Nonfiction by Andrew D. Cohen from our Spring 2015 issue.
I’d been wandering for the better part of two hours through the outskirts of Lviv, or Lvov, or Lemberg, or Lwów—it was hard to know what to call this city, given how many countries and empires had conquered, reconquered, occupied, reoccupied, or otherwise staked claim to it in the seven hundred years since King Danilo Halytsky of Galicia had named it after his son, Lev—in any case, the major city in the western half of present-day Ukraine, looking for a concentration camp called Janowska, where upwards of 200,000 Jews, including, possibly, my grandmother’s older brother, Pinchas, had been worked to death or shot, unless they’d somehow survived all that and been put on a train to Belzec where they were taken care of once and for all. According to my guidebook it shouldn’t have been difficult to find: a straight shot from the city center, up a big hill—you could even take a bus, which I might have had I not (a) somehow, despite there being no signs in English nor English-speakers to be found, realized that the line had been rerouted due to street construction, (b) been cooped up on airplanes for close to twenty-four hours the day prior, and (c) discovered that walking would give me the opportunity to visit a nearby cemetery where allegedly stood not a few Jewish graves that had somehow survived both Nazi and Soviet occupations on the off-chance I might stumble upon Pinchas’s, or, less likely still, some other distant family member’s, a ridiculous endeavor, I realized upon arriving at the sprawling grounds where I spent an hour tripping over bramble, ducking branches, negotiating rusted gates, studying headstones, a number of them indeed Jewish but placed with little obvious rhyme or reason, before, dirt-covered and breathless, returning to the main road and continuing up the hill, past neglected, Soviet-style structures, over broken-up sidewalks, the whizzing trucks and buses coughing up huge clouds of exhaust, crossing some frightening intersections, including one where three two-way roads came together with but a single blinking light, until I spotted the looming walls of a prison, something straight out of Solzhenitsyn I nonetheless greeted with sincere relief since, according to my guidebook, the camp had been located just behind it. But, though I’d walked a quarter mile past the prison, down the other side of the hill I’d just climbed; though I’d walked back up the quarter mile to the prison; though I’d repeated this loop no less than three times before, concerned that should I continue in this manner I might draw the attention of the prison watch tower, crossing the road; though I’d spotted there, sunken below grade, train tracks I descended toward via a steep, rusted stairwell in the hopes I might at least find the supposedly nearby rail station where hung a plaque commemorating those who had been shipped to Belzec; though I’d walked half a mile down the tracks, growing entirely spooked as I did, by their desolation, the grayness of the day, my terrifying associations with train tracks in Eastern Europe, before returning to the main road; though I’d asked for directions from the only person I ran into, a heavy-set Ukrainian woman, a comedic interaction during which I briefly entertained the idea of trying to pantomime mass murder; though I’d done all of this in relatively good spirits, with real purposefulness and attention, I’d found exactly nothing—no sign, no memorial, no field—indicating I was in the vicinity of a former concentration camp, which, I realized, might be to the point. Defeated, despondent, heartbroken suddenly at the prospect of not seeing my two young sons for the next three weeks, I was walking back toward the prison when I noticed a taxi pull into a narrow, tree-covered driveway across the street where stood what looked like a white stone monument, the sight of which prompted me to curse loudly before darting across the road and, trying to get into a more somber mindset, walking up the driveway where stood, a few steps from the memorial, buttoning his shorts, the taxi driver, dumpling-faced, unshaven, a fat lower lip, who looked at me with an expression suggesting that if it had occurred to him to feel shame or embarrassment, he simply couldn’t be bothered, before climbing into his cab and driving away.
It was only the latest shower on my parade back to the old country, a parade that had taken shape earlier that year when, having decided to attend a seminar in Poland and Germany about the role of historical memory in modern Europe, I set aside three days to visit the shtetls where my grandparents—my mother’s parents—and their families had lived until they’d boarded ships for North America in 1936, but a parade fueled by a deep and desperate ache for those long-ago (I want to say, sun-drenched) visits to that white stucco house in Bradley Beach, New Jersey, where lived my grandfather, Aaron, the muscular, blue-eyed, gap-toothed owner of the Economy Meat Market, treasurer of Temple Agudath Achim, proud Mason, and his diminutive, wrinkled, pigeon-toed wife, Pearl, not a little paranoid, whose only objections to her husband were that he worked on Shabbos and dealt in nonkosher meat, a woman most comfortable, it seemed, standing in her kitchen where my siblings and I would dig into tins of Charles Chips Cookies and listen to the adults talk—about Israel, the stock market, the synagogue, our various accomplishments (never, incidentally, about Poland)—occasionally trying to ride the schnauzer, Schotzi (“treasure” in Yiddish), for whom my grandmother prepared warm bowls of tuna fish, later heading outside to climb the white stone lions on the front steps or play in the park across the street before walking over to Vic’s Pizza, surely one of our favorite places on earth; and for—the ache, I mean—the visits years later with my mother to the nursing home in Freehold to sit with my grandfather, sunken, dry-faced, but happy to see us, giving him the latest news, coaxing from him innocuous memories (how he’d ridden horses, leapt from moving trains) of his childhood in the shtetl called Bortkiv, helping him, when he seemed up to it, into the front seat of our car for a drive to the shore; and, too, for those times when my grandmother, her mind in steep decline, stayed the weekend with us, drinking, at my father’s insistence, a glass of wine on Shabbos (“Won’t hurt her,” he’d say over my mother’s protests) that reddened her cheeks and softened her furrowed brow, emerging late in the evening, disoriented, from my sister’s bedroom to where I would lead her back, tucking her in as I would my own children years later; an ache around which, following their deaths, living on my own, driving their gray ‘85 Oldsmobile Regency Brougham (Cadillacs, they could have afforded but were “too showy”)—six thousand miles, leather seats, automatic everything—I constructed a delicious narrative about my grandfather, Aaron, the butcher from Bortkiv, and his wife, Pearl, that became mixed up with my nascent obsession with the calamities that had befallen the Jews dating back to the First Temple, especially the horrors in Europe, horrors, which, to be honest, I didn’t, relatively speaking, have much claim to since, aside from Pinchas (and unless you count the large swathes of family I didn’t know about precisely because they’d ended up in some ditch), we only lost my grandfather’s brother, Sam, but horrors that, like my mother, I clung to out of some perverse need to see our lives in its shadows; a parade, then, fueled by two distinct but intimately related narratives, one rooted in life, the other in death, a double helix of storylines that, to be honest, I found embarrassing, not just because I like to think of myself as a realist who doesn’t indulge in the mishegas of high drama, but because all of it—the nostalgia, the dark obsessions, the yearning to go back—was so unoriginal that, as Hillel Halkin points out, an “entire literature” had been constructed around it, though, of course, I was helpless to do anything about it. So I’d made plans—finding flights, hotels; interviewing my mother; gathering family names and dates of birth and sending them to the Ukrainian National Archives (and, because at the time Lviv, or whatever you want to call it, and its surroundings had been part of Poland, the Polish Archives, too); talking to Sally, my grandfather’s niece in Pennsylvania, ninety-one, the only living family member from the original area; all the while feeling acutely self-conscious, as though I were less embarking on an unknown journey than inhabiting a predetermined narrative (and, just in case I forgot, enduring the humiliation of being asked whenever I made the mistake of mentioning my undertaking to anyone, “Have you read Everything Is Illuminated?” which I deliberately hadn’t lest I feel more self-conscious still); stubbornly, because I was loathe to (a) add another framework around the expedition, and (b) have some stranger profit off my fantasies, rebuffing my mother’s efforts to convince me to hire a guide to take me to these villages in the middle of nowhere where dwelled, she was sure, not a few anti-Semites; managing the guilt of abandoning my young sons by telling myself that the trip “back,” as I referred to it, was, in the end, as much for them as it was for me; tempering my wild hopes that I might, miraculously, find my grandparents’ homes or someone who had known them; negotiating, too, frightening dreams of pitchforks, death camps, anti-Semites of various shapes and sizes (and this despite my dismissal of a former student, a Soviet émigré born in Ukraine, who told me, “My strong recollection is that Ukrainians are very anti-Semitic,” with a blithe, “Like most American Jews, I never worry about anti-Semites”), dreams that finally prompted me to accede to my mother’s wishes and hire a driver, a gentile no less, only to learn before my departure that (a) because he had a conflict, a man named Igor, whose qualifications were unclear to me, would take me instead, and (b) I’d scheduled the visit to the villages on Constitution Day when government offices would be closed—news which, together with my mother’s limited information, Sally’s limited memory, and the archives’ limited communication, suggested I wouldn’t find a thing, though, of course, by then I was so caught up in different story lines—so fucked up with different fantasies—that in the unlikely event I did it was almost certain I wouldn’t know what to make of it.
Consider, for example, the moments in the aftermath of the taxi’s departure, as I stared at the piss-stained concrete above which hung a large blue and white sign (whose meaning, appearing, as it did, in both English and Ukrainian, could not have been lost on the dumpling-faced man)—
BOW YOUR HEAD!
In front you see a spot of the former
Janowska death camp.
The ground is moaning.
Here the innocent victims
were tortured and tormented;
here they were executed
and sent to gas chambers!
MAY THE MEMORY OF THE INNOCENTLY
MURDERED LIVE FOREVER!
ETERNAL MALEDICTION BE UPON
—moments during which I found myself back in the apartment with my parents, only instead of debating whether or not the Polish doormen who never helped my mother with her grocery bags were anti-Semitic, they were arguing about the meaning of the taxi driver’s behavior, my mother saying, “Disgusting!” and “The Ukrainians are the worst!” and “The whole continent is awful!” and my father, head in the newspaper, saying, “What are you getting so worked up for. The guy had to take a leak!” to which my mother said, “Well, he didn’t have to do it here,” to which my father shrugged and said, “When you gotta go, you gotta go!” which saw my mother look bitterly toward me and say, “He’s impossible,” at which my father crunched his paper and said, “Your problem is that you’re paranoid, Lillian. You think everyone is out to get you,” to which my mother, removing from her purse an old receipt on which she’d listed every city, region, and country from which Jews had been expelled, dating back to the First Temple, said, “I wouldn’t call that paranoid, Joel,” though my father, entirely unimpressed, waved his hand and said, “You sound like your mother,” which saw my mother, realizing she was getting nowhere with him, turn to me and say, “You should have said something, you know,” which caught me off-guard. “Like what?” I said. “He probably didn’t even speak English,” to which my father, a long habit of siding with my mother at the most inopportune moments, said, “Then slug him. Be a man, for God’s sakes!” to which I explained I was a man but was also the father of two boys whom I try to teach understanding, forgiveness—“Forgiveness, my ass!” my father interrupted, “You were afraid,” the sting of which left me momentarily speechless. “Maybe I was,” I said, no longer sure what to think. “I told you,” my father said. “Either you live in the past like your mother, or you get on with your life. You can’t have it both ways,” which I wanted to object to (even if I couldn’t be sure on what grounds), only I was alone again in front of the stone monument on which was written:
LET THE MEMORY OF ALL
THE NAZI GENOCIDE VICTIMS
IN JANOWSKA DEATH CAMP
—an ostensibly simple decree that suddenly raised in me a quandary of questions, including: (a) If you were forever remembering the past, could you ever see the present? (b) If, on the other hand, you forgot the past, didn’t you risk becoming its victim? (c) What constituted a healthy relationship to the past (and did you have a choice in the matter)?—that so overwhelmed me I inadvertently shrugged and wandered back toward a low steel gate, away from the main road, along a curving, overgrown path, a palpable if inexplicable anxiety overcoming me, and that was before I happened upon a group of men in jeans and T-shirts, some smoking, perhaps, in the best case scenario I could concoct, a work group, I walked by clutching my camera, my heart thumping, telling myself that (a) I was being paranoid, (b) no one would be sick enough to pull a stunt here, and (c) whatever I might endure was nothing compared to what had once happened here, before rounding a corner out of their sight, a vast silence growing around me, toward, just below the grim back walls of the prison, an overgrown meadow the size of a baseball field littered with newspapers, bottles, cigarette butts, where, presumably, because there was no signage of any kind, the camp had stood, and, off to the left, a hilly, forested area whose trees were eerily alive with birdsong that carried with it images of ditches and naked bodies, wondering as I stood there if Pinchas had met his end here—imagining how he would have stood, unclothed, awaiting a gunshot, maybe saying a prayer—while periodically glancing in the direction of that group of men, telling myself (a) there was nothing to worry about, (b) I should leave while I had a chance, and (c) I should, well, be a man, and stand my ground, in this of all places, only to catch sight of a gaunt, stooped man with a white mustache walking slowly across the field, carrying—I kid you not—a scythe, blade in the air, which I couldn’t finally interpret as anything other than a sign for me to get the hell out of there, which is what I did.
I had noticed during the bleariness of my first day in Lviv, around the corner from my hotel, adjacent to the former Golden Rose Synagogue—named after Rosa bat-Yaakov Nachmanowicz, who, according to legend, facilitated its return for 20,600 guilders after the Jesuits confiscated it in 1603; plundered by the Nazis in 1941 and then, for good measure, bombed in 1943—a Jewish restaurant where, hoping to find comfort in a bowl of chicken soup or maybe some blintzes, I was now greeted by a host who led me past a small entry table on which stood for sale figurines of Hasidic men that I regarded with passing curiosity—Who would buy these?—to the patio, with its dozen or so café tables, sparsely occupied, situated beneath a large, lovely tree, where a lanky waitress in a short skirt set down a bowl of matzah, more curious still since, of course, Pesach had been over for months and, save for a few oddballs, most Jews I knew didn’t eat one bite more of matzah than was needed to get through the holiday, but nonetheless comforting, adrift and alone as I felt—until I noticed on the menu, in addition to the traditional Jewish fare—vareniki, tsimmis, stuffed pike—not a few offerings of trayf, which, ordinarily, wouldn’t have garnered much of my attention, but now, in combination with the figurines, the matzah, and a note on the menu explaining that there were no prices so you could haggle in “traditional” Jewish fashion, suggested that that this was less a “Jewish restaurant” than a perverse business venture by someone (Jew or gentile, who could say?) who, to put it generously, had little appreciation for the fraught history here. The thing is, I was starving, and the waitress was upon me, so I ordered hummus and pita, nothing too committal, and stared at the blue construction barricade at the end of the patio behind which stood the Golden Rose’s one remaining wall that some hotelier had once tried to tear down before various international Jewish organizations got involved, decrying what I wanted to call a “pathological insistence” on burying the past, when I noticed at a corner table a hefty young man in a blazer sipping a beer, a giant plate of food in front of him, as it turned out, a Jewish businessman from Russia who started a mostly one-way conversation about his travels, his young wife, his hedonistic tendencies, laughing volubly throughout, swigging his beer, waving down the waitress for another, stuffing his mouth with forkfuls of, I guessed, trayf, asking as I nibbled on some pita about my business here, nodding knowingly, maybe even patronizingly—“How quaint,” he seemed to say—as I explained, before launching into a monologue about the importance of living in the moment, enjoying life to its fullest, during which I realized that whatever fantasies and storylines about the past were getting played out for me in relation to this place, they weren’t universal even so far as Jews were concerned. Which isn’t to say my Russian acquaintance was above indulging fantasies, as evidenced by his enthusiastic haggling with the waitress, smiling and flirting, taking palpable delight in the sport of it, his sense of his own irresistibility, only that in contrast to me, his fantasies seemed to liberate rather than burden him, an observation that sparked in me not a little envy even if, when the time came to settle up with the waitress, I couldn’t bring myself to haggle, choosing instead to simply pay the extravagant bill and leave.
I had intended next to visit the local Jewish community center, which, aside from Lviv’s one active shul where I would attend Shabbat services the following evening with barely enough of us for a minyan, was the social and cultural hub for the allegedly five thousand Jews living in the area (a tragic number, of course, when compared to the hundred thousand during the interwar period, but a number, nonetheless, based on my preliminary assessment, almost impossible to believe), and home to a small museum of local Jewish history. But inspired or maybe provoked by my Russian acquaintance, I decided instead to be an ordinary tourist for a while, or, at least, well, act like one, and, to this end, bought myself a chocolate ice cream cone and made my way toward the city’s lovely central square, with its cobblestone streets, cafes, shops, an art-history-book-worth of beautiful buildings—baroque, classic, renaissance, dating back to the thirteenth century, all pitched around a magnificent clock tower—wondering as I did when the last time was that I’d walked through a foreign city in such a leisurely fashion, thinking, as the day brightened around me, that maybe my Russian acquaintance was onto something, that even in a place like this, where exploring the past seemed almost a moral obligation, one could and probably should try to enjoy a stroll through the uncomplicated flow of the here and now, that there was even a kind of wisdom in doing so, which explains why, upon finishing my cone, I walked towards the clock tower, where I proceeded to climb the 408 steps, round and round, an invigorating, even, it seemed, life-affirming endeavor, emerging onto an observation platform that granted me and the dozen other tourists 360-degree views of the city: its maze of cobblestone streets, its striking buildings, its myriad architectural wonders, the vast number of which, I realized, were churches that suddenly, despite myself, I began to count—five, ten, twelve—considering as I did how often Jews had suffered in the name of one church or another, wondering at the connection between these highly visible spires and that impossible-to-find death camp up the road, before I was interrupted by a young Italian couple asking me to photograph them and their son, which got me thinking again of my sons, how much they would have delighted in this ascent, marveling at their simple appreciation for life, their profound ability to accept things for what they are, remembering how I’d promised to return with gifts for them, and, with this bright thought as my guide, climbing down the clocktower and walking towards the city’s open air market, a large, shady square, ringed with stalls, where old Ukrainian women, many wearing babushkas, sewing needles in hands, plied their wares, “Tak, Tak,” woolen socks, handmade stuffed animals, decorative hangings and cloths, and colorfully embroidered, white-linen shirts in children’s sizes that I couldn’t resist, imagining how adorable the boys would look, how meaningful it would be for them to wear—clothes from where their great-grandparents had lived!—even, on a whim, buying one in my own size, only to immediately, even before putting away my wallet, doubt my decision, realizing that my grandfather had never worn shirts like these, that he wasn’t even Ukrainian for God’s sakes, that it was far more likely shirts like these had been worn by pitchfork-wielding Cossacks during the countless pogroms that had taken place during the eight hundred years Jews had lived in the area, pogroms which I then spent several moments imagining in cinematic color—the screams, the burning farmhouses, the blood-spattered shirts—before arriving at the obvious conclusion that I couldn’t be an ordinary tourist here if I tried.
I was, I realized as I walked beneath the late afternoon sky, decompensating, falling further into myself, losing my tenuous connection to the realities before me, and that was before I discovered I was lost again, circling aimlessly through a residential neighborhood southwest of the city center, futilely stopping passersby for directions to the Jewish community center, only to have them indicate, when they spoke English, that they’d never heard of it, compounding as they did my sense of isolation (that I alone was somehow bearing the vast weight of history) and vulnerability (“I should be wearing a yellow Star of David,” I thought, in one moment of admittedly nearly pure hysteria), worrying in this context about what could befall me tomorrow with my driver, Igor, whose name brought to mind Marty Feldman’s wild-eyed hunchback in Young Frankenstein, whether those nightmares I’d had before the trip might come true, whether I might never again see my small sons—when, like angels from above, two congenial, English-speaking Ukrainians pointed me towards a three-story stucco building with a low brick wall outside of which I was stopped by a man, perhaps seventy, wearing a kippah, smoking a cigarette, whose tough manner filled me with the same primitive sense of pride and relief I often felt upon seeing Israeli soldiers—that we’d never again have to worry about being expelled from another country—and made clear that I wasn’t about to waltz inside, a man to whom I repeatedly said, “Museum, tourist, Jewish,” trying to look as harmless as possible as he rifled through my bag, slowly unlocked the door, and, continuing to stare fiercely at me, pointed towards an office where I explained my purpose, such as it was, and then waited, surveying as I did what struck me as more of a social service center than a community center, at any rate, a far cry from the Jewish community centers in the States with their athletic clubs and yoga and whatnot, but a place, with its echoing children’s voices and event posters, not without life, hearty, homey—reassuringly familiar—until a red-haired young woman approached and said a bit breathlessly, “You wish to see the museum?” as a plump, scowling woman with tinted, silver-rimmed glasses limped across the hallway, unlocked a wooden door, and flipped on a light, revealing what was surely the world’s smallest museum, a fifteen-square-foot room packed with prewar Judaica recovered or given to gentiles for safe-keeping, including a Yiddish typewriter, a damaged Torah, Pesach cups, irons and sewing machines carved with Stars of David, mezuzot, miscellany from the old Yiddish theaters, photographs of famous—Shalom Aleichem, Martin Buber, Simon Wiesenthal—and not-so-famous people who’d lived here, all of which the older woman, never once looking at me, introduced—“Here is a copy of the Pirkey Avot that dates back one hundred years”; “Here is a menorah from a family that perished”—taking giant, asthmatic gulps of air as she did, dutifully waiting for the translation by the younger woman, who, perhaps trying to compensate for her colleague’s unvarnished approach, smiled brightly, encouraging me to take photographs; expressing interest in my family history; insisting, though it was late, I was unexpected, there was clearly work to be done, that I take my time; allowing me to do what the museum had bascially been set up to allow people to do—not so much remember or even learn about the past (let alone touch it) but indulge in that intoxicating blend of nostalgia and death that lay so close to the core of my enterprise—before we arrived at the center table where sat stacks of modestly priced postcards, CDs by local Jewish musicians, a map of Jewish Lviv, copies of which I picked up and, guilt-ridden for having taken up their time, the obvious difficulty of their lives, the sense not only that they were, simply by living in this place, bearing the lion’s share of the burden that was our shared history, but, worse, that I was using them, diverting them from the critical work of the here and now to indulge my gratuitous fantasies about the past, started to pay for by pushing several hundred hryvnia, a pittance really but far more than the tags indicated, into the slotted top of the decoratively wrapped cardboard box that had mysteriously appeared in the older woman’s hands, only to have the young woman protest, “Too much,” to which I replied, “It’s good,” to which she replied, “No, no,” to which, feeling even worse for the embarrassment I was now causing her, I said, “It’s okay,” the two of us engaged in a sort of reverse, guilt-fueled tug of war that the older woman abruptly put an end to by grabbing the money and stuffing it into the box, before marching us out of the room, locking the door, and vanishing into the office, leaving me to exchange apologetic “thank you’s” with the red-haired woman and then, under the guard’s watchful eye, make my way out to the dark street to find my way back to the hotel, where I would spend most of the night awake in the bathroom with a very sick stomach, the meaning of which I now leave the reader to consider.
Early the next morning, suitably overcast and rainy, Igor, potato-shaped, soft-spoken, neatly dressed, with a round, unshaven face—whose benign appearance found me hard-pressed to continue indulging fantasies of my demise (even if I couldn’t let go of my misgivings that he was here, finally, for the money)—met me in front of my hotel where we reviewed our itinerary to Bortkiv, where my grandfather had lived, then Sassiv and Ruta-Koltovska, where Sally and my grandmother were raised, a cluster of tiny villages less than two hours away according to the printed Google Map Igor awkwardly handed me for no obvious reason except, I speculated, to give himself some legitimacy, to somehow make it all official, before helping me into his clean white minivan and plunging us into the morning traffic, thrumming over cobblestones, whipping around corners, herking and jerking through the busy city while I sipped mineral water, hoping I’d seen the worst of it with my stomach, listening as he told me in his good English honed in North Carolina after the break up of the Soviet Union—about the surprise he felt upon first seeing the aisles of food in American grocery stores (“I thought I was dreaming”), the rampant corruption in Ukraine (police extorting money from drivers; professors extorting money from students), the arcane tax code that explained why he’d bought the shell of his van abroad and installed the seats and carpeting at home—his slow, halting manner, a function either of his having to translate in his head or his natural deliberativeness, I couldn’t tell which, at any rate at odds with his fearless driving, particularly once we merged onto a two-lane highway, allegedly the best in the country due to its importance to the transportation plan for the 2012 World Cup, but one, nonetheless, with huge potholes, where he weaved into and out of the passing lane with supreme grace, gnawing an oversized chocolate bar (he offered to share; I declined, explaining about my stomach), occasionally glancing at his Google Map, never once hesitating, even as trucks barreled towards us, a man so obviously in his element I couldn’t, despite myself, get too worried. On the contrary, with the road opening up, the countryside spreading out around us, I began to relax, to enjoy the sense of possibility, to believe again in the impulse for this trip, that maybe one could have it both ways, connecting with the past and living in the present, and I listened with interest as Igor, far more knowledgeable than I’d anticipated, pointed out country manors dating back several hundred years, former collective farms, explaining the complex realities of the endless farmland—potatoes and beets mostly, divided, because of the chaos of the Soviet and post-Soviet years, into one- and two-acre plots, a cockamamie quilt punctuated here and there by enormous white statues of horses and virile men still intact because, Ukraine’s ongoing flirtation with the European Union notwithstanding, half the country, left to its own, would gladly climb back onto the lap of Mother Russia—realities that would, of course, rip the country apart less than a year later, but, for the moment, made me think I couldn’t hold anything against that dumpling-faced taxi driver, since, like everyone else here, he was too busy sorting through his own fucked-up past to worry about mine. At nowhere in particular, it seemed, Igor turned us onto a narrow country road along which we bumped and jostled through more farmland and impossibly small villages—collections of houses with tin roofs and rotting fences, horse-drawn carts, goats and ducks wandering hither and thither—that found me, despite their rustic beauty, feeling downcast for reasons I couldn’t articulate until I realized that no one here appeared to be under the age of sixty, a fact that Igor, whose grandparents lived in a village like these, said was common—“The future is in the city,” he explained, staring intently now at his tablet that somehow, despite our surroundings, still, patchily, worked, a fraught quiet settling over us as it became apparent we were lost, and I wondered whether, his benign manner and knowledge notwithstanding, he was out of his league when it came to helping me locate the past. But there was nothing to be done, and anyway I was in no position to blame him, so I watched the passing countryside, thinking about this ceaseless push forward, this relentless dash into the future, recognizing how I (merely by virtue of those two boys back home) was party to it, how it was the nature of life itself, but worrying nonetheless about everything invariably left behind in the process—when Igor pointed to a faded red and white sign and said, “Bortkiv, is there.”
To be honest, I sort of gasped, and Igor, seemingly startled himself, pulled over and cut the engine, asking me if I wished to get out, which I did, without a word, and stood beside the van, surveying the fields, the farmhouse up ahead, reading and rereading the sign as a voice inside me chirped deliriously, “Bortkiv, Bortkiv, Bortkiv,” snapping not a few pictures, pushing aside the disconcerting fact that the sign, printed in Ukrainian, hadn’t been here when my grandfather had, repressing for the moment the fear that even as I stood here, I might never bridge present and past, instead indulging an intoxicating reverie—I’d made it, here, to Bortkiv, where my grandfather had ridden horses and leapt from trains!—until, recognizing that if I continued on in this manner I would lose whatever chance I had to see what was here, I climbed back into the van and Igor drove us into the village proper, past a white-haired man pedaling a rusted bike, a plastic bag of vegetables in hand, a couple of women doddering around like lost hens, past the small government building, indeed closed for the holiday, onto the main street, if you could call it that, lined with tipping telephone poles, tiny houses with moss-covered, corrugated roofs, dilapidated fences, at the end of which stood a small wooden church, a village so lacking in anything related to the modern world I was hard-pressed to believe much could have changed in eighty years, eventually, at what was, more or less, the town center, pulling over opposite a small house with a rotting picket fence behind which stood an expressionless old woman in a green sweater and yellow babushka and a square-faced man, her son, I assumed, his foot resting on, I imagined, a pitchfork, but probably a shovel, whose demeanor at any rate briefly recharged in me the cinematic images of knife-wielding Cossacks, where, Igor, either his shy nature or inexperience getting the better of him, asked if I wanted him to inquire about my grandparents, a genuinely befuddling question—wasn’t that the whole point?—save for the fact that, suddenly terrified that we might really find something, I wasn’t sure how to answer, and I stood there marveling how, when push came to shove, I might be less inclined to touch the past than to continue indulging my fantasy of it, until, with Igor’s eyes upon me, I eventually agreed, if only to avoid embarrassing myself. Then, after a moment of hesitation or deep regret, he stood from the vehicle and approached the woman in green who, as though she’d been waiting all her life for his inquiry, responded with an outpouring that was as animated as it was long, at one point stabbing her finger in my direction, arousing in me not a little uneasiness until I realized she was pointing at the small house behind me, the absurdity of the moment tempered by my growing excitement that she might know something, that I would find something, until Igor returned and explained that the woman had said that though once, before the war, Jews had lived here, she knew nothing about my family, but that in the house behind us lived the oldest woman in the village who had allegedly hidden a Jewish girl who still visited from Israel, and that if anyone knew about my grandfather, it was she, before asking again whether I wanted him to inquire, to which I shrugged and said, “Can’t hurt,” though in fact neither of us moved until the old woman called out, gesturing toward the back of the house, prompting Igor, a dutiful son if I’d ever seen one, to walk around back, knock on the door and, in response to the sound of a suffocating cat, pushed it open to reveal a dark, what I wanted to call entryway, though it seemed, with its small futon, to be a combination bed and living room that he crossed in exactly two steps to the kitchen doorway that he filled, preventing me from seeing anything inside except, by craning my neck, the back of an old woman, still as a statue, wearing a babushka and threadbare overcoat, sitting with a half-empty bowl of broth at a small table crammed beside the sink, a transistor radio broadcasting a dim voice talking in Russian or Ukrainian, who answered Igor with words so faint I wouldn’t have been surprised if they were her last, never once facing us, before Igor turned to me and solemnly explained that she had dementia, that her memory was broken, that whatever connection she’d had to the past was lost for all time to come.
Back out front, as though time itself had stopped, the woman in green and her son stood exactly where we’d left them. While Igor spoke with them I again surveyed the street, the bedraggled houses, the sagging fences, the wooden church, all of it, from a certain perspective— from, say, the perspective of someone who had no stake in its past—quaint, inviting even, but for me, looking for something tangible to attach to that ache, disconcertingly remote, not so much incongruous with what I imagined to be here (my grandfather had never described the village), but, because I couldn’t even be sure whether and how much of what I was seeing had been around when my grandfather had lived here, unapproachable, inaccessible, disappointingly beyond reach. So I asked Igor to ask the woman (who, I had to remind myself, despite her appearance, probably wasn’t born when my grandfather lived here) about the age of her house, which, she explained, had been her mother’s home as a child, meaning my grandfather must have seen it, which seemed to some part of me anyway to count for something, though exactly what I couldn’t be sure, before, with nothing obvious left to say or do, we waved goodbye and, with the woman and her son still watching us, climbed into the van and continued slowly through the village, it dawning on me as we did how strange it must seem to have people like me
showing up here looking for the past—that I was as much a curiosity to these people for visiting as they were to me for living here—beyond the church (which Igor suggested, based on its structure, had arrived here after my grandfather had left) and more homes, some with brick facades, simple, single-story constructions but newer, more substantial than those we had just seen, including one, at the end of the village, in front of which a gnome-like woman with a white babushka looked up as we passes, prompting Igor to stop the van adjacent to a large field where, beside a narrow, slow-moving stream, idled a dozen geese, and, with a sudden air of confidence, say, “I will talk to her,” as though he had nothing left to lose. I stood from the van watching as he engaged the woman who, her neck arching wildly merely so she could see his face, talked intently and at length, signaling after a time for him to wait and hobbling to the next garden where she disappeared into the house, presumably to inquire inside, before she appeared again and shrugged and began talking more, understanding long before he told me as much that she knew nothing, that there was nothing to be found here (or, for that matter, at any of the other villages we visited that day), that whatever I was looking for was no longer here and, in truth, probably never was to begin with, a sobering realization that naturally did little to cure me of that desperate ache from whence all this mishegas had sprung since, after all, that’s the nature of yearning: wanting something you can never reach even when you’re standing right on top of it. It’s a good thing, too, because standing there, looking out over the potato fields, the geese idling by the river, in the village where my sons’ great-grandfather once lived, I knew that ache was the thing, those imperfect storylines were everything. Everything and nothing, all at the same time.
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This excerpt is featured content from the
Spring 2015 issue
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