Story of shtetl life provides window on past

Anna Spector was born in 1905 in Korsun, a Ukrainian town on the Ros River, 80 miles south of Kiev. Korsun, annexed by the Tsar from Poland in 1793, was fairly typical of other shtetls in what was known as the Pale of Settlement in Eastern Europe. It was comprised of Ukrainians, Cossacks, Jews and other ethnic groups who lived together in relationships punctuated by violence. Anna’s father left Korsun in 1912 to immigrate to the United States. She, her mother and sisters followed him in 1919 but not before experiencing the Great War, the Bolshevik Revolution and several organized pogroms.

It was Lawrence A. Cobin, M.D. who uncovered Anna’s story and brought it to life in the form of a well researched, in depth study of those lives and times. Anna’s Shtetl (Judaic Studies Series, $43.50) is a young girl’s story, her account of shtetl life during those terrible years. Dr. Cobin, Associate Professor Emeritus of Neurology at Washington University, discovered Anna when he was searching for information on his own roots and for life in his father’s shtetl in Bella Russe. At a Yiddish speaking group he inquired about finding someone who had been born in that area and could enlighten him. That person turned out to be Anna Spector, an octogenarian then living in St. Louis, a woman with awesome recall and imagination and the one to set Dr. Cobin on the path to writing Anna’s Shtetl.


Three hundred interviews later plus a dozen years of research by Cobin into Yiddish, shtetl life and Russian history, has resulted in the publication by the University of Alabama Press of Anna’s Shtetl. Although I could not call it warm and fuzzy and chatty as seen through the eyes of a Russian teenager, it is unusual in that, as a female perspective, it gives us a unique view of how the houses looked from both indoors and outdoors, of the neighbors and their personalities and of the trials and tribulations of this family waiting to join their father in America.

Anna’s Shtetl is available online at and Barnes and Noble.

ROBERTA COHEN, who has been named as the 2007 Hannah G. Solomon Founder’s Award nominee, is the perfect poster girl for the part. There could be no other candidate as she so thoroughly exemplifies the high standard of ideals the award represents of improving the quality of life for women, children and families; expanding and promoting the status of women and providing leadership that has motivated others to act for progress and enlightenment in our community.

On Tuesday, May 2 at the Zodiac Room at Neiman Marcus Roberta will become the twenty-first recipient of the HGS award, completing a list of exceptional people including the late state Rep. S. Sue Shear, Lt. Gov. Harriett Woods and this writer though how that happened is anybody’s guess. Roberta, however, stands out for her many and varied achievements, her expertise in public relations and marketing and for her ebullient personality and charm. Since coming to St. Louis from New York in 1980 Roberta has served on the boards of Paraquad, the Anti- Defamation League, A World of Difference Institute, National Council of Jewish Women St. Louis Section (NCJW), J Associates, Jewish Family and Children’s Service, the Saint Louis Symphony Volunteer Association and for the past ten years the Saint Louis Crisis Nursery. She told me, “Much of my time and energy for the past decade has been devoted to the St. Louis Crisis Nursery because I know that it really makes a difference in the lives of children and families who seek out the Nursery for its wonderful programs and vital services. The Nursery saves lives every day.”

Roberta’s community service and volunteer roots began with NCJW and its Couturier Sale which she co-chaired with Barbara Kodner. Since no one wanted to do the PR she took that on too and it was sort of “on the job training”, her first experience with public relations and event planning. With great flair, Roberta produced a fashion show featuring lots of local celebrities which generated huge publicity. Bottom line — at the 1988 four-day Couturier Sale over $300,000 was raised for NCJW programs and projects.

I find it amazingly appropriate that in May NCJW will honor Roberta with the HGS Award. The wife of CBS’s Allan Cohen, her mentor and the love of her life, she grew up in low-income housing projects in New York and knows that reading and education made a huge difference in her life. “At the end of my life I just want to know that I’ve left the world a little better place than I found it. That doesn’t seem like too lofty a goal. It seems right. Those of us who have had many blessings and joys in our lives should show the world how grateful we are by doing something for those who have never had those chances. None of us is any different from those who need help — we just have been luckier,” Roberta told me. Congratulations to you, HGS Poster Girl and congratulations to NCJW for its wisdom in selecting you. Reservations cost $40 for non-members, and $35 for members, for the May 2 event at 5:30 p.m. at Neiman Marcus and may be made on line at or by calling 314-991-5181.

‘Moving Voices: An Evening of Dance” on Saturday, April 14 at 8 p.m. at the Orthwein Theatre in Bryant Arts Complex located on the campus of Mary Institute and Country Day Schools is a fundraiser for the Siteman Cancer Center. The project is co-directed by dancers Gail Wechsler, Dawn Karlovsky and Mary Ann Rund and involves several local choreographers. Tickets may be purchased by calling the Barnard Health and Cancer Center at 314-362-7844.