GRODNO, BELARUS â€“ October 2006
Even in your most vivid dreams you can’t imagine how much of the Elixir of Life there is for me in your letters. Thank you…
My dear ones, rather, my “rodnoy” American friends. I received two letters together. There was the Rosh Hashanah gift. I received what was in the letters, but what joy from the warm words of love addressed to me. I swam in them, even though it is autumn now, but in my palm lay not a white piece of paper but a piece of snow that was melting from the bright spring sunshine, warm, not hot. That is how much warmth was in your words.
Thank you, [for your photographs] for letting me see you, so open, so nice/sweet, laughing. And I smile at you. I look at each one of you and I ask G-d, no, first I thank him that he sent you to me, then carefully and with graciousness I ask, “Please, may they live to 120, indeed that is not too much for such people, and then you can even add a little more, for everything is in your hands. Bozhe [G-d as an exclamation], you are gracious and merciful. Thank you, G-d, this is what I ask on Rosh Hashanah.” And I am sure that he heard me.
You asked me to describe what happened in my life. There is nothing here that you should feel sad about. Nu, first, there is no need to cry over any slippers. Even if you really could become a magician and send me those child’s slippers on the wings of angels, even angels would not save me from the tax that I would have to pay for them. The fact of the matter is that they would be stolen from me again… for those slippers worn just once have remained a bright memory in my life. Even though I parted from them on Earth, my feet felt their warm beauty. I have remembered them for my entire life.
We returned to our town that had been burned to ashes. There were no Jews, although Jews made up about 60% of those who survived the war. Some people had already built earthen huts; others just threw something together to live in as best they could. People grabbed shovels, axes. There was no time to cry. Our former neighbors each took one of us children since there was nowhere that we could all sleep together.
I want to tell one comic-dramatic episode from the evacuation, when we traveled an entire eight months to Saratov. The train stopped in a field. I remember that it was sunny and warm. We all, especially the children, tumbled out of the railroad cars. Around us there was not a soul, only the steppe, the train and us. There were no airplanes dropping bombs, no one was shooting from behind bushes. What joy! I saw a sunflower. It was tall, its basket of sunny petals with ripe seeds inside called to me. And I, laughing in ecstasy, ran to it. The grown-ups didn’t stop me, they themselves were drunk from the air of the steppe. I got closer and closer to the sunflower. And although I was just four years old, I still remember those moments of running. And suddenly from behind the sunflower resounded a burst of automatic machine-gun fire. I didn’t cry, no, I had learned the ways of war, I fell flat on the ground and tried to become one with it. The bullets flew and the grown-ups with cries of horror flung themselves at me, but, miraculously, not one of the bullets hit me or the people running. After many years I know very definitely that if up above you find out that you must live again on this Earth, whether you are big or small, whether in war or a peaceful calm life, rejoice, and live. And I have become convinced of this more than once in my life.
We returned to our native region when they liberated Byelorussia. This was in 1943. I remember the Day of Victory (1945) well. Early in the morning you could hear, “Victory, victory!” Everybody poured into the street at once. It was spring, warm, and Victory. Sounds of the accordion resounded.
A soldier on a prosthesis (artificial leg) was playing the accordion and a young girl dressed all in white was dancing. A white dress, a crown of cherry blossoms, and even white slippers. I often think, “Where could this girl in the burned town get such a miraculous thing?” She had saved them for some young man who left and didn’t return, because her face was puffy and covered with tears. But who would pay any attention, because everyone was crying, embracing and crying and laughing together. I remember the crying face of the girl in white to this very day. [end of first page that is typed]
I can’t type on that old, very old typewriter any more, that I dragged out of the basement, so that you wouldn’t be tormented by trying to make out my handwriting. But the carriage almost doesn’t move, the letters don’t type, the ribbon is very old. That’s all, I can’t type any more. I can’t pull the carriage with one hand, with the other hand using one finger to hit the keyboard. To hell with this technical marvel, and I will again write by hand.
I went to school. It is hard to call it a school, but they taught there and they taught well. For the first four grades I went only in the spring and fall, that is, at times when I could go barefoot and hardly dressed. All the same at the end of every school year I was passed to the next grade with good marks. I entered the fifth grade, where there were different teachers for different subjects.
The building brigade, organized by the local residents, helped us build a house using timber [as opposed to out of earth]. We moved in without a ceiling or floor, without a regular-size Russian stove that takes up a whole wall, but with windows. That meant that the sun was always looking in the windows of our peasant-house. And that was happiness. Although they say that the sun, not G-d, warms everyone, for us the sun shone as a Ray of Hope. Our little corner, all of us together, our little stove (it was a cast-iron pot with a vent-pipe going out through a little window), which we stoked in the evening, we all sat around it, we opened the little door [of the stove] and without blinking stared at the fire of the burning wood. And such a warm hearth was there in the most rudimentary framework of a home, that now whenever things are unbearably hard for me, I call up in my memory the inextinguishable warmth of that hearth. I remember the plump cat, who had gotten fat on mice. First he sat by the little stove, warmed
himself, looked for a long time at the fire, and then he got up and walked away from the warmth that was warming the bottoms of our feet, and happy too, he went to his corner.
But in the morning, waking up, we were shivering from the cold, which during the night crept in through the cracks of the house, and we put on everything we could find to wear. We didn’t brush our teeth, our hungry stomachs were growling… but I don’t think about that at all now, only the sun, the warmth of the little stove, the family, the purring cat…
And then I fell ill with wet pleurisy, which turned into treacherous, serious tuberculosis. Everybody got involved in treating me at that time when there were no medications. For an entire year there was a struggle for life, but I recovered such that I never again had a problem with my lungs. Everything was put into healing me, but most of all, the soul. It’s true that I remember tears that were almost not the tears of a child. Mama bought just for me a bag of candy, since I had grown so weak. My brother walked in the house. Having childishly eaten half of the candy, I gave the other half to my brother. He didn’t take it. I thought that he didn’t take it because he was afraid of becoming infected, not because I needed to eat well. All day I cried in despair that I was going to die, that now I understood why no one even wanted to eat from the same bowl (I had my own bowl), so Mama took a risk, cooked soup, sat everybody down at the table, and everybody, including me, ate from the same saucepan. Mama took a risk, for I really was infectious, but she risked it. God was merciful, none of the children got sick.
Are you tired of reading? Am I wearing you out? But you wroteâ€”write! And here I am, glad to try to shake memories out of my brain.
I want to turn aside a little from childhood and skip over a little time. The year 1953. “The Jewish” problem. They want to poison the leader of the Soviet people. Who? The Jews, of course. The Jewish doctors in Moscow. [NB: In 1953 Jewish doctors were arrested and falsely accused of trying to poison the Soviet leadership. KGB documents and classified archives show the conspiracy known as “The Doctor’s Plot,” that Stalin was responsible for its engineering as part of his intent to start a holocaust in the Soviet Union.]. And the Jews in our distant little Byelorussian village saw dark storm clouds. Will this storm cloud pass them by or will it again pour down on the poor Jewish heads, although covered with caps. Father hardly talked to us, he just tossed and turned all night, and fiddled with the reception on a small old radio, acquired who knows where, and tried to bring in “Voice of Israel.” But the [Soviet] interference with the broadcast was so strong so that we were deafened by crackling and static, but somehow we fell asleep anyway. In the morning we jumped up and asked, “Nu, what will happen to us?” Father always answered the same thing: “Sha, shhh.” My father listened to “Voice of Israel” to the very last days of his life. But at the time he wouldn’t let us go to school or go outside to the street. And suddenly all our beloved neighbors, even acquaintances, simply stopped dropping by, although previously they used to turn to my father for advice on all kinds of problems. He was a great Authority, my learned, very intelligent father with a fourth grade education. He always said, looking at us, the children, “If it weren’t for you five kids, I could have studied a little and become a minister,” and to this we often answered in chorus, “The minister of foreign affairs, then we would know for sure that in Israel there is at least one Jew from Byelorussia, even though you can’t hear a thing but crackling and static on your radio.” And he wasn’t offended because from the mouths of children comes the truth.
On one of those late evenings a knock sounded on the window and somebody shouted three times, “Zhidy [Yids], get out and go to your Israel.” That was the first time I heard “zhid” and that we were supposed to get out, that is, that all of us Jews were part of the affair with the Kremlin doctors, and that we Jews were responsible for everything, for everyone, for what they did, for what they didn’t do. We began to bolt the door closed, there was a sliding bolt on the front door. Ten Jewish families returned from the evacuation, but only after it got dark, looking over their shoulders, would Jews come to see us. Not one of our ten Jewish families ever believed for one second a single word about the Jewish doctors. My father said, “The Dreyfus Affair, they survived all of it, and we survive this.” And then from somewhere Father learned that cattle cars were being prepared for us, the Jews, to send us far away to Siberia, and now it seemed that this was really happening. And my quiet Mama, who hardly said a word at home, spoke aloud as if to herself. “Maybe G-d will not permit this.” We understood what she had in mind. Not only for spoken words but even for thoughts such as this one could be sent away on a transport. And Father immediately said in Yiddish, “Sha, even the walls have ears.”
The day of March 5, 1953 saved us. [NB: Te day Stalin died.] All are mortal, even tyrants. In the morning we went to school. Mama gave each of us a half of an onion and ordered strictly, “Before school starts, rub the onion around your eyes until you cry. Let everyone see that you are crying over Stalin.” But what was most amazing is that the grief of everyone but the Jews was real. They were crying so sincerely as if they were close relatives. There was an iron curtain, no one knew anything different and it seemed that the end had come. And only after the unmasking of the cult of Stalin by Khrushchev did people’s minds become clear.
Yes, you yourselves, of course, know this and I am writing to you as if it’s the first time it has been said.
Probably in your next letter you will write to me and say to stop here. We say that we answer for those whom we tame [NB: the word used for taming a wild animal]. So I am not at fault that I wrote so much. If you only knew how dear you all are to me. If only this letter does not get lost. I don’t have a smiling photograph [of myself], but there will be by my next letter. That’s all.