Read an Excerpt
By Ben G. Frank
Marion Street Press Copyright © 2013 Ben G. Frank
All rights reserved.
Odessa, November 1917
"The hell with the Czar."
"Who said that?"
"Get your books and get out."
"The hell with you, too!" she yells back at the shocked teacher. The stunned class cringes as they watch the tall thin teenager dart from her desk and exit the Russian-history class in School No.1 on Nikolaevsky Boulevard overlooking the Black Sea port of Odessa.
"What a mouth on that Jew girl. Off to Siberia with her, like all the other Bolshevik kikes," sneers instructor Igor Devushkin.
"Now class, as we were discussing before we were so rudely interrupted, on page 38, as the Czar said: 'Where the Russian flag is planted, there it remains forever.'"
* * *
She is Klara Rasputnis, daughter of Rev. Gershon Rasputnis.
No one comes around the night of March 2, 1917, to arrest her. Instead, the news that day lands as a bombshell: Czar Nicholas II has abdicated and nearly all Russia hails the fall of the tyrant. It's the first Russian Revolution.
Eight months later, civilians, workers, and soldiers still continue to march in the streets under huge red banners. Each night brings shootings and shouts of "bread and peace." Street meetings are held. Workers gather in factories; soldiers in barracks.
One night, Klara wakes up sticky and sweaty. Her head throbs. Her arms ache. Her large and penetrating, tough-looking brown eyes bulge. She slides off the bed and grimaces as her feet touch down on the frozen wood floor. She foregoes looking for her slippers. Instead, she dons her white, thread-worn bathrobe and shuffles down the hall to the bathroom.
"My God," she gasps. "The moon, it's red. Blood red. How can that be?" Muffled sounds waft in from the frigid, outside world. Peering through the arch-framed windows facing the courtyard, she spies a mob of soldiers warming themselves around fires burning in empty gasoline cans. Some kneel in the snow as they study a torn map of Odessa. Some whisper. Some lie quietly on makeshift stretchers. Others shout, groan, moan, gasp for breath, and call for water. The pleading yet odious sounds cause Klara to shiver slightly.
"Time to go," she says. Closing her eyes she counts the hours until she boards the train.
* * *
He is Mischa Rasputnis, only son of Rev. Gershon Rasputnis. He's in the next room; his strong upper torso emitting goose pimples from a winter frost. Shivering in his shorts, he runs into the bathroom, stands on the freezing floor, and lets out a long, relieving stream of urine into an old, broken, enamel toilet. He washes his hands and splashes the freezing water on his flushed face and hostile eyes, eyes which message anger at Klara's leaving instead of him. He pulls on his baggy pants, a heavy woolen shirt, and heads for the apartment's small eating area where he gazes at the most luxurious breakfast he's seen in three years. He can't restrain himself. He runs to the table and gobbles down two slices of white bread, a spot of nearly melted butter, and imported Turkish jam. Best of all, two fried eggs — all washed down with chai.
"Time to go," he says to his sister wondering how in hell his mother got hold of such scarce, luxurious food in war-torn, revolutionary Russia.
* * *
She is Zlota Rasputnis, wife, mother. She sits and stares at these oldest of her five children. It's like a dream, thinks the 38-year-old, well-shaped woman, medium height, thin face, long nose, tightly curled hair parted down the middle. "Your children grow up before you know it," she says to herself. Klara is seventeen and Mischa, sixteen. "My God, where did the time go; infants one day; grown-up the next."
"I'm ready Momma," says Klara, breaking into her mother's thought.
The two look at each other in what is probably the longest second in their lives until Zlota says: "Go in peace; arrive in peace." She kisses her oldest daughter on the forehead. The two embrace; it will be their last.
Looking into her mother's misty eyes, she chokes. "Don't worry. I'll find Papa."
"Mischa," says Zlota, observing that the teenager is so hungry, he's devouring the last crumbs and seeds on the plate: "Meet the Lubavitz family in the main hall of the station. They'll be waiting for Klara. No side streets, mind you. Tram's ok. Army patrols are out and about. Heard them this morning. Make sure she gets on the train and don't leave until it departs. Then come straight home. Understand?"
"And Klara. Listen to Mrs. Lubavitz. She's a smart woman. Knows her way around."
Before leaving the house, Klara follows the age-old Russian folk custom of sitting on her suitcase and reflecting, meditating, praying, or wondering what lies ahead before embarking on her journey. Mischa waits outside their apartment at 21 Proharovskaya Street. It's the end of November 1917, a few weeks after the "Glorious October Socialist Revolution."
* * *
"Our lives are changing, Mischa," Klara says in a soft tone as they head for the train station. She doesn't want to aggravate him; she knows he is seething with anger because he's not being sent to find father. Klara, flashing a subdued smile, wonders if Yevgeny will be at the station. Will he bring her flowers? A gift? Underneath her fur-lined woolen coat, she's wearing a short, brown dress, divided by a brown sash around her waist, with three buttons adorning the front. Her neckline is opened slightly exposing a long thin neck covered with a woolen green scarf. Her face is full, highlighted by a receding forehead, topped off by wavy light brown hair, a small straight Russian nose, a sensuous mouth. She is blessed with very long muscular legs.
Lanky Mischa avoids the side streets and leads his sister down Proharovskaya Street toward the station. Even with her brawny legs, Klara can barely keep up with him. As she follows, she notices his lips are tight; his eyes glued to the road. A frown appears on his unshaven, boyish face. At this moment, he's not the lovable Mischa as neighbors and friends have labeled him. She knows him better; she calls him a wolf in sheep's clothing, a description some later would attribute to Klara.
Last night, he, too, decided he would get away from Odessa. "If Klara goes, I leave. I'll be a general and ride on a white horse. No more with Momma and those giggling sisters of mine. Babbling all the time: 'Mischa, do this'; 'Mischa do that.' The only reason I stayed all this time was that before he left, Papa said, 'take care of your mother. You're the man of the house now.'"
Mischa notices the streets are deserted. A few lights blink on and off as the city awakens. An eerie glow pinpoints discarded banners, their revolutionary slogans giving way to the reality of hunger caused by the disruption of food trains.
He can't believe how quiet she is.
"She'll soon be out of my hair. No more putting me down. No more taunts."
A few blocks from the railroad station, loud noises cause the two to crane their necks this way and that toward the direction of the deafening blast of voices.
With daybreak, the streets are full of people weaving in and out of the shadows of dark buildings and running toward the station. Hastening to the terminal are motorcars and small trucks sounding loud horns as passengers cover their ears from the irritating and shrieking noise. With no room inside the vehicles, the riders cling for dear life onto the wooden truck rails as they balance themselves on the running boards. The crowd converges into the Razdelnaya Railroad Station. Most of the building's light bulbs are broken. A shadowy yellow glow illuminates the dank station with its peeling brick walls. At the entrance, empty garbage barrels smolder with fires that could level the station if not controlled.
Outside the rail depot, brother and sister observe a group of soldiers: their great coats soiled and smeared with dirt; their leg wrappings caked with mud; their shoes stuffed with newspapers for soles, their dirty caps crawling with lice.
Inside the drafty station, birds fly in and out of empty windows, ticket booths are shut, and large clusters of people move back and forth like the ebb and flow of the ocean splashing against the nearby sandy Black Sea beach. They have nowhere to go on this cold, blistery day.
The two young people enter the building and scan the hall for the Lubavitz family, their eyes swishing owllike seeking their target. This way. That way. Up. Down. Left. Right. Over the heads of soldiers — all the while inhaling foul air.
"Watch out, Klara," yells Mischa, as he pushes her aside to avoid stepping on a crumpled-up woman sleeping on the floor, an infant cradled in her arms.
Mischa knows the two of them will have to claw their way through the mob just to get near the train.
The terminal is packed with long lines backing up to the hall entrance blocked with crippled soldiers and sailors, many of them hobbling with makeshift crutches, their heads drooping down as they try to hide their frightened eyes and tight faces while they plead with passersby for a piece of bread, or at least a few kopecks. But the police are merciless in moving them out of the path of incoming travelers.
"Where are you, Lubavitzes?" Klara mutters, knowing full well she could spot the family miles away. "Come out. I want to see you. How dare you keep me waiting? Where are you, my next-door neighbors? You're supposed to be here."
"Maybe, Klara dear, they couldn't stand traveling all that distance with you and took the early train," Mischa quips with a smug smile.
"Quiet. How can you say such a thing," replies Klara. "Oh, God. What am I to do now?" she whines. "Where are they? We're not late. How could they desert us?"
Two policemen watch Klara and Mischa disagreeing with each other.
Klara relinquishes hers.
Mischa hands over his temporary pass.
The officers examine the documents.
"You're not traveling, right?" the policeman asks Mischa.
"No, Comrade officer. I'm going to the Army."
"Good," smiles the policeman, turning to his companion and uttering, "hard to believe there are cowards in the Army who are deserting and going home and here's a youngster ready to fight for the Revolution."
"Safe journey," he tells Klara, tipping his hat in mock salute and handing back the documents.
"I'm leaving, with or without the Lubavitzes," Klara whispers to Mischa. "I'm not waiting until those filthy Cossacks beat me to death. I swore I'd find Papa, and I'll do it."
"Klara. Come home. You can't go alone."
"Try me. Where I'm going, everyone goes."
"If you go, I'll go with you."
"You can't. You don't have travel papers and you don't have a passport. You don't even have a ticket. They'll think you're a deserter. They'll shoot you. Besides, you have to protect Momma and the girls."
He shrugs and turns away.
"Did you hear me?" snaps Klara. "Don't ignore me. You know that makes me furious."
Then, on the other side of the station, Mischa spots a long-limbed lad pushing his way through the crowd, his face distorted, his teeth clenched. He looks as if he's about to leap onto a rehearsal stage. Holding up a rose, Yevgeny Aleksandrovich waves; raises his right hand, signals with a finger, and shouts: "Be there in a minute!"
"Well, mind my soul," says Mischa. "I don't believe it. Look who's here, Klara. You're saved; Prince Charming to the rescue. You knew he was coming, didn't you?"
"I swear I didn't."
She looks straight into Mischa's distrustful eyes, which say: "My own family always turns to someone else, even a complete stranger. I'm not good enough for them."
"Yevgeny. Here we are," Klara shouts with joy, hoping he'll rescue her.
But Yevgeny never has a chance even to say hello, or to wish Klara farewell. Right then and there, the gates leading to the Odessa-Kiev-Moscow-train platform open and the crowd bursts through the gate like a swollen river sweeping away everything in its path, as if the raging North Sea was pouring through a leaky Dutch dike.
The indecision is over.
Mischa takes Klara's suitcase from her, grabs her hand, and shoves Yevgeny forward. The trio run for dear life. All around them, people are shouting, shoving, and scrambling.
"Follow me," commands Yevgeny now in the lead on the dimly lit platform. Unlike the other men, women, and children, they avoid the first and second already impassable train car doorway, and crawl under the third carriage.
"There's a door on the other side of the carriage. I know these cars. I worked in the yards last summer," Yevgeny hollers.
He's right. There's no one on this side, observes Klara, straightening herself up on the other side, and hoping her back hasn't been wrenched out of place. Up they go into the already packed car. Only a few seats are left. Klara grabs a seat next to a young woman. Mischa lifts her suitcase up onto the overhang shelf.
Three loud beeps of the engine reverberate above the din of the crowd.
"Get off! Get off!" yells Klara. "The train's leaving!"
"Here take this," says Yevgeny handing her his crushed rose. Stooping, he kisses her on both cheeks. "Good luck," he says, as he turns and pushes his way out through the compartment into the crowded corridor of frantic mothers and crying children.
"Got your way again," utters Mischa with just a slight touch of sarcasm, as he bends over to kiss his sister. She rises and throws her arms around his neck, almost choking him in a bear hug. "Take care of yourself, Mischa. Papa and I'll bring you over. We won't forget you. Don't do anything foolish. Look after Momma and the girls."
The train lurches forward, but doesn't move. Mischa turns and fights his way through the crowd. He looks back at Klara who already is busy talking to the young girl seated next to her.
"She's already gabbing," he says to himself as he notices Yevgeny stepping off the train.
"I'll never see her again. Never," he says, as he, too, descends to the platform. Momma'll be furious with me. I let her go without the Lubavitzes. Who cares? I'm leaving, too. Last day at home."
As the line of cars begin to roll away, Mischa stands and watches, a slight smile on his face, like a child gazing at the caboose of a toy train moving on the tracks.
Shaking his head, he begins to walk away. He recalls that a little over three years to the day, his father left for Canada. Now, the Rasputnis family has disintegrated. Papa's gone. Klara's gone. Soon, he'll be gone, despite what Klara said. Only Zlota will be left with the three younger girls, Ann, Lillian, and Sonya.
"Her journey's just beginning," says Yevgeny who's waited for Mischa. "All the plans in the world don't make a journey."
"I'm worried," replies Mischa remorsefully. "Not sure she'll make it. This is going to be a long trip, one might say, a journey to the grave."
"Hope she keeps a diary," utters Yevgeny. "She can title it 'Klara's Journey.'"CHAPTER 2
Train to Moscow, November 1917
As Klara boards the train leaving Odessa, nearly eight months have elapsed since the first Russian Revolution of March, 1917 that overthrew the Czar. A Provisional Government headed by Alexander Kerensky has been formed and a touch of democracy has enveloped the country. But even that dim, democratic light is extinguished on November 7, 1917, when Red workers and sailors capture government buildings as well as the Winter Palace in Petrograd and install a Bolshevik government. That seizure puts an end to the Provisional Government and its freely-elected officials. The putsch, known as the "Great October Socialist Revolution," proclaims the world's first Communist state, a state that will crumble 74 years later.
Much of this story takes place during the Russian Civil War. Actually, the conflict begins when the Bolsheviks, or Communists as they later would be called, grab power in November 1917. From that point on, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin will turn the nation into a class war of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie. Opposing the revolutionaries are the Whites, a term used loosely to refer to all factions that battle the Bolsheviks. White strength derives from army officers, Cossacks, and the bourgeoisie — from the far right to the socialist revolutionaries. Shortly after the Red coup, three leading Czarist generals, Alexis Kaledin, Mikhail Alekseev, and Piotr Krasnov, flee to the Don area to regroup and form what will become the White Army.
By the end of 1917, power is in the city streets. Cruelty, fanaticism, and wonton killings become part of this erupting nation. The Russian novelist Maxim Gorky writes "that the dark instincts" of the Russian people will "flare up and fume, poisoning us with anger, hate, and revenge." He is indeed prescient.
Klara Rasputnis will witness the bloodletting.
* * *
Loneliness makes us look around for someone. Like a magnet, the traveler is drawn to meet others and Klara is no exception. Besides, nowhere in the world are journeys by train as time consuming as in vast Russia.
At first, passenger Rachel Gorodetsky gazes out of the stained window and scans the frozen fields of the Ukraine. Blankets of snow cover wheat, corn, and sunflower fields.
Quickly tiring of the all-too familiar scenery, this young, voluptuous girl with big sad brown eyes, light blond hair, and a small nose leading down to full lips, turns to Klara: "Du bist a Yid? (You are a Jew?)"
"Ya. Shalom Aleichem. (Peace be with you.)"
"Where're you going?"
Excerpted from Klara's Journey by Ben G. Frank. Copyright © 2013 Ben G. Frank. Excerpted by permission of Marion Street Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.