Everything began in Lithuania, of course. But where to begin in Lithuania?
I could begin with my own journey there, in 2007. It was then that I met Faina.
I’m in my seventies, said Faina. Nondescript and extremely thin. I’ll wear a silk scarf. Bright red.
Faina pulled out a key on a string around her neck, and we found ourselves in a cramped living room with a china cabinet, a fake Oriental hanging on the wall, and matched sets of Chekhov, Pushkin, and the other guys in a case with a glass front. I’d seen so many places like this one across the former USSR; even if I’d never set foot there, I could still describe it, right down to the souvenir tea set from Uzbekistan in the china cabinet.
By then, Faina was pretty much over her astonishment at meeting an American who spoke Russian.
I had learned that Faina was a retired professor of education who volunteered at the local Jewish Museum that had risen from the ashes of the Soviet Union. She was racing against time to interview Jewish survivors of the German occupation while a few of them were still living. She was no trained historian, almost nobody at the museum was, most of them women in their seventies or eighties like her, retired from other professions—engineering, medicine, academia—who had thrown themselves into this work just as soon as the Soviet Union dried up and blew away.
For decades, she said pensively, we lived in silence with the knowledge of what had happened during the war, to our community, to our families.
…You see, she said, my parents were Litvaks, Lithuanian Jews, but they went to Birobidjan, which is where I was born. I was born in the thirties. In the Soviet Union. Of all the centuries and countries to be born into!
It would have been better to be alive during the Spanish Inquisition, she said. We would merely have been stripped of everything we had and forced to leave the country, which would have been better than being stripped of everything and forced to stay, as we were. Strangely, though, I had a happy childhood. Stalin was our kind, jolly Soviet father.
You’ve heard of Birobidjan, of course?
It was supposed to be our alternative to Palestine, she said. A Jewish homeland, right here, tucked inside the Soviet Union. So…we spent the war years there—and when the Nazis retreated, we set forth for Lithuania, Mother and I.
We stopped over in Yalta. My father’s parents had fled there during the war. My mother knew the address by heart. She knocked. The door opened a crack. It was chained. An elderly woman peered out. “Wait,” she said. She stepped away, then returned and thrust a bundle of letters through the narrow opening.
That was my sole glimpse of my paternal grandmother.
My mother didn’t seem much surprised by her mother-in-law’s reception. Decades later, when I found out about my father, I understood: we carried a vile contagion.
I was in college when Khrushchev gave his Secret Speech, Faina continued two days later.
We were in a small office at the museum. Two cups of tea steamed on the table.
That was when we learned, officially learned, she said, though there had been whispers before, that Stalin was not our kind, jolly father. Our instructors wept and so did we.
Let me tell you what we heard at the college today, I said to my mother when I came home. Did you hear what Khrushchev said?
I heard nothing new today, my mother said with preternatural calm. She bit her lip. Then she covered her face with her hands. She sat that way for a long time.
You know, your father did not die a natural death, she said finally, looking up.
I wanted to change the subject. But there was no other subject.
He was executed, she continued. As an enemy of the people.
Why did you never tell me?
I wanted you to have a happy childhood, she said, the tears coming now. I always meant to tell you. Always. But not yet.She gripped my sleeve. She begged my forgiveness.
Mama, I forgive you everything, I said again and again.
The whole story, everything she knew, came spilling out. It consisted mainly of gaps and conjecture. She was certain that he was guilty of nothing. He’d been accused of sabotage and wrecking, something like that, like millions of others. Maybe he’d told a joke about Stalin. Which would have been unbelievably foolish. But still.
A few months after they took him, my mother told me, she received a letter saying that he’d been sentenced to 25 years. Everyone knew what that meant: he would be executed, perhaps already had been. Then the mailman returned the possessions she’d hastily gathered and thrust into his hands as his new keepers led him over the threshold and away. Return of the prisoner’s possessions was also widely understood as a death announcement.
Many decades later, after the end of the Soviet Union, I went to the government archives to see my father’s records. The file contained his execution date, which was just a few days after his arrest. The person who had denounced him would, a few years later, become my beloved first-grade teacher. My mother was long dead by the time I read the file. She never knew who was responsible. She had cordial relations with that person, met with him for parent-teacher conferences.
My father had been a teacher at the high school. Maybe the man wanted my father’s job?
But he didn’t get it. He stayed back in the first grade.
I saw Faina several more times during my remaining weeks in Lithuania. She did not return to her life story, but it was with us each time we met, like a third person at the table.
From For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors by Laura Esther Wolfson, awarded the 2017 Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction. (University of Iowa Press, 2018.)