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10.13.10

An Oscar Winner’s Secret History

In an excerpt from his book, Faces of America, Henry Louis Gates recounts the unknown story of legendary film director Mike Nichols’ family in Russia—and their escape to America.

Mike was born Michael Igor Peschkowsky on November 6, 1931, in Berlin, the oldest child of Brigitte Landauer and Dr. Paul Peschkowsky. His father was a Jewish Russian émigré and Mike spent his first seven years in an upper-middle-class Jewish family, largely unaware of the dangers his family faced after the Nazis came to power in 1933. By 1938, however, their situation was becoming clear and his family immigrated to the United States, changing their name to "Nichols" in the process, and leaving their Russian roots behind.

Locating records of Russian Jews is among the most difficult challenges in genealogical research. A genealogist once told me that finding the ancestors of Russian Jews is at least as difficult as tracing the slave ancestors of African Americans. For centuries, the forebears of men and women like Paul Peschkowsky were barred from citizenship and its rights. They were confined to Jewish settlements that were subsequently destroyed either by Stalin or by the Nazis in World War II. They did not even have surnames, other than patronymics ("son of" names). In other words, they lived lives without a paper trail, lives almost totally unrecorded. Jews appear in Russian documents only beginning in the 19th century, when the czar, seeking to tax them and conscript them, required that they adopt last names.

We began our search by consulting Mike's father's death certificate. From it, we learned that Paul Peschkowsky was born to Russian émigrés in Vienna, Austria, on January 13, 1900, and that his mother's name was Anna Distler. His father was Nosson Peschkowsky, and we were able to locate his birth certificate which indicated that he came to Vienna from Tomsk, Siberia, where he was born in 1870. We found other records in which Nosson went by the name of Nikolai, probably because it was the closest Russian equivalent. We also found a wealth of records suggesting that Mike's grandparents traveled frequently between the luxurious European capital of Vienna and the rough hinterlands of Siberia throughout the first decades of the 20th century.

I wanted to know how—and why—his grandparents were traveling so much. Given the state of Russian records, the prospect of unraveling this mystery looked bleak at first. But then we got very lucky: We found the city directory of Irkutsk, one of the largest cities in Siberia. It lists Mike's grandfather, "Dr. D. N. Peschkowsky," as a specialist in venereal disease. We also learned that he was a member of the East Siberia Physicians Society and that his wife, Anna Distler was a member of the board of the Irkutsk Charitable Society for the Assistance of Poor Jews. They seem to have been very prominent people in Irkutsk. And the source of their status appears to have been the family of Mike's grandmother, the Distlers.

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Mike had heard many stories about this line of his family and was eager to learn more. "I'll tell you right now all I know about my grandmother Anna," he said. "And I know it only from the wife of my now deceased Russian cousin. The story is that when my grandmother left Russia in 1917, she took with her 40 pieces of luggage. And in the 40 pieces of luggage were 50 gold bars from the family goldmine. But I have no idea if that's true."

According to family lore, the Distlers owned a goldmine on Sakhalin Island. After a great deal of research, we were able to verify the essentials of this story. The Distler goldmine was not on Sakhalin Island—it was right in the middle of Siberia. But it existed, nonetheless, just as family legend says it did. And it was the creation of Mike's great-grandfather Grigory Distler.

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Faces of America: How 12 Extraordinary People Discovered their Pasts. By Henry Louis Gates Jr. 304 pages. NYU Press. $26.95. ()

Records show that Grigory was born in Poland and was exiled to Siberia in 1865 for participation in an anti-Russian rebellion. He went to Tomsk, Siberia, an area that was legendary for its lucrative goldmines. At the time, Jews were prohibited from engaging in mining, so Grigory set up a butcher shop instead, and he prospered. His life changed dramatically, in the late 1880s, when the prohibition against Jewish ownership of goldmines was dropped—largely because the mines were generally thought to be exhausted.

Distler decided to try his luck. He started a mine with his five sons. It was an unusual business. Unlike most of the goldminers of their day, the Distlers themselves researched, developed, and traded their final product. They were involved in the entire process from start to finish. And they were wildly successful. Their mine was soon producing three tons of gold a year. Grigory reinvested the profits, acquiring several more mines in the same area. The Distlers were, for a brief time, like the Oppenheimers of Russia. And Mike's grandparents Nosson and Anna were most likely traveling the world on her father Grigory's profits from this very mining venture.

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The Bolshevik Revolution ended it all. When industry and farming were nationalized post-1917, it wasn't a good time to be a capitalist. The family suspended its mining activities and dispersed. Some of Mike's ancestors remained in Russia, including two great-uncles who moved to Moscow, Alexander and Vasily Distler.

Mike's grandparents took a different route. After the dissolution of the family business, Nosson and Anna and their son, Paul, traveled east to Vladivostok and then to Harbin, China. This was a common route for Russians attempting to escape the Revolution, and many continued on to the West Coast of the United States. But for reasons that remain unclear, Anna and Paul turned west and fled from Harbin to Berlin. They arrived there around 1920 and appear to have lived the remainder of their lives in Germany. We don't know if they arrived with 40 suitcases full of gold. We do know that they arrived in Berlin with money that had been earned in the Distler goldmines. Mike's father, Paul, was able to earn his medical degree, marry, have two children—and ultimately pay for the journey to America for himself and his family.

"I've never heard about these people," Mike said, looking solemnly at the execution lists published in Russian newspapers.

Although the Distler wealth was able to save some members of the family, it could not preserve those who stayed behind in Russia. Many of them simply disappear from the records. Others, like Mike's great-uncles in Moscow, suffered gruesome fates. They were arrested and put to death by Stalin for "counter-revolutionary activities." Records show that one of them, Vasily Distler, was tried and executed on the same day, April 25, 1938, just months before the 7-year-old Mike arrived in New York.

"I've never heard about these people," Mike said, looking solemnly at the execution lists published in Russian newspapers, complete with photographs of the executed. "It all died with my father. But I'm so used to knowing that I'm beyond lucky—it's like a joke, this luck. And what a putz to ever have complained of anything for even a moment."

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Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is a literary critic, educator, scholar, writer, editor and public intellectual. He was the first African American to receive the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellowship. In 2002, Gates was selected to give the Jefferson Lecture, in recognition of his "distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities." The lecture resulted in his 2003 book, The Trials of Phillis Wheatley.