The death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a legendary liberal justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, at age 87 on Sept. 18 has thrown American politics into chaos.
U.S. President Donald Trump would like to replace her before the presidential election in November with a conservative justice. Democrats believe that whoever wins the 2020 election should nominate Ginsburg’s replacement, following a precedent that Republicans set when they stonewalled President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to replace Justice Antonin Scalia in 2016.
In a deathbed statement, Ginsburg herself also called for the next president to choose her successor.
The controversy has in some ways overshadowed commemorations of Ginsburg, a pioneering jurist and fervent advocate for women’s rights and gender equality who achieved celebrity status among liberal Americans.
Another aspect of Ginsburg’s story that has been overlooked is the origins of her parents. Obituaries have described her father as a Jewish immigrant from Russia and her mother as the child of Austrian or Polish Jews.
In fact, both came from what is today Ukraine.
Born of Jewish parents in Brooklyn, New York in 1933, Ruth Bader Ginsburg rose above her humble upbringing to become one of the few women admitted to her class at Harvard Law School. She would later transfer to Columbia Law School and graduate first in her class.
Ginsburg credited much of her determination to succeed at a time when few American women held jobs outside the house to her mother, Celia Ginsburg (nee Amster).
Celia was born in 1902 in New York to Joseph and Rose Amster, who had immigrated to the United States a few months before her birth. She was their first American-born child.
In the wake of Ginsburg’s death, some American media have referred to Amsters as Austrian Jews. That is technically correct: They had indeed come to the U.S. from the territory of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
But according to genealogical research published on the Geni website, their hometown was Burshtyn, today a city of 15,000 people in Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast, located 500 kilometers to the west of Kyiv.
Before World War II, Burshtyn had a sizable Jewish population. Today, the city is mostly known for the Burshtyn TES, a coal-fired power plant, the center of the so-called Burshtyn Energy Island, an area disconnected from the rest of Ukraine’s power system, which allegedly led to unfair price manipulations by a monopolist.
In the United States, Celia Amster excelled in school and graduated from high school early, at the age of 15. But she was unable to pursue higher education, because her immigrant parents could only afford to send her brother to college. Instead, she took a job as a garment worker to help fund her brother’s education.
For this reason, she wanted better opportunities for her daughter. Celia began saving money for her college education, and encouraged her daughter to be independent.
When Ginsburg was a teenager, her mother was diagnosed with cervical cancer and underwent years of agonizing treatments. That motivated the future Supreme Court justice to study even harder and fulfill her mother’s wishes.
“She wanted me to do well in school. So I would sit in her bedroom and do my homework, concentrating on that work,” Ginsburg told the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Rosen.
Ginsburg’s mother died just one day before her high school graduation.
Father’s Odesa connection
In a 2004 speech at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that her father “left Odesa bound for the New World in 1909, at age 13.”
But that is not the entire story. According to Geni, Nathan Bader was born in 1896 to Jewish parents Samuel and Ida Bader in what is today Khmelnytsky, a city of nearly 275,000 people located 315 kilometers to the southwest of Kyiv. Today, it is the capital of Khmelnytsky Oblast.
During Nathan Bader’s childhood, the city was called Proskuriv (or “Proskurov” in Russian) and was part of the Podolia Governorate of the Russian Empire. According to the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Center in Israel, the Jewish population of Proskuriv in 1897, the year after Bader was born, was 11,411 — half of the city’s total population.
It is not entirely clear whether the Bader family simply departed from Odesa — something many immigrants did — or whether they actually settled in the city for a longer period of time before leaving for America.
The Kyiv Post attempted to search for records of the family in Odesa address books from the period when they would likely have lived there, but came up empty handed.
Few traces left
Ginsburg’s parents were part of a large wave of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe to the United States between 1880 and 1924, when the country imposed immigration quotas.
Today, many of these immigrants are perceived as Russian, Austrian or Polish Jews. But they often came from places like Ukraine, Belarus or Lithuania, which were not independent states at the time. As Ukraine spent much of the 19th and 20th centuries divided between competing empires, many descendants from Ukrainian Jewish immigrants do not necessarily realize that their ancestors came from Ukraine.
Additionally, many left with negative impressions of the places they were born. They emigrated to flee anti-Semitism, escape poverty and seek new opportunities in America.
In the Russian Empire in particular, discriminatory legislation confined Jews to the Pale of Settlement, an area in the empire’s western territories that encompasses much of today’s Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Lithuania, Latvia and eastern Poland. Even within this area, Jews were not allowed to settle in numerous cities.
Pogroms and other violence against Jews were not uncommon. Proskuriv would become the sight of a particularly gruesome pogrom in 1919, during the Ukrainian war for independence, a conflict in which both Bolshevik and Ukrainian units committed violence against the Jewish civilian population.
In Proskuriv, retreating Ukrainian forces killed up to 1,700 Jews and wounded 1,000 in the course of several hours.
Today, cities like Burshtyn and Khmelnytsky have relatively few Jewish residents left. Those who survived the Holocaust largely emigrated to the Israel and the United States during the waning years of the Soviet Union and after its collapse.
Tracing the family histories of Ukraine’s former sons and daughters who left the country in the early 20th century is particularly challenging. Whatever documentation of their existence may remain is often stored in regional archives. That which is available online can be difficult to navigate and nearly impossible to search as one would a normal PDF or word processing document. Perhaps most importantly, memory of the details has faded.
In search of information on Ginsburg’s Ukrainian-born ancestors, the Kyiv Post searched online genealogical databases, Odesa address books from roughly 1895-1915, an 1885 address book from Podolia Governorate and other historical address books. There were no clear references to either the Bader or Amster families.
The closest we came was a man named Bader listed in a 1913 Odesa address book — from after the Bader family left Ukraine. It is not clear whether he was a relative.
Moreover, the surname Amster is alternately spelled Auster and Oster. Bader could have been spelled in Russian as Beder, Beider or Bader.
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