Wendy Kalman
There are many ways to see and understand

Family history in history

It is important to closely see context but not to narrow your view when researching family history. Photo courtesy of Andalusia from morguefile.com

As I search for my own family history, I have begun learning about relevant pieces of world history. The events that took place during a certain time in a certain place are the context my great grandparents and their families found themselves in.

Last week I wrote about the insurrection that took place in the Capitol and about the pogrom of 1905 that took place in Odessa. The first was directed at preventing the certification of a duly elected leader and the second targeted a specific slice of the population. Uncontrolled mob violence and the easy abandonment of decency and humanity were the unifying thread. I asked where we go from here.

We could say to ourselves that the decisions we make now against the backdrop of our times will be the ones later generations revisit. When they ask on which side of history we fell, will they find satisfaction in the answers they find?

But we also see now how the act of research is perilous, because information is rarely presented objectively, but through the eyes of the storyteller. And different storytellers see things from different vantage points. This is strikingly true when comparing how events or concepts are presented to different audiences. For instance, last summer, I worked on a paper about the different ways the term Zionism is interpreted. One of the ways I did that, I wrote in a blog called Global Uncommunication, was by translating the term into Arabic and then looking it up in Arabic Wikipedia. Needless to say, the take was very different from that found in the English version.

Similarly, today I looked up the 1905 pogrom in Odessa in English and Russian versions of Wikipedia. As I did last summer, I used Google Chrome as my browser so I could translate the foreign language Wikipedia page back into English. The Russian entry devotes much real estate to an anonymous eyewitness testimony about what happened at the port when the mutinied battleship Potemkin came in; its emphasis on the Jewish Self-Defense Committee’s violent acts preceding a much shorter section on the multi-day pogrom that left hundred of Jews dead and 50,000 homeless stands in stark contrast to the version in English. Its description of what happened at the port (over 1000 were killed) doesn’t single out Jews, but Odessian mobs, while not neglecting to mention the National Committee of Jewish Self-Defense’s activities. Unlike the Russian version, the English version also speaks of long-term causes of the city’s antisemitism and breaks out each day of the pogrom. After reading this, I cannot recommend enough that we all take the time when researching anything to look for how the same event is represented in other languages to different audiences.

Why am I interested in this particular event? Well, part of my own family history quest is to try to see if there is any truth to old family stories. It is said that my great grandfather claimed he had to leave Russia because he had killed a Cossack. Given the history of the time and the timing of his arrival in the United States the following year, there is nothing yet to rule this story out. But to know more I would have to find police reports or more eyewitness testimony. I know that ultimately there will be no way to prove anything because the best I will be able to do is find out if someone matching my great grandfather’s description was culpable. About 17, 5’7”, a farm hand…

The blogger’s family story, as appears on odessasecrets: the 1905 pogrom. Screenshot from https://odessasecrets.wordpress.com/2021/01/22/the-kelmansky-family-and-the-cossacks/

Still, I have to try. To that end, I was fortunate enough to find a blog specifically about that pogrom that was kind enough to share the story of my search, in the hopes that someone might be able to help. The other entries are a mix of the blogger’s research and other people’s individual family stories. Against the horrors of what happened in that city – and across all of Russia – I reflect on something I have long thought about: Jews have long been persecuted. In fact, the list of countries where we have been expelled or were escaping from is incredibly and horrifically long. So, for me to be standing here today means that all my ancestors preceding back to the very beginning were lucky enough to survive. For this reason and given how few in the world the Jewish people are, I believe it is important to know my identity – who I am and who my people are; I owe it to my forbears. But also for this reason, I am convinced  that we must learn history and learn it well. Needless to say, we much also consider how the choices we make will contribute to our own family’s future history. And may our great grandchildren learn with understanding about the world we are now in.

About the Author
Wendy Kalman, MPA, MA, serves as Director of Education and Advocacy Resources for Hadassah The Women's Zionist Organization of America, Inc. Previous roles include senior academic researcher for an Israel education nonprofit, knowledge manager at a large multinational as well as roles in marketing and publishing in the US and in Israel. She has presented papers at political science and communications conferences and has participated as a scholar-in-residence at an academic workshop on antisemitism. Wendy lived in Israel for over a decade and is a dual citizen, fluent in Hebrew.
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