—excerpts from an essay-requiem—
By Lev I. Libov

Translated by Ronald Bruce Meyer

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When should one start writing memoirs?

I started when I turned twelve. I brought them to the teacher at Teenagers Literary Society. He didn't evaluate them. He said instead, "I don't think you can write something at 12!"

"When can I start writing them?" I asked.

He didn't ignore my naïve question but said, "Live a quarter of a century, then you will acquire something to reminisce about."

My teacher didn't suspect that this first quarter of the life of my generation will envelope 1,418 days and nights of the most terrible war in the history of mankind. Could I really think that during my 25 years of "Methuselah's Life" the war will take me from the invincible-but-nevertheless-conquered German city of Konigsberg to Harbin, where I would see "hieroglyphs" that used to catch my attention in my childhood, in Manchurian towns? Being so mysterious, the glyphs brought into present light the breath and smell of history.

* * *

Could I ever imagine that I would meet my 50th birthday in the Ural mountains where the Russian peasants' Czar Pugachev and the rebel poet Salavat Yulayev used to live? Could I think that I would meet my 70th birthday in the Siberian taiga where a hunter would tell me about his encounter with a bear? Could I think then that I would live twenty years longer than my father? But I did. Indeed, I am alive and still thinking!

I knew that my generation was potential raw material for the military. At the same time I was invincible in my knowledge and belief that, if we faced war, we would win. Why should the enemy win?

I dreamed of becoming a scientist; I became a schoolteacher. I dreamed of becoming a writer; I didn't succeed in becoming even a journalist. I was dreaming about an active social life, forgetting that my Jewish ego was always a problem, and I was so often falling down into clefts of social life that covered me like soil covers clefts of earthquakes. The year 1937 inaugurated "the fight against cosmopolitans," which was a political realization of official state anti-Semitism. That lasted until 1953. The persecution of dissidents lasted into the 1970s. Who could have believed that?

I am still taking care of my archive. Who needs it? My son? I am not sure. My grandson? By no means. Nobody could duplicate the family of my father, the shoemaker Joseph, and his wife Maria. They brought into the world five Jewish children, none of whom was born with a halo encircling his head. Only my sister Sarrah and I are alive today.

Again, as if I were 12 years old, I began writing memoirs. I am still working hard. I am still socially active. I am trying to publish what I have to because I cannot stay silent.

For two years I was looking for genre, composition, and sense in the events embossed in my memory, in the actions I undertook. When can one start writing memoirs? Everyday labor, reading, routine — all this is a serious impediment to attempting one's own literary work. One doesn't want to miss all the great ideas scattered in books, in the films of outstanding film directors. The thirst for reading Plutarch, Mamardashvili, Aristotle, Nietzsche, Losev and the like can never be satisfied in full.

Should I happen to cast my glance forward — whatever may be there to see — my mind's eye will, by all means, touch on Julia's burial site. It is not far, in the small town of Urai. It will surely touch on the burial sites of my mother and father, which are not marked by burial stones, but reside in an old ditch in the city of Dnepropetrovsk. I will see not only this real world where I live, which is inside of me and inside of everyone on this planet, but also a different, unseen world, where 100,000,000,000 people who lived before us existed. What was in the past is not entirely behind us. The future comprises not only itself, but also the past. Sometimes that past can become the future faster than the present can reach it.

Who are those who passed away? Statistics? Fertilizer? A different tissue of all those who lived here on Earth? Tell me, fortuneteller, if my memoirs will become true. I hear the answer, "Yes, they will become true!" Back then, when I was twelve, it was too early. Now it is time!

* * *

Lev Libov as a soldier, and today
The author as a soldier
—and today

Could a lean, pale, long-eared 12-year-old memoir-teller, whose long nose looked like a high-boot bas relief on a shoemaker's sign, imagine himself at the age of twenty five?

At twenty-five he became a Soviet Army lieutenant with a military award adorning his uniform. He was tall, fast moving, with a strong torso. There was both on his face and in his eyes a permanent, ever-present sorrow. His eyes wide open, looking into the middle distance, would become so absorbed with something inside himself that he would lose his interlocutor. This same lieutenant, after battles in Eastern Prussia, after staying in the Harbin hospital and Special Reserve Unit in the town of Spassk, once demobilized, took the opportunity to travel to Moscow to see his sister Nina. They then headed to Simferopol, Crimea, to realize his childhood dream of warmth both winter and summer, and a life by the Black Sea.

Then he would walk along the streets of his native city of Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, and meet his school friend Gershtenkern. Then he would go to where the old ditches were, and slow down at the site near two metal posts carry a small sign commemorating, in Russian and in Yiddish, the Catastrophe of the Dnepropetrovsk Jews.I was familiar with that ditch from before the war. It was the deepest one among all the others. In my childhood, we use to go there to play at war. Here I was again. The ditch is not deep at all. It is almost hidden. Maybe my mom and my dad stood here on their last day, right at the spot where my military high boots press the soil now. Most likely the spiritual ancestor of modern Russian fascists pushed my still-living parents into this ditch. Most likely the sounds of Kaddish were echoing in the air at that very moment. Most likely my mom was calling us, her children whom she had raised, whom the war took off from her, who always filled her heart, her thoughts, her hopes. "Sarrah! Leo! Eadele! Arkady! Nina!" she would cry out — even in the very midst of the Apocalypse. I hear the ditch itself moaning. It is moaning from the earth and for the crowd facing its death. The crowd called "kikes."

The soil resisted from inside the ditch as if it were alive. With every breath it raised up hills of dead and still-living human bodies. New heaps of human bones and bloody flesh overfilled it. Heaven itself heeded the moaning of that multi-armed, multi-bodied, multi-headed being, that being that accumulated into itself the most painful feeling of the Universe.

The crowd was doomed to a most agonizing execution; the heart infarction of the Universe. Torturers full of hatred shook the air with curses, "Kikes! Dirty kikes! Dirty fucking kikes!" At the same time they would drink vodka, flooding away their fear for choosing the profession of murderer. The light and the darkness became as one, as it was before the beginning of the world, before the Big Bang. The darkness over the abyss followed. The Universe that had been expanding for millions of years was condensed in that one horrible day into one crying, bloody eye.

It seems to me that that very day, one of the first autumn days of the first year of the war, the day of Dnepropetrovsk Apocalypse, I was heading to Balkar Mountains. I was a Balkar Gazette correspondent at that time. I faced gorgeous hills, woods, and mountain-green fields. Nature faced me, sharing my sorrows and pains. Nature, the good beauty of our existence, heard only my crying as it carried over the tops of the mountains and leapt to the sky. Over the mountains, seas and rivers, woods and plains, I would see the Dnepropetrovsk ditches, where Jews were hurled into a mess of human bones and blood. I would imagine vividly my father, outraged but not broken, and my mother, slender and young, vehemently calling her children. I was weeping so that the earth and the sky could hear me. And that weeping was transformed into sounds that convulsed my body. It seemed to be a song. "Israel, cry!" — a song I had heard once or twice. I perceive that I was singing just that tragic song, that song that was now ripping my soul apart. I was singing, though I cannot sing well, and that was the only time in my entire life I did that. I do not believe in telepathy, but here was one of those instances that would force one to suspect it: at least once in a man's life such a thing might have happened. Nature gave me the chance.

I was bidding goodbye to my parents.

The last time Sarrah, Arkady and I bade goodbye to our mom and dad it was the end of August 1941. Before that, for the entire month, people were arguing over whether Stalin should give up Dnepropetrovsk to the enemy. The discussion was heated. Most of the population didn't believe that he would.

Nevertheless, the last day of Pompeii came. After August 20th, rumors spread that Germans were already in town. Those rumors triggered fear and panic in one kind of people and furtive hatred, akin to enjoyment about the prospect of revenge, among the others; rascals I would call them. On the one hand, people said the Nazis would kill the Jews; on the other, that pogroms would be made by native anti-Semites. Arkady brought the news that Nazis dressed in Red Army uniforms had crossed the bridge connecting the left and the right banks of the Dnepr River. Bombs were heard blasting on the outskirts of the town and nearly everywhere else. Sometimes it seemed that blasts came from the adjacent street. Shells wounded and killed people. The railway terminal was ruined. There remained now only one way to save ourselves: a barge could take us to the town of Nizhnedneprovsk.

On the morning of August 23, my father developed a brain hemorrhage and woke up paralyzed. The entire right side of his body was numb. He couldn?t speak, and his sad eyes looked at us with sort of guiltiness. He understood both what happened to him and what happened to us. He understood everything. But it the most difficult event in my life.

When he was nearly sixty, he had enrolled as a volunteer in the army to defend his native Dnepropetrovsk. Cry, cry, volunteer! Let your tears help you, if possible! Wake up and go! But now he was staying in bed, absolutely helpless. Maybe he had some words that could have influenced Arkady and the rest of us; perhaps his words could have become decisive in our fate. Our mother always asked our father to say something when she needed assistance. Now she asked me to speak with Arkady. She was sure that he would be able to do the impossible.

More than Nazis, my mother was afraid of our neighbor who served in the German police. When he was drunk, and he was always drunk, he used to yell loudly enough for the entire street to hear him, "We'll bury all the kikes right beside their houses!" In the time of peace before the war, this neighbor used to dig holes for planting trees, and my mom recollected his strength as he would strike his shovel into the ground.

I kept saying that Nazis kill all Jews. Now my mom now shared that idea with me. Once she said that our bloodthirsty neighbor would betray us, and she believed all our children were supporting the Soviets. It was obvious for everyone that old Libov-the-shoemaker was supporting them most vigorously.

My father would say, "They are not beasts; they are civilized men." He still had hope.

Arkady would visit us and say, "After I evacuate my family, I'll come back and get you out of here too. Sarrah and Leo must go with me now." He could be trusted.

The Last Day of Pompeii

The last days in Dnepropetrovsk were marked by the passage of horse-drawn carriages, men and women with cases, sad, closed-in faces, rumors, artillery cannonade, fires.

Arkady came to get Sarrah and me. I kissed dad on his forehead. He didn't cry. He couldn't. But Mother couldn't hold back her tears. We took none of our belongings. I looked at some of my books for some time. I wanted to take them with me, but I didn't take with me so much as a small book entitled Kid's Craft, in which, on page forty three, my song about children making bird houses had been published. Not knowing what book I was holding in my hands, Arkady said, "Put it back!" I put it back on the table.

My sister and I followed my brother in a horse-drawn carriage overloaded with Faina's belongings. Our eyes scanned the sky — God forbid, German planes could have shown up! We crossed the river on the barge, then headed toward some railway freight cars. There was a mess. People were fighting for every unoccupied place in the cars. No one was supposed to be left behind. There was no place for the two of us to lie down, so Sarrah and I stood, hoping somebody mercifully would remove his legs and allow us to sit for awhile. The time for departure was flying slowly. We heard German military planes overhead.

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