Mariasia Balotin entered the world during the chaotic post-Czar Alexander II era in Russia. Despite the turmoil of the times, she apparently enjoyed a relatively comfortable childhood compared to many of her peers in the Pale of Settlement.
Born in about 1883 to Shlomo and Shana Balotin, Mariasia and her family might have been considered among the Russified Jewish middle-class intellectuals of the time. According to the 1977 interview with Ada Naginsky Grossberg, the Balotins were considered “above station.” We know that Shlomo was educated and spoke Russian, likely benefiting from the liberalization of antisemitic policies during his formative years under the reign of Alexander II. Another possible indication of their social status was the choice of name for their daughter, who obviously was given or regularly used a Russian first name in lieu of a Hebrew one.
Like her father, Mariasia enjoyed a secular education. Not only did daughter Ada Naginsky Grossberg indicate that her mother read and spoke Russian, but years later Judith Bradfield Tomero remembered her grandmother telling her that she had read all the great Russian classics in Russian as a young woman. This was unusual for the shtetl culture, where boys traditionally were allowed to read only sacred texts while girls could read novels, but they typically were in Yiddish, according to “Life Is With People.”
We know from the interview with Ada Naginsky Grossberg that Mariasia did not have a close relationship with her mother and seemed to greatly admire her father. Raised largely by peasant servants — which was not uncommon at the time, even among those of modest circumstances — she described Shana as “selfish.” Accounts of Shlomo, on the other hand, consistently portray him as highly educated, respected and accomplished.
One of the mysteries of the Balotin family is whether Mariasia had any siblings. Even her daughter Ada did not know and could only remember a “stray” uncle and cousin who came to America. Other family members, however, recall a brother who played the violin. At this stage, it seems that we can only confirm this by searching through public records from their hometown of Potzib — if they still exist.
While we don’t have a lot of information about Mariasia’s childhood, we do know that she was given valuable tools — knowledge of the Russian language, an understanding of the modern world and perhaps a sense of independence — that would help her succeed — and, indeed, survive — as she faced daunting challenges during pre-revolutionary Russia.