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,
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
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
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
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.