Sunday, July 29, 2001

Cookbook leads to great news that family survived

        Joanne Gerson never believed her cookbook could be so powerful.

        In January 1998, we told you how the Montgomery artist had written and self-published a book called The Tomarkin Story, which documents her family's history and favorite foods of her Russian-born grandmother, Mary Tomarkin. who died in 1967.

        Growing up in Cleveland, Ms. Gerson ate her grandmother's challa, cabbage soup, honey cake and other Sunday dinner dishes. At those same meals, Ms. Gerson heard dramatic stories of how her Jewish grandparents fled Russian persecution in their home of Vitebsk, west of Moscow, early last century to settle in Ohio.

        And there was the frightening story from 1942, when word arrived the Nazis had killed all the Jews in Vitebsk. No one in the Tomarkin family survived.

[photo] Family members (clockwise from top left) Igor Gurevich, Janne Gerson, Bella Gurevich, Marsha Kostikova, 12 and Yuliy Gurevich, 12.
(Michael Snyder photo)
| ZOOM |
        This is what the family believed for more than half a century — until Ms. Gerson sent her cookbook to relatives around the country. Then, in December 1997, startling news arrived.

        A cousin had taken the Tomarkin Story to visit Russian immigrants in Boston. Looking at the photos, the immigrant women began to cry as they recognized faces. The women were descendants of family believed killed by the Nazis in Vitebsk. They had escaped to live and bear children and grandchildren.

        Without the book, Ms. Gerson's family might never have known about their lost relatives.

A new chapter

        A new chapter unfolded this spring, as Ms. Gerson and her husband, Myron, traveled to Moscow to visit her new-found relatives, Igor Gurevich; his wife, Anna, and children, Yuliy and Ima. Igor is the grandson of Itchak Gurevich, the brother of Ms. Gerson's grandmother in Cleveland. Although everyone thought he was killed by the Nazis, Itchak escaped to Siberia to live during the war. Later, his family moved to Moscow.

        While in the Russian capital, the Gersons visited Red Square, the Choral Synagogue and marveled at the monuments and architecture of Moscow's subways.

        Before they left, their relatives promised to visit them in Montgomery. So when Igor and 12-year-old Yuliy came to Boston this month, they planned a side trip to the Tristate. After they arrived July 21, , Ms. Gerson took them to a Cincinnati Pops performance and Paramount's Kings Island, where Yuliy and his father rode the tallest, most frightening roller coasters they had ever seen.

        “Yuliy was wide-eyed, everything to him was terrific,” says Ms. Gerson.

The disconnect

        On Monday, the family — Igor; Yuliy; Igor's mother, Bella, and his niece, Marsha — finished their cereal and toast in the sunlit kitchen of the Gersons' home. Bella Gurevich immigrated from Moscow to Boston in 1994 with her daughter, Marina Kostikova; son-in-law, Alex, and grandchildren, Marsha and Joseph.

        The dark-haired and smiling Mrs. Gurevich was the woman who recognized her lost family in The Tomarkin Story four years ago.

        “When I saw the pictures I was surprised and very happy,” she says.

        Igor explained his grandparents stopped writing to their relatives in America in 1937 because they feared persecution from the Russian government. Out of fear, they also destroyed many of the letters and photos sent from the United States. Ms. Gerson had never heard this story.

        “This is what it's like,” she says. “I'm always learning something new.”

        The conversations about the past and present continued. Mrs. Gurevich shared a Rosh Hashana treat called teiglach, honey-drenched bits of crisp dough and hazelnuts. Her recipe is almost identical to Grandma Tomarkin's Teiglach in the book. Yuliy confessed he loved McDonald's fries — and that the American fries are better than those in Russia. Everyone agreed the weather never gets this hot in Moscow.

        Later Monday, Ms. Gerson took her cousins to Montgomery City Hall, where officials declared it “Gurevich Day.”

        “They were blown away by that,” says Ms. Gerson, who serves as a Montgomery Planning Commissioner.

        On Tuesday, she said goodbye to her family at the airport. Today, Igor and Yuliy depart Boston for Moscow.

        Despite the distance, Ms. Gerson vows to stay in touch with her cousins. They will return to Boston in September, and she hopes to go back to Russia soon.

        It's a warm, growing relationship that wouldn't have been realized if she hadn't compiled her grandmother's recipes. Ms. Gerson is more than pleased about that, but still a little sad her grandmother never knew her brother, Itchak, survived the Nazis.

        “My grandmother and her brother were so close,” Ms. Gerson says. “How could you express in words the joy she would have felt if she had known?”

        Contact Chuck Martin by phone: 768-8507; fax: 768-8330; e-mail:



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