When I was a little girl, I used to watch my father as he stood by the covered up window and swayed back and forth, his black skullcap sitting softly upon his head, his eyes reverently closed, his lips moving silently in prayer. He would wash after waking up every morning and say grace after every meal, and he taught me to do the same. He taught me what to eat, what to say, what to do, every day.
I tread in his footsteps, and he tread in God’s.
Most importantly, perhaps, he taught me to say Kaddish for the dead, even though I was a girl, for there were often not enough to say it otherwise—and it was the Kaddish that we, the Jews of the Soviet Union, recited every other day as the religious were, one by one, shot, beaten, whisked away to Siberia forever . . .
We were strolling through the park when they, the men in black, took my mother, took her screaming and crying, took her and raped her and bludgeoned her until her blood splattered the snow scarlet and her black-and-blue body, shattered bones slicing through pale flesh, lay broken on the frozen streets of Lvov.
My father adjusted his hat, tightened his hold on my shoulder, and pushed me along, barely audibly whispering, “If we go back, we’ll be killed. If we go back, we’ll be killed. She told me to keep going . . . she told me to keep going . . . if we go back, we’ll be killed.”
It would not be until years later that I realized my mother had been one of the Revolutionaries who fought and died for our freedom.
I never understood why we couldn’t pray in public. I would fish my twenty-three kopeks from my pocket and receive a plate with a single piece of skinny sausage, a few dollops of mashed potato, and a glass of hot kampot—peasant food, yes, but pleasant food as well. Lunch in hand, I would sit next to my friends, their blue eyes contrasting strikingly with my own dark-brown, and wonder why I could not say grace after the meal . . . and whether God would still love me if I didn’t.
Slowly, things began to change, ever so subtly. My father started to work longer nights and would come home in the early morning, his eyes red and underlined with dark circles, only to leave at sunrise. He always left enough rubles for me to afford food, clothing, and heating, but I almost never saw him, being mostly asleep when he returned. One night, I sat awake until I saw him open the door, and I called his name, but he simply collapsed upon the couch, clearly too exhausted to function, his briefcase thudding dully to the ground.
Oh, how I wanted to grasp it with quivering hands, to steady my fingers enough to open the golden clasps, to peer inside both it and my father’s mind at once, but I knew it was not my place to do so, and I quelled the fiery curiosity that burned in my heart.
By the time I had awakened the following morning, he was gone, but something felt . . . amiss . . . as if there were demons lurking in the room. Shuddering and thinking of their wicked smirks, devilish wit, and feet of geese, I gathered my belongings, ate a slice of rye bread with a bit of cheese saved from yesterday’s lunch and opened the door to face another dreary day of drizzle.
My leather partfel tucked under one arm, I strode along the sidewalk and turned left at the corner to enter the park, still and silent this time of winter. A few stragglers pulled their threadbare overcoats tighter to their bodies and hurried on.
Clearly, I wasn’t the only one uneasy of the goings-on of this particularly mournful morning.
Up ahead, the victuals queue stretched beyond the visible avenue and snaked through the streets as each person, loaded with empty jugs and platters, stood—the lucky ones for perhaps four or five hours—to purchase his meager dole of meatless bones, watered-down milk, and sausages filled with paper and straw. As I paused at the edge of the stone to watch them shuffle along for a few moments, I heard a shout behind me.
My blood froze instantly, becoming perhaps a degree Celsius warmer than the deathly grip of cold about me. I turned to see them, the men in black, rocks and bludgeons in hand, moving towards me, and I wondered if inside their boots were feet not of humans but of geese.
I began to move. I knew not from where my sudden speed sprang, but I could feel the angels running beside me, pulling me, directing me to queue where I would be safe. I felt God with me in in every moment, in every footstep, in every breath.
I would outrun them.
I heard them cursing behind me, yelling sukka and zidovskaya morda and skateena, but I was decimeters away from the crowd, and I felt the angels’ hands carry me the last leg of the journey. I landed on my belly on the sidewalk, but I was unscathed, and I shakily stood and started to dash through the throng. Like Moses before the Red Sea, I watched in wonder as the queue parted and let me through.
I took a single step.
And the line surged forward.
Hand grabbed my wrists, my thighs, my hair—and pulled.
The crowd had not parted. It had merely regrouped.
I gazed up at them, a girl of fourteen, my lips parted, the words spilling forth: “Oh please, help me, help me—we are all children—oh please—look into your hearts—help me! Help me! Please!”
They threw me into the snow, and I screamed, every piece of hurt—and yet the pain was not finished.
The men in black, the Nationalists, approached, twirling large wooden clubs, speaking to each other in dark voices.
I spied an alleyway, and, though every moment hurt my bruised body, I started forward only to feel a sudden weight press painfully in between my shoulder blades; my spine strained and threatened to snap, and the boot pushed harder.
I could smell vodka on their breaths.
“She knows nothing. She is to be merely killed, like her father.”
“Out in the street? Comrade, I do not—”
“One is not to question the authority, comrade. There are other Jews about. It is to be a sign for them—a warning.”
Some words I couldn’t quite catch were exchanged, and the pressure of the boot was relieved. Immediately, I sprang forward, uncoiling like a viper, my muscles stretching to the point of breakage—
And lightning fell from the sky and struck me in the small of the back, sending cascades of white-hot pain coursing through my veins. The thunder echoed as the lightning struck again and again on my shoulders—anguish—my head—agony—and my soft neck—a crack—an explosion of pain—pain—pain—
Things happen, and we cannot prevent them. In the Soviet Union, no one was allowed to practice his or her religion, on pain of death. In America, we have been blessed with the freedom of religion. Diversity means that we can worship freely without ever fearing conversion, ignorance, and death.