"You lost her telephone number, did you? Incredible! Your father would have never lost it!" This was how my mother reacted to my lame excuses for not calling my Israeli cousin on her birthday.
My mother's family was from Odessa. My grandfather, Israel Yakovlevich Nusinov was born in 1879 in Berdichev, a town famous from Sholem Aleichem's tales, but around 1905 he moved to Odessa, where Jewish Haskala [Enlightment] had flourished; where his first four children were born between 1907 and 1915; and where his first wife died of influenza in 1918. Israel seemed to be a supporter, or possibly even a member, of the Social Revolutionary party - a closely guarded secret in the family until the 1970s, as was another secret: that Israel's three younger Nusinov brothers all had emigrated to the USA or Israel in the 1910s. Luckily, Israel refrained from throwing bombs into the carriage of a local governor and becoming a revolutionary celebrity - and an easy target for the infamous ChK, a predecessor of the KGB - and wisely refused to receive parcels sent from abroad by his brothers. This prudence and absence of a formal education secured him petty administrative positions, such as head of a house committee, not a remarkable job by any means, unless it comes under the close attention of a satirist on a level with Mikhail Bulgakov.
My mother, Bronislava Nusinov, as was written in her passport, or Bronya, as she was called informally, had the questionable luck to be born, not in legendary Odessa, but in Kiev, the future Ukrainian capital. In the year of her birth, 1927, Israel Nusinov, his four children, and his new wife Klara Chertein made their way to Birobidzan - a proposed new motherland for Soviet Jews, chosen after the proposal of Crimea was defeated by Stalin at the same time he crushed Trotsky's opposition: a bloc of Jewish intellectuals who still remembered or even personally experienced Petlura's pogroms in Ukraine in 1919. Crimea was proposed as a reward to Jews for their sufferings during the glorious Revolution. "Now they [Jews] are getting Crimea, all in rosebushes!" exclaimed a famous revolutionary poet, Mayakovsky. "Such is a lie poured out by enemies of workers and peasants!" This was a lie, indeed. Crimea, a Thor Heyerdahl-type of a long-sought paradise, was not given to the Soviet Jews, but Birobidzan was. The Kremlin's "goretz," formerly a Commissioner over National Affairs in Lenin's government, knowing all the nuances of national enmity within the Tsarist Empire, decided to spare the feelings and property of the Crimean Tatars - only to expel them from Crimea some 17 years later, in 1944, as "traitors" for collaborating with the Germans.
Birobidzan was a no man's land. The land was taken from China together with all of Eastern Siberia in a smart diplomatic move by Count Muraviev-Amurski in 1858, when China was besieged from all sides by the major European powers during the Opium Wars. Stalin swore to recover the Southern Sakhalin Island from Japan and did everything he could to connect the port of Vladivostok with mainland Russia via a chain of fortified settlements along the Amur River. The young revolutionary enthusiasm of the Soviet Jews was redirected "Far" Eastward.
Mom's family settled in Birobidzan somewhere between the Zea and Burea Rivers, tributaries of the Amur River, where they lived for about five years and even owned several horses and cows. They had to leave all of this in haste when Stalin's infamous collectivization arrived in the Far East, though some four years later than it had arrived in the center of the country, which was geographically as large as a dinosaur in zoology books. The family moved some 1000 km west to Irkutsk, the capital of Eastern Siberia, where many famous Tsarist prisoners and exiles left visible traces - the University, for one. The family fled again in 1938 - to Odessa - when the youngest son, Lenya, a student, was arrested in Irkutsk, accused of praising an "enemy of the people" - one of the professors. It was Beria's arrival on the scene as chief of the KGB near the end of 1938 that saved him. Lenya was suddenly released and came back home, among several thousand other lucky survivors across the country - yes, Wolf was absolutely innocent! - but there were several million who were not so lucky. With his hair completely white and baring a toothless grin, even Lenya's own bride failed to recognize him when he arrived at the dormitory to join a circle of close friends. Imagine that!
Several episodes changed my mother's life. The first was when her mother, 45-year-old Klara Chertein, suddenly died of pneumonia on October 31, 1938. Two days earlier, she had washed clothes in the bathroom - where else? - and then had opened the window out onto the street. This is how Bronya remembered the story. Then Klara's younger sister, Anetta, came to Odessa from Novgorod-Volynskiy to help her sister's family survive and stayed with them for life. Mom remembered her life in Odessa as happy - she had her own table and her own bed, yes - in a communal apartment with two more families, but nonetheless! If I remember correctly, it was on Engels Street (Number 4, just in case my nieces decide to visit the place in the future). Actually, out of every four streets in each Soviet city, the names for three were reserved. Engels always followed his more famous comrade: in length or width.
This two-year lull between 1939 and 1941 was interrupted by the war. Their house was bombed and partially destroyed in July 1941 while they hid in a bomb shelter. Mom's older half-sister, Mina, who worked as an engineer at the military airfield on the Romanian border, sent them special tickets for a rescue train. Those who unfortunately did not secure such a ticket were doomed to be murdered in the local "Babi Yar" - the fate of my mother's Aunt Rose, on her father's side - or to barely survive in Romanian concentration camps. My grandfather hesitated until the very last moment - to leave or not to leave? - trying to compute the chances that Turkey would enter the war. They left on the very last train, and in a few days, 14-year-old Bronya saw German airplanes attacking their train - Germans moved eastward faster than any Soviet vehicles, including trains. For the first time in her life, Bronya was surrounded by dead bodies and many wounded near the train and in the field, to whom no one could properly attend. The German pilots targeted anything that moved - for fun, of course. I believe this was the moment my mother chose to become a doctor.
After two months - think of that! - of traveling on the train, the family finally arrived at Kuibishev, a city on Volga River, nee Samara. The city's new name belonged to a petty Bolshevik, who had died mysteriously two or three years before 1937, allegedly from a heart attack, and was immediately included in the Communist Party's martyrology. In a twist of fate, Kuibishev became a temporary seat of the Soviet government during the war. All roads then led to its railroad station, where, on a huge wall, refugees wrote their names and destinations in hope their relatives would find them among the thousands of others. The postal system in those days of chaos was completely dysfunctional. There, on the wall, Israel Nusinov found a message from Mina, who was ready to give birth to a baby girl and wanted to stay in Kuibishev. By Soviet law, Aunt Anetta did not have the right to stay in Kuibishev - she was "too distant" a relative - but she refused to marry Israel to circumvent the problem. After a brief discussion, all three of them went on to Irkutsk, to Lenya's home.
Staying in Kuibishev at that time was much more advantageous in terms of work - and therefore food - but Aunt Anetta's decision not to marry my grandfather made me wonder. In the Jewish law I could not find anything that forbade such an alliance. (The story is vaguely reminiscent of Jakob, our forefather, and his two wives - or rather mirrors the situation!). Aunt Anetta lived with the family for many years, not having any official status. Her dream was to see her favorite niece complete her education and to accompany her when she left her father's home to be on her own. Her dream was to have her own room, not just a corner in the house of relatives. Aunt Anetta likely also dreamed of caring for my mother's children, but she died in April 1950. Two years later, Mom left home to be a doctor in a small Belorussian town, where she did get her own room - in a dormitory, of course.
The three of them spent five years in Irkutsk and its neighborhoods. There, they lived in a wooden house on Red Madyar Street, on the outskirts of the city. The central street was Red Uprising Street. The names fit each other like twin brothers. The Red Madyars were simply Hungarian prisoners during the First World War, convinced by the Bolsheviks to cooperate in the slaughter of the old regime. Those Hungarians were truly "red," their hands covered in blood up to the elbows, though the details of the murder of Tsar Nicholas II's family were unknown in the USSR until perestroika opened the archives; till then popular rumors mentioned only several Jewish names in connection with that murder. Our family did not have an elder member with the knowledge and experience to inform the rest of them about these things. To keep old books or newspapers was as dangerous as to commit, say, the sin of homosexuality: a speedy death assigned by the infamous troika (three) of judges was the easiest end in both cases.
My mother went to school in Ayok, a small fishermen's settlement at Lake Baikal. All the teachers were of high caliber, all refugees from large cities: Moscow, Leningrad, Kharkov. She used to walk to school 10 km each way, every day, through the Taiga, Russia's dreadful forest. Was she afraid? Probably not - who would be afraid living 10,000 km from the war's front lines? Her elder half-brother, Isaac, was fighting, with an honorable score of three wounds and hospital stays. A wound was counted higher than all the awards; at least, that is what veterans told me on several occasions; maybe only the medal "For Courage" stood higher in the hierarchy of awards. Her second brother, Misha, had one bad eye, but the remaining eye was so good that all through the war he worked as a high-level aircraft factory worker in Kuibishev. Her third brother, Lenya, lived on the train, bringing shells to the front line and taking wounded soldiers back to the hospitals. Though I do not know what Bronya's daily thoughts were, I do know the family had difficulty obtaining their daily bread. But Mom was an able student. I have the proof of that: upon graduation she won a silver medal (given to those who had 1-2 grades lower than highest and therefore did not receive a gold one) and was accepted to the Irkutsk Medical School in 1945 without even having to pass any additional examinations.
The family was able to depart from Irkutsk only in 1946. It was impossible to obtain official permission to return to their home in Odessa any earlier without good connections to the Soviet "elite" - for example, a Party secretary at any level. Their exodus proved to be too late: their room in Odessa was occupied by another, Ukrainian family; the Soviet authorities had tried to make Odessa "Juden-free." So they went to Kharkov, on the other side of Ukraine, where Mom's eldest brother, Isaac, had settled. "I didn't get a room of my own for a long time," my mother said, summarizing those years in few words.
She was not admitted to the Kharkov Medical School at once, for which she blamed the anti-Semitism of the director. She already felt all the nuances behind the false politeness of a Soviet high-ranking clerk. Her troubles escalated to an even higher level when her passport was stolen on the train from Lvov, a city in Western Ukraine. She had gone there, having been assured that in Lvov she could enter the local medical school due to some distant family connections, but this turned out to be wrong. The loss of her passport could have had a tragic result: to lose your passport in Stalinist Russia was like losing your freedom, or close to it. For a year she worked in a toy factory, waiting to be given a replacement passport. She always had the highest esteem for the manager who had helped her obtain that job. In hindsight, he might be considered a righteous gentile.
Suddenly, a year later, in 1947 - a miracle! - my mother was permitted to enter the Kharkov Medical School in the sophomore class, where she joined my father. Two-thirds of their classmates were Jewish, possibly an absolute world record worthy of the Guinness Book. Imagine: in Donetsk, with its 40,000 Jews among 1 million citizens total, there were two Jews in my freshman class of 25. The same proportion held across the entire Mathematics Department and most likely in the rest of the Donetsk University. A little arithmetic shows there were 8% Jews in the Donetsk University while Jews made up only 4% out of the city's total population, hence the so-called "percent norm" was exceeded by two. In the Kharkov Medical School, in 1947, the excess was at least by a factor of six. Remember - the State of Israel did not yet exist in 1947, though I admit that Hebrew University and Technion could have had a higher percentage of Jewish students, even before 1948. Thinking of other precedents, similar to the Kharkov Medical School of 1946/7, I recall a Hungarian high school where von Neumann, Eugene Wigner, Edward Teller, and Leo Szilard studied together sometime in the early 1920s.
Mom and Dad's class would hold a reunion every five or ten years after their graduation. The 55th reunion was the last they attended before our emigration. The black and white photos show fewer and fewer people standing on the porch of the Medical School building with each successive reunion; each year more names were announced as dead and honored with a moment of silence. Within two years, the number of Jewish students among their school's freshmen had dropped by a factor of five, and further, fell near zero in 1949 with the beginning of the infamous "anti-cosmopolitan" campaign. The Soviet Science of Genetics was destroyed before their eyes at the infamous VIII VASCHNIL session in 1948. These were the first ominous signs of Stalin's new struggle against Jews, but the thundering storm came five years later, with the Doctor's Plot of 1953. My parents studied genetics on their own, years after graduating, after Academician Lisenko was stripped of all of the honors bestowed upon him by the "best friend of the Soviet farmers."
In the midst of her studies, my mother finished a special course in English. Until our emigration to America in 1991, Dad, my sister, and I thought she was an expert in English. Well, with her small vocabulary, her grammar was always perfect. She spent three postgraduate years, 1952-1955, as a doctor in Vileiki, a little town near Minsk. Bronya - already Bronislava Israilevna, as she was called by her patients - returned to Kharkov in 1955 to find a job at the small sanatorium, Zanki, near Kharkov. On October 31, 1957, she and my Dad registered their marriage. Mom delivered her first-born son on June 6, 1958, just before noon. The date was the same as Pushkin's birthday, May 26 of the Julian calendar: the 11-day (as opposed to 13-day) difference was due to Pushkin being born in 1799, two centuries earlier. This coincidence, fully supported by Soviet printed official calendars with daily festivals, was a point of pride in the family. To keep up the tradition, my sister Helena was born only one day past October 19 - the day the famed gymnasium Litzei, Pushkin's alma mater, opened its doors in the town of Tsarskoye Selo (literally: Tsar's village) in 1811.
Helena was born in the city of Krivoi Rog, the iron miners' unofficial capital. For two years, in 1959-60, Mom had a helper, Volya, a 20-year peasant girl from the Western Ukraine, who came to the city to get her passport. Soviet peasants literally remained slaves until the 1960s! While my parents cured red dust in the lungs of their patients, ore miners, Volya took care of me. She was a Baptist and took me to their secret meetings every week, likely on Saturday or Sunday. This could be the true reason I loathed wine throughout my youth, but the Baptist girl was a nuisance in our thoroughly atheistic Soviet doctor-family. A tricky theological argument of my parents, that Yuri Gagarin flew to the cosmos and saw no G-d, apparently had little effect on Volya: "How far did he fly?" she used to ask. This was too much for Soviet atheistic orthodoxy and they finally parted. My parents helped her to get a passport and Volya disappeared from my life forever.
My mother developed bronchial asthma in 1961, when we spent a month at the Black Sea, living in a small hut near Odessa. She claimed that the fish (or rather their horrible smell) the owner used to smoke in front of our windows caused it. In any case, my sister, born the next year, had asthma from birth. This could be the reason for the next three years of acute tension between my mom and her svekrov, her mother-in-law, Leah, who used to visit us once a year from Bryansk, my Dad's birth place. Grandma Leah disliked disharmony, even in health, and seems to have held her daughter-in-law responsible for Helena's asthma. "My golden boys!" my mother would say, mocking with gay irony my grandma's provincial-style praise of her two sons, my uncle Aaron and my father, Mark.
Mother's life in Donetsk was rather quiet. In the morning she would send me and my sister to school and would then go to work at the hospital. She could have taken a bus that would follow the big loop around the hospital, but usually the local folk would take a shortcut under a train of coal-laden cars that were stopped on the way to the Donetsk metallurgical plant. The train was usually 50 cars long, so long that both the engine at its head (paravoz) and its caboose were invisible from the station. Everyone took the shortcut, despite the danger of being run over by the train. Statistics would predict that once in a while a tragedy might occur. And indeed, once, a train moved while my mother was still under the car, but she managed to escape at the last second. She never lost her spirit and made the right decisions rather quickly, a quality that Arthur Schopenhauer calls sagacity.
When Mom saw that I was not advancing in our suburban school, she went straight to the best school in the city - School No. 17 - and did not leave the director's office until I was accepted. "How did you convince him?" I asked afterwards. "I just listened very attentively to his NO arguments, and then said `YES, I understand, but please accept him.' And thus, several times in a row, until he surrendered." His name was Slabun, "weakling" in Russian; this could be another reason for my luck. The school was a kind of local Eton, but it acquired its 15 minutes of fame much later, when Anatoliy Scharansky, a former Soviet dissident, who had finished his studies there 11 years earlier than myself, became a two-time winner of the American Medal of Freedom under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
Once, Mom noticed that things were disappearing from our apartment, and she determined the identity of the thief. It was my sister's best friend, who lived in the same building. Mom went straight to her apartment, and when the girl opened the door, she bluntly asked for our key, which the girl, visibly amazed, handed to her without objection. How did Mom solve the puzzle? By sheer elimination, she explained. She could make a correct diagnosis, whether in the hospital or in life. Dad used to praise this ability in his birthday party speeches, and she would smile lightly, ironically, upon hearing these descriptions.
"Andrei," she used to call me from our third-floor balcony in the evening while I was kicking around a ball with friends in the courtyard - "come in for dinner!" "What is for dinner?" I shouted back. She hesitated for a moment, wishing that the neighbors were not listening to the conversation, "Borscht!" "No, I do not want it!" I yelled back, "Why not an omelet and a sausage?!" The latter was my standard breakfast, recommended by my athletics coach, Nina Karpovna. As a youngster, I would apply pure professional advice to my whole life. The thought of diversifying my life did not occur to me at that time. "Maximalist!" Mom used to conclude on this and similar occasions. "Conservative!" Dad would retort.
After giving eight (seven after the 1970s) hours to her patients, Mom would come home, stopping on her way to buy meat and milk at a shop on the corner of our Boulevard Shachtostroitelei (Mine-Builders Street). Meat and milk shops were quite popular in the Soviet city landscape. The idea was to mock Jewish dietary laws, though this also could have been homage to Soviet cows, fed chocolate on the recommendation of Academician Lisenko, the gravedigger of Soviet genetics. ("Poor Yorik" in this case was Academician Nicolai Vavilov, a great geneticist.) A walk along the boulevard was rather pleasant. It had several rows of rosebushes, planted to absorb the black dust from the surrounding coal mines, though the majority of mines in our neighborhood were already exhausted and had been closed. The indefatigable dust, however, was all around - between the double windows, on the furniture, on people's collars. Donetsk was supposed to have 1 million rosebushes, according to the whim of its local First Party Secretary, Dyagterev. Coming home each day at 4 p.m., my Mom had only two hours to cook a family dinner for four before my father's return from the same hospital at 6 p.m. Remember, there were no microwaves, no toasters, no dishwashers in the kitchen of a middle-class Soviet family. Conveniences in those days amounted to a gas oven and a housewife's two hands - and woe to those who lived without a grandmother or two! The Soviet Union produced missiles and ballet for export - not housewares and medicine. Dad worked overtime so our family could take yearly vacations to the Black or Azov seas.
After the formal family dinner, doing my homework, and coming to the kitchen to pick up an apple or a cookie, I used to see Dad recounting to Mom all the daily hospital news that had escaped her, or reading newspapers while she washed dishes. In a small video clip that Dad made in 1972, where Helena and I are walking quickly back and forth along the street, as in the first Charlie Chaplin movies, Mom is seen in the kitchen cooking borscht and cutting vegetables for a salad. Her smile was always the same - a young, slightly surprised smile, directed towards the future - as one rare student photo of her (standing in full height against a wall) bears witness. It hangs now on my wall. On Dad's insistence, she often cooked beets in a big pot on the back burner of the stove for her weight-loss diet. The boiling red beets emitted a horrible smell that could not be aired from the kitchen easily, but she somehow endured. We kids ate the cooked beets with much pleasure - and this was the most important fact for a medical doctor.
Because of her preoccupation with the kitchen, the other household duties were distributed among us kids: I would scrub the floor weekly for half an hour and buy vegetables at the local market for the next week, while my sister dusted the furniture, or at least, was supposed to. Mom used to check the quality of our work and we would often go back to redo the cleaning. Buying bread and sugar was a cause of contention between us youngsters. A nearby shop, from my point of view, was within easy reach of my sister, while I was a very busy man preparing for graduation! Helena obviously had quite a different opinion, and our mother had to weigh each case separately. Some vegetables, such as tomatoes, were not placed in the refrigerator, but on a newspaper under the table in the middle of our kitchen. Mom was supposed to pick the ripest ones from the pile, a duty she always neglected. She usually picked up the ones closest to her, since our tiny kitchen, 2 square meters, did not offer space for archeological discoveries - a point of contention between her and our Dad.
Mom did not have much time to read and Dad used to rebuke her for that. So she did the minimum, reading every popular novel that was published in the "thick" journal Novii Mir, the one that published Solzhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," and several similar ones. The rest of the "thick" journals were considered reactionary (anti-Semitic) in our circle and - surely! - bad. The majority of the other journals were of poor quality. The thick journals were, in a sense, the books in soft cover - published in a million copies each. Soviet propaganda kept lying to us about our intellectual advantage over the West. The proof was that all Soviet books had a hard cover, while simpleminded Westerners had never learned how to read classics on the subway. One of the amazing phenomena that arose during the first stages of perestroika was the momentous conversion of the worst journals, like Ogonek, into the best, one needed by us all as daily food. Well, yes - Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.
Mother's summer birthday, on August 9, rarely drew a big crowd, since every other friend was on vacation. A small group of friends often would hold the party near the Azov Sea, whose depth, according to the World Atlas, hardly reaches 14 meters at most, and which, in some places, can be crossed barefoot. The last feature made the Azov Sea especially attractive for my Mom - she did not have to worry about my sister drowning while she was doing her daily kitchen "home work." She underestimated our abilities to find trouble, however. One morning, I invited my sister to join me for a tour near the beach on an air mattress; in a minute or two it was blown away from the beach by a breeze. At some point I jumped into the water to try to push it back, but the water was already above my head. I tried to push the mattress back to the shallows, but quickly weakened. The current was getting stronger. Mom was on the beach all the while, watching the scene with tense attention, but she did not seem to know what to do. She could only swim by dog-paddling, with her head out of the water and her hands doing straight, slow, rowing movements, though she used to greatly enjoy swimming in small circles near the beach. Our mother was a very private person, it is impossible to imagine her shrieking for help in public. The story came to a "happy ending" quite unexpectedly when one courageous man dove into the sea from a rock and pushed the air mattress, together with its passengers, closer to the beach. Mom explained her behavior - she was waiting for our friend's family's arrival at the beach, whom she had intended to ask for help.
She was very touched when, once, in 1972, my little sister, then 10 years old, and I, then 14, bought her a tiny bottle of perfume, "White Acacia-Tree," for 1 ruble and 17 kopecks that we had saved from our ice cream money. (If we take as a basic unit a popular Soviet ice-cream plombir, then this would amount to six portions!). I found the perfume bottle many years later in her cupboard, in America.
Once in a while, relatives would come to visit. Uncle Misha, Mom's middle step-brother, taught me how to obtain the perfect tan: you must sit in the sun not later than 10 a.m. in the morning or after 4 p.m. in the evening. Pirkei Avot, the Jewish wisdom collection, says that if someone teaches us one idea, we can count him as a teacher, and so I hold my Uncle Misha in this role. Here in Israel, I never stay at the beach after 10 a.m. or return before 5 p.m., an hour correction partly due to the significantly different latitude, and partly to the fact that Soviet time was three hours off normal, a fact that astonished the main character of "One Day." Misha proved he knew something about the human body and health in general; he celebrated his 100th birthday in Israel and died within the year in the Tel Ha-Shomer hospital, only twenty minutes from where I live. His granddaughters remember him drinking a big spoonful of cod liver oil each day. He was the most organized member of the family on my mother's side and lived life much as he wished. It is hardly a surprise that Mom, who assiduously kept track of all her relatives, loved most her youngest step-brother, Lenya. Both were Party members and both had achieved some distinction in their professions. But she valued people with a hard fate - those who had suffered, but in the end healed and came back to normal.
Mom was a faithful companion to my father, and both were always faithful to their children. They liked to visit us at different stages in our lives. In 1979 she went to Kharkov to see my sister Helena, then a freshman at the local Institute of Culture, which generally produced professional entertainers for sanatoriums or houses of respite. (Don't worry, she came out a librarian!). Four years later, Dad took a long vacation to take care of my sister's twin daughters while she went to Kharkov to take her final exams. In the Soviet higher education system, there were written and oral exams. Meanwhile, Mom was ill in the hospital with a strange skin disease. She was much embarrassed by this unexpected turn: "My skin never betrayed me till then!"
In 1981 they visited me at my army post, Electrostal, some 100 km east of Moscow, bringing a parcel of food: white meat, butter, etc. - a standard night dream of a Soviet soldier. I immediately divided the food with an - Occam's? - razor and shared it with my comrades-in-arms, giving the first pieces to my closest friends and then to others. On Dad's insistence, we had our picture taken in a local photo shop. I appear to be double their size - proving that my last half-year in the Soviet army was a privileged nothing-to-do period. In 1990, the year before our emigration, my parents visited me in Pereslavl-Zalesky, an ancient city 150 km to the northeast of Moscow, where I worked at an unassuming Software Institute, reminiscent of the one known to every intelligent Soviet man from Brothers Strugatski's novel, Monday Begins on Saturday. I took them to the local tourist attraction: a small, but perfect, 12th century church, only five years younger than Moscow itself, and to Plezheevo Lake, where Peter the Great had built his first fleet. At this time Gorbachev's perestroikawas going full-steam ahead, and the education and health care systems, where employees were not accustomed to earning their salaries, were gradually being brought to their knees. The manager of the local hotel in which we stayed when visiting Plezheevo Lake, a very shrewd lady, was doubtful that either of my doctor parents, experts in tuberculosis with 30 years of experience, could be useful in a recreational town with no mines or plants, but permitted them to stay for three days. She was right: in a year or two, Soviet public hospitals and their workers became virtual beggars.
It was at Mom's insistence that we emigrated to Boston in 1991, rather than to New York or Israel. In our interview at the American Embassy, she calmly said what was expected from us - there is an immediate threat to our lives in the USSR, and she had personally heard these threats. This was enough in 1990; in three months we received U.S. visas, and in March 1991, we landed at Boston's Logan Airport to settle for the next year in the small town of Sharon, Massachusetts, which would become a landmark in our lives. Once there, she daily traveled on the Amtrak to Boston to help my sister Helena handle a prolonged divorce, on one side, and her two granddaughters - on the same side. The girls, incited by their father, behaved strangely, refusing to go to American public schools, and later, insisting on going only to the most Orthodox Jewish school in the district, in the state, on the East coast (the whole world would be too small for them, but fortunately they graduated on time!). Mom spent all her time with them, cooking, cleaning, nursing, and reading them Russian fables. Solving mathematics homework, teaching them to play chess, and driving them to different recreational activities were tasks reserved for my father. This daily, mid-day, creative union between grandparents and their grandchildren - quite traditional in Soviet Jewish families, who had spent three generations in the same apartment - is actually the secret reason that the former Soviet Jews, as a group, could boast of hundreds of wunderkind in different fields, from math to music.
Along with my father, my mother came to California to celebrate my graduation from UC Irvine in 1995, when I received my PhD in mathematics. They very much enjoyed the official ceremony, the golden ribbons on my black mortarboard, and staying at the house with a pool that I had rented for them on this occasion. There, they grimly listened to my plans of making aliyah (literally: "going up") to Israel. "Why did you abandon us?" my Mom would ask later, quite rhetorically. "Egoist!" she used to conclude, after the pause. Dad would just nod sadly in agreement.
In 1997, Mom and Dad visited me in Israel and met, again, most of their old friends to whom they had said good-bye "forever" in March 1991. When people left the USSR for Israel, they never expected to see those left behind again. Yes, to leave a home, even a bad home, is hard - until you see how good things are in your next home. There is some truth to the famous line from a private letter written from Israel to Russia in the 1980s: "How happy you are since you are unaware how pitiful you are!"
Why did my parents refuse to leave the USSR in the 1970s? Was it their gratitude for receiving a free education? Was it patriotism? During Khrushchev's Thaw in the 1960s, the Soviet regime played its last cold deck and managed to prolong for 20 more years the tenure of Party functionaries who sat in power and modestly enjoyed life. In 1990 the regime, already nearly bankrupt, reluctantly succumbed to the outside pressure from America and the inner disquiet from dissident circles and pretended to be European. Yes, it thundered from Heaven, even Soviet citizens have the innate right to travel after all! Soviet Jews were first to use this right, running to Vienna or Rome, but the regime prepared another joke - those who left could take no money in their pockets and only a few clothes in their suitcases. For those who, like my sister and her family, went to the U.S. through Rome, emigration was a vigorous lesson on how to survive. Well, this appeared to be much easier in Rome than it was in Russia in the 1990s.
Only through the generosity of the United States of America, which provided pensions to people who, all of their lives, had worked for the American arch-enemy, were my parents able to allow themselves the luxury of spending some money on themselves, their relatives, and friends. They brought presents to their friends in Netanya and Kiryat Gat. We visited Eilat for a couple of days. As a "reward," quite simple-mindedly, on a very hot and humid October day, I took them to Jerusalem, and we walked all along the horrible Jaffa Road, some 10 km to the Old City. My parents survived even this - those who came out of the Great War alive could safely get through many other things.
Mom was indignant when, at my father's funeral eulogy in March 2002, I spoke mainly about his incorruptibility, this being a rare gift in Russia in the doctor's guild, and especially in the Soviet Union in the time of zastoi ("stagnation") - the latter era, dated usually from 1975 to 1985, was an immediate predecessor of and spiritual starting point for perestroika. (Lenin's father, a Kalmyk with no great talents in sciences, was raised to the highest rank in the Tsarist hierarchy in the Education Ministry just because of that quality.) "Why did I not say more about Dad's wide interests: chess, medicine, his vast erudition in literature and poetry, his knowing Pushkin's Evgeni Onegin by heart?" Why? I did not know what to say. Instinctively, I focused on what I found the most fascinating. The things I appreciated in my father were different than hers, though the systems of priorities were close. Later, she confessed, I asked the Heavens to allow your Dad two more years, but it was melanoma, a horrible thing...
She was spared from melanoma, but she suffered a prolonged battle with ovarian cancer and fought to live for five years. She endured dozens of chemotherapy treatments, receiving them almost monthly after Dad's death. She struggled to be able to help us more. She desperately wanted to bring me back to the United States, but after September 11, 2001, the line of applicants to immigrate to America was virtually frozen for five or six years. She used to make monthly calls to the nice Kazakh girl whom she had chosen to be the lawyer in this matter: "When do you expect the U.S. officials to consider the case?" In Russian, of course; the Russian language is a kind of a drug that never leaves your tongue. Of course, Mom did learn TV English fairly well. For years she had watched the soap operas on TV - the Young and the Restless and others, and she knew their heroes and corresponding actors' biographies in detail, but that was different. She could always discern the difference between reality and the stage.
She remembered every injustice done to her and her family, and conversely every act of kindness toward her and us, her children. She knew her duty to her family and regularly sent money to her living relatives in Russia, Lenya's family. To have that pleasure, she and my Dad would buy the cheapest vegetables in the supermarket, as one economic measure. I swear - the cheapest! But for kids and grandkids, they bought the best, hand-picked from a separate pile. They would even try bargaining with the cashier to push the price down. Imagine - in the supermarket! Once, I witnessed such a scene that almost made me cry. Almost - I was not a teenager to play another J.D. Salinger hero.
After Dad's death, I tried to step into his shoes, taking over an intellectual discourse with my mother nearly daily. We solved crossword puzzles over the phone: what is a river in Latin America, a tributary of the Amazon, seven letters? Yes, Madeira, but I need the third letter "r"! Wait! - I went directly to the bookshelf: here it is - Maranyon! Next, I would submit my telephone report on what was going on here in Israel. Then Mom gave her report on what was going on with my nieces. "Has Lelya finally written her thesis or not?" I would ask. "Not yet. Imagine: two full years passed after graduation!" she complained. And in conclusion: "Actually, she has your character!" I nodded at my end of the phone: according to the Czech monk, Mendel, this hypothesis could not be rejected outright. The thesis was a central issue in our talks during the two long years after my niece's semi-graduation from Columbia University. "Lena just does not know what to do. Four years in a top school - and all for nothing?" The questions about Polya, my Israeli niece who was graduating from Bar-Ilan University, were less strenuous: "Polen'ka molodez - a wise girl," she used to say, "She knows exactly what she wants from life. May she be blessed with good luck!"
She was the only one in her apartment building in Newton, Massachusetts, who bravely voted for George W. Bush twice, in 2000 and 2004. Her Russian comrades from the Jewish Family hostel were afraid their dental benefits would be taken from them by the Republicans and voted opposite. But my mother was a lady of principle. "America gave us more than enough," she used to say to us. "At least the Republicans are more pro-Israel!" Yes, she worried about her son and granddaughter. "Why was Clinton such a great President?" she used to calmly reply to her angry neighbors. "What challenge stood before him during his eight years of presidency? Serbia?" She was glad Obama was selected as the Democratic candidate: "He will not be elected! - but that lady Clinton-sha (Hillary) will be stopped!" She overestimated American xenophobia, on one side, and the country's love for the Bush family, on the other.
My Mom died with dignity. I described her last days in my diary. Some moments were very tender. She understood that Polya in Israel gave birth to a baby girl, and she smiled weakly. The little girl was named Rachel, to which, two weeks later, there was added another name: Brakha, a blessing, the closest Hebrew approximation of `Bronya.' Everyone who had helped my Mom in her last months - even hired workers from the Jerusalem Hostel in Newton - paid homage to her with a visit or a phone call.
Along with some photos and books, which Mom never touched after my Dad's death, I took as a remembrance the towels from the cupboard. She treated good towels with respect, a distinct characteristic of women of the Great War generation.