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Growing Up Jewish under Stalin A MEMOIR
By Emil Draitser
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2008 Emil Draitser
All rights reserved.
How I Failed My Motherland
"YOU'RE MAKING TROUBLE! What's got into you?"
First barely audible, then more and more clearly, my mother's voice reaches me. I look back to my childhood, trying in that faraway fogginess to detect and, if I'm lucky, to solve the riddle of my life. After several unsuccessful attempts, gradually, like the decals of my childhood, the events of that faraway time begin to become faintly visible. We used to paste these little decals on the covers of our notebooks, their patterns half hidden under a layer of paper until we moistened them with our saliva and carefully, with our finger tips, rolled off bits of paper, one after another, until, bright as fresh paint, squirrels, hares, steamships, and crocodiles appeared.
For a long time, I can't figure out anything in these snatches of my childhood impressions. A few details flash in front of me. A round granite stand for public notices on the curbside at the corner of Gavan and Lanzheron streets is covered with scraps of old posters, left over from the Romanian and German occupation. Not too many events happen in a city that is trying to put its normal life back on track. I catch glimpses of the central City Garden, its stone lions holding balls under their paws with goalkeepers' confidence; the rotunda for small orchestra concerts, which were not yet revived; tall honeysuckle bushes in which I go to catch dragonflies. The streets give off the smell of cold ashes. The war is over, but there are many ruins. The Germans have demolished the front wing of our building.
We—Mama, Papa, and I—live in the back, in a small, two hundred-square-foot room. We are very fortunate: Mama managed to prove in court that this living space belonged to us before the war. The neighbors, those who occupied it under the Germans, had to give the room back to us. However, they secured the adjoining room, small and windowless, for themselves, the room in which Mama said I used to sleep before the war began.
We moved there from an empty grocery store, where we had slept on the floor after returning from evacuation. We moved back with our belongings—a suitcase, threadbare on one side, a bundle of old linens, a shoebox with three spoons and forks, a pocket knife, and an alarm clock—all piled on a wheelbarrow, pushed by an aging unshaved man my mama had hired. As we were walking along the street, we heard a loud cry behind our backs, "That's what we've lived to see! The reptiles have returned!"
Mama scowled. I looked back, toward the source of the cry. We were passing the driveway of some building on Richelieu Street. By the wrought-iron gate, their arms crossed, their faces heavy and unsmiling, stood two middle-aged women in kerchiefs. I couldn't understand what their words meant then. Why were they addressed to us? During the war, "reptiles" were what the boys called fascists. How could fascists have managed to return if the war had ended with Germany's unconditional and full capitulation? I had seen the victory parade on Red Square in the newsreels. The soldiers threw swastika banners on the steps of Lenin's Mausoleum, and Comrade Stalin himself reviewed the parade on the square's grandstand.
Finally, in the amateurish, poorly spliced film of my memory, a sound track produces Mama's voice: "You're making trouble! What's got into you?" Here it is. The first reproach. The first evidence of my withdrawal into myself, into my own inner life that is not given away to anyone. Gradually, frame by frame, it all comes to me—that hardest time of my life, the dread of days echoed in the nights' dreams.
The early fall of 1945. Less than a month after Japan capitulated. I am on my way to the first-grade class on the first day of the first postwar September. I am walking there with my mama, walking along the streets of my native town washed in the pale autumn sun.
The school, number 43, is located across from the main post office, on Gogol Street, overgrown with acacias. From our home on Deribas Street, 18, it's not far—four and a half blocks. Mama attempts to hold my hand. I pout and try to break away from her. Well, what's next? To hold onto Mama's skirt? I'm already a big boy. Mama frowns. Along the roadway, raising dust, their motors roaring, trucks rush about. They carry bricks to the construction sites. They are rebuilding the ruined city. Why bother with pedestrians? Finally, Mama and I compromise. I let her holdmy hand only when we cross the street. On our way to school, there are three crossings—on Lanzheron Street, at Bania Alley, and at the Sabaneev Bridge. I extend my hand reluctantly.
Children and their parents fill the schoolyard. Everybody is excited, making a racket, like seagulls on a jetty. Many first graders hold out bouquets of luxuriant red peonies, the favorite flower of Odessa. The color of the South!
They have placed me in the first-grade class "A." Mama is satisfied. A is the first letter of the alphabet. It means that her son is among the first, in the vanguard.
With its windows wide open onto the street, the classroom on the first floor smells of fresh black paint. The covers of all thirty-two desks are coated with it. The paint hasn't quite dried. If I keep my elbows on the same spot for a while, it sticks to my skin, leaving little archipelagos of black speckles. In secret, I attempt to dig the mup with my nails, but I spread the paint over my skin even more.
We are told we should bring ink in an inkpot, in a little bag tied up with a string. (Later, a favorite prank would be to slip carbide bits into an inkpot. To find carbide wasn't difficult; welding was going on everywhere to fix the water pipes broken during the war. Ink would bubble, pour out, become pale, like bluish milk.) My briefcase is made from black oilcloth with the same design of raised diamonds that we had on our prewar portable record player.
High above the blackboard, almost at the ceiling, portraits of our leaders hang. From my desk in the first row, I raise my head to examine them. I already know some of them, the major ones, of course. Stalin, Molotov, Malenkov, Beria, and other members of the Politburo are slightly squinting, looking somewhere far above our heads. They live somewhere over there, far away, in the North, in Moscow, in the Kremlin, a thousand miles from my city. They are made of the same wonderous material as the heroes of the Russian fairy tales I've begun reading. The leaders are Russian epic heroes.Our enormous country rests on their shoulders. I believe that somewhere there, in the big world beyond the borders of my city, in the northern forests, Kashchey the Immortal lives, and Baba Yaga gallops, laughing wildly in her bronze mortar, and Vasilisa the Wise rides a gray wolf that rushes her to her Ivan Tsarevich; I see an immense country, powerful but benevolent, remarkable in every respect.
I am prepared for school. I can read, and not just by syllables. Anxious before the start of the school year, I've read many pages not only of the textbook but also of the reader Rodnaia rech' (Native Speech). Mama got it on the black market. For a long time, I didn't understand what "the black-market" was. I know only two other markets in Odessa—the Novyi (New) and Privoz (Fresh Delivery). I also don't know yet that "to get" means "to buy with great difficulty." But I already know from Native Speech that I am fortunate. I happen to be born in the best country in the world—the biggest, the most beautiful, and the most just. Everybody in this country is fortunate too. Over the radio, I often hear the famous song from the film Tsirk (Circus):
From Moscow to the far-off border districts,
From the southern mountains to the northern seas,
A man walks as the proud master
Of his boundless native land.
I don't know any other country,
Where a man can breathe so freely.
I don't know about metaphors yet. I imagine the person from the song as a colossus who marches over the woods and fields and noisily inhales and exhales air from his giant lungs.
Our teacher's name is Galina Ivanovna. She speaks loudly to us, the way a commander in the movies addresses his soldiers before attacking the enemy. She's wearing a dark-blue dress with an embroidered bodice. The dress seems too tight on her. She pulls at it constantly under her arm. First, she makes us repeat her name, both the first and patronymic, syllable by syllable. Then, she takes a brand new class record in a brown paper cover from her desk. "As soon as you hear your name," she says, "you have to stand up and say clearly, 'Here.'"
Alexandrov, Burkin, Velikhov, Goriun, Doroshenko ... I'm next in turn. Reading my last name, the teacher stumbles. She trips in the middle, raises her eyebrows in puzzlement, and makes an unhappy face. Though she is pronouncing all the names for the first time, she handles all the others easily. All the other surnames are normal. Only mine is the devil only knows what kind:
"Drrr ... Dey ... Drei ... Drai ... Drai-tser?"
I jump up and utter, "Here."
The class laughs. What kind of a last name is this? With a ferocious look, his eyes popping out, his bangs hanging down to the bridge of his nose, the boy next tome turns toward me and asks, "Your last name doesn't sound Russian. Who are you? A kike? That's who you are?"
I don't know what he is talking about, but, judging by the others' facial expressions, I understand that to be "a kike" is shameful. I freeze. I have never before heard this word. The roll call continues, but I am dumb founded. I've waited for the beginning of my schooling—and here I am. I don't even know what to think, but I see that my classmates look back at me from time to time, their eyes mean. I can hardly wait for the class to end. Luckily, the teacher lets us go early on the first day. We sit there only till noon.
In the schoolyard, Mama waits for me. She is in the same—elated—mood as in the morning. After all, it's a milestone in her life. Her firstborn has spent his first day in school! She notices my head is low. She bends over me: "What's happened?"
I'm silent, my eyes cast down.
"Why don't you answer me?"
She squats in front of me, straightens the collar of my shirt, tries to look in my eyes: "Well, what's the matter?"
I mumble something under my breath. I shift my eyes; now my nose is almost down against my chest.
"Can't you tell me what's happened?"
"No- ... thing," with difficulty, I squeeze out of myself.
"Why are you upset?"
"Why do you say you're not, when I see that you are?"
"I'm not. I'm not."
"You're making trouble!" Mama says. In punishment, she grabs my hand though we are still far from the street crossing. I groan and try to pull my palm out of her warm hand, but she restrains me. In my helplessness, no matter how hard I try to hold them back, tears roll out, stinging my eyes. Mama holds on to my hand. With all my strength, I try to break loose so that I can wipe off the tears with my fist. Mama reluctantly lets me go, again squats beside me. From her black purse with a little clicking clasp, she takes a perfumed white lace handkerchief. I turn away. That's a good one! To use a female handkerchief.
"Wait!" she says impatiently. "Let me wipe it off. Well, what's happened?"
Her face expresses concern. Her brow furrowed, she considers something, turns her head back to the school entrance.
"OK, I'll ask the teacher why you're crying."
Next to us, little twin boys are standing; they both wear the same gray pants and white shirts. They hold hands, their fingers interlocked. Their eyes are also wet. They've spent a long time today among unfamiliar adults and children, far from their mama. Craning their thin necks, they look for her in the crowd. They are frightened and hungry, and cry just because they're small.
It seems that this changes Mama's mind. She assumes that her son is simply a crybaby, though he wasn't known for this before. She is annoyed with me. I spoil her big day—the beginning of my school life.
At home a freshly cooked dinner awaits me—smelling wonderful, filling The whole apartment with all the spices of the world—borscht and sweet-and-sour meatballs with gravy. Mama knows my favorite dishes.
At first I refuse to eat. I am silent as before. I lie down on a windowsill and pretend to look down at our courtyard, where it is drizzling over the flagstones. A cat called Murka is running from one hallway entrance to another. In search of coins, lowering his head on his chest, Boska, our caretaker's son, makes his rounds over the yard, as always. I looked forward to the beginning of school so much! Now I feel bitter. Maybe I won't have to go back. I ask myself how I can manage not to go there anymore. Maybe I should get sick with something serious? But how to make it happen?
"Well, stop it! Come over and eat." Mama raps a spoon on the table. "Everything's getting cold. Stop your tricks!"
I'm somewhat afraid of Mama, especially when she talks that way. While I'm finally eating, she sits beside me.
"What a whiner I've got myself here. The only thing you want to do is to hang on to your mama's skirt. You're already a big boy! They go to the first grade at seven. And you're already eight and a half months older. You should show the little ones the way. And yet you're the same as they are." She's still disappointed with the look on my face. I haven't shared her first-day-of-school excitement.
I sleep poorly that night. I try to understand what has happened in school. Why was I laughed at for the first time in my life—almost eight years long now?
The next day it doesn't get better. I should get acquainted withmy neighbors. I should let them know my name. I hear normal names fromall sides—Kolya, Vanya, Petya, Seryozha. Now it's my turn.
I keep my mouth shut. My neighbor with the tousled hair nudges me. "What's your name?"
"Hey, you! Are you deaf ? What's your name?"
"Why ask him?" A jolly voice comes from one of the desks in the last row. "If he's a Jew, it means he's little Abram."
I don't have time to understand why yesterday they called me "a kike" and today "a Jew"—another insult, I guess, somehow tied to the first. Before I can figure this out, the whole class begins to jump up and down, bang the desks with their fists, clap their hands in time to the song I've heard on the streets. I haven't understood it and, therefore, didn't pay attention to it before. (They sing all kinds of stuff on the streets!) The class hoots, mockingly dragging out vowels, distorting the r sounds in every line:
A little old hag with no hurry
Crossed the little street;
A cop's stopped her:
"Well, granny, you've broken the law,
You've broken the law,
You'd better pay your fine or else!"
"Oy, my God,
Please let me go home,
Today's my little Abram's day off.
I have a little bun for him,
A little piece of chicken,
A little piece of chicken,
And a little pie!"
So the old granny is funny, the very name Abram is funny. It can't be said without laughter. It's clear that you should utter this name only this way, with mockery and contempt. My last name, Draitser, has already made me a laughingstock. And now I've just learned that my patronymic, Abramovich, is no better. That is, my papa's name is Abram, nicknamed Abrasha, "little Abram." Both my uncles, my mama's brother and her sister's husband, are called Abram and Abrashe as well. From all sides I have solid Abrams. And that nasty little song, which gives everybody so much joy, therefore, is about all of them. I'm dumbfounded by these discoveries.
"Well, so, what do they call you?" the neighbor persists.
I am wondering what to say. At home, for as long as I can remember, everybody has called me Milya. I don't quite like this nickname, because it sounds like the Russian milyi, "cute"; it's too delicate for a boy. Although I don't quite see what could be bad about it, I'm afraid the class won't like it as well. I keep my mouth shut.
The teacher notices my unwillingness to give the neighbor my name. She leans over the class register.
Here I suddenly recall that, on my birth certificate, when I visited the school with Mama to file my documents, I saw that my first name was somewhat unusual and terribly unattractive. Better to give him my nickname: Milya.
The neighbor wonders what kind of name this is.
For the umpteenth time, Galina Ivanovna adjusts the bodice of her dress and says, with a smirk on her face, "It's not good to deceive your classmates, Milya. What? Do they call you that at home?"
She looks into the class register again.
"What? Do you want to say that the register's wrong?"
I feel myself blushing.
"Well, why don't you answer me?"
I'm silent. I feel the tears beginning.
"Andrei,"Galina Ivanovna says loudly so that all the class hears, "this boy's name is Sa-mooh-eel."
"Mo-o-lya," my neighbor sustains his voice in jolly amazement. "Moo-lya, stop bugging me!"
Excerpted from Shush! by Emil Draitser. Copyright © 2008 Emil Draitser. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contentsacknowledgments
notes on languages and translation
1 How I Failed My Motherland
2 Fathers at War
3 Path to Paradise
4 What’s in a Name!
5 Black Shawl
6 Us Against Them
7 I Don’t Want to Have Relatives!
8 Friends and Enemies
9 The Girl of My Dreams
10 How They Laugh in Odessa
11 Papa and the Soviets
12 A Dependent
13 Without Declarations
14 Who’s Who
15 A Strange Orange
16 Who Are You?
17 One Passover in Odessa
18 On Commissars, Cosmopolites, and Lightbulb Inventors
20 No Kith, No Kin
21 Grandpa Uri
22 Missing Mikhoels
23 Black on White
24 Time Like Glass
25 The Death of Stalin
My Genealogical Tree
What People are Saying About This
"Whimsical, heartfelt and candid."Kirkus Reviews
"This painful and acutely observed memoir will resonate with many readers."Publishers Weekly
"Speaks volumes about the steep price of decades of institutionalized anti-Semitism, and. . . the difficult journey. . . out from under its shadow."J Jewish News Weekly of N Cal
"Sharp and eloquent. . . . This is a must-read for all of us so as to better appreciate the freedoms we have. . . . We should be thankful to Prof. Draitser for having written this book."The Jewish Star
"[A] remarkable memoir."Choice
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Exploring the Damaged PsycheIn this part memoir, part religious autobiography, Emil Draitser explores the psychological effects of generations of antisemitism growing up Jewish in postwar Russia and the Ukraine. The book is less about anything Stalin did, and more about the sociological factors behind why he and other Jews like Draitser grew up feeling inferior to their Russian peers. The title of the book "Shush!" refers to his mother's constant reminder to be quiet, to stop speaking Yiddish, for fear of being punished. Draitser reminds us that the effects of antisemitism stretch beyond the Holocaust, that the 'damaged psyche' was generational and caused Jews to be inconspicuous, losing their history, culture, and identity.The book is written as a series of stories, so it is less autobiographical and more memorial. Very cleverly, Draitser is very philosophical yet not overtly so. For example, he explores the social construction of language and race through stories about being made fun of in school for his ethnic name. Or his adoration for Russian girls, anything but Jewish as a way of protesting against dividing people according to the principle of religion and race.I said the book is part religious autobiography because throughout the stories, you feel Draitser's connection with Judaism. Growing up, he learns Yiddish, partakes in the major rituals of Bar Mitzvah, celebrations like Yom Kippur and Passover. There are discussions of theology with his Mother and other relatives about the Talmud. Though I would not necessarily characterize Draitser as a devout Jew, or Hasidic, he certainly is Jewish both culturally and spiritually. Being Jewish is an important part of his identity, one that was purposely suppressed as a result of his environment.Taken as a whole, Draitser reminds us that structural violence can be just as destructive as physical violence. Draitser himself was not a victim of the Holocaust, or the pogroms of the nineteenth century. However, the result of the institutional racism such as segregation causes children to grow up with damaged psyches. They grow up with their "heads down and hunched under their shoulders." This is a very well-intentioned and intelligent memoir. It deals with some of the most complex social and philosophical issues in a very colloquial way, through these stories. I can easily see this book used in an undergrad course in either Jewish studies or even postwar Europe.