A Cultural Life
by Joseph Sherman
It’s early days yet. The name is new to me. For years it was the maternal side of my family that I knew (more) about, that what was once Hoffman had been Kulakovsky, that the family emigrated from Kimkovich in Latvia…or was it Poland? My grandfather the tailor said one, his younger brother the tailor the other. In the days when the 20th century was young and could almost feign innocence, though the lands fueling emigration stank of spilled blood.
Of my father’s father’s origin I knew little. That Sherman was once Mudrick or Yuziuk (with variant spellings), or both, that Poland was the stained area left behind for, of all places, Cape Breton. And eventually, as it turns out, everywhere south of the border for some…Memphis and Natchez and Jackson, Hialeah and Las Vegas and Washington…The old world left behind for the new by all but two young men who’d have been my great-uncles, one dead of some illness before the Shoah, the other silenced by it. The place of origin and repeated atrocity a village founded in the late 15th century. A hamlet teased and raped and then ravaged, with bold Nazi punctuation, on August 14, 1941. Telekhany near the Oginsky Canal, in the heart of the Pripet Marshes, a small village in the Ivantsevichi region in the province of Brest in present-day Belarus. Names.
Thus far I know nothing of the size of Telekhany’s population, just that its fortunes were intermittently fair to sub-middling, except for the politics and the pogroms, sometimes defiant of politics. A lot of angry and envious and deeply prejudiced people had a say in what befell the principal citizens of Telekhany over 400 years. I sometimes imagine that many immigrants to the new world must have felt that they were putting not only penury and stagnation behind, but death, certainly its stink. Once off the funereal boat, a new life.
And a new name to go with it. I don’t know how or why, or precisely when, Mudrick/Yuziuk became Sherman. No one thought to clue me in, until recently.
Needless to speculate about journeys untaken. The majority of those of my tribe who stopped where the burning land meets the ocean came to know that there was no future to their backs. Still, they turned…and disappeared.
The more I read of Telekhany (there’s a website), a seemingly uncomplicated Jewish settlement with the typical Yeshiva-tossed salad of philosophies and opinions, the more I feel like a voyeur, for whom the entire story is never left to unfold. It was one of many hundreds of shtetls across the Pale, but if there’s resonance, it is all because I am told that this is where something of my own rooted, and then tore itself away before it could be torn. I already have the hometowns I know…two of them, in fact. Were Telekhany Brigadoon; I might feel like singing about it.
The family detectives, one a distant and unfamiliar cousin, the other my newly inspirited daughter, are onto this. While I feel no great sense of connection yet, fact, served hot or cold, remains fact, and could but a line be traced to discernibility I might touch sights and smells. Russia, White Russia, Poland, Belarus…these names are not definition. What is? Telekhany, however many generations lived out livable lives there, was its own kingdom of doomed futures. I packed up and left in the nick of time.