The Breadbasket: the memoirs of Pearl Unikow

My family was never rich, but it was very distinguished. My great-grandfather, Akiva, was born in 1835 into the Agers family, which was one of the leading Jewish families in the area and commanded respect for miles around. Even though Akiva had had to change his family name to Shnier (I could never understand quite why), he retained the name of Agers for his business and so was revered by his customers. His brother Meyer, who became a wealthy merchant in the nearby town of Berdichev, kept the name of Agers. Despite his status at the forefront of the Jewish community, Akiva never learnt to read or write. His business was rye, and since the 1850s he had owned a mill in the heart of Pavolitch. All his prices and accounts were calculated using an abacus that hung on the wall of his warehouse, and beside it he would scratch into the crumbly red stone little chalk marks that were completely meaningless to anyone but himself.

He was a tall, bony man with a big, tickly, unkempt beard. When his mouth was shut, his whiskers covered the whole of the bottom part of his face and you wouldn’t know that there was anything strange about him. But as soon as he opened his mouth, despite his beard which grew downy white with age, and his knobbly features, he looked like a big, overgrown baby. The resemblance came down to his wide, gummy smile which revealed the fact that he didn’t have a single tooth in his whole mouth. It wasn’t disease or rot that had done this to him, but the Russian imperial army. When he was young, army agents known as happers, or kidnappers, would round up Jewish children as child recruits. They targeted anyone aged between twelve and eighteen, but if they couldn’t get their hands on enough youths, they would take small children, some as young as eight or nine, until they had filled their quotas. Their victims’ military service lasted twenty-five years, in which time they were forbidden from following the kosher laws or keeping the Sabbath or even speaking Yiddish. Many were forcibly converted to Christianity and there were rumours that some even committed suicide rather than adopt the Russian Orthodox religion. Villagers recounted dreadful tales of relatives who died of grief and heartache having had their only son ripped from their arms to be put in a ridiculously clumsy soldier’s uniform and marched half way across the country ravaged by fever and exposure. It’s hardly surprising that people turned to self-mutilation to avoid such a fate. Cutting off fingers and toes was common, but extracting all one’s teeth was equally effective and this is how Akiva avoided becoming a recruit in the Tsar’s army.

As a Jew, Akiva was forbidden from owning land himself and at his mill he ground the rye that was brought to him by grain dealers and local landowners. After the serfs were emancipated in 1861 – which left Jews as the only citizens of the Russian Empire denied the right to buy land – most of his business was with local peasants who had been freed from bondage and started to grow crops for themselves. Grain grew abundantly in the fertile, red Ukrainian soil. In summer, mile upon mile of gently rolling countryside rustled with the sound of swaying stems of rye, wheat, corn, barley and millet. Our region grew so much grain that it could feed the whole of Russia and more besides. In fact, our land was so productive that the Ukraine became known as the Breadbasket of Europe. Although they did not till the soil themselves, Jews were immersed in every stage of the grain’s cycle once it had left the earth. As well as milling, our people dominated its trading, selling and export and the importance of grain to the Jews of the Pale is reflected in our traditional cuisine of pastry-based blintzes, knishes and dumplings.

When Akiva was twenty, he married Rachel and she bore him three sons in quick succession: Menachem Mendl, Sholem and Berl came into the world between 1855 and 1860. They grew up with rye in their blood and it was perhaps inevitable that one of them at least would become intimately bound to the grain business. From an early age it became clear that Berl, the youngest of the sons, possessed a sharp, business brain. He took his education seriously, learning to read and write both Ukrainian and Polish and then becoming fluent in spoken and written Russian too, which was very rare in Pavolitch. His spare time was spent at the mill, putting onto paper the scratched chalk marks that his father made on the wall and, as Akiva was illiterate, Berl dealt with all his correspondence for him. Even when he was a small boy, his father would call him over to read letters that he had received, and write replies in his schoolboy hand. "Don’t be stupid, Tata, you can do this yourself!" Berl would mock, but Akiva just looked at him sheepishly. I don’t believe that Akiva was as hopeless as he made out, though, because as an old man he regularly received letters from an orphaned relative who lived far away, thanking him for the money that he dutifully sent her. He would hold her letters up close to the oil lamp and slowly work his way along the lines of words. He certainly appeared to follow them, although admittedly he would always ask Berl to read the letters out to him again and to write his replies.

At the age of seventeen, Berl was wise beyond his years and already showed signs of developing into a successful businessman. His two older brothers had recently married and Akiva decided that it was time for his youngest too to take a wife. Pessy Rabinovitch came from a good family. Her parents owned a kretchma – a pub and store – in a nearby village and her older siblings were already showing themselves to be bright and resourceful, as Akiva hoped his new daughter-in-law would prove to be too. One of her brothers, Yankl, was training to be a lawyer (one of the few professions open to Jews; he later became a judge), while another, Paissy, exhibited a keen entrepreneurial spirit that eventually led him to open a bookshop and to set up the first movie theatre in the town of Fastov. Pessy was just fourteen years old on her wedding day, and although Berl was only three years older, throughout his whole life he called her Pessy Tochter – Daughter Pessy. The nickname stuck and even in her old age, friends and relatives of her own generation still called her Pessy Tochter.

As he grew older, Berl focused his attention on expanding his father’s business, selling the rye as well as grinding it. The mechanics of trade became his passion and he created a network of Jewish dealers in far-flung places – Riga, the Caucasus, Ekatarinaslav and Konigsberg, who would transport Akiva’s rye all over the world. Despite the wide reach his business had achieved, my great-grandfather never learnt to speak – let alone read or write – Russian, the language of trade in the region, and Berl made this part of the enterprise his own.

When Berl was still a young man, his mother Rachel grew ill and died. Although Akiva had loved his wife, and despite the fact that he was an immensely kind and warm-hearted man, he was surprisingly unsentimental. He had barely mourned the loss of Rachel before marrying for the second time. Leah was several years his junior, but equalled him in height and was at least five times as wide. Her face was as stern as an angry schoolmistress, but inside she was as soft as cotton and as gentle as a kitten. As Leah’s already ample tummy began to swell with the beginnings of a new life, Akiva realised it was time for his first set of children to leave home. He bought a large plot of land in a prime Pavolitch location straddling the Jewish and Ukrainian quarters and employed an army of builders to erect a handsome, double-fronted property that his three grown-up sons could share. The house was split into two sides, one large and one small, divided by a third, lower section. But when the building was designed, Akiva had failed to take into account how it would be shared between the three men, all of whom now had families of their own. The brothers argued and their father sighed in despair. There was only one solution: as with any thorny issue that couldn’t be resolved within family, he would have to ask the rabbi. "You should draw lots," the rabbi told Akiva. So the three young men gave their trust to God that the house should be divided up as He wished, and each drew a piece of paper from a hat. Berl was the chosen one, and received the larger side of the house – a full seven rooms. His oldest brother Menachem Mendl got the smaller part, while Sholem had the middle section.

When Sholem died shortly afterwards, his wife Bassy and their two children moved away, and Berl moved quickly to take over their section of the house as well, for he desperately needed a warehouse to conduct his business, which was growing at a phenomenal pace. Berl was a born businessman and developing trade on behalf of his father was no longer enough for him – he wanted something of his own. Rye was in his blood, but he had started to expand into other grains too: wheat, millet, buckwheat and barley, then pulses – peas, beans and lentils. Any dry goods that he could find a market for, and that wouldn’t go off too quickly, he bought and sold. His network of agents, dealers and shippers expanded swiftly, multiplying as regularly as the number of long, yellow envelopes of coarse paper containing samples of his wares that disappeared from his warehouse into the maze of the Russian postal system. His goods could be found in markets right across Europe – even in England – and the East.

Menachem Mendl was a gentle, sweet-natured man, and didn’t have a jealous bone in his body, but his family resented the fact that the luck of the draw had given Berl the biggest and best part of the house. His wife Bluma’s eyes were green with envy and she accused Mendl of lacking ambition, blaming him for letting his youngest brother usurp his god-given rights as the eldest son. She was also jealous of Berl’s pretty, young wife, Pessy. Most evenings of the week, Mendl would drop in at his brother’s on his way home for a stick of cane sugar and a cup of milk from the cow that Pessy kept. Later, the curses would resonate through the walls as Bluma screeched at her husband and berated him for the sin (that existed in her mind only) of falling in love with his brother’s wife.

"Akiva always favoured Berl over Mendl," Bluma would complain to Pessy throughout their lives. "Even luck goes your way," she moaned one day when they were older, referring to the drawing of lots for the double-fronted house. But here she was wrong.

"Don’t talk to me about luck," Pessy retorted. For Berl and Pessy harboured a great sorrow. Year after year, Pessy would fall pregnant. Year after year she suffered the pain of childbirth, and one by one, she watched her children die. In all, she gave birth to no fewer than thirteen children. Nine of them died when they were just babies. Only four survived infancy – two boys and two girls, and lived a charmed life, becoming like little suns around which their devoted parents’ lives revolved. But still tragedy struck, again and again. Sholem was the first of the four to be taken. He slipped while skating on Pavolitch’s icy lake when he was a teenager and was paralysed. His body, already weak, gave up on him and he died at the tender age of fifteen. Yossi was the next to pass away. He was twenty-four. Always the most delicate of her children, his mother was so distraught that she tried to hide his death from her two remaining daughters. She invited a wealthy neighbour to come over and distract them, while she wept at the bedside of her last remaining son as he wheezed his last breath, then stoically prepared Yossi’s youthful body, ravaged by tuberculosis, for his wake.

Only the two daughters married and had children of their own: my mother, Ettie Leah, and aunt – Hana Tzirl. The girls were their parents’ pride and joy, and lived like little princesses. They were the best dressed girls in town, never buying their dresses from the tailors in Pavolitch, but travelling to the big town of Berdichev to get their clothes fitted and sewn by the best dressmakers in the area. They were smart and well educated, and were brought up to be modern and forward-thinking like their father. Pessy never taught her two precious daughters to cook or sew or clean – they hired servants for that – and insisted on keeping them under her own roof even after they both married and had children of their own.

Pessy was intensely superstitious, much to her husband’s disgust. Symbols and portents were everywhere around her, making her paranoid about everyday sights and sounds. She began to regard the pool of dirty water – the kaluzha – that lay in front of her side of the big, double-fronted house, as the symbol of her family’s misfortune. The red, clay soil of Pavolitch lacked any base layer of stone or gravel and turned to glutinous mud in spring and autumn, sucking the boots off men and disabling any coach that tried to pass. And the area in front of the house was worse than anywhere else. Rain and melted snow settled in a hollow right outside the door, attracting pigs and other animals to come and wallow in the sticky mud, and the air was rank with the stench of stagnant water and livestock. If only the puddle would dry up, Pessy thought, her children would stop dying. She believed somebody had given her the Evil Eye, and the reflection of that unblinking eye in the kaluzha watched each new baby that she brought into the world, just waiting for the right moment to take its soul away. No matter how hard Berl tried to get rid of it, the pool of water remained. He carted earth home from the fields to level the ground so the water couldn’t settle. He bailed it out with wooden buckets on a scorching hot day so that the ground would dry out. The civil authorities even arrived one day with planks of wood to place over the puddle, so that passers-by could walk over it. But nothing could be done to make the fetid water go away.

While Pessy blamed the kaluzha for her sorrow, Berl consulted with the rabbi over the malevolent fate that seemed to be controlling his family. He would travel the fifty miles from Pavolitch to the court of the famous Rabbi Twersky in the town of Makarov, to ask what he could do to stop his children from dying. Although his trips to Rabbi Twersky never stemmed the flow of deaths, they did bring him some joy. An agreement was sealed that Meyer, the first-born son of the scholar Velvl Unikow, who was tutor to the rabbi’s sons, would marry Ettie Leah, Berl’s eldest daughter.

My mother was extremely beautiful, with her pale face and long, light-brown hair – rare among the dark-skinned, black-haired Jews – and her fine dresses. But she screwed up her face and stamped her delicately-shod foot in disgust when her father told her that Velvl wanted to meet her to check that she would make a suitable bride for his son. She was horrified at the thought of some old man coming to gawp at her. But her father was adamant, and eventually she agreed – reluctantly – to go with him to meet her future father-in-law. The meeting took place in Pupilna, a small town twelve versts from Pavolitch, which lies on the main railway line between Kiev and Odessa. Here was the local train station, and nearby, the office of Berl’s best friend and business associate, Shmuel Komarovsky, a leading dealer and businessman, the biggest sokher in town, who had offered Berl the use of a room for such an important meeting. Clearly Velvl was impressed with what he saw; the meeting was a success and a date was set for the wedding of Meyer Unikow and Ettie Leah.

My parents couldn’t have been more dissimilar. My mother was modern, educated and European in her appearance and outlook. My father was a rabbinical scholar who dressed in the traditional black coat of the Hassidic sect and a large, square skullcap and wore a long beard and side-curls. He cared little for business, or even for money; his only real interests were prayer and studying the Talmud. Until his marriage, religion had been my father’s entire life, for he had been brought up with the sons of the Twersky dynasty, one of the most renowned and well respected rabbinical families in the whole world.

Being forced to leave the Twerskys and abandon his hopes of becoming a rabbi left my father greatly disappointed with his lot, but he continued to spend his days studying the Talmud and attending synagogue. Throughout her life, my mother bullied and badgered him relentlessly to take an interest in the world around him – not just the world of holy scripts – and to modernise his ways. He reluctantly shaved off his side-curls to placate her, and abandoned some of the other external vestures of his faith, but still the Talmud and the synagogue remained the most important elements in his life. Nevertheless, however mismatched my parents were in terms of their character and appearance – and perhaps each was initially disappointed in the spouse that was chosen for them – their marriage was a successful one. As the nineteenth century waned and the twentieth dawned, four children followed in quick succession – my older sister Sarah, myself, my brother Nathan and my little sister Rachel.