A Review of
Tears Over Russia: A Search for Family and the Legacy of Ukraine’s Pograms
Reviewed by Karen Altergott Roberts
Tears over Russia is a book that beautifully links personal stories to the broad events of history in a powerful way. First, it tells the largely untold story of a particular lineage of Ukrainian and Russian Jews from the late 1800s, through the mid 1900s and includes some family events up to 2005. Second, this history is told through vivid family records using diaries and interviews, combined with careful historical scholarship and well-written narrative. Third, the inhumanity of dominant groups over Jewish people who were treated as the dangerous and despised ‘other’ is told in a detailed and compelling way. The story of a family, the history of a people, and the inhumanity of the oppressors are wrapped into a book that is well-written, engaging and, despite it all, hopeful. It tells the story of those lost and those who survived, flourished, and contributed to new home countries.
The engaging personal nature of this book, beginning with a love-marriage defying a father’s choice for his daughter, is a powerful tool this author uses to help us understand how familial stories are interwoven with critical historical events. I have read books by historians and diarists, but this is an historical book with literary qualities. The art of this author allows us an intimate portrayal of how real people formed families and made a way to live in a difficult world. Losses are woven throughout the book and there is no lack of realism in the suffering and historical crimes against humanity. But we never lose track of the personal struggle of individuals living life, loving one another, and providing a future for their children.
We come to know and care about many people in the pages of this book. Fourteen year-old divorced Fay was freed from an arranged marriage to marry Carl Cutler by choice. This opened the family story that followed throughout the book. We get to know some of Fay and Carl’s seven children as we learn about peasant life in Ukraine at the turn of the 20th century.
The history is rooted in Stavishche. This is where Rebecca Cutler married Isaac Caprove. World War I commenced and budding generations share this historic moment and begin to experience harsh prejudice and interpersonal harassment. The next generation experiences increasing destructiveness. Estates of somewhat benevolent nobles, such as the Polish Count Branicki of Satvische (rumored to have ancestral links to Catherine the Great) as well as other less-noble nobles living throughout the region are attacked and social chaos reigns.
History, as its known through aristocrats, warriors, and politicians, is less dominant in this book. The author provides very detailed stories of family, children, schools, and communities experiencing peasant violence, banditry, and brutal anti-Semitic attitudes.
Stories of personal valor, the occasions of never giving up in the face of obstructive social systems, the bending of rules, and the courage in the face of impossible realities helped family members survive. Others had plenty of courage and other resources but did not survive. Self-help was a great theme, but to me, it was more compelling to read about the degree of community support, international sharing of resources, and opening of doors by compassionate distant relatives or even strangers. This sort of heroism was essential. This lineage of Jewish people, oppressed to the maximum within several national contexts, shows the importance of all the heroic social action that supported them.
The family continues to struggle throughout their migration, as refugees still do today. There is no straight line from a deadly community to the golden land as one emigrates. Individuals and families come together as they leave their place of origin to go to another country, where their problems are different, but could not possibly be worse than those at home. We follow them as they embark on various routes. All these routes are complex and hazardous, and the author does an excellent job describing the journey, never sparing the reader details about the sorrow or joy of each delay or final arrival.
Not only are the stories gripping, and the narrative history easy to read, but the historical timeline is right-on. There are appendices that provide historical detail, and the extensive footnoting provide is evidence of the careful scholarship that Brahin put into this book.
This is a work that speaks to our world today. Pograms and atrocities are concerns that unfortunately remain relevant. It is hard to keep up with the number of atrocities that persist. The killing and dislocation of people is a worldwide reality, now and throughout human history. These stories force us to revisit the inhumanity associated with dominance, expansionism and autocracy. My own people were involved also in massive ethnic cleansing that led to many deaths and much suffering. This is happening today across races, religions, and in nations all over the world.
May a careful look at this story be an inspiration for us to help those who are – right now – experiencing the same realities, and who – right now – are looking for safe havens somewhere in the world so that they– right now and in the future – can contribute their creativity, their energy and their love of life to the rest of the world. Let us commit to stopping, as we can, the pograms of today as we learn the human story of one lineage at one historical era. Let us welcome the refugees and the strangers who have more to offer us than we could ever imagine. Let there be peace.
Karen Altergott Roberts
Karen Altergott Roberts has been a faculty member at several midwestern universities, a pastor in Indiana, and a writer. She writes on social issues, teaches public speaking, and paints as a spiritual discipline.