An accidental find

My great-grandfather was a surgeon in Odessa. He was so well known and highly regarded that Isaac Babel mentioned him by name not only in his famous Odessa Stories, but in personal correspondence as well. My father wrote a tribute to him in 2002, which you can find (in Russian) here, should you be so inclined.

That Dr. Zilberberg (I say “that” because there have been others in my family) worked at the Odessa Jewish Hospital in the Moldavanka neighborhood, where in the late 1800s he was the Chair of the Department of Surgery. There he regularly performed appendectomies on local luminaries, and patched up Mishka Yaponchik‘s gangsters when their night-time escapades left them bleeding on the pavement.

As you are probably aware, I have been excavating mine and my family’s stories, which are braided so tightly into the history of Odessa. Recently I was trawling for information on the pogrom of 1905, the last and deadliest of the tzarist era bloodsheds, and discovered a web site called Odessa Secrets: The 1905 Pogrom. Absorbed in reading a post about the neighborhood surrounding the Jewish Hospital, I jumped when I came upon a photo of the hospital’s staff from 1898. At first I could not find my ancestor, but then, I recalled a portrait of him hanging on a wall of my cousin’s apartment, which I saw when I visited him in Odessa in 2011. I also remembered that this portrait had hung in our room when we lived in our communal flat at #4 Soviet Army Street.

Looking more closely at the staff photo, I saw something in the eyes that felt familiar and familial. Indeed, the 4th man from the left in the second row from the bottom is none other than Dr. Yakov Vladimirovich Zilberberg, my great-grandfather! For a diasporic creature like me, what a thrill to find traces of your history scattered like breadcrumbs throughout the world, leading you to some unified understanding of your story.


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