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“This is what Making History Feels Like”

Bessie by Lawrence Bush. Seaview/Putnam, 1983. 426 pp.
In My Mother’s House by Kim Chernin. Harper Colophon, 1984. 309 pp.

Bessie, Lawrence Bush’s novel based upon the life of his grandmother, Bessie Sainer, and Kim Chernin’s. In My Mother’s House, based primarily upon the life of her mother, Rose Chernin, are stories of women for whom ideas mattered, who believed their actions could make a difference.

Both were born in small villages in Russia; both experienced great joy, hardship, and personal loss; both came to the U.S., joined the Communist Party, and worked hard for it.

Although these books—and the lives of Chernin and Sainer—differ in important ways, they describe a shared commitment. Bessie Sainer tells her grandson:

The most important thing in my life has been the revolutionary movement, even since I was a young child without understanding. I must have been born that way, feeling that I was with the downtrodden, with the people that suffer. . . . Sooner or later you have to start thinking about it. . . . And it’s so easy for you to become a revolutionary if you think. Similarly, Rose Chernin tells her daughter, “You wonder, maybe, why I became a Communist. But I used to wonder why everyone did not.” And in the epilogue to In My Mother’s House, Kim says of Rose to her daughter, Larissa: “There are hundreds of people who would have been jailed or deported if it weren’t for her. . . . Maybe she’s been able to do what she’s done because she believes so strongly in something.”

Bessie’s story begins with her birth in 1895 in the village of Mogilev-Podolsk in Czarist Russia. We learn little about her mother; her father, we’re told, was a rabbi, a yeshiva scholar.

When Bessie’s two older brothers become involved in anti-Czarist activities, she helps them. Although 12-year-old Bessie confesses to nothing, she is sent to Siberia, which, she says, makes her even more revolutionary: “It’s like you put beans in a dark closet and they sprout.”

During her four years in Siberia, Bessie learns how strong women can be, chiefly from the example of Babushka Breshkovskya, “the grandmother of the revolution,” who helped establish the Socialist Revolutionary Party. Babushka teaches Bessie an important lesson in survival: “If we’re given guns, we make revolution with guns. If we’re given only snow and sick women, then we work with them.”

After Siberia, Bessie goes to England and then the U.S., where she works at the Triangle Waist Company. She leaves the job with the encouragement of Yasha, a member of the International Workers of the World, who introduces her to the politics of American workers and becomes the love of her life as well as her first husband.

The two go to the Soviet Union to work (she is a nurse) after the 1917 Revolution. Bessie is shot, and both Yasha and their baby daughter die in the civil war. Returning to the U.S. pregnant with their second daughter, Janet, many a night she falls asleep counting the lives of those she had lost.

During the McCarthy era, Bessie flees underground for a time. In her sixties she becomes a civil rights activist, and is involved in the peace movement during the Vietnam War.

Bessie resigns from the Party in 1975, and she makes it clear that her resignation means she is leaving dogmatism behind, not her ideas. Nevertheless, the effect on her is devastating, as it is one more loss.

Bessie’s radical involvement and her membership in the Communist Party are the subjects that recur most often in her story. Years later, Bessie can still say of that time:

It was like we were at the very center of life. We had our lives in our own hands, and the regular problems that keep you busy every day were completely gone. You feel clear, so sure about what you’re doing. Every breath you take is, like, conscious, aware, you know that you’re breathing. This is what making history feels like.

Kim Chernin’s In My Mother’s House is about four women—her mother, Rose Chernin; her grandmother, Perle; her daughter, Larissa—and herself. “My mother. . . was obsessed by the fate of her mother, and this obsession has descended to me,” she writes.

In 1974, Rose proposed that Kim write her life story. In doing so, Kim knows she takes in her hands “a gift of fire,” which she accepts with loving caution and courage. “I must keep it alive,” she warns herself; “I must manage not to be consumed by it.”

In My Mother’s House tells the life-story of Rose Chernin, who was the first person in America the U.S. government tried—unsuccessfully—to denaturalize and deprive of citizenship. But although Rose’s 1951 arrest for “forming a conspiracy to overthrow the government” is an important chapter in her life, it is not the only one. Just as vivid is the story of Rose’s childhood in Russia, where she was born in 1903.

We see her arriving in America at age eleven, working and educating herself, marrying Paul Kusnitz, becoming a lifelong, committed Communist and party organizer, returning with Paul to the U.S.S.R. in 1932—he to work on the design of the Moscow subway, she to work for the State Publishing House— and later, living in California. We also see her as mother to two daughters, Kim and Nina, who was older by eleven years and died of Hodgkin’s Disease in 1946.

But a summary of events in the life of its subjects does not do justice to this book, for it is also about guilt, abandonment, and despair, about loss and, then, the renewal of hope. It includes raging quarrels about Communism, Kim’s disenchantment with it, the terrible silences of Rose’s withdrawal after Nina’s death, and Kim’s confusion—and sense of loss-—when Rose spends six months in jail.

The style of the book is descriptive and meditative, and parts of it read more like poetry than prose. Interspersed throughout are present-tense encounters, confrontations between Rose and Kim, responses to the story told in preceding chapters, and foreshadowings of what will come. In Kim Chernin’s hands, these encounters are emotional links between past and present, threads that connect anger, forgiveness, and the stirrings of reconciliation.

Writing the book takes seven years, and even before she begins, Kim realizes that it will force Rose and her “to face all the secrets and silences we have kept.” She fears, “as any daughter would, losing myself back into the mother”—a statement reflected in Rose’s memories: “Always I struggled. Never to be like Mama. Never like that poor, broken woman.”

In 1958, Kim returns from the 7th World Youth Festival in Moscow, disillusioned with Communism and disturbed by her glimpse of the situation of Soviet Jewry. She announces that she is a poet, not a political person, and Rose says, “That’s all we need, another poet, and the world at the edge of a holocaust.” After telling Perle’s story, however, Rose realizes that in her poet-feminist daughter, Perle’s “great spirit has another chance at life.”

The moment finally arrives when the breach between the two women “heals over,” the silences are comforting, and both are “touched by a single motion of forgiveness.”

The moment is a long time coming, it’s hard-won, and it’s worth waiting for. Many mothers and daughters never reach it.

Julia Wolf Mazow, Fiction Editor of Lilith, teaches women’s fiction and autobiography at the University of Houston.  She compiled and edited The Woman Who Lost Her Names: Selected Writings of American Jewish Women (Harper and Row, 1980).