In search of roots

Though they were seemingly well-integrated into the life of Odessa, the Goldsterns, like other Jews, were forced to emigrate because of a wave of pogroms in 1905. The family found refuge in Vienna, but because of its Russian citizenship, daughter Eugenie had to register at the university as a visitor and was not officially enrolled as a student.

After completing her studies in anthropology, Goldstern set out for the French and the Swiss Alps in search of the roots of European culture. There, deep in the mountains, she found small communities of villagers whose lifes were conducted exactly like those of their forbears centuries earlier - without electricity and without modern conveniences - and like communities that until then, had been thought to exist only in the remotest parts of Africa and South America.

Armed with a camera, the researcher documented the lives of these villagers, sketching, drawing, and gathering artifacts. After years in the field, she returned with her findings to Vienna. Goldstern's important research was conducted in the area of Bessans, in the heart of the Alps, at an altitude of nearly 1,800 meters, not far from the mountain-pass into Italy. There, two distinct communities lived almost side by side: one completely modern, not far from the railway line to Turin, and the other, a village community where people shared their houses with farm animals, worked the land, made their tools out of wood, and baked their bread in communal ovens.

Residents of the village led a democratic, communal life and jointly cultivated land, supplied water and participated in other tasks required for subsistence. The community also kept a complex system of records and documentation on wooden slats, on which they made notations that were not exactly in the form of writing, but were precise and allowed the villagers to keep track of every individual's obligations and rights.


To reach the place where these villagers lived, Goldstern had to wend her way through fields and to climb snowy mountains in horse-drawn carts, on skis and by foot. To become closely acquainted with their lifestyle, she asked that they put her up in their homes. Thus, in the fall of 1913, she spent two months at Bessans, with villagers that lived at one of the highest altitudes in Europe and frequently suffered from avalanches, freezing winds and winter temperatures which sometimes plummeted to minus 20. For six months of the year, the village was covered in several meters of snow, and children were carried from place to place on their parents' backs. Goldstern lived with them in a house that also served as a stable, and was dug in three meters under the snow; like everyone else, she went out to the well each day to bring water.

She persuaded the people of the village to talk. She photographed them bathing in a nearby stream, lighting their stoves, baking their loaves of rye bread (which was so hard, she wrote, that in order to eat it, they had to dip it in water), celebrating their holidays and shoveling organic fertilizer for heating.

During her stay, Goldstern discerned that even in this far flung village, European industrialization was making itself felt. Alongside the wooden sleds and eating utensils, she noted the introduction of modern objects. She concluded that she had to make haste to document this way of life before it disappeared. Goldstern learned about the village's unique linguistic style. As they grew to know and trust her, the villagers revealed their unusual religious customs, including burial rituals, and showed her the special ways they had developed to use solar energy and to create an irrigation system that transported water from melting glaciers to their grazing grounds in summer - and more.

Upon her return to Vienna, Goldstem displayed her findings at a folklore museum, and then set out on further travels, which took her as far as Egypt. Throughout, Goldstern - who read and wrote German, Russian, Polish, French and Italian - maintained close professional connections with other anthropologists throughout Europe.


Next part: A career cut short