11 Jun Babinsky. Early Years (1945 – 1952). 2: Gloom
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Gloom: 1946 – 1951
The new room was large enough for Avram and Rakhil’s bed, my bed, Polina’s sofa, a wardrobe with a mirrored door, and an oval table. Avram sawed off one side of the table to place it flush against the wall. Polina embroidered a tablecloth.
On Saturdays, when Avram went to public baths after work,
Rakhil removed the tablecloth and we, the women, washed our hair in the enamel basin that was also used to make preserves in the summer. Then she bathed me in the balya on the floor and did the small laundry.
The wardrobe served as a repository of our clothes, shoes, and papers, and the spot I rested my back against to swallow a tablespoon of disgusting cod-liver oil, the means of rickets prevention.
The dirty laundry tied in a sheet sat under the onion sacks in the fifth corner where the sofa stood. Burlap sacks with potatoes spent the winter under the beds. Every few days Polina emptied them onto the floor to weed out, with my help, any sprouting potatoes and rotting onions.
Wall rugs, one paisley and one depicting three skiing girls, hung over the beds.
The headboards and footboards constructed of thin nickel-plated tubes were bridged on top by thicker tubes. I polished them with powder for brushing teeth (also used to wash windows and clean pots).
The gleaming tubes reminded Polina of the samovar she used to polish for her mother, Sheina-Gitel, in Belaya Tserkov. Some bandits took it assuming it was silver.
Polina kept the pots and pans with food on the wide sill; left in the kitchen unattended, edibles would be wolfed down by the neighbor’s eight-year-old son. On top of his substantial salary, his father, lieutenant-colonel of the MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs,) counted also on a steady flow of smoked hogs, fruit, and barrels with marinated pickles from the families of those he interrogated, but the boy liked to steal and dump water on Polina’s straw slippers and enjoyed seeing her cry. He knew she would not dare to complain.
The window looked out on a paved yard, a closed-in space formed by the rears of four buildings. From above, the children who played there looked like darting and colliding ants on the bottom of a sunless well, but when I ventured into the yard they seemed giants. Boys shot stones from slingshots and played soccer against a portion of the wall bracketed by pieces of a crutch. Girls played hopscotch.
To earn goodwill, I volunteered to retrieve runaway balls and draw hopscotch squares. The children ridiculed my size, my being accompanied by a bábushka, and my coat with round lapels that Polina crafted from Avram’s decommissioned greatcoat.
They said Zhids did not fight in the war but sat it out on the Tashkent front (Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, hosted many Jewish women and children evacuated there prior to the occupation of their towns.)
Gradually, Polina shortened my exposure to the yard. And after I darted into the brightly-lit incense-smelling interior of the St. Vladimir Cathedral across the street, she kept away from the benches around it.
She preferred the benches on the poplar-lined Shevchenko Boulevard. Polina recited pieces of Pushkin poems that I regurgitated with machine gun speed. She concurred with my critique of her pronunciation but countered that she spoke with feeling which trumped accent. She was a stickler for elocution.
The older I got the more I preferred to stay home. The outdoors was long on anxiety, short on fun. Living reminders of the war filled the streets: crutches, wooden shafts instead of shoes, empty pant legs pinned-up above the knee.
Maimed men in tatty uniforms tinkling with medals, their caps top down on the ground; some played harmonicas, some rasped soulful songs bending over their accordions, some cried. Legless men on wheeled pallets swished around by pushing themselves with wooden coasters or gloved fists. They paralyzed me with fear.
(When one day they vanished I got spanked for considering it a relief. Rakhil, her eyes wet, said that, at five, I was old enough to understand what had occurred. I found out much later that homeless disabled war veterans were exiled or executed in a special overnight operation.)
In the first six years of my life, meals were punishment to me, plain and simple. Secretly, I did not believe that anybody would willingly eat. Even the thought of food drained me of energy.
For a brief time I had a nanny called Olga whose only responsibility was to make me eat. Half-dozing, she droned “Swallow, Benochka, please swallow.”
A meal lasted until my howl won the battle or until the first bite soured in my mouth and made me nauseous or until somebody removed the buttered bread, the most dreaded ingredient, and shamed me for taking bread let alone butter for granted.
On my second birthday, Rakhil solemnly presented me with a child size dish set: a tea cup, a milk cup, a soup plate, and a dinner plate. Each item had a big picture of a toddler on a wooden horse and small pictures of butterflies and toys. I couldn’t keep my eyes off the bright-white porcelain and the pictures so vivid and so cheery that they lightened up the room.
Rakhil described the effort it took to acquire Czech-made dishes and warned that they deserved a good eater. Her eloquence was for naught. As a result, I don’t remember ever eating from that special set.
(Medical tests showed no reason for absence of appetite. First, doctors attributed the problem to frequently elevated temperature and persistent cough. But nothing changed after those symptoms eased. My skin remained pasty, legs pencil-thin, body the width of a soccer ball. The mystery was solved on a train ride: my body ejected a foot-long worm. In a few hours, I experienced the feeling of hunger for the first time in my life. Two more worms followed, during train rides, when I was fourteen and twenty-one.)
Summer Dacha. More Gloom
The summers of 1947 through 1949 Polina and I spent on a dacha in the small town of Vorzel, a popular destination for a dose of fresh air near Kiev. Rakhil rented a room with a veranda in a house of a retired engineer, addressed by his last name Fenster. Before the Bolshevik Revolution Fenster, who was Jewish, converted to Christianity in order to marry the daughter of a Vorzel priest, but he fasted on Yom Kippur and said Kaddish, the Jewish mourning prayer, for his parents. In return for sharing his shtetl nostalgia with Polina, his wife babysat me on market days.
Polina brought chicken gizzards, feet, and necks from the market, the food I could be convinced to swallow. The rest of my nourishment arrived from Kiev in avoskas when Avram and Rakhil came over on weekends. On my 2nd birthday, they brought me a dish set — a soup bowl, a plate, a tea cup, and a milk cup — snow-white porcelain with bright pictures of a blond, curly boy on a toy horse. So out-of-this-world gorgeous that I kept my hands behind my back, just in case.
A heavy sleeper like Avram, I slept so much that Rakhil worried about my timely development. But I invariably woke up at six in the morning to watch Avram dress for work. Jodhpurs; suspenders; darned socks with stretched garters; navy-blue flannel or cotton puttees; gleaming boots; an epaulette-less military shirt with an edge of a white under-collar peeking out evenly; a wide belt.
He stroked my disheveled hair, saying goodbye with his eyes. Forehead ridged, nostrils flaring, Rakhil dressed jerkily, not looking in the mirror. She pinned up her gray bun; put on silky and, in the winter, flannel tricot; stockings with a garter belt; a dark skirt and blouse; thick-heeled shoes.
In the winter she wore a grey round astrakhan hat and carried an astrakhan muffler
and in the spring and fall a navy-blue felt beret with a felt bow
(the green felt beret with a felt feather was kept for special occasions.)
Then Polina pinned up her dark bun, without looking in the mirror, put on her stockings, straw slippers, skirt, a blouse, an apron. Her clothes hung limply, her expression was somber, face shrunk, mouth a flat line. She taught me to hang my clothes over the chair in the order I would put them on in the morning.
Adults were always morose. They conversed in hushed non-Russian; I, and the neighbor’s wife eavesdropping at the door, did not understand. They kept glancing at me and making a mouth-locking signal.
They refused to explain the few Russian words injected in the whisper. Polina did, reluctantly, reveal their meanings on the condition that I would not ask questions. Arrest and being taken meant going away forever; exile meant the place where one went away forever; statute meant the reason for going away forever; execution meant not breathing again forever.
When we had company, Avram pulled the table away from the wall to seat everybody, sometimes two people sideways to a chair. Rakhil served tea with sugar cookies and preserves.
I entertained by standing on a chair and reciting poems choreographed by Polina. The guests joked that my eyes would not be black if I washed them and praised me for long sentences and knowing my address by heart. As soon as I went to sleep, whispers began – news of who else got arrested under what statute.
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