A Pougatch pilgrimage to Kardenka Street...
A chance letter from a distant relative led BBC presenter Mark Pougatch to Ukraine, home of his ancestors
ON MY desk at home sits a photograph, taken in the Fifties. It shows a smart man in his 70s with a greying moustache, round glasses and thinning hair neatly parted – my great- grandfather, Selman Pougatch. Behind his eyes is the story of many Jews a century ago – the story of the diaspora from tsarist Russia. His daughter Fanny, my great-aunt, used to sit in the kitchen of her North London flat and tell me of his flight from Ukraine early in the last century. According to her, you couldn’t just leave Russia because you wanted to. So my great-grandfather and his brother-in-law were forced to sneak across the border, under the noses of the armed guards. But, just as a new life beckoned, the enormity of what he was about to do and what he was leaving behind clearly became too much for the brotherin-law and he couldn’t move. My great-grandfather had to run back to get him before they both made their break for the West. I’d always been very proud of my Ukrainian roots but knew precious little else about them until five years ago when a letter arrived for me at the BBC, where I’m a presenter. It was from Boris Pougatch, a retired weather forecaster, who lives in Grenoble. He was putting together a family tree and between us we established that we were descended from two Jewish brothers who lived in western Ukraine just over 100 years ago, one of whom (my great-grandfather) emigrated to Paris in 1906, later bringing his family and his brother’s children over. It was time to return to Ukraine, with my wife Victoria and sister Anneli, to see what I could find there. When my great-grandfather fled his homeland, he was presumably driven to it by the violent anti-Semitism that followed the first Russian Revolution. Thousands died, but Jews in Russia didn’t suffer only at the hands of their countrymen. Among the scribbled notes I’d made in my great-aunt’s kitchen a decade ago were the words ‘Babi Yar’. I did not know what they meant until we were taken to a deep ravine on the outskirts of Kiev. Over two days during the 1941 Nazi occupation of the Ukrainian capital, some 100,000 people, many of them Jews, were marched through the streets to the edge of the ravine, stripped naked and machinegunned to their death. Babi Yar (Old Woman’s Ravine) is a haunting place in the most urban of environments – opposite, smoke belches into the sky next door to the headquarters of Ukrainian Television. The nearby monument is incredibly moving. Bodies are twisted as if falling, shot, and at the top of this mass of humanity a mother bends, hands tied behind her back, to kiss her child – her last maternal act. The weather in Kiev was -25C and the cold pricked your eyes like daggers. This historic city, capital of the first Slavonic state in 482, sits on seven hills and is replete with beautiful baroque churches with domes of gold or green.
HERE, Western capitalism meets the old Eastern ways. People still huddle together in damp underpasses drinking beer yards away from new shopping centres housing familiar High Street chains. Kiev wants to look westwards after the Orange Revolution of 2004, but the town my family hails from has a lot of catching up to do. Zhitomir (‘Zhito’ means rye and ‘mir’ means peace) lies 80 miles west down the dual carriageway. A statue of Lenin still towers over the main square and the water and electricity supply are intermittent. At the synagogue, we quickly discovered that no Pougatchs live there today and no one of our surname is buried in any of the Jewish cemeteries. So we made our way to a solid Sovietlooking grey building which houses the Jewish birth records. Speaking no Russian, all we could do was let our translator, Yelena, scour the vast old ledgers for our ancestors. She found one quite quickly. ‘Selman Pougatch, son of Moysei Melleuvre Smolervitch and Beena,’ she told us.
I looked at Anneli. It was our greatgrandfather. We really were directly descended from a Jewish family from this nondescript town in western Ukraine. Yelena continued: ‘Born November 4, 1875, in Kardenka Street in the house of Haim Ducat, circumcised
one week later, the 11th.’ Selman married Ruth Zafran from Kovel, near the Polish border, on June 26,1903. Their son Moysei, my grandfather, arrived on April 26, 1904, in Franko Street – Franko being a famous Ukrainian poet and writer. Our day ended with Anneli and I standing in the street where our grandfather was born a century before. We also found the records for Boris’s father Theodore, the son of Selman’s brother Gersch. Although his children followed their uncle Selman to Paris, Gersch stayed behind to a fate unknown. According to French registration documents I have, Selman Pougatch, a cabinet maker, arrived in Paris in January 1906. Come 1926 and his son Moysei – now Marcel Pougatch, 22, of Jamaica Road, Bermondsey, London – was swearing allegiance to King George V. In Ukraine, we found another line of Pougatchs. Haim and Livsha Pougatch had at least one boy, Itshock, and a girl, Martla. Haim’s other names were Moysei Melleuvre just like Selman’s father. And at the airport, as we were leaving, the lady at check-in looked at my passport and said: ‘Pougatch is a Ukrainian name. I have a friend called Konstantin Pougatch, a Jewish gentleman, who dances in the Virsky Company.’ I gave her my email address and asked her to ask Konstantin to contact me. This story, it seems, has only just started for me.
ACTUALLY, it is two stories intertwined in the history of this proud country. One is the tale of a Jewish family whose forefathers were brave and resourceful enough to get out in time. The other concerns Yelena and her Ukraine. She cried in the records office because three people could come all the way from England to trace their ancestors and Ukraine was happy not just to let them in but to help.
After centuries of trying, Ukraine is in charge of her own future and, thanks to my great-grandfather, I’m in charge of mine.
NEW LIFE: Selman Pougatch, Mark’s great-grandfather
HAUNTING: The Babi Yar monument and, left, Mark and Anneli in Franko Street