Елена Литинская



On Spiridonovka Street

Peoples memories of themselves begin at different ages. For me, it was when I was about four years old. By this point, though, I cant separate for sure what I am remembering on my own account from what my parents told me.

In the early 1950s, we lived in a communal apartment on Spiridonovka Street in central Moscow. Back then, it was called Alexey Tolstoy Street (no, not after the author of The Silver Prince but after the one who wrote Peter the FirstandThe Road to Calvary). We had two rooms. One was a large pass-through that housed Granny Manya, my fathers mother, and her younger daughter Zinaida (and, later, Zinaidas husband, Yefim). The other was tiny, less than 65  square feet and shaped rather like a truncated pencil case, and it was home to our family: my father, my mother, and I. The more the merrier, as they say, and at least no one used our room to get to somewhere else. And thats what you call “privacy” in English. But what it would be called in Russian—that is indeed the question. (The dictionary translation, uedinenie, doesnt accurately convey the meaning. Uedinenie means “seclusion,” whereas privacy, as I understand it, is a whole lot more than that.)

The furniture in our mini-room consisted of a narrowsofa on which dad and mom somehow managed to sleep (when youre young, its actually fun to sleep on top of each other, as you might say) andmy little bed, and in between a diminutive antique table that stood on one ornate leg and held a neat pile of books. It was impossible to sit at that table because there was no chair, and there wouldnt have beenroom for one anyway. We stored our clothing and linens in a suitcase under the sofa because our living conditions made no provision for the luxury of a closet or chest of drawers. Though there was an ancient, iron-bound leather trunk in the corridor, by the door to our so-called “suite,” with all kinds of family memorabilia and old clothes, reeking of mothballs, locked up inside. Sometimes it was opened, and I was allowed to take out a black beaded wrap and a hat with a veil and wear them, just for a short while. That was such a treat! I loved playing dress-up.

Two other families shared that apartment with us. The Tartakovsky-Bermans were composed of the grandmother, Rebecca Abramovna (from Kiev and once a great beauty but by the time we were on the scene, a shapeless old lady of unencompassable dimensions, with a huge bust and remnants of grey curls), her daughter Anna, her son-in-law Lev, and their son Borka. The Tartakovskys had once occupied the entire apartment, since Rebecca Abramovnas husband, Yefim Grigorievich, had been the rather wealthy proprietor of a chocolate factory. After the Revolution, the factory was naturally confiscated and the Tartakovskys apartment was“compressed”(the official term for moving complete strangers into what had been your own home)by the addition of my grandmother, who later married Abram Litinsky, my grandfather. (The Tartakovskys were upset, of course, and thats understandable. But let me tell you, when “compression” involves having to share with an intellectual family in which the husband is an engineer and the wife a dentist, thats definitely not the toughest break you could have.) The former chocolate factory owner, now a mere Soviet bookkeeper, and his family occupied two large rooms across the corridor from us. (I am giving you so much detail about the Tartakovskys because many years later, fate brought meback together with Borya Tartakovsky, and so closely together that I up and married him, and we had a son Georgy, Gosha for short.)

The Samedovs, who lived in the servants little room (next to the bathroom and the lavatory) were a less pleasant case of compression. They included the raucous Fyokla, who worked in retail and proudly called herself by the sweet-soundingname of Viktoriya;her quiet, almost wordless husband, a major in the Soviet army who was, as they say today, of Caucasian nationality; and two children, Lyalka and Valerka.

We were neighborly with the Tartakovskys, after wed all overcome the social barriers between the bourgeoisie and the intelligentsia. But the grandmothers of both families entered into an unspoken kitchen-basedalliance against Fyokla-Viktoriya, chatting in Yiddish when they wanted to keep her out of the loop. And on top of that, Borka Tartakovskys poor appetiteoften led to him being fed his lunchin our neck of the woods.

“Mariya Maximovna, my dear, can I feed Borenka at your place? He eats better there,” Rebecca Abramovna would wheedle my grandmother in an oily voice. Grandmother would sigh and reluctantly agree. Not, of course, because she begrudged giving Rebecca Abramovna the temporary use of our worse-for-wear dining table. It was just that feeding little Borka involved an overly lengthy, although admittedly unforgettable, spectacle that was too much for my grandmothers nerves.

This is how thatsacred rite was conducted. To get a decent amount of food into her Borenka, Rebecca Abramovna would bring a basin full of water in which the young heir to a lost chocolate factory would float his paper boats, while his ingenious grandmother, with the precision of a basketball player, would toss bits of cooked ground meat into the childs mouth. Sometimes Borka would smuggle in a childs enema bulb, and when my grandmother was out of sight (having gone to the kitchen or to answer a call of nature or whatever), the little terror would use thebulb to suck water from the basin and then hose down the ceiling and walls, in a game offireman. Whenever that happened, Rebecca Abramovna would quickly bring the feeding of her unduly inventive grandson to an end and, along with the basin, Borka, and the enema bulb, would scoot off home. I was, as a rule, in attendance throughout those barbaric feeding sessions but was silent as a sniper and never tattled to any of my folks. All the same, Borka and I were fast friends.

Relations with the Samedovs were more complicated. Grandmother and dad suspected Fyokla-Viktoriya of being in cahoots with the security agencies, so they were leery around her. And my mom, due to events that Ill tell you about later, had developed a full-onpersecution complex. So thats why our family discussed all ticklish subjects in whispers and behind firmly closed doors. Meanwhile, Borka and Iused to tease the entirely innocent Lyalka Samedova (who was my age), calling her “Samedikins-Onionskins.” Sensing a certain tension among the adults of our three families, we kids were just playing up to it.

Our apartment was in a solid old six-story building with an elevator. In general, the set-up we had at the time was entirely appropriate to the age we lived in. Standalone apartments were a rarity back then. (Although above us, in an absolutely separate apartment, lived a writer not very famous but still well known in intellectual circles, called Boris Laskin.) In short, we lived as everyone else lived, and no one complained. Grandmother wasnt working by then. She was receiving a personal pension for my grandfather (who had been a senior engineer at the Likhachov Automobile Factory). Dad, a young specialist, was an engineer in a design bureau in Krasnaya Presnya, and mom, who had graduated from the Romance and GermanicLanguages Department of the Moscow State LomonosovUniversity Faculty of Philology, was trying desperately to break into Soviet literature with her translations of English and Polish fiction.

“And why Polish, of all things?” youll ask. Mom had, in fact, known Polish all her life. My mom, Mariam Buzgan (Musya or Marusya at home), was born in 1923 in Vilnius (which in those long-ago days belonged to Poland and was called Wilno), to a Jewish theatrical couple, Chewel Buzgan and RywaSzyler.Moms parents were actors in WilnosYiddish-language drama troupe, which was quite popularat the time and often went on tour, visiting towns large and small in Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. Little Marusya was never taken on tour, though. She was raised by her grandmother, Leah, who was Grandpa Chewels mother—which makes her my great-grandmother. (She died a few months before I was born, and I was named Yelena in her memory. Its not exactly Leah, of course but has something of the same sound. In anti-Semitic postwar Moscow, my far-sighted parents were doing their best not to give their children Jewish names, so as not to completely wrecktheir already foggy future.)


A Parting and a Meeting

And now, a little history. In 1937 there was already a whiff of war in the air. My grandpa and grandma had been booked on a foreign tour, to give two-person shows in Latin America—Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. There was a fairly wealthy Jewish community in those countries that was just yearning for some Jewish culture. Grandfather was not only a talented actor and director but a highly practical and clever person as well, and this was a chance to show off his art in Latin America while also making a timely exit from prewar Poland. GrandpaChewelwould later say that he had already sniffed out what lay in store for Polish Jewry.

After he and Rywa left Poland, they had to travel through Germany. At the border, a German officer examined their passports, eyed these two young, good-looking, but clearly not Aryan faces, and posed the malicious question:


Jude, Jude!” grandfather replied, with a mixture of reciprocal malice and pride, realizing that this German could not do anything to hurt him. Not yet, anyway.

Chewel and Rywa had wanted to take their daughter—my thirteen-year-old mom—to Latin America, but Grandma Leah, a strong-willed and uncompromising woman, would have none of it.

“No! A young girl has no business meandering with you from one hotel or rented apartment to another over there,” she said. “Ill take her to Russia with me. After all theres my daughter Sara, whosa somebodyin Tula. And then theres my younger son, Misha, in Moscow.” Great-grandmother was adamant.

(It must be said that my mom was actually very eager to go to the Soviet Union. She was a secretcommunist sympathizer and had even felt the sting of a policemans whip on her back once, for distributing unauthorized leaflets.) And so it was decided. The Buzgan family was split up. Rywa and Chewelleft for Latin America, while Great-Grandma Leah took Marusya to Tula, where Leahs daughter, Sara, lived. The dismal events that followed would show that Great-Grandma Leah had made a fateful mistake by not leaving with her son and daughter-in-law. In fact, it was that old lady who ended up “meandering” from one rented apartment, one unfamiliar corner,to the next with her granddaughter. But on the other hand, had she not made that mistake, there would most certainly have been no me. So thank you, dear great-grandmother, for that life-changing mistake!

Chewels younger sister, Sara Buzgan—a young, well-educated, cheerful, and attractive woman with masses of wavy hair—was an active communist who held some high Party post in Tula. (I dont remember which. And theres no one left to ask.) And if that werent enough, she had been pals with Bolshevik bigwig Sergo Ordzhonikidze himself. She had a family (a husband and two children from two different marriages), a lovely home, a white-collar job, money, and respect. But the year was nineteen thirty-seven, a year of blood and tears, and almost immediately (two months after Great-Grandmother Leah and Marusya arrived), it all came tumbling down. Sara and her second husband, Slava, were arrested, the children were handed off to her first husband, and the house and the rest of the familys possessions were confiscated. Sara faced the utterly absurd charge of spying for Japan and was fast-tracked to execution by firing squad. Her husband was granted his lifebut was given ten years in the camps. He served out his term, survived, and was rehabilitated once Stalin was dead.

After Saras arrest, my mom and great-grandmother were out on the street, in the most literal sense of the word. They had to go and stay with great-grandmothers youngest son in Moscow. Uncle Misha and his wife, Raya, lived in a ramshackle three-story building on Malaya Bronnaya Street with long corridors and small rooms. The house had been converted for communal living,and they had been allocated a 160-square-foot room there. When the satirists Ilf and Petrov coined the term “the Rookery,” this must have been exactly what they had in mind. Misha and Raya had three (or maybe four) neighbors, no bathroom(just a lavatory),no steam heat, and rustic-looking wooden floors that creaked mercilessly. (The heating system was wood-fired too. And this was in Moscow, our Motherlands capital!)The two were young and hospitable, and loved partying with their circle of friends, both close and not so close. They took Mishas mother and niece in and treated them well, butthe good times, which had become a habit,didnt miss a beat. Someone was always in their room of an evening, sharing a meal, playing the gramophone, singing, dancing. (Raya had been a ballet dancer but had gradually put on weight andgotten out of shape, and had had to leave the ballet. Plus, her husband wouldnt put up with her “prancing around” anymore.) And so, amid all that noise and ruckus, my mom and my Great-Grandma Leah slept on folding cots. Moms cot was set up under the table, because there was nowhere else for it go.

Misha made good money and didnt begrudge any of it to his mother and niece. But it was still impossible to make ends meet. So my great-grandmother—who had, believe it or not,owned a store in Wilno that sold purses and gloves—swallowed her pride and her resentment against life in general and went to work as a nurses aide in a hospital, where she washed floors and cleared away bed pans. Marusya went into sixth grade in a Moscow school. And thats where she met Grisha Litinsky, my father-to-be. After school, he would help her master the subtleties of the great and mighty Russian language, explaining tricky expressions such as (in answer to “Where are you going?”) “There and back, to see how far it is.” The Russian-language lessons were successful in another way too: by the time they were in the next grade, Marusya and Grisha had a full-blown crush on each other.

Since Marusyas home life left something to be desired, she often slept over at her friend Lidas. Then she started spending the nights at Grishas place. Only now and then, though. But since Grishas parents knew how things were for her at home, they didnt object. It was all still quite innocent too; they had only kissed and hugged, nothing more. When Marusya hadnt been seen at the Litinskys for a while, Grishas father (later to be my Grandad Abram) would joke: “Well now, Grinya, wheres your red-headed Buzgan?” Marusya had velvety brown eyes and long wavy hair the color of dark copper. No one could call her a beauty, but she was marvelously pretty. At school, she was beating admirers off with a stick, but she loved only her Grisha.

When the war began, she was evacuated with the Litinsky family. Grisha, who was all of seventeen at the time, told his parents, in no uncertain terms and with a grown mans resolve: “Im not going to Elabuga without Marusya.” And the parents didnt dare object, realizing that Grisha and Marusyas puppy love had grown into the real thing, the kind of love that is an all too rare gift of fate.

My parents married after the war, and Marusya moved once and for all into that little 65-square-foot room on Spiridonovka Street. And two years after the wedding, I was born. To mark my birth, a huge package came from Argentina containing a bunch of goodies for a newborn. Everything was blue, though, from the baby carriage to the pacifier. Since my grandpa and grandma didnt know what I was going to be and wanted to be on the safe side, they had bought the entire “trousseau” for a boy. But the blue things just happened to match the color of my eyes, so when my parents were pushing me in my stroller around the Patriarchs Ponds neighborhood (which in those days was called Pioneer Ponds), all the passers-by oohd and aahd. “What a delightful child!” theyd say.

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Marusya saw nothing of her parents for seventeen years (from 1937 to 1954), although they did start corresponding again after 1945. When the war ended, Rywa and Chewel didnt want to stay in Latin America, although their acting careers were going really well there. After the war, the Latin American Jewish community was replenished by refugees from a near-devastated Europe, and the demand for Jewish theater grew appreciably. The Buzgans could have gone on successfully touring Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil, but they wanted to see their daughter and granddaughter, and the only way they could do that was by going back to Poland. Another thing that prompted their return to Europe was the founding of two Jewish theaters, one in ?ód? and theother in Wroc?aw.

And so, in 1949, the Buzgans returned to Poland. They began by joining the Jewish theater troupe in ?ód?, which opened its first season with the Alexander Galich comedyTaimyr Calling. In 1955, the theaters of ?ód? and Wroc?awwould be merged into a State Jewish Theater, under the leadership of Ida Kami?ska, and would move to Warsaw. Along with Kami?ska, her daughter Ruth, her husband Meir Melman, Avrom Morewski, Juliusz Berger, Ruth Taru-Kowalska, Schweilich, and others, Chewel and Rywa became headliners, the pride of that theater company. Chewel staged many plays, including Thirteen Barrels of Ducats, Tevye the Dairyman, The Jews Opera, Goldfadens Dream, The Big Win, Hard to Be a Jew, Professor Mamlock, and Uriel Acosta. In addition to producing pieces by Jewish playwrights, he also translated plays by Ostrovsky, Ibsen, and Gorky into Yiddish and staged them too. The Polish State Jewish Theater was well received not only in Poland but in Western Europetoo, touring often to London, Paris, Amsterdam, Vienna, Brussels, and West Berlin. It also visited Israel and the USA. But the Soviet Ministry of Culture never did get around to issuing it an invitation, and its a no-brainer as to why that was so. The Soviets had destroyed their own Jewish theater together with Mikhoels and Zuskin. So why would they want yet another Jewish theater touring there?

It had by now been several years since the Buzgans return to Poland. They were bending over backwards to get a Soviet visa, so they could go and spend time with their daughter. To do that, they even tried something quite underhanded, assuming the status of Soviet citizens living abroad. (For the uninitiated: Yes, strange as it sounds, there is such a status. At least there was, back then.) Those endeavors dragged on for quite a while—not months, but years. Butat last, in the winter of 1954, the long-awaited entry visa for Moscow came. . .

I was six years old, and I remember so well mom and dad setting off for the Belorussia RailroadStation to meet my “new grandpa and grandma.” And then, in the dim corridor of our communal apartment, before the very eyes of the speechless Tartakovsky-Bermans and Samedovs, who were lined up along the walls, Chewel and Rywa made their sudden appearance. Sprinkled with snow, not over the hill yet (Chewel was fifty-seven at the time, and Rywa, fifty-one), good-looking, splendidly dressed, and gleaming with a Hollywood-like luster, they made their entrance from another world, an unknown and all-but-forbidden world.

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I have photographs of Chewel and Rywa in front of me right now—a lot of photographs, taken in different years, snapshots from plays and from ordinary life. I have said that Chewel was handsome, but he wasnt handsome in the generally accepted sense, because he didnt have classically regular features. Grandfather had a large nose, a high forehead, and full lips. But his beauty sparkled in his dark, languid, velvety eyes. His gaze was penetrating yet at the same time alluring, andmore than one actress, I think, fell for that Buzgan gaze. And Rywa? . . What did she think, what did she feel, that devoted wife and confirmed homebody, when Chewelplunged head-first into a role and then took the role offstage? When that happened, Rywa didnt make any jealous scenes; she just started silently gathering her things. His wifes unspoken rebuke would have a magical effect on Chewel. He would swear to be faithful and beg her to stay, because he couldnt conceive of life without her. And she, of course, would forgive him. Chewel would promptly break off the latest in a string of affairs, and the Buzgans family life would go back to normal. All this I heard in snatches, from conversations between my parents, because our official family history says not a word about Chewelsromantic liaisons. At least, no one ever said a thing to me, the granddaughter, about them.

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But let us go back to the winter of 1954/1955, when the Buzgans first arrived in Moscow. Grandma Rywa later said that when she saw my dad—a tall, strong-knit, pleasant-looking, far from typically Jewish lad, flushed with the cold and wearing a sheepskin coat and a hat with earflaps—at the railroad station, she was enormously surprised and saddened. She took him to bea Cossack, no more, no less. (During an anti-Jewish pogrom, you see, Cossacks had cut down her younger brother just because the boy refused to let go of the military-style cap that was part of his school uniform.)But when they all came home from the station, and Rywa met Granny Manya, who spoke to her in Yiddish, that put her at ease and she heaved a sigh of relief. With so Jewish a mom, my dad could hardly have been a saber-rattling descendent of the Cossacks of the Kuban or the Don.

Due to the arrival of kith and kin from abroad, Granny Manya and dads sister Zina had temporarily moved in with the Abramovs, friends of our family who lived on the fifth floor. Since Manya was incurably illby then, this was a huge sacrifice on her part. But it had to be done. The foreign relatives had to be given, if not an apartment,then at least a room. But how grieved Rywa and Chewelwere when they found out later that the big room belonged to my grandmother and my aunt, and we three were residing in a mere 65-square-foot cubicle that couldnt even be called a room. It was just a cubbyholewith a window and a door. Times were hard after the war, with ourfood so meager, our money so tight, and ourcommunal apartment so shabby. But still, everyone was boundlessly happy to be meeting again after seventeen yearsapart. I remember there were lots of gifts for every member of the family (and a little something left over for the neighbors too.) But I, the only granddaughter, got the lions share. I especially remember among the pile of presents a small, delicate gold ring with an alexandrite stone. A real ring for a six-year-old girl! I lost track of it later, of course. I was too little for gifts like that.

Spiridonovka Street was only a stones throw from Malaya Bronnaya Street. In the evenings, the whole family would often call on Uncle Misha and Aunt Raya, to visit with relatives and at the same time have a good meal andeven a taste of black caviar. (I still have an old photo in which I, at two years of age, am sitting on Uncle Mishas table and eating black caviar from a spoon.) Yes, our Uncle Misha knew how to live, but that didnt stop him from helping others out too. He fed friends and relatives, and loaned money without caring whether or not he would be paid back anytime soon. By that time, Misha and Raya had an eleven-year-old son, Marik—a late-in-life, rambunctious child who caused a heap of problems. Misha and Raya were city folk through and through, but my mom and dad, despite their slender means, still found a way to rent a country cottage every summer. Well, naturally, they then had Marik dumped on them for two or three months at a time. It was simply impossible to say no to Uncle Misha.

Marik was five years older than me, but we were roughly equal in intellectual development. Once, when my bicycle broke, he came up with the brilliant idea of taking the chain off and boiling it for a while in kerosene. No sooner said than done. We went to the wooden outdoor kitchen, took a pot, poured kerosene into it, and put the chain in to boil. It flamed up so fast that we both dove into the bushes and started roaring like mad things “Fire!”we hollered. “Were burning!” Hearing us howling like that, my mom and the landlady came running and started putting out the flames. Lucky for us, they were quickly extinguished, but the landlady—a disagreeable old woman, the widow of a decorated member of a Latvian rifle battalion—threatened to send us packing then and there,and not only that but also to sue us to recover her material damages (wed set fire to the kitchen table). But mom managed to sweet-talk her somehow, so we got to stayat on the cottage. In the evening, though, when dad cameinfrom Moscow, Marik, as the senior “ideas man,” had a belt applied to his bare bottom.

“Are you going to misbehave any more, you nasty little fire-setting rascal?” dad inquired threateningly as he laid into Marik.

“Ow! Im not, Im not! Forgive me, Uncle Grisha!” the underaged miscreantpleaded.

“Do you give your word as a Pioneer?”

“I do, I do! Ill write a solemn promise right now and mail it to dad and Uncle Chewel.”

“Well, if its Uncle Chewelyoull be writing to, all right. Stand up and put your pants on.”

My father, having traded his anger for mercy, called off the character-building exerciseor, in the current English term for it, the child abuse. But in those long-ago days, neither we children nor our parents knew the first thing about those wise American ways.


Chewel and Rywa

Uncle Misha and Aunt Raya were by now on the elderly side and afflicted with the aches and pains of age, but were still as cheerfully welcoming and hospitable as ever. And now that Mishas famous brother and sister-in-lawwere in Moscow, Misha and Raya were literally mobbed by former members of the USSRs State Jewish Theater. The theater was closed by then, and the unemployed actors were trying to eke out a living, each in his or her own way. Some were making movies, others were looking for a snug berth in the variety theater, and still others had managed to find their way onto the Russian stage.One of those actors I will never forget. His name was Lyova Traktovenko. Short, bald, round as a dumpling, and unfailingly cheerful, Traktovenko came to every evening function and gathering at Uncle Mishas. Invited or not, he was the life and soul of the party. He was forever telling a story, singing a song, reciting something, or even doing magic tricks. He was a real live wire. Whatever the day of the week, Traktovenko would get up at six and head out for a walk. And on the way, he might drop in on someone he knew (on Uncle Misha, for example, or on us in ourSpiridonovka Street home).

“Buzgan! Miriam!” The unbiddenearly visitor, irrepressibly cheerful, would cry. (Oddly, dad was called Buzgan too, on the principle that the famous Buzgans son-in-law must also be a Buzgan. And Traktovenko affectionately called mom only by her Biblical name.)“Have you read todays paper? Its worth a look.”

“We havent gotten to it yet,” would be my sleepy dads gloomy reply. And then he would add disapprovingly: “Dammit, Lyova, do you know what time it is? Dont you own a watch?”

From then on, we saw grandpa and grandma almost every year. Either mom and I (sometimes with dad) would go to Poland for the summer, or Chewel and Rywa would come and stay with us. Although we gradually got more square footage, we really had nowhere to put them up properly in Moscow. (By the time we were finally given a two-room apartment in Izmailovo, grandfather was too sick to make any lengthy trips.) That was why we oftener than not spent the summers together in a suburban Moscow cottage or on the shores of the Baltic. Grandpa loved me a lot and spoiled me terribly. And literally so, by lavishing me with beautiful outfits.His dream was to make an actress of me, and he gently criticized me for being so ungainly. He even set me the example of Erika, a granddaughter of the Kami?skis, who, he told me, looked just like a Frenchwoman. (As a child and adolescent I was what well call pleasantly plump.) I still have several photos showing me dressed to the nines, decked out in my grandmothers theatrical jewelry and with a cigarette clamped between my teeth, pretending to be somebody or other. I was eleven at the time, but judging from the photo, I could have passed for eighteen. Thats how powerful the art of self-transformation can be. Unfortunately—or perhaps fortunately—grandfathers attempts to turn me into an actress never paid off. Fate was mapping out a different path for me.

Grandpa and grandma were fluent in more than Yiddish, the language of their profession; they also correctly spoke, read, and wrote Russian, Polish, and Spanish. Back in the day, they had both graduated from a Russian high school (grandfather inWilno) and grandmother in the little town of Ostrog, which belonged in turns to the Russian empire, Ukraine, and Poland). Oh yes, and grandmother could speak Ukrainian too. She also had perfect pitch and a pleasant contralto. When the mood took her, she would get a large, dark shawl out of a closet, throw it over her shoulders, and sing Jewish and Ukrainian songs. And grandfather got a huge kick out of telling(and told time and again) the story of how he, the Russian language and literature instructors favorite student, would recite with gusto Pushkins account “Of how this day Oleg the Wise prepares to wreak his vengeance on the witlessKhazars. . .”Oh, the irony of fate! I think that the young Buzgannever had an inklingthat those “witless Khazars” had a historic kinship with the Jewish people.

“Buzgan,Chewel!” So the old teacher would call on the youthful Buzgan, every time placing the stress on the second syllable of “Chewel.” (That was just how he liked to do it.) “Crow like a rooster!” Which meant come up to the chalkboard and recite something from the Russian classicsfor us. And Chewel, proud of the confidence vested in him, would stand in front of the class and recite from memory “Oleg the Wise” or some other poem, but invariably a long one. And the elderly teacher, lulled by themelodic lilt of it, would blissfully doze off as the recitation went onand snore loudly, to the joy and merriment of his students.

Now a word or two about the name Chewel. Ive wracked my brains to figure out where my Great-Grandmother Leah dredgedthat up from. I assume that the name Chewel, or Chawel, is derived from the Biblical Abel—a Yiddishization of a murdered forebears name. But the old Russian teacher of course had no notion of this.

When I and my parents would arrive in Warsaw, the first order of the day would be a visit to the theater. To my shame, I dont really know Yiddish, although I do understand it a little, since I studied German at Moscow State Lomonosov University.(But there was every opportunity to learn it! And if I had, I wouldnt be so tormented now as I try to decipher grandmothers memoirs and other documents from the Buzgan theatrical archive.) Thank goodness the theater had been equipped with headphones, so I could hear the script translated into Polish. (I had picked up conversational Polish as a child, during the first summer I spent there.) There were not all that many Jews left in Poland after the war. Among the theater patrons were far fewer Jews than Poles and foreign tourists; for the latter, the Jewish theater was something of an exotic must-see. Arthur Miller himself was a guest of the theater and attended a performance of his All My Sons, with Ida Kami?ska in the lead role.

I especially remember Tevye the Dairyman, with grandfather in the role of Tevye and grandmother as Golde. Grandfather was among the worlds best Tevyes. I also recall the bittersweet Hard to Be a Jew. Its one version of the classical tale of the prince and the pauper, in which two friends, Schneerson the Jew and Ivanov the Russian, decide to switch identifying documents for a while. As you can imagine, this prank doesnt work out too well for the unfortunate real-Ivanov/fake-Schneerson: as Slavic as he may look on the outside, he is in for as much “Jewish happiness” as he can stomach. Because back before the Revolution in Russia, it was not your ugly mug but your passport that earned you the beatings.

Aside from his theater work, Grandpa Chewelalso appeared in several films. One of them, an East German made-for-TV series called Dr. Schlüter,aired on Soviet television in the mid-1960s.

As an actress, RywaSzyler—a beautiful, statuesque woman with fine, Biblical features—was a cut above. She played a good number of leading roles. Her repertoire was multidimensional, running the gamut from the aristocratic writer Eliza Orzeszkowato the hideous witch Baba Yaga.

*          *          *

Before ending this modest family essay, I will permit myself a brief digression. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Polish-born residents of the USSR were presented with an opportunity to be repatriated to Poland. My mom fell into that category. And grandpa and grandma dreamed of little else than having us come and live with them in Poland. With that goal in mind, they even found an enormous new apartment on Anielewicz Street, in what had once beena Jewish neighborhood. They also decided what we would all do, according to our respective talents: mom would be a theater actress, dad would be a stage manager, and I . . . well, I was to begin by enrolling in a Polish high school.

The decision to move to Poland camevery hard to my father. Like many Muscovites born and bred, he adored that city, and he loved Russia, his motherland, very much. Still, he decided to give it a try—to start with just a year in Poland, so he could get a taste of the life there and find out if he could blend in with no regrets and without losing something of himself. But then came an unforeseen mishap worthy of the scathing pen of Zoshchenko or Ilf and Petrov.

My dad was a member of the Communist Party. (He had joined at the ripe old age of nineteen, at the front.) So, by the draconian laws of the time, if he wanted to go abroad, he would need a reference from work signed by the Party district committee. And they wouldnt give him that wretched reference. The general gist was that Comrade Litinsky didnt rate a visit to Poland, the USSRs fraternal neighbor, and definitely not for a whole year; let him stay home and build up hisParty experience instead. And thats the whole preposterous story. By the will of the Party committee of the Krasnaya Presnya district of the city of Moscow, we never did get to take up permanent residence in fraternal Poland, although many years later we emigrated without incident to a country whose fraternal feelings for the Soviet Union were less than nonexistent—the United States of America. Admittedly, my grandpa, my grandma, and my mom too didnt live to see that.

Chewel Buzgan died in Warsaw in 1971, of a heart attack. He is buried in the Jewish cemetery, alongside such Jewish cultural celebrities as Esther Rachel Kami?ska, founder of the Jewish theater and Ida Kami?skas mother, and the director Avrom Morewski. After grandpa passed away, my grandmother left the theater, retired on a pension, and moved to Moscow, to be with us. For several years, she languished in an unmanageable depression, missing grandpa, the theater, the fame, and the past that was gone forever. Then, not long before her death, she suddenly rallied, shook herself off, and even wrote her memoirs, which were abridged for publication in SovietischeHeimland,Russias Jewish monthly. Rywa Buzgan is buried with my mother, Mariam Litinskaya, in the columbarium of Moscows Donskoy Monastery. And my father, Grigory Litinsky, reposes in the Jewish cemetery in Queens, New York. They lived together but died apart.

*          *          *

No longer a child but a teenager by now, I of course recognized that the entire story, from daybreak to sundown, of Polands Jewish theater was happening before my eyes. I recognized that, but still I did not value as I should have those fleeting hours of fellowship with that theater, with my grandpa and grandma, with other actors, and with Jewish culture. Had I been even just a little older or more farsighted, I would have been able to extractfrom that fellowship an incomparably greater store of spiritual resources. I wish I had kept a diary back then, to record every vivid word my grandfather said, every interesting thought he had. But it was not to be. . . Youth is egocentric and sufficient unto itself, and you cant bring back the past. But now that my grandpa and grandma, my mom and my dad are no longer here with us, now that their ashes rest in cemeteries in Poland, Russia, and America, Igather up, grain by grain, my memories of childhood and adolescence, so as to pass them on to the younger generation. And my appeal to that new generation is this: Open your eyes wide, listen closely, remember it, write it down! Because somewhere nearby, history is being made.

Translated from the Russian by Liv Bliss

Yelena Litinskaya was born in Moscow. She graduated from the Moscow State Lomonosov University with the Masters Degree in Slavic Languages and Literature. In 1979 Yelena immigrated to the United States, where she received her second Masters Degree in Library and Information Science. She has been working at the Brooklyn Public Library for 30 years (1980-2010) and continued writing poetry and prose. She published 9 books of poetry and short stories in Russian: “Monologue of the Last snow”  (1992), “In Search of Me” (2002), “At the Canal” (2002), “Through the Time Distance” (2011), “From Spiridonovka to Sheepshead Bay” (2013), “Games with Muses” (2015), “Woman in a Free Space”(2016), “Librarians Notes, or My Town Brooklyn” (2016), “Extrasensory of Love. Tales and Short Stories” (2017). One can find her translations, poems, short stories, tales and articles in literary journals, magazines and almanacs in the US and Russia. http://magazines.russ.ru/authors/l/litinskaya. She is award-winner and a finalist of several international literary contests. Yelena is one of the editors of the Literary Magazine “Gostinaya” (gostinaya.net) and the vice-president of the Russian American Writers Association ORLITA.




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