No one knows why my grandfather chose Odessa for his place of birth. Like many children who immigrated to the United States at a young age, Max knew little of the place he left behind. Yet unlike his three other immigrant siblings, two older, one younger, he somehow knew something they didn’t – a specific place of birth – Odessa. How Max summoned the name of that fabled city to put on various government documents remains an unsolved mystery.

1920s-era Max Carl

A scrappy deal-maker, Max would have fit into Moldavanka like a glove. His Prohibition-era experiences would have served him well in the underground markets. His love of being well-dressed, and standing out in a crowd, despite his diminutive size, would have found him strolling Derybasivska on a warm spring evening.

It’s hard to prove a negative, but I’m pretty certain Max was not born in Odessa. His origins are probably in Volhynia, near his father’s city of Novohrad-Volynskyi, or his mother’s town of Sudylkiv. With the essential help of an historian, genealogist and expert on Odessa[1], we scoured the vast archival records of Odessa, marking each Karol birth and death, looking for a connection. We even found a boy named Mordkho[2] born at the right time, with parents who were originally from Volhynia, but those parents, and their patronymics, did not match the names for Max’s mother and father. Maybe they are cousins.

Brodsky Synagogue in Odessa

I traveled to Odessa in 2018, taking in the romantic, gritty city on the Black Sea and pondering why my grandfather chose Odessa. I walked to the Brodsky Synagogue, home of the Odessa State Archives and thought about the lives and the secrets held inside. Now I think about the lives and the people trapped in Odessa, and across Ukraine, while this madman wages war from the east.

Historians say write it down now, while the history is happening. To that I say, it’s complicated being two generations removed from a place I’m not from and feeling such strong emotions about it. The branches of my family who left Ukraine are the branches who survived WWII. But Odessa, the place my grandfather never saw, is a place I also chose. And while history is happening, I feel helpless.

It wasn’t easy, but he managed to banish his memories. Then, livening up, he began where he’d left off, telling the Chekists who’d been sent down from Moscow about the life of Froim the Rook, about his shrewdness, his elusiveness, his contempt for his fellow man – all those astounding stories that have receded for ever into the past…

–Isaac Babel, from “Froim the Rook” in Odessa Stories, translated by Boris Dralyuk

Read more about Odessa and its history

[1] I am not putting this person’s name here now, out of an abundance of caution. When this horrible war ends, I will shout it from the rooftops.

[2] Mordkho is a Yiddish version of the Hebrew name Mordechai, Max’s Hebrew name.

Do you have any old letters or documents? Vol. 1

When I started working on my family’s history, I reached out to cousins of my parents‘ generation, interviewing them, asking them questions, and more questions. I also requested copies of photos that they had, looking on the backs of the images for clues. And I asked if they had any old letters or other documents.

One of my dad’s first cousins reponded to my document query with a note

[Your grandmother] sent me some correspondence from 1940 from family in the Ukraine which apparently requested some  money or clothing material or both. The correspondence is written in some kind of script, possibly Yiddish. I once had attempted to get someone to try to translate it, but not very successfully. However, I was told that the letter and a postcard were from “Sure” (which I was told meant Sarah) Mordche-Leibovna Schnaider ….. She may have been a sister-in-law of [my grandmother], or possibly a sister of Samuel.

Wow. 70-something year old letters from a heretofore unknown relative. This cousin was kind enough to scan all the letters, envelopes and bit of paper. I had them translated from Yiddish, and they were an eye-opener.Yiddish postcard August 1940

The letters detail requests for money and goods to be sent to Sore Mordeche Leibnova Schnaider on Rakovaya Street in Medzhibozh, Podolsky Gubernia [present-day Medzhybizh, Khmelnytskyi Oblast, Ukraine].  Sore addressed the envelopes in English, wrote the return address in Cyrillic, and the text of the letters in Yiddish, indicating that she had the ability to write, and possibly understand, at least two languages.

Comparing the data in the letters along with other family information, I determined that Sore was a sister to my great-grandfather.

Meanwhile, Sore’s sister-in-law responds to the requests, sending both a money order and a package of wool suit and coat fabrics, but the letters indicate the package did not arrive.

According to the translator, the letters sound pleading. A widow of 21 years, raising her children on her own, the notes seem to indicate a woman a little desperate and forgotten at a time when most of Europe is moving closer to chaos. The letters were sent from March through December 1940. Whether she sent additional letters is unknown. The Nazis arrived in Medzhibozh on 8 July 1941, placing all the Jews in a ghetto. The ghetto was anihiliated beginning on 22 September 1942, with the liquidation lasting three weeks.

Why Sore chose not to leave Russia, or if she had a choice, is unknown. Her fate, and the fate of her children are also unknown. I have initiated an International Tracing Service search through the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Perhaps someday, I will have the answer.

Eastern European Mutt

Cab drivers like to ask me where I’m from. I always respond, “Chicago.” Then they say, “No, where are you from?” I know what they are getting at – what is my ancestry, my ethnic origin. And that is a complicated answer, especially for a cab ride. So I started answering, “I’m an Eastern European Mutt.”

For years, that response also served as the only real answer I had. My dad’s side was from “Russia” with maybe a place called “Mezbish” being more specific. My mom knew she was a “Litvak” from Kovna. Not a lot to go on. Now through research, perseverance and a bit of luck, I can say I truly am an Eastern European Mutt: present-day countries of Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus and Ukraine. Shtetls and cities as varied as Ariogala, Vidzy, Daugavpils, Sudilkov, Novohrad-Volynskyy, Medzhybizh. DNA evidence of places even more far flung.

How may I help you answer the question, “Where are you from?”