To date, the parents of Minnie and Aaron Naginsky — who remained behind in Russia while most, if not all, of their children emigrated — are the earliest known ancestors that can be documented in the family. We don’t have a lot of information about them, but what we do have was gathered from a combination of public records and personal anecdotes.
Aaron’s parents, Anne Voloff and Morris Naginsky, and Minnie’s parents, Shana and Shlomo Balotin, lived in the Pale of Settlement, a 386,000-square-mile area in czarist Russia, stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. Almost 5 million Jews lived there in the late 19th century, which was roughly 94 percent of the total Jewish population in Russia but only 12 percent of the overall population of the area.
Since The Pale is where most Jews were forced to live in Russia, I looked to the Naginsky children’s records to shed some light on a more precise “hometown” of Morris and Anne. While their children almost consistently noted only “Russia” as their birthplace, several documents — and a 1977 interview with Ada Naginksy Grossberg — point to “Chernigov” as a home “gubernia,” or government province. In two later records — one a ship passenger list for daughter Mary and her husband, Israel Ginsberg, who arrived in America from Cyprus in 1931, and the other a World War II registration card for son Aaron — the birthplace was noted as Pohar, which was located in the Starodub uyezd (administrative district) in the Chernigov gubernia, with a population of just 1,159 Jews at the turn of the century. Pohar also happens to be the birthplace of Sol Hurok, an impresario who introduced many notable performing artists to U.S. audiences, including the Bolshoi Ballet. Born in 1888, Hurok was a contemporary of Aaron and his siblings.
The patriarch of the Naginsky family was a cantor. In this profession, Morris likely was engaged regularly in the study of Torah, which would have given him prestige, respect, authority and status in his shtetl. As noted in “Life Is With People,” the 1952 study of the culture of the shetl, social rank was determined by level of learning.
Nothing is known about Anne Voloff Naginsky other than her name. According to the 1977 interview, Ada never met her grandmother and didn’t remember her father talking about her. She speculated that her grandmother may have died at a young age.
While Aaron’s father likely was considered part of the upper social register in the shtetl because of his Jewish schooling, Minnie’s father apparently had more of a secular education. A bookkeeper for a large forest, Shlomo spoke Russian, which was unusual for a Jew, and also had the means to hire help to care for his children. Interestingly, their last name could derive from the Yiddish word for burghers, which is “balebatisheh” — a group regarded almost as highly as the learned within the shtetl, according to “Life Is With People.” Meanwhile, Shana seemed to have had a strained relationship with her daughter, who called her mother “selfish.”
Just as with the Naginskys, the Balotins lived in Chernigov. The most definitive document confirming that fact is the ship manifest for Minnie and her daughters from when they arrived in America, which lists “Shlomo Balotin, Potzib, Russia” as the “name and address of the nearest relative in the country whence alien came.” “Potzib” is likely Pochep, in the Mglin uyezd of Chernigov, which had a Jewish population of just over 3,000 in 1897. It was located approximately 30 miles from Pohar.
The family commonly said they were from “Alexandria” or “Alexandrovsk.” The public records indicate that Aaron and Minnie were not actually from Alexandrovsk, in the gubernia of Ekaterinaslav, but may have moved there in the period immediately preceding their emigration. According to multiple documents, the birthplace of Aaron, Minnie and their oldest daughter, Jhina (later Janet), is Chernigov, while that of the other four daughters is Alexandrovsk.
Naginsky cousins: Do you remember hearing anything about your great grandparents? Or have you heard stories that are different from what I’ve shared here?