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  • Pamela Weintraub

HAUNTED BY HISTORY, Aeon 2018


War, famine and persecution could inflict changes that last for generations.


A few years ago, my husband was contacted by genealogists tracking descendants of rabbis from the Lithuanian shtetl of Kelm. The impoverished little town was known for its fierce schools of Talmudic learning, or yeshivas; it was a centre of Mussar – a strict system of ethics based on logic and the rigorous practice of mindfulness, a meditative approach to self-reflection and prayer. 


The massive genealogy we ultimately received by email spanned five continents, 16 generations and almost 400 years of grief. My husband’s forebears, rabbinical ancestors of the Kelm elite, were prominent in 1648 when Cossacks stormed the town of Nemirov, then in Russian Poland, now in Ukraine. Some 6,000 Jews had sought refuge behind the fortified walls. But Cossacks carrying Polish flags tricked their way in, reportedly killing children, boiling victims in vats, and flaying them alive. Jehiel Michael ben Eliezer, the rabbi of Nemirov and my husband’s great(x9)-grandfather, ran to the cemetery hoping at least to be buried – but he was clubbed to death, then left to rot. The Martyr of Nemirov is his historic name. 

After the slaughter, the rabbis fled to other shtetls across the Pale of Settlement – the swath of Europe covering parts of Poland, Lithuania, Russia and Ukraine where Jews were allowed to live. In 1768, Jehiel’s great-grandson Rabbi Zvi Hirsch of Lysyanka in Ukraine was killed by Cossacks, who chased him from his home near Kiev through Romania and Bulgaria to the Turkish border, hundreds of miles away. Four years later, my husband’s great-great-great-grandfather Eliezer Gutman was born in Lithuania, in the city of Plunge. By 1810, he’d moved to the hardscrabble shtetl of Kelm, becoming the town’s chief rabbi and establishing a yeshiva that became renowned. He died in 1831, aged 58.


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© 2023 by Pamela Weintraub.