The background of my mother's family, which migrated to the U.S. from Czarist Russia in 1903, differed markedly from that of the multitudes of other Jews fleeing Eastern Europe around the turn of the last century. Virtually all the other Jewish immigrants had lived in "shtetls"--the small towns memorialized in such stories as "Fiddler on the Roof"--or in the ghettos of such large cities as Warsaw,Vilnius, Lodz, Odessa, and Kiev.
My mother's family were rural people from what is now Belarus. During the half-century that my maternal grandmother lived in New York City, I don't think she ever really adjusted to urban life. Her family had lived on a mill located in the rich agricultural region that was and probably still is the bread basket of northwestern Russia. The family lived amidst the peasants who worked the land, processing their wheat and producing flour. They were completely isolated from the larger communities from which most other Russian Jewish immigrants came to America.
My grandmother claimed to have come from Minsk. What she meant, of course, was the province or "gubernia" of Minsk, not the metropolis of Minsk, the province's large capital city. Her family's mill was located in the boondocks, outside a tiny village she called Puzhets. That was apparently the village's Yiddish name. The official Belorussian name was Puchovichi.
Since Jews were barred from owning land, my grandmother's father, Moshe Aharon Tsivin, leased the land on which he operated his mill from a local nobleman. (My parents named me after him, Anglicizing the Hebrew names of Moshe and Aharon into Morton Arthur.) My grandmother always spoke respectfully about the "graf"--Yiddish for a count or baron--from whom her father leased the property.
My cousin, David Fox, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and an ardent genealogist, shares my fascination with what he has described as "the mill that all through my childhood was part of the family lore." Dave, whose mother is my first cousin, formerly headed the Jewish Genealogy Society's Belarus Special Interest Group.
Five years ago, he embarked on an ambitious project to locate and visit what had been the family's mill. His research uncovered a "1903 Minsk Gubernia Russian Business Directory." Assisted by a Russian translator, he found my great-grandfather, Moshe Aharon Tsivin, listed in it as a miller in Puchovichi.
Far more adventurous--and much younger and more physically fit--than I am, Dave flew from his Maryland home to Belarus, hired an English-speaking guide, and set out to find our forebear's mill. They visited several likely sites.
Writing in the genealogical society's online newsletter, he reported that in the first village visited, "We talked to all the old people [in the community]. Everyone was helpful and friendly. Although no Jews currently live in the village, which was formerly part of a noble's estate, they recalled the names of Jewish families that lived there before the Nazis rounded up all the Jews, and many of the Belorussians executed them in a nearby forest.
"The people broke down crying as they described what happened to their neighbors. Many fled to the east on foot, and others went into the forest to fight as partisans. The villagers remembered the name of the Jew who operated the mill in 1926. This was long after my [great-grandmother's father] emigrated to the U.S. It appears that there was a history of Jews leasing the mill from the noble who owned the estate in the area, including all the nearby villages."
The villagers gave Dave and his guide directions to a mill a few kilometers away. The mill looked relatively new. "It was definitely not the old mill we were looking for," Dave wrote. "We talked to an old man living in the only house near the new mill, and he pointed out a nearby old wooden building which he said was the former old mill that my [great-grandmother's father] leased. Apparently the river had changed its course, and the old mill was situated on a dry riverbank.
"Across the path from the old mill, now used as a storage building, was an old abandoned house. We can only speculate that this was the family home of [Moshe Aharon Tsivin], because of its proximity to the mill...but I felt convinced that we had located the mill that had been described in family stories as being at a cross roads, on the outskirts near a river or stream. The thrill of standing and looking at this old building, and knowing that my great-great grandparents worked there is impossible to adequately describe."
The abandoned old house was presumably the birthplace of both my mother and her brother, who was Dave's maternal grandfather.
Moshe Aharon had five sons and three daughters. He hired tutors to live with the family to educate the children at home. As a young girl, my grandmother would sit in on her older brothers' classes. She was thus exposed to lessons in the Hebrew language and the Torah. As a result, she became far more knowledgeable about religious matters than other Jewish girls of her generation.
When I studied Hebrew as a modern language in a public high school, I can now confess, she did much of my homework and was thrilled to be able to participate in my American schooling. She verbally translated the Hebrew that I was assigned to learn into Yiddish. I then translated her Yiddish into English and became an A student. But I doubt whether this procedure enhanced my knowledge of Hebrew.
Because of her childhood religious studies, she functioned as the matriarch of her Bronx synagogue. After the formal weekly Sabbath services were completed, I can recall that she assembled a group of at least a dozen old ladies, most of whom barely literate, to discuss Bible stories with them in Yiddish. I often wondered whether the rabbi ever challenged her role as a rival religous leader.
When my grandmother married, her husband joined her family at the mill. But there was a quota on the number of Jews who could live in the district. An informant eventually notified the authorities of my grandfather's presence. He was imprisoned, but was released after his father-in-law, the miller, bribed the police. Bankrolled by his father-in-law, he and his wife and children, including my mother, fled to Rotterdam in Holland, where they boarded a ship to take them to America, "the goldenah medina"--the golden land.
By this time, all Moshe Aharon's sons had left the mill. Three had preceded my grandmother to the U.S., where they simplified the family name from Tsivin to Sivin. Another son become a dentist in Gomel, a large city in Minsk province, and the eldest served in the Czarist army for some 20 years. The latter two also eventually came to the U.S.
When I was a young boy, the old soldier, who was a childless widower, would often visit my home. He would seat me on his lap and regale me in Yiddish with stories about fighting the "Turks" in "Kafcaz." I wish I had had a tape recorder to record his colorful tales. My great-uncle had served in the Russian wars against the Muslims in the Caucasus region, all of whom the Russians called "Turks." More than a century later, the Russians are still battling the Chechens and other Muslim peoples in the region.
Shortly before World War I began, Moshe Aharon's wife died, leaving the elderly man alone at the mill. He then belatedly followed his children to the U.S., where he lived with my grandmother until his own death.
Sadly, he has no male descendants who bear the Tsivin or Sivin name.