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June 29, 2007

Searching for family history

Tracing the ancestral villages of Canadians in Ukraine.

This is the first in a three-part series on Jewish Ukraine. Next week: the klezmer in the Klezmer Heritage Cruise.

For many of us on the thrilling, emotional Klezmer Heritage Cruise down the Dnieper River in Ukraine this past spring, the most exciting and moving moments were away from the tour – in private visits to ancestral villages.

At our slide-music-video show June 20 at Or Shalom Synagogue in Vancouver, Avi Dolgin choked up as he described being on Khortitsia, an island in the Dnieper, where his late father, Joseph, was born and which he left in 1914 for Winnipeg with his parents, Isaak and Esther. In a field, while a local family and their goats looked on, Dolgin and 13 other members of his family on the cruise stood on a wall of the ruins of a building that might once have been a synagogue.

"We said Kaddish for the memory of Isaak and Esther Dolginover, probably the first time Kaddish had been said for them in years," Dolgin recalled in an interview in his Vancouver kitchen. "And then also a thank you for them for having gotten the hell out of there."

Dolgin was in Ukraine with his wife, Ruth Hess-Dolgin, and their two sons, Noam, 30, and Elie, 25. Dolgin's Ottawa-area brother Marc, sister-in-law AC and nephew Josh, a Montreal klezmer musician also known as rapper SoCalled, dreamed up the Jewish cruise when they visited Khortitsia during a Mennonite Heritage Cruise they tagged along on two years ago.

At that time, archivists in the nearby industrial city of Zaporozhye, about 700 kilometres southeast of Kiev, had discovered some Dolgin family records. They were asked to look for more. What the archivists found surprised the family when they returned en masse last month.

"I think probably the most exciting moment must have been in the archive," said Dolgin. Two archivists had spent two full days combing through 70 years of records for every mention of every variation on the Dolgin name and laid out the results for the family to examine.

"To see the documentation right there in front of me of the family which I knew – my father's birth and my uncle's birth – was exciting," he said. "And then to discover documentation of family I never knew existed."

Previous unknowns who came to light included his grandfather's brother, Pavel, and Pavel's son, Piotr, and the fact that the family had come to Khortitsia from Belorussia, another part of the Russian empire, now known as Belarus, north of present-day Ukraine, thereby adding another layer to the Dolgin history. The family felt "jaw-dropping amazement" and great appreciation for the work of the archivists, Dolgin said.

Later, when our ship, the Dnieper Princess, playfully called the Dnieper Shlepper by the 160 or so passengers, docked in Odessa on the Black Sea, Dolgin and his family explored the roots of his mother, Eva Blankstein, who was born in Winnipeg and died there last November, at 97.

On the same day the Dolgins gathered in Khortitsia, my daughter, Lisa, and I travelled to an ancestral village about 180 kilometres southeast of Zaporozhye with a driver and guide, who thankfully were nothing like the "blind" driver and English-challenged guide in the book and movie Everything is Illuminated.

It took more than two hours to reach Alexeyevka, where my zayde, my mother Molly's father, Abraham Shuer, was born in 1882. Zayde immigrated to Winnipeg and then settled in Ste. Rose du Lac, Man., where the family ran a general store. Post-Second World War, he lived in Vancouver and was head of Schara Tzedeck's Chevra Kadisha.

In Alexeyevka, dirt streets radiate from the paved road that runs through it. Ducks, goats and turkeys feed on the roadside grass. A single-storey house and fenced yard that a resident generously invited us to visit featured coal heat, a chicken coop, red tulips, a vegetable garden, an outhouse and a television satellite dish perched near the tin roof.

There are no Jews left in the village of about 150, but in the market of the neighboring village, Smirnove, we met a babushka, a scarfed 71-year-old woman who led us to the Jewish cemetery by the main road. There, we found three surviving headstones – one leaning over at a sharp angle and two flat in the grass. Two women in a nearby house said the cemetery had been damaged by road construction and grave robbers. And time.

We said Kaddish there, even though we didn't have a minyan of 10 Jews. And we did the same in Malin, a town of about 27,000 about 85 kilometres northwest of Kiev, which we visited just before the April 29-May 11 cruise got underway.

My father Hyman's father, Louis Mallin was a Malinsky – which means "from Malin" – when he and his new bride, Bessie, came in 1913 from England, bound for Winnipeg. We don't know for sure where Louis was born, so we can't be certain we came from Malin. But we've kind of adopted it as a heritage shtetl and felt more connection there than in Alexeyevka because of the people we met.

Our guide, Larissa Sviridova, had called ahead and arranged for us to meet a representative of the Malin Jewish community. We were warmly greeted by Evgenia Fetman, 61, whose maiden name we were surprised to learn was Malinskaya, the feminine form of Malinsky. And she invited over Lev Markovich, 81, whose wife's maiden name is also Malinskaya. They're from different Malinsky families and we have no idea whether we're related.

Together, Fetman and Markovich told us about Malin's Jewish history. It was about 70 per cent Jewish before the war and some, like Markovich, escaped the advancing German army in 1941 by walking to Russia. The Nazis murdered 1,300 Malin Jews at a ravine. Now, there are 25 to 30 Jews left, all aging. The young people have left for better opportunities.

Fetman and Markovich took us to two Jewish cemeteries. One, in sad shape, was closed 18 years ago. The inscriptions were fading, but we found one marker with a Malinsky name and left a small stone on it. We saw many more Malinsky graves in the newer, well-maintained cemetery, where the headstones are all Soviet style – written in the Cyrillic alphabet, with pictures of the deceased either etched or inset into the stone. We noticed that none of the Malinskys resembled our family.

We visited the town market, the former synagogue that is now a chick hatchery and made a stop to take pictures of the house at 21 Lenina St., where Vancouver realtor Joe Fayner had told me he used to spend summers visiting his grandmother, Yuditsky. And we ended up back at Fetman's tidy apartment, where she fed us a lunch of yummy salads and the best blinis (similar to blintzes) we'd ever had, washed down with homemade vodka. It was very hard to say goodbye. They might not have been family, but they felt like family.

"Visiting Malin was such a delight," said Lisa, 24, who works as co-ordinator of international relations in Chiba City, near Tokyo. "It helped me feel connected to my ancestors. It was simple: I'm Jewish, they were Jewish and the people we met in Malin were Jewish, too."

Lorne Mallin is a Vancouver writer, editor, graphic designer and Jewish chant leader. His website is