Saturday, August 4, 2012

Chess for Gefilte Fish

Gefilte Fish. Credit (public domain photo): 

One would hardly expect a Jewish chess history blog to be complete without a link of chess history to that most Jewish of all foods -- gefilte fish. How could there possibly be a connection? It is rather more dramatic than one would imagine.

Simcha and Shula Moretsky  were married for many years until Simcha passed away recently. They were the parents of a good friend of ours. Among their possessions was an old, beautiful chess set -- by its looks, ca. 1920s or earlier. Where did they get it? Shula sent her the following mail, which he forwarded to me for publication. I translated it and (very) slightly edited it.
After the first bombing of Warsaw in 1939... Simcha, his sister, and his mother had managed to smuggle themselves to the USSR by crossing the Bug river, and lived in a while in Brest-Litovsk. The refused a Soviet citizenship and were therefore expelled at the end of 1940 -- on rafts -- to Komi, USSR, not far from the capital, Syktyvkar. 
That city was a place where Stalin and Trotsky exiled political prisoners since 1927 [sic -- a reader notes this is slightly inaccurate. Trostsky lost power by then, and the town was probably used as an exile place already in Tzarist times.] So apart from "anti-socials"  there was in the city also an intellectual elite... most of the labor camp's workers did work on the Syktyvkar river, cutting trees and sailing them down the river. Where there's a river, there are fish! ... he and his sister remembered their mother making gefilte fish and would barter it for needed items. It is possible they got the set from one of her customers then -- sometime between 1941 and 1943.
His father got ill with tuberculosis and his mother with kidney disease. As incredible as this sounds, they both got released from the work camp [in 1943] for medical reasons [! - A. P.] and moved to Voronezh, where they both worked for the railway administration, as it was an important railway center.
The city is on both sides of the Voronezh river, and, when she was not hospitalized or in treatment, his mother would get fish and make gefilte fish. People didn't have money to pay, as there was a terrible shortage of everything, so they bartered. One client taught him to play the violin. It is possible another taught him chess and left his set with them as payment. ... at any rate the set is in our family's possession at the very latest from the beginning of 1944. 
The set is still in their possession. From its looks it is from pre-revolutionary Russia, and probably a treasured possession of the chess teacher or worker who traded it for gefilte fish. I will post a photo of it as soon as I can.

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