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Jewish Life Under the Tsars: The Autobiography of Chaim Aronson, 1825-1888, A

By Ira Leibowitz, March 2002

In the world of Lithuanian Jewry into which Chaim Aronson was born in 1825, life was precarious and capricious in a way difficult to comprehend today. Examples abound. Every spring, rain and melting snow flooded the low-lying areas of his village, Serednik, Russia (now Seredzius, Lithuania), often destroying houses in its path. Aronson also remembered as a small boy that the 1831 Polish revolt against the tsar’s rule terrified Jews who feared becoming victims of mayhem. Later, as a 16-year-old in Vilna (Vilnius), Aronson learned that poor yeshiva students like himself needed a host family to feed them or risked starvation; many students spent afternoons begging for food. Even Aronson’s first name reflected the tentative nature of existence. Although none of his ancestors bore the name "Chaim" -- which means "life" -- Aronson was so named because his mother and father had seen seven children die before his birth.

For genealogists, the Aronson family’s peripatetic nature suggests that tracing one’s roots is more difficult than often imagined. Relatives were mobile and scattered. Aronson’s grandfather had come to Serednik from Sudarg (Sudargas), then across the frontier in Poland. A son, however, had settled in the then-Polish town of Vilkovishk (Vilkaviskis), but that man’s son, Aronson’s cousin, moved across the Russian border to Vilki (now Vilkija, Lithuania). Aronson himself lived in several different places. After becoming a Hebrew teacher he lived in Shadova (Seduva) and Kurtovian (Kurtuvenai). Under the roof of his father-in-law, he learned clockmaking in Mitau (Jelgava, Latvia). Later, as a businessman and inventor, he set up shop in Telz (Telsiai). He eventually moved outside the Pale to St. Petersburg.

Another factor indicative of potential research difficulties for genealogists is that documentation -- what there is of it -- can be confusing and even misleading. Aronson was never registered in his home town of Serednik. While he had tried, "no one of influence" remained in the town to speak on his behalf. He tells us that he eventually registered in Laukave (Laukuva). Laukave is nearly 60 miles from Serednik, and Aronson apparently had no ties there.

Chaim Aronson had an agile and probing mind. He had excelled in Torah studies, and later, in his true calling as an entrepreneurial inventor, he had engineered improvements in clockmaking and photography. Yet he was continually frustrated in his business dealings: he lacked the influence necessary to market new products in imperial Russia, and as a Jew he knew that he could not prevail in disputes with his Russian associates. In 1888 he decided to follow four of his sons and emigrate to America. He died in New York City in 1893.

Chaim Aronson wrote this memoir as a record for his family. He hoped that his descendants would absorb lessons from the circumstances of his life. Some of those descendants had his notes transcribed and translated. We should be grateful to them for sharing with us Aronson’s vivid rendering of 19th-century Lithuanian and Russian Jewish life.

about the author
Ira Leibowitz