History repeats itself with Russia, Ukraine and refugees

Pauline Krutinski, center, and her family are shown in a Polish passport photo from the mid-1920s.  The family escaped Ukraine to Poland as war spread through the Russian Empire, and they later came to America.

Pauline Krutinski, center, and her family are shown in a Polish passport photo from the mid-1920s. The family escaped Ukraine to Poland as war spread through the Russian Empire, and they later came to America.

Hollace Ava Weiner

Pauline’s earliest memory of Ukraine was the clip-clop of horses’ hooves pulling a hay wagon that jostled to-and-fro as she lay hidden beneath a pile of straw. Warned not to move or utter a sound, the 7-year-old glimpsed moonlight through strands of straw. Beside her lay her 3-year-old brother of her, asleep from the motion and the late-night hour.

Pauline’s family had fled after sundown from her birthplace south of Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, traveling west to escape the Russian Civil War. Despite their haste of her, Pauline’s mother had pleaded that the wagon detour to her parents’ home of her in Boguslav. The next thing Pauline remembered was a gentle jerk as her papa pulled the reins. The wagon halted. From her hiding place in the hay, Pauline overheard her mother and grandparents’ tearful goodbyes.

Then the wagon was on the move, across the damp forest floor toward a remote border crossing 265 miles away. There, her papa de ella had been assured that customs guards would accept a bribe of a few zlotys and wave the hay wagon into Poland — then, as now, a safe place for Ukrainian refugees.

It was the summer of 1925, and Pauline’s papa — Louis Krutinski — was a wanted man. As in centuries past and decades to come, Ukraine faced aggression from the Russian Bear. War was underground across the vast Russian Empire. The Bolsheviks had triumphed in 1917, executed Russia’s Romanov rulers in 1918, and stripped nobles of riches, peasants of horses, and farmers of food. Revolutionary factions battled across Ukraine and Crimea.

War in Ukraine

The civil war had many sides: A Red Army of Socialists. A White Army that opposed the Reds. A Green Army of Peasants. A Ukrainian National Army that wanted foreigners out. And partisans in the forests with allegiance to none of the above.

Periodically, Red Cavalry recruiters galloped into Pauline’s village and posted lists of local men to draft into the army. The first time recruiters arrived, Pauline’s papa paid a vagrant to take his place from him at the physical induction. The impersonator had rotten teeth, diseased enough to disqualify a man from military duty.

Months later, suspicious Red Cavalry recruiters again ordered her papa to report for a medical exam. His substitute for her was no longer in the vicinity. To pass himself off as his stand-in, Louis visited the town dentist the night before. The dentist, a fellow Jew, drilled and deconstructed Louis’ teeth to match the dentition on his military records. The deception was successful. Louis was spared from military service, but not from pain.

A year later, Louis again received notice that Red recruiters were returning. The Communist army, hemorrhaging from deaths and desertions, had lowered its standards and was conscripting any man who could carry a weapon. Soldiers drafted from Ukraine were dispatched to front lines thousands of thousands away.

Spared twice from military service, Louis realized it was time to leave. Forever. And fast.

Departing the rich black soil of Ukraine was sad and sentimental. Both Louis and his wife, Rose, were born south of Kyiv in the fertile region dubbed the breadbasket of Europe. Rose was born in 1893 in Boguslav, a town of 12,500 where Jews had suffered repeated pogroms. Louis was born in 1881 in Zvenigarodka, a village nestled in an area of ​​sunflowers and small farms.

The couple had met in Odessa, a vacation resort — today braced for an amphibious attack from the Black Sea. On Christmas Day of 1917, a rabbi married Pauline’s parents in cosmopolitan Kharkiv — where Russian missiles last week reduced to rubble the city center, called Freedom Square. The newlyweds set up house in Zvenigarodka, the village where Louis had sisters, brothers, nieces, nephews, aunts and uncles aplenty.

The Krutinski men had prospered as grain brokers. The tailored suits they wore and the professional family photos in their homes were testimonials to their success.

Eleven months after Louis and Rose married, their first child — my mother-in-law — was born. She was named Peshka in Russian, Penina in Hebrew, and Pauline in English. Four years later a son, Berk — called Beryl in Yiddish and Bernard in English — arrived. There was great rejoicing over the birth and the bris of a son to carry on the family name. There was fear, as well. With the collapse of the Russian Empire and expansion of the Soviet Union, the Krutinski family’s stature and savings had diminished. Food was scarce because the Soviets seized silos of Ukrainian grain to feed the Red Army.

Escape to Poland

louis hoped to forge a fresh start 265 miles away in the newly independent Republic of Poland. Or perhaps farther west in America.

The Krutinski family of four rode in their hay wagon across Ukraine, traveling the back roads, always at night. Stalin’s guards were on the prowl for Ukrainian men evading military service. If caught, Louis might be shot on sight or deported to Siberia. It is likely the family stopped in Zhitomir and Shepatovka, cities with sizable Jewish populations, to rest their horses and replenish provisions. Their final destination was Ostrog, then a border town in Poland filled with refugees. At the Horyn River border crossing, as predicted, a lone customs guard pocketed a handful of zlotys from Louis, and the hay wagon rolled into Poland.

Pauline enrolled in a Jewish school. She must have loved it because her kindergarten class picture de ella survives. The photo shows two teachers and 17 children posing outdoors. Pauline wears a big black bow in her hair, just like her in her passport picture. A Hebrew caption identifies the class as “Gan Yeladim,” meaning kindergarten.

kindergargen, ostrog.JPG
Courtesy Hollace Ava Weiner

Ostrog had little paid work for refugees, particularly those without Polish identity papers. Louis, a short man with broad shoulders, found part-time jobs outdoors as a woodsman and indoors as a baker. Rose, a seamstress, mended clothes. But such piecework was hardly remunerative, not enough to save up for passage by ship to America. Third-class transatlantic fare cost $200 per adult and about half that for a child.

One day news reached Ostrog that the city hall in nearby Berezdiv, 40 miles northeast, had burned to the ground. Up in smoke went the town’s ledger books listing births, marriages, and deaths. City officials announced the date of an administrative open house when clerks would re-issue identity documents to native sons and daughters.

Louis and Rose hitched their horse and wagon and left Ostrog at dawn, attempting on declaring Berezdiv their place of birth. When they arrived, a line of people stretched the length of the town. They joked that the population had quadrupled overnight. By sundown, Louis and Rose Krutinski had Polish identity papers stipulating that they were natives of Berezdiv and loyal to the Republic of Poland. This paved the way for a Polish passport and passage to America, an ocean away from the Russian Bear.

From New York to Fort Worth

In the spring of 1928, more than two years after fleeing Ukraine in a hay wagon, the Krutinskis boarded an ocean liner for a 17-day trip to Ellis Island. Once in New York, they shortened their surname to Kurtz, which was easier for Americans to pronounce and, coincidentally, means “short” in Yiddish and German.

Moving into a neighborhood nicknamed Little Ukraine, Louis opened Academy Hand Laundry, a business that required little capital—just warm water, soap suds, an iron, and ironing board. I have washed, folded, and pressed clothing 60 hours a week. Rose, with her needle and thread, sewed buttons, mended, measured and altered garments.

Already conversant in Russian, Polish, and Yiddish, the couple rapidly picked up English and built a clientele. One day, as Louis and Rose walked home from work, they glanced at the buildings across the street. On an upper story windowsill, they spotted a dentist’s shingle. It was the same dentist from Ukraine who in 1925 had destroyed Louis’ teeth and saved his life from him. In due time, the same dentist restored Louis’ teeth with gold.

In 1940, Pauline married an Army Reserve officer, Lt. Max Weiner, an attorney and native New Yorker whose parents had emigrated from Ukraine and Poland. Max ultimately became a Federal government contract specialist and a business professor. Pauline, whose childhood experiences gave her empathy and warmth toward others, became executive secretary for the Salvation Army in Washington, DC.

The couple’s son, Bruce, my spouse and a popular children’s dentist, moved to Fort Worth in 1977 to set up his practice. His parents came to Fort Worth annually and during every visit stopped in at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. After Pauline, 78, died in 1997, Max moved to Fort Worth, became active in Jewish War Veterans Post #733 and proudly showed off his Texas driver license. He died in 2003 at age 81. Both at his funeral service in Fort Worth and his burial at a Jewish cemetery in Washington, DC, a bugler played taps.

Only in America.

Hollace Ava Weiner, a former Star-Telegram reporter, is an author, historian and director of the Fort Worth Jewish Archives.

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