CRY, MY HEART, CRY!
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* * * 20. Once at school, I told my fifth-graders about the Bible. I told them that Jews are called "The people of a Book." It seemed to me that from my lecture they learned a lot about ancient Jewish households, culture, religion, and military courage. At the end of the class I asked them to name the major avocation of Jews. A girl who seemed to possess a curled-up nose was listening to me carefully. She seemed to absorb all I said and I was sure she would be the first to answer my question. She will prove how good a teacher I am, I thought. Her answer was rather unexpected.
* * *
Once at school, I told my fifth-graders about the Bible. I told them that Jews are called "The people of a Book." It seemed to me that from my lecture they learned a lot about ancient Jewish households, culture, religion, and military courage. At the end of the class I asked them to name the major avocation of Jews. A girl who seemed to possess a curled-up nose was listening to me carefully. She seemed to absorb all I said and I was sure she would be the first to answer my question. She will prove how good a teacher I am, I thought. Her answer was rather unexpected."The major avocation of Jews is reading," she said.
I guess it was Sartre who said that Jews view life through The Book. It is true to some extent. Being a town citizen who never saw a countryside where I could see the full glamour of nature, green grass, beauty of trees, I apprehended life through "the magic crystal" — The Book. Beautiful Aphrodite was born from the sea foam; a beautiful book is also born from the sea of thoughts and ideas.
* * *
I was writing a diary when I was in the third grade. Then I came across a book, the title of which I remember to this day: The Diary of Konstantin Ryabtsev. Immediately after reading a couple of pages, I opened a new writing pad and on its first page inscribed, "A Diary of Lev Libov." Maybe my father's diary triggered that. He kept it during the First World War. Once it was a rite in our family: after the evening meal we used to sit at the living room table, a kerosene lamp in the middle of it, and father, who was the only literate person among us, would read stories by Sholom-Aleikhem, Mendele Mokher Sforim, and Soviet writers. Once, father began reading from his diary. That left such an imprint in my memory, those family evening gatherings made me a book addict from the first grade.
I went to a Jewish primary school. At the first grade I mastered the language to such a degree that I could read books. I joined a local library.
I was reading one book after another. The hard covers of some of the books my imagination transformed into mountain caverns full of mysteries and golden treasures. I cannot forget my firm belief that I will be able to read all existing books. The 40-year-old librarian with nice manners and kindly countenance always smiled when I entered the library. His smile seemed to dissolve the poverty of our apartment, where sum total of our the furniture consisted of a bed, a sofa, a table, and father's shoemaker set near the window. My father kept his tales and tfila in the lower draw of the wardrobe and used them when praying, thanking God for everything we possessed, and for the blessing that He had created him a male, not a female.
Not long before that Jewish library was closed forever, the smiling king of the book kingdom, my kindly librarian, was arrested and sent to exile. There he was killed. The sign "Kike" was affixed to his corpse.
* * *
That I am a "kike," an alien, I realized very well in those times.
How I liked riding the tram! I enjoyed its merry weaving between houses, which always sent me into a good mood. The tram itself seemed to be a huge moving house on rails.
Once my Russian friends and I were riding on a tram without a ticket. A ticket cost three kopecks and we didn't have it. We didn't have money at all. Suddenly, a conductor showed up. "Get your tickets ready for checking," he said. All the other passengers offered up their tickets for the right to ride, save us. We didn't have that right at that time and were looking at him in despair. With powerful hands applied to my friends' backs, he pushed them out of our car. Then with his strong fingers he grabbed my very thick shirt together with my thick skin under it. He twisted them both with such a force that I am certain the bruise is still there. My heart ached; my tears poured down. It seemed to me that it was pouring outside, though it was a warm and quiet evening with no sign of St. Bartholomew's Night. He twisted my skin as if he wanted to spin my entire body on his finger, then hissed like a snake ready to strike, "Fucking little kike!"
Those words shook the air and shocked my soul. My tears were the first tears I had ever shed because of who I am. I am a Jew, a kike. That could not be the same as a Russian or a Ukrainian. On that day, when my friends and I got a different kind of punishment — on that day I fully realized that I am Jewish.
My mother, my small sisters Ida and Sarrah, and my brother Arkady were standing with me in the yard of a large Catholic church. With us stood many other people clutching their cases and scarce belongings. The rim of the sky was red. The village of Rogachev had been set on fire.
"Mom, momele, what is it? Where is that fire from?"
"Be quiet, my son," mother said. "They are baking bread there."
Yes, the color of the sky could have resembled the fire in the oven where my mother used to bake bread. But this oven was the entire village. All the people fled to this churchyard, trying to save themselves from the fire. They spoke Yiddish, Russian, and Byelorussian.
They set it on fire from all sides.
It was windy. Cold. Mother wanted to save us from the cold. People were passing by and entering the big house with great doors. It was tempting to follow them. It would be cozy and warm inside. Most likely it was very pleasant inside. We loudly asked mother to take us in. Mother whispered, "There is no way."
"Ksendz (the priest) allows Jews in the churchyard only."
Was this any way to calm children? How could one explain to them that a different God lived inside that building? It was cold and scary outside. We could vividly see the flame already. People were passing by and finding shelter inside the Catholic "temple" — but they were Christians.
"I want to go inside the temple, too!" I cried.
"No. By no means," mother answered.
I couldn't understand why at the time. The house was so near. Why had the flame the right to get angry and burn one sort of people and not the other? Why did God protect some people better than others?
* * *
He committed suicide as a poet. Could he have lost himself like Hamlet? We would know a lot if we could have found his diaries. He allowed their publication only after a hundred years. The search for his diaries is still in progress. Maybe they cannot be compared with any existing memoirs. However small a memoirist's talent, if he has something to say, his freedom of speech is in his choice of Words: he makes it by writing reminiscences and expressing himself in his own Words.
* * *
"Mom, Dad has something in his hands. We are going to have supper tonight!"We had good neighbors next door. Father mended their shoes for free and they helped us a lot for that.
"Katya, tell me please how my parents perished..."
Your father had just begun recuperating after a stroke. When he began slowly walking outside, we were very much afraid for him. There was a strict order forbidding Jews from walking on the sidewalks. They were supposed to walk only in the middle of the road. They were required to wear yellow Star of David on the back of the coat. Your father didn't obey. We implored him to obey. He insisted, `I am walking on my own land!' We were trembling from horror. Anybody could hear him and rat on him to a Nazi. He was only walking on sidewalks."
Katya went on:
Your neighbors keep all your belongings, but they said they had exchanged them for food. I don't think it's true. They just didn't have the room to place them in the basement where all Jews were forced to go. All of them found themselves in that basement at the end of the backyard. There was no more room there. Well, your parents had nothing left but their bed. Jews were forbidden to live in the railway terminal area. Your uncle Anche was also forced to leave his home and move to that basement.I still remember my uncle's apartment. His life was a bit better that ours, though, according to my father. He was not a very good shoemaker.
I kept saying to myself, "Cry, soldier, cry! Crying will keep your heart from falling apart." If I had tried to speak, I would definitely have burst into tears. That's why I just kept listening silently. Katya went on:
You'd better get your belongings.I checked for what might have remained. I went up to the verandah, which had several doors. In one of the apartments there was a sofa which we had bought just before the war began. My sister Ida had just gotten married. Her husband was enlisted in the Navy. As a gift, we bought a new sofa for them. We didn't mock Stalin's words — our life before the war had really become a bit better that usual. The major factor was that we had grown up, and now brought less trouble to our parents. But the war deprived me of my town, my house.
I knocked on one of the apartment doors, beyond which there was a bit of my lost home. Nobody opened it for a long time. I was dressed in the uniform of a Soviet Army officer, the wearing of which gave me instant credibility. Somebody opened the door slightly. Most likely, on having seen me, they experienced the worst fear. Stalin's terror was in everyone's memory. They might have recalled Mandelshtam's lines, well remembered in the nation, about night arrests by the secret police:
At that particular time nothing threatened them. Nevertheless, they didn't allow me to step inside. I asked somebody through the narrow door slot, "Would you tell me please about my parents?"
A cold answer came in return: "We know nothing!"
I no longer needed anything from those people. Neither could Dnepropetrovsk itself give me anything more. It seemed to me that my Dnepropetrovsk, my dear youth, my childhood, were gone with the wind. I couldn't live there anymore. The next time I visited Dnepropetrovsk was more than fifty five years later.
* * *
The reading of this book at that time — I underline at that time like the ashes of Klaas knocking on the heart of Till Eulenspiegel — called for a revenge.
On 17 March 1945, in the front-line newspaper Combat, one could read lieutenant Libov's article entitled, "Get Ready for Revenge, Brother!" I wrote it imagining how my parents had been executed. Next to that one there was another article of mine about Katya Blinova who was forced into a German labor camp. I learned about her from a letter I had found in the boxes of some military censure office. One letter had never been mailed. In it, Katya described how her boss, a woman, was torturing her, beating her on her face and yelling, "You Russian swine!" She was writing how her tears were pouring and how she was dreaming about her house. I imagined, again and again, crowds of people leaving their native town forever. I saw my parents among them; my paralyzed father, who insisted that he could walk by himself, transported. At that time my parents' lifespan was as long as the distance from the street they lived on to the ditch where they were machine-gunned.
I know these streets too well. There I used to visit my friend, Vladimir Gershtenkern, where I could eat soup once in a while, sometimes even with a piece of meat. There I used to go to see Nikolai Vygonny, who had the nickname, "walking encyclopedia." Whatever he was asked triggered his immediate answer, as if there was nothing in the world he didn't know. There I used to ride on Anatoly Gelfer's bicycle. There I used to climb the hill on the way to our house, which was surrounded by a cherry garden.