Every family, I imagine, has a story about their distant ancestors emerging from the foggy past. Some families trace their roots to an ameba crawling out from the primordial sea, while others – to the hungry crew of Mayflower securing a beachhead on the cold New England shore.
My family also has a story. It is not a particularly exciting story and it only goes back to the later part of the 1800’s. Nevertheless, it is the only story my sons and I have to hang out hats on and I will stick to it for now.
During the 19th century a group of Jews lived in a small shtetl called Yasnogorodka, not too far from Kiev – the ancient mother of all Russian cities. These Jews were mostly uneducated, poor and governed by the local kagal – religious elders, whose goal in life was to maintain the status quo of backwardness and isolation. “Tradition, tradition, tradition” – we all know and love this song by the fat Tevye the Milkman.
None of the Jewish families in the shtetl were accustomed to using last names. The men went by their first and paternal names — Israel ben (son of) Isaac — and the women… well, the women were not called much of anything, because the Tradition prescribed them a well-defined role and they operated on the autopilot.
Additionally, the lack of last names was useful to avoid the tsarist attempts to drag the Jews into the modern world by conducting a census among the fairly significant Jewish population of the Russian Empire. The Jews knew that the talk of modernization and assimilation was a poorly hidden plan to tax them and to conscript their boys into the army for 25 years. “If the tsar can’t count us, then he can’t tax us”, that’s was the strategy of the kagals all over the country.
Decade after decade, nothing of significance had happened in the Jewish / Ukrainian village of Yasnogorodka, until one of the families decided to send their son, Isaac, to the city in order to learn the tailoring trade. Apparently, not just any city was good enough for the talented boy and Paris, France was chosen. I am still puzzled as to how this poor, isolated and uneducated family could afford to send their son to the City of Light, but that’s how the story goes.
When Isaac went to get his travel papers into a nearby town, the government official had to invent a name for a family that never had one. So he looked at the boy’s place of birth and promptly christened him Isaac Yasnogorodsky, i.e. one belonging to or being from Yasnogorodka.
The weather changes a few times a day in Ukraine during the month of May and our car was repeatedly showered and dried in the sun as we drove to Yasnogorodka from Kiev. A good solid two-lane highway took us through the thick birch and pine forest to a small road sign, which had my family name written on it. I climbed out from the car, walked shin-deep in the wet grass and put my hands on the sign. My fingers did not feel any electrifying warmth radiating from a touch of my distant past. The wet sheet metal did not generate an image of a young Jew standing on the same road 120 years ago, turning his back on the dark huts of the shtetl and facing the bright lights of Paris.
What was he like, my great-grandfather, Isaac ben Israel Yasnogorodsky? Had he known then that he would return to Ukraine as an accomplished Parisian tailor, set-up his own shop in Kiev, give birth to three sons (Israel, Nathan and Naum) and one daughter (Sima) only to see them disown their father after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917? I doubt it – he was just a boy leaving home, trembling, as would his great-grandson (yours truly) on a rainy day in March of 1977, when it was his turn to leave the Motherland and enter the world of skyscrapers, bridges and subways.
We parked the car near a wooden gate that had again invoked my family name and said: “The Yasnogorodsky Ostrich Farm”. The giant flightless bird is a rare sight indeed for the cold forests of Ukraine and busloads of tourists and schoolchildren are brought to “my” village to admire the largest ostrich colony in the country. As our luck would have it, the persistent drizzle had turned the buttery Ukrainian black soil into an impassable swamp and we would have needed the services of a T-34 battle tank in order to tour the grounds. Therefore, we opted for a more intimate way to learn about the exotic birds by ordering a sample of the ostrich egg omelet followed by the ostrich steak in the farm’s canteen.
We drove into the village feeling completely unimpressed with the African poultry. Yasnogorodka greeted us with the obligatory memorial to the fallen Red Army soldiers and the empty main (and only) street. Where do I begin the search for my family history, which went missing during one of the most turbulent centuries on the planet? The only person present at the local government office was not aware of anyone named Yasnogorodsky living in the area and suggested that I seek out a certain old woman in the village and ask her about my quest.
We found the old woman by the side of the road tending her two small goats. Neither she nor the goats paid any attention to the rain and to our Opel pulling next to them. I bet that the old woman had seen enough of the German hardware in the fall of 1941, exactly 19 years before I was born.
I got out from the car and joined the wet troika standing in the tall grass. “My name is Yasnogorodsky”, I told all three of them. The net effect of this profound statement was a big fat zero. “Have you heard of Isaac, son of Israel, who left here to become a tailor in Paris?” – I tried again. “His son, Israel Yasnogorodsky, was a captain in the Soviet Army. He was killed in action in Silesia in 1945, just before the war was over. He was my grandfather”, I added somewhat desperately.
The old woman turned to me, opened a completely toothless mouth and mumbled in Ukrainian: “Was he a Jew, your great-grandfather?” Both goats stopped chewing and looked at me, clearly questioning my heritage. I simply nodded feeling that I had given the old woman enough information to carry on. “We haven’t had any Jews here for a very long time”, she said. “But there is a Jewish cemetery outside the village.” With that phrase all three of them turned away and proceeded to re-immerse themselves into their own worlds.
At the edge of Yasnogorodka the Opel turned off the paved street and proceeded to churn the semi-liquid black mud. At the end of the improvised road we did not find a Jewish cemetery, just a big mound with a few stones as the field was meeting the black wall of a forest. Did we make the right turn off the main street? Was this mound one of the thousands of mass graves dotting the endless Ukrainian steppes?
I didn’t give up just then and there. I drove to the regional center – a small town called Markov – and attempted to search the archives. However, I was told that all records older than 75 years are stored somewhere in Kiev.
Then I found another village called Yasnogorodka, located due north of Kiev and drove there. I liked the second Yasnogorodka a lot more than the first. This place is also small and it is situated on the wooded shores of the Kiev Sea – a colossal man-made lake used to power a hydroelectric plant. People go camping in these forests, picking wild mushrooms, fishing and wind surfing on the Sea – this is clearly my type of a place.
I talked to more toothless people of all ages, I visited more cemeteries in the area and found nothing. The inhabitants of both Yasnogorodka’s were universally amazed to learn that there are people in this world that carry the name of their villages. And I didn’t feel like surprising them even further by telling them how far away I had come in order to question them and their goats.
And so, what happened to Isaac and his trip to Paris? What should I do with the story about a tailor and his Bolshevik kids? I think that I will explore it a little further. There are still some old archives to be searched in Kiev and there are still a few Yasnogorodsky’s that can be found in this world, some of them – in North America. Besides, this is not a bad story to have, after all.
Yasnogorodka, Ukraine – 2005