26 Jun Gnoyensky, Averbukh (1883 – 1972). 3: Kiev – pre-WWII; WWII; post-WWII.
Kiev: mid-1930s – 1941.
It was located on the fifth floor, the elevator rarely worked. They occupied a 100-square-foot windowless room off the kitchen.
Bluma, the obligatory to-be-reformed prostitute residing in one of the larger rooms happened to be Jewish, gorgeous, well-mannered, well-read, and a shtinkerke. She entertained scruffy, hungry men who had made the neighbors scurry to their rooms carrying their pots, pans, and wet laundry and pushing their children along.
Polina, agonizing over the very notion of a Jewess-prostitute, tried hard to convince her to change her ways. “But why,” Bluma laughed, “I don’t live in a servant’s room like you, and I don’t even have to do anything to make more than your daughter.”
For reasons of genetics, disease, or the food Polina shared with her, Bluma suddenly gained a lot of weight and had to lower her standards, letting in abusive drunks who were not above throwing up in the common areas. Her attempts at cleaning made the mess worse, so Polina shooed her away and washed the floor quietly to maintain peace, keep anti-Semitic remarks in check, get rid of the smell, and kill germs. One of the men attempted, in lieu of payment, to heave Bluma out of her window. He did not succeed but she was never the same again and got admitted into a psychiatric institution.
After Hitler crossed the Soviet border on June 22, 1941, those who elected to evacuate east had a few weeks to get out of Kiev. Polina was inclined to stay behind and guard their room from being snatched up. She had fond memories of World War I Germans that she much preferred to her treacherous neighbors.
How could one conceive an overnight transformation of a cultured nation into a nation of fiends? Perhaps it was cultured but not mensch, Polina rationalized after the war (she did not know that Goethe had recommended to become humans before becoming a nation.) On Rakhil’s insistence, she agreed to evacuate and, thus, avoided Babi Yar. She carried her sewing machine, thread bobbins, a supply of elastic to replace in their tricot, and some fabric.
Great Patriotic War: 1941 – 1945.
They left in July of 1941 and returned in October of 1944. After some miserable interludes in tiny, barely civilized towns they settled in Barnaul, a regional center of the south-west Siberia.
The lady that rented them a room in her house had never seen Jews before, though she knew to dislike them. “You look like regular people,” she was incredulous that Jews did not grow horns like they were supposed to, according to local lore.
To stave off starvation, the evacuees depended, to a large degree, on creative bartering of some of their food rations and belongings at flea markets. The market in Barnaul, where many large companies had evacuated, swelled in the beginning of the war along with the city.
It was hunger-time for Polina and Rakhil as they simply owned nothing to barter, had no army officer in the family to fatten up their ration, just one working adult eligible for a full ration of rye dough. Then, the factory where Rakhil worked replaced some of the dough with pure alcohol. That’s where Sheina-Gitel’s entrepreneurial gene came alive in Polina.
She directed Rakhil to bring small jars discarded by the factory lab. She filled them with the precious liquid and plugged them securely with rolled scraps of fabric she always had in her arsenal. At the market, the jars flew out of her hands, in spite of the exorbitant price of two large potatoes for each. Most buyers emptied the jars in front of Polina grunting with pleasure and respectfully gave her the empty jars back.
With part of the proceeds, she acquired wide skirts from local women, opened them at the seams, pressed them with her landlady’s iron and whipped out child-size skirts and dresses that proved as popular with women as the alcohol was with men. They fit six-to-nine-year-olds, the age, she reasoned, when parents were forced to admit that even undernourished children had burst out of their toddler clothes but could not yet wear adult sizes.
Polina was careful not to grow her enterprise, not to show up often or with large quantities or at the same spot or at regular intervals. She and Rakhil lived opulently. No more grumbling stomachs for them. They ate their fill of vegetable soup seasoned with a scraping of butter, potatoes with onions, bread, herring tails, meaty bones; they feasted on milk and the buttermilk Polina made from it. They splurged on brand-new valenki and galoshes that, combined, guaranteed warm dry feet in Siberian winter.
Post-Great Patriotic War: 1945-1972.
After the war, Polina continued to live with Rakhil. The records from her employment in Belaya Tserkov had been lost, so when pension was introduced, she could not claim the few rubles she was eligible for. And her son-in-law, my father, would not hear of fighting for them insulted by the implication that he begrudged her room and board.
On days when Polina remained in bed facing the wall we knew she was dizzy. “Mine Kopf dreht sich (my head is spinning,)” she explained, to which I objected that her head was not spinning, as a matter of fact it was not moving at all. Words “narrowing of brain vessels” labeled the dizziness that had begun in her mid-thirties.
In her late fifties she spent weeks in the hospital with a mild stroke; in her sixties a heart attack kept her in bed, flat on her back and motionless, for a month. She claimed that she had not taken a pill in her life, even in the hospital where she threw them out. Like her siblings, she refused surgical removal of her gallstones, wary of the warning that she was too old to expect miracles or attention.
For many years, she managed the excruciating pain with a water diet: several days of hunger ensured months of painless existence.
In her late seventies, Polina began suffering from recurring pneumonia that left her weak and pale and me scared. “Zorg zach nicht, narrish kind (do not fret, foolish child,)” she said. “The world is very simple: remember me and I will be alive.”
Several days before, she had handed me and my daughter the traditional Chanukah gelt (Chanukah money)—I knew what gelt meant but not Chanukah—in her favored amount of seventy-two kopeks, a number divisible by eighteen which was the numeric representation of the word life in Hebrew.
A few hours before she died, Polina had played the daily “five-hundred-one” with my parents, a card game for three, where she, as always, kept track of the score without writing it down and faster than my father on paper or abacus.
She interrupted the game to call me with a reminder to put away the summer clothes for the winter.