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Seed Stories from Starobin

Updated: Oct 17, 2023

by Masha Vernik

August 2023 | Av 5783

My great grandfather, Deda Zhenya, left us his story. He matter-of-factly and with subtle sarcasm shares what he remembers from his life in memoirs that he wrote a year before he passed. He tells of his ancestors and who they were and how they died. He describes the shtetl he grew up in, who lived there and what they did with their lives. Life was hard in Starobin, near the city of Slutsk in modern-day Belarus, filled with poverty, pogroms, and blistering cold. He moved to Moscow when he was fourteen, and my great grandmother Baba Ida left to a town called Shuya after her father was arrested and sent to a gulag for the crime of being a Rabbi. Their love grew through letters sent back and forth over many years. They got married right before World War II, and Deda Zhenya narrowly escaped a soldier’s fate thanks to a congenital defect in his leg. Starobin was bombed, and the surviving Jews were rounded up and shot by the Nazis. Deda Zhenya and Baba Ida, already in Moscow by the time the war started, were evacuated to the Ural mountains where he was an engineer in a factory that made heating supplies, and my great aunt Sofa was born. They returned to Moscow, where my grandfather Boris came into the world, and eventually moved to New Jersey, where they lived their lives until the end.

I am grateful that he share his story for us, his descendants, living in the USA. So that we know where we come from, living in a land that is so far away.

Reading his memoirs, one detail stood out to me. Deda Zhenya writes how his community would harvest and sell cucumber seeds to supplement their meager income.

"The shtetl had no factory or plant, not even a single artisanal artel (labor collective). Mostly, there were shoemakers, tailors, carpenters, and other handymen. The competition between them was colossal. These craftsmen lived not only off their artisanal income, but mostly off their home gardens and cows. They mostly grew potatoes for themselves and their cows, and cucumbers, partially for sale. Visiting peasants couldn’t cultivate their own personal home gardens, and at the end of the summer would stock up on cucumbers for pickling. The cucumbers were sold in sacks. The remaining cucumbers stayed on the vines for a long time, yellowing into the deep autumn. Then they were cut lengthwise and their seeds were harvested. Then the seeds dried and were brought to the right condition. Children often participated in the community work of harvesting the zheltyak (yellowed fruit). They earned peanuts. The seeds of Starobin were famous in the area and even abroad."

I was curious about these seeds and what they were. Finally, I got some answers! My Deda (grandpa) sent me an essay he found called About Starobin describing life in the shtetl. The piece goes into more detail on these seeds – even shares the name of a variety.

"The town excelled in that, that almost all the Jews were engaged in gardening. It was not their primary business, but a side business. Each house owner had a garden behind the house, in which people would sow various vegetables: potatoes, cabbage, turnip, legumes, beet and more, and especially pumpkins. The pumpkins were sowed not merely to feed the humans and animals, but, and especially, for a seeds trade. They would put them in flowerbeds until the end of the summer, until they grow and become properly yellow; they would collect them from the garden and place them in the sun, in rows, on the inclined roofs, so that they become more yellow and ripe. Afterwards, they would bring them to their houses, cut them in halves lengthwise, take out the soft part from the inside, together with the seeds, and filter them through a sieve. They would throw away the softness that would come out of the holes, and the seeds would remain in the sieve. They would dry the seeds in the sun again and spread them out on sheets. After the seeds would dry, they would store them in bags, until traders from Minsk would come and buy them for sowing.

"All the members of the household took part in all those tasks: the father, the mother, sons and daughters. It was a hard work, but the family worked enthusiastically and diligently. These seeds were of excellent species and called “Manarim” (“Manastirsky”), and had a great demand. Even those Jews, that did not own their own garden, rented land lots from non-Jews, and planted pumpkin in those lots. But, as I have already mentioned, this was a side business."

Another essay I found called My Town by Rabbi Nissan Waxman confirms what I’d learned about the seeds from the other two sources. It reads:

“Three hundred and fifty Jewish families lived in Starobin. Some earned their income from the various trades in which other Jews of White Russia (Belarus) were also employed, such as shoemaker, tailor, and storekeeper. In addition to these, Starobin Jews had a unique “industry” of their own from which the majority supported themselves, based on their vast gardens of cucumbers. The cucumbers were overseen with great care all summer, and at summer's end they were taken from the gardens, sliced in half by hand lengthwise, and their seeds removed. These were washed and then dried in the sun.

Merchants from deep inside Russia would then come and purchase the seeds in order to do their own sowing, and they would pay about twenty or thirty rubles a pod (40 pounds), a substantial price. It was fair, though, when you consider how labor-intensive the process was. You can also imagine what sort of income this kind of business eked out.”

It is interesting to note that the same essay later tells of people who tended to ‘pumpkin’ and ‘squash’ gardens. Although Deda Zhenya’s memoirs and the second essay My Town refer to cucumbers while the first essay About Starobin refers to pumpkins, I suspect they are the same seeds – the descriptions of how they’re collected, processed, and sold are so similar. Maybe the seeds were between a pumpkin and a cucumber, or perhaps there was a mistranslation along the way.

Whatever the case, it was very exciting to put the pieces of the puzzle together, and I was eager to share my findings with my friends at the Jewish Seed Project (JSP). Sonia, a seedkeeper and organizer with the JSP, even found this link to a Ukrainian seed keeper selling Monastirksiy cucumber seeds on Etsy!

Jewish cemetery in Starobin. The plaque reads, ‘Here are buried the civilians of Starobin, shot by fascist occupiers in the summer of 1941.” Photo from Facebook and posted on website of International Jewish Cemetery Project.

My mom and Deda said that if Deda Zhenya were alive today, he would laugh. They themselves think my whole fascination with seeds is funny too. I like to picture us all laughing together about it.

Deda Zhenya would probably think it was funny that out of 34 pages of his memoir, this small detail is what I latch onto. Like the About Starobin essay says, “[gardening] was not their primary business, but a side business.” Life was harsh in the shtetl, and the seeds were just one more way to earn some extra income and survive. To my ancestors, the seeds signified the poverty they wanted to escape. And then when Deda Zhenya moved to Moscow and earned a technical career, food growing and seed saving weren’t exactly top of mind.

But even if it was just a small detail for my great grandparents back then, it’s a tangible connection to the past today. It’s part of my family’s story, and therefore my story. And it’s joyful to think that I’m tasting the same food that my ancestors did.

I can’t go to the shtetl. It doesn’t exist anymore. The Nazis destroyed it and murdered the town’s Jews in cold blood. The other half of my great grandparents were from shtetls in Ukraine, which the Russian army, in 2023, is currently destroying. And Moscow – where two of my grandparents and my mom were born and raised, and where I spent half my childhood – is just

as distant. The city invokes anger at the senseless ruin it’s bringing, and yet the warm nostalgia of childhood memories of specific places and people. My roots feel so far.

I’m not the first Jew, or the first person of any diaspora for that matter, to feel disconnected with the land that my family comes from. I’m not the last, either. But cultivating seeds that I know were grown by ancestors makes me feel connected to them and to the land that they are from.

I like to picture a great great great grandparent from many generations ago who had a green thumb, and who found joy in diligently collecting seeds from their favorite plants to grow year after year, who felt awe at the sight of seeds sprouting. I like to imagine them looking down on me – and smiling.

1 The memoirs were written in Russian by my great grandfather Zelig (Zhenya) Kapchits in 2004, edited by my grandfather Boris Kapchits, and translated into English by me and my mom Olga Karpman in 2020.

2 The essay was written by Eliyahu Chaim Chinitz (who I assume was a resident of the shtetl) and translated by Irit Dolgin.

3 This essay was written in Hebrew and Yiddish by Rabbi Nissan Waxman. The Hebrew version with additions from the Yiddish version was translated by Paul Pascal.


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