Introduction, A Few Notes, Some Historical Background

In 2016 I published the first edition of “Paper Life,” my understanding of my grandparents Louis Battalen and Fannie Ronen’s romance.  It is based on the translations of letters and postcards, official documents and family stories.  I make no claim that this is the final word, that I have all the information or that this is 100% accurate.  Other family members likely have additional or alternate information that would inform this story.  If so, I hope they’ll pass it on to me.

The chapters on Kiev, Fastov and Voronezh appear elsewhere in this website, as do the letters and their translations.

INTRODUCTION 

This is the story, as I understand it, of a century-old romance that began in Russia when Lev (Louis) Battalen and Fenya (Fannie) Ronen were teenagers, and continued in the United States, culminating in a marriage that lasted over forty years and was only ended by death.  We are fortunate to have dozens of letters written between them, many while she lived in Kiev and he lived in Voronezh and possibly elsewhere.  They do not tell us how they met nor how the romance began.  From the letters we learn that they were teenagers, she possibly as young as 15 years old, and he two years older.  In June, 1911 Lev emigrated, and two years later, brought Fenya over to the US.  For three years they were separated by kilometers and geography, keeping their love alive through great uncertainty and, because they did, we are here today to tell their story and wonder at the parts that are still mysteries to us.

I wanted to find a narrative arc in the letters to help me understand our grandparents’ story.  What I have written here is my own perception and understanding of this arc; I have no idea if this is how our grandparents understood their own reality.  I am sure that there are other conclusions that could be drawn, depending on one’s perspective and data that additional research might provide.

The Letters

The letters between Lev and Fenya were written between sometime in 1910, which I believe is the year they met, and April, 1913, when Fenya finally joined Lev in New York.  During that time Fenya lived in Kiev and Lev lived in Voronezh, possibly sometimes Kiev and elsewhere, and then New York.  There are letters to Fenya from her family and friends after she emigrated, as well as from friends while she was still in Russia.

We do not have any of the letters that Fenya wrote to Lev while he was still in Russia, only those that she sent to him in the US; therefore what we know of her during that time can only be gleaned through Lev’s responses to her letters.

The translators noted that Lev’s Russian was clearly not his first language, that his spelling and grammar were poor.  Why did they write to each other in Russian, rather than Yiddish, a language they both knew well?  Perhaps one or both of them couldn’t write fluently in Yiddish, or perhaps they didn’t want their parents to be able to read the emotional letters that flew back and forth.  However, it is also the case that a series of nineteenth century Russian laws designed to assimilate the Jewish population promoted Russian education at the expense of traditional Jewish education.[1]  By the time our grandparents were growing up, they were most likely being educated as much if not more in secular schools than in cheders.[2]  Like young people everywhere, they probably wanted to be modern and thus different than their parents.

For years the letters were tied up in a knipple (knot) in a piece of cloth.  They remained in Lucy Battalen Fass’ home on 1320 East 7th Street in Brooklyn, NY, until my mother Ethel Battalen Goldstein convinced Lucy to give them to her.  Ethel knew a Russian immigrant hairdresser who translated a couple of the letters.  In 1999, Ethel gave me the letters and I began to seriously undertake their translation.

I worked with two graduate students in the Slavic Languages Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Laura Little and Alice Harris; Ethel provided funds so that I could pay them.  I photocopied the letters and gave the translators family trees to familiarize them with the characters they encountered in the letters.

The bulk of the letters were translated by Lydia Vaynshtayn, z”l.  Lydia had been an English teacher at a high school in Tashkent, and arrived in Madison with members of her family during the Russian refugee immigration of the early 1990’s.  Lydia had red hair, a sparkling personality and a little dog that she loved dearly. She lived in a nearby retirement community and we had her over for dinner a couple of times.  The translations reflect her idiosyncratic use of the English language.  Sometime around 2014 I worked with a young Russian Jewish woman, Catherine Vakhnina, who sorted through unidentified fragments and disconnected pages.  She was able to reconstruct several letters this way, based on textual context, handwriting and quality of the paper and pen.  She also translated the last remaining untranslated letters.

I have organized the letters by date whenever the date is clear.  Occasionally the date could be gleaned from the contents of the letter, using historical or personal references.  The dates (years) of a number of the letters remain ambiguous and their placement in the “chronology” I’ve created remains suspect.

The translation reveals a surprise

One day Lydia called, filled with quiet excitement and awe, repeating over and over, “It’s like light shining from a distant star.”  What was??  She had just translated a letter written to Fanny in New York from someone named Sarah, clearly a family member from the letter’s content.  The list of Fanny’s siblings included Nechamka, Franka and Avram; who was this Sarah?

Sarah was the “distant star,” a younger sister of whom we had never been aware!  Now rediscovered, she cast her light via a schoolgirl’s letter, given her place in the family by this vibrant English teacher from Tashkent.

 Sarah to Fannie

Hello my dear Fenichka!

How are you doing and how’s your health?  I, thank God, am fine; I hope you’re the same.  I found out that Beilis was tried in Kiev and was acquitted…[3]  Write to me and tell me how you’re living in America and send me a picture [a postcard].  Moshka always says I look like you.  And everyone who comes over also says that I look like you.  …This letter was written personally to you by me, your sister.

Sara Ronin[4]

A FEW NOTES

Style

I have referred to individuals by their Russian or Yiddish names when writing about their lives in Russia, and by their Americanized names once they immigrated.

Brackets [ ] in a letter indicate a comment by translators or myself.

To save space, I have eliminated some of the letters’ page breaks.

Quotes from letters or from someone quoted in another source are indented and italicized.  Direct quotes from sources other than the letters are indented only.

Facts & Challenges

A truth about genealogical research:  people in the same family rarely remember an event the same way.  Truth, it seems, is mutable.

At least one translator commented that Lev had poor grammar and spelling in Russian.  Along with the idiosyncrasies of handwriting, this presented challenges to the translators.

Documents often have contradictory or confusing information, including birth dates.  I’m aware of some inaccurate information (for example, the listing of son Jesse Battalen as her husband on Fannie’s death certificate), so I can only assume that there is more.

People would sometimes say they were from the most well-known large city closest to where they lived or from the Gubernaya (province), like saying you’re from “New York” when that could mean almost anything.

Responses to census questions were given by whoever answered the door and written down by someone trying to understand an accent.

For documents created in the US that asked for parents’ names (such as Social Security applications), people often assigned an equivalent English name to parents who had never lived in the US, such as “Isadore” or “Isaac” for “Yitzchak” or “Anna” for “Chanah.”

Extra syllables in names appear out of nowhere and spelling is not uniform.  In addition, transcribed documents can contain errors if the transcriber did not accurately read the original handwriting.

Ship manifests were created at the point of embarkation in Europe; names were recorded by the bursar based on how he heard the emigrants say them.  On their ships’ manifests, Louis’ last name is written “Battaly” and his sister Fanny’s name Feige is written so that the “F” looks like an “S” or “Y;” it was only through examining other information that I was able to determine that she was the person I was seeking.

At Ellis Island, officials checked names on the manifest with the names of the people presenting themselves.  Officials did not change names at Ellis Island; many people changed their names later but Ellis Island officers did not make those changes.[5]

Young Jewish men sometimes purchased false papers in order to evade the Russian draft (or perhaps for other purposes).  Some kept these false names for the rest of their lives, others reverted to their own names at some point.

Birth dates, especially years, are fluid.  They were often changed to meet a requirement for a benefit, to avoid a draft, to appear older or younger.  People didn’t always know their exact birth date.  Louis Battalen’s birthday is listed as “January 1” but we don’t know if that’s accurate.  He may have been born then, he may have been born around the time of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and taken “New Year’s Day” as his birthday in this country.  This was not an uncommon practice.  There is, however, mention of celebrating his birthday at a cousin’s wedding in January, 1911.[6]

The Russian Empire used the Julian calendar until 1918, when the new Soviet government instituted the use of the Gregorian calendar; at that time 13 days were removed from the calendar.  Therefore, during the two years that Louis was in New York and Fenya was still in Russia (1911-13) they would have been using different calendars, which may account for any date discrepancies.  Dates on documents from other than the Russian Empire, such as ship manifests, were on the Gregorian calendar.

The words “Shifscard,” “Shifskarta” (karta means card), “Shirskarta,” “Shifrocard” (the latter two I think are misreadings of the Russian handwriting) and “Ship’s Card” are interchangeable.  The translators were unable to translate this word uniformly, but it seems to be the official invitation from the sponsor in the US that one needed in order to emigrate.  Until the ship’s card was received, the process of emigration, including obtaining other necessary documents, could not begin.

Our ancestors had an annoying habit of not adequately identifying people.  Louis continually refers to sisters who marry, visit, emigrate, sing, even pay his fines…but never gives us their names!  The Ronen’s refer repeatedly to their uncle in Fastov but never by name and we don’t know which side of the family he was from.  We only ever get two names from the Fastov relatives, a second Nechamka and Yossel, who was murdered.  Friends don’t often get last names and we’re left with a bewildering assortment of Roma’s, Rosa’s, Anyuta’s, Liza’s, Misha’s and Moshka’s.

SOME HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

Brief, superficial and wholly insufficient

Our grandparents lived and acted within an historical and social context that included political upheaval, anti-Semitism, centralization of government, wars (Russo-Japanese, World War I, Russian Revolution, Russian Civil War), the radicalization of workers and intellectuals, the birth of Zionism, the flowering of the Yiddish press and literature, mass emigration, and government decrees that restricted rights, interrupted careers, forced Jews to move precipitously and caused enormous economic disruption and suffering.  They lived in a milieu that included Poles, Ukrainians, Belorussians and Russians at a time when nationalism was on the rise.

The letters mention historical events such as the 1911 assassination of Prime Minister Pyotr Arkadyevich Stolypin in Kiev, the Beilis case, the sinking of the Titanic, the 1919 Fastov pogroms and the 1912 US presidential election.

The Pale of Settlement

Until 1772, the territory that came to be called the Pale of Settlement (including the Baltic States and areas that now comprise Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova) was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.  Polish aristocrats owned much of the land and the local population was thus ruled by “foreigners.”  Many towns were owned by these magnates, who leased out the rights to run taverns and inns, log forests, make vodka and so forth, frequently to Jews.  When these territories passed to Russian control after the partitions of Poland, some of these towns were confiscated by the State.  The Russian Empire was suspicious of the Polish magnates and assumed (accurately) that they were plotting rebellion.  Efforts to control and render the Polish magnates impotent politically and economically included the destruction of the lively markets and trade of the shtetls, which had been primarily market towns.  Until that time trade had been dominated by Jews throughout Poland and the Pale.

For centuries, the Jews in Poland constituted an autonomous social body, separate and independent.  They were self-governing, a “…national and cultural, but also a civil, entity.  It formed a Jewish city within a Christian city, with its separate forms of life, its own religious, administrative, judicial, and charitable institutions.”[7]  The body that governed was known as the Kahal, which also means community and congregation (synagogues are often referred to as “Kehilla Kodesh,” or “holy congregation; in Modern Hebrew the word also means “crowd”).  The Kahal, with the blessing of what passed for government in Poland over a period of several centuries, held authority in every aspect of civil and religious life for the Jews.

The first partition of Poland by the Russian Empire, Prussia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire occurred in 1772.  Subsequent partitions in 1793 and 1795 completed the process, leaving the Russian Empire with a huge and unfamiliar Jewish population.  The Pale of Settlement was defined in 1794 and restricted Jews to live within its confines, which were mostly aligned with the land taken in the partition (strictly speaking, “Congress Poland,” or a good chunk of Poland west of the Bug River, was not part of the Pale).  While Jews were constrained from living in Russian proper, there was a great deal of movement within the Pale itself.  The Polish nobility that owned great swaths of land in the Pale was dispossessed and disenfranchised.

Having such a huge population of Jews was new, different and unsettling.  It took the Russian Empire a while to figure out what they now had and for about 20-30 years after the final partition, the government left things as they had been, for the most part.  They did outlaw international trade, which continued but was now considered to be smuggling.  Eventually they felt that in order to assimilate the Jews and make them into a “useful” entity (apparently a lively and international market economy was not sufficiently useful), they had to break the power and control of the Kahal.  This the Empire proceeded to do over the years of the 19th Century, using the levers of conscription, taxation, secular education, forced conversion and a bewildering combination of the granting of privileges accompanied by severe restrictions.  The Jews were destroyed economically by the Czar’s economic policies, which put the goal of breaking the Polish magnates above that of creating and supporting successful markets and trade.  Jewish identity was diminished and Jewish community was weakened by removing the authority of the Kahal, which was simultaneously co-opted for the State’s own purposes, such as conscription and taxation.  The result was that by the time our grandparents were adolescents, the institutions that had sustained and defined the Jewish population and kept it cohesive over centuries were essentially defunct.  However, Jews were still not considered truly Russian, their loyalties were suspect and anti-Semitism, which had not been as severe in the first 30-40 years post-partition, was rampant.[8]

Revolutionary Ferment

The Russo-Japanese War was fought in 1904-05, when our grandparents would have been school-aged children.  One result of the war and the general revolutionary foment of the times was the establishment of the Duma, a representative legislative body, which

“… along with the State Council, constituted the imperial Russian legislature from 1906 until its dissolution at the time of the March 1917 Revolution… the Duma was established by Tsar Nicholas II in his October Manifesto (Oct. 30, 1905), which promised that it would be a representative assembly and that its approval would be necessary for the enactment of legislation. But the Fundamental Laws, issued in April 1906, before the First Duma met (May 1906), deprived it of control over state ministers and portions of the state budget and limited its ability to initiate legislation effectively.”[9]

The Jews clamored for representation in this body, with limited success.

During the summer of 1905, before the enactment of the October Manifesto, numerous terrible pogroms took place, including in Zhitomir, Odessa, Kiev and Kishinev as well as outside the Pale in Voronezh, the capitol of the Province of Voronezh.  In a phone conversation, Rose Battalen Chernak’s son Stanley z”l told me that Chasha Battalen Borofskaya (Boron) was wounded in the back by a saber during this pogrom and carried the resultant scar.

The years that this generation of Battalen’s and Ronen’s lived in the Russian Empire were chaotic and dangerous, filled simultaneously with opportunity, anti-Semitism and tremendous upheaval.  The Ronen sisters lived seemingly cultured lives – their letters are full of references to having attended the theatre – yet they yearn to leave and live somewhere “where a Jew can sleep at night.”[10]

The Assassination of Stolypin

Piotr Arkadyevich Stolypin was Tsar Nicolas II’s Prime Minister.  Accompanying the Tsar on a visit to Kiev early in September of 1911, he was assassinated by Dimitri Bogrov, a revolutionary whose ancestors had been Jewish.  A pogrom was planned but halted when it became known that the Tsar did not want his visit to be marred in that way.  Nevertheless, “…nighttime roundups and expulsions of Jews dominated the local news…”[11]

Fenya to Louis 

Levochka, I am so sleepy that I must finish the letter.  Forgive me, please.  I woke up today at 5:00 a.m. because of round-up.  I wish I were in America.  I assume that there we Jews can sleep all night without being afraid and threatened.  In my damned Kiev I cannot sleep a wink.  Since Stolypin was killed, before Pesach, there was a story, some rumors, that Jews use blood to prepare matzoh.  But it is nonsense.[12]

Louis to Fenya

Fenichka, dear, I’m terribly worried about what’s going on in Kiev now. Here there are nasty rumors about Kiev.  The newspapers keep writing that a pogrom is inevitable because of the [Black] Hundreds.[13]

The Beilis Affair

In March, 1911 a thirteen year-old boy was murdered in Kiev, most likely by a gang of thieves about whom he had incriminating information.  A Ukrainian Jew, Menahem Mendel Beilis (1874–1934) was accused of ritually murdering him and the trial that followed became notorious as the “Beilis trial” or “Beilis affair.” The process sparked international criticism of the anti-Semitic policies of the Russian Empire. Beilis’s story was the basis for Bernard Malamud’s novel The Fixer, which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.  The trial took place in September and October, 1913, shortly after Fenya’s emigration.  In one letter mother Chanah Ronen wrote:

Chanah Ronen to Fannie

Forgive us for not answering sooner:  we were busy with the Bejlis [sic] affair but thank God he at least was acquitted (You are probably aware who this important person Bejlis is). 

Sister Nechamka Ronen wrote in the same letter:

Nechamka Ronen to Fannie

Forgive me for not answering your last letter for so long.  But you see – here in Russia we are following the Bejlis affair so closely that there was no time to write.  About this affair the whole newspaper was full daily, all day I am busy and wanted to know the details of this affair, therefore I had to read in the evenings…Until now I haven’t been anywhere because the Jews (I don’t know if all of them?) gave their word during Bejlis trial not to attend entertainment venues.[14]

See the section “The Ronen Family” for further discussion of the fascinating connection our family had to the Beilis case.

[1] History of the Jewish in Poland and Russia, by Simon M. Dubnow, 1918.

[2] Religious schools, primarily to educate boys.

[3] October, 1913

[4] Sara Ronen to Fannie, Kiev, November 24, 1913[5] They Came in Ships, by John P. Colletta, p. 34.

[6] Lev to Fenya, Voronezh, January 17, 1911

[7] History of the Jews in Poland and Russian, Simon M. Dubnow, p. 46.

[8] Much of this information is taken from “The Golden Age Shtetl,” by Yochanan Petrovsky-Shtern.

[9] www.britannica.com

[10] Fenya to Louis, Kiev, September 7, 1911.

[11] “Jewish Kiev” by Michael F. Hamm, p. 131

[12] Fenya, Kiev, September 7, 1911

[13] Louis to Fenya, New York, September 18.  Possibly he refers to coverage of the blood libel trial in Kiev.

[14] Ronen Family to Fannie, Beilis Reference November 4