My Great-Grandma Jenny’s 1934 Trip to Palestine and Stalinist USSR

My Great-Grandma Jenny’s 1934 Trip to Palestine and Stalinist USSR

As I already told you, my parents have been decluttering their home this year and have been discovering all sorts of historic treasures. The most dramatic discovery, IMHO, was of a travel diary written by my great-grandmother and namesake, Jenny (Celia) Bernstein.

I’ve heard some stories about this great-grandma from recorded interviews with my grandmother about our family history. So I knew a few things about her. I knew that Great-Grandma Jenny was born in Rostov, Russia, her father (named Matvei or Matthew, like mine) was a Cantonist, who was forced as a young child to serve for around 25 years in the Russian army. Great-Grandma Jenny moved to the US with her family when she was a girl. She was an intelligent, cultured person with a great sense of humor. She was a housewife who never had a job outside her home but she loved learning and studying new subjects and enjoyed a good adventure.

So imagine my excitement to be able to MEET my great-grandma Jenny for the first time through her own writing…And I discovered, no less, that I like this Great-Grandma Jenny very much!

In this journal, my great-grandma wrote her impressions of her 3-month trip to Palestine, Europe, and the Soviet Union with her husband, John L. Bernstein (a lawyer and the founder and director of HIAS) and friends Marie and Abe Herman. A trip highlight (albeit a depressing one) was their trip after living for 43 years in the US to the Ukrainian hometown of my great-grandpa John and his friend Abe.

Here’s some excerpts from the travel diary:

[My great-grandparents and the Hermans arrive in Palestine by boat. Reading this made me feel very grateful for Ben Gurion Airport!]

May 14, 1934
We were supposed to land in Palestine about 6 or 7 AM. The sea was very rough and it was hard for the little yachts and rowboats to come to get us off. About 8 AM the officials came on board and had a leisurely breakfast while the passengers crowded together to get themselves “controlled.” The “controlling” was a very slow process. It consisted of giving up your passport and ID and having the passport handed from one official to another and as each official has to look important and make an impression, it takes a long time. We were not cleared until 1 o’clock.

Then we started down a very wobbly and jiggery staircase. At the bottom of the ladder was a rowboat which had a life of its own and was enjoying the winds and the waves. The luggage was lowered first and then John and I were swung into the boat ably assisted by two Arabs taking one arm apiece and pitching us into the rowboat and two more Arabs catching us as we were swung in. We sat on our bags and liked it. The boat rolled and pitched but the 8 Arabs who manned it assured us with gestures that we were safe in their care.

May 22, 1934
We spent 2 weeks in Tel Aviv and enjoyed our stay. In the evening we would sit in the front garden of our hotel either by ourselves or, some of our friends would join us; we would listen to some beautiful music from the Tarshish next door and enjoy the cool breeze from the sea; a thoroughly restful and enjoyable time. Everyone you speak to is enthusiastic and interesting. We tease a great deal all the time and laugh like kids. The only time we behave is when people talk seriously about Palestine.

May 29
Today we started at 8 AM to tour the beautiful Emek and visit some large and small colonies [kibbutzim]. The main road is wonderful and we enjoyed the ride. Our first colony was Ein Charod which we entered and looked around ourselves. We played with the children and the little ones were impressed with our dark glasses. They are a beautiful sight, these children of the colonists.

[In this next entry, my great-grandma writes about a man who speaks a mish-mosh of Yiddish and Russian. And she writes a few lines as an example of how he spoke. I was struck that I, her namesake, am the first family member since her who knows enough Russian and Yiddish to decipher that mishmosh, as she did].

May 30

Before I leave Palestine I must not forget to say a few words about the very cute old man from whom Marie and I bought some small jewelry. He was a little Russian Jew about 65 years old. His Yiddish was so mixed up with his Russian that for one who did not speak a good Russian, his language would have been unintelligible. It was very amusing. His pronunciation was like my country of Rostov and I loved to listen to him.

[In this entry, she describes her first airplane ride ever–from Paris to Moscow. Actually, airplane rideS. I couldn’t believe how complicated it was to fly from Paris to Moscow in 1934!]

June 21

We flew from Paris to Moscow. What a novel experience for us all except John. At about 4:30 we got to the flying field and entered a large clean efficient looking plane, accommodating 20 passengers. There were 18 of us. We arose in the air with absolutely no sensation. I read my Saturday Evening Post and looked down and around occasionally. The earth was all in patches and rivers and the roads looked like ribbons, black, and grey. [They then took a flight to Cologne, another flight to Berlin, another flight to Danzig, another flight to Konigsberg, another flight to Velikiye Luki, and another to their final destination Moscow].We were both thrilled at having flown and relieved to have arrived.

[Here she describes Moscow under Stalin. In 1934 Stalin began The Great Purge, in which approximately 20 million citizens were killed in order to get rid of all opposition. Moscow sounds poor from her description, which is remarkable considering that Moscow was the wealthiest city in the entire Soviet Union].

June 22

Having fasted all day [during our flights], we enjoyed the room, the bath, and the caviar supper at the Metropole of Moscow. What a treat it was to hear Russian, to read Russian signs and eat Russian food and to see Russian vodka. Moscow is such a combination of poorly dressed villager looking people and crowded 3-car trolleys; hotels of class; stores with a modest though heterogenous display, noise, activity, and poverty.

The tourist is very conspicuous in his city clothes and good shoes. During our stay in Russia we saw only one native in a full suit of one color, the rest wore combinations, many women wearing men’s suit coats. It rained a good deal in Moscow but umbrellas, rubbers, and overshoes were conspicuous by their absence. We had sent all except one bag to the boat. Otherwise, we would have been tempted to leave more than we did.

In Moscow and Kiev we saw art galleries. No matter how beautiful the pictures may be, only their comparative propaganda value is emphasized and the guide tries to impress you only with the fact that art was bourgeois and influenced by wealth and only for the last few years has art been pure. It is pure in the sense of being modest but more like sign painting than art in my opinion.

Moscow is seething with life and activity for adults but the populace does not seem happy. They are full of energy but no joy. They are very poorly dressed and those who are not afraid to talk will tell you they are hungry and worse than hungry have not enough rooms for shelter.

We have been told by many that a very big percentage of the population has been in prison for suspected wealth. The prisons are terrible. In one instance, 264 people were put in a room where 13 prisoners are supposed to be housed.

From Moscow we got our first taste of Russian trains. We got sleepers to Nizhyn where John and Abe were born [in the nearby village, Nasovka] and where John and Abe had “lantslite” and Abe has two second cousins. Our sleepers were so unprepossessing loooking that we thought we would be obliged to sit up or stand up all night.

[They arrive in Nizhyn, next to the village where the two husbands were born, Nasovka. The poverty of Moscow is nothing compared to the “nightmare” they discover in their old hometown.]

About 4 in the afternoon we arrive in Nizhyn. The station which had always seemed so imposing and spacious and altogether grand to our two male traveling companions was nothing but a filthy old stone structure sporting 2 waiting rooms of equal filth.

Everyone in the village or outskirts of Nizhyn heard we were here and we had 30 to 50 people ask us to look up their relatives [living in the US], some close, some not so close (some even children) and ask for help. Two dollars a month would mean food for each of them. One woman asked for the bread which was on our table and when we gave her a can of sturgeon she devoured the whole thing in such haste that you could see she was starved.

We made about 50 people happy with American dollars. I guess they are still talking about our arrival. There is plenty of housing here, but no bread. However, it is better than last year when people died on the streets from starvation.

The next morning we started on a “hard” train to Nasovka and that was an added experience. We rode for half an hour in a crowded smelly 3rd class train.

Arriving in Nasovka we found several wagons where you sit with your feet hanging over the side and for comfort you leave grass and the driver’s coat to sit on. We again had some names to look up and John and Abe wanted to see their old houses. Such poverty as we found in Nasovka is absolutely indescribable.

The family we visited were a little afraid to let us in. Everyone seems to be afraid of something. We saw them in a hovel, an earthen floor, wooden benches, and a few pots. The man was reading a prayer book at 12 o’clock noon, nothing else to do. The woman was filthy trying to peel some vegetables. Everyone is so dejected and in despair.

There was a collective farm here five years ago, but it is not here anymore. There is nothing to do. That village is a nightmare. John and Abe remembered old landmarks and we got back to the station. Half an hour by train to Nizhyn and then 5 hours back to Kiev.

[Soon after, they board a ship back to New York. My great-grandma Jenny concludes her travel diary with this]

Our trip has come to an end. As much as we dreaded Russia it will be the outstanding feature of our trip. Palestine was wonderful, but Russia is exciting, discussable, and despairing. With fairly good weather we will conclude our interesting, hectic, tiresome, marvelous vacation.


  1. What an awesome and fascinating treasure of a document!

  2. Yes that was incredibly interesting!!

  3. Debbie Shapiro

    This is amazing. My paternal grandmother came from Nizhyn, also descended from one of the Cantonists. I think that’s where we get our tenacity. Imagine, after 40 years in the army, and being totally cut off from Am Yisrael, to return to Yiddishkeit…
    Thank you. I feel so blessed to be living in a time when the problem is too much food, rather than too little.

  4. My grandfather I just discovered was born in Retowa, Russia in 1892. I bet that is the same place as your great grandmother! So interesting!!

  5. brachi cohen

    interesting. thank you for sharing that.

  6. Wow! An amazing read!

  7. Wow, your great grandfather founded HIAS. My family came to America through the incredible help and support of HIAS, from Odessa Ukraine in 1977 and 1979. My grandmother has always been so proud that they paid back every penny to HIAS for all the help.

  8. Such a love for life and adventure comes through her writing. Love it!

  9. Fascinating! And her writing, her love of life, and her observing and learning and growing and helping others reminds me of you!

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