Uprooting Eroded Lineage

7 Jan

The task of uprooting my eroded lineage is particularly difficult; Jewish history hits memory blanks of attempted eradication campaigns every century or so. In the 8th grade, the final middle school project was “Peopling the Nation”, prompting me to contact the estranged family elders and interview them about their personal narratives, and the personal narratives their grandparents shared, etc. Roadblock #1: immigrants typically don’t like to discuss the strife of ‘old country’. All too often, motherland’s milk tastes like sour memories; after-all, one must ask what prompts a person to escape home.

Years after completing this report and going about my life, I find myself in a strange mental reality, complete with lucid dreams and images that steal my breath in awe, a gasp of surprise in seeing with my eyes a mirror image of myself reflected in a orb of sunlight floating freely upon the Willamette River, or dancing through leaves of forested trees.

Last summer I attended a Russian gypsy concert, and I cannot describe the feelings that followed in any precise way, save metaphor: it was as if the melody unlocked a cage around my heart and lungs that I wasn’t even aware was there, nonetheless locked. Resonation. Since then, I have been chasing an intangible inspiration called spirituality that has taken shapes and forms to be saved for later posts. However, the song of self I sing has history, and if history is now, than I am like a budding flower on a branch of a tree that roots back in time centuries and spans continents, foreign as far as my experience and presence know, but I know them in some strange way when the melody sounds, to be home. The task of tracing my heritage has to start somewhere, and those breadcrumb traces may blot through this blog from time to time like a virtual bookmark. Thus:

Large-scale emigration from Russia to the United States only began in the late nineteenth century. Since that time, four distinct periods of immigration can be identified: 1880s-1914; 1920-1939; 1945-1955; and 1970s-present. The reasons for emigration included economic hardship, political repression, religious discrimination, or a combination of those factors.

Between 1881 and 1914, over 3.2 million immigrants arrived from the Russian Empire. Nearly half were Jews; only 65,000 were ethnically Russian, while the remaining immigrants were Belarusans and Ukrainians. Regardless of their ethnoreligious background, their primary motive was to improve their economic status. Many of the 1.6 million Jews who also left did so because they feared pogroms —attacks on Jewish property and persons that occurred sporadically in the Russian Empire from the 1880s through the first decade of the twentieth century.

While many Jews from the Russian Empire did not identify themselves as Russians, another group of immigrants adopted a Russian identity in the United States. These were the Carpatho-Rusyns, or Ruthenians, from northeastern Hungary and Galicia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (today far western Ukraine, eastern Slovakia, and southeastern Poland). Of the estimated 225,000 Carpatho-Rusyns who immigrated to the United States before World War I, perhaps 100,000 eventually joined the Orthodox Church, where they and their descendants still identify themselves as Americans of Russian background.

The second wave of immigration was less diverse in origin. It was directly related to the political upheaval in the former Russian Empire that was brought about by the Bolshevik Revolution and Civil War that followed. Over two million persons fled Russia between 1920 and 1922. Whether they were demobilized soldiers from anti-Bolshevik armies, aristocrats, Orthodox clergy, professionals, businesspersons, artists, intellectuals, or peasants, and whether they were of non-Jewish (the majority) or Jewish background, all these refugees had one thing in common—a deep hatred for the new Bolshevik/communist regime in their homeland. Because they were opposed to the communist Reds, these refugees came to be known as the Whites.

The White Russians fled their homeland. They left from the southern Ukraine and the Crimea (the last stronghold of the anti-Bolshevik White Armies) and went first to Istanbul in Turkey before moving on to several countries in the Balkans (especially Yugoslavia and Bulgaria; other countries in east-central Europe; Germany; and France, especially Paris and the French Riviera (Nice and its environs). Others moved directly westward and settled in the newly independent Baltic states, Poland, Czechoslovakia, or farther on to western Europe. A third outlet was in the Russian far east, from where the White émigrés crossed into China, settling in the Manchurian city of Kharbin. As many as 30,000 left the Old World altogether and settled in the United States. This wave of Russian immigration occurred during the early 1920s, although in the late 1930s several thousand more came, fleeing the advance of Nazi Germany and Japan’s invasion of Manchuria. During this period, approximately 14,000 immigrants arrived in the United States.

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