Growing — and Going

Aleksandrovsk as it looked at the turn of the century.

Whether they still held out hope for Russia, did not have the financial means necessary or simply opted for greater stability, Aaron and Mariasia Naginsky initially resisted the emigration trend. Between 1907 and 1908, they chose a less ambitious frontier, moving 300 miles south to a newly booming area of the country.

While many Jews were being displaced by pogroms and new government restrictions, it’s possible the Naginskys left not by force but by choice. To placate the increasingly activist Jewish community, the czarist regime instituted limited reforms in 1905 that included opening up 100 small towns in southern Russia for Jewish settlement, perhaps Aleksandrovsk among them. With a Jewish population of more than 5,000 at the turn of the century, Aleksandrovsk in the Ekaterinoslav gubernia was larger than the hometowns of both Aaron and Mariasia — and growing rapidly. It was the site of the first railway bridge across the Dnieper River, helping to spur industrial growth before the communist revolution and sparking overall population growth from 38,000 in 1910 to 60,000 in 1913.

With a growing family, the Naginskys may have been seeking better economic opportunities. Their first child, Jhina (later Janet), was born in 1908 before they left Chernigov. Just a year later, their twin daughters, Chaya (later Ada) and Mira (later Mary) were born in Aleksandrovsk, as were their two youngest daughters, Zepora (later Sylvia) and Chana (later Anna), who arrived in 1911 and 1913, respectively.

We have some information about the Naginskys’ lives in Aleksandrovsk, which Jhina (Janet) shared with her own daughter, Judith Bradfield Tomero, years later. The family lived in a house with niches, or shelves, built into the wall where the children would sleep during winters to keep warm. Jhina (and presumably Chaya and Mira) attended a local school, which required Jewish children to take an entrance examination for admission. As a child, Jhina would go out to the fields in the spring to cut flowers with the Russian village girls and learned how to make the flower crowns they commonly wore. And the daughters were cared for by a maid who had a gypsy boyfriend.

We know from family accounts that the Naginskys also struggled with health problems during this period. Aaron contracted tuberculosis, a widespread, frequently fatal contagious disease largely affecting urban populations. Although the mortality rate from tuberculosis had started to decline in the early 20th century, there remained no known cure so experimental remedies were common. Aaron was advised to take lard, a treatment that was unorthodox in many ways — most obviously because scientists already had determined that tuberculosis was a disease affecting the lungs. It also was, quite literally, unorthodox for Aaron because consuming lard — made from bacon fat — conflicted with Jewish dietary laws that he followed. In an account about Aaron’s health problems from his daughter Ada, we get a glimpse of Mariasia’s fortitude when it came to protecting her family.

Another health issue that would have a profound effect on their family involved the Naginskys’ fourth daughter. As an infant, Zepora suffered from an illness that caused her to lose her hearing. Sign language already was in practice in Russia at the time, but whether she began signing or enrolled in school as a young child in Aleksandrovsk is an open question.

It’s difficult to imagine that Aaron and Mariasia would uproot their family knowing they had plans to emigrate. But from 1908 to 1914, as hopes for a truly representative form of government continued to diminish in Russia, we can surmise that the lure of a new land started to grow — no doubt assisted by letters from Israel, urging his brother to join him in America.

2 comments on “Growing — and Going

  1. Phyllis Greer says:

    Just intriguing! Wonderful to read the unfolding of history made so personal. I somehow remember hearing that Zepora (Sylvia) had measles(?) or German measles as a child; if this was accompanied by high fever, that may been the cause of her loss of hearing.

  2. Judith Tomero says:

    My mother told me that Aunt Sylvia lost her hearing as a result of scarlet fever. A few years ago A few years ago I was visiting friends in Kennebunkport, Maine and knowing that cousin Lee had a house there I asked Stuart for his sister’s phone number. Lee and I did meet and spent a very pleasant evening. Of course we spoke about the family and I Lee mentioned the illness which brought on her mother’s deafness, but I just can’t remember what it was.

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