Last fall marked the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Nashville community member Avi Poster joined countless others in paying homage to the stories of family members who escaped the ravages, repression and cruelty of 20th century Russia as well as so many other places. He wrote that his family’s brave escape from Russia in the aftermath of revolution, and the suffering they endured, led to and shaped the rich life he has been so fortunate to enjoy and for which he is grateful. Following is his telling of his grandmother’s story:
By AVI POSTER
Life during and following the Russian Revolution proved to be one of the epic, most explosive times in history. Led by Vladimir Lenin, the Bolsheviks (who later morphed into the Communist Party) seized power, ending the Romanov dynasty and centuries of Russian Czarist imperial rule, and creating chaos and continued authoritarian rule in its wake. Lenin and his comrades, who gained power on the promise of a proletarian-run state, set into motion the political and social changes that would ultimately lead to the formation of the Soviet Union and a hundred years of Communist dictatorship.
Decades earlier most Russian Jews, subject to the historic anti-Semitism we have forever been victim to, were banished to the western region of Imperial Russia, The Pale of Settlement, outside of which residency was severely restricted. Civil war broke out in the confusion following the 1917 revolution such that Jews could not easily distinguish who their enemies were … who their few friends were. Both Lenin’s Red Army and the democratic socialists’ White Army took turns pillaging and destroying their neighborhoods and villages, raping and beating inhabitants, burning homes and confiscating property, with the aim of obliterating what little remained of Jewish culture and Chasidic life. It is within this backdrop that the heroic journey of Shaindel Posternak resides.
Beginnings in Ukraine
Shaindel grew up in Pavalitch, her parents’ hometown, about 60 miles southeast of Kiev. At the age of 20 she was married off to Berel Dov Posternak, my namesake, a miller in the neighboring town of Skvyra just ten miles up the road. Dov was a successful businessman, a catch so to speak, who could be counted on to help his new extended family. He was also a widower with three very young daughters and a blind mother-in-law in his care to boot. Shaindel adopted Dov’s family as her own, then bore him three children of her own: Shlomo (Sidney, my father), David and Rachel (Rochelle).
Skvyra was a town of 20,000, nearly half of which was Jewish. Like most Ukrainian Jewish communities, it fell siege to the various warring factions seeking power and riches. Three brutal pogroms took place in 1918, followed by six more in 1919.
During the last one, Bolsheviks rode through town just as the White Army left, riding in on horseback, beating everyone in sight and stealing whatever the Whites did not cart away. They burst into the Posternak home; beat Dov to death, next turning on Shlomo who was recovering from rheumatic fever. The beat him while he was lying in bed, so badly that he lost hearing in one ear. Shaindel threw herself over him during while blows rained, only to be knocked unconscious.
Journey of courage and hope
Almost immediately following Shiva for her husband, Dov, Shaindel packed up her three children, along with her three stepchildren and one Klezmer stepson-in-law, and began the family trek to America.
It was a long, arduous, dangerous journey that ultimately led to Ellis Island, where our family name was changed to Poster, and a storied life in this country. En route Shaindel and Shlomo, her oldest child, rented a boat to cross the Baltic, bribed bandits and soldiers, and lived for a year in Romania before receiving the paperwork necessary to enter this country.
Our family story in the United States is a beautiful one. Shaindel brought the family to live in Chicago near a brother who had escaped czarist Russia years before. The Poster brothers joined newfound family in business (Nathansons and Rappaports) and became successful manufacturers of fine leather goods.
My father, ever grateful for the opportunities living here, devoted himself to family and community, supporting Jewish causes, joining social justice and civil rights movements, becoming a staunch supporter of the establishment of a Jewish State.
Examples and legacies
Shaindel did the same. Without learning the English language, she devoted herself to serving the poor, advancing Yiddishkeit in a local folk school, synagogue life, and more. She always lived with us, not just because dad was the oldest of her children, but I would like to believe her favorite. Mama Fannie devoted her life to deferring to her as the head of our household. Shaindel distinguished herself as a pillar of Chicago’s storied West Side Jewish community, leader in the Zionist movement, and as a founder of Chicago’s Pioneer Women (Na’amat). Both Shaindel and her son, Sidney, walked this earth as true Tzaddiks.
There is one more story to be considered at the foot of this 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, and that is the story of those left behind in the motherland, including members of our family who for a variety of reasons feared remaining in touch with us during the Stalin regime and after.
These are people who continued to be forced to endure lasting anti-Semitism, the brutality of dictatorship, the challenges of maintaining Jewish identity and culture in a society that did not welcome either. Like other minorities in the emerging Soviet Union they were not allowed to start businesses, own property, accumulate assets. Until the great Soviet Jewry emigration three decades ago, when a million escaped, they were not allowed to leave, not allowed to live a Jewish life. They faced the hardship of relentless discrimination, stalled advancement, restrictions on religious practice, dismantled Jewish institutions.
It is in their name that heroines like Shaindel conducted their virtuous lives. •