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Growing up as a young Jewish girl in the Ukrainian countryside

This is one in a series of stories submitted by readers about their ancestors’ experiences growing up in Ukraine, during a time when it was a thriving center of Jewish life.

My grandmother, Perl (we called her Paula) Braver or Braverman, was a fair-haired, blue-eyed woman who usually wore her long hair in braids atop her head.

Grandma Paula

Grandma Paula as a 19-year old seamstress in Brooklyn Courtesy of Sara Sogut

She was born in 1898 in the countryside of Tolne, Kiev Gubernia (in Ukrainian: Talne, Kyiv Gubernia). She remembered her father, Dovid, as a striking man with black hair and blue eyes, who made hard cider from apples for a living. As a child, she watched her father bring his horses to the trough on Shabbos even though it’s against Jewish law to do this kind of work on the day of rest. He argued that no living creature should go thirsty.

Grandma Paula’s mother died when she was two, but her father and her stepmother had another daughter named Shifra whom Paula loved dearly. By the time Paula was eight years old, she was running about the countryside a bit too freely, so she was sent to apprentice to a tailor in the city of Kiev. There, she would sew sitting by the window in the shop in order to get some sunlight, but the “wild child” of Tolne could not resist the excitement of the striking workers’ parades as they passed by, and she ran out of the shop to join the protests.

sogut - grandma from tolne

A postcard of Paula’s half-sister Shifra, whom she loved dearly, standing in a garden in Ukraine Courtesy of Sara Sogut

Her brother Benjamin, older by several years, had already emigrated to New York City, sent there by his father because he, too, had been getting dangerously involved in political activities. By the time she was 13, Paula, pretending to be 17, (we could never quite believe how she got away with it as she was just 4’9) traveled to New York City on her own, arriving at Ellis Island with a shipload of other immigrants.

We believe Shifra and the rest of my grandma’s family were killed in the 1941 Nazi massacres or in a pogrom, but my grandma Paula orchestrated a denial of their deaths to her American relatives, even though no more letters from Ukraine were ever received.

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