Digging Around Where I Come From

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Zalman Dinin is, I believe, the man on the right. The other men are not identified.

Zalman Dinin is, I believe, the man on the right. The other men are not identified.


I’m not gardening in the backyard of my old condo in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Been there. Done that. Howard has left the venue.

I don’t know how you spend your time when not temporizing on Facebook. There’s work, of course. And all the things we do to stay alive. Then there’s everything else. I spend a certain amount of my time on an ongoing basis looking into my roots. I mean in the Kinta Kunte sense; my own little channel of Alex Haley, but of a different skin color and a different continent.

My forebears were from Russia. In my father’s case, more specifically what is now called Ukraine—current hotbed of nationalism 21st century style opposed by Russian recidivists, mainly ethnic Russians living in Ukraine, thinking maybe they should never have left. In fact, my father’s people (and my father and his family) lived in that part of Ukraine often, in our day, violently in dispute, a region still very much riven.

I have no idea where my father, who died in 1999, would fall out on the question. I was raised to understand that he thought of himself and all of his relatives as Russians—though Ukraine has existed, that is, inhabited, for over 30 thousand years. But in modern political history, Ukraine has rarely been independent, free of the Russian yoke.

It was part of Russia when my father was born, 110 years ago. Inevitably the Jews who lived in the Pale of Settlement that was constituted in part of parts of Ukraine would think of themselves as Russian.

I grew up on stories from my father about his childhood, about which he had vivid memories, and the ultimate turmoil that transfigured his life and that of his small family: his parents, his brother—my uncle, and his mother’s brother, my Great Uncle Sol. It was Sol (or Zalman) who instigated the move out of Russia to better parts. They settled briefly in Argentina, waiting almost three years to be able to enter the United States under the quota of immigrants allowed from that country. Among the stories my father told was the adventure of escaping by train, past Russian and then Polish guards at the borders—all of it planned and engineered by my Great Uncle, who, my father had also told me was a troublemaker from way back.

I remember my father’s stories, fragmentary as they were, with some continuing immediacy, as he repeated them over and over, and I never tired of hearing them. To punctuate the stories were albums of photos, mainly of his immediate family: those I’ve already mentioned, as well as five (or was it six?) brothers, of whom Zalman was but one. The others were, like their father, my great grandfather in addition to his brother, my great grand uncle, enterpreneurs and business owners. One by one, they were cut down, early in their lives, by Cossacks, by bandits, by the “white army” of the czar, harassed by all of them, and from all sides, with no respite from the mayhem at the hands of the revolutionaries, including the “red army.” It was to escape the conditions, none of them “good for the Jews” that resulted from the upheaval of the Revolution, the overthrow of the czar, and so forth.

Prior to any thought of escape, my Uncle Sol had done his part by aiding the partisan efforts of his more daring and rebellious friends. Sol was protected by the status of his father, a close friend of town officials, including the mayor, from whose offices Sol would steal official blank forms to be forged into documents that allowed free passage from one part of Russia to another, necessary credentials for those bent on fomenting change.

What I am left with, though, is my patchwork of memories of the stories my father told so many times. I regularly would encourage him to write down what he recalled, and especially the exploits of my older relatives. He was only a youth when he left Russia (at the age of thirteen) and my Uncle Alex, his brother, even younger. There would not have been that many stories concerning their behavior and actions, though my father’s memory was comprehensive and incisive enough to form a virtual novella about what life in general was like for a young boy at the turn of the century in Czarist Russia in provincial Russian towns, each with its complement of a Jewish community.

There is something else of a record of that era and my family’s private history, appropriate to the present age of a disconnected if wholly continuous flow of visual imagery, especially with the eruption of personal photographic records, designed to have a half-life almost as brief as particles in a collider, and numbering into staggering orders of magnitude: billions of images every week dissolving into the ether. Ironically, the visual record that I now possess consists not of countless pictures, but more than enough, a surfeit, of photographic prints for the most part. Many of the faces when I uncovered the first cache of photos were immediately recognizable, at least insofar as my father had identified individuals unknown to me (all but my Uncle Sol and my grandfather, Josef Dinin, were dead and gone by the time I was born, and they didn’t last long enough to be recorded in my still undeveloped cortex)—almost all of them existed seemingly mainly to put faces to the cavalcade of names he would rattle off.

After my father’s death, I retrieved boxes of material that turned out to be poorly stored further records. There were some documents, like my Uncle Sol’s papers from Argentina, his passport, the naturalization certificate in the U.S. of my grandfather. But mainly there were more photos, cascades of photos in some instances as pasteboard boxes long neglected disintegrated under my fingers. I removed everything I could gingerly and procured the lot into archival storage containers, designed specifically for photographic materials, or anything on paper really and particularly susceptible to the acids used in most paper and board fabrication.

Now I continue to be faced with figuring out what to do with this trove. Most of the photographs were captured by commercial photographers with studios in the cities and towns of Ukraine, or taken by itinerant traveling photographers, more of the quality of snapshots, but still encased in their presentation covers, of a thin, opaque, and usually black pasteboard. The commercial studio portraits are mounted on thick cardboard, usually with ornate borders and title text, often of a generic nature, suggesting that the photographer bought stock mounting board, with embossed decorations and non-specific renditions of their business, like “Cabinet – Portrait” (French seemed to be a prominent lingua franca indeed, for the commercial and educated classes of Russia, like a bourgeois transfiguration of the habits of the court and of diplomatic circles).

In one trove I found two of literally hundreds of images, two that I thought I recognized readily enough.

If I am correct, and I can’t be sure because the fellow I am fairly certain is the refractory young man known as Zalman, the daredevil and stalwart friend of revolutionaries, is much younger in this portrait (perhaps this is from the office blank stealing phase of his nascent career as a troublemaker) than other positively identified portraits I have. He is the one, the particularly handsome one, sans spectacles, unlike his companions, on the right staring dead on into the camera. These three intense dudes, it seems to me, are clearly close, enough so to be entirely casual in their pose—a departure from the typically stiff and formal portraiture in so many other of the prints I have. I have no idea who the other two are, and I am fairly certain there is no one left alive who I might possibly have a chance of meeting with even the most tenuous of connections with the obscure history of the Dinin family in Ukraine, so as to be able to inform me of, at the very least, their names. I love this photo for all the portents in it, and the stories that demand being told, even out of whole cloth, so alive and direct and frank and commanding are the gazes of these young stalwarts.

Ilya aka Alex Dinin and his mother, Ida. He was my uncle.

Ilya aka Alex Dinin and his mother, Ida. He was my uncle.

The other photo is really quite small, smaller even than the prototypical snapshot size of 2×3 inches that was the popular format for photographs processed and returned by the drugstores where one brought their rolls of film for processing by labs off-site, when my parents were young and in love, in the 1930s, and of the sort, the snaps and other photos, that is, that comprise another whole portfolio of vexation for me, pondering the challenge of identifying who, and what, and where, and why these images were captured in the first place. But this photo, of a stern-faced woman and a somewhat, but not much, milder looking boy, clearly with a deep and abiding relation to the woman by blood is significantly older than that.

At first, having recognized the woman as a much younger incarnation of my grandmother than in more recent photos I had seen, my father’s mother, Ida, who never knew me, before she died of causes unknown to me, when she was barely in her 60s—at first I took the young fellow as my father, and, indeed, when I scanned the photo, I named the file using his and her name. However, on re-examination and a closer look at that characteristic curled lip, somewhere between sullen and a sneer only one-quarter formed, and after comparing the shape of his left ear and the shape of the same appendage in a much later portrait, taken by me, a teen-aged me, in fact, of my Uncle Alex (his name in Russia, at the time of the portrait of him and his mother, would have been Ilya) persuaded me of my mistake. The portrait, given his apparent stage of development and the indeterminacy of his age, except within a range of three or four years, had to have been taken around the time of the family’s escape from Russia in 1918, when he would have been eight or nine years old. The photo, an oval shape, obviously, was cut out somewhat clumsily from a larger photo and pasted to a nondesript piece of board, with no marks or printing on it of any kind—another attestation to the haste and changed circumstances that surrounded its taking and mounting and preservation. But again, there is no one to tell me any more than what my memory serves and my eyes and imagination manage to tell me.

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