Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Sarah Bordetsky - Forget Russia


Many families have an unlikely hero—someone who quietly saves the family, so quietly that perhaps most in the family don’t even know the story of her courage.  Sarah Bordetsky, born in 1906, in the small Jewish shtetl of Gornostaypol, Ukraine, was one such person.  She suffered tragedy at a young age—when she was around fourteen years old her mother Zlata was raped and murdered in a pogrom in 1921.  The Ukraine was an extremely unstable place to be after the 1917 Revolution since the Civil War was fought there.  For a while the Bolsheviks lost control of the Ukraine and warring factions of Ukrainian Nationalists and other factions opposed to the Bolsheviks vied for power and control.  In 1921, when the Bolsheviks were able to vanquish the White army and its many factions, the defeated armies, as they retreated went into the Jewish shtetls, murdering and pillaging anyone they could find. Sarah’s mother, Zlata Oushomirsky, lost her life during one of these pogroms. 

Sarah’s father, Lazer Oushomirsky, had already deserted the family.  Years before, he had left for the US, and remade himself as Louis Shumer, an elegant and talented tailor.  He had promised to send for his wife and daughter as soon as he could, but instead, years later, he mailed Zlata a letter of divorce and a five-dollar bill. After her mother’s brutal murder, Sarah must have felt like an orphan. An uncle who owned a store took her in and tried to locate her father in America.  Eventually, Sarah’s uncle found him, and she journeyed alone on the SS Samaria ship to her father in Boston.  In recounting her journey, many years later, she said so many were sick on the boat and there were many pregnant women.  When Sarah got to Boston, Massachusetts, her father had remarried, and Sarah discovered she had a half-sister and a half-brother.  Her new step-mother did not welcome her. She complained she didn’t want another mouth to feed.

Within a year, Sarah had married Barnett or Barney Bordetsky, another Russian Jewish immigrant seventeen years older.  Barney had come to America in 1909.  Like Sarah, he too had a parent, his father, murdered in Russia as part of an anti-semitic hate crime.  Barney was a master cabinet maker, who longed to return to the Soviet Union to build the Revolution.  In 1931, at the height of Depression, he and Sarah and their two daughters, ages five and three, returned to Leningrad.  Barnett was excited to be part of a Revolution that had promised equality to all.  He and Sarah were part of the ten thousand Americans who went to the Soviet Union in 1931 to escape the brutal reality of the Depression.  Life in Leningrad was also very harsh.  Famine raged in the countryside of the Ukraine.  Starving peasants filled Leningrad, seeking to escape hunger. Most people lived in communal apartments, a railroad apartment of up to twenty families, each with a room or two of their own, and all of them sharing one bathroom.  Sarah, Barney, and their daughters, sick with whooping cough, only stayed in Leningrad nine months.  If they had stayed any longer than a year, they would have lost their American citizenship and never gotten out. They would have surely been murdered or imprisoned during the height of Stalin’s purges in 1936 -1938, or they would have died during World War II, during the siege of Leningrad.  Because of Sarah, the family returned to America before it became too late to get out of Russia.

Sarah Bordetsky died in 1995. In her last years, she spent many hours humming to herself the Russian love songs from her girlhood, songs mainly of unrequited love from a country that had not been kind to her.

In the historical novel, Forget Russia, author Lisa Bordetsky-Williams, explores three generations of family history—the short and tragic life of her great-grandmother, her grandparents’ journeys back and forth from Russia to America, and her own experiences in Moscow in 1980 when she met  Soviet Jews, many of them Refuseniks, whose grandparents had been Bolshevik leaders and sympathizers, murdered or imprisoned by Stalin.  Forget Russia explores the interlocking connections between people across three generations, across space and time. It looks at the nature of destiny and the ways women in a family seek to transcend inherited trauma. 


Book website

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Sunday, April 11, 2021

Mary Perkins Olmstead - Landscape of a Marriage

Mary Perkins Olmsted was born on March 26, 1830. Orphaned at the age of eight, she was raised by her grandparents on Staten Island. As a young girl, she loved to play the piano and sing. When she was 21, she married Dr. John Olmsted. They honeymooned in Italy and over the next five years, she gave birth to three children while living in Europe. John died at the age of 32 from complications from tuberculosis and Mary returned to New York with her children. A year later, she agreed to marry her brother-in-law Frederick Law Olmsted in order to provide a secure future for her family. 

Her new husband was involved in a plan to turn 800 acres of Manhattan swamp land into a public park. Tempted to quit a number of times, it was Mary’s wise counsel and support that kept him focused on their joint goal ‘to create a beating green heart in every urban space’. Fred and Mary had four more children, only two of whom survived infancy. Fred’s career as a landscape architect took him away from the family for long periods of time as he worked on projects including Boston’s Emerald Necklace, the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC, the grounds for the Chicago World’s Fair, the park spaces at Niagara Falls and Yosemite National Park, as well as dozens of urban parks, college campuses and private estates.

More than her husband’s greatest fan, Mary organized the firm’s business operations, fine-tuned many of the design projects (as many as 50 different projects were on the books at any one time), paid the bills and kept track of the company’s finances.

After Fred died in 1903, Mary became more involved in philanthropic activities, leaving the Olmsted Brothers’ operations in the capable hands of her sons John and Rick. 

She died on August 23, 1921at the age of 91, surrounded by her children and grandchildren.

Mary's life story has been immortalized in the novel, Landscape of a Marriage, written by Gail Ward Olmsted, a distant relative of Mary. 

Gail Ward Olmsted

Gail Ward Olmsted was a marketing executive and a college professor before she began writing fiction on a full time basis. A trip to Sedona, AZ inspired her first novel Jeep Tour. Three more novels followed before she began Landscape of a Marriage, a biographical work of fiction featuring landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, a distant cousin of her husband’s, and his wife Mary.


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