your mother and the children send regards. Father,
In a subsequent letter, written in January, 1906, Pesach wrote:
"Thanks to Hashem (His Holy Name) for our small measure (“bissel”)
of good health, for not abandoning us, for His help in enabling us
to meet our expenses during these bitter times of troubles (“tzores”)
all over the world. Nowadays, it is a miracle if a man has his piece
of bread, Hashem be thanked and nothing more should be asked of Him
at this time."
For the most part, personal details about the “tzores” were
never revealed, but at one point in their correspondence, Pesach admits
that things are “almost” bad enough to tempt him to leave
as well. He never did.
As the political situation
became more complicated, Shimon remained with a family in Czernowitz,
enduring both the teasing about his broken German and the snubs because of the
condescension with which Russian Jew were looked down upon by their
At home in Cherkassy, Pesach was now forced into
the decision to send his married daughter and her three children to
Canada to join her husband. Shimon would accompany them on the journey.
Pesach worked furiously to obtain the necessary documents: birth certificates
attested to by the government rabbi and Governor’s passports. His
son-in-law in Canada paid for the boat tickets, which were sent by
the “Paris Committee” to the “Russian Committee” in
St. Petersburg. From there, they were sent to the agent in Cherkassy.
Pesach spent long hours working on the “marche-route” that
the family would take on their way to the ship. He
conjectured that “the connection [would] be made via Libava,
in Russia, by small boat, and in Hamburg or Antwerp (it was to be in
Antwerp, as it turned out) there [would] be a transfer to a large boat,
an English or American one.” Shimon would have to meet the family
by traveling by train, and they would accompany him to his point of
It wasn’t to be that “simple”. It
was March of 1907, and Shimon was still in Czernowitz. Pesach wrote:
whole delay has occurred because the Governor’s passport has
not arrived from Kiev. It was paid for three months ago, but it is
still not here. Today, a letter arrived from the chief agent, and he
tells us that the passport will arrive any day now. We shall leave
as soon as it is received. I shall write you immediately.”
was not the only unpredictable delay. Shimon had met Leah in a refugee
camp with others who had escaped the 1905 Odessa pogrom. He was irrevocably
in love, and now refused to leave without her. On her part, she refused
to marry him unless he promised to take her mother along on the voyage.
Father and son shared the same stubborn streak, and Shimon was adamant.
Leah and Shimon were married on June 13, 1907 in a quiet ceremony,
while Pesach anxiously awaited news from him, not knowing the
marriage had taken place.
afterwards, Pesach yielded, with no other alternative, and two more
tickets were purchased. The “marche-route” had
to be revised. A letter dated June 28, 1907 reads:
shall be leaving on Tuesday, before Shabbos Nachamu … I only
received my permit this Friday – the provincial one… My
present plan is that you and Leah should go to Brod, where you will
rent a dwelling for two weeks, and try to earn something to pay for
the food. We shall be going direct to Brod via Radomysl. We shall pick
up the boat tickets in Brod, and proceed to Antwerp via Vienna. Sew up
all your things when traveling from Chernovitz to Brod. Be ready
with everything. Let me know how much you need, and I shall send it
to you ….” More delay: “I have
just received the Governor’s passport, together with the one
issued to Mother. Everything is ready now, but we would not want to
travel before Tishah B’Av, during the Nine Days. We shall leave
for sure without delay, on Sunday, after Shabbos Nachamu. Children,
have your portraits taken; inexpensive ones at this time. Be well and
the letters, I learned that they stayed at Anshell’s Inn on the
main street of Brody. It was there that the family last saw each other,
heard each other’s voices for the last time, last hugged each
other. It was this way for many Jewish families then. The portraits
they exchanged were all they had to help them remember beloved faces
they would never see again. Among my grandparents’ papers, there
is a business card for the Hotel Basel on Van Wesenbekestrasse, 16,
in Antwerpen, Belgien, from which they continued on their long passage.
I found the manifest of the SS Montreal, which left from Antwerp on
the 29th of August, 1907, and arrived in Quebec, Canada
on the 9th of September, 1907 at 6:15pm.
*A "marche-route" is literally "army's path",
but can also mean a travel plan or itinerary.
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