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Anna's Shtetl

Written by Lawrence A. Coben

Publication Year: 2007

A rare view of a childhood in a European ghetto.
Anna Spector was born in 1905 in Korsun, a Ukrainian town on the Ros River, eighty miles south of Kiev. Held by Poland until 1768 and annexed by the Tsar in 1793 Korsun and its fluid ethnic population were characteristic of the Pale of Settlement in Eastern Europe: comprised of Ukrainians, Cossacks, Jews and other groups living uneasily together in relationships punctuated by violence. Anna’s father left Korsun in 1912 to immigrate to America, and Anna left in 1919, having lived through the Great War, the Bolshevik Revolution, and part of the ensuing civil war, as well as several episodes of more or less organized pogroms—deadly anti-Jewish riots begun by various invading military detachments during the Russian Civil War and joined by some of Korsun’s peasants.
In the early 1990s Anna met Lawrence A. Coben, a medical doctor seeking information about the shtetls to recapture a sense of his own heritage. Anna had near-perfect recall of her daily life as a girl and young woman in the last days in one of those historic but doomed communities. Her rare account, the product of some 300 interviews, is valuable because most personal memoirs of ghetto life are written by men. Also, very often, Christian neighbors appear in ghetto accounts as a stolid peasant mass assembled on market days, as destructive mobs, or as an arrogant and distant collection of government officials and nobility. Anna’s story is exceptionally rich in a sense of the Korsun Christians as friends, neighbors, and individuals.
Although the Jewish communities in Eastern Europe are now virtually gone, less than 100 years ago they counted a population of millions. The firsthand records we have from that lost world are therefore important, and this view from the underrecorded lives of women and the young is particularly welcome.  


Published by: The University of Alabama Press

Front Matter

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pp. ix-xii

Anna Spector, at eighty-nine, had a clear memory of her father, dressed in his best, stepping into a carriage that would take him out of town on his way from the Ukraine to America. She was seven years old when he left in January 1913. She would not see him again until she was sixteen. Before her father’s departure relatively...

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pp. xiii-xviii

For editorial advice and criticism, I am indebted to many people. The members of the nonfiction section of the 1997 Summer Writers Institute at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, under Dr. Rockwell Gray, were congenial and helpfully frank...

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Note on Transliteration and Pronunciation

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pp. xvii-xx

Russian and Ukrainian words are presented according to the modified Library of Congress system of transliteration. Yiddish words are presented according to the YIVO system...

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1. The Two Shevchenkos

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pp. 1-8

Eighty years later, Anna Spector still remembered the Ukrainian girl who was her best friend in high school: She was such a lovely girl. I don’t remember her first name. We always just called her Shevchenko...

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2. The Town

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pp. 9-10

Anna’s hometown of Korsun was too large to be called a village (a dorf in Yiddish), and too small to be called a city (a shtodt), but it was large enough to be called a small town, a shtetl. Korsun was a typical shtetl— a small market town in which Jews form a substantial...

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3. Grandmother Beyla

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pp. 11-17

Even though Anna’s Grandmother Beyla seemed healthy when she was born, her parents gave her a double name, Khaya Beyla. The name Khaya, meaning “to live” in Hebrew, was often given to girls when they became seriously ill, to ensure recovery...

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4. Grandfather Avrum

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pp. 18-25

Anna’s Grandmother Beyla married Grandfather Avrum not for love, but for yikhes. Yikhes meant pedigree, the history of a “good” family. A family was judged good by the Jewish community if it could boast a religious scholar (or a philanthropist) in its lineage...

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5. Aaron and Leya

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pp. 26-30

Anna’s mother, Leya, was an ordinary woman. She was the fifth surviving daughter born to Avrum and Beyla, and the ¤fth daughter to wed. She was married in Korsun at age nineteen to Aaron Spector, who was five or six years older...

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6. The Surprise (1914-1916)

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pp. 31-33

Yenta Koslov was not an ordinary woman. A good friend of Anna’s Grandmother Beyla, Yenta was a well-to-do widow whose children had all grown up and moved out. She welcomed company in her house. Everyone bene- ¤ted from the new arrangement when Leya...

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7. The Marketplace

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pp. 34-40

Anna’s eclipse of the sun occurred on August 21, 1914, twenty days after Germany had declared war on Russia. Eclipses in those days, as for hundreds of years before, were often regarded as predictors of dire events. If anyone in Korsun regarded the blotting out of the sun as an omen, though, it was not mentioned on that August day so soon after the beginning of war...

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8. Nobility and Obscurity

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pp. 41-46

The peasant who delivered forewood was poor, but like Anna’s family, still above the lowest social level, which was occupied by beggars and servants. Similarly, the wealthy families, whether Jewish or Gentile, did not belong to the highest class, which was reserved for royalty...

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9. At Alta’s House (1916-1917)

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pp. 47-53

Anna had gone to one rally celebrating a Russian victory in a battle with the German army. The Korsun police and public officials had arranged a bonfire in the center of town, and speakers had told the crowd about the valor of the Russian soldiers. That was early in the war, though...

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10. Anna’s Prize (1916-1917)

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pp. 54-59

At the end of the first summer living with Alta and Oora, Anna passed her high school entrance examination and began her first year as a student in the fall of 1916. In her tutored preparations for the examination, she had learned arithmetic, geography, and how to read, write, and speak Russian, but she brought an additional skill to high school...

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11. Between Gentile and Jew

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pp. 60-67

Jews and Gentiles in Korsun lived their lives separately because of their different religions, but even before the building of the high school, they had rubbed shoulders daily.1 They met and talked at the marketplace, buying and selling, bargaining and arguing. They lived with each other as peasant servant girl and Jewish householder...

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12. Cousin Zavl

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pp. 68-72

Aunt Khana would rather become a soldier herself than have her son Zavl go into the army. As a mother, she wanted to keep him safe, but there was a second reason for wanting to protect him. As her only son, he was the only person who could perform the religious obligation of saying the prayer for the dead for his parents...

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13. Leya the Smuggler (1917-1919)

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pp. 73-80

Cousin Zavl had come out of hiding early in March 1917 to announce the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II. The Bolsheviks had taken power in Petrograd seven months later. Such a momentous change in national government, however, had far less immediate effect on the Russian people than did the scarcity of food...

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14. The First Pogrom (March 1-8, 1918)

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pp. 81-88

When the ¤rst pogrom erupted in Korsun, Anna’s family was staying at her grandmother Beyla’s house. The weather was still cold, but it was not snowing. A pogrom in the Ukraine in those days did not usually sneak into a town without warning. People had plenty of time...

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15. The Aftermath (March 1918)

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pp. 89-92

Looking down at the main street from the big house on the hill not long after her escape from the Cossack, Anna saw the Cossack horsemen, the kavaleristi, riding away, leading

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16. The Germans Occupy Korsun (1918)

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pp. 93-101

The residents of Korsun, having survived a pogrom shortly before the Germans occupied the town in the spring of 1918, were relieved that a disciplined army had taken power and was trying to restore order. Grandmother Beyla hired a glazier...

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17. Fall and Winter in Prewar Korsun

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pp. 102-105

The beginning of autumn for Anna in peacetime had nothing to do with the of¤cial date of September 22, when the sun was poised over the earth’s equator. Autumn in Korsun began for Anna on the holiday...

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18. The Worst Winter (1918-1919)

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pp. 106-117

The memories of peacetime winters, however harsh, became almost nostalgic after the winter of 1918–1919 had done its work. Korsun’s high school students had looked forward to classes each fall since the school had opened four years ago, proud of their new, clean building, the ¤rst public high school ever built in the town...

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19. Spring and Summer in Prewar Korsun

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pp. 118-121

Before the war, in a simpler time when each season came and went as it had in all the years before, when life in the Jewish community was linked to the seasons by the serene cycle of the holidays, spring was a hopeful time. A Ukrainian rhyme held that March can be so cold...

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20. Spring and Summer (1919)

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pp. 122-127

In the spring of 1919, Anna missed more than a month of high school because of illness. By the time she caught typhus fever, her mother had sufficiently recovered, during January from her own bout of typhus, to travel again and was on a smuggling trip in Kiev. For a time, Anna lay listlessly on a sofa, her fever high...

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21. The Third Pogrom(August 13-26, 1919)

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pp. 128-134

The third pogrom to hit Korsun came rolling in from the southeast in the last weeks of summer. As usual, rumors were flying from mouth to ear, but it became clear that battles were being fought not far from Korsun. It was the custom for a delegation made up of the rabbi and some elders of the town to go to the railway station...

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22. How to Tell a Sollop

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pp. 135-137

Any Korsuner who tried to travel from one town to the next by sleigh knew he was taking a risk. He could easily lose his way on the unlighted roads if his sleigh were still out in the countryside at nightfall, and especially if a snowstorm—not a rare occurrence—should overtake the horses...

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23. The Two Korsuns

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pp. 138-145

The way Korsuners treated Mr. Sollop was one of the things that Anna disliked about her hometown. She found many Korsuners to be meanspirited. They may have been soured by their inability to escape from poverty...

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24. Moscow (1919-1921)

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pp. 146-158

The Bolsheviks ultimately recaptured Korsun from General Denikin’s pogromshchiki. Anna brought home the rumor that refugees might be able to cross the Russian border and reach America if they went ¤rst to Moscow. Leya gathered her daughters and set out for Moscow...

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25. Petrograd (1921)

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pp. 159-169

Not long after being handed their new passports, the Korsun emigrants were taken from the camp by truck to a Moscow railway station. They were part of an expanded group of more than fifty people who boarded a train for the Russian border. The thirty-five “Americans” with their newly issued passports now included a handful...

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pp. 170-174

Anna, with her mother and two sisters, traveled by train from Petrograd to the German seaport of Bremen, by way of Minsk in White Russia and Kovno in Lithuania. They landed in America at Ellis Island, New York, on March 6, 1922. From there they took the train to Iowa, joining Anna’s father, Aaron, in the small agricultural...

Appendix A

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pp. 175-182

Appendix B

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pp. 183-186

Appendix C

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pp. 187-194

Appendix D

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pp. 195-198


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pp. 199-222


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pp. 223-232


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pp. 233-243

E-ISBN-13: 9780817381318
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817356736

Publication Year: 2007

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Korsunʹ-Shevchenkivsʹkyĭ (Ukraine) -- History -- 20th century.
  • Dien, Anna Spector, b. 1905.
  • Jews -- Ukraine -- Korsunʹ-Shevchenkivsʹkyĭ -- Biography.
  • Korsunʹ-Shevchenkivsʹkyĭ (Ukraine) -- Ethnic relations.
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