Sepia Saturday: Finding Lost Treasure Pt. 2

My great-grandfather David was up early every morning to write, continuing for hours in the back room of the menswear store he owned. The diary I discovered never mentions his working on eight novels, four novellas, and 900 pages of rhyming couplets based on the Bible.

The two volumes of the Diary

David's “real life” as a writer seemed to be disrupted by the day-to-day business of actually living, though ironically this was what he documented in hindsight in the Diary. The inner drive of a Wallace Stevens or William Carlos Williams, both professional men as well as poets, was present in David but he did not have their education, their facility with English, nor their abundant income as insurance executive and doctor. But David did do wonders, considering his hardships of birth and later circumstance.

First page of the diary;David describes his mother Leah (using the alias Lenetta)
as she was around 1865 (approx. 16 years old!)

"Lenetta" (aka his mother Leah) could have been sitting in the house on the left

“They represented a conglomeration of races, Mongolian, Kirghiz, Kalmuk, Tartar, German and Russian from many far-off provinces, most of them hardly understanding one another, for all were unfamiliar with any language except their mother tongue. ...Many of the poor recruits did not understand their officers’ commands. The corporal would hit some poor boy under the chin hard enough to make his teeth rattle. Those military officers were steeped in brutality, and always grumbled about their work, uttering vulgar names especially to the small Jewish boys, 'cantonists,' whom they were trying to convert to Christianity by forced orders from the Czar."


The Czar; frontispiece of the Diary

“…During the previous four years Russia had fought a losing war in the Crimea and paid heavily and dearly in gold and lives. Thousands upon thousands, especially Jewish soldiers, passed through those portals from which there was no return, for they, above all others, were recruited for the firing line."

Lenetta laments, “…. My sole provider, my husband dear Ben-Zion, was snatched away by the ‘catchers’ on that fatal night, pressing him into the army for 25 years. The ‘catchers’ said he will only be there until we can procure a substitute. God only knows when I will be able to buy one. My father Yanke Hennes is rich, but oh God, so miserly! He says everything must be for the Ben Yochid, his only son. My dear husband Ben-Zion may be sent far away. I may never hear from him again.”

"Yanke Hennes of Tukums was one of the most prominent and outstanding citizens. He enjoyed the reputation of being a good man, for his sterling qualities of character and honesty, strict religious life and prompt observance of all Jewish traditions captured the respect and administration of all. He owned a large number of houses on the market row front where he had a large corner store, where he conducted a large business in shoemaker’s, harness-maker’s and cobbler’s leather supplies. ... He rose punctiliously every morning at 6 a.m., going to the early service in the synagogue where he was quite a pillar. After prayer service he always devoted half an hour to his reading of the Talmud, coming home by 8 a.m., eating his frugal breakfast and going to his daily business. He was blessed with four rosy-cheeked daughters and one baby boy, to his great delight. Yanke Hennes was very reactionary and set in his ways. He held to the ancient rabbinical injunction, 'the one that teaches his daughters the Torah is like teaching her unworthiness.' He did not believe in any book learning whatsoever for girls.

"...[He] decided that Lenetta should open a bakery to support herself and her child. He owned a cottage at the rear of his house. It was called the Herberig [sic]. It contained two large rooms. In one there was a classroom, for he had a special private teacher for his dear son Ben Yochid, for higher Talmudic training. In the other room he fitted up a bakery with all the utensils needed. Poor Lenetta slaved long and hard kneading large trays of dough, making all sorts of bread and selling it every morning.

The square today

"At the time when Ben-Zion was forcibly made to enter the army, he was sent away into Chersonky (Kherson) Gubermin, in the southern Ukraine. Being very religiously disposed, he would not eat the regular army mess, for it was not kosher. It was his lot to be apprenticed in the army tinsmith shop as a helper. He was not inclined to adopt himself to conditions. He was given the hardest work, which his frail strength could hardly endure, but his hope, soon to be discharged, to go home and embrace his dear Lenetta and his baby boy, whom he had never seen, gave him strength and courage to endure all punishments."

Kherson town square, late 18th century

To be continued...

And find more fascinating posts at Sepia Saturday blog

Some of these photos were borrowed from the following sites:


  1. A riveting post, Sean. I didn't want it to end, and then I noticed 'to be continued'. Yes, more please.

  2. OH make sure it is continued. I agree with Martin, I was hooked from the start and could have read page after page of it. What a legacy to leave behind. Thank you for sharing it with us - if ever something deserved sharing it is these diaries and books.

  3. Thanks Alan, the link in the box was right but it got messed up in translation to the link on the page somehow. Looks like I fixed it now. - Sean

    PS thanks for the votes of confidence, there's been some question of the worth of these texts, as we try to find a publisher. Don't worry, more will follow - I love this format.

  4. I too just noticed the "to be continued" - thank goodness. Absolutely riveting.

  5. So glad you'll be continuing. How wonderful to have these first hand documents.

  6. Is this his "real life" diary or his fiction? I got confused. If real life, it's really fascinating if fiction it's still fascinating. Yes, I want more, also. That tiny picture of those poor little boys is heartbreaking. I can't wait for the next episode!

  7. Yes, the italicized bits are his "real life." One of the fascinating aspects is how he began by treating his life as fiction, with false names and the prose style, and obviousy writing from memory; and after a few hundred pages resorted to real names and a very truncated diary style. He also intersperses his memoir with long historical passages and explaining Jewish customs.

  8. Wonderful post, and I agree with the others. Please continue, it was riveting.

  9. I will come back again to reread this historic post; I am glad you reposted your link on Sepia because the first one did not work and I would have hated to miss this....

  10. ARGH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    i "hate" you!!!
    to leave us hanging like this,
    it is cruel...
    but a great cliffhanger.
    looking forward to reading more about these folks.
    i was totally engrossed in the details and the pics. like those books you can't put down and just got to keep reading...
    hoping to see the rest next saturday...

  11. What a trying and terrifying time for both Leah and Ben-Zion. Please don't leave us hanging too long -- maybe just a week would be okay.