From “Paper Life,” by Louise Goldstein

When and how did they meet?

The short answer is, we don’t know.  The letters we have date from as early as 1910; in them, one gets the impression that Lev had been working in Kiev, perhaps in some sort of factory. Most of Lev’s letters written in Russia were from Voronezh and Fenya’s, from Kiev.

In my 1995 conversation with Stanley Chernak (son of Rose Battalen), I asked him if he knew how Lev and Fenya met.  He said he wasn’t sure, but that Lev traveled around a lot, looking “to latch on to some kind of business;” perhaps that’s how he ended up in Kiev.

I suspect that they met on May 15, 1910; this is the date Louis lists for their marriage on his Petition for Naturalization.  Since Lev was born in 1893 and Fenya in 1895, he could have been 17 or 18 and she around 15 old.

I don’t think they were legally married on that date, because after she emigrated, Fenya’s sister Franka asked her when she will become engaged.

 Franka to Fenya

Fenya, I want to ask you something, but forgive my question…when will you get engaged?  I think it is time.  I wish you to be happy (will you forgive?).[1]

Their first child, Jesse (named Isadore at birth) was born on May 28, 1914, a month after this letter was written.

Fanny & Louis Battalen, pregnant with Jesse

Anything is possible, including that the birth dates are inaccurate (different documents show different birth years). Certainly by December, 1910 when Lev wrote three passionate love letters to Fenya, he was committed.  Unfortunately, we don’t have the letters Fenya wrote to Lev while he was still in Russia.  We have not yet seen a marriage certificate and there is no mention of a marriage in the letters.

There is a family story that they were married in Roxbury, MA, in the home of the Schwartz’ and Schulman’s, but I am still seeking documentary verification.

Whenever and however they met, they began the correspondence that resulted in the letters, four children and nine grandchildren.

It is clear that Lev was smitten.  This was his reaction when he met Fenya, expressed in a letter a few years later: 

Louis to Fenya

… I met you, and from that moment was overwhelmed. I came to love You with a genuine love…You I came to love as a Goddess, and from the first day you were sacred to me.[2]

Our grandfather was deeply, madly, passionately, unequivocally in love with Fenya.  His confessions of love read like something out of a Romance novel, written by a man in love with a young woman who he complains is unsure of his steadfastness and determination (of which he was VERY sure).

Fenya Ronen, in picture frame.

Louis to Fenya

I think about that evening, you didn’t know yet that I was in love with you, but couldn’t tell you.  The only man who knew was Roma, he was a good friend.  When I told him what decision I made (not to meet with you anymore), he tried… [to persuade me] not to do it because he knew that it could make me sick, ruin me, destroy my life.[3]

 

Lev to Fenya

Yes, Fenichka, you can help me, you can bring joy to my soul, and help me become happy, and it very well may be that…you will feel pity for me, and…bring joy and happiness to my soul…I can’t hide my feelings any longer…In your presence I don’t recognize myself, seeing you I feel only agitation in my soul and I’m both happy and sad.

…Fenichka – I can’t [take it] any more. I didn’t want to use the words of love, I wanted you to understand me, but I can’t, I love you. Fenichka you put a spell on me, without spells put a spell on me, I myself don’t know how, I came to love you, seeing how cold you always were to me, and I don’t care what it takes. I can’t live happily in peace for even a minute without you…

She must have responded with encouragement and he dares to address her informally:

Lev to Fenya  

Darling Fenichka! 

Thank you so much, I can’t think of the words to express my gratitude for the letter. Fenichka, you’re [Note: he uses ‘ty’ – the informal/intimate version of the pronoun “you”] quite right I still don’t have the right to express myself so, not having permission to do so. But Fenichka forgive the expression. I can’t do otherwise; I consider you mine and can’t address…as the word thee [‘Vy,’ the plural and formal version of you] I beg you – act towards me just as I do towards you…With every day my feelings grow stronger and only the thought of how to establish a foundation all the sooner so as to bring you to me. How joyous I become at the thought that perhaps even soon you will be 

p.2

with me…Everything depends on your will/wishes…Fenichka, you told me that you doubt the faithfulness of my love. If only that holds you back then Fenichka I won’t say much – just one thing – that my life is bound up with the Ronins’…I would sooner agree to deprive myself of life than of you. Believe my words, I’m not fantasizing, but am telling you what I feel, not joking. I can’t live without you.  I came to love you with a love that is true/faithful – eternal. Help me Fenichka. You will get used to me and come to love me as I do you. You will be happy with me…Fenichka, it cannot be otherwise – either forever with you or — no, I can’t even imagine, don’t want to…[4]

Imagine:  a young woman meets an attractive man, they walk through the beautiful Kiev parks on the bluffs overlooking the Dnieper River, share poetry and go to the theater.  He is working independently, establishing himself as a man.  They fall in love, they see each other irregularly because he returns to Voronezh.  She is eager to have more than a “paper life”[5] and her parents are on her case over this “unknown man.”  There are hints that these parental objections and concerns continued after he immigrated to the US.

The letters give hints that they were able to get together and spend some time together while still in Russia, that the romance did not exist only on paper:

Lev to Fenya

I don’t know if I go to Kiev, maybe I’ll come soon but I don’t know when yet…[6]

Lev to Fenya 

…I want to see you.  Every day is tough for me, I am not happy, all the time irritated.  I cannot stay here anymore.  I want to be in Kiev and in general to leave this place.[7]

Lev to Fenya 

And so that period of time I wanted to spend in Kiev, that’s why I wrote to my former boss…Fenichka, I’m doing this against my will, for I left him once [already]. I don’t wish to enter into it again, but the desire to see you overpowered my pride, and I decided to work for him for one month.[8]

Lev to Fenya  

Dear Fenichka, 

My Fenya, I will be in Kiev sometime, approximately by Pesach.  Be patient, soon we will be together.  I can wait as long as it must be, knowing that at last we are together.[9]

 Lev to Fenya 

I’ll talk with you personally when we meet…[10]

Lev’ personality comes through in the letters very clearly: an ambitious young man, willing and ready to work hard, in charge of his own destiny, he plans thoroughly and wants to see things through to the end, doesn’t like to leave things unfinished and wants everything to be in place before moving to the next step.

Lev to Fenya

… I won’t take my mind off the idea I’ve conceived for a minute, and will strive with all my soul toward its attainment…[11]

 Lev to Fenya

 I will not waiver from my plan and I’ll do my best to fulfill my plan… [12]  

 Lev to Fenya 

Anyway, we wish only one thing:  to get to America without problems and to survive…  I have only one wish, to get there as soon as I can…

He comes across as being in touch with his feelings and able to express them.  He is sure of his feelings for her; even when he thinks she is “cold” to him, he never wavers or doubts.

Lev to Fenya 

… Your words sound so cold that I truly can’t find out/recognize anything.  How many times have I asked, pleased to be open, express my feelings to share even a little bit of my love which I feel for You and You what [And what do You do?] always in a monotone always coldly…let’s take for example [your] last letter…the whole letter the beginning as well as the end rings with such a weakness of feelings, with such coldness…why tarry/be slow don’t tire/torment me my dear let there be an end to all this formality and be open with me…[13]

 When Lev talks about their future in the United States, he is firm that “his woman” will not have to work, that he will provide everything she needs.  He insists that he be “established” in the US before bringing her over and begs her to understand that if he doesn’t write, it’s because he’s working such long hours on behalf of their future life together.[14]

Lev to Fenya 

My dear, do you remember the evening when we were walking in the park and talking about our life?  You said then that you are against those young people who, not doing well enough, get married…And I told you, if I fall in love I would wait till I am self-sufficient and can give my love everything she needs.  Remember my words that I would never forgive myself if my woman has to work because of me…[15] 

 Lev to Fenya  

One must have some savings…I don’t know why, for some reason, it seems to me when I’m writing I know one thing, and if there is a G[od] it is to him as well, that I’m pouring out the truths of my soul: I am entirely absorbed by my efforts for the future and only wish for our happiness…[16]

Fenya’s personality is less well-outlined.  She seems quite young when they meet, living with parents who do not approve of her correspondence with this “unknown man.”

Lev to Fenya 

…Dear Fenichka, what happened?  Please write me a letter…maybe your parents make it worse [try to spoil], but think you won’t bear it for long.  Please write down everything, whether they calmed down… [17]

The Ronen’s appear to be a younger family than the Battalen’s, which is marrying off daughters with dizzying speed, while Fenya appears to be the eldest or second eldest of the Ronen children.  Her father is a tailor, not a scholar, sewing uniforms for the Tsar’s army.  The impression from Fenya’s letters and from Lev’s responses is of a young woman who on the one hand appears cold and emotionally withholding – or perhaps she is simply shy and inexperienced – but on the other hand, determined and faithful in the face of skeptical family and friends who distrust Lev’s intentions.  She seems distrustful of men and declares that both the separation and any extended silence from Lev is killing her and “destroying her health”

Fenya to Louis 

…Remember, Lyova, I was telling you that you would leave and forget everything. And now I see that it’s true. It never pays to trust men. Although it was very difficult for me to believe you, and once I already trusted you, then I was tricked and abandoned…[18]

Lev’s letters provide a sense that he thought Fenya might have been withholding, cold and perhaps a bit manipulative.  She can perhaps be forgiven were that the case, as she was rather young and inexperienced.

Lev to Fenya

Fenichka, I am begging you, make it possible to answer me.  Sometimes I think you are delaying with your letter because of my delay.  But this cannot be true, never.  These are only my thoughts and I am trying to get away from them…[19]

Lev appears to be a busy young man who cares about his family, attending weddings, visiting, corresponding, and socializing.  He repeatedly justifies his tardy responses by citing his family and/or work obligations. 

Lev to Fenya

… Dear, if you could see how I spent the time that I didn’t write to you, I hope that, other than sympathy, you wouldn’t feel anything. How can you demand anything from a man who doesn’t even have a couple of spare minutes to rest in a day, so as to be able to go on working? Dear, if not for our future, then why should I slave away? Would a man uninterested in his future agree to work so?[20]

Lev to Fenya 

Dear Fenichka, 

You are undoubtedly waiting for me to write before you’ll answer, and never want to take into account that I don’t have any free time. I just managed to celebrate my sister’s wedding. I haven’t even had a chance to recover. When I rest a bit I’ll write a detailed letter…[21]

Lev to Fenya 

Sweet Fenichka! 

…I had to go away for the holiday – Purim…but in spite of all that I wanted to go to Kiev, when my sister’s wedding took place, and believe me, dear, that I was very busy, couldn’t tear myself away even for a minute…[22]

Lev to Fenya 

My sister came from the Kavkaz [Caucasus].  She came to tell me goodbye…She is fun, she sings well and every evening we gather together and she sings.[23]

Lev to Fenya 

Good Day, Baby, 

What a sad letter you’ve written to me.  I really missed a few days and did not answer your letter, but I had a reason for that.  I think I wrote to you that my cousin is going to get married.  The marriage ceremony was in Kursk.  I was so busy that I could not find a minute.  We had such a wonderful time, visited many relatives and stayed there till January 12.  We had celebration after celebration, I was always somewhere with people, we celebrated the marriage, then my birthday and my future departure.[24]

Once Lev emigrates, Fenya is left waiting in Russia.  She is lonely and ashamed that she has to answer to her relatives who believe that she has been abandoned and wonder why it takes Louis so long to send for her.  She suspects that she takes second place to his sisters.

Louis to Fenya 

…those who say you are too patient are not right…By their judgment, you shouldn’t wait such a long time.  They don’t understand our feelings, attachment, relationship.  They don’t know the situation, but they are only sorry that you have to wait; they wonder at your patience…[25]

Louis to Fenya  

Of course I sympathize with you about the unpleasantness of family and acquaintances. But Fenichka, at present I pay them no heed and advise you to pay little attention, too[26]

Through all of this, there is the suspicion that sometimes her parents were keeping his letters from her, leading her to accuse him of not writing at all.

Louis to Fenya

…then I wrote again where I was asking you why there’s no answer to my eighth letter, and it’s apparent you didn’t receive a single one of my letters. That’s what that means – the misunderstanding is because of this/that. Because I never miss seven weeks without writing…They simply don’t pass them along. And that’s why unnecessary accusations occur, and all the rest.[27] 

Louis to Fenya 

Hello, dear. 

I conclude from your letters, that [they] do not hand over my letters to you.  To behave like that is quite tactless.  [So?] strange, for the last month I sent 2 letters, 4 views [picture postcards] – and you didn’t get anything after all.  Fenichka, go to Liza – she will let you know about [something] very important.  The sooner you see each other, the better.

 Your Lev[28]

Can she be faulted for doubting him? After all, she has so little to go on, other than his written words.  He is determined to emigrate, and the months leading up to his departure are filled with opportunities to see each other that are missed, due to family obligations.

Once he emigrates, he delays bringing her over because he has to pay his debt to sister Chaike and her husband Elias Passoff, who paid for his passage, send money to help his parents when they are expelled from Voronezh, repay his sister Sarah for the fine he incurred for draft-dodging and then pay for her passage, or is out of work.  For close to two years, Louis worked and saved money in New York and Fenya waited for him to send her the document she needed to emigrate.

Louis to Fenya                               

But now I’m working overtime and I’m making 15 dollars a week…I’m paying my sister back for the Shifscard, besides paying for room and board, but I’m also saving up for the future… When I arrived I owed her 148 dollars. Now I have paid back 38 of those for the Shifscard since I started working…[29]

Louis to Fenya

Hello, Fenichka. 

… in the off-season, so I couldn’t find another position. And so Fenichka my despair knew no bounds…Imagine my situation, after all, when everything was already settled and I wrote to you that you would be here soon, and suddenly this happens…What can be done, when fate has dealt me such a poor hand? Of course I sympathize with you about the unpleasantness of family and acquaintances…[30]

Louis to Fenya

 But my sister had to pay a fine [because he evaded the draft] because first of all my parents were sent out of Voronezh and [illeg?] doesn’t know where they are.[31]

Fenya is hurt that his sister is a higher priority than she is:

Fenya to Louis 

 I didn’t write those letters with ink but with my tears. Do you know why I wrote them this way? It is so painful, I write and write on those days when I don’t get a response from you. I am ashamed in front of my relatives, they blame me that I always write but don’t get responses, see that it is painful for me. Levochka, you wrote that you sent a letter to your sister because she has to pay fines for you. I am wondering if the sister, you are as important to me as a brother to me, it does not matter, the sister is more important than some… Fenya…[32]

Louis’ response is reasonable, but probably not satisfying:

Louis to Fenya 

Fenichka what would you do if you got a letter that said your sister was in danger?  And I, realizing that I am the only one who is responsible for that [a reference to him leaving illegally and his sister had to pay a fine].  How could I behave?  What should I do?[33]

WE know that he meant every word, but she was the one left waiting and wondering.  The long wait fuels her distrust and insecurity. 

Fenya to Louis 

Hello dear Lyova!

…Sweet Lyova, surely I don’t deserve such treatment, for you not to write to me. Today it’s exactly 6 weeks since I’ve heard anything from you. I’m so sick of waiting that I can’t take it anymore. It seems to me I’ll soon fall ill if I don’t get a letter from you. I would just like to know why you don’t write to me…

… And [you] took away my life and my happiness. In a word, everything that I lived by. This, in my opinion, is very unfair – to torment a person. One or the other – here or there. After all, this has to end sometime, Lyova. If you can send me the Shifscard after Passover, very good…[34]

Fenya to Louis 

But imagine, I go to the post office every day and no letters from you.  I feel so terrible and lonely.  If you could only know how much your letters mean to me.  I am waiting for your letters and you do not sympathize with me.  It’s been two years since we’ve been corresponding.  I wonder for how long we will write to each other.[35]

 Fenya to Louis

In general, I am already tired of my correspondence, only G-d knows, but I think that our correspondence will end soon.

 Fenya to Louis

It is so hard to live here.  I live in the emptiness.  It must be one or the other, no in-between two chairs.[36] 

Fenya to Louis 

You don’t write anything to me. Everyone asks me when I am going. I’m only hurt by their questioning. I can’t very well express what’s on my heart in response.  Lyovochka today 6 weeks that there’s no response.[37]

Louis encourages her to remember, in the face of family criticism, what really counts, but it is so hard to be separated for so long, to be lonely and to be living between two worlds, unable to move forward.  Despite all, her love remains strong, albeit mixed with expressions of the emotional difficulty of waiting for his letters and for his official invitation to emigrate.

Fenya to Louis

It is very sad that we cannot be together again.  It just happened so, but I believe we are going to be together.  We will wait, especially I will; this is my destiny.  I’ve been waiting for so long.  If you knew how unbearable it is for me to wait, to wait for your letters.  They are taking all my health.  Try to understand, Levochka, what that means to me, to wait for your letters, if I get the answer in two months.  And I’ve sent you three letters already.  You haven’t answered even one.  What I’ve suffered through these months!  Something might have happened to you in this far away America (that’s what I thought).[38]

And it seems that Fenya is not above taking some “revenge” on Louis if she’s feeling neglected or hurt, or at least that is how Louis interprets her silences:

Louis to Fenya 

…It was strange to me that you wrote that you would wait and not be the first to write. And suddenly for some reason a lot of time had passed and there was no answer. And so it seemed to me that you wanted to get back at me… 

…there’s no belief, no sympathy, and instead of compassion – revenge. But what is this for? How long will this absurdity, this capriciousness which I never deserved, go on? 

…Oh, my dear, believe me your silence tears at my heart. When I know that you don’t want to write on purpose…it seems to me that getting back at me is uncalled for…If you think that you need to get back at me some more, then you know best. I will wait, but it’s not my fault.[39]

Fenya also has a practical side, expressing the desire to work and not be dependent on Louis, understanding that financial stability is necessary and hinting that perhaps they should not be physically intimate when she first arrives.  This, I suspect, is what the phrase “independent life” means.

Fenya to Louis 

But be assured, Leva, that I will not come to America impudently [cavalierly], even Roma will let me see that it is not good to come and have independent life at the time when a person is not well established… But if I wrote to you that I want to be together with you, it does not mean independent life. Leva, I understand the life very well and I know how bad it is to have independent life without being well established. Of course, it is desirable for us to be together but apparently it is not the time yet…

And then, Louis simply can’t wait any longer, swallows his pride and suggests asking for her parents’ to fund her trip to Antwerp and the necessary documents.

Louis to Fenya 

… Fenichka, your Ship’s card costs 110 rubles. So right now it presents some difficulty for me to also provide [the money for] you for the trip/road…I would like to know whether your parents will be able to provide this sum for you, that is enable you to get the local/district passport and train ticket to Antwerp…if I could possibly send you the money for the trip right now, I wouldn’t wait even single minute longer…if I ask your Parents to help us to make the first steps, that means I can’t do otherwise. And in order to put an end to this long separation…we must have someone’s help…tell them…that as soon as I settle down a bit, I’ll send them what they spent on your trip…I beg your Parents, if they can I’ll be eternally grateful to them. [40]

From Fenya’s response, it appears that her parents were agreeable to the loan:

Fenya to Louis

Levochka, not much is needed in order to send the loan to you…it seems to me.[41]

Finally the time comes when Louis can send Fenya the ship’s card and she can emigrate; Louis is full of advice, even though the official material he includes the exact same advice in Yiddish:

Louis to Fenya

And make sure to get a travel gubernskiy [provincial] passport. As soon as you get the passport, you will take this shirskarta and send with a registered letter…to [the ship company in] Antwerp when and what hour, they will prepare a cabin for you and tell you what time you must come, and will send you an itinerary, what stations, what way…

…bring a nice dress with you, because you’re traveling second class and you need to dress appropriately.  That will make a better impression, especially when you arrive in New York.  If a girl is dressed appropriately, she will be better respected.[42]

He then advises her to lie about the nature of their relationship:

Louis to Fenya

If they ask you to whom you are going in New York, say that you’re going to your [female] cousin and [male] cousin.  If they ask if your [female] cousin is married, say yes; and if they ask about your [male] cousin, say no. 

You know the name of your [female] cousin, Chaya Passoff.  The name of your [male] cousin is Louis Batalin.[43]

On Ellis Island, “The most commonly detained immigrants were women traveling alone (or with her children), destined to a husband, fiancé, or male relative. These women could not be admitted without assurance that someone would care for and protect them…”[44]  Ida (Chaya) was detained overnight on Ellis Island when she arrived, and was only released after she and Elias Passoff were married the next day, right there at Ellis Island.[45]  Apparently, Louis wants to avoid this.

In case Fenya doesn’t get the message, he reiterates in another letter:

Louis to Fenya

Say that you have “Kuzins” in New York, which means [male and female] cousins…So, they’ll ask you who you’re going to, say [written in Yiddish] “schvesterskinder.” If they ask what your cousins’ names are, tell them that their names are with the addresses. If they ask you if your [female] cousin is married, say yes, and the male cousin – no.[46]

In October, 1995 I spoke with Sophie Passoff Korb (then aged 90) on the telephone.  She told me this story:

Sophie was seven years old when Louis Battalen arrived in New York.  It was a hot July day in 1911 and her mother Ida went to take a bath to cool off, telling Sophie not to open the door for any reason.  Sometime later there was a knock on the door and she asked who it was.  The response was, “The man from HIAS[47] with your uncle.”

Sophie also remembered Fannie’s arrival two years later.  She recalled that Fannie was darkly attractive, and she stayed with the Passoff’s and Louis.  A few months later Sophie noticed that Fannie was pregnant; she asked her mother, who confirmed that this was so.  “But they’re not married,” Sophie said.  Ida’s response was, “Your uncle is very persuasive.”

It’s a measure of how much Louis yearned to start his life with Fannie that within a week of her April 15 arrival, he sent her a postcard called “The First Lullaby,” showing a couple with a newborn child, postmarked April 22, 1913.[48]

[1] Franka to Fannie, Kiev, April 20, 1914

[2] New York, 12 Sept. (either 1911 or 1912.)

[3] Ibid

[4] December  2nd 1910

[5] Lev to Fenya, Voronezh, February 24, 1911

[6] Pre-June 4, 1911

[7] April 14, no year (probably 1911), from Voronezh

[8] March 23 (probably 1911) Voronezh

[9] Voronezh, December 23, 1910

[10] Voronezh, February 24, 1911

[11] Voronezh, March 23

[12] Voronezh, Feb 23,  possibly 1911

[13] Lev to Fenya, Voronezh, December 9, 1910

[14] Voronezh, probably pre-July, 1911

[15] Voronezh, December 23, 1910

[16] Voronezh, December 23, 1910

[17] Voronezh, February 24, 1911

[18] Fenya to Louis, Here or There

[19] Lev to Fenya, Voronezh, March 10

[20] Louis to Fenya, New York, One Must Have Savings; fragment of a letter from Lyova to Fenichka, first two pages missing.

[21] Postcard, Voronezh 1911

[22] Voronezh, March 23, probably 1911

[23] Voronezh, probably pre-July, 1911

[24] Voronezh, January 17, 1911

[25] New York, February 22, probably 1913

[26] New York, August 30

[27] New York, undated

[28] Nov 27, 1912 (Postcard)

[29] New York, 18 September

[30] Louis to Fenya, New York, Can’t Find Work, August 30

[31] New York, undated

[32] Fenya to Louis, Kiev, November 12, 1912, Written with Tears

[33] Louis to Fenya, New York, Sister Was in Danger, December 12, 1912

[34] Fenya to Louis, “Here or There”

[35] Fenya to Louis, Kiev, December 8, 1912

[36] Fenya to Louis, Kiev, January 13, 1913

[37] Fenya to Louis, Kiev, Undated fragment

[38] Fenya to Louis, Kiev, September 7, possibly 1912

[39] Louis to Fenya, New York, Jan 8, Hello Sweet Darling your revenge

[40] Louis to Fenya, New York, undated, Need Help from Parents

[41] Fenya to Louis, Kiev, November 12, 1912, Written with Tears

[42] Louis to Fenya, New York, Travel Plans

[43] Ibid

[44] http://www.jewishgen.org/InfoFiles/Manifests/detained/

[45] Chaie Batalin Record of Detention

[46] Louis to Fenya, New York, Travel Plans2

[47] Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society

[48] Postcard Louis to Fannie, New York, April 22, 1913