Commissioned by Classical 90.7 KVNO Radio in Commemoration of their 50th Anniversary, (to be) premiered in Omaha Nebraska 2022 by the Omaha Symphony.
For most of my life, I never knew where my father’s family came from, beyond a few broad strokes: they had emigrated in the early 1900s from Eastern Europe and altered the family name along the way. This radically changed in the summer of 2021 when my mother and sister came across a folder in our family filing cabinet and made an astounding discovery of documents that revealed when, where, and how my great-grandfather came to America. The information I had been seeking was at home all along, waiting over forty years to be discovered.
Berko Gorobzoff, my great-grandfather, left Ekaterinoslav in 1904. At that time, this city was in the southern Russian area of modern-day Ukraine; as his family was Jewish, he and his siblings were attempting to escape the ongoing religious persecution and pogroms instigated by Tzar Nicholas II to root out Jewish people from Russia. Berko’s older brother Jakob had already emigrated to Illinois, and Berko was traveling with Chaje, Jakob’s wife, to join him. Their timing was fortuitous, as the following year saw a series of massive, brutal pogroms in the region. After arriving in Illinois, Berko went on to Omaha, Nebraska, where he married my great-grandmother Anna about eighteen months later. They remained in Omaha for the rest of their lives.
There is one more intriguing part to this historical account: I have a great-aunt in Texas who, as it turns out, is the youngest daughter of Berko and Anna. Through a series of phone calls, my great-aunt and I discussed what she could remember: her parents spoke Yiddish at home, her mother didn’t learn to read or write in English so my great-aunt was tasked with writing letters to family members, Berko ran a grocery store followed by a small hotel, and her parents enjoyed playing poker with friends. Above all else, neither of her parents ever spoke a word about their past or how they got to America. This was a common trait among Eastern European Jewish immigrants whose goal was to “blend in” within their new communities and country.
To craft Berko’s Journey, I melded the facts I uncovered about Berko with my own research into methods of transportation in the early 1900s. Also, to represent his heritage, I wove two Yiddish songs and one Klezmer tune into the work. In movement 1, Leaving Ekaterinoslav, we hear Berko packing his belongings, saying his goodbyes to family and friends, and walking to the train station. Included in this movement is a snippet of the Yiddish song “The Miller’s Tears” which references how the Jews were driven out of their villages by the Russian army. In movement 2, In Transit, we follow Berko as he boards a train and then a steamship, sails across the Atlantic Ocean, arrives at Ellis Island and anxiously waits in line for immigration, jubilantly steps foot into New York City, and finally boards a train that will take him to Chicago. While he’s on the steamship, we hear a group of fellow steerage musicians play a klezmer tune (“Freylachs in d minor”). In movement 3, At Home in Omaha, we hear Berko court and marry Anna. Their courtship is represented by “Tumbalalaika,” a Yiddish puzzle folksong in which a man asks a woman a series of riddles in order to get better acquainted with each other and to test her intellect.
On a final note, I crafted a musical motive to represent Berko throughout the piece. This motive is heard at the beginning of the first movement; its first pitches are B and E, which represent the first two letters of Berko’s name. I scatter this theme throughout the piece as Berko travels towards a new world and life. As the piece concludes, we hear Berko’s theme repeatedly and in close succession, representing the descendants of the Garrop line that came from Berko and Anna.