By: Eunice Blecker Based on true stories past down to the author by her maternal grandmother, Shavlan tells the story of Sarah Taube against the backdrop of life in early 20th century Russia. The story follows Sarah Taube’s life of love, loss, faith, and hope. Sarah Taube’s story is an important depiction of life for […]
An Interview with Eunice Blecker
Eunice Blecker is originally from Baltimore, Maryland and is a long-time member of the Jewish Genealogy Society of Greater Washington. Her novel, Shavlan, was published in 1998.
Q: Can you sum up Shavlan in 20 words or less?
Shavlan is a historical novel about the author’s maternal grandmother during the fall of Tsarist Russia and its aftermath.
Q: What inspired you to write Shavlan?
When I was a child, I asked my grandmother many questions about her ancestral town, Shavlan and heard many stories about her life there in the late eighteen and early nineteen hundreds. I was fascinated by the stories she told about her shtetl, Shavlan. Learning about what she and her family had to endure, along with others of that era, while living through World War I, her expulsion and exile to the Ukraine, the Russian Revolution, the Russian Civil War, pogroms and Lithuanian Independence made me realize what a strong woman she was, having been a witness and participant in these historical events. I was determined that one day I would tell her story so that it would not be forgotten.
Q: What research did you do when writing this story?
Using a timeline from 1871 to 1924, when writing my grandmother’s story, I mainly relied on the Internet to research and identify sources about the history and historical events which occurred in telling her story
Q: I understand you visited the town of Shavlan and later published an article, “To Walk Their Walk”. Can you tell me more about the experience?
I felt as though I had gone back in time once we stepped foot in Shavlan in May 1996. The town was very small surrounded by farms. Along the roadside stood a black and white cow mooing, and in the background I heard roosters crowing. Two children were playing in the pasture. When I asked why they were not in school, they shouted, “Because we do not feel like going today.”
I saw a farmer still using a horse-drawn plow to turn up the earth just before planting his seeds. How antiquated was that, I thought. When I asked directions, he gave me a smile, and I noticed half his teeth were missing.
I learned that when the Soviets left, the land was returned to the families who owned it before, but the children of the landowners didn’t know how to farm, so the land was uncultivated. The young owners were just hanging on to the property in hopes that someone would come along and buy the land and make them wealthy.
Up the road stood the old marketplace where my grandmother once ran a stall every Thursday morning. Except for an older man selling baby chicks from out of the trunk of his car, the marketplace was deserted. And directly across from the marketplace was a one level store with one bookcase containing a few canned goods. Where did these people get their food I wondered?
I met a ninety-year old woman wearing a dreary, brown babushka tied round her head who lived in a small, dilapidated wooden house. It looked as thought she had stepped out of the nineteenth century. After introducing myself, I remembered not to say anything about my grandmother owning property there because the occupiers of these old houses would fear I was there to take their homes away from them.
I asked if she remembered the Jews who lived there many years ago and did she remember my grandmother who owned a bakery between 1920 and 1923. She seemed to recall my grandmother’s bakery. Then, she began to cry as she related the stories about when the Germans came into town and took away all the Jews. It seemed obvious she was upset going back in time to those horrible days during the war and her tears appeared to be sincere.
I asked to come into her house. I was very curious to see how the place looked, as I realized it was at least one hundred years old. I was shocked at what I saw. There was no heat, electricity, running water, or toilet facilities. The inside consisted of a kitchen with a wood burning stove and two bedrooms. She told me that there was no one to plant the crops or cut the firewood. This woman appeared to be totally alone except for the neighbors who, from time to time, helped her out.
The next stop was the old Jewish cemetery. What a disaster! There was so much underbrush that it was almost impossible to walk the area. Many headstones were toppled while others were unreadable. After the Jews were taken away in 1941, the Lithuanian villagers invaded the cemetery and dug up many bodies looking for gold and jewelry buried with the dead. Sadly, I knew I would not find any identifiable ancestral headstones there that day.
After an hour of walking around, I said a prayer over the remaining souls thinking to myself, somewhere in this vast cemetery lay at least two or three of my ancestors crying out to me, “Here we are. Here we are.”
Some day I may return to Shavlan. But there was one thing for certain, I did walk in my ancestors’ shoes that day. Yes, I did “walk their walk.”
Q: What was the most difficult part about writing this book?
It was difficult imagining myself in my grandmother’s place, as she lived through the joys, sorrows and tragedies in her life.
Q: The cover art for this book is hauntingly beautiful. Can you tell me about the process of creating the cover?
Inspiration for the book cover started with a conversation I had with my daughter Cynde, the designer of the cover. We discussed my novel and viewed some bestselling titles in the book’s genre. I described an image I had in mind of a woman with her children walking along a railroad track. She agreed that this type of design cover would convey a very important scene of the novel and would help connect with the audiences of potential readers. I was blown away by what she produced. It was exactly as I had imagined it to be. As one of my reviewers stated, “I was enchanted by the cover. It is nostalgic and sad, but at the same time hopeful.”
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Q: What was your biggest take away from writing Shavlan?
Writing Shavlan left me with a feeling of joy that I had finally memorialized my grandmother’s life story not only for my family and my readers but also for future generations.
Q: What message do you want readers to grasp from this story?
I would want my readers to learn about the difficult lives the Jews led in the Pale of Settlement under Tsarist rule and how an uneducated, naïve young girl from a small shtetl in Tsarist Russia can rise above her surroundings and through her life experiences become an independent woman able to stand on her own two feet and make decisions on her own.
Q: What is on your current reading list?
Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate
The Song of the Jade Lily by Kirsty Manning
Q: What is your next writing project?
I’m doing preliminary research on a novel about a woman I met on my trip to Lithuania who was deported to Siberia when the Russians invaded Lithuania in 1940.
Q: Can you provide your web address for the audience?
Q: Any closing remarks?
I had gathered a good deal of information about my grandmother’s life. However, when I began putting to paper the adventures she had, I found that there were still unanswered questions and gaps in her life story. It was then when I decided to tell her story as a biographical novel instead of a biography. My novel commingles fact and fiction following the timeline of my grandmother’s life. By doing this, I was able to get inside her head, to stand where she once stood and see the world as she saw it. And the pathway to get inside her head was through my imagination.
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