For many people, the Old Country — the place from where our ancestors came — is nothing more than a hazy idea. We know our great-grandmother came over on a boat from Poland in the late 1800s, or that our grandfather left Russia when he was 5, or possibly it was in 1905. We don’t know the names of the villages they came from, and sometimes even their last names are a mystery, lost to time or the convenient phonetics of Ellis Island.
From an early age, Judith Fein was interested in the Old Country. She begged her grandmother for details. Her grandmother, who immigrated from a Russian shtetl (a Jewish rural village in Eastern Europe) called Minkowitz at the turn of the 20th century, didn’t want to discuss the subject. Over time, she offered random facts about her childhood, little details such as that the non-Jewish Russian girls went to school up the hill, that she used to work in a tobacco factory, and that the floors of her home were made of animal dung. It wasn’t much to hold on to, especially since Fein’s mother said that everything her grandmother told her was a lie.
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