Chinese photographer skillfully restored an old picture: my grandmother Rosa in 1915 with her husband in the WWI military uniform and a lovely three-year old brown-eyed girl, my mother, buried at the age of 88 in San Francisco.
The courage of my grandmother’s haircut, the straight rapier expression of her face, the diamond clarity of unclouded pale gray eyes don’t leave any doubts that she worked for the Russian revolution and later carried on her shoulders the survival of humanity against the monstrous juggernaut of the XX century,
There were so many Jews in their city of Berdichev, that there were no any pogroms there. Called the Jewish capital of Russia, Berdichev gave to the world two famous writers, one famous inventor, and one good surgeon – my grandfather.
Don’t think it was so easy for him with 3% quota for the Jews to receive university education. Like a few other young men from Berdichev, my grandfather went to France and studied medicine at the Sorbonne, while my grandmother supported him with the heavy Russian tsar’s golden rubles she was earning as a well-known midwife.
Somehow, in the late years she couldn’t forgive him this stay in Paris, and, when he helplessly tried to protest the sloppiness of her kitchen, neglected due to addictive habitual non-stop reading, she would defy him with a plausible sarcasm, ”My dear, this is not your Paris!”
As almost all educated Jews they supported Russian revolution, and Rosa even got arrested. After the revolution of 1917 during the ill-fated, short-lived, only-one-democratic-in-the-history-of-Russia Provisionary Government Grandpa even represented the political party BUND in Duma (Russian parliament). Stalin destroyed BUND later with all other parties together.
But a bloody scale of Bolshevik’ s terror (Pushkin prophetically wrote, “Save us God from seeing the Russian uprising, senseless and merciless!”) turned their souls, measured by Torah, away from the victorious and unstoppable march of revolutionary cannibalism..
One morning grandpa came from the night shift in his hospital and told Rosa that the all “rich” citizens of the city, who had in the bank more than 10,000 rubles. were arrested. executed, and their bodies were brought to his morgue.
A freak accident suddenly destroyed grandfather’s surgery practice in Berdichev. The blow of a horse’s hoof crushed Red Army cavalryman’s nose. Grandfather recreated his nose using the bone taken from the cavalryman’s left ring finger. Even though grandpa diligently shaved the nail bed from the bone, the nail cells appeared to be so powerful, that the nail started to grow on the man’s nose. The Red Army man sued him for malpractice.
Forced to move to Leningrad, the family was miraculously saved from a not-well-known-to-the-world famine in the Ukraine that killed not less than seven million people.
Their only daughter, Musya, already approaching a college age, had been deprived of the right even to apply to the institute of higher education. As a doctor’s daughter (bourgeois professionals didn’t have right even to vote) she was considered “socially inadequate.” Only members of working class or peasants were endorsed for universities.
Suddenly, a break in the government policy has been announced: for the children of doctors, who volunteered to work in faraway villages, the privilege of education would be granted. In order to give his daughter a chance, Grandpa went to Volhovstroy, a place forgotten by God long ago. When my mom visited and saw him, the Sorbonne educated, excellent surgeon, washing himself in a dirty barrel with ice floating on the top, closing gates from the wolves coming straight to his doors and howling in the middle of the night, she demanded his return to Leningrad. To earn the right for education she became a working class member and toiled for three years at the factory assembly line in three shifts. Her determination was awarded with admission to the Leningrad Polytechnical Institute.
A revolution in a country of slaves usually brings the worst tyranny with the worst despot. This time his name was Stalin.
While radiating numb horror, prison trains dragged millions to their slow deaths in Siberian frozen prison camps, my mother started her engineering career at the huge military plant “Bolshevik” producing navy artillery. Stalin’s purges were especially cruel in Leningrad, the city this monster hated so much. Mom told me, that when she came to “Bolshevik”, the gigantic military plant was absolutely empty. Almost everyone, including the director, was arrested. Any position was available. Fresh from the technical college, 27 year old Dmitry Ustinov (later Soviet Defense Minister for decades) became her boss.
In 1942, after working with evacuated metallurgists in the bombed Stalingrad, she watched from the middle of Volga River German paratroopers descending from the planes on the shore, from which their ferry just miraculously departed. Gold watches and spirit given to a drunk machinist forced him to unmask the ferry and move it onto Volga River saving engineers, half of whom were Jewish. After month of travel their train arrived to the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk.
Even today those Siberian cities are the center of the prison camps’ world. During the World War II, a dog’s barking usually was a wake-up call for non-imprisoned people. Dogs were guarding columns of prisoners dragged to work early in the morning. Non-incarcerated were next to go to work.
Lives of “free” people hardly looked like a paradise. In all four years of war my mother had only one day off. She went to the farmer’s market and bought 200 divine grams of real butter and went to the movie theater to see the trophy film “Lady Hamilton.” Obviously she enjoyed the movie because her butter got stolen. She always boasted later and it was my mom’s source of pride all her life, that during the war, due to her smarts and work, her mother, who lived with her, didn’t suffer from hunger.
This is my grandmother Rosa, we are talking about. Would you even imagine in what fear people lived in this bloody slave camp called the Soviet Union? One wrong move, one wrong word and you are behind barbed wire, with those shadows, whose fates only Dante could describe. My grandmother (look one more time at her clear pale grey eyes and her open noble face on this restored picture) befriended a prison guard and started to invite him for a cup of tea and a human conversation. Then she asked him about letters, the letters from prisoners.
In Stalin’s criminal code sentence “With no right of correspondence,” was often used as the other wording for a death by execution squad. Some people were allowed to stay alive. For years prisoners’ wives did not know, if they were wives or widows. Not only was property of the arrested people confiscated, but their families were confiscated from them. They themselves were turned dead for all their relatives and friends. With years of not even a little morsel of information, no word of love, and no pictures of growing children, memories of their loved ones would be wiped out from their minds, depriving them of the last tint of hope and the last straw of sanity.
I don’t know how my grandmother Rosa bewitched this prison guard, what kind of words this old woman used, but he started to bring the prisoners’ letters. She would put them into the regular envelopes, travel to the faraway villages and drop the letters in the different mailboxes, resurrecting fathers for children, husbands for wives, children for parents.
When my mother learned about Rosa’s mail adventures, she got hysterical from fear. She told me, that she screamed at grandma for two days. I could easily imagine the scene; the same she screamed at me, when she found out that I talked to an American woman on the street and had even given her my phone number. After close to us family was sent to Siberia (wife Ida died on the train) for just one dinner with the American visitor, mom had her reasons to fear. She forbade grandma even to think about letters. Knowing grandma (I was raised by her), I didn’t believe that she ever stopped.
Grandmother’s courage was always suicidal. A dying tyrant wanted to take into his grave with him as many people as possible. In 1953 Stalin’s press started an infamous campaign against "cosmopolitans" (it meant Jews). This time, two theater critics became targets of the tyrant’s wrath. Articles denouncing them appeared almost every day. People who triggered Stalin’s wrath were finished. It didn’t matter what kind of War Heroes, internationally known scientists or writers they used to be. Any celebrity would immediately turn into a pariah. Their phones would go silent. People would cross to another side of the street noticing them, scared to be seen around. Stalin’s displeasure was worse than leprosy.
One day my grandmother resolutely took my four year-old child’s hand, and went to visit an ostracized family for the cup of tea. I remember her decisively crossing streetcar rails in the middle of the street. I remember her straight, arrow-like expression and her walking toward besieged gray building with military determination of a soldier crossing the line of machine gun fire. Why did she take me with her? Obviously, she was scared. Obviously, all her strength and courage were not enough, and she enlisted badly needed support even from her granddaughter. Now it was not just her, we were crossing the line together.
Later in more vegetarian Khrushchev times, I watched a flood of people returning from prison camps and exile, mostly wives of executed husbands, who spent more than 20 years in steps of Kazakhstan and Siberia. They cried in the room of our communal apartment over their ruined lives. People were still scared of the returnees. Grandma was not.
I have lived in San Francisco almost thirty years, and when I am taking tourists on a tour to Muir Woods, I am talking about salmon and steel-head trout. This fish goes upstream in the creek to lay eggs, wounding itself against sharp stones, dying to provide life for the next generation, like human beings, who ruin themselves to carry their children forward.
Very few people are chosen to carry forward not only children, but an unbearable burden of truth, morals and human dignity. My grandmother was one of them. And if we are unable to help to such people in the small everyday scurry of our lives, let’s find courage just to bow our heads with admiration and respect.