Yasha Tafipolsky (1)
In the warm summer of 1893, on August 10th, a baby son, Yasha, was born to Abram and Sarah Tafipolsky in the city of Ekaterinoslav, in the Southern Ukraine republic of Russia. The Tafipolsky family were an established Jewish family who had lived in the area between the Sea of Azov and Ekaterinoslav for several generations before. Abram already had three sons and three daughters by his late first wife, Golda, as well as a daughter by his new wife Sarah, when Yasha was born. That made eight children in all.
Abram was a draper by trade, and in 1904 the Tafipolsky family moved to Bozhedarovka, about 100kms south of Ekaterinoslav, where Abram opened a drapery shop. The business prospered, with the children helping out in the store in between attending Jewish day school and the local Cheder--where the four boys undertook serious study of the holy Talmud--and the local gymnasium school, where the four girls were educated.
In those days, all of Russia was in turmoil, and for Jews in particular, life was characterised by blatant antisemitism and terrorism, confiscation of property, and devastating pogroms. The Jews in Russia had been subjected since 1881 to a series of pogroms, in which vicious attacks on Jews had resulted in destruction, pillage, murder and rape. Russian Jews organized self-defense units to fight off these attacks--but many people died. Jews hid or wore disguises, to avoid massacre.
Tsar Nicholas II, an incompetent leader, was on the throne at the time, ruling over Russian nobles, who, in turn, ruled over serfs (who lived lives akin to slavery.) A reform movement had developed from masses of Russian workers. These workers were known as Soviets.
In 1905, a growing Russian presence in the far east led to an attack by the Japanese in January. Also during this awful month, Bloody Sunday took place, with Tsarist troops opening fire on a peaceful demonstration of Soviets in St Petersburg. Japan defeated Russia in several battles, further weakening support for Tsar Nicholas' already shaky government. In October, a general strike swept Russia, ending when the Tsar promised the Soviets a constitution and a parliament--called the Duma. In December, in response to the suppression of Soviets at St Petersburg, the Moscow Soviets organised an unsuccessful insurrection against the government.
With this turbulence as a backdrop, the 12 year old boy, Yasha Tafipolsky, lived his life--a determined boy, handsome, strong, charming and clever! Yasha's dark head of hair was often to be seen bent over his Cheder books, studying Judaism. He had his mother Sarah's eyes--large, brown, and tender as the music he played on his precious balalaika!
Young Yasha loved the Russian Jewish food that his mother cooked for his father, and seven brothers and sisters. In particular, her borscht, babka and piroshki! He enjoyed the feelings of energy and strength that constant good health provided, and daily in winter he walked outside and bathed in ice. He was proud of his vigour! Yasha relished long walks and bicycle rides, during which he admired the beauty and splendour of the Russian countryside.
Above all, Yasha loved his family: his mother, Sarah, who had taken on the burden of raising six children who were not even her own--Frieda, Borya, Raya, Misha, Grisha and Aisak--in addition to looking after Yasha and his older sister, Clara; and his father, Abram, who was a generous, clever and successful businessman, as well as a devout Jew. He also had many aunts, uncles and cousins, several of whom departed Russia for the USA.
Meanwhile, the Russian horrors continued. After the war with Japan ended, Tsar Nicholas tried to reverse the concessions granted to his people. There was growing discontent amongst the masses with the existing government, and ever-increased repression as a result. In 1906, Nicholas dissolved the Duma (parliament), when it showed an anti-government majority.
Also in 1906, one of Yasha's brothers, Grisha, then aged 26 and an accountant, together with his wife Olya, emigrated by ship to Melbourne, Australia--a country almost completely unknown to the residents of the Ukraine-- in search of a better life. Grisha Tafipolsky changed his name to Harry Taft after several months, and opened a stationery in Elizabeth Street, a major Melbourne city street. The shop specialized in postcards, and later moved to the corner of Collins Street and Centreway Arcade in Melbourne city, where its scope expanded. It became a leading center for the sale and service of fountain pens (the shop still trades successfully in 1998, as Tafts the Pen People).
After his arrival in Melbourne, Grisha began exchanging letters, postcards and photographs with his troubled family back in Bozhedarovka.
In one pogrom, the Tafipolskys hid some of their money in a vase, left the rest of their things in the house, and fled to a hiding place elsewhere. The Russians stormed through the house, ransacking and destroying furniture and pesonal effects, but did not notice the vase! When the family returned to the house, they were overjoyed to find the vase, still containing the money, and untouched on a window sill!
Antisemitic feelings were being spread within Russia through the usual indoctrination of the masses via documents such as the proclamation of a local group of the People's Counter Revolutionary Party in the Ukraine, declaring support for the Tsar and protesting against revolutionaries and Jews. An excerpt translates to:
"Most of you know that all sorts of Jews, not of our nation, came to this land which is foreign to them, and now they are driving us insane ... They are taking our strength from us, so that we will not have an army ... and so that foreign armies will cross into our country; then all of us will simply disappear..."
The Jewish Lubavitcher Rebbes (Rabbis) fought on behalf of the Russian Jews for their rights, for example by campaigning successfully to provide Jewish soldiers on the far eastern front in the Russian-Japanese battles of 1905, with matzot (unleavened bread) for the festival of Passover. The Rebbes' untiring efforts helped suppress the wave of pogroms in the Pale of Settlement Jewish area--but led to their apprehension. For example, during the ten years between 1902-1911, the heroic Rebbe Schneersohn was arrested in Moscow and St. Petersburg no less than four times!
The homelessness and poverty of the persecuted and pillaged Jews led many to leave Russia for the United States, although a small minority made their way to Israel, in hope of building a Jewish homeland where they would be safe from persecution Yasha's brother Misha went to the USA in 1906 and trained as a pharmacist. From there, he departed in 1909 at the age of 28 to join his brother Grisha in Melbourne, working for Cunningham's pharmacy in Nicholson Street, Footscray (one of the poorer suburbs), as well as for the Taft fountain pen business that Grisha had already established. Misha was known to Australians by the name Morris Taft.
Misha met and married Rosie Wittner, a member of a prominent Melbourne Jewish family--the Wittners. Wittner Shoes was opened as a shoe store by Mr H.J. Wittner in Footscray in 1913. H.J. Wittner was an innovator in footwear retailing in Australia; he was, for example, the first retailer to sell footwear in Australia by mail order. In 1970, Wittner's became a specialist in Ladies footwear only. In 1995, the company operated 25 stores across metropolitan Melbourne, the CBD and regional Victoria. In 1998, there are more than 30 beautiful shops located in Melbourne and Sydney, and the company is still managed by the Wittner family.
Meanwhile, back in Russia, the political situation was hotting up. From 1906 until 1917, Russia was ruled by a pseudo-constitutional monarchy. There was a parliament, the Duma, elected by classes, each of which had a limited number of votes. Within mostly feudal Russia there existed isolated industries of the industrial revolution. These workers constituted the Russian proletariat, which later formed the mass base for the socialist parties of Russia.
The workers had no rights, no legal unions and no parliamentary tradition to enable them to accept their dreadful conditions, which included miserable pay, long hours, unpleasant foremen, pay deductions, fines, and failure to provide medical aid in the event of accidents. The workers were rebelling and dominating the streets. They began taking over plants and enterprises and occupying them, frightening the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy. The feudal peasants who dominated Russia were landless, or without enough land to make a living... and they didn't like it one bit!
Then, in 1914, the First World War broke out. Russia was an ally of Great Britain and France--forming The Triple Entente of 1907--as well as being an ally of Japan. These nations and empires together fought against Germany and Austria-Hungary. Yasha was forced to enter the Russian army at the age of 21, in August, 1914. After a year of uncertain fighting, during which he never knew which army he was fighting either with or against in any given encounter, Yasha found himself in deep winter snow, alone and lost....starving, and freezing to death...
But Yasha's great health, strength, courage and cleverness prevailed, and when he espied a soldier approaching him, he called out to the soldier to take him as a prisoner. The soldier was Hungarian, and Yasha became a prisoner-of-war in Hungary. Yasha offered his electrical and mechanical skills and knowledge to the camp commander, and after three years of imprisonment, Yasha escaped from the camp with the assistance of the commander, and returned to his family at long last, in July, 1918.
But by then, the Russian Revolution of 1917 was in full flight...
In the lead up to the world war in 1914, the Tafipolsky family living in Bozhedarovka had been dwindling in numbers: with the emigration of Grisha, Misha and Aizak; with the departure of Frieda--one of the girls--in 1909, when she married a feltshur (a qualified medical practitioner, at "sub-physician" level) named Samoile, with whom she moved to Ekaterinoslav and bore a baby within a year; and finally, with the exodus of Sara--another of the girls--in 1907, to Geneva, to study medicine. Yasha and the fourth son, Borya, had been sent to war! That left only Abram and Sarah (the parents), and the two remaining girls Clara and Raya, still at home.
After the start of war in 1914, Russia experienced many defeats at the western front, as well as severe food shortages and economic ruin. Russian soldiers and their families no longer wished to be part of the war, however the Tsar and his ruling aristocrats were adamant in their desire to win!
During those troubled years, Vladimir Lenin, a son of the Russian intelligentsia, a feared revolutionary leader who had earlier been sent to Siberia but had managed to escape, began to stir up the soviet workers.
Lenin promised to extract Russia from the war and bring the soldiers home, as well as promising to overthrow the czarist regime and institute communism--which featured sharing of the country's wealth equally among the people. Many Russians--the workers known as Bolsheviks--bought this promise, and got behind Lenin with zealous fervour.
The Tafipolsky family in Bozhedarovka were subjected to the vagaries of wandering bands of Cossacks, Ukrainian terrorists and other groups, who sequestered and looted the family home. The Tafipolskys lost many of their belongings, however they became experts at hiding their money and possessions inside walls, under the ground and elsewhere. They survived epidemics of typhus and malaria, famines due to droughts and food shortages, and the familiar antisemitism. Their correspondence with Grisha and Misha in Melbourne continued until 1916, when the breakdown of the czarist regime brought the postal service to a standstill. After this, Grisha and Misha were left in the dark about the wellbeing of their family back in Russia.
In 1917, Clara Tafipolsky, one of the Tafipolsky girls, commenced studying medicine at the University of Ekaterinoslav in the city of the same name--despite the terrors of the revolution. There she befriended a beautiful, brown-eyed, dark-haired female student by the name of Sima Morochovsky. Sima was a member of a well-to-do bourgeoisie (middle-class) Jewish family who lived in the city. Her father was the chief manager of a large department store.
Sima was tiny, vivacious, an exercise fanatic, clever and studious. She had attended the A.C. Goode secondary college in Ekaterinoslav, where she had achieved 100% in every single subject. Sima adored music--possessing a beautiful soprano singing voice as well as melodic piano skills. She loved to sing all the Russian songs, such as "Or Chichornya" ("Dark eyes") and Kalinka. She loved walking and keeping fit and healthy.
Sima valued health above all, having tragically lost both a sister and a brother to ill-health. Her younger sister Eugenia had passed away from a hole in the heart at the age of ten. Her older brother Yasha had passed away from misdiagnosed scarlet fever at the age of 14. All she had left now was another brother Arkady, and her mother and father. Sima used to tell her friend Clara angrily how one of Russia's many under-trained doctors had accused Sima's mother, "You don't look after your children properly!" after the deaths of both Eugenia and Yasha.
Sima also had to cope with the increasingly dangerous turbulence in Russia, often asking non-Jewish university friends to hide her from attacking marauders, including Cossacks.
In February, 1917, Russian workers and soldiers rose up in revolt. Riots broke out in St. Petersburg, worker soviet groups were set up, and the Duma approved the establishment of a provisional government to restore order. However, Russian workers and soldiers were still unhappy with the war situation, and after sporadic fighting in July was suppressed, a new provisional government was set up. The revolutionaries (the Bolsheviks) were gaining increasing support from the ever more frustrated soviets, and on October 25, led by Lenin, the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace and unseated the government. They gained control of Moscow by November, and extracted Russia from the war. But within months, civil war erupted within Russia, and the country was in complete turmoil.
By July, 1918, when a bedraggled Yasha Tafipolsky returned to his home in Bozhedarovka , after escaping from a Hungarian prisoner-of-war camp, he was greeted with love by a vastly-depleted, but still courageous, family, who had many sad tales to tell.
The city of Alexandrovsk, built on wide plains along both banks of the mighty and
ancient Dniepr River (pronounced Nyeper), was a historic city, and is known as Zaporozhye. There, the Poznanskys occupied one room of the house of a Russian bourgeoisie--who, together with his own family, had shifted into the coachhouse. At that time, accommodation was permitted by the Bolsheviks according to the rule:"one room per family". As the Tafipolskys had registered each married section of their family as a separate family, they were allowed to occupy a number of rooms of the large house.
The family members began making trips back to their abandoned property in Bozhedarovka, at great personal risk, in order to salvage and sell anything of value--the money made was needed to buy food for survival! They tried desperately to get in touch with Misha and Grisha over in Australia, but received no reply--the Russian postal service having ground to a complete halt as a result of the post-revolutionary chaos.
One day, Yasha, then aged 27 years, went to see the officials at the Alexandrovsk power works, and requested work as an electrical engineer. When asked for his qualifications and experience, Yasha pretended to be a qualified engineer, referring to the jobs he had undertaken in the Hungarian prisoner-of-war camp. On the strength of his convincing performance, he was given a job. His sister Raya, a midwife and nurse, obtained a position as a nursing assistant. Her husband, Borya Kasanik, obtained a job in leather production at a government office. Clara Tafipolsky was still studying medicine in Ekaterinoslav together with Yasha's girlfriend, Sima. Sara Tafipolsky was at the time employed as a surgeon in an army hospital south of Kharkov (the Ukraine capital), and was still dallying with Sasha--a former patient, but now her assistant (and lover!). And Yasha's brother, Borya Tafipolsky, spent all his time making repeated trips to Bozhedarovka...to salvage and sell whatever was left unlooted.
In late 1920, at the onset of the harsh Russian winter, Yasha determined that the first step for the family to achieve their goal of emigrating to Australia was for himself to make the trip first himself, by boat, to investigate the practicality of the plan. However, Yasha had no authorization to travel, no exit permit to leave Russia or other necessary documents, and would have to leave Russia illegally. Yasha informed his parents Abram and Sarah of his decision to try to get out Russia--somehow! Abram and Sarah were devastated, fearing for their youngest son's safety. Yasha reassured them, promising to return to Russia by the following winter, in order to help them survive. Yasha also contacted his love, Sima Morochovsly, in Ekaterinoslav, and--according to Sima's later testimony-- promised that he would come back from his journey and marry her! Yasha then left his job, in late 1920, and set out on an epic journey which ended in Constantinople (now Istanbul), Turkey--following a perilous route and overcoming incredible obstacles...
First, Yasha arranged false documents for himself in a new name--buying the services of a document forger by repairing the forger's broken typewriter. Yasha created an entirely new life story for his new persona. His journey was nothing short of astonishing. He set off in a northerly direction, arriving at the city of Kharkov (the Ukraine capital), in freezing winter conditions. There he met a former acquaintance who gave him work requiring his mechanical skills. After a month, he left Kharkov, travelling south by train to the city of Rostov, on the Don river.
The city of Rostov is often called "the Gates to the Caucasus", as it lies at the entrance to the Caucasus mountains. In Rostov, Yasha again used his old friendships to secure odd jobs in order to "get by". After several weeks, Yasha then travelled directly south to Sochi, a city on the eastern shore of the Black Sea (now one of Russia's most famous seaside resorts). Again, he used his contacts to obtain casual work. From Sochi, Yasha travelled to the prominent city of Baku, in the state of Azerbaijan, Baku being located on the Caspian Sea.
On the train journey to Baku, Yasha was apprehended by Bolshevik authorities. He spoke to them in broken Hungarian, using the primitive Hungarian language skills which he had picked up during his three years as prisoner of war in Hungary. He convinced the authorities that he was a deserter from the Hungarian army, and was immediately ejected from the train (but was not taken into custody)! He sustained a back injury from the fall--an injury which led to a permanent scar.
From Baku, Yasha had hoped to escape to Persia, but was unable to achieve this feat. With grim determination, he turned west and headed through the Caucasus mountains to the town of Batumi in the state of Georgia. Batumi is located on the eastern shores of the Black Sea. Yasha then stowed away in the coal hold of a boat due to sail across the Black Sea to Constantinople (Istanbul) in Turkey. As he hid in a corner of the hold, awaiting departure, a load of cargo was emptied into the hold, smothering and crushing Yasha, who had to fight for breath and extract his badly bruised body from the weight of the load! The boat finally set sail and arrived at Constantinople, where Yasha disembarked illegally--hiding from the authorities, as usual. It had taken Yasha six months to complete that epic journey from Alexandrovsk to Constantinople. He was out of Russia at long last!
Yasha estimated that there were 300,000 Russian refugees in Constantinople at the time. These refugees were both assisting each other to survive, as well as competing with each other for passage to greener pastures. Yasha obtained food and shelter with the assistance of odd jobs from Jewish aid organisations, as well as fellow refugees. And he began writing to his brothers, Grisha and Misha, in Melbourne, Australia, on June 2nd, 1921 (the extracts which follow from his first letter are translated from Russian):
"I am writing to you from Constantinople. How I got here is not important any more. I have been away from home for six months now...Our family is allright, despite many worries--coups, epidemics, and other 'charms' of the Revolution...do not ask me how they have managed to survive!...I am not going to write about what we have lived through, and am only going to say that the pogroms of 1905 are nothing in comparison to what has happened and what is probably going to happen...From everything we had, there are only two houses left, and one of these has probably been sold by now...(then follows detailed information about various members of the family)..."
"The family decided to migrate to Australia but were not able to get a letter through to you...that is why I left home...But the family is so big and the amount of money that we have is so small that without your help, no further action is possible..."
In this letter, Yasha proceeded to stress that he would need to travel to Australia to discuss with Grisha and Misha the practicality of a total family emigration. He informed them that he would be prepared to work his ship passage from Port Said in Egypt, to Australia, as a stoker or sailor, and that due to the urgency of his family's plight, he would try to get a ship as soon as possible. Yasha wrote, "I caused much grief to my family by leaving. That is why I have to return to them with a definite plan."
Yasha waited for many weeks for a reply. During those weeks, he kept himself alive by using up the gold coins which he had cleverly smuggled out of Russia--disguised as buttons covered by material, on his coat! He also took odd jobs, mostly illegally, with the help of yet more false documents as well as the goodwill of other Russian refugees.
In July, 1921, Yasha's letter was received in Melbourne by Grisha and Misha. In only January of that year, the Australian government had decreed, "the present policy is against letting Russian migrants into Australia"--a policy developed apparently out of fear of terrorism. However in the six months that had passed since then the attitude of the Australian government had softened, as a result of lobbying by politicians, businessmen and media publicity highlighting humnitarian concerns. On July 29, Grisha (now known as Harry Taft) swore a statutory declaration in front of the Lord Mayor of Melbourne, undertaking inter alia "to provide an affidavit, permit and other necessary documents to enable Abram Tafipolsky and his family to land in Melbourne."
Grisha then wrote to the Secretary of the Australian Home and Territories Department, in a letter dated 8th August, 1921:
We have received our first letter for a period of three and a half years from our parents and sisters who live at Aleksandrovsk (in the state of) Ekaterinoslav, Ukraine. Their tale is of terrible sufferings. They have been wealthy merchants but through the pogroms and confiscations have lost everything that could be removed including their clothes, actually off their backs and left destitute and starving. They still have their house properties worth many thousands of pounds but are debarred from using, disposing of them or collecting rents. They now ask us to help them to leave the Ukraine and bring them to Australia.
In view of this we pray you to grant us permission to bring them out and allow them to land in Melbourne. We propose to do so at our expense and also undertake to support and care for them as we can well afford to do it.
We are here two brothers, have been in this country for about 15 years and are naturalised for 12 years. We are in a good financial position. We conduct a Stationery Shop in Collins Street and a Chemist Shop in Nicholson Street, Footscray, own many house, shop and land properties in the suburbs and have invested in the War Loan and War Certificates nearly 1000 pounds.
Father and his family are of what the Authorities at present in Power in Russia are pleased to name the "Bourgeois" class. All his children have never been connected with "political" matters, and not being communists they are therefore persecuted and starved.
We request the permit to be issued for Father - Abram aged 72, Mother - Sarah aged 53, Sisters - Sarah 37 and Clara 22 also Brothers - Baruch (Borya) 34 and Jacob (Yasha) 28 - these are single. Two married Sisters - Frieda 35, her husband Samuel (Samoile) Poznansky and their two young children, also Rachel (Raya) 31, her husband Ber (Borya) Kasanik and their young child.
We realize that their plight is beyond imagination and are therefore presenting their case as quite urgent and while assuring you of our good faith we hope you will grant us our petition.
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Copyright © 1999 Sharman Lichtenstein