I don’t want to write a Holocaust story. But it’s necessary for understanding the protagonist – me. I happen to be part of a story and a family deeply affected by history.
I was raised by Soviet Jews. Every time I made a sour face or resisted something as a kid, I heard, “Don’t look like you’ve got the world’s weariness on your shoulders. Go do your homework!” I’d go do my homework. I’d think, yeah I guess that’s what we do; stoically get to what’s at hand.
I blame Elie Wiesel. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz sent Wiesel in 1965 to report on Jews living behind the Iron Curtain. It’s a tearjerker. “Wiesel,” “Iron Curtain,” and “Jews” are in the same sentence after all. In The Jews of Silence, a personal report on Soviet Jewry, Wiesel makes a statement that would become a great irritant in my childhood.
“All the world’s undefined weariness seemed to have settled in long eyes.” A history of mistreatment by the tsars, a 20th century toothbrush-mustached man’s final solution, and institutionalized outsider status under the Soviet regime will give you more than long eyes.
My grandfather experienced all three.
I had a lot of respect for my grandfather. He was the smartest, most well-read person in my family. My love for history, reading and learning, I thought, must have come from him. I also knew how difficult he was. I remember the fights with my mom and dad about his refusal to get US citizenship.
He was afraid of lying to the government. In his Soviet papers, his birthplace was listed as Lvov, Ukraine, but he was actually born in Proskurov. After the war, he didn’t want to jeopardize his application to the Communist Party by filling in Proskurov, a city that was outside the Soviet Union before the war. It could have been interpreted as having subversive inclinations. Despite multiple US government officials stating it wouldn’t matter, he feared presenting documents that revealed his lie would result in deportation.
These fights would end in laughter. We’d laugh at how we’d found the “one honest Jew in the whole of the Soviet Union,” and my grandmother would proceed with a series of anecdotes lamenting his honesty. “He just couldn’t lie. And you had to lie and bribe to get anything.” We didn’t always see the trauma at the root of his fears.
My grandfather, Benjamin Yusim, went by Veniamin after 1945. He lost his entire family in the Lvov Ghetto in 1943. The city’s extermination of the Jews would be used as an exemplary model for later invasions and exterminations in Poland and beyond.
His father Iosif was shot in the head at work in the first four days of the German occupation. He held a leadership role in Lvov’s confectionary factory, Kirov. His name was on an itemized hit list circulated by the Gestapo. My great uncle Avraam was shot while sneaking out of the ghetto to barter family jewelry for food. My great uncle Isaac was hanged on a balcony as an example of what happens to a Jew that resists. He refused orders to beat a close family friend. Isaac was selected by the Germans to serve in the ghetto’s police force because he was tall, blonde, and blue-eyed. My great grandmother Rivka died last – not knowing if her only remaining son was alive. The Yusims, with one exception, were among the 200,000 who died in Eastern Galicia. By November 1943, the region was judenrein, cleansed of Jews.
My grandfather escaped the ghetto and ran east, where he joined the Russian Red Army. He spent the duration of WWII fighting the Germans. By surviving the Nazi occupation of Lvov, he’d earn his rank among the only half of one percent of the Jewish population that survived. When he returned to Lvov, my grandfather learned of his family members’ deaths from his only remaining connection, a Ukrainian housekeeper he ran into on the street shortly after returning from the front. Until our immigration to the United States, he lived out his life on streets that covered his tragedy under every cobblestone.
My grandfather and grandmother told their war stories like a telegraph in a staccato fact-to-fact beat. To me, it seemed admirable and strong to be so stern about something so sad. They understood that for the time their experience was not extraordinary.
My grandfather’s story remained flat and matter-of-fact until the winter of 2009. Three years after his death, I got very sick. I abruptly dropped out of graduate school at Georgetown and moved home. I couldn’t leave the house for three months. It took six months to drive and almost two years to be functional. I developed debilitating asthma and anxiety. I burnt out. I looked back and saw the selfishness and loneliness of climbing achievement ladders. I was the same age as my grandfather had been when he returned from the front. Except I had a family to come back to. And it wasn’t a German soldier trying to get me, but a nervous breakdown and crummy lungs.
I read a lot while I recovered. I found using the computer jarring and adopted an analog diet of books, pens and paper. The usual demands on my mind to be in the present with an eye on the future were lifted. I had space and a need to look into the past.
I followed an urge to investigate my grandfather’s WWII experiences. I met with my grandmother to record her memories and what my grandfather shared with her.
I read a lot about Lvov, the war, and Soviet Jews, which quickly confirmed that, yes, I was definitely a Jew, if reading about the Holocaust was making me feel better.
The heavy handed censorship of the Soviet Union meant my grandparents had limited access to literature, art, and psychology – outlets that would have helped them heal from the traumas of the war. I was lucky to have access to all three. I learned that my own meltdown was the result of open scars passed down, and the pressure of living as a memorial candle for a tragic story. But it wasn’t just about me.
After my grandfather’s passing, my grandmother stopped reporting and started telling and feeling out the family stories. Speaking about Rivka, my grandfather’s mother, was the most difficult. When my grandmother spoke about Rivka losing her children, she felt a mother’s loss and wept. “She died in the ghetto knowing she had already lost two sons and a husband. Dying probably didn’t seem so bad.” While difficult, these cathartic conversations gave me something profound to latch onto for meaning. It also let me see my grandmother’s strength.
One story in particular rerouted me to a calling and the reason these words exist today. In the last few days of the war, as it became clear the Russians would win, Soviet soldiers serving alongside my grandfather looted German apartments and businesses. They took guns, tools, machinery, fabric, musical instruments, boots, women, anything. My grandfather grabbed notebooks and paper. My grandmother assured me it was the only thing he’d ever taken out of turn in his life. When I heard that whatever lived and struggled inside of me broke out of its cage.
The day before he died, my grandfather let me shave him. He let me hold his cheeks and chin. He laughed when it got too ticklish and held my elbow to give me extra control. It was the closest I had ever been to him. My grandmother would later tell me, that night he told her he loved her and wanted to make love.
My grandfather left quickly and without suffering. He knew he was dying. We knew he knew because he laughed more, became gentler, and softened his gaze. In his death, he found what he had a hard time finding in life, ease. And he gave me a story to write, so I could find the same.
Elena Reitman is a writer from Seattle. She moved to the US from the Soviet Union with her family in 1991.
© 2013, Elena Reitman