31 Oct Four Countries One Life, by Lydia Cutler
The Hiding Place
“My hiding spot is a tiny crawl space in our family back room,” begins Lydia Cutler’s Four Countries One Life.
The story draws in the readers with this first line and stays long after they finish the book. We meet four-year-old Lilli as she is squashed in a crawl space holding her cat and pretending not to hear the quarrel in the other room where her father is hurling insults at her teenaged brother whom she worships and her mother is trying to protect the boy from the violent outburst.
Lilli’s first country is the Soviet Union. She lives in a four-room communal apartment but, luckily and unusually, all fourteen people in it are her relatives.
Nothing in her life goes right. Not the family dynamics. Not her mother’s health. Not the school that she dreads. Not her father’s illegal leather goods shop at home that is a source of perpetual fear of being caught – “Keep your big mouth shut if you don’t want us all to be arrested,” her mother warns. On top of it all, she is Jewish – to her, a shameful designation, an invitation to be taunted and ridiculed, a cross to bear.
In the struggle to find her identity among abuse and chaos, Lilli takes what finds her. A meaningless job. Sergey Kaplan, a confident man, a leader, and his complicated family that expects her to obey. His decision to take advantage of the miraculous moment when Soviet Jews are allowed to immigrate to Israel.
Where in the World?
They arrive in Israel in the summer of 1972 with their eight-month-old boy. Since day one, Lilli is enchanted with the country. She belongs here, with people who are proud to be Jewish. For the first time, she realizes that in all her Soviet life she was holding in her breath, always primed to encounter insults. Now she says, “I’m going home to Israel. It sounded like the mantra worth remembering forever.” She doesn’t recognize it yet but a strong tenacious woman has hatched out of her old docile self.
After two years, Sergey and his parents choose to leave Israel for the United States. Furious that she is made to betray her country, Lilli follows . Their experience in Brussels, Belgium as misplaced persons is worth a separate book. After ten months there they secure a visa to the United States. The Kaplans arrive in New York. Soon their second boy is born.
I Am in Charge of My Life
Lydia Cutler tells the story without frills – it’s simply a conversation, a diary, a journey to understanding human and familial bonds through her heroine’s unique circumstances. It’s thoughtful, perceptive, and candid.
Against all odds, Lilli has overcome every obstacle in every country and town where she lived. The most daunting challenge lingers though – to leave behind the little Soviet girl hiding in the crawl space. Her memories are never far away and dreams of her Soviet life do still visit. But the ending words of the book are “I have many years ahead of me, many years of many days of many hours. I am in charge of my life.” Four Countries One Life is about the life between the first and last sentences.