Poly and Aron Feb 28, 1916
Polya and Aron February 28, 1916
The desire to forget prolongs exile; the secret of redemption is memory.

Ba’al Shem Tov

Many stories are the retelling of old stories. The Letters to Polya collection is a version of Exodus, that is, an exodus of people under oppression seeking relief, seeking their freedom. “I wait to hear any news from you…like a prisoner waits to be free,” writes Aron Buchspuna in a letter to his beloved Poline “Polya” Dechtar on January 15, 1914. He is in Kishinev, Russia, and she has now fled to Paris, France, where her father, siblings, and other relatives reside. Her family  moved over the previous years to escape the series of pogroms within Russia’s Pale of Settlement area. Aron and Polya plan to go America, marry, and start new lives. But first he must save money and receive proper documentation to leave Russia — if possible — and to be accepted into the United States. Above all, he wants to avoid conscription into the Russian military, which is building up prior to World War I.

Aron reads the newspapers carefully. He knows that men from his area will be among the first sent to fight. He was correct. The collection contains a photo of his brother in uniform. Aron dreads that their area will be part of the theater of war. It was. Some of the later correspondence shows the effects of World War I on those who stayed behind in Kishinev. The collection also contains a book of Labor Songs circa 1914. These could have been sung at a proto-Communist or Russian Social Democratic Worker’s Party meeting, which was illegal in Russia at the time. The book is another sign of discontent (rage, anger, angst).

The collection includes Aron’s notebook, which contains drafts of the letters he sent to Polya as well as miscellaneous journaling (one uses the paper one has at hand, yes?). We tend to forget that there was a fine art to letter writing. People would compose drafts and then write the final in their flowing script.

The other exodus regarding this collection is its movement around the globe. How remarkable that this correspondence from 100 years ago made it from Kishinev to Paris in the first place. Then it went by boat from France to America. There were stops along the way over time to several places in New York and then another 3,000 miles to California. She obviously chose to preserve these memories. I am now the caretaker of the collection. Polya and Aron were my grandparents. I never knew Aron, because he died before I was born, but my family lived with Polya in her house during my childhood. Polya took the job as grandmother very seriously. She would say, “Your mother is only your mother. I am your GRANDmother.” I choose to preserve and remember.

Most of the correspondence is from Aron to Polya. She saved his letters and other items. The letters from Polya to Aron, however, either never were saved or were lost in the travels. We do not know, and there is no one left to ask. These were private people, whose words about coming to America were: “Things were bad in Russia. We suffered.” That’s it. End of story. The end. The correspondence, written in pre-Revolution, old-fashioned Russian are more eloquent.

Where were they from exactly? The joke goes something like this. A boy runs into his mother’s house, excited, and says, “Mother, mother, the war is over. We’re Poland now.” She replies. “Oh, thank God. I couldn’t stand another Russian winter.” Yes, the borders in that part of the world have been fluid. The Kishinev inhabited by Polya and Aron was Russian, part of the administrative division of Bessarabia. It was part of the Pale of Settlement, in the Western region of Imperial Russia (with varying borders, of course), originally created by Catherine the Great in 1791 to deal with the Jewish problem (quarantine, anyway, of a perceived illness in the body politic). After the October Revolution of 1917, Kishinev joined the Kingdom of Romania. Much of it was destroyed during World War II, with German occupation and Nazi extermination of its Jewish inhabitants. After that war, Bessarabia integrated into the Soviet Union. The city is now Chișinău and is the capital of the Republic of Moldova.

Pale of Settlement existed from 1791 to 1917
The Pale of Settlement existed from 1791 to 1917.

Besides the ever-changing geo-political boundaries, Polya, Aron, family, and friends had numerous names. There was the Russian penchant for nicknames and terms of endearment. Poline was known as Polya, but in the letters, she is Polinka, Pulya, Galenka, and ultimately Pauline. Aron refers to her as “Soul,” and sometimes “Comrade.” Aron is Arnold and Arnoldushka. He ultimately becomes Aaron. These people believed in self-reinvention. They had Russian identities, French identities, and American ones.

Also, Russia until the 1917 Revolution followed the Julian calendar. Polya, in France, followed the Gregorian calendar, so there is a 13-day difference in the dates on the correspondence.

Who were they? Polya and Aron were ordinary people caught up in the large forces of interesting times. Throughout her life, Polya was a wife, mother, grandmother, seamstress, and landlord. Aron was a husband, father, shoemaker, and furrier.

Pauline Dechtiar Bookspan @1894-1971
Aaron Bookspan @1885 – 1940

Enjoy their journey!

Many thanks to Sergey M. Artemyev for the hours, days, months of work translating the Russian correspondence in to English.

Many thanks to Eddie Reyes of ER Digital Design for the beautiful website design.

— Jane Minogue