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My Grandfather's Cigarette Case, or How I Learned about Kishinev
by: Nancy K. Miller


In the summer of 2000 I was contacted by a man with information about an inheritance. My paternal grandparents, he said, had owned property that my sister and I were entitled to. My father's parents were poor, I said skeptically; when they first came to New York they lived in a tenement on the Lower East Side. What could they have left for anyone to inherit? Property in Russia, I said, in the shtetl? An initialed silver cigarette case that had belonged to my grandfather, a fork and spoon engraved with Russian letters: that was my inheritance, an immigrant's legacy. What if your grandparents had given money to a Zionist organization? A small sum as a mitzvah? What if that good deed had turned into property of value? Considerable value!

I remembered the contents of a manila legal folder among my father¡¯s papers marked in capital letters "Property in Israel and Shendel Kipnis"--with "and Sadie Kip" scrawled in pencil, added sometime later. I kept the folders along with other ephemera that autobiographers guard with their lives--superannuated stock certificates, old checkbooks, snapshots of people I had never met.

He saved; I saved. The phone call vindicated both of us. The folder contained: a Certificate of Registration issued by the Palestine Government, Land Registry Office of Jerusalem; a contract in the name of Shendel Kipnis residing at 141 Stanton Street, NYC, recording payment in the amount of $350 for two dunams of land from the Nachlas Itschak Co. of Houston Street; a blue map with numbered plots indicating the location of the parcels in the Village of Souba, Palestine; four cancelled checks dated March, June, November and December 1926, signed by my grandfather, R.H. Kipnis; a brief correspondence from May 1949 between my father and a friend of his in real estate who had gone to Israel and discussed the possible reacquisition of this property by its previous owner ("at one time part of [his] ancestral property"); an exchange with said owner signaled by an empty envelope covered with Israeli stamps (and postage due); and finally a recommendation by the friend that my father "hang on to the land for some time" if he didn't need the money because the dunams were located "directly in the middle of the new plan for Jerusalem." My father had never mentioned this property to me; maybe the scribbled "Sadie Kip" meant that he intended to; maybe he had sold it. I returned the folder to my filing cabinet and chalked up the vanished investment to my father's legendary inability to seize the financial occasion.

But this is not the point of my story, even if I would love to (and may yet) have a small, belated inheritance. The half-acre plot of land is only the literal manifestation of the plot whose through line has revived the enigma of my father's family.

The conditions for the inheritance stipulated that all the heirs be found. My grandparents had two sons, my father and his older brother, who had moved to Arizona because of his son's asthma. If it seems strange to me now that I had never met my uncle and first cousin; more peculiar still, that my father no longer saw his brother, it didn't then. We accepted the internal Kipnis family blanks without pressing for explanations, along with the other mysteries, like where they really came from, when, what they did for a living (the "why" they left was the portmanteau pogrom and generic Cossacks which carried a weight of causality always tossed about lightly, with a kind of shrug or wave--what could you expect?). Until her death when my sister and I were young, Grandma Kipnis appeared a remote figure who baked sugar cookies (irregular, broken off pieces of flat dough--shapeless but still delicious) that she offered in lieu of conversation on our rare visits to the Bronx, where the family seemed to have moved sometime in the 1930s. My grandfather died before my parents married.

Among my father's papers, I found a r¨¦sum¨¦ from the 1960s belonging to my cousin, whom I tried to contact after my father's death. I dialed the phone number listed with an address in Tennessee from the 1960; his ex-wife gave me a Post Office box number in Texas. I wrote but the letter never reached its destination.

The conditions for the inheritance required that I find him. Was he still alive? I knew from my grandmother's obituary (a tiny clipping glued onto a torn index card) that my cousin had a daughter. I returned to the r¨¦sum¨¦. This time I connected with the cousin who had remarried and moved back to Memphis--and with his daughter.

I flew to Memphis. I learned from my cousin's daughter, who was interested in family genealogy, that a Kipnis website existed (!). From it she had obtained the names of the ships my grandparents, uncle, and great grandfather (earlier with his wife) had traveled on to America from Kishinev and the addresses of their destinations in New York. I had never known about this great grandfather---Chaim Hirsch Kipnis--who, according to the ship's manifest for the Southwark, was a carpenter by profession, and could also read and write. I remembered having seen a photograph, which my cousin had in her album, not a snapshot but a posed, professional family portrait including him: a skinny man with a long, pointy beard and a tall black hat, seated around a table with my grandfather and uncle; my cousin as a child perched upon it. Kipnis generations minus my father (so where was my father?). This great grandfather looked like a caricature of the Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe at the turn of the century. On Raphael's death certificate, Chaim had become Harry. According to the website Sure Kipnes (Sarah on the death certificate), of Bratslav (like her husband), appears to have traveled the next month on the Rotterdam; destination in New York, 28 Delancey Street, where her husband Chaim resided. Of this greatgrandmother I have found no further trace--neither narrative, nor visual.

With all this new knowledge, what exactly did I know? What could I do with this information? Was this the longed key to the mystery of the family plot? I could go to Israel to inspect my dunams. I could go down to 96 Allen Street and see (possibly) the tenement which my grandfather gave as his father's address for the immigration officers. And if I did that, what more would I know?

I found and didn't find 96 Allen Street. The address is not attached to the building but to the theater exit of the Tenement Museum. The actual building is gone--destroyed when Allen Street was broadened to accommodate traffic in 1932--but in the early part of the century, it stood back to back with 97 Orchard Street, the location of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. This discovery has filled me with a confusing mix of emotions. I love this physical proximity to my origins: being close in these matters is not as good as the real thing but it seems to be as close as I ever get. The tenement my grandparents went to upon their arrival in New York--perhaps where my father was born--represented exemplary immigrant life at the turn of the century. I can tour the museum and imagine my grandparents' home; I can study the floor plan, if not of their apartment, then that of their neighbors with whom they would have shared a backyard.

Until now, I had failed to go on the treasure hunt of lost origins that might have illuminated the generational chain. Years ago, my father had walked over the local library and photocopied subject indexes from the New York Times of 1903 and 1905, and starred in red the references to the famous (though not then to me in what had to be willful ignorance) Kishinev massacres. He had also copied part of a map from an atlas showing where Kishinev was located.

I would have learned what happened in the Easter massacre of 1903, a massacre reported in the New York Times as "worse than the censor will permit to publish":
The mob was led by priests, and the general cry, "Kill the Jews," was taken up all over the city. The Jews were taken wholly unaware and were slaughtered like sheep. The dead number 120 and the injured about 500. The scenes of horror attending this massacre are beyond description.
Babes were literally torn to pieces by the frenzied and bloodthirsty mob. The local police made no attempt to check the reign of terror. At sunset the streets were piled with their corpses and wounded. those who could make their escape fled in terror, and the city is now practically deserted of Jews.
(April 28, 1903)
My favorite article from that year indulges in unexpected irony: "Kishineff as a City: Far from a Bad Place to Live in, Except for Jew." (June, 7 1903).

Other pogroms were reported in 1905. One headline reads: "Odessa Jews Panic-Stricken. Believe a Massacre is Planned--Alarm at Kishineff Also." Easter holidays were a particularly anxious time. Under the article (April 25, 1905), describing circulars in the streets of Odessa calling on people to kill the Jews, is the report of a counter message: "Archbishop Vladimir preached a sermon yesterday admonishing the Christians to refrain from violence and manifestations of race hatred during the festivals of peace." But Easter wasn't the only trigger. A wave of pogroms took place in the fall of 1905 related to the upheaval of the First Russian Revolution.

In April 1906, the following year, my grandparents and uncle--age eight--arrived in New York with $100. My father was born that December. But as always, I am left with unanswerable questions. Did Raphael and Shendel or Schulem witness the massacres? Did they tell my father this story?

Maybe they remained speechless.

(According to my cousin's daughter, her grandfather, my uncle Schulem, laughed about being given rides by the Cossacks when they passed through the town on horseback.)

In 1903 the rubric "Race or People" was added to the categories of the ship's manifest, after that of Nationality. The first twenty-one names on the Potsdam were listed as "Hebrew."

There's a photograph I acquired on my trip to Memphis of my grandfather, father, and cousin standing in front of an iron mesh gate to a small, fenced-in park. My grandfather is wearing a straw bowler and a bow tie, a pleated shirt front with a stand-up collar, a vest and a long jacket. My father is sporting a fedora, a suit with a regular tie and a pocket handkerchief. Both are smoking: Kishenev was famous for its tobacco fields and one version of my new information had my grandfather as a tobacconist). My cousin, a small child, is dressed in a sailor outfit--middy blouse and sailor's cap--and pulling apart one of those big doughy salted New York pretzels that sit in your gut like the lump of dough that they are.

Guessing at the dates, this would appear to be the mid-twenties. My father would be about eighteen: I had never seen a photograph of him at this age (my father before he met my mother), a slender boy. This must be close to the time that Shendel/Sadie bought the dunams in Palestine. They all look spiffy. Maybe, even if they were living on Stanton street, in the shadow of the Williamsburg bridge, they were doing well--already upwardly mobile in accordance with the immigrant plot.

In the photograph where my grandfather and father are smoking, my grandfather is holding a shiny object between his thumb and index finger. I want to believe, and why not, that this is the silver cigarette case with his initials RHK (my sister's initials) that is now in my possession, and that had reached me (my cousin told me) through a chain (of chain smokers): from father to son, son to son, son to uncle (my father), father to me (actually, I appropriated it).

As I plunge into the archives, I am more rather than less satisfied. For beyond the cigarette case, I have only the story, no matter the version. I know a lot more than I did standing in the cemetery. And yet I want so, so much more. Wouldn't you?

Is that the same (my) cigarette case between Raphael's fingers?

Is it or is it not the cigarette case? That's only where my troubles begin. The new stories (what I learned in Memphis) baffle me. Was my uncle, having left school early and being good with numbers, really a bookie for the Cotton Club in Harlem, working for a Jewish gangster, Dutch Schultz, his son's godfather? I have trouble making this movie fit with my story of the (quiet, refined) Kipnises (my grandfather a bookkeeper, according to the records). And yet. At first I was shocked (no wonder the brothers didn't visit each other), then realizing that I probably would never be able to verify this information (the Mafia connection), elated by the comic turn. In other words, maybe this wasn't necessarily the bad news.

There is a pleasure, I've come to feel, in not being sure--not only in not knowing what you almost know, but not knowing what you don't know you don't know. Just one year ago, I had no idea that these dunams actually existed on more than a seventy-five year-old map; that the map represented real real estate. It's not just about not knowing what might happen (the shared banality of fate, the suspense of merely living; I probably don't really want to know what I'm going to die of, or when). I enjoy the experience of being brought up against what I don't know that has already happened. For instance, this might seem perverse, or a form of victim envy, but having been finally moved to sort out the immigration narrative that shaped me, thinking about Kishinev, makes me feel less adrift. I can see how I exist in historical time. That sounds kind of pretentious even to me and yet there's an emotional force in the sense of lineage, however ghostly, this rerouting produces. Time and space are collapsed when I read about the Kishenev pogroms in the pages of my local paper, the New York Times.

The cigarette case carries both a trace of the past and a warning about the future. Always a memento mori, the keepsake belonging to another is a reminder to the one who saves it. In other words, a memento invites you to reflect upon how to live now--with others.

This is why, I guess, I remain attached to these small proofs of a past that cannot remain buried anymore than the future can be predicted: a map of where I've come thus far and in whose company.