Visiting Ananiev

Traces of Ananiev

This essay originally appeared in Rootskey, the Journal of the JGS of Los Angeles.

“We experienced smaller, almost enigmatic moments that, when combined with our

personal  memories,  enriched our understanding of our family.


by Andrea Massion

   We slept three nights in the dorm of a technical school with filthy, smelly toilets and metal cots that swagged almost to the ground. We were thrilled with the accommodations.

    The mayor had warned our guide: “The hotel is terrible. I will find you a better place to stay.” To sleep in Ananiev, our grandparents’ place of birth, was a joy. What we came away with was a sense of our family’s day-to-day life at the turn of the 20th century. You see, the things we most remember about our grandparents were things that were clearly  represented in their hometown. Let me explain.

    I’ve previously written about my Wyoming farming family, my grandfather’s grape arbor in California, his metal prop work at the studios for 20 years. I’ve elaborated on great-uncle Jack Massion who, after serving in the California State Assembly for 12 years, bought a parcel of land near the Salton Sea that boasted natural mineral springs.

    Their American saga is much like your family’s story: brave children crossed the Atlantic to begin a life without pogroms, tsars and the mandatory army service. They were skilled in languages, good with their hands and mostly loving with their families. They sent for their parents or  their siblings and they raised a generation of Americans who fought in World War II and  who took care of them in their old age.

    Now here we were, my cousin Christine and I, in Ananiev meeting with the Mayor, a youthful man who had served proudly as secretary of his Soviet Youth Group  and had paving streets and renovating Ananiev’s 19th century buildings on his civic agenda. His desk was a huge mesa of shiny Soviet-era furniture and he was a proud Ukrainian who did not vote for Yevshenko’s TAK party in the recent democratic-style elections.  On this May morning, anticipating the great celebration of the 60th anniversary of Soviet Triumph over the Nazis, he took the time to show us what he loved about Ananiev.

    The town’s museum, a small historical building was run by the lovely Anna.  In anticipation of our visit, she had done her research scanning the memorial pages of both the Odessa region’s WWII memorial book and the albums of Ananiev’s famed orphanage, begun in the 1800’s and running to this day.

    She told this story: “ On August 7, 1941, the Nazis chose 600 of our Jews and walked them on the long road leading out of town to a field where they were shot, just like at Babi father was ordered to go with his shovel and bury the bodies. He went a young man, and came home that night with white hair...”

    In the town’s memorial book are recorded every Jewish name and face who walked down the road, or rather, every person the non-Jewish citizens could remember .  There were two family names Chris and I had never seen: Gregor Massion, age 13, son of Elias and Yelena Massion, age 10, daughter of Elias. Our great-grandfather was Enoch. My uncle was Ely,  my brother’s middle name: Elliot.

    In the orphanage photo album circa 1930’s, children’s photos were identified by local citizens. Listed under a black and white class photo is Lusya Massion, only that. She looks to be about 10 years old, her hair cropped short like a boy’s, with the close-set eyes of many Massions.

    These are just a few of the amazing moments of our trip. Not the archives in Odessa where a meeting with the Soviet-style secretary for public relations seemed fruitless, nor at the ZAG office where we were told that Ananiev’s pre-WWII vital records were destroyed when the truck transporting them to safer grounds went under German attack. Three more come to mind.

    Metal work: Various members of our family had studied decorative metal crafting, or carpentry in Odessa.  In the Russian-Jewish Encyclopedia, we knew that a school existed from 1864 to about 1920. The building, now a bank, is preserved and still has its original stone logos representing the curriculum of the school in it’s heyday.  We spent a morning in Odessa finding and exploring the facade of this vocational school.  We wandered the neighborhood, imagining that our relatives  lived in rooms in this neighborhood and we got a sense of their possibly bohemian lifestyle during their young years studying.

    Back in Ananiev, decorative metalwork abounds. The one building awaiting renovation that, according to the mayor had been a cheder, has a stunning tiara-like metal entry above its door. The homes have scrollwork as well, and the low metal fences in front of city hall are lovely echoing the numerous styles of fences we saw in Kiev.

    We got no information of location for our great grandfather’s smithy across from the river’s edge, but seeing the river and all the antique metalwork around town gave us a feeling that the family’s handiwork was present.

    Grapevines: Growing grapes in Southern California’s arid San Fernando Valley is almost impossible. but my grandfather had a huge and successful grape arbor over his driveway in Van Nuys for years and years. Why did he attempt such a feat? Ah, in Ananiev, there are grape arbors in virtually every yard we saw. It’s what he knew.

    The power of water: Before the Mayor honored us with several rounds of local vodka (okay, seven rounds and it was fun), and before my cousin decided to meet him drink for drink in the local restaurant, he had our guide drive over the river to a small pavilion in a field that was once the shores of the river. It was a spring: mineral water that we all tasted. The mayor drank a glass a day. We gulped from small glass jars, hoping that some of Ananiev would infiltrate our physical selves and reveal something deep in our genetic makeup connecting us even more to our ancestors.  Then it dawned on me.

     In the 1960’s, Great Uncle Jack bought land with mineral springs at the Salton Sea. Who knew until this moment that the spring was a familiar and comfortable feature of his childhood? As a boy, Uncle Jack experienced the town’s pride in their spring of health, how they built a gazebo around it with a pump and a placard: a public display for this earthly resource. My father was incredulous to Uncle Jack’s “caper” at the Salton Sea. but what my father did not know was that the boy, Jack, 45 years prior, had drunk mineral water in Ananiev .

    There is no other knowledge of where the Jewish community lived in Ananiev other than around the center of town, no knowledge of where the shuls were located for the 3500 Jews living there prior to the pogroms and to WWII. Nevertheless, signs of  our Jewish family were present.

    Metalwork gave rise to a sheet metal fabrication business; we bathed in mineral water near the Salton Sea; the grape arbors over Pop’s driveway were our summer shade. These things my cousin and I grew up knowing.  In Ananiev, I met their source of inspiration. Along with the handing-down of Torah from generation to generation, these are gifts from Ananiev to my grandfather and his siblings, to my family and then to me. Amen e