Middle Israel: Man of the year

Like Ruth after Naomi, Nikolai followed his impoverished, gaunt, bent-backed father to a shack in a Tel Aviv slum.

By
October 25, 2006 14:00
4 minute read.

The following is a 'Middle Israel' column published on September 25, 1998 Our man of the year 5758 is neither a Machiavellian politician whose hunger for a following has made him do this or that, nor a bespectacled scholar who has shed some more light on God's creation, nor an inspiring artist who shrewdly tapped into our available income. Our man of the year is also not a resourceful high- tech engineer, nor a visionary start-up entrepreneur, nor even a mystic craving for our collective repentance. In fact our man of the year is - or was - a scarcely known, nobly humble, and tragically underachieved soldier whose promising life lasted hardly two decades. Nikolai Rappaport was not a Rambo-type hero, but this Zionist - born, killed, and buried in three different polities, all light years apart from the Promised Land he so coveted yet so sadly failed to inhabit - has lent new meaning to patriotism and defied a host of unlikely bedfellows, from timeless antisemites to religious obscurantists and post- Zionist nihilists. Wedged between the Black and Azov seas in southern Russia, Nikolai's native Krasnodar was beyond the czars' Pale of Settlement, and as such had hosted no Jewish community until the 1917 revolution. The handful of Jews who ultimately migrated there never exceeded a few thousand, but still comprised enough of a critical mass to experience 20th-century antisemitism's ultimate one-two punch: First, physical dismemberment by the Nazis, then spiritual mutilation by the Soviets, who several years after the establishment of the Jewish state shut down the town synagogue. The Nazis, in fact, dragged a gas wagon all the way to this remote locality, where some 7,000 people, mostly Jews, were put to death in 1942. After its liberation the following year, the town and its massacre became famous across Russia because the Soviets tried and executed there a few collaborators, whose chilling testimonies of the gas wagon's operation - the dushegubka, or 'soul-killer,' as they called it - were widely publicized by Stalin's propaganda machine. Many, at the time, doubted the authenticity of the accounts, but they were accurate. Jewish souls went even cheaper than Russian ones in Krasnodar, back then. SURELY, the last thing the Jewish victims, German perpetrators, and Russian witnesses of the Krasnodar massacre could believe was that a mere three generations later a group of modernly armed, well-trained, and universally admired Jewish soldiers would arrive at that very place to pay last respects to a comrade-in-arms who fell in Lebanon while defending the state the Jews would build in their ancestral land. In his death, Nikolai also defied the old Evil Empire's Jewish fixation. The closure of Krasnodar's synagogue followed the great anti-Jewish backlash that followed Golda Meir's memorable appearance, 50 years ago these Days of Awe, in Moscow's great synagogue, attended by some 50,000 excited Jews. Back then, a politically alarmed and mentally paranoid Stalin clamped down on the Jewish intelligentsia and even began planning a mass deportation of all USSR Jews to Siberia, claiming the Jews intended to establish an independent state in the Crimea. Now, as he returned to Krasnodar - which, incidentally, lies just to the east of the Crimean peninsula - Nikolai's native USSR, along with Stalin's heritage of state-sponsored atheism, had vanished and given way to a host of national and religious revival movements. AND YET, Nikolai's own Jewishness remained, to his very death, as enigmatic as the rest of his biography. Born to a Christian mother and a Jewish father, he clung onto the Jewish tendrils of his multinational ancestry, not out of fate, but out of choice. Like Ruth after Naomi, Nikolai followed his impoverished, gaunt, bent-backed father to a shack in a Tel Aviv slum, not even hinting to his commanders in the Givati infantry brigade about the conditions to which he'd return while on leave. Watching Nikolai's father weep over his only son's coffin, Middle Israelis couldn't help but notice that even in this day and age of cynicism, greed, and opportunism, the slippery energy which has attracted generations of Jews to this thankless patch of earth has yet to lose its magnetism. However, as author Eli Amir noted, had Nikolai's family not chosen to bury him where he was born, choosing his burial site would have created a major controversy, since according to Halacha this son of a Christian mother was not Jewish. But Nikolai Rappaport, the faithful son, soldier, and Zionist, made no trouble even in his untimely death. Draped in a blue-and-white flag he returned to the very place where the Gestapo's dushegubka and Stalin's thought police once tore asunder Jewish souls, bodies, and spirits. Today he no longer speaks, but at dusk, when darkness sets on the forlorn post-communist domain where he ended up in spite of himself, those who listen carefully enough to the winds blowing above his tombstone can hear Nikolai whisper: 'If I am not a Jew, who the hell is?'


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