On an evening in early May, Russian grandmother Taisya Chernykh and her family collapsed into chairs in the lobby of their Jerusalem hotel after long hours of touring. As they rested their sore feet, they reflected not only on their travels that day, but also on the improbable seven-year journey that brought them on a two-week trip to Israel from their home in the small Siberian town of Babushkin.
This journey began with a book. In 2010, Chernykh, a librarian, read a memoir titled “In Defiance of Fate: Joy From Sadness,” by Vladimir Rott, a Soviet Jew of Hungarian descent who defected to Canada in 1974. Rott wrote about his wife Iya’s ancestors, the Gutermans, who lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Babushkin, then known as Mysovaya Station, a key point along Tsarist Russia’s Great Tea Road trading route.
The Russian Orthodox Chernykh had never heard of the Gutermans, nor did she know anything about the Jews who once — but no longer — lived in Mysovaya Station. However, Rott’s book intrigued her and she contacted him asking him for more information. With Rott’s encouragement Chernykh started digging for historical records on the Jewish community, which in 1907 numbered 1,600 out of a local population of 5,000.
In 2011, Rott and his wife traveled to Babushkin, where they met Chernykh and her family. In the ensuing years, restoring the memory of Mysovaya Station’s Jewish community became a project for the entire Chernykh family. Chernykh’s husband Petr, son Valentin, daughter-in-law Svetlana, and young grandsons Vladislav and Vadim joined her in the strenuous physical labor of restoring town’s abandoned, desecrated Jewish cemetery. There they constructed and erected a “Shalom” memorial to the Jewish community designed and funded by the Rotts.
The Chernykhs didn’t think twice about taking on the arduous challenge.
“We like history, and we have a tight family. So we all did it together,” Taisya Chernykh told The Times of Israel.
“The erasure of Jewish history from our town was such a tragedy, so we felt obligated to do it,” said her husband.
The memorial was dedicated in a ceremony attended by the rabbis of Tomsk and Irkutsk in June 2014. Only 14 toppled gravestones remained in the cemetery, but research efforts spearheaded by Chernykh and Rott recovered 59 names of the approximately 400 people believed to be buried there. Those are inscribed in the granite monument, and 19 additional names have been discovered in the three years since the ceremony.
“This page of history was covered and did not exist. We hunted for synagogue registration books, and found a mohel’s book of birth records in a government office. We also found mention of Jewish names in railroad record books,” Chernykh said, referring to Mysovaya Station’s having been the eastern terminus for the train ferry across Lake Baikal, which was used as part of the Trans-Siberian Railway until the rail line around the southern shore was completed in 1905.
It was the business opportunities related to trade and shipping in the area that attracted Jews such as Iya Rott’s grandfather Shlomo Chaim Guterman and his young family, who fled pogroms in Poland in 1896.
This trip to Israel was the Rotts’ way of thanking the Chernykhs for their dedication to preserving Jewish history in their corner of Siberia on the southeast shore of Lake Baikal, just north of the Mongolian border.
Also on the trip, courtesy of the Rachel Guterman-Yaroslavskaya Buryat-Mongolian Jewry Fund (a charity supported by the Rott family and donors from their Toronto synagogue), were Luiza Maltceva, and Anton and Svetlana Gordienko from Ulan-Ude, the capital city of Buryatia Republic, located 177 km east of Babushkin. Like the Chernykhs, they are not Jewish, but keep local Jewish history alive, and also take care of the basic health and living needs of the several hundred elderly Jews still residing in Ulan-Ude.
“We pay for dentures for older Jews, and make sure there is firewood for their homes. We get them furniture, canes and medicine. And we make sure they get Jewish burials when they die,” said Anton Gordienko.
There is no Jewish cemetery in Ulan-Ude, so Jews are buried in the general cemetery. But the bodies of deceased Jews are no longer cremated, and Jewish rituals are followed during funerals and burials.
Rott planned a packed itinerary for the Siberian group’s Israel trip. They covered the entire country in just under two weeks, squeezing in a special meeting with Speaker of the Knesset and former Soviet refusenik Yuli-Yoel Edelstein on May 9.
The Chernykhs have friends in Russia who have visited Israel, but they didn’t know what to expect until they got here themselves.
Svetlana Chernykh said she found Israel to be a beautiful country, and its people warm and welcoming. Her mother-in-law was amazed by how such a small country can be so rich in history.
“I was really surprised by Tel Aviv,” said Valentin Chernykh. “The buildings there don’t look anything like the ones where we live. Tel Aviv has such a modern, industrial look to it.”
Vladislav Chernykh, 15, will surely have a lot to share with his friends and schoolmates back home in Irkutsk. He has already gained attention for a presentation he made to a multicultural student conference in Moscow about Jewish history in Mysovaya Station and his family’s extraordinary project.
This Israel trip was a high point, but certainly not an end point for Taisya Chernykh, who continues looking for names to add to the Shalom memorial in the Jewish cemetery in Babushkin.
She doesn’t quite understand a reporter’s curiosity about why she and her family would care so much about preserving Jewish history in their small Siberian town.
“Where we live, we don’t have the anti-Semitism that is found in other parts of Russia. We are a tolerant family,” she said.