Point of No Return: A Short Excursion into My Family History
It was July in a small God-forgotten place in the middle of Ukraine. It was dawn in the tiny village and so quiet that one could hear the buzz in the air. The village was waking up, and everybody was getting ready to go about their daily routine. There was a strange noise in the air, something like a thousand small motors running somewhere far away. The noise was growing by minute, and soon there was dust in the air and a motorized platoon entered the village.
The Nazis were coming. “Achtung, Achtung, Deutsche Soldaten und Offizieren der Grosse Reich. Jude, come outside, we will give you food and jobs. Come outside, Jude.”
“Girls, girls, get up now, get up.” Two little girls were waking up to the strange noises and their mother’s screams. “Girls, run, run, Nazis are here, they are forcing all villagers to go to the center of the village. I have a bad feeling. Run girls, run.” Their mother could not run. She had to stay behind with their father, who was in a wheelchair. There was no time to comprehend the magnitude of what was happening, and there was not time to say much.
Two frightened little girls in summer dresses with shoes, a bottle of water, and some bread wrapped in a big handkerchief–this was all. They were getting out of the house through the back door, and all they heard was their mother’s voice. “Do not look back, run, run, whatever you hear, do not look back, run…” Without glancing back, they ran through fields, running away into the unknown, away from the present into nowhere. They heard screams–lots of screams–then shootings–lots of shootings–and more screams, but they just kept running.
They traveled for two months in military cars or trucks, and sometimes they got lucky and hopped on a train with soldiers. Sometimes they just walked. Their bread and water was gone, long gone, and they begged in train stations, on the streets, anywhere. They had to make it. They were going to their aunt who lived in Leningrad, far far away, and this was what their mother had told them: “If you ever make it, go to Leningrad, to Aunt Maria, here is her address.” She pushed the small piece of paper into the girl’s hands. They safeguarded the paper, the most precious commodity they had now. Without it, the little girls were lost.
They made it. Two months later they walked into the outskirts of Leningrad, two skinny, dirty, hungry girls in clothes ripped to the point of no recognition. They made it… they survived.
It was my grandmother they were looking for. She lived in Leningrad with three kids: my mother, who was six years old, her three-year-old sister, and a baby boy. The war was everywhere. There was not enough food, no electricity, and no water, no way to survive, especially for a single mom with three kids of her own and two more girls, who had no papers, no birth certificates, nothing. They officially did not exist in this world. They were supposed to be dead, dead just like everybody else in their small Ukrainian village, where everybody had been killed at once as a part of a “humanitarian” action of the Third Reich, ethnic cleansing and the fight for the purity of a race…
The girls did not have any documents, so they were not eligible for the bread that was assigned to every family in the city of Leningrad during the war. The ration was two hundred grams of bread per day per person.
My grandma was a very simple woman. She did not have any education, aside from four grades of primary school, and she did not know much about politics, war, or literature. All she knew well was how to split four portions of bread among five hungry children, and she did it well.
The baby boy died. He was too small and fragile to survive the starvation, but all the girls survived the war. They turned out to be beautiful young ladies. They stayed with my grandma, who they called their mother, forever. They went to college after the war, graduated, married and pledged their lives to my grandma because she had saved their lives and they owed her every breath… They did indeed.
Both of my aunts moved to the USA. They were young and ambitious and, with their husbands, ready to build a new life, full of hopes and energy. They have done it. Respected retired Americans, they have done well for themselves and their kids. One used to own a big business, sold it, and retired, and has some property in Florida and New York. Another one is a retired doctor and has a son who is a well-known art dealer. They never went back to Russia, not even when my grandmother died, never ever again. They had put their pasts behind them, never looking back. They always keep in contact with my family, including my mom, preaching that everything they have is solely because of “Aunt Maria’s golden heart.” It is indeed.
I had heard this story many times, the amazing story of my grandma and her struggle and the story of my aunts, who had miraculously survived the Nazis’ ethnic cleansing. I had never met them, but now I would. I had decided to visit my aunt and borrow some money, so I could hold on a little longer until I found another job, so I could pay my share of the rent on the apartment. Nothing extraordinary, just go there, introduce myself, and tell her what had happened. I was sure they would help me.
I was nervous. I knew they had never met me before, but after all I was my grandma’s ___, so I called her.
Oh, my aunt was so happy to hear from me. Oh, of course she knew that I was in New York. Of course my mom had told her that. Why hadn’t I called earlier? They wanted to see me so much. They wanted to meet me.
“Oh, Sunday is perfect. Lunch? Great, homemade food sounds good to me, yes, sure I can find the place, yes, take a D train to Brooklyn, oh no problem.”
I got ready, trying my absolute best to look good, not to look like a bum. It was not easy, because my wardrobe was very limited. I had two pairs of pants, two sweaters, a couple of t-shirts, one pair of shoes, and my magic coat: it was my blanket by night and my coat by day, a great coat.
The train ride was long but time flies by when you’re excited. It was right on Ocean Parkway, a respectable looking building with a doorman, mirrors, and an elevator, all the perks. I rang the doorbell and she greeted me with hugs and kisses, mumbling, “Oh, you look just like your mother when she was young. Oh, we are so happy to meet you finally. Lunch is served, we will eat and talk.”
I tried not to eat too fast and told her and her husband my sad story from scratch. They sat there, just listening and nodding their heads. I rested my case. “Can I borrow from you some money, please? I understand that this is strange. After all, this is the first time you have seen me. I wish we were meeting under different circumstances, but … I promise, I will return every penny. I really need three hundred dollars. This will help me to get through the next couple of weeks, until I find another job, and I am sure I will.”
Then, she spoke up: “My dear, we feel so sorry for your situation, but what can we do to help? After all, we are just retired senior citizens. We worked so hard our whole lives. America is a very harsh country. It is not easy to survive and you have to be strong. I do not think that you have made the right choice. You are not able to survive, you cannot keep jobs, where is the guarantee that you will keep the next one? You have a responsibility for your child, you left him with your parents. You will never be able to survive here. This country is not for you. You have no job, no money, and no papers, how do you think you can go on like this? This is a dead-end street. You are falling down, more and more. It is better for you just to go back, before it is too late, before you simply vanish here. We wish we can help, but we cannot.”
The silence was unbearable, simply unbearable, and I felt that in one more minute I would cry–I would cry loudly like a child. I got up. I realized that I had exceeded their hospitality. I had to go. “Thanks a lot for lunch, it was very nice of both of you to invite me.”
“Oh, yes, my dear, you better go, you have a long ride back.”
I went to the hallway and got my coat. As she was walking me to the door, she whispered in my ear, “My dear, your coat smells, and you also smell like sweat. It is customary in America to shower every day and use some deodorant. This is just my advice to you.”
“Thanks, I appreciate it.” There was no point in telling her that my coat smelled because I used it every night as a blanket, and deodorant? Well, it would be nice to have it, but $1.50 was beyond my budget.
She opened the door and put something in my hand. “Here, take it, this is a subway token. After all you spent money riding a train to visit us.”
I was shaking. I had started shaking inside and out, and I did not want her to see it. “Thanks, I do not need it. I can pay for my ride.” Then I said something strange, really strange. I do not even know why I said it and how these words came out of me. “Ten years from now I will have a house, a hundred-thousand-dollar-a-year job, and a car. I will have it all. I know that you think I cannot survive. I know that you think I am crazy, but I will, I will survive, I will survive. And one day, if you ring my doorbell and ask me for a drop of water, I will shut the door in your face. I will.” Down the hall, press the button, where is damn elevator? Here it is. I walked out. I felt cold. I was shaking and tears were running down my face, just running and running. I sat down on the sidewalk and just talked to myself. I will do it, I will have it all, and I know I will. I will prove to all of you that I can do it. I will not vanish like you said, I will climb up this ladder all the way, as high up as it goes.
Two little girls survived many years ago, survived despite all odds. They owed their lives to my grandma, but they did not owe me anything. I would do it on my own. I promise I will.
God bless America.