Entering the Pale for The First Time

When I was a kid, growing up in Michigan, there were two world powers: the United States and the USSR or the Soviet Union. In my mind, the USSR was RED for Communism and made up of Russia (where they had snow and vodka) and some other gray areas that never really took shape for me.

Map of Iron Curtain from Wikipedia

When I met my husband in high school, he said his grandparents were “Russian Jews,” and that their relatives were shut behind the Iron Curtain. He remembered his grandmother receiving letters from her relatives with more words cut out by censors than the number of words left in the letters. Today we wish those letters still existed, but at the time nobody thought to save them.

For years, we assumed that all records of these relatives were lost to time and war.

Not so, we are now discovering. And the reality of who his relatives were, where they lived, and what their lives might have been like seems to be different than our assumptions. But we are only beginning to learn about them. This blog is meant to share our findings with others who might be interested in the people of The Pale of Settlement.

Have you ever seen Fiddler on the Roof? If you’re like me, you probably assumed it took place in Russia because of the references to the Czar, the Russian soldiers, and the pogroms. The musical is based on the short stories of Sholem Aleichem who grew up in Ukraine, near Kiev. His stories are set in the area he knew best, thus Anatevka was in Ukraine! I’m not a history scholar of the area by any stretch of the imagination, so I could be wrong, but I imagine that is why the focus on the Cossack soldiers in the story. Cossacks are from eastern Europe–primarily, but not exclusively, Ukrainians. Of course, these lands were all under the Russian Empire at the time of the story.


As I explain about this blog in the About Entering the Pale page:

This blog is dedicated to researching family from a historical area of Europe known as The Pale of Settlement. This area included Belarus, Lithuania, Moldova, Ukraine, and parts of Latvia and Russia, extending from the demarcation line (known as the eastern pale) to the Russian and Prussian/Austria-Hungary border. The reason I call the blog Entering the Pale is that the Pale was an area where Jews were allowed permanent residency, as opposed to other areas of Russia. This is where the Scheshkos, Goodsteins, Pechniks, and others lived.

When I was a young history student, I was taught that the expression “beyond the pale” referred to the land east of the Pale of Settlement. Nowadays some people assert that the expression comes from an area of Ireland that was beyond the boundaries of England. In either case, the pale refers to the Latin word palus or stake. The land that is enclosed by a fence driven by stakes is a pale.

22 thoughts on “Entering the Pale for The First Time

  1. Pingback: Magical Bowls | Writer Site

  2. History of my dad’s side of the family always seemed inaccessible.
    *Names changed accidentally or on purpose.
    *Mysterious places of birth — in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which has since been cut up and reconfigured several times,
    *The Shoah wiping out almost everyone left in my family “over there.”
    *23 & Me telling me that I’m related to 700 mostly unrelated Jews all over the world.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree that it seems overwhelming. Impossible is what we always thought, too. But apparently not so. Just because we can’t find it all doesn’t mean there isn’t information to find, right? Austro-Hungarian might be less difficult than Pale of Settlement (not sure). or you might find both. Yes, the DNA matching for Ashkenazy Jewish ancestry only works when you find really close matches. The gardener has 1000s of matches of so-called “4th cousins or more” on Ancestry, but they truly are not 4th cousins. Somebody told me how many segments blah blah to watch for. I’ll email you with it when I find it, shall I?


  3. Oooooh!! This will a fascinating journey to take with you. I know that I inherited lots of European Jewish DNA – so somewhere in this area must be someone I am related to. But, so far, the secrets are locked up tight in stories never shared and my DNA.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Well, 10% feels like lots when so many of my recent ancestors were immigrants. I am really a human melting pot. My mom has two grandparents who were immigrants, one from Spain and one from Scotland, and then on the other side, two of her great grandparents were immigrants, one from England (sort of) and one from Quebec. The other two great grandparents’ parents were immigrants as well – except for one – one from France, and two from Quebec. So 10% of any one ethnicity feels like lots for me.

        Liked by 1 person

      • You have such an interesting background! What a variety! Yes, 10% would feel like a lot. My DNA is pretty basic, although it’s annoying to me that Dutch doesn’t show up–it apparently always shows up as either Scandinavian or British, which I think is strange.

        Liked by 1 person

      • It really is a variety, but it has been an awesome way to learn how to research in many places and times. I feel really comfortable trying to help someone in a place I have never researched because my own research experience is so diverse.

        That is a bummer on the Dutch not showing up. Maybe as they keep refining their reference populations it will…?

        Liked by 1 person

      • You are your own research station haha. I hope they end up being able to isolate Dutch. It seems crazy to wind up in British. I have no British ancestry at all, and yet there it is because it is Dutch.

        Liked by 1 person

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