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Mass. woman recaptures Jewish-American love story

  • AP MEMBER FEATURE EXCHANGE FOR JAN. 11-12 -- This 2013 photo shows an item on display in the exhibit, “No One Remembers Alone: Memory, Migration and the Making of an American Family,” at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass.  The exhibit tells a love story that survived revolution, mob violence and a transatlantic journey, and relates well a classic chapter of the American immigrant experience. (AP Photo/Daily Hampshire Gazette, Carol Lollis)

    AP MEMBER FEATURE EXCHANGE FOR JAN. 11-12 -- This 2013 photo shows an item on display in the exhibit, “No One Remembers Alone: Memory, Migration and the Making of an American Family,” at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass. The exhibit tells a love story that survived revolution, mob violence and a transatlantic journey, and relates well a classic chapter of the American immigrant experience. (AP Photo/Daily Hampshire Gazette, Carol Lollis)

  • AP MEMBER FEATURE EXCHANGE FOR JAN. 11-12 -- In this 2013 photo, Lisa Newman, director of communications at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., poses at the exhibit, “No One Remembers Alone: Memory, Migration and the Making of an American Family.” The exhibit tells a love story that survived revolution, mob violence and a transatlantic journey, and relates well a classic chapter of the American immigrant experience.  (AP Photo/Daily Hampshire Gazette, Carol Lollis)

    AP MEMBER FEATURE EXCHANGE FOR JAN. 11-12 -- In this 2013 photo, Lisa Newman, director of communications at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., poses at the exhibit, “No One Remembers Alone: Memory, Migration and the Making of an American Family.” The exhibit tells a love story that survived revolution, mob violence and a transatlantic journey, and relates well a classic chapter of the American immigrant experience. (AP Photo/Daily Hampshire Gazette, Carol Lollis)

  • AP MEMBER FEATURE EXCHANGE FOR JAN. 11-12 -- This 2013 photo shows an item on display in the exhibit, “No One Remembers Alone: Memory, Migration and the Making of an American Family,” at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass.  The exhibit tells a love story that survived revolution, mob violence and a transatlantic journey, and relates well a classic chapter of the American immigrant experience. (AP Photo/Daily Hampshire Gazette, Carol Lollis)
  • AP MEMBER FEATURE EXCHANGE FOR JAN. 11-12 -- In this 2013 photo, Lisa Newman, director of communications at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., poses at the exhibit, “No One Remembers Alone: Memory, Migration and the Making of an American Family.” The exhibit tells a love story that survived revolution, mob violence and a transatlantic journey, and relates well a classic chapter of the American immigrant experience.  (AP Photo/Daily Hampshire Gazette, Carol Lollis)

It started with a casual conversation between friends.

As writer and researcher Patricia Klindienst recalls, her friend Alice Linder turned to her one day in 2004 when the two were in Linder’s kitchen and said, “Did I ever tell you how gardening played a role in my grandfather’s escape from czarist Russia?”

Inspired by that moment, Klindienst, a Hampshire College graduate who lives in Connecticut, has fashioned an exhibit at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., that tells a love story that survived revolution, mob violence and a trans-Atlantic journey, and relates well a classic chapter of the American immigrant experience.

“No One Remembers Alone: Memory, Migration and the Making of an American Family,” which runs through March 24, is the story of Abram Spiwak and Sophia Schochetman, Russian Jews who fell in love in 1905, were forced to flee separately to America, and reconnected in New York City a few years later. They would go on to raise several children and run successful businesses, in particular a string of greenhouses, that helped them finance the emigration of dozens of other family members from Russia.

But until now, it’s a story that’s been known largely in fragments by surviving family members and their descendants. By knitting together those bits and pieces, and by using the internet to plumb online archives and enlist the help of volunteers from 16 countries, Klindienst has compiled a strong narrative, using original postcards, photographs, letters and other materials to illustrate the story.

“This could be the story of so many people who came to this country,” said Klindienst, who had three grandparents born in Italy. “I’m passionate about the immigrant experience, and the more I learned (about the family), the more I felt that I had to find a way to tell their story.”

A history of research

Klindienst, who graduated from Hampshire in 1973, later earned advanced degrees from Boston and Stanford universities and at one time taught at Yale University. She left academia to do independent research and writing, and in 2007 won an American Book Award for The Earth Knows My Name, a profile of ethnic American families who maintain their cultural heritage through the produce they grow in their gardens.

For No One Remembers Alone, Klindienst spoke to 36 members and descendants of the original family, including two of Abram and Sophie’s surviving children, Dorothy Field and Ruth Becker, both in their 90s. She also did research online, tracking down information such as ship manifests from the early 1900s. Through the internet, she also found people in 16 countries who helped translate or illuminate decades worth of family correspondence and other papers.

Yet the exhibit only represents a small part of the information and materials she’s gathered on the family. To tell their full story, she’s planning to publish a book that will make use of all her research, including more details on Sophie’s side of the family.

“It’s a visual biography of the family – all the images, the photos, the postcards really tell the story in very intimate way that goes beyond a straight narrative,” Klindienst said. “It’s a much better way to reach a broad audience.”

Still, the exhibit tells a rich tale as well, with historical information on the last years of czarist Russia, Jewish emigration from Europe during that period, and details of Abram and Sophie’s courtship. Louis Mackall, Klindienst’s husband and an architect and cabinetmaker, has built special standing displays for many of the postcards in the show that allow viewers to see both the back and front of these historic and intimate items, which were a frequent form of communication in their day.

After that chance discussion in 2004 between Klindienst and her friend Linder, Linder gave Klindienst a copy of a short autobiography Abram Spiwak had dictated to a niece in the 1970s, and Klindienst later spoke with Dorothy Field, Linder’s mother and one of Abram’s surviving daughters. From there, she began doing internet research connected to these family memories and “suddenly realized this was an epic story, and I had to learn more about it.”

Uncovering their story

Abram Spiwak grew up in an area of southwestern Russia once known as Bessarabia, which later became part of Romania and is now divided between Moldova and Ukraine. The youngest of eight children in a poor Jewish family, as a teenager he attended an agricultural school founded by Baron Maurice de Hirsch, a 19th-century German-Jewish philanthropist who created charities to educate Jews, particularly in agriculture, and to help them emigrate from Europe.

Sophie Schochetman, meanwhile, grew up in the Black Sea port of Odessa, where she was apprenticed as a teen to a master tailor. Through an incident related to a gardening job Abram had, the two met and fell in love in 1905, when Abram was 17 and Sophie 15.

But it was a deadly time in Russia for workers and especially for Jews, Klindienst says. A wave of political and social unrest – industrial strikes, military mutinies, peasant rebellions against landlords – collectively known as the Revolution of 1905 roiled the country, leading to thousands of deaths and arrests. Some of the violence also took the form of pogroms, most notoriously in Odessa, where in October 1905 some 400 Jews – possibly more – were killed and perhaps 3,000 Jewish families had homes and businesses destroyed or damaged.

“The anti-Semitism in Russia at that time was probably the worst in Europe,” Klindienst said. She notes that a pogrom in 1903 in the city of Kishinev, the capital of Bessarabia and near Abram’s hometown, and the one in Odessa convinced many Jews that they could not remain in Russia, while also spurring some to fight back.

“Abram and Sophie were part of a generation that became radicalized,” she said. “They armed themselves.”

Sophie and her family, having lost everything in the Odessa pogrom, emigrated to New York in early 1906 with money from relatives who had earlier resettled in Philadelphia. Abram, lovesick and in danger of arrest – he was passing as a Christian to do gardening work – snuck out of Bessarabia with a few rubles for bribing border guards and, over a year and a half, made his way across central Europe to Belgium, then to Canada and eventually to New York.

There, he and Sophie reconnected, using postcards to set up times to meet; Abram’s agricultural skills got him work in a nursery in New Jersey, while Sophie opened a dress shop in Manhattan. The two were married in 1909 and soon began sending money back to Russia to help other family members come to America, including four of Abram’s six sisters and their families. Some family members went to Argentina and Canada.

Putting together all this information ultimately took Klindienst about six years. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” she said with a laugh.

But it also helped her develop close ties with surviving family members and their descendants; she describes sitting on the floor with some of them, sifting through boxes of old photographs, postcards, letters – in Yiddish, Russian, Spanish, Romanian and other languages – and recording lengthy interviews with people.

“I felt I had a duty to earn their trust, to be absolutely transparent about my intent,” she said. “When that happened, they completely opened up their lives to me, for which I am very, very grateful.”

No one person in the group could tell the whole narrative, she notes, which led her to keep members updated as she uncovered more information. Ultimately, it became a quintessential American immigrant success story, as Abram and Sophie became prosperous enough to weather the Great Depression and send their six children – including a nephew they raised as their own son – to college.

The exhibit (and the forthcoming book) are really “about re-creating the past, and about people creating a new life in America,” Klindienst said. One exhibit display captures that second theme with great humor: It’s a copy of a 1929 article from a Queens, N.Y., newspaper that describes how 16-year-old Lillian Spiwak, one of Abram and Sophie’s daughters, showed local girls how to apply modern cosmetics when she traveled with her father in 1929 to what had then become part of Romania.

Klindienst is happy the exhibit is making its debut right by her alma mater: “It feels like coming home.”

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