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.
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.