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Hanover Man Travels to Russia and Ukraine in Search of Father’s History

Hanover — As an old man, Robert Belenky’s father Max showed the caution that can come with age. Button up against the cold! Don’t go out in the rain without your galoshes!, he’d tell his children and grandchildren. He seemed the picture of the prudent businessman he’d been when, from the 1930s through the postwar period, he’d owned, with his wife Sophie, a shop in New York’s Greenwich Village that sold Russian curios and then, after the Cold War made all things Russian suspect, wedding rings.

Was this, Robert Belenky wondered, the same person who, as a young man in the 1920s, had traveled solo across the vast steppes of his native Russia by motorcycle and signed on to work in a socialist Jewish collective in the Crimea?

This contrast between his father’s youthful adventures and the stolid, settled nature of his old age led Robert Belenky to a larger question: how do children understand the lives their mothers and fathers led before they became parents? Who were they then and who do they become?

So Belenky began a journey in search of his father. Beginning in 2007, 20 years after Max Belenky’s death, his son traveled to Russia and the Crimea, now an autonomous republic within Ukraine, to recover his father’s history, whose story he tells in his self-published book Collective Memories of a Lost Paradise.

These were not Robert Belenky’s first trips to the former Soviet Union, but they were the first taken with the intent of following the route his father had taken in life. Apart from finding traces of his father in the Crimea, and meeting with cousins who still lived in Moscow, the trips also brought him into contact with aspects of Jewish life and religion of which he, raised as a largely secular Jew in a family of left-wing progressives in New York during the 1930s and 1940s, knew relatively little.

He also interviewed the remaining survivors of the collectives, women and men who, against considerable odds, had come out on the far end of the long, dark tunnel of 20th-century Russian and European history.

“It was like looking at these exotics, people who’ve lived through the Holocaust, world war and all these terrible things. We’ve constructed a distance between them and ourselves. But I could see not only my father but my uncles and grandparents in these people,” said Belenky in an interview at the apartment he shares with his wife Mary in Kendal at Hanover. “It was so foreign yet so familiar. It felt like coming home but to a different kind of home.”

Now 80, Belenky, who was schooled in the progressive education movement led by Vermont-born John Dewey, has had a career as a psychologist working with children both in the U.S. and in Haiti. For many years he and his wife ran a camp in Cabot, Vt., for children and parents struggling with familial issues.

As a boy, Belenky was used to hearing his father’s stories about the collective movement, which permitted Jews, who had been forbidden by the tsars to own and farm land, to settle and work in agricultural areas previously off-limits to them.

“A lot of children of immigrants have an image of their parents in the shtetl, going to synagogue, but (my father’s) concern was agriculture,” Belenky said. “I always had a sense of him as an adventurer. I liked to think that was kind of a model for me in my young life.”

Maksim (Max) Davidovich Belenky was born in Smolensk in 1894, on Russia’s western border, just outside what was then called the Pale of Settlement, an area created by Catherine the Great as a way of expelling Jews from the heart of imperial Russia to a restricted region at the very western edges of the empire, with dictates stipulating where they could live, what they could do and where they could travel.

However, because Max Belenky’s grandfather had a valued trade as a watchmaker, the family was permitted to remain in Smolensk. Max Belenky immigrated to the U.S. in 1911, educated himself in agriculture in New York and at Michigan State University, and returned to his native land in 1923 to bring his skill as a machinist and so-called “tractor leader” to the collectives of the southern Ukraine.

Like other American Jews at the time, Max Belenky had volunteered to return to Russia as part of a large-scale effort by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (AJJDC), the philanthropic organization founded in 1914 to bring aid to Jews in Palestine and Eastern Europe.

During the 1920s, Robert Belenky writes in his book, in response to the crackdown on Jewish-owned businesses by the Soviets, the AJJDC undertook, with the eventual collaboration of the Soviets, to relocate a category of Jews called “nonproductive” to the enormous agricultural lands of the Ukraine, Belarus and Crimea.

His father, Belenky said, had always “found the prospect of being a farmer and owning land to be really compelling. It’s very similar to Israelis who are very oriented toward agriculture.” The older men and women interviewed by Belenky in the Ukraine during his visits there “took similar pride in that.”

His father, Belenky added, “was never a political guy, to call him a Communist would have been a stretch. When he was a very old man, I’d say Stalin was terrible; he’d say that was propaganda. It was a very sentimental thing.”

Through excerpts from interviews with the people who’d put down stakes in the collectives, or kolkhozy, where Yiddish, rather than Russian, was spoken, Belenky also resurrects a period during the ’20s and ’30s when Jewish families were able to make a respectable living in agriculture, and coexist quite amicably with their Ukrainian neighbors. Not that life was easy or luxurious, but there were jobs, food and the ability to provide for oneself, a relatively optimistic picture that is not particularly well-known, he said, in comparison to the complex history of Jews during and after the Russian Revolution.

Indeed, Belenky’s title Collective Memories of a Lost Paradise might strike some as paradoxical, given the fate of 20th-century Jews in the Ukraine at the hands of the Russians, then the Soviets, then the Nazis, and the Soviets again. They suffered pogroms, purges, famine, extermination, forced relocation in the far East of the Soviet Union.

Belenky recalled traveling through a Ukrainian town that had three Jewish cemeteries: one for Jews murdered in the tsarist-era pogroms, and two for Jews murdered during the Holocaust. “I was so impressed that we were standing there and looking at these cemeteries and along came two Ukrainian girls who were putting flowers on the graves. I found that a very powerful experience,” he said.

As Belenky discovered, over the course of two visits to the Crimea from 2007 to 2011, the men and women who’d outlived the war and Stalin “wanted to tell their stories. .... Really, this was all fresh stuff. They all talked about the importance of telling their stories to their grandchildren.”

Why and how these women and men were able to emerge from some of the most barbaric episodes in history and go on to live fairly normal, vigorous lives are questions for which Belenky has no one answer, although the tightly-knit, thriving communities of the collectives may have helped to foster unusual resilience.

Of these stoic women and men, Belenky said, “I came away with the sense of being kind of in awe of their ability to survive psychologically intact. ... Some people are stronger by virtue of culture they’ve grown up in.”

Now facing the question of his own mortality, Belenky has come to realize that the lives of both his parents and the survivors of the collectives, which once seemed so distant, are much less remote and foreign than he’d ever dreamed. “As I get older it’s as if my parents are inhabiting me,” he said. “I am becoming them.”

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.