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In the tradition of her critically acclaimed memoir of her mother, A Cross and a Star, Marjorie Agosin writes the life of her father, Moises Agosin, a doctor, scientist, and classical pianist whose life reflects the lives of so many Jews of his generation, who were destined to be always refugees, always "others"—always from somewhere else.
In Always From Somewhere Else, Agosin’s homage to her father becomes much more than a simple life story; it is a captivating and moving meditation on the boundaries of national and cultural identities, the meanings of exile and home, and the legacies of storytelling, memory, and love.
"In this beautifully composed tribute to the life of her father, Marjorie Agosín first describes the flight of her grandparents, Abraham and Raquel from the war-ravaged and increasingly anti-Semitic Russia of 1917. They lived as refugees in Istanbul and Marseilles, where Moisés was born, before settling with their three sons in Quillota, Chile. In vivid detail, Agosín contrasts the beauty of the Chilean countryside with the ugliness of the entrenched anti-Semitism that made her father a permanent outsider. . . . Agosín paints a moving portrait of a man who, despite his love for his family, his work, and classical music, was, like herself, marked at the core of his identity as a wandering exile."—Publishers Weekly
"This is a haunting work of extraordinary grace and depth."—Claribel Alegria
Marjorie Agosín is author of many volumes of poetry, fiction, and essays. She is winner of the Letras do Oro Prize and the Latino Literature Prize, and is chair of the Spanish department at Wellesley College.
Elizabeth Rosa Horan is an essayist, translator, and director of comparative studies in literature at Arizona State University.
And they were always from somewhere else, abandoning the burning villages, grasping to the sacred rituals of memory. My grandparents wrapped up the braids of garlic, preserving their ancient beliefs and the rhythm of their meals. The village of flying fish and Chagalian portraits disappeared like a tottering deck of cards because this is how it is written in the great book of life.
We are a wandering people, treasuring the days of all our returns, searching for recovered lands brimming with promises as we arrive everywhere and nowhere. Always filled with the frontiers that exist between the familiar and the distant, we remember inversely certain itineraries of homes that have been burned to the ground, books about God and our own plundered memories. But we always search for a new horizon, where we may stop to build a dream, a beginning that lies beyond all the shadows.
A roaming people, a people of abandoned doors and beatings in the middle of the night, our history is submerged in the mysterious book of God. We are and are not those who flee at all times, making a ladder of stars with clean hands that have not killed but have only been tied. Hence, we arrive everywhere and invent utopias and new languages as we continue the trek, moved by our own history, always ready to leave at the appointed hour with the belongings of memory and time.
We never were able to find out in which forest or garden they had met and first gazed at each other. They did remember thatit was the time of the almond blossoms, when the rivers were filled with fragrances that surrounded lonely adolescents who were accustomed to inventing love.
This is how my grandparents spoke of Odessa, a misty and radiant, refined and sinister city in the Ukraine. Their names were Abraham and Raquel. They were young and in love in the year 1910.
My grandparents met in some restless and secluded place, in that city of forests and water by the sea. Abraham and Raquel, two timid workers toiling in solitude, two Jews passing through a city that was foreign to them, confused by the wind with its shadowy secrets. Odessa, so clean and agitated after the rain and the pogroms, so strange after the wars.
Since their childhoods, Abraham and Raquel were tattooed by the destiny of their impoverished ancestry and of the forsaken, even though the spirit and breath of God filled the immense clarity of their eyes. They were poor Jews who were prohibited from having even an elementary education.
My grandparents Raquel and Abraham were born in Odessa and Sebastopol. My grandmother was an enchanting woman, with sleepy, almond-colored eyes. She wore black dresses, and in the early dawn would head to the factories in order to roll cigarettes with her amber-colored fingers. My grandfather was apprenticed to a tailor from the time he was eight years old, and worked at the home of some distant relatives who allowed him to sleep on the smallest table in the shop.
When Abraham turned seventeen, he married my grandmother Raquel, who was shy and beautiful. Her hands were slender and agile, like the fireflies in an Odessa evening. She rolled cigarettes as if they were velvet strips caressed by her luxuriant hands. Raquel was young, yet she sometimes thought about the fate of those bodies destined to suffer persecuted lives.
Tools of the Trade
My grandfather was not allowed to study foreign languages or applied or theoretical sciences. He attended the rabbinical school in Odessa until he was eight years old. At that time, he learned about the art of silence and memorized certain Biblical passages so that he could always recite them in the solitude of his poverty.
My grandfather also learned the tailor's trade and grew very fond of needles, thread, and remnants of cloth. Once he told us that years later, when he was in Turkey, unable to speak the language and looking for work, he would communicate his craft by placing a threaded needle in his mouth. The merchants understood him and employed him as a tailor's apprentice.
My father would use other tools: radioactive substances, luminous isotopes, and cobalt-colored test tubes. This is how he would earn his living as a doctor and later as a researcher of invisible things.
History assigns its values to the trades of these two men, father and son, but I think that both trades were fine and beautiful, clear like the unadorned light of all beginnings.
Fortunes of War
My grandparents were poor working people and incapable of prospering because they were Jews. They had to live in certain districts so that people would not curse them or harm them. The only education permitted to them was that offered at the rabbinical school. This, however, did not prevent Tzar Nicholas from recruiting Jews into his armies for nearly twenty years.
My grandmother told me that during the First World War, when the soldiers were marched away, the women walked behind the men in a lethargic, confused, aching, and almost insane stupor until fatigue prevented them from following any further. The Russian countryside became filled with disemboweled shoes and dejected garments, making rubble out of human suffering.
It is said that the women followed behind the soldiers numb and broken, with death in their gaze. In just this way my grandmother Raquel, with her children, followed my grandfather Abraham for more than thirty kilometers.
As Raquel walked barefoot her eyes acquired the prophecies that accompany darkness, while her cheekbones resembled a dry garden, numbed by terror. Behind the silence of the empty nights, the sounds of the breathless women could be heard. This is how my grandmother bid farewell to my grandfather in those opaque zones of war. But it was not his destiny to die.
My grandfather spoke very little about the deeds of war. His shyness seemed to deepen as he grew more silent through the years. That was his way of driving away evil omens and the ghosts of the fallen that appeared in the remote city of Odessa, stranded behind the mist.
During the war my grandfather began to stutter. When he crossed the Carpathian Mountains in 1915, he fell into a trench where he lay buried for one week. By a miraculous stroke of fate, he survived. After that incident, something happened to his speech, something that made him measure his words and alternate them with the sounds of pain.
Abraham returned to Odessa in 1917 after three fierce and lost years of war. As my grandmother and he embraced, their bodies seemed like a cloud of vapor rising from the earth. Finally they would be able to walk along the shore again and make rings of love between their hands.
The Wages of Fear
When the autumn brightness settled and the words grew thinner in the tenuous light of a leisurely late afternoon, I would approach my father and hold his hands with curiosity and love. I would grasp those hands and listen to the voice that had told me so many times that perhaps the God who was in heaven was even more upon on the earth. Only then I would ask my father to tell me about the dark bonfires of the pogroms that had been experienced by my grandparents before they left the Russia of Tzar Nicholas. My father, formally and with a distant tenderness in his words, told me that the Cossacks had burned the houses and had dragged my grandmother by the few strands of hair that remained on her head. While they burned the house, they amused themselves before the meager spoils of the Jews. "That is what the Cossacks did to your grandparents, daughter of my dreams," he said, and his voice grew as faint as the tenuous and fragile light that surrounded us.
Suddenly the darkness became thicker. The afternoon and night flowed together, confusing themselves before the smells of delicate fragrances, and my father, downcast, told me that this violence was not merely an evil aberration. The burning of the houses and the dragging of my grandmother by the hair were a denial of possibilities, a denial of education in its most fundamental sense. The violence could be traced to the pilgrimages of hate, and it was permanent, in all of its perfidious splendor. It always liked to keep all of its victims in suspense. It liked to forget them and forever leave them wandering, lost among the steep and solitary hills.
When I asked my father about the Cossacks, he would shiver and hug me, and the two of us would remain covered by a strange fright resembling secrets and explicable silences. In the distance I saw the flames engulfing my grandmother's house and her hair running between the hands of hate and terror.
Because of the persecutions of White Russians and Jews, my grandfather decided to leave Odessa forever and move to Turkey in 1917. My grandmother did not pack any belongings because she did not possess any. Instead she carried a candle and a handful of salt and sugar so that she would never be without these three household essentials. She continued interpreting dreams, lighting candles, and opening windows while others closed their doors.
Journeys for Jews are like the textures of memory. More than wanderers, my grandparents were great navigators in cargo ships, sleeping on deck with the wealth of a blanket of stars and the rumblings of the sea. My grandparents reached Istanbul on foot without money or shelter. They lived among the dilapidated roofs of the city, among the wailing minarets and ruins of light.
Istanbul, at that time still called Constantinople, the city of ancient Byzantium, became the site of my grandparents' first exile. There they learned to speak Turkish and to love the marble games and street corner cafes. My grandfather always remembered the Turkish language, which would become so useful to him in Quillota, Chile, when he negotiated with the Arabs of the region, especially the Syrians and the Lebanese.
The story of the years in Turkey dissolves, rematerializes, and filters through certain scenes remembered by my father. For example, his parents were so severely poor that they did not have enough money to buy a table. My grandfather, with the meager funds that he had, bought a gray door from the owner of a nearby cemetery, which he then used as a table. Once one banana adorned the center of the table and was cut into five portions, becoming supper at nightfall for my grandparents and their three sons. My father's eldest brother, Manuel, had been born in Russia. Two more brothers, Rodolfo and Marcos, were born in Istanbul.
My father himself would be born in another land, at the end of another voyage.
I immerse myself in its contradictory calmness and in its texture and hue, which is bluer than a child's sky. I stand before the Mediterranean Sea, with its sailing boats and fragrances, its sailors intoxicated by hazelnuts and light. The light here is like a balloon that floats and quivers above this secret, fragile, and bold sea, which separates continents and lives, opening solitary frontiers in the stillness of its nights.
I like to look at this sea, which resembles no other, because here the fairy tale is simple. Every overturned rock on its shores tells a story and is the memory of other memories. This is the sea that continues inventing the disfiguration of all times, but it is still, nevertheless, seductive and transparent, a sea that transgresses the hearts of women who cry and love.
We are seated before its shores on a balcony overlooking its calm yet turbulent waters. This is a sea that bewitches through its ancient stones. This is the same sea that created a route for the disfigured navigators of exile. It is the same sea that my grandparents crossed on their journey from Istanbul to their next destination, Marseilles.
No one knows how long their voyage took or if they stopped in the night to hear the sea's echos and think about the wickedness of hatred, of intolerance, of war. Perhaps my grandmother stopped to listen to it and to pray. Perhaps then, within the arms of the sea, she remembered the doors of her house and looked for the thresholds where she might take refuge from the cold and the sadness.
What did the impoverished navigators do while they crossed the Mediterranean Sea? In what times and cities did my grandfather wander, thinking? I wonder if he searched among the shadows of the night for the garden of his house or the door of a burning synagogue.
This is the Mediterranean Sea, generous and cruel in its tides, anointing life and death, exiles and returns. My grandparents crossed this same sea that I contemplate today. The more I gaze upon its horizon, the more I lose myself in its timeless tides which show me that I, too, am a foreigner—a wanderer, an exile—who knows nothing about the cartography of returns. Like my grandparents, perhaps I look for a home, a synagogue smelling of moss.
When they left Turkey behind, Raquel, Abraham, and their three young sons continued sailing along the Mediterranean until they came to France, where they disembarked at Marseilles and stayed for five years in the city that has always received immigrants from many continents.
My grandfather continued practicing his tailor's craft and my grandmother continued rolling cigarettes, and between the arduous work and the impossible dreams of a better future, my father was born. They gave him the Jewish name Moses because, just like the biblical Moses, he was born in a seaport. They first called my father little Moshka, then Moïse, then the Spanish Moisés, and finally Aggie.
I tell my father that he is a Provençal gentleman, true to the place of his birth, with aristocratic tastes. He is well-mannered and dignified in his passions and in the seasoning of his meals. We both know, however, that all Jews are part of a disinherited people.
In fact, my father was born in the public ward of a hospital for the indigent in Marseilles. Today he is a renowned international scientist, but he will always be a refugee, exiled from countries and from history.
In the seventies my parents decided to look for the dilapidated house where my father once lived and the hospital where he opened his eyes for the first time. The old neighborhoods had disappeared, and the only people living in them now were drug dealers and Moroccan immigrants lost in the silence of foreigners. The street where my father was born was sordid and abandoned, as poor in its way as it had been in the time when his mother and brothers waited for the tickets that would carry them to the South American continent.
From Marseilles To Valparaíso
My grandfather had a brother, known as Don Marcos Agosín, who was also a tailor and had managed to establish a genuine textile empire in Valparaíso, Chile, on the other side of the planet from Marseilles. Marcos assured Abraham of a magnificent future in Chile, and on a sunny morning in 1923, my grandfather undertook his last sea journey. He embarked on a vessel in Marseilles bound for Valparaíso, leaving behind my grandmother, who waited for the tickets that would bring her to the new world.
His absence lasted three years. Women with mischievous tongues told Raquel that her good husband Abraham had abandoned her and that he would never send her the yearned-for tickets. My grandmother laughed to herself and sang some Russian melodies, not paying much attention to these women because above all else she loved Abraham. Finally, one afternoon, the tickets arrived. Raquel's eldest son, Marcos, recalls that he received them with so much emotion that he was almost run over by an automobile.
My grandmother, a determined and bold woman, embarked on a cargo ship bound for South America with my father and his three brothers. How is it possible to imagine that risky crossing toward hope or shadow?
My father says that his mother dressed him and his brothers in black, to blend in with the night, so that they would not be thrown overboard during the sicknesses in that interminable voyage across moving seas. My father did contract German measles, and his face was covered with spots, dimmed by the sadness of solitude and poverty. The sailors of the vessel wanted to toss him into the sea, thus fulfilling the prophecy of his name, but my grandmother hid him under her grey wool skirts for forty days until Moshka recovered from the illness and arrived at Valparaíso harbor blue and disheveled beneath the mist. When my grandmother arrived with her sons, faded and barefoot, Uncle Marcos greeted them at the dock. And it was here, in Chile, in the farthest corner of the planet, that she lived and died happy and grateful.
My Father Saved from the Waters
My father arrived in Chile barefoot and vulnerable. His mother didn't wrap him up in yellow rags, but when they reached the immigration offices in the shabby port of Valparaíso, with its hills teeming with fireflies, they gave his name as Moses—in Spanish, Moisés. In Marseilles he had been called Moïse, and he was also known as little Moshka. My father still doesn't know exactly what his name is. He suffers from the universally interminable problems associated with identity and with baldness.
For me he is simply the father whom I love more than anything because he is eccentric, curt in his answers, fragile and transparent. I love his piano playing at dawn and I love him because he doesn't like to lie. He also assured me when I was six years old that God does not have wings.
This is the story of Moses, Moíse, Moshka, or Moisés, because in addition to his having been saved from the waters, his repudiation of organized religion, and his passionate love for enzymes in flies, my father is truly an exceptional being.
My father says that his parents never talked to him about the vicissitudes of life and the voyages they had made, even though his questions were endless. My grandmother, wide and generous, only said that in the middle of storms she would breathe deeply, very deeply, as if it were the end of the world, and then she would begin to sing. She sang when they crossed the Strait of Magellan with its greenish blizzards, and she wasn't afraid of being barefoot. When my grandmother first glimpsed the lights in the harbor of Valparaíso, she breathed deeply again and filled up with happiness and yellow flowers like a starry meadow.
Valparaíso, disorderly and confused, hanging from the highest transparency of air and light. It is a city shrouded by the wind, always singing and happy. Valparaíso, so beloved behind the fine misty rain of the early dawn. This is where the pirates came, where Francis Drake hid in his colorful home, where María Graham wrote her long diary about life in Chile, becoming the first Chilean writer of the nineteenth century, and where Rubén Darío wrote Azul. This is also where my paternal grandparents arrived after their long journey from Marseilles, and where my other grandfather arrived from Hamburg. Their blue ghosts still live in this city whipped by earthquakes and by the eccentricities of its inhabitants.
Valparaíso, I, too, love you, and in my dream-filled nights I sketch you with a great silvery moon and with the body of a laundress covered with smoke and rising toward the sky in all its vastness.
At times I wish I could go to certain cities where my grandparents slept and dream in the nakedness of memory about places like Odessa, immersed in the liquid vapors of a succulent summer, or about Istanbul, with its veils and ancient garments, or about Valparaíso, with its maddening hills and meadows and its brides dreaming of love. Perhaps I would sleep in Chile's Central Valley or in Quillota, the city where my grandparents settled, next to the silky and oily texture of the avocado pears, the cherimoyas, and the imported clocks carrying the secret messages of thousands of voyages. At times I wish I could dream my grandparents' dreams, pronounce their secret prayers and hide their tattoos outlined by terror. At times I would like to travel alone, so that I could simply dream about the cities that they visited and remember what they forgot and what they left behind: the sepia-colored photographs, the things they were not able to come back to look for, the things they learned not to lament. At times I wish I could return simply to sleep in certain cities, to smell the jasmine and fill myself with love.
My Grandfather, Abraham Agosín
My grandfather was a silent, extremely timid and gentle man. He was very frugal with his words and generous with his acts. Despite his timid nature, my grandfather tried to use words with genuine generosity. He possessed an assured gentleness without pretensions, a generosity that was like a luminous flame.
When he became a man of means, each time one of his machinists would marry, he would give her a brand new sewing machine and a gold needle newly imported from France, because he knew with that sewing machine and those colored spindles of thread, his workers would find food and happiness.
In Quillota, the city where he settled in Chile, some people called him "the Quillotano," which implied his austerity and provincialism. When he went out to visit neighboring places, he would say that he was "internationalizing" himself. My grandfather never spoke a word of Russian in Chile, but expressed himself with difficulty in a poor Castillian. He also learned to read but never learned to write well in Spanish. Speaking in Russian was strictly forbidden, and it is only now that I understand why. So great was his need to integrate and not be treated completely as a foreigner that my grandfather chose to hide his Russian in the deepest, most secret and captive region of his memory.
Nevertheless, he never managed to overcome his position as an outsider, an exile. Every time some people saw him pass by in the streets, they would call him "the Turk," which, curiously, is the same epithet often used to describe Arabs.
But my grandfather won the respect of many of the residents of Quillota. He was admired as much by the very devout women as by the school gatekeepers and the monks. He was courteous and knew how to listen. When he turned eighty years old, they honored him by naming him an illustrious citizen of Quillota. My grandmother, on the day of the inauguration, wore a violet-colored dress, sang a beautiful Russian song, and said, "Now I can light the Sabbath candles."
My Grandmother, Raquel Kankolsky Agosín
My grandmother glowed like a firefly in love with the light. She moved very quickly, which was probably due to the many times she had to flee other lands as a tear-drenched refugee. After traveling from the Ukraine to Turkey and then on to France, she finally came to rest in Quillota, Chile, where she kept track of her life in a tiny blue book. She wanted me to learn from these stories, which she wrote in Spanish but transliterated into Russian Cyrillic characters.
My grandmother was like a sage. Words but not laughter eluded her. She was like Bruria, the wife of a studious man named Rabbi Meir, who would listen to discussions of the Talmud in a back room; though she could never study the sacred scriptures directly, she somehow learned them. Like Bruria, my grandmother knew how to listen, and when the society ladies of Quillota's charitable institutions asked her if Jews had horns, she only smiled. When my grandfather ordered her not to make any further donations to the Jesuits or to the Hebrew school, she listened and laughed, and then took out her notebook, which was always next to her blue suitcase. My grandmother always had a suitcase filled with clothing under her bed. She also had a silk blouse and four pairs of shoes. She said that she was always ready to travel just in case.
My grandmother Raquel never told me anything about Odessa. All she ever said was that she liked to walk along the coast, arm in arm with my grandfather. She never spoke to me about the pogroms or the times that they would spit at her in the streets and shout "white, ugly Jew dog." She only told me that the Russians were great poets and that they drank tea with much sugar and passion.
When my grandmother spoke in Spanish she seemed to fill up with a warm transparency and pronounced her rrs and ñs with splendor. Her voice was so melodic, as if she were singing and leaving the earthly life behind.
It was true that she wore mismatched shoes and was the most eccentric and exotic person in the small city of Quillota. She dressed all in black with a small violet-colored hat, black net stockings, and a pair of blue shoes. But among my grandmother's many virtues, the most extraordinary was that she knew how to sing in Russian, Turkish, and French. She had a beautiful soprano voice. When important dignitaries came to celebrate wakes and baptisms, they invited my grandmother to sing in three languages. They called her the three-colored lady and they would bow and curtsy to her, cloaked behind a veil of humility. She sang on and on; she reinvented songs and rewrote her history, pretending that she was a student of well-known Russian songmasters. She never told them that she had once had to sing beneath the pillows because Jews were not allowed to sing in public.
Husband and Wife
My grandparents were like oil and vinegar, never like water for chocolate. My grandfather was taciturn and reserved in his speech, much like my father and his brothers. In the late afternoon my grandmother sang, recited Russian poetry, and drank tea, which she sprinkled with vanilla and sweetened with immense lumps of sugar. My grandfather was neat and tidy. My grandmother, on the other hand, mixed dark green with lilac, lavender with seaweed, french fries with caviar, olive oil and perfumed water. This is how she lived, defying death. They both died, nevertheless, on the same day of the year—my grandfather on February 14, 1973, and my grandmother on February 14, 1978.
My grandparents never talked about religion or covered the mirrors in days of mourning. They also didn't go to synagogue, as if that sinister past of the pogroms should be erased, and that part of their identity should be usurped. However, my parents got married in a synagogue and my grandparents died like Jews, buried in the Jewish cemetery of the region. For my grandparents, God was an irate and less than noble being because he had deprived them of their childhoods. He was a God who obliged them to work at an early age and to enter shadowy pathways of adulthood in a foreign country.
God and My Grandfather
Amid the mist and beyond disjointed memory, I ask myself what my grandfather must have done as he entered heaven. Did he shake hands with a taciturn and punitive God? Or did he perhaps recognize dead friends, last glimpsed beyond the thresholds in their houses of ashes and twisting flames?
My grandfather, like my father, never talked about God or organized religion. Quillota did not have (nor will it ever have) a synagogue, but it would have been possible to go to a house of worship in nearby Viña del Mar. However, this never happened. My grandfather Abraham never approached houses of prayer, even though he had a predilection for charity and donated generous quantities of clothing and money to the poor tailors of the city, to the nuns, and to the Hebrew school of Valparaíso, as well as to his own brother.
It was God who had deprived my grandfather of a childhood filled with idleness and games. Instead of allowing him to play chess and gamble, this God obliged him to learn about the damp texture of cloth and to sleep on freezing tables that seemed like the antechambers of icy death. To this God he begged for the shade and solace of home. It was this God who didn't hear him in Odessa or in Istanbul or Marseilles, not even in the dreadful boat that brought him to the sparkling port of Valparaíso. Nearly all of his relatives died, at the hands of either the Cossacks or the Nazis.
In Quillota, Don Abraham Agosín was happy with his wife Doña Raquel. Both of them loved the silence of summer, the fragrance of the bougainvillaea shrubs, and the plaza with its pretentious ladies. They liked to speak French, Russian, Turkish, and Spanish and avoided remembering those times when the houses of Jews burned like uninhabited flames of long hair. My grandparents survived among the clouds of smoke, travelling in nocturnal trains of love and life, headed toward uncertain futures. They were happy in the city of the avocado pears, and more than anything they loved listening to my father passionately play Mozart and recite verses from Verlaine, and seeing him earn his medical degree. They never forgot their Odessa origins, that one was a tailor and the other a cigarette-making apprentice, and that they had a son who was a doctor in the New World. But I do not think my Grandfather thanked God for this good fortune.
|Introduction: Reading the Book of Memory||11|
|Origins: From Sebastopol to Valparaiso, 1910-1926||57|
|Quillota: City of Churches and Avocados, 1926-1939||89|
|The Arpeggios of Memory||117|
|Santiago: Capital of Dreams and Fugues, 1940-1968||131|
|The United States: Exiles in a Promised Land, 1968-1997||185|
|Epilogue: My Father and I, Memories of Love||251|