Kholmech Sign and Book of Letters


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 in the old country. The letters are set against the background of revolution, war, and famine. While many of the details concern particular events pertaining to one family’s life, the letters also tells a larger story common to many if not 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 that goes undiscussed 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 still are) kept. Kholmich was, indeed, a very small town, referred to by one of my 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 by a brother just before she left for the United States. The other letters began arriving after she had settled in New York City. This Kehila site contains the contents of a book my family published called Bessie's Letters. Only the book's appendix containing immigration and personal documents have been omitted.

Note: In the introduction to the letters below, my father and I engaged in speculation based on what we knew at that time. However, new information became available as the result of a miraculous family reunion in November 2004. We weren’t looking for my relatives because we thought they had all perished. But serendipity and the improbable set the stage for the incredible. Rather than revise the entire website, 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. As you progress down the links, the story becomes more complete and more certain.

Under the link Happy Ending & New Beginning, readers will find the newest material and the definitive story.

Special correction: The preferred spelling of the town is Kholmech. A Russian-speaker had led us to believe otherwise, and so we introduced a variant spelling throughout the most of what follows. We feared making a “Find/Replace” change might create other problems. And so readers should just know that Kholmich is Kholmech, and vice versa. There is no place like home, regardless of how it's spelled!