Monday, January 23, 2012

Red Diaper Memories: The Little Boy at the Dneiper River

It is 1920, and the Russian Civil War rages across the Ukraine. First the Bolsheviks come and promise the Jews freedom once the revolution is secured. The Jews of the village of Uman celebrate, but it is too soon. The Army of the Whites pushes back, and the Soviets retreat, leaving a few old rifles behind for defense. “We’ll be back,” they promise.

Overrun, the community is under attack once again. Fires are smoldering outside. Animals are loose and crying out. Horses hooves shake the ground. The guns are hidden away before the reprisals begin. The children are sent to the basement. Houses are torched, stores ransacked, young men kidnapped, girls raped; over 170 left dead. So much fear: it is time to flee.

This is the beginning of many immigrants’ journey: the burning village, the army in the streets, looking for booty and revenge. My father tells me this story, and how his father was killed in their escape.
We were at the border between the Ukraine and Moldova, on the way to Romania, at the Dneiper River. Our family was middle class. We owned a store and warehouse in the shtetl, but it had been ransacked by both the Whites and the Reds, and the family knew that we had to leave. Papa had paid a smuggler to get them across. He and my older brother Joe were to go across first. My sister and I waited with our mother in the woods for the smuggler to return and take us next. The sun finally set, but no one had returned to get them.

Eventually, only Joe came back, crying that Papa was murdered. The smuggler and the boatman had robbed them of all the gold and jewels hidden in their coats, and thrown them overboard, laughing and cursing the “Jews who hid their money.”

Papa drowned, but Joe was able to swim back to shore under cover of darkness. I waited on the shoreline for two days for the body to appear, but my mother had found another boat, and we, Joe, Beatty, and me the baby, had to leave on what would become a two-year-long journey across Europe, to France, and eventually a steamer to Ellis Island and New York.

I can picture my father as a five or six-year-old little boy standing on the bank of that river, staring at the water’s surface for hours, refusing to move until finally dragged away by his mother. The little boy waiting in tears for his father’s return; the little boy now totally dependent on his mother for survival. This is my inheritance.

I loved this man, who in turn abandoned first his sone Karl, and later, my brother and me, disappearing “underground” to hide from the FBI, to hide from my mother (and his responsibilities to his children) as well. Responsible for nothing, yet perhaps in some hidden corner of that little boy's brain, feeling ultimately responsible for his Papa’s death itself.

In some ways, I became this man. Like my father, I can be a victim, a dreamer, and a liar; often dependent on women, yet deeply resentful of this dependency. I have been blessed with a deeper "inner understanding," and have found the space to love him, and evolve past his limitations.

1 comment:

  1. I am touched by this story, it is still so actual with the stories of so many migrants. I am so grateful to know you Steve and I have admired all the changes you have accomplished in your life since the many years we have known you. You are a shiny light. Fanou