Uncle Leva

Perhaps there is no family that does not have its very own tales, which are passed down from generation to generation. Funny or tragic, the only thing that makes these tales interesting is the “family” element, itself made up of closely (or not so closely) related protagonists. The stories of our family, however, were unusual, if only because almost the same cycle of events would occur every generation… Each time, the characters, timing, and circumstances were different, but the situation in which my predecessors would end up, endured. As if it were some big old house that belonged to their grandparents and their great-grandparents, and where those foregoers were born and lived. They used to wander around its rooms, sleep in its beds, bring their spouses into it… when the time was up, they would pass away and bequeath it to the next generation… But no matter how different that new generation was, the house would remain the same.

Years later, while reading the Bible, I was unable to get rid of the feeling that Abraham reminded me of my own grandfather. At least, I used to imagine Abraham to be the same way I remembered my grandfather – a tall, lean, and priggish old man. A neatnik, and most likely a total bore, if you will. Aside from him, there were many Moses, Jacobs, and Josephs in our family, whom I never knew personally, and associated exclusively with the Biblical characters.

Uncle Leva, my mom’s older brother, was not a desired child. Even in his early childhood – the time when sons, especially firstborns, usually become the focus of love and affection for the whole family – he felt he was not loved. Perhaps it was because of Grandma Liza who, at last, having gotten her hands on Abram, was too preoccupied with her yearned-for husband. At some point, she realized the birth of their son would be a vexatious burden. It would be an exhausting, laborious chore that would steer away her time and her strengths, intended for her husband. However, Grandma Liza was not a self-sacrificing woman. She treated Abram like an expensive toy rather than a husband, all the while feeling jealous even of her own sisters. Liza was too contentious, as she had lived for too long in the cocoon of her father’s love and admiration.

As for Grandpa Abram, he simply had not had enough time to come to love his son. Right after Leva was born, the First World War started, and Abram was promptly drafted. It is still not clear how a Jewish guy, let alone a married one, could volunteer to become a recruit. The only known thing about his army days is that his service did not last long because he was captured almost immediately. Fortunately, during that war the Germans were not burning Jews in furnaces yet, although they pretty quickly resolved to use them as forced labor. That is to say, Abram’s life in captivity was not too bad. Soon he would discover that the German language was quite similar to his native Yiddish, which made his communication with the Germans easy. But then he got really lucky: the widow of a corporal killed in the battlefield, a fat German matron, demanded his help around her farm. It’s very likely that the tall and handsome Abram took to the lady’s fancy, and, as I suspect, he did not end up as a mere farm hand – for he had much more important business to attend to.

When Grandpa Abram returned home, the Revolution was in full swing, and shortly it was followed by the Civil War. As people struggled to survive, there was no place for such sentiments as love. In any case, Grandpa was not really the sentimental type. So, Leva was growing up feeling unloved, and probably having no idea how much he needed to feel otherwise.

When Leva turned seventeen – by then the family had been living in Baku for a while – Grandpa Abram announced that inasmuch as the boy had become an adult, no one would support him any longer. Thus, he ought to try and take care of himself. Indeed, empty hopes and unfulfilled promises – too many in Grandpa’s life – had turned him into a cold and niggardly man. Liza, for her part, was busy raising two younger daughters. In fact, she did not even want to be involved: according to Jewish law, a seventeen-year-old man is considered an adult. What’s more, the tall and broad-shouldered Leva strongly resembled his father, and that irritated Liza, oddly enough. It was as if her Abram had doubled himself, so now she had to be jealous of the younger one too. Therefore, on many occasions she tried to convince Leva, that, as a matter of fact, he was unhandsome, dumb, and awkward. All the while thinking in amusement how, in the middle of hunger and destruction, she could possibly raise such a gorgeous man.

Surely, Leva bore a striking resemblance to his father. But on the inside, he turned out very different, fragile and vulnerable. Once in a rare while, children of hopeless alcoholics would grow up to be teetotalers, and a fine intellectual would be born to hereditary plumbers with poor reading skills. As if nature, in its efforts to overcome the shortfalls of certain types of people, grows them in the first soil it came upon, deeming such things as environment and heredity unimportant.

When Leva decided to move out, neither Abram nor Liza tried to stop him. As far as Leva himself was concerned, his parents rejected his love, and it would be painful to see them every day knowing that everything about him irritated them or caused their discontent. Hence, Leva settled in a room rented from distant relatives and went to work in the Baku oil fields, where people were always needed.

A few years later, he fell in love with Minna. A petite and not very pretty girl with a smallpox pitted face, Mina could not even dream of being with such an attractive man. She looked at him with the eyes full of happy excitement and loyalty. Constantly anxious, she was afraid that their courtship was a mistake, and that soon Leva would come to his senses and would not show up at their next date. Therefore, on every occasion she was hasty to show how she cared for him. But Leva was no less happy: for the first time his love had not been rejected. They had it all – night walks, passionate kisses, physical affection, conversations about their future… but the most important thing, the thing that would make them husband and wife. Despite the lax morals of that time, they had remained an ordinary boy and a girl from good Jewish families, as they used to say. Above all, they liked to sit on the stones by the shore, next to the bathhouses across from the Maiden Tower.

Yet they were not in a rush to get married. Or, rather Leva was not in a rush, because he knew that his family would not approve of Mina. He was almost certain that his mother would not approve of any girl he brought home. For all she knew, Liza would think that they wanted to move into her and Abram’s already small apartment, which was actually a hut with no running water and without electricity, hastily built from rubbish. In lieu of amenities, they used a bucket with a plywood lid. For my mother, that very lid became one of her earliest memories: there was a hole, which was intended to be used by adults, and all her life she remembered that childhood fear of falling through it straight into the reeking bucket.

However, Minna was most diligent and persistent. As the young couple did not depend on anyone’s support, no one including Leva’s family could influence their life. In regards to Liza, Minna knew that one way or another she would hit it off with her. Of course, to Minna it all seemed easy: the only family she had was her elderly aunt. That woman was quiet and never interfered in anything, unlike Leva’s big family, which, in spite of his strained relations with his parents, still mattered.

“Yes, of course,” Minna would say, leaning on his shoulder and gazing at the waves that were turning silver in the moonlight. “It is what it is. But I still think that a family is when people love each other and forgive not only their own weaknesses but also those of others. And they help each other. Our family will be like this. Your relatives will see how we live, and will want to live the same way... They will become good and kind people. Especially, after our children are born. You’ll see, your parents will change when they have grandchildren…”

Leva understood that Minna was right to a certain degree. At the same time, he apprehended that it was all Minna’s wishful thinking. He loved his family dearly, but he also knew their nature and tempers. It took Minna over a year to talk Leva into registering their marriage, and if it became necessary for his family’s sake, to have a traditional Jewish wedding afterwards.

When Liza learned that her son had found himself a bride, she became furious. As Leva had imagined, Liza screamed that she would tear out the braids of that hussy with no decency. But Minna did not have braids. And nobody cared about traditions, let alone decent behavior. “What decency am I even talking about here, when these modern girls”– here Liza would roll her eyes – “do whatever they fancy…”

After her rage had simmered down, Liza summoned Minna to have a tête-à-tête. Feeling a certain awe about what his mother would say, at first Leva did not want his bride to go, but then yielded to Minna’s confident and imperturbable smile.

While the women were conversing, Leva sat in the yard with his father, who on the occasion of the forthcoming marriage was treating his son to his own home-made cherry-brandy. Surely, Abram was happy about this marriage: as Liza was getting older, her temper had not gotten any better, and certainly there was nothing wrong with her having found a new victim to have it out with. Grandpa did not understand that life had been much crueler to his wife than to him. Although Liza continued living as if she was still the crotchety daughter of a tycoon, her confidence that Great-Grandpa Woolf would protect her from any misfortune had been gradually fading, until it disappeared, leaving an enduring feeling of a forlorn orphanhood.

Even though the meeting didn’t go as smoothly as Minna had imagined, it definitely did not turn out as bad as Leva had thought. After talking with Liza, Minna came outside blushing, her eyes in bewildering tears, but nevertheless very pleased with herself. And Liza, who suddenly got very maudlin, declared that the poor girl had never seen anything good in her life, so there was not much to expect from her. Liza was confident that she was the only person who used to have everything that is good, but it was all left behind in her small hometown, buried in the Jewish cemetery together with Great-Grandpa Woolf.

The wedding was small and simple, with the table set in the hut’s yard, and Liza’s siblings in attendance. Liza made the chicken brought by Leva, subjecting the poor poultry to a strong criticism beforehand: she perfectly remembered those well-fed capons served in their house… They also invited the Rabbi, who now was casting pitiful looks on the scanty fare and improvised chuppah. Leva crushed a small glass jar, which was to imitate a crystal goblet brought by aunt Sofa but tucked away by Liza, with his foot. The newlyweds moved in with Minna’s aunt to her room on the second floor of a typical residential building in Baku, with a courtyard and a wraparound balcony that had access to all units.

Regardless of what exactly Liza said to Minna when they first met, Minna’s ardent desire to have children was still unfulfilled. Nevertheless, the young couple was happy. Leva continued working on oil rigs, and Minna, after she became a married woman, got a job as a courier with the department of cultural education. During the warm months, the aunty slept in the balcony, leaving the bedroom to the youth. In the winter, lodging on her folding bed behind the curtain at night, she groaned and muttered to herself, while Leva and Minna held their breath as they waited for her snore.

All in all, even if something was missing, they did not know it, and therefore were happy. Already in the morning Minna was waiting for the evening to come, when she and Leva would return home from work. Leva would take his time washing up under the water pump downstairs in the courtyard before they all would sit down for dinner. The auntie, who was in charge of cooking, somehow managed to put too much salt into every meal, but for Leva it was no big deal. He would laugh and say that the oil he extracted was way saltier, so he was used to it. But in reality, he was not. Just as he wasn’t used to having his own family, or to being in love, or being loved. To Leva, each morning after a night of love felt new, something beyond recognition, and knowing that the world was still the same felt rather strange. It was hard to believe that after such a night people could carry on with their everyday lives and petty concerns: uncle Ashot, an old Armenian selling sunflower seeds on the corner, continued nodding to Leva on his way from work so matter-of-factly, and Klavdiya Ivanovna, the secretary of the local party bureau from the sewing factory, was still mad at Minna’s aunt who slept in the communal balcony.

Somehow, Minna was able to strike a balance between excitement for her husband and pragmatism towards everything else. Her new relatives turned out to be not that scary. Although, after they had over Leva’s parents, Minna gave up on the idea of a closer relationship: Liza put so much fear into her auntie, that the poor woman was afraid to move, and just kept nodding while listening about Liza’s childhood, and affluence, and food in her house…

“It’s all right,” Minna thought, “when the children come along, everything will change.” She imagined a future for Leva and herself where they have lots of children and live in a big house materialized out of the blue. Her mother in law won’t dare to sneer at her for not having a starched tablecloth, family silver, or because of frugal treats, like an undernourished and over-salted chicken…

Her dreams fell short of reality because of war. They had been living together for five or six years by then, but both felt like the war had broken out immediately after their wedding. Suddenly, everything went wrong: life had wandered from the track, and run blundering over hedge and ditch. As an oilman, Leva had not been drafted for a while. But in 1942, when Germans occupied the North Caucasus, he received his draft card from the district enlistment office. After a short and useless bootcamp in Surakhany, he ended up somewhere near Stalingrad. By nature, Leva was neither a valiant nor an intrepid soldier. There were two sensations that had constantly pursued him ever since he joined the ranks of unfortunate conscripts dressed in some ludicrous, hastily issued off-sized military uniforms. Like everyone else, Leva had suffered from hunger and fear. Sometimes hunger would prevail, and because it was somewhat easier to subdue, Leva would feel a little better. But subduing fear was almost impossible.

It was not a fear of the unknown that comes with a burning mouth and cold sweat so familiar to cowards. The horror that gripped Leva was the fear of inevitability, resistant even to the watered-down ethanol, which unlike food, had been supplied to their fighting unit in abundance.

Leva’s platoon was assigned to a backup unit located on the steppe bank of the Volga. Sitting in the bottom of a fire trench, Leva tried hard to remember his Minna in his efforts to stifle fear and unbearable reek. Maybe because his current surroundings were too different from his accustomed peaceful life, the only thing he could recall was Minna’s voice. And then his fear would grow… Somehow, Leva became friends with Fyodor, a short and stout fellow from Rostov.

Although younger than Leva, Fyodor seemed more confident, and often said that he spat upon everything, and that, as a matter of fact, he needed to get himself off the hook, so instead of serving jail time he went to shoulder a rifle. When Fyodor found out that Leva was Jewish, he livened up, and slyly smiling inquired how Jews store the blood of Christian babies so it doesn’t congeal. He surely knew that blood thickens too fast to make dough. This question of an anti-Semite, which is as ancient as the Jewish people themselves, and as compulsory as lower secondary education, did not sound baffling to Leva: he had heard it many times. What bewildered him most was a vivid interest in the practical side of the matter, which Fyodor had displayed instead of traditional reprobation, an attitude more appropriate when asking to share one’s favorite pie recipe. Leva assured Fyodor that people lie about babies’ blood, and even tried to explain the strict rules of kashrut to him. But Fyodor, who at first had leaned towards Leva, all ears, sat back in disappointment, causing a thin stream of sand to trickle down from a badly tamped parapet right on his head.

“Shame on you,” said Fyodor, shaking off the sand, “and I thought, what a people, plain beasts! Something goes wrong – let’s teach the enemy a lesson and rub out their babies, that’ll be a good one. Nah, whatever they say, but that is how real urkas do. So, my old man, who actually was a deacon (may he rest in peace) had lied about those Egyptian plagues and what not…”

Oddly enough, Leva felt a friendly disposition towards this daredevil, but knew that in civil life he would not want to bump into him in a dark alley. There was something about Fyodor’s unpredictable wild energy, his rejection of the rules and laws imposed on him by the world. He even respected Jews despite all the tall stories he had heard about them. But most importantly, Fyodor had no fear. He feared nothing and no one, and Leva felt so much better around him.
“Levchik, just hang around,” Fyodor used to say in his rogue manner, unclenching his lips out of habit, “And when we go out against Kraut, above all, fret not. We’ll fight ‘em off…”

The fear would fade, but only for the time being; it never went away completely. Tormented by horror, Leva even rejoiced when he heard the firing nearby, and the parapet, tamped in haste, would keep crumbling from shell bursts. According to the battlefield cues, soon their back-up unit would relocate to the front line, replacing the almost completely driven-out platoons. And rightly so: one night the unit relocated in single file to some other trenches, even though Leva thought that they returned to the ones where they had spent almost a month: by the same river Volga, in the same steppe, even that unbearable reek felt the same.

Left alone with her auntie, Minna seemed to return to her maidenhood. She did realize that she had a husband, who had gone off to war, but from the day Leva drove away in the back of a truck, he ceased to be a person of flesh and blood, turning into a mere memory. Perhaps, not even a memory, but rather something vague and elusive. It had been only a month, and already Mina would hesitate to admit whether she remembered what Leva was like… Maybe the reason for that laid on some subconscious level. Possibly, somewhere deep inside she failed to recognize that Leva really loved her, and that they were happy together. Above all, she seemed to believe that the farther she distanced herself from her husband – to the point that the connection between them was almost lost – the smaller would be the danger threatening him at the front. By fooling herself she wanted to deceive fate…

When she found out that she was pregnant, Minna was deeply perplexed. Not even Leva’s letter, the first one she received after he left, could get Minna out of that state. Leva wrote that he was fine and a no-show at the battlefield, because all new conscripts, like himself, were far away from the frontline, and no one knew when that sojourn would end. Although, he added, that soon… and the following lines were blacked out by a strict military censor. The diligent SMERSHian could not imagine what his vigilance did to Minna. She assumed that by cutting Leva short, as if plunging him into a dark and scary void, a cavity from which no words or people could return, someone nameless was sending her an implicit message. Yet, she was neither able nor willing to understand that allusion. From her life experience Minna knew that unadulterated happiness did not exist. A cloud on one’s happiness must always be there. Back when Leva was there, it was the absence of children. And now…

Now, her newly-materialized Leva was in danger. For Minna, that danger became even more real than the baby she carried; the gut-wrenching feeling was driving her crazy. Minna fought it for several days; she had already decided what to do, she was still unable to say it out loud even to herself.

Then things moved even faster and not in sequence, but rather side by side, like a team of horses. Leva and his new friend Fyodor landed up in the front line. Petrified Leva was staring straight, and amidst Fyodor’s bravado, was coming to terms with something scary and unreal that was about to erupt. Leva saw the soldiers who carried away the dead and the wounded comrades whenever they could, and did not know what to fear most: death or horrific and insufferable pain, inevitable for every wounded… And Fyodor, imbibing alcohol, which had stuck in Leva’s throat but had no effect on Fyodor, was in good spirits and told “Levchik” to fret not.
“A real Jew,” he said while smiling in a peculiar way, “cannot die in this bullshit war. That’d be a blunder. Didn’t I read about you? See? I know what I am talking about. Just think, the pharaoh of Egypt was a true Pakhan, this stooge Hitler is nothing compared to him, and you remember how it ends? When Jews bailed out of Egypt, I mean? The pharaoh went after them, and the Sea of Red was on their way. Well, Jews were being Jews and beat the red light, and when the pharaoh and his whole kit and caboodle butted in, the sea closed in on them. Like a kitten that pharaoh had drowned… Look, if worse comes to worst, there’s the Volga, and it is just as good as that sea. If anything, it will come apart to make way, and when those schmendricks rush after you, that’ll be curtains for them. Remember that, Levchik!”

Later that day, a young lieutenant, the platoon commander, announced to soldiers that by the evening the sergeant would issue ammunition, and, well, they were to ensure that their weapon is ready. He had been informed that at night their platoon would assail.

Around the same time, Minna had made up her mind. She had heard about that hag a long time ago, and would always try to steer clear whenever she saw her around, as if the trail of her black deeds was contagious. But now it was different. Minna was ready for a big sacrifice to save Leva. Fighting her shame and fear, Minna went to see the hag, and, after some hemming and hawing and staring, the hag agreed: sure thing, war, the Germans could enter Baku at any minute now. There was nowhere this Jewish girl could go, let alone with a baby… Without any haggling over money and trying not to look into the hag’s eyes, Minna promised to come at night after dark to avoid neighbors grumbling, what if they call the police.

By the nighttime, the ammunition was issued and the guns prepared, and the Germans, as if someone had warned them – despite the SMERSH efforts – started firing ground flares. Leva, like the others, quietly cursing waited for the promised artillery softening-up, which was to be followed by the attack. The longer they waited for the signal, the higher their hopes were getting for the cancelation of that night’s assault.

When Minna was already walking through the darkened streets due to dim-out regulations to the hag, the political worker from the headquarters finally reached the soldiers at the front line. Constantly shuddering at the rumble of the light rockets fired by the Germans, he perkily announced that the assail had to be launched without any softening-up. Because, even though Kraut is a fool, they would know that after softening-up there should be an attack. And thus, Kraut would have time to prepare. So, they would fool him and attack without warning!

“Looks like the squadron has no fucking equipment,” Fyodor whispered to Leva, “Forgot to deliver or something? … bitches.”

Fyodor squeezed to the front and, acting like a village simpleton, rattled on, “Comrade Commissar, Comrade Commissar! Shall we shout hooray? Or shall we do it quietly, so no scum-Kraut would not know?”

The Commissar’s red eyelids started blinking rapidly, as he was trying to decide whether to yell at that boisterous and unkempt soldier or not. But the soldier held his bayoneted rifle so gracefully, and his whole posture radiated such a willing toward unexpected and abrupt moves, that the stiff commissar finally decided to smile at his joke – but also made a note of the fellow for the future. The political worker, however, did not get to say anything, as at that very moment the telephone started buzzing, and the order was to attack the two red rockets.

At that very minute, Minna was feeling her way to the hag’s low basement. The hag looked concerned, and something was boiling in a big pot sitting on the kerosene stove, called kerosinka in Baku. Mina felt sick from humid and sweltering heat and so scared that she was ready to run from there, but she forced herself to stay. There were rumors that some of the hag’s patients had died from exsanguination right on this table in this eerie basement, but deep inside, while humbly tempting her fate, Minna was happy to expose herself to danger… as long as Leva…

The offensive lead by the young lieutenant had been quickly stalled. For some reason, the Germans did not seem at lost at all. In fact, they began machine-gunning, left and right, cutting down the soldiers. At the last minute, right after Fyodor despairingly swore, and no longer himself scared, Leva jumped up on the parapet… and realized that he was going to be killed now. Perplexedly, he looked around: his friend Fyodor, who was running next to him just now, had disappeared. There was no sign of the young lieutenant. For a second, he felt like he was alone on this trenched river bank, and hearing gunshots and screaming was strange. There were no Germans or Russians, only the Volga and himself. He recalled that funny conversation he had with Fyodor who promised that the Volga would yield to hide and protect Leva. Suddenly Leva felt an excruciating pain. It was so severe he could not even say where exactly it hurt. Then something important had occurred to him; it was so grand that it completely overwhelmed his very being and his thoughts and he ran, dragged himself, crawled toward water, the healing waters of the Red Sea…

And Minna was in agonizing pain as well. She had never thought that such anguish existed in this world. It hurt so bad that nothing else mattered – neither the dirty basement, nor the hag’s mumbling, nor ghastly scent of blood. At some point, Minna passed out, but when she recovered, all those odors, sounds, and the fading pain came back at once. She heard the hag’s voice again. “My, my,” the hag was mumbling in an incomprehensible murmur with trails of wrath towards Minna, “…twins… two boys… Should I charge her double then?”

Fate did take a strange turn. Because Leva was not found among the dead, he was listed as a missing person, and all her life Minna believed that he would come back. Still and all, he was not killed, and her sacrifice was not for nothing.

Translated by Alan Zebek