Authors note: This is my grandmother’s story. Her family lived in Russia when the Russian Revolution broke out. Because they were Jewish, they were forced to leave if they wanted to survive. My grandmother was five years old. She wrote down her story, and I have rewritten it. There is some liberty taken with it; I had to fill in the minor details, the gaps she left out, but the events are laid out as they happened to her. The horror here is real; I didn’t need to exaggerate that. This is the story of what happened when my grandmother’s freedom was taken away from her.
My hand clenched the little silver spoon so tightly I could feel the moisture building within the cracks of my palm. This only made me clutch it closer; I didn’t dare let it go, because letting go of it would mean letting go of everything I’ve ever known.
Papa burst into the kitchen, out of breath and jacket askew. He immediately grabbed an empty potato sack and began to shovel various items from off the counter and into the sack.
“Zalman, what are you doing?” said Mama to Papa, raising to her feet from her place at the kitchen table, the fabric she’d been basting together dropping to its hardwood surface. Papa didn’t answer, only continued to drop things into the now bulging bag. But Mama was not the kind of lady to be ignored for long. She placed her hands on her hips and stared at him, her eyes commanding him to stop and look at her. Finally, he did.
“We have to leave now,” he said, tying the bag and giving it to Mama. “They’re coming.”
I didn’t even have time to ask who ‘they’ were. The door crumbled into a million splinters at their first pound as though it were an ancient parchment rather than the sturdy oak that it was. Five men entered the kitchen wearing stiff soldier’s uniforms, and carrying big black rifles. Ruth let out a tiny shriek, but Mama was quick to shush her.
Ruth, Misha, and I were clustered together under the bed of Yenta Avital, a lonely woman who had been widowed years ago when her husband died of choleryeh. Her need for company was probably why she let us hide in her home until it was safe enough for us to move on.
After the soldiers had come to our house, we ran. Mama wouldn’t let us stop, not even when we grew tired. She just kept pushing us and pushing us.
When we finally got to Yenta Avital’s house, she ushered us in, taking us each in turn into her arms, and murmuring, “Ai-ai-ai, oi vai iz mir!”
With the three of us children all lying beneath the low bed, the air grew stuffy fast, but I didn’t care; being close to Ruth and Misha gave me comfort, and comfort was something I was in dire need of. I only wished that Mama and Papa were there too, their long bodies wrapping protectively around us, but Mama was sitting in the rocking chair across the room, muttering a Yiddish broche, and Papa was – I didn’t know where Papa was. Yenta Avital was asleep on the bed, her soft rhythmic breathing calming the beating of my heart.
Suddenly, a loud commotion broke out from across the street. Shouting and the shattering of glass echoed through the air, ringing in my eardrums. I peeped out from beneath the rufous bed sheets in time to see Mama race to the window. As if sensing me, she turned around and came to push me back under the bed.
“Stay!” she whispered, before rushing to the other side of the room and crouching down low. In deference to her request, I didn’t try to see what was going on again.
She hadn’t been crouching for more than a couple of seconds before an ear-splitting gunshot cracked through the air. More piercing screams erupted; I clamped my hands over my ears, cowering between my two older siblings. Then came another loud BANG-BANG, and even through my quivering hands I heard glass shatter close-by, followed by a shrieking gasp above me and then nothing. There was no pitiful crying, no last sputterings of life. Only silence.
It wasn’t until I felt Ruth’s body beside mine trembling and squirming further backwards that I realised my eyes were squeezed shut. I opened them and soon discovered why Ruth was in such a hurry to move away. A puddle of red sticky goo was forming on the floor by the edge of the bed, fed by a steady drip-drip-drip from the covers. Blood. Yenta Avital was dead.
The men didn’t hesitate; immediately they were pulling open drawers and cupboards, taking everything in sight. Papa asked them to stop, but they only laughed. One man passed close by the chair I was seated in and I shrank back as far as I could; I was terrified of that big rifle at his side, even more scared of the hands which controlled its trigger. As soon as he was far enough away, I dropped to the floor and crawled under the table, where I huddled, frozen with fear.
From under the table, I watched as the men continued to tear apart our home, breaking the worthless, stealing the valuable. They tore apart the picture I had drawn for Papa only yesterday, and stomped on Mama’s precious cookbooks. With hardly a sound at all, a little silver spoon from our cutlery drawer fell to the floor right in front of me, unnoticed by the rampaging men. I reached out and grabbed it, suddenly very adamant that this was the one thing they wouldn’t be allowed to have or destroy.
It was the dead of night. Mama, Ruth, Misha, and I were moving from shadow to shadow quickly, but as surreptitiously as we could.
As soon as the ruckus from across the street had died down, Mama had gathered us into her arms and started to push us out the door. Try as she might, she couldn’t block our view of Avital’s body. There was so much blood! I can’t think of her as Yenta Avital anymore; seeing her old frail body so stained with red like that made me so ashamed to have ever called her that.
Our journey to the schule that night seemed to last forever. I’d made this journey a thousand times before, but this time was nothing like the others. This time, every chirp of a cricket was gravel being kicked by a soldier’s boot; every owl hoot was a warning to the other soldiers that a group of sheenies was on the run; every whisper of wind, a swinging rifle ready for action. Take aim. Pull the trigger. Dead. All dead.
When we got to the schule, Mama knocked on the doors with one hand, and held me close with the other. Ruth had a firm grip on Mama’s fur coat while Misha hugged her legs. We were all scared and tired.
The door creaked open and a terrified voice whispered into the night, “Who is it?”
“Mir zanen Yiden,” she answered. This means ‘We are Jewish’ in Yiddish. Mir zanen Yiden. I used to be able to say that with pride, with dignity; it used to earn a person respect. Now, I was ashamed to have to say it; it felt like a sin against my lips. It was a sin to be Jewish.
The door opened wider and we were ushered in. Inside, we saw that there were other Jews gathered here too, some of whom I recognized. We found an empty spot against the wall and settled in. Ruth and Misha fell asleep almost immediately, but although I, too, was overcome by lethargy, I simply couldn’t sleep.
“Where is Papa?” I asked.
“Sha, my precious maideleh, hush.” Mama stroked my hair. “You must sleep. Tomorrow we will go to zaideh and bubbeh’s. Tomorrow we will be fine.” She continued to stroke my hair softly, but still I would not sleep.
“Where is Papa?” The verbatim of the question made Mama wince.
After a pause, Mama replied, “I do not know, but I promise you, Papa will find us. God will protect us all; he will guide Papa back to us, safe and sound. Trust in God, Susan, for it is all that we have left to do.”
Mama kissed my forehead, and I believed whole-heartedly in her answer. Slowly, my eyes shut and I drifted into a deep sleep.
Someone was shaking my arm. I groaned and rolled over, wishing whoever it was would leave me alone.
“Susan, wake up. Please darling, biteh.” It was Mama.
Groggily, I sat up and looked around me in confusion. Why was I in a schule? Then it all flooded back to me, and I almost started crying right there, in front of God and everyone.
Ruth and Misha were already on their feet. Mama helped me to mine, and the four of us started for the door. Before we could make more than five steps however, a soldier walked in, brandishing his rifle like it was a prized trophy he’d won in a bet. The effect on the room was immediate; everyone gasped and moved closer to the walls, each hoping to go unnoticed by this sanguinary demon.
He was an awful curmudgeon of a man, shooting off fastidious grimaces in every direction. Eventually his menacing glare was turned upon us.
“Where do you think you’re going?” he growled.
Mama straightened to her full height and shot an icy stare right back at him. “My children and I are going home. And you cannot stop us.” I looked at my Mama. She was very brave to say this to a man with a gun. It gave me a feeling of bravery tantamount to hers.
Others must have felt the same way as me. A wave of murmurs swept up around us, and the people appeared to sit up straighter. The soldier was not happy with this. He took out his gun and pointed it directly at Mama. I grabbed hold of her arm, all traces of bravery evaporating fast.
“I could use a little fun,” the soldier said, grinning. He swung the gun around, aiming at each person in turn. “One of you will die today, the rest will live. Do I have a volunteer?” Nobody moved, nobody breathed. “No one?” he asked again, clearly enjoying himself. His gun found its way back to Mama. “What about you?” he sneered lewdly at her.
Suddenly, a terrible anger swept over me. How dare this man threaten us, and be vulgar to my Mama, and in a house of worship, no less? He couldn’t get away with it, I wouldn’t let him. Mama must have sensed how close I was to running headfirst into the man and hitting him with my little balled fists as hard as I could, for her grip on me tightened; she knew that if I moved even an inch closer to the soldier, I’d be shot within seconds.
In the blink of an eye, the soldier reached forwards and grabbed Ruth by the wrist, pulling her to his side. She began to shake and cry, and he pointed his gun at her.
“No!” Mama shrieked, fear forcing her voice to crack.
The vile man laughed. “That’s more like it.” Just as quickly as he had grabbed her, he shoved Ruth back to Mama, and took a couple of steps forward. “You’re nothing more than a filthy nafkeh. That’s all you’ll ever be.” He spat, and with that walked back outside. I didn’t know a lot of Yiddish back then, but I knew enough for my eyes to grow wide in horror at that disgraceful name. Mama stared at his retreating back in stony silence.
As soon as the door shut, closing out that awful man, the entire room breathed a sigh of relief together.
We waited a few moments more before Mama picked me up and the four of us once again made our way towards the doors of the schule.
Papa grabbed Misha and Ruth, who were at the opposite side of the table as me, and pushed them towards Mama, who stood nearest to our closest escape route.
“Take the children and run,” he said. “I’ll come later.”
Mama didn’t even blink an eye; she only gave a lucid nod and herded Ruth and Misha out the door.
‘They’re leaving me behind!’ I thought desperately, but still I couldn’t force my body to inch its way forward out from under the safety of the table. ‘Come back for me!’ My eyes welled up with tears, but then Mama turned around and held out her arms to me.
“Come, Susan!” she commanded urgently. The sound of her voice melted my fear, and, like a baby, I crawled to her. She picked me up, but I squirmed in her arms, not willing to leave Papa behind so easily.
“Sha, bubeleh, Papa will come later, now, we must run.” And so we ran, as fast as we could, Ruth holding onto Misha, Mama to me. But not Papa; Papa would run later. He would! He had to.
The room sat bereft of noise. Not a word was spoken. A pin could have dropped and it would have been enough to shatter our eardrums, maul our souls. The table was littered with babkas, knishes, borekes, and so many more delicious foods I would normally be gulping down, but now the thought of eating did not seem appealing to me, or to the rest of my family.
“Well little boychick,” said my bubbeh, the first to break the silence, and looking directly at Misha. “You must be the man of the family now.” Misha fidgeted in his chair.
After a moment more of silence, Mama tossed her head furiously. “No! Tell it again, Eden,” she commanded my cousin. “I cannot believe it; you must tell it again.”
Eden nervously twirled her mouse-brown hair between her fingers. Her eyes were wide, and I could see that she was shaking a little. She took a deep breath and began her tale again.
Eden’s words wrapped themselves around me, tangling in my clothes and pulling tight against the strings I still had left holding me together, squeezing my heart much harder the second time they jumped up and whispered, “Boo!”
Papa had left our house in search of us, just like he said he would. A soldier confronted him, asked him where he was going. Papa had been polite, courteous with a smile, but the soldier was not amused. With an imperceptible smirk, he took out his gun. Nothing more than a loud bang-bang and Papa was down, a river of red oozing out of his chest. As if this unceremonious deed were not enough, the soldier bent over and unlaced Papa’s boots and then stole away with them.
My Papa would not be coming to us. Never again would I hear his voice, or see the way his eyes crinkled when he smiled down at me. I could no longer go to him and snuggle into his arms while he told me about his day and asked about mine, and he wouldn’t be able to protect me anymore from the monsters that lived under my bed, the ones who had so maliciously morphed into the monsters that hunted me outside of my nightmares.
That day was the first day I had ever seen my mother cry. She shrieked in anguish, her entire body heaving up and down with severe agony, and her face, normally so undaunted, was now swollen in torment and defeat. She stood up then sat back down then stood up again, only to collapse in a sobbing heap on the dining room floor, moaning and whimpering indiscernible words.
I turned away from the despondent scene, looking instead towards the window. Outside, a man in a black kaftan was being beaten by the butt of a soldier’s rifle because he refused to remove his religious attire. He withered and struggled to get away, but he was old and the soldier was too much for him. Beside him, a woman lay motionless, her life having already escaped her. At least I think it was a woman. The bruises and blood made it difficult to tell.
A single tear slowly crept down my face. Where is God now? I remember thinking to myself. Why isn’t he protecting us? I cried very hard then, realising we didn’t even have God to trust anymore.
• • •
The train’s swaying movement was calming in a way. Ruth and Misha slept soundly beside me. Even Mama’s face lay smooth with the caress of a much-needed rest. A bump in the tracks had woken me, but once I realised it was only uneven ground, not an invasion of blood-thirsty soldiers, I nestled back into the folds of my blanket, waiting for my heartbeat to return to normal. I wondered if my heart would ever return to normal. How long must I wait before loud noises stopped making me freeze in terror? A long time. How long before the nightmarish visions disappeared? Longer still.
Our escape from Russia had finally passed, a slow process that had taken us two years, but our journey was far from over yet. At the moment, we were crossing the border into Poland, where we were meant to pick up our Polish passports, as Russians could no longer have passports of their own.
“One day,” Mama had said to us that morning, “we will get to Canada, and there we will be safe and free.”
It’s a funny thing about the word ‘freedom’. I never realised how important that one little word was until I didn’t have it anymore. Freedom. It has a nice ring to it, don’t you think? I found it odd that I needed to go to another country, and one that was on the other side of an ocean at that, to regain the one word I thought I would always have.
Freedom. Yes, it would be nice to have that back.