County Fare

On Language

By Philologos

Published July 08, 2009, issue of July 17, 2009.
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Forward reader Donald Allen, having come across a reference in a column of mine several weeks ago to “Kovno gubernya,” the czarist province of Kaunas in Lithuania, writes:

“When I was growing up, my father, born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1895, always told me that his father and mother were from ‘Givilney gubernya,’ probably close to your Kovno. I have asked a friend with a Ph.D. from the University of Vilnius, and another friend, a professor of Slavic languages at Northwestern, where ‘Givilney gubernya’ is, but neither has ever heard of such a place. The professor did say, however, that a gubernya in czarist times was a Russian district similar to our American county. So how do I locate Givilney gubernya on a map of Lithuania?”

Alas, Mr. Allen will never locate “Givilney gubernya” on a map of Lithuania, because no “Givilney gubernya” ever existed. But a Vilna gubernya did — and I am surprised that Mr. Allen’s friends failed to realize that the province of Vilna, the Yiddish and Polish name for the city that the Lithuanians call Vilnius, is where Mr. Allen’s grandparents hailed from.

Whether Vilna was turned into “Givilney” (presumably under the influence of the first syllable of gubernya) by Mr. Allen or his father, I don’t know, but that “Givilney” is a garbling of Vilna, I have no doubt. When Mr. Allen’s grandfather was born, there was of course no independent Lithuania, the country having been part of the czarist empire, from which it gained independence in 1918, lost it again in 1939 and regained it once more in 1992; but the three former czarist gubernyas that today are wholly or partially within Lithuania are Kovno gubernya, the northern part of Suwalki gubernya (whose southern part is now in Poland) and the northwestern part of Vilna gubernya (whose southeastern part is in Belarus). If Mr. Allen draws a rough circle around Vilnius, today the capital of Lithuania, bounded by other circles drawn around Kaunas, Grodno, Minsk and Vitebsk, it’s a good bet that his grandparents came from somewhere inside it, although whether this somewhere was on the Lithuanian or the Belarussian side of today’s frontier is impossible to say.

The czarist gubernyas — “governorates” would be the literal English translation — encompassed a much larger area than do American counties, which are comparable to the Russian uezds, the sub-districts into which each gubernya was divided. In size, a gubernya was more like an American state, though having few of the autonomous powers that a state has. The Russian empire had 81 such administrative units, which were generally named for their capital city. Of these, Jews were officially allowed to live in only 25. Ten of these were in Poland: The gubernyas of Kalisz, Kielce, Lomza, Lublin, Piotrkow, Plock, Radom, Suwalki, Siedlice and Warsaw. The others were in the Jewish “Pale of Settlement,” that area of the western czarist empire out of which, running from north to south, the independent states of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova were created after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Going from north to south, too, these gubernyas were Courland, Livonia, Kovno, Vitebsk, Vilna, Grodno, Minsk, Mogilev, Volhynia, Kiev, Chernigov, Podolia, Poltava, Bessarabia, Kherson and Ekaterinoslav.

If one or more of these names sound familiar to you from your own family histories, this is because, like Mr. Allen’s grandfather, Jews coming from czarist Russia commonly cited their gubernya when asked where they came from. The reason for this was simple. Think of the United States. If you grew up or reside in a large or middle-sized city, such as New York, Boston, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Omaha, etc., you give the name of it when asked by someone where you live or were raised. But if you come from a small town — Hurricane, W.Va., for example (yes, there is such a place) — you don’t say, “I’m from Hurricane.” What could that mean to anyone? You say, “I’m from West Virginia,” and add, for those curious enough to want to know more, “From a small town called Hurricane.”

The chances of living in someplace like Hurricane were far greater for the Jews of czarist Russia than they are for American Jews, because unlike the latter, who are heavily urbanized and suburbanized, Russian Jews were scattered in shtetlekh, small towns and villages, throughout the Pale of Settlement and were barred from most of the larger cities. Urban centers like Moscow, Kiev and St. Petersburg were off-limits to them. (Apart from the cities of Poland, all of which were open to Jewish residence, the one major exception to this exclusionary rule was Odessa.) A high percentage of Russian Jews thus came from small localities that other Jews had never heard of, so when queried about their origins, they generally made do with replying, “Vilna gubernya,” “Kovno gubernya,” “Mogilev gubernya” and so on.

This was obviously the case with Mr. Allen’s grandparents, too. As for Givilney, it will have to remain forever as mythical a place as Sholom Aleichem’s Kasrilevke.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


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