The Mysterious Story of the Russian General
I’m fortunate to have in my archives recordings of multiple interviews with my great-grandfather’s sister, Paula Thal Aminoff. In a few of them, she recalls the story of Ivan Teryokin, which was evidently a story frequently told and asked about. But both his relationship and his actual military history are a bit of mystery.
In a 1974 conversation with Bernhardt, Pierson, and Ted Thal and Marge Adinoff, Paula relates the story in great detail, connecting it to Abram Ockter.
Here is the transcript of the story. In this version, the name “Ivan Teryokin” is not given.
Paula: A general. He was a general in the Russian Army. Well, he was as a kid, you know..
Buzz: What was his name?
Paula: Ockter. And that’s your ring that you have, one of you, or spoon.
Buzz: Oh, we have a spoon. A O on it.
Paula: Abram Ockter. But in the olden days, in Nicolai’s time, they used to come and grab the children, about 13 years old, and take them away. And that was all there was to it, you couldn’t do anything about it. The Jewish boys, anyway. Yeah, I remember those names. Yeah, that was Abram Ockter, mother’s uncle.
Ted: ..funny that they gave things and put their own initials on..
Paula: They used to, when they gave wedding presents, they put their own initials on. So they took him in the army, and that was all there was to it. You know, you couldn’t do anything about it. But, it was government. And years later, he came back to see his parents. And he had taken up music and had become quite a musician. And he came back..
Ted: I never told you anything about that kind of story..
Paula: ..with the intentions of staying, you know. But you know, he was already quite up high in rank and in the army, and somebody.. You know, our great grandfathers had an estate. And next to their estate there were estates where the nobility lived, and they used to invite him over for dinners and for parties, and of course he went, because.. Well, it just killed his mother that he went and ate “traif”. You know. So then one day, he went over, Jake was a baby, he came, he liked my mother. And he came in, he told mother he came to say goodbye. And she says, “Why goodbye? I thought you were going to stay?” He says, yes, he came back with full intentions of staying, but he knows it makes his mother heartsick to see him go and eat and spend time with all the goyim, so he knows it won’t work out. He doesn’t want to hurt his mother, and he can’t live the same kind of a life that they are living, because he’s been away from it too long. So he says the only thing for him to do is just to go back into the army. So he went back, and he went back to his music. And he became a Kapellmeister for the Tzar, the Kapellmeister..
Pierson (?): Chief Musical director.
Paula: Yeah, Chief Musical director for the Tzar. And Uncle Sam [Aminoff, from St. Petersburg] used to say that at the High Holidays, there used to be a man come in with all the fancy uniform and a lot of orders, all kind of orders on his chest, come into the synagogue to pray. Well, anyway, he went back and he became a very big musician, and was with the army. So then, my aunt, my mother’s younger sister, was married to an uncle, a brother of his. And the uncle had died, and if she wanted to marry again, she had to get his permission to marry. Either he had to marry her himself or give her permission to marry somebody. And he couldn’t marry her because he was married. He had a wife and two sons. So she wrote to him, and wanted to know if she could get that permission from him. And he says, sure, the only thing is, he wants her to come down for a visit. And he’d be glad to give her the permission. So she went down to visit him. And they treated her royally. His wife was very ill at the time. But he had two sons, and they all treated her very nice. And she got the permission. And when she was leaving, he told her, he says, as long as his wife was ill, he wouldn’t do anything and he wouldn’t leave her. But as soon as his wife dies, because she wasn’t expected to live, he’s going back to Riga to be near his folks, and when he dies he wants to be buried in the same cemetery where his brother is. But he had become a General with his music you know. And so when Abraham [Blumberg] was here, about four or five years ago, when he was in Miami that time, and Ted had a big dinner for the whole family, whoever was there, and Abraham and I were there too, and so, Hoddie, that’s Preston’s son’s in‑laws were bragging about someone they had in the army that was high up or something. So Abraham says to me, “Why didn’t you tell her you had a General in the army? You could have bragged too!” I says, “Well for one thing I don’t want to brag. Another thing I had forgotten all about it.” And I said, “What do you know about it?” He said, “What do I know about it? I know all about it!” Because he had come back, and he been to his parents wedding, and he used to see him all the time, but I didn’t get quite the end, I suppose at the end he died, you know. But, he was a big musician.
In a later interview in Los Angeles, 1981, with an interviewer who still hasn’t been identified, Paula repeats the story, and this time uses the name, “Ivan Teryokin.” Abram Ockter, however, is not mentioned.
Here is the transcript of this version:
I: What were their names? What were your mother’s sisters’ names?
Paula: One is Chaya, and Fanny, and Sarah. Three of them. And she had some brothers.
I: Do you remember their names?
Paula: Well one of the brothers, was.. You know in those days they used to take them into the army. They used to take kids up off the street and put them in the army. Well they took this one brother who was only thirteen and put him in the army. And they took him away, and that was all.. there was nothing you could do about it, you know. In those days, Russia was, whatever they did, they did. Well he went into the army. And he was in the army, but he always told his mother that someday he was coming back. So when Marge’s grandfather was born, Mother had just had him, he was just a baby, and he came back. And they were so happy to see him. But you know, he was already different. He was a musician. And around the country, the people who had estates used to invite him for lunch or dinner or something, and naturally he’d go. Well it killed his mother that he would go and eat traif, you know.
I: They were a very observant family.
Paula: Yeah. So one day, mother was in bed with Margie’s grandfather, and he came in. He said he came to tell her goodbye. And she says, “I thought you were going to stay.” He says he did too. He thought he’d stay, but he sees that his mother just can’t stand it. It’s too much of an aggravation for his mother, so he’s going back into the army. But he went back into the army, and he was a musician. And he became the Tzar’s main musician. And he was a.. very high official. Because, I know once we were in Florida, and my nephew Ted came down and gave a big dinner for all the people who were in Florida. So one of the women there was bragging about somebody she had.., a musician that she was bragging about. So my cousin was here from Israel. So he says, “Why didn’t you brag about yours?” He says, “You had a musician, a..” I can’t think of the name now, the.. he was a very high official.
I: ..the title. What instrument did he play?
Paula: He was a General, that’s it. And he was a wonderful musician. Of course he changed his name. His name was different, you know.
I: To what did he change it?
Paula: Ivan Teryokin.
I: That’s a name I’ve never heard. A Russian name?
Paula: Ivan Teryokin. A Russian name. And then, after years, my mother’s sister’s husband died. And for her to remarry, she had to get the husband’s brother’s permission. So she wrote to him and wanted to know if he would give her permission to marry again. He says, yeah, he’d give her permission to marry again, but he wanted her to come to see him first. So she went there to see him. And his wife was sick already. And he says, well, as long as his wife lives he wouldn’t do anything. But after his wife goes, he goes back to Riga, that’s where they lived, and goes back to Judaism, and will be buried the same place where his brother is. So whatever is in you, you know, you just can’t change.
I: Did he eventually go back to Riga?
Paula: Yeah, he went back to Riga. Because this cousin of mine from Israel was here, and he used to talk about him. I says, “What do you know about him?” He says, “I know about him. He used to be at the house all the time.”
The third version of the story was recorded during Paula’s 95th birthday party, in Los Angeles, California, on August 10, 1978. Unfortunately, the audio from the recording is not good enough to share. Bernhardt “Buzz” Thal and Marge Adinoff are doing the interviewing. In this account, the name Ivan Teryokin is included again, and no Abram Ockter. It’s obvious from the questions that the relationship with this gentleman has always been ambiguous.
Buzz: What was the relationship of the one that became the music band leader?
Marge: The General.
Paula: Oh, that was an uncle. My grandmother’s brother.
Buzz: Oh, that was on your grandmother’s side, this then would be on the Eliason side.
Paula: My grandmother’s side.
Buzz: On the Eliason side.
Marge: What was his name?
Paula: His name was a Russian name, Ivan Teryokin.
Marge: Ivan Teryokin? How would you spell that?
Paula: Ivan, no he was a Teryokin. And you know, he left home when he was thirteen, they picked him up off the street when he was… In those days, they used to pick the kids off the street and put ‘em in the army, you know. And he was thirteen years old when he left home. But when he had grown up to manhood, he decided to come home for a visit, you know. He wanted to come home. And he came home, and of course they were happy to have him home, you know. But you know, he was away, he had been away for so long, that things didn’t mean a thing to him. He didn’t care if he ate kosher or didn’t eat kosher, you know. So he had gotten to be quite a man in the army, so the estates around the neighborhood used to invite him for meals. And his mother had a fit every time he went, because he’d eat everything that they had, and it wasn’t kosher you know. So she used to have a fit. So he went out, Jake was a baby. Grandmother was in bed with Uncle Jake, and he came in to tell her goodbye. And she says, “Why goodbye? I thought you were going to stay?” And he says, yeah, he had fully intended to, but he sees that it’s only a heartache for his mother. She can’t get accustomed to his being, to living differently than what they do. So he went back to the army. But years later, when mother’s sister, Aunt Sarah, was widowed, her husband died, she was married to an uncle, Uncle Avram. You know, your father was crazy about him. And he died, so she thought she might remarry. So in order to remarry, she had to have her husband’s brother’s permission. She could have gone and married this way. So she wrote to him, and asked him if he would give her permission to marry again. So he wrote back, yeah, he would give her permission, only if she came out to St. Petersburg to see him. He would give her permission. So she went to St. Petersburg to see, she wrote all that to Grandma, you know. But his wife was sickly, and he had an idea that he wanted to see what kind of a person she was, that he might marry her when his wife died. But she went to St. Petersburg and he treated her beautifully. She was …at one time. But then when she left, he told her that as long as his wife lives, he wasn’t gonna do anything. But as soon as his wife dies, he’s going back to Riga and will be buried in the same cemetery with his brother and go back to Judaism. So when Abraham is here, he came to Florida to visit us for a week. And while he was there, Ted came down and gave a big party for everyone of the family who were in Florida at that time. So, Horty, [?] wife was married [?] to somebody else and she was bragging about the big man she had in the army. So we left there, and Abraham said to me, he says, “Well, why didn’t you brag about the…
Marge: Concertmaster, wasn’t he?
Paula: Yeah, but what was he?
Marge: General. He was a general.
Paula: General. “Why didn’t you brag about the general you have in your army?” I said, “Well, for one thing, I don’t care about bragging. Another thing, I really didn’t think of it at the time.” I says, “What do you know about it?” He says, “What do I know about it?” He says, “I’ve seen him every day when I was kid. He used to come to my grandmother’s and be there all the time.” So he did, he went back to Europe and got back to Judaism. But…
Marge: So his name was a different name.
Paula: Ivan Teryokin. I remember the name.
Marge: Where did he get, he took a Russian name, not a family name?
Paula: Yeah. A Russian name.
Buzz: Was that two names or one?
Paula: Two names. Ivan. Teryokin.
Later in that same conversation, in response to questions about a family estate, Paula does talk about Abram Ockter:
Paula: Roy used to, your father [Fred] used to go out there very often. My uncle lived there, Uncle Avram, and your father [Fred] used to be always his pet. He just loved that kid. And he used to go out there and stay with him.
Marge: Did he have family?
Paula: No. He was married to my mother’s younger sister, and they never had any children. But they were crazy about your father.
Buzz: What was Avram’s name? Abraham. What was his last name?
Buzz: That explains the spoon that we have that has A O on it.
Paula: That’s Ockter. Avram Ockter.
So the first question is, exactly what is the relationship of “Ivan Teryokin” to Paula Thal Aminoff? He is referred to as her mother’s brother, her grandmother’s brother, and an uncle. Of course, we have to remember that most of the story took place before Paula was even born. Jacob, the baby who her mother was “in bed with” at the time of Teryokin’s return to Talsen, was born in 1868, fifteen years before Paula was born. She is telling a story she has been told, not one that she experienced.
That said, most of the stories that can be checked from her interviews have proved to be true. So there is probably at least some truth to this story. Based on the fairly consistent telling of her aunt Sarah getting permission to remarry, I have made the assumption that Ivan Teryokin was the brother of Abram Ockter, the husband of Sarah Blumberg, daughter of Berle and Bayla Blumberg. Sarah was the younger sister of Paula’s mother, Lena, and is listed in an 1874 Revision List (sort of a census) as 18 9/12 years old on January 1, 1874.
Based on the fact that Bernhardt Thal inherited the spoons with the initials “A O,” I’m assuming that Abram Ockter was in fact the uncle that doted on Bernhardt’s father, Fred Thal. That would explain him having the spoons.
We also have photographs of Abram and Sarah Ockter, but they are not dated. They would appear, though, to be consistent with contemporaries of Paula’s mother.
The Rest of the Story
This is where the mystery starts. Up to this point, no “Ockter” documents have surfaced in Latvia that would match these people, though more may turn up. We can’t even prove that Lena’s sister, Sarah, married Abram Ockter. So far, no records. There are “Recruitment Lists” extant for that time and place, but so far, nobody by that name or similar. And I have yet to locate any Russian military documents that would include this gentleman in his Russian persona.
There is also a question of whether he actually returned to Riga, or whether it might have been Lithuania. Abraham Blumberg, quoted in the stories, was the son of Lena and Sarah’s brother, Jacob, and was raised in Lithuania. So if he remembered the “general” visiting, it probably wasn’t in Riga.
So at this point, much is still a mystery. If I’m interpreting the accounts correctly, this musical military man was related by marriage instead of by blood, but it’s still a story worth telling.