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On Memory and Nostalgia of Mlynov and Marvits



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What we know of the Jews who lived in Mlynov and their lives there we know from later recollections and oral traditions of those who left before and after WWII, and, as of now, a few Russian sources like census data that have yet to be translated.

The richest source of information about the lives of Jews in Mlynov comes from Sefer Mlynow-Marvits (the Mlynov-Muravica Memorial Book), which was published in 1970 in Israel to commemorate the families who once lived there, both those who survived and those who did not, and the nature of the town in which they lived.

The book was written in Hebrew and Yiddish and a partial translation is now available in English. [1] The memories recorded in the Memorial book reach back in some cases thirty to fifty years before their publication and thus reflect the experiences, nostalgia, and later personal perspectives of those who once lived in Mlynov and Mervits. Many of those reflections were written by Israelis who had either made Aliyah before 1942 or survived the Holocaust and were naturally refracted through their understanding of those experiences. Other immigrants to Palestine before 1948, like Yitzhak Lamdan, for example, also wrote down his memories of Mlynov which are published in Hebrew but not yet translated.

From the US, too, we have photos, oral traditions and some artefacts passed down among families whose ancestors left Mlynov between 1892 and 1924, when immigration quotas were imposed. For example, a memoire written by Clara Fram, in 1980, recalls her childhood memories from Mlynov before she left for Baltimore with her mother, three sisters and grandmother in 1909 at the age of seven. Clara was a granddaughter of the Rivitz and Demb families and her memoire has been circulating among the Demb descendants. Clara’s grandparents, Getzel and Ida (Rivitz) Fax, were the first pioneers as far as I can tell who left Mlynov for Baltimore, and in the years following, many of the Mlynov descendants followed them there and created a substantial community of Mlynov immigrants, possibly the largest aggregation of Mlynov descendants outside of Israel.


I have also personally interviewed the children and grandchildren of these Mlynov immigrants to Baltimore, particularly, Ted Fishman, and Audrey Goldseker Polt, whose parents came to the US in 1920 and 1924 respectively. Both have been family historians and collectors themselves and have been able to recall many stories their parents told and share photos of life in Mlynov that they preserved. A few individuals from Mlynov and Mervits made it to the US after 1924 with help from relatives and later as displaced persons. Their stories have appeared in books by their descendants and in video interviews online. The memories and photos from these American immigrant families are also fragmentary in nature and also passed through the filters of time and the American experience as they were remembered and retold.

The upshot is that we do not have any “pure” first hand memory of Mlynov and Mervits and thus we can only glean together an understanding of what life was like there, from the bits and shards of memories that have been passed down to us.

There is a temptation, even among survivors, to compare Mlynov and Mervits (and perhaps all shetls) to Fiddler on the Roof, which has become emblematic of shetl life and experience in general, and which captures the intimacy, conflict and themes that roiled Russian Jewish life among shetl Jews. And to some extent the comparison is surely helpful. Still, there seems to be something important and powerful about aggregating what we do know about this particular shetl and the people who lived there, in this particular time and place and trying to imagine what life was like there for those from whom we are descended. If nothing else, the act of imagination and the exploration of our specific families’ histories and memories deepens our own understanding of what our ancestors wanted to remember and recall of their experiences from whence they came; and we don’t have to imagine all our ancestors to be Tevye, Golde and their daughters and every shetl to be Anatevka.

The memories that have reached us from Mlynov have passed through the gauntlet of time; they have been preserved because they meant something to those who survived, and thus they tell us something about what mattered and what did not, as much as they do about Mlynov itself, as those who left Mlynov adjusted to their new lives in Palestine and later Israel and the United States. In documenting what they left behind, we pass on something to those who follow as we engage in our own acts of imagination.

The memories of Mlynov and Mervits, therefore, have to be understood as recalled by and refracted within, not only, a post-Holocaust context, but also after the 1967 Six Day War, in which Israel fought off its Arab neighbors and triumphed. Both of these events naturally colored the way that Mlynov and Mervits were remembered by those who once lived there, but now lived in Israel or in the United States. Many families that had migrated to either the US or Palestine lost family and relatives who had been left behind in Mlynov and Mervits. A few survivors from Mlynov and Mervits made their way to Israel and the United States and began to tell their stories.

The production of the Mlynow-Muravica memorial book came in 1970 as American and Israeli Jews were deepening their understanding of and grabbling with the enormity of the Holocaust. The ‘67 War in which Israel the underdog fought off the Arab neighbors successfully and conquered the expanded territories deepened the pride of Americans who increasingly saw Israel and the Holocaust as twin themes of American Jewish identity in a post ‘67 context. Many of the photos in the Memorial book capture the Zionist youth groups in Mlynov, which must have grown in importance locally in Mlynov as Zionism was becoming a more important theme in Russian Jewish life in the early 20th century. But the memorial book does not capture, as an example, much about the possible influences of Haskalah (“enlightenment”), Socialism or Hasidism that were also present in Mlynov at the time, though hints of these influences can be found in the stories and memories of those who lived there.

The memories of Mlynov and Mervits in the past were all recorded in this period post 1967. They naturally evoke nostalgia for what was lost and for experiences the writers recalled as children and younger adults, when they experienced those who were left behind and never left. These memories recall both the difficulties of sheltl life, the challenge of finding work and making a living, the antisemitism they sometimes felt, and the restrictions imposed on them as Jews by the local Count who loomed large in their memories.

NOTES

[1] The Mlynov-Muravica Memorial Book (translated title for original Sefer Mlynow-Marvits (Mlynov-Muravica Memorial Book). Ed. J. Sigelman, Haifa: 1970. Published in Hebrew and Yiddish by former residents of Mlynov-Muravica in Israel. A digital version of the original can be viewed online in several websites including the NY Public Library and the Yiddish Book Center. A number of the stories have been partially translated in English by descendants of the Schwartz family and were subsequently edited and published by David Sokolsky in 2018 as Mlynov-Muravica Memorial Book (English Translation) and now available on Amazon.

[1] The The Mlynov-Muravica Memorial Book (translated title for original Sefer Mlynow-Marvits (Mlynov-Muravica Memorial Book). Ed. J. Sigelman,Haifa: 1970. Published in Hebrew and Yiddish by former Residents of Mlynov-Muravica in Israel. A digital version of the original can be viewed online in several websites including the NY Public Library and the Yiddish Book Center. A number of the stories have been partially translated in English by descendants of the Schwartz family were subsequently edited and published by David Sokolsky in 2018 as Mlynov-Muravica Memorial Book (English Translation) and now available on Amazon.

ADDITIONAL READING

On the reception of the Holocaust in American consciousness, see the substantive work of Bary Trachtenberg, The United States and the Nazi Holocaust: Race, Refuge, and Remembrance Bloomsbury Publishing. London, 2018. Wikipedia overview of "Yitzhak Lamdan".

On the history of Zionism as a European movement and its growth over time, see as an example, Walter Laquer, A History of Zionism. New York: Schocken Books, 1972.

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Compiled by Howard I. Schwartz
Updated:October 2019
Copyright © 2019 Howard I. Schwartz

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