Press Release: Exploring Heritage, Legacy and Identity: “Collective Memories of a Lost Paradise: Jewish Agricultural Settlements in Ukraine During the 1920s and 1930s,” a new book by Robert Belenky
Exploring Heritage, Legacy and Identity: Collective Memories of a Lost Paradise by Robert Belenky
by Joyce Kahn
Robert Belenky’s personal quest for his roots is lovingly detailed in his latest book, Collective Memories of a Lost Paradise: Jewish Agricultural Settlements in Ukraine During the 1920s and 1930s. Part memoir, part historical documentation of a little-known era in which Jews were given land to farm in Ukraine, Belenky accomplishes what many people can only fantasize about: meeting the people they heard stories about in their youth, people who were part of their parents’ formative years and personal history.
The study of genealogy can be quite fascinating and compelling. Especially as we age, many of us want to understand more about those who came before. Belenky acknowledges that mortality is part of the motivation for this work and his “increasing preoccupation with such matters as heritage, legacy, and identity.”
It is one thing to interview friends and relatives of your parents or consult records in an effort to know your history better. It is quite another to cross the ocean twice in your late 70s in pursuit of that history. But Belenky has done just that. He traveled to Ukraine and interviewed elderly Jews who witnessed and survived the agricultural collectivization movement that followed the Bolshevik Revolution; Stalin and his purges and abandonment of this agrarian movement in favor of industrialization; the invasion of the Nazis and the horrors of the Holocaust and the aftermath of World War II—the cold war and overt and covert anti-Semitism.
Belenky’s portrayal of family history in the context of the times is enthralling. His father, Max, emigrated from Smolensk, Russia, to the United States in 1911. In his new country, Max became a shopkeeper who “longed for liberation through agriculture, bare-chested in the sun.”
Like many Jewish boys of that time, he dreamed of working the land, a way to dispel the historically dictated pejorative characterization of Jews as luftmenschen, or air people, because they worked with their words rather than their hands and produced nothing tangible. In the area ruled by the tsars, Jews were denied by law the privileges bestowed by citizenship and as a result could not own land, did not have internal passports enabling travel and were subject to pogroms, or violence, unleashed by the local populace.
In his new country of opportunity, Max Belenky followed his dreams and enrolled in the Baron de Hirsch Agricultural School, which taught immigrant Jewish boys to become farmers. He then went to Michigan State Agricultural College and graduated as a certified tractor expert in 1923. Max’s history and that of the Soviet Union converged, when the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee or JDC, an organization committed to worldwide relief efforts, hired him to introduce tractors and industrial agriculture to these new Soviet farmers and to aid in settling these “nonproductive” Jews on land in Ukraine, Belarus and Crimea.
In 1913, about half of world Jewry was restricted to living in the Pale of Settlement, a vast territory of about a million square kilometers, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Seas, controlled by the tsars. The period following World War I saw increased famine, poverty, overpopulation, deprivation and despair for these Jewish inhabitants. And so, Lenin wisely approved of the influx of capital, equipment and experts and saw this as also solving the “Jewish question” by using the Jewish kolkhozy, or cooperative farms, as role models in the service of the revolution. By 1938, 70,000 Jews from the shtetls (Jewish villages or small cities) had been voluntarily resettled. The Soviet Agro-Joint committee worked with the JDC in bringing food to the starving people, building houses and schools and teaching them to farm. Belenky notes that those Russian Jews who were part of the Jewish cooperative farm movement were interested in improving life at home for themselves and were not adherents to the rival Zionist movement, with its belief that only a Jewish homeland could provide safety, security and dignity for the Jewish people. They were “not Bolsheviks or Zionists,” Belenky writes, “but rather non-ideologically committed poor people seeking a better life.”
However, many spoke of more painful and poignant wartime memories of family and friends—men, women and children—marched to pits, where they were shot, or to wells, where they were drowned. Others spoke of places in the east like Baku to which they had been evacuated, the difficulties of harrowing escapes and survival, and the kindnesses of many people. All found it difficult economically to live in the country since the dismantling of the Soviet Union, though all were attached to home.
Belenky’s book sheds light on a period known primarily to scholars. This slim volume is a quick read and one that will spark your curiosity for more information about Soviet history. It did mine.
[In print and ebook editions. Available in all bookstores and on line.]
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