A vivid memoir by artist Felix Lembersky's offspring - review

The inhumanity of Babi Yar and Bucha, separated by 82 years but just 22 kilometers, is a reminder today that “Never again” has proven to be more of a slogan than a promise.

 Felix Lembersky’s painting ‘Execution. Babi Yar,’ 1952. Oil on canvas. (photo credit: FELIX LEMBERSKY)
Felix Lembersky’s painting ‘Execution. Babi Yar,’ 1952. Oil on canvas.
(photo credit: FELIX LEMBERSKY)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

“We are merely honest people and see what is good and bad, and we cannot be confused” – Felix Lembersky, Leningrad, 1960

“We are merely honest people and see what is good and bad, and we cannot be confused.”

Felix Lembersky

Like a Drop of Ink in a Downpour, the recent memoir by the daughter and the granddaughter of Soviet-era Jewish artist Felix Lembersky, known for his series of paintings of the Babi Yar massacre, is especially timely now after the recent anniversary of that tragedy shared headlines with the current war in Ukraine. The inhumanity of Babi Yar and Bucha, separated by 82 years but just 22 kilometers, brings an especially sorrowful reminder today that the phrase “Never again” have proven to be more of a slogan than a promise. 

Lembersky was one of those “merely honest people” who were not confused about the duty of the artist to bear witness to a painful history. Soviet policy suppressed discussion of the Holocaust for fear of fostering any kind of alternative identity besides allegiance to the state. Wrestling with the profound question of how to remember tragedy when the very act of memory is publicly forbidden, his grimly powerful paintings of the Nazi atrocity against Jews in Kyiv were never publicly exhibited in his own country. It is only thanks to the determined, brave efforts of his wife, daughter, and granddaughter that his testimony lives on. Like a Drop of Ink in a Downpour, in gorgeous prose worthy of Lembersky’s paintings, details their struggle to flee from the Soviet Union to the United States in order to preserve and exhibit his works. Their tale is a poignant and timely reflection on the healing power of art in all its forms.

Yelena recounts the surreptitious showings of her grandfather’s Babi Yar paintings at their apartment, filtered through the innocence of childhood. 

 Untitled, Babi Yar series by Lembersky, ca. 1944–52. Oil on canvas. (credit: FELIX LEMBERSKY) Untitled, Babi Yar series by Lembersky, ca. 1944–52. Oil on canvas. (credit: FELIX LEMBERSKY)

Recounting Babi Yar paintings

My grandfather’s Babi Yar paintings are stored in our home. When friends come to see his work, they ask for that painting. Babi means “women” in Russian, and “Yar” is a high riverbank. It sounds like yarko, which means ‘bright.’ I think that this painting should be bright, showing women doing laundry by the river. But it’s black and brown. People stand together, some are fallen, there are soldiers with rifles and dogs. It makes me queasy. 

“What is Babi Yar, Grandma?”

Yelena Lembersky

“What is Babi Yar, Grandma?” I ask, and see that her eyes grow wide. 

She walks back to the painting quickly and turns to the wall. The painting is dark and has a secret.

The raw expressiveness of Lembersky’s paintings, the earliest known visual representation of the secret of Babi Yar, becomes a powerful link to the unspoken past for his visitors and family alike. 

The truth is dark, and history is whitewashed. White sheets are dropped over dark places. And here are my grandfather’s canvases, the rope bridges I can take to find my way to what cannot be put in words.

The dark palette of Lembersky’s Babi Yar series matches the murkiness of those memories, the hushed whispers about the executions there and in so many other places that took Felix’s parents, friends, and countless other Jews. Remarkably, already faced with suspicion as a Jew, Lembersky’s later work defiantly shunned the officially sanctioned social realism in favor of a bolder expressionist style ablaze with colors. Yelena describes the jolt of her grandfather’s colors and the contrast they made with the drab Leningrad view from the window.

In Grandfather’s paintings, the roofs are emerald-green or red, the houses orange, and the fields flushed like my mama’s cheeks when she comes in from the frost. Garden fences turn into creatures, and people into clouds.

Though she couldn’t understand it then, art formed her earliest memories and the “substrate of [her] subconscious.” Yelena and Galina’s memoir shares that appreciation of color and keen observation while, as Felix advocated in his advice to younger artists, distilling the extraneous, sometimes “harmful,” details into “space to feel and think.” 

The journey that this single mother and young daughter took to freedom and the ability to exhibit Felix’s paintings was particularly harrowing. Galina had secured exit visas for the family in 1981, a difficult process fraught with ostracism and suspicion, which led to her being falsely accused of a petty crime and being imprisoned for more than a year. Yelena was left to live with relatives and friends whom she hardly knew. Eventually mother and daughter were re-united, overcoming estrangement and re-adjustment to life outside the prison camp. Only in 1987 were they finally permitted to emigrate with the Babi Yar canvases. True to their vision, they have devoted their lives to cataloging and exhibiting Felix’s works, ensuring him a place in the history of artists who pushed against the boundaries of an oppressive state. 

Much of the beauty of Like a Drop of Ink in a Downpour lies in Yelena’s descriptions of her “rope bridges” to discovering a Jewish faith that had been hidden from her for fear of attracting more persecution by the state. She recalls her and her mother’s perplexity during a first, cautious visit to a Leningrad synagogue, unsure how to behave in an alien world of rituals, expected gender roles, and the mysteries of an unknown language. 

In Hebrew, vowels are small markings below the line and are often omitted. Then I think that these vowels are like women on the temple’s balcony or Jews in the streets of our neighborhood. We are all here. The words can’t be said without our voices, and yet we are unseen.

In time, Galina and Yelena add their voices to the faith of their ancestors. Yelena recounts visiting a synagogue in 1986 for Simhat Torah, still a dangerous act even in the final years of the Soviet Union.  

I stand still next to my mother and listen to the Jewish songs. And then, oh... there comes an excruciating pain. The music that I never learned suddenly becomes familiar, as if I had heard it before I was born, as if there were a genetic memory to remind me of what has been lost.

Just 17 at the time, Yelena resolves to learn these songs and prayers, to study Hebrew, and to pass on her new-old family faith to her future children. 

A profound generosity of spirit connects the vibrant later works of Felix, despite Soviet repression, with Yelena’s optimism in the face of the challenges she and her mother faced. In one remarkable painting, Workers’ Town, Nizhny Tagil, from 1958, women appear to be disembarking a bus after work and walking toward their modest homes, outlined in whimsical brush strokes, set against a cantaloupe sky. Nizhny Tagil is a dreary industrial city of steel and ironworks, yet Lembersky tenderly captures a human moment, as the viewer senses their fatigue mixed with joy at the end of the day, and wonders what stories lie beyond the artist’s gaze in those homes that cheerfully await them. That empathy is shared by Felix’s granddaughter, many years and a continent apart. 

In Cambridge, Massachusetts, where years later I would make my new home, there are three residential towers, three brick blocks with pinhole windows. 

“The projects,” my new American friend says in a hushed voice, “are ugly. Do you understand U G L Y?”

“They are not. They are... life,” I protest.

“But what kind of life?” he asks. “No life! Drugs and crime. A bad life. They look like a prison.”

He tells me that people need to live in houses, with a lawn and a garden, so you can plant flowers.

I tell him, “I grew up in such a building in Leningrad and there was life.”

Yelena and Felix’s compassion for the lives that can be found amid the soot of a rustbelt town or the gray concrete boxes built to house the poorest is a bracing contrast to the inhumanity of those who see only the grime, who cannot hear the voices beyond the hidden vowels of a common language, inevitably leading to the newly excavated scars in the earth that haunt the headlines today. Joined now in aesthetic harmony, the Lembersky family’s lyrical paintings and candescent prose, infused with their hard-won faith, point the way forward to the rope bridges necessary to endure the distress of our current moment.  ■

Herb Randall’s first short story, ‘Pictures of Galina,’ was published in Apofenie. His writing has also been featured in Los Angeles Review of Books, Punctured Lines, and On the Seawall. He lives in northern New Hampshire.

Like a Drop of Ink in a Downpour: Memories of Soviet RussiaYelena and Galina LemberskyCherry Orchard Books, 2022, 272 pages, $19.95 (paperback)