A Cache of Letters: An Excerpt from When the River Ice Flows, I Will Come Home by Elisa Brodinsky Miller

We are pleased to present this excerpt from the first chapter of Elisa Brodinsky Miller’s When the River Ice Flows, I Will Come Home: A Memoir, coming soon from our imprint Cherry Orchard Books.

Shortly after her father’s death, Elisa Brodinsky Miller uncovered a cache of letters among his belongings. Written in Russian and Yiddish, with datelines in Tsarist and early Soviet Russia, the letters detail eight long years (1914-1922) during which Elisa’s father, his five siblings, and their mother spend apart from Elisa’s grandfather who had left for America, believing their separation would be short.

Miller, a Russian affairs specialist, learns bit by bit with each translation about the family she knew so little about, and the eight years of history they lived through, enabling her for the first time to connect her own experiences with those who came before her. This captivating memoir bridges the past with the present, as we learn about her grandparents’ struggles to escape Tsarist Russia, her parents’ hopes for their marriage in America, and her own reach for meaning and purpose: each a generation with dreams—first theirs, now hers.

By the rules of the retirement center in Bloomfield, Connecticut where my father had lived, the family was allotted five working days after his death to clear out the belongings from his cottage. My brother and I had agreed: we wouldn’t save any furniture, just the china, the stemware, the samovar, and the contents of his study. It all was to go into a storage unit near his home in Wallingford, CT. Together, later, we three siblings would sort through it all. Each of us would take what we wanted and we’d toss the rest. We doubted there would be any scraps between us; we three are much too different. Exactly a year after our father’s death, I traveled from Seattle, my sister came from Charlotte, to stay with my brother and his wife.

I knew the contents of many of those boxes marked “Books—from study.” During my visits to my father I had often looked at his books, on occasion he would gift me one or two. It was torment to stand in the storage unit and watch both my brother and my sister tear through these. Nothing seemed to matter to them. Especially the books. Even before I got a chance to say I want it, my brother was ready to put a book in the toss pile. Books that meant a lot to my father and books I wanted to keep. Once, my brother who was trying to send an oversized book into the toss bin, misjudged and instead of the toss bin the book landed on the concrete floor flat open with its spine broken and pages awry. Like kicking someone down the stairs and watching them land sprawled out and hurt. Aggression. Like when the pogromschiks entered a synagogue to tear it apart and hurled all the sacred books to the sidewalk to be burnt. Angry I was, and now nothing much left to do except to say I’ll take all his books, his notes, papers and sort through them more leisurely later.

“But Annie doesn’t want any of this in her house. There might be silverfish in the books or in the papers,” my sister Molly says. My sister who took the name of my grandmother, Manya. “You can’t take all this there, Annie and Mike don’t like clutter.”

Silverfish notwithstanding, the whole shebang was now under my gaze in the basement of my brother’s house. There were scores of postcards and letters. Amongst those letters was a small notebook wrapped in pink tissue paper. Written on the pink paper was the word “Ucraine.” I opened this small notebook of 68 numbered pages written in Russian and noted the title page: Travel Notes. The pages were brittle but the Russian handwriting was clear enough. I read the first sentence of the entry, dated August 29, 1922. We left Kiev at 12:00 noon. I turned to the last page 68 and read the last entry. We waited on the benches [of Ellis Island] until our names were called. . . . My father, always the journalist, had left me the perfect gift. I’d have him all to myself for quite a while. I couldn’t wait to take everything back to Seattle.

Finding so many letters and postcards as well as my father’s travel diary in Russian intensified my delight in the art of translation. I knew I eventually would be able to master the various handwritings and gain meaning and context from what I read. Translation was a tool I used in my work: beginning with my dissertation research and also my subsequent writings about contemporary Russia.

Eli leaves his wife and six children, 1914.

Once back at home, I was disciplined and patient. I had just sold my business, a small company publishing commercial intelligence on the Russian Far East. I would have the time. This was going to be a big project and I would start carefully, methodically. The letters and postcards addressed to Eli Brodinsky, my grandfather, in Wilmington Delaware, start just days after Eli’s ship (the m/v Carminia) left Liverpool on May 23, 1914, and continued for eight years until the week when those he left behind—his wife and six children (but one)—boarded their ship on September 26, 1922 (the m/v Lithuania) to join him.

Eight Years.

Eight very long years.

All Yiddish! I am helpless!

I could read Russian. But I couldn’t read Yiddish and the first letters to Eli were entirely in Yiddish. I could not even confirm the dates. I was helpless amongst these scribbles. I could see that many voices were present. Paragraphs showed distinct handwriting styles—slanted this way, slanted that way. Some timid. Some bold. Yet, still all squiggles. Scribbles. Helpless, indeed!

So I sought help. First there was Harry. I contacted Jewish Family Services and together we arranged I’d become a “friendly visitor” for Harry who lived alone, was 90, and wanted company. We agreed that during these weekly visits we’d read a Yiddish letter or two I’d bring. Of course, I enlarged them to make it easier for Harry. But Harry wasn’t so interested. Reading Yiddish printed in the Forward was one thing, he said, “but all this lousy handwriting?!” He’d rather teach me to play chess. (Or give me a kiss or two.) Finally, it was clear, we weren’t on the same page. So we decided to stop these visits.

Michal and Sam, in their 70s, could read the occasional letter I gave them in handwritten Hebrew. They were both born and raised in Israel. But Yiddish wasn’t for them. They did manage to read one Yiddish letter, and to help with dates and to identify all the letter writers.

Then there was Ayn, age 92, elegant and kind, who taught Yiddish at a nearby temple. But who was stymied at every turn. She did help me know which end of a letter was right-side-up, the date of the letter and, when on occasion someone had scratched a note in-between others, which note needed us to turn the letter upside-down in order to read it.

First there was Harry.

Michal and Sam

Ayn: Often she helped me know which side of a letter was right-side-up.

My Cast of Characters: Manya • Klara • Riva • Liev • Ita • Mokha • Veniamin • Isor • Meer • Iosif • Niuma • Me

Finally I found, through YIVO (Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut), Caraid, a professional translator who had taken up the study of Yiddish in college and was part of a group of young people championing its vibrant literary legacy. These letters—after the usual greetings, after pleas for more correspondence, after God’s blessings and well wishes—reveal details of the family my grandfather Eli left behind: his wife, Manya, six children who ranged in age from the youngest (four years old, my father Niuma) to the oldest (14 years old, my uncle Isor). Manya, I learn quickly, wasn’t left alone to cope. Two brothers (Mokha and Veniamin), a sister (Klara), her stepmother Miriam, and her father Liev all lived in the same village as she, the village of Gorodische which was about 100 miles south of the city of Kiev.

There were gaps, important gaps. I wanted to know more. Eli went to America, left his family and his business behind. What was this business he left behind? A shop, but what products did they sell? Was it a general mercantile store? Did the shop carry consistent inventory? Where was it located? In a typical town square type marketplace in Gorodische? Some of these questions were answered later.

What I did learn from these Yiddish letters however is that Eli had debts the family wanted to pay off, and that revenue from the retail shop business had been a traditional source of family income. Manya bought and sold for the shop in Gorodische, and also sold goods at marketplaces elsewhere: in particular the nearby larger town of Smela.

After Eli left, Manya’s brother Mokha took on the mantle of responsibility for Manya’s family. He knew the shop business. At the same time his position in the local beet factory enabled him to get Manya’s eldest son, Isor, a job there as well. So Isor works, Manya minds the shop. The other four children engage in their studies: religious and secular.

From Manya:

Isor is working at the factory as is Mokha. I sit minding the shop. . . . I don’t know why I have the few little loaves of bread left and bashekles [hooded scarves used by the Russian army] and still twenty pairs of shoes to sell. . . . Your children are well. With God’s blessing we will be together again.

Two Calendars—Gregorian and Julian

At the time these postcards and letters were written there were two calendars in use: Russia under the Tsars used the Julian calendar but the Western world used the Gregorian calendar. That is why there are two dates on every letter and every postcard written to Eli from his family: the date the Russians used at the time and the date—thirteen days later—which would be the date the Americans used.

Also notice that Americans and Russians (and Europeans) use (to this day) a different way of denoting calendar dates. In Europe and Russia the day comes first, then month, then year. The postcard you see was posted in Gorodische on 2.12.14. Thus the postcard (written on December 1st) was posted on December 2nd. For Americans? the month comes first, then day, then year.

It’s easy to get confused, and this difference still exists.

Elisa Brodinsky Miller, PhD, has a long career in Russian Far East business and trade: both in academia (University of Washington) and in the business community. Based in Seattle, her monthly publication, Russian Far East Update (1991-1999) provided commercial intelligence on the Russian Far East for a global readership. Alongside her newsletter, she published four editions of The Russian Far East: A Business Reference Guide.  She presently works in graphic narrative and lives on Whidbey Island in the State of Washington.

When the River Ice Flows, I Will Come Home is available here and wherever you buy your books.