The Other Side
By Richard Slotkin
My wife’s people and mine came from a dozen different shtetls scattered across eastern Poland, White Russia and the western Ukraine. It might be possible, through diligent research, to establish just where these towns existed, some for centuries, until each and all were wiped so utterly out that it was as if they had never existed.
When I was growing up, the names of those places were rarely mentioned. It was said that so-and-so had been born “on the Other Side,” and when I was a child that was how I thought of where we came from: a place totally Other, whose nature was not to be described, only known through doubtful hints of decay, of shame, of contagious disease, of an all-encompassing malevolence.
My father’s eldest brother lied about his birthdate, not for vanity of age, but because he didn’t want people to know he was born on the Other Side.
The old zeydehs came from there — not really grandfathers to living families, just ancient, ruined-looking old men, perched like a row of buzzards on a bench outside the shul on the High Holidays, cackling in Yiddish, rubbing snuff on their sore gums and offering you a pinch, holding out the tin in broken fingers.
In 1948, when I was six, my Uncle Abe’s “baby brother” appeared, a Displaced Person straight from the Other Side: a forty-year-old man with a shy, sweet smile and the bloodless, incurved look of someone in remission from cancer. His visit was brief. He had to go to Montreal, Canada; the American government wouldn’t let him stay. Maybe they thought what he had was catching. He wept when he had to leave: Something in the country he’d left behind had devoured every last vestige of family that remained to him, leaving only the American brother, with whom he was not permitted to stay.
Cousin Bella was different. She was born on the Other Side, but in her that heritage took the form of a charming accent, a European manner — and the kind of deep and serious devotion to the arts we associate with Russian intellectuals. She was my wife’s mother’s cousin, a small woman with bright brown eyes. We met in 1968, when she was in her late sixties — she was as old as the century — and after that we saw her about once a year, usually at a wedding or bar mitzvah.
The large hall would be filled with people laughing and yelling hello, enjoying, with high drama, the family news, while the brass and accordion combo rollicked with practiced enthusiasm through Tsena Tsena Tsena. There’d be a long table where swans of ice overlooked the display of cold cuts, smoked fish and rye bread rounds, watermelon-bowl fruit salad, franks-in-a-blanket and mounds of chopped liver. In a room full of boisterous hugs and lip-smacking kisses, she would give you her little hand in greeting and lean in for a peck on each cheek. That makes her sound cold, but hers was a European courtesy. There was real warmth in her look and real pleasure in the little smile she gave you. When she spoke, her accent was more Russian than Yiddish, with that rising/falling musicality and the slightly drawn-out vowel sounds. She was always impeccably well-dressed in tones of gray. Her makeup was very simple: a little face powder, touches of rouge on the cheeks.
Her eyes lit up when I told her I studied American literature. She had discovered a fellow spirit who read great works with the serious attention they deserved. She loved the Russian novelists and the Yiddishists Isaac Leib Peretz and both the Singers, I. J. and Isaac Bashevis. In English, her tastes were narrower, but she was devoted to Dickens and Shakespeare – she would not miss a performance of Shakespeare if tickets were to be had! American writers she did not know well enough for a serious appreciation. Perhaps Hemingway? Her smile was ironic, as much a comment on her own ignorance as on poor Hemingway. But I must tell her which Americans were worth reading — I was a scholar; she would welcome my opinion.
She lived with her husband in an expensive co-op near Lincoln Center. They had tickets for everything — the opera, the ballet, the Philharmonic, the chamber music series. “It’s heaven to me,” she said without any irony at all. She had played — no, she had studied piano as a girl in Russia. Her father had been a merchant in a small town outside of Bobruysk, a liberal man whose ambitions for his daughter exceeded the traditions of the shtetl. He paid for tutors in Russian, mathematics and music, and with determination and patience and the necessary payment of bribes, had circumvented the quota system that barred Jews and won her a coveted place in the gymnasium, the Russian high school that was the path to university. She had spent two or three years in gymnasium, which fed her intellectuality and gave her voice its Russian lilt.
Her husband was cut from coarser cloth: a craggy-faced giant with a shock of white hair, like a Jewish Carl Sandburg, except that his expression was bashful rather than prophetic. He stooped a little — a very large, gentle man trying not to scare the children with his size and barrel-organ voice. His education had stopped before high school, but he could keep in his head the accounts of a successful dry-cleaning business, which he grew from a single steamy shop — he and his wife sweating over the machines, the air thick with naphtha and the smell of steam-ironing — into a franchised business with stores all over the northeast.
Whatever their differences, they were a real married couple. They went together to the plays, ballets, operas and concerts. At first he went because this was something she loved, as well as something improving, another way to better himself. But her feeling was infectious. By the time I met them he was as deeply into it all as she was. Their difference now was that she preferred concerts, he the opera. She would lift an eyebrow when he went on about Donizetti and Verdi — “the sentimental murderers, the coloratura mad-women!” — and then “forgive” him.
He would hulk shyly behind his bright, small wife, gazing down at her with a look that seemed to be wondering: By what luck, by what grace have I come to be married to this Pauline Kael, this Peggy Guggenheim, fallen from a higher sphere? Her affection for him had a wry turn, but that was just her style, as if a part of her stood away from anything she said or felt. Yet the affection was real. When she looked at him, it was with the admiration and trust that a kindly giant deserves.
They had two daughters. Both were educated and accomplished women, but they always seemed a little in awe of their mother, who, after all, had never actually graduated gymnasium, and had been for most of their childhood the wife of a hard-working shopkeeper. Perhaps it was a reaction to her grand manner. But she had another quality that was less conventionally intimidating. It was the darker side of that ironic style that played through her conversation — “as if part of her stood away from anything she said or felt.” Despite her engagement with the moment and the people around her, there was a Watcher behind the sparkle of her eyes, whose nature was so strange that from its viewpoint everything in the opera or ballet, everything in the bright bar-mitzvah or wedding-world, was seen askew or aslant. It would be frightening for any child to see that strangeness in her mother’s eyes.
But at some point, the mother did reveal herself to her daughters. One of them told me the story at an anniversary party some years after her mother’s death.
Bella’s wonderful manner was her father’s gift. If now she entered a room as the one everyone had been waiting for, it was because that was how her father had looked at her. Benish Krakower was a widower, the owner of a kind of general store in their little town outside of Bobruysk, in the Pale of Settlement — the western districts of the Empire in which the Czar required his Jews to live, and not elsewhere under penalty of law. It was a shtetl devoted to the unchanging rigors of Torah and halakhah, in which worshippers, drawn away from the grievance and despair of their lives by the appealing world-blindness of Hasidism, chanted the phrases of the Law in loud unison to deafen their ears against a universe of menaces and enemies. All that the fathers asked — and they prayed for it passionately — was “a Kaddish,” a son to say the prayer for the dead for them when they were gone.
In that pious town, Benish Krakower was exceptional for his mind as well as his prosperity: a misnagid, a man of the Enlightenment, of Reason and Progress. The last prayer he ever uttered was that his wife should not be killed by the childbirth that killed her. After that he did without. To live was hard enough without wasting time and breath on what was of no avail. The world was as it was — take it from there. He had no sentimentality — an iron head. But a heart to feel he did have. The iron head told him the child was innocent of the mother’s death. The heart loved Bella entirely — more than loved, rejoiced in Bella.
Let the Orthodox pray for sons: Bella was all the Kaddish her father ever wanted, and he would give her everything — and more — that a Jew of that town would want for his son. Only she would not study Torah, but secular subjects, so she could pass the examinations for gymnasium. He wanted for her, not simply wealth, but the education that would allow her to live life — as nearly as possible as she would have it, a life of powers and pleasures. Let it be music or mathematics, the concert stage or engineering, whatever was her will. She was her father’s wildest hope, a defiance to the Gentiles and an affront to the pious.
So her father did whatever was necessary, accepting without hesitation the rigid logic of the order that shaped and distorted Jewish life in the Pale: labored and saved for her tutors, abased himself before school officials, ate his fill of Russian shit, stooped to bribery when that was what it took, all so she might have what she deserved. And he won — she won — she went to gymnasium and prospered there, and came home for school vacations with her head full of poetry and philosophy, visions of enlightenment and progress. More than that: while others would leave their visions and polemics in the coffee house, for Bella, if an idea had value, she must live it. She was a socialist. Pious fathers had been known to sit shiva for Red children, but her father trusted her vision and courage. Such courage he himself had not dreamed of having, but he was proud to see it in her and was a little in awe of her.
Then the Revolution swept through Kiev. With a bunch of her fellow students she joined what was not yet the Red Army, marching and making propaganda. A man with a hat and boots — therefore an officer — sent her out with two or three other Jews and a ragtag unit of displaced factory workers and demoralized soldiers to rally her village. The muddy streets were hysterical with fear, and she and her comrades tried to calm them. The leader of her detachment and his commissar spoke of democracy and the working class, of a Russia which would no longer know Jew from Gentile — ideas so foreign to the lives of that town that they were without meaning.
Then it was her turn to speak. She wore a uniform jacket looted from the barracks of a military school, a pistol on a leather belt, a pale face under a furious mass of auburn hair. Her father was in the crowd, his look filling her with confidence. She spoke not as an agitator but as a native of that place, naming things her people could actually imagine hoping for: a government respectful of their dignity and their rights that would let them live and earn a living safe from the malice of their neighbors, that would listen to their pleas with sympathy and understanding. When she was done the silence was serious — it was clear she had given the crowd an earful and what to think about. Some wild youths even gave a cheer for the Revolution. She was eighteen.
That night she ate supper with her father. Benish Krakower was terribly proud of his daughter and terribly afraid for her — impossible to untangle one terror from the other. The world was falling apart around them. In that chaos his daughter stood out, shining for all to see, her voice clear and sharp where her comrades were muddy and indistinguishable from each other. He was full of forebodings, but he was also proud of her. He trusted in her strength. The proof of that trust was that he delivered himself of his fears truly and, unstintingly, along with every warning he could imagine — and in the next breath — gave her all the encouragement she needed and deserved and left it to her to balance the fear and the aspiration.
In the morning, she went back to where her unit was billeted in the little police station, and everyone seemed suddenly doubtful and confused. Their leader, who wore stolen officer’s boots and a policeman’s tunic, had received three messages during the night: he must go here and there and the other place, none of which had any relation to each other and no reasons given. But that they should go was plain enough. Something was up.
What happens to the village if we go?
Shrug. They’ll be safer without us.
So she said goodbye to her father, who was sad that she had to go and still anxious for her — but maybe also a little relieved that her “army” was being careful with her life. She marched out of town with her cadre, down the road to where they camped in a wood. For that departure she never forgave herself.
Because after they left, the Whites came to town. She and her comrades heard the shooting and screaming and saw the smoke. She wanted her unit to go back, but the commander found twenty ways to say: What good would it do? and her friends held her when she tried to go herself.
So it wasn’t till two days later, after the Whites had gone storming off to strike the Red forces defending Kiev, that she got back to the town. The houses had been broken and burnt down, the muddy streets were full of smashed furniture and shit-fouled featherbeds and shattered crockery.
She found her father lying in the road in front of his house — the house half burnt, half collapsed. Her father was lying in the mud where they had beaten him to a pulp and stamped his face with their boots and castrated him and cut off his penis and ground it into the mud next to him. And him still breathing, bubbling blood at his nostrils.
A black knife divided her soul and she became two different people. One was a scream of grief and horror, a loved and exalted daughter-child facing the tortured and ruined and degraded body of her father, whose thoughtful kindness had always and forever nurtured her — and all around her the wreck of everything she loved and everything her life had been and every dream of what her life was intended to be.
And the other Bella was an iron heart and a cold eye, which saw all that ruin and accepted it simply because it was there — and this was now the world. She would be kind, as he was kind, but it was the cold eye that allowed her to see exactly what kindness must be in such a time and place and the iron heart that empowered her to use that knowledge, in the face of cruelty, wreckage and disgrace.
With her small hands she gathered what was cut from him, so that he should be buried whole, and she threw her coat over him, so that if he became aware, he should not think that she had seen his nakedness and shame. She dragged him over the sill of his ruined house and into a room with three ruptured walls and a piece of ceiling.
He woke up and saw her and groaned, Ay tochterl, you must not see me! and gestured at his body.
“I haven’t seen you, Papa,” she said. “I just got here. Shmuel the Sexton covered you and brought you inside.” The lie was safe, because Shmuel himself was no longer among the living.
Did he believe her or not? He sighed and did not speak again. She sat by him in the broken room for three days and nights, now and then wetting his lips with water to tempt him to drink. If she spoke to him, she never told anyone what she said.
She still had the pistol, but she didn’t use it.
When he was dead she went out into the yard and scraped a trench with a board and dragged him to it, wrapped in the coat. She threw her military jacket over him, piled earth on him and stone rubble from the house and fragments of furniture and boards. She said Kaddish: Yisgadal v’yiskadash sh’mei raba . . .
“The end of our life,” she added.
And yet one lives.
So she joined the long march of refugees east and south, away from the fighting, across the shelterless plains and the frozen Dneister River, to Bucharest, where she sold the pistol and where the landsleit of her little town had set up an agency. Then to America, and the dank tiled halls of Ellis Island, to the giant husband who looked like Carl Sandburg, to the shop and the daughters, to the Lincoln Center.