18 Jun Babinsky, Gnoyensky (1904 – 2004). 6: Rootless Cosmopolitan; Homeless
Kiev: 1946 – 1948.
The new room, 140 square feet, was on the fourth floor of a five-story building across from the St. Vladimir Cathedral, the single working church in the city.
The window looked out into a paved sunless well fenced in by the backs of four buildings. The neighbor, a lieutenant-colonel, was ordered to relinquish that room to Avram and was left with three. The room had five walls, two of them connected under an obtuse angle; the resulting triangle made it handy storage.
Every few days Polina spread the onions stored there for the winter over a newspaper on the floor to pluck any with signs of rotting for immediate use. She did the same with potatoes; those sacks sat under Avram and Rakhil’s bed.
We and the lieutenant-colonel shared a kitchen, a lavatory, a bathroom with a sink and tub, and a foyer furnished with his wood-carved coat tree and a matching umbrella stand.
The lieutenant-colonel bragged that he had pinched the foyer furniture, along with other items, during a look-see of other apartments in the building. “Probably,” Rakhil commented, “the Babi Yar martyrs’ apartments.” Our coat tree stood discreetly next to the door to our room. It had a round cast iron base, a metal stem, and metal hooks.
The neighbor’s wife worked as a typist at the MVD and doubled as an informer. She eavesdropped at our door and reacted with annoyance to the apology when the door opened and hit her. Her information-gathering effort was for naught: Rakhil, Avram, and Polina spoke Yiddish at all times and invented nicknames for people they mentioned.
It was not uncommon to hear a discreet knock on the front door in the middle of the night: relatives of detainees in lieutenant-colonel’s care delivered treats, from fur to barrels of pickles to smoked hogs. A light sleeper, Rakhil dragged them to the neighbor’s door.
Edible gifts were hoarded in the tub that, by unspoken understanding, was off limits to us – a penalty for taking away the room previously used for storage. Only our balya used to bathe me and do the laundry hung on a fat nail on the bathroom wall.
One day I woke up from my midday nap to see the balya full of soapy water and Avram’s bare back as he was putting on his underwear – I realized that the adults bathed in it when I was asleep.
For the three-times-a-year big laundry, Rakhil hired a country woman at the market. The woman installed the balya on two chairs in the kitchen and filled it with water warmed in pails on the stove.
She rubbed the laundry on the washboard, wrung it out and piled it up on a chair. She emptied the balya into the toilet bowl, pail by pail; filled it, pail by pail, with cold water for repeated rinsing, and emptied it again, before returning it to its nail.
The neighbor’s eight-year-old boy liked to grab kotlety from Polina’s sizzling pan with his bare hands and to send them into his mouth or whack them on the floor, laughing as she cried. She adjusted by holding her body flat against the stove and her elbows wing-like when she cooked.
The neighbor’s daughter, almost two years older than me, became my playmate. Each of us owned a doll – she, a shiny plump full-dressed that her father brought from Germany where he had ended the war; I, one with a ceramic head and cloth body in a frilly dress made by Polina and with no underwear – but I was especially drawn to Krokodil (Crocodile) magazine chuck full of caricatures, that the neighbor subscribed to.
Kiev. Cosmopolitanism: 1948 – 1951.
The housing dilemma had gotten resolved in the nick of time prior to the cosmopolitanism campaign that began in earnest in 1948.
Friendship of all people was still an overriding concept. Unlike capitalism where one person to another was a wolf, socialism ensured that people were friends, comrades, and brothers to each other. One was officially addressed comrade; Stalin received gifts from different nationalities and ethnicities, each equally cherished by Mother Russia. The anthem proclaimed: Unbreakable Union of freeborn Republics, Great Russia has welded forever to stand.
In that atmosphere, rootless cosmopolitans – those unduly impressed with or, worse, maintaining ties to the West, particularly Jews – had to be eradicated. The lieutenant-colonel was getting antsy; he smelled a chance to get his room back.
His wife now eavesdropped with a notebook and a pencil in her hands attempting to transliterate Yiddish words into the Russian alphabet for subsequent translation. To complicate matters, I understood Yiddish. So, conversations unrelated to household chores were conducted in ear-to-ear whispers.
Once, after watching his daughter and me leaf through Krokodil, the lieutenant-colonel pointed to a caricature of a neatly-uniformed mustached man and another with a double chin, a pipe in his mouth, and a stomach hanging to his knees. “Which man do you like more?” he asked me. I chose the hilarious fat man. I was under three and I already showed a preference for Churchill over Stalin!
The personnel department had a single question for Avram: “Is that what you teach your child?” He acknowledged slipups in my upbringing and vowed to correct them. He began taking a sandwich and change of clothes with him to work.
I was not to cross the neighbor’s threshold and not to talk to Lusya which, Rakhil said, would get Avram arrested. His boss, the colonel, advised him that an order came down to fire him forthwith for cosmopolitanism. The official blame was not my attitude toward Churchill but Avram’s maternal aunt’s immigration to the United States when he was four. He had disclosed that fact fifteen years earlier in the employment application.
The colonel’s wing kept Avram’s job safe for three years. In January of 1951, Avram’s turn came. By law, he had seventy-two hours to vacate his room: non-MVD employees could not reside in that building. The neighbor announced that our five-wall room was destined to become not storage but a boudoir. But he agreed to keep our coat tree and our balya until we got a place to live.
Polina and I stayed with Rakhil’s friend in her 80-square-foot room. Rakhil stayed with another friend who managed to fit our two disassembled beds behind her sofa. Avram slept on a desk under the stairs in the vestibule of the MVD headquarters where he used to work. The young soldier on duty, grateful for a past favor, let him in late at night for a few hours. If found out, both would have been executed.
Rakhil who kept her maiden name continued working unmolested. It helped that she had had the foresight not to mention Avram’s place of employment to her coworkers.
I spent most of the days at home reading and used any excuse not to go outside: the sight of maimed beggars in remnants of military uniforms frightened me.
Scarred, blind, toothless, drunk, smelly; singing, pleading, playing harmonicas and accordions, crying, moaning – every morning these war veterans readied their deformed service caps or ear-flap hats on the ground in front of them. The legless navigated the streets on wheeled pallets they pushed with fists wrapped in rags.
Then the homeless beggars vanished: they were executed or removed to camps in Valaam and other northern islands and in Siberia.
Every day, Avram made the rounds to all the companies and acquaintances he knew of. Nobody in their right mind would hire – or talk publicly to, for that matter – a person fired from the MVD for cosmopolitanism. Not wishing to endanger friends he visited me and Rakhil infrequently. Dejected and worn-out, he didn’t even play with me, just laid on the bed with his face to the wall.