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Farewell, Mama Odessa

Farewell, Mama Odessa: A Novel

Emil Draitser
Copyright Date: 2020
https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvswx818
Pages: 264
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvswx818
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  • Book Info
    Farewell, Mama Odessa
    Book Description:

    Set in the summer of 1979 at the height of the movement to free Soviet Jewry,Farewell, Mama Odessa is an autobiographical novel whose intertwined storylines follow a variety of people-dissidents, victims of ethnic discrimination, and black marketeers among them-as they bid farewell to their beloved hometown of Odessa, Ukraine, and make their way to the West. At the book's center is Boris, a young writer thwarted by state censorship and antisemitism. With an Angora kitten for his companion and together with other émigrés, he puts the old country in his rear-view mirror and sets out on a journey that will take him to Bratislava, Vienna, Rome, and New York on his way to Los Angeles. Will Boris be able to rekindle his creative passion and inspiration in the West? Will other Jewish émigrés fit into the new society, so much different than the one they left behind? With humor and compassion,Farewell, Mama Odessa describes the émigrés' attempts at adjustment to the free world.

    eISBN: 978-0-8101-4109-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Jewish Studies

Table of Contents

  1. PROLOGUE
    (pp. 3-5)

    At the end of the eighteenth century, to secure access to the warm waters of the Black Sea, which made possible year-round navigation, Catherine the Great founded the port of Odessa. Not unlike New York, from its outset it turned into a melting pot of many nationalities. No wonder that when Mark Twain visited it back in 1867, he made a startling discovery. “I have not felt so much at home for a long time as I did when I … stood in Odessa for the first time,” Twain writes in his Innocents Abroad. “It looked just like an American...

  2. 1 THE SACRED SOVIET BORDER
    (pp. 7-11)

    They were on their way to the city of Mukachevo in the Trans-Carpathian Mountains. Boris Shuster, a journalist from Moscow, originally from Odessa, was on assignment. Andrei, a journalist he had met at a local newspaper, was driving. It was warm; crickets were chirping, the air smelled of baked earth. Green slopes stretched away on the horizon. The evening was approaching, but the sky was still bright. Andrei suggested they look at those green slopes. He turned his blue “Muscovite” car onto a side road.

    He pulled up to a foothill and stopped, but kept the motor running. Pointing out...

  3. 2 ONE SULTRY EVENING
    (pp. 12-17)

    Late one evening, amid a wild Odessan summer, Yury Bumshtein sat in his apartment on the third floor of a nondescript house on Theater Lane. Although he was thirty-five years old, people still called him by his teenage nickname of Yurik.

    He sat in his black boxer shorts, wincing from the cloying fragrance of overripe jasmine wafting in from the street. He was wielding a hammer over a cobbler’s last he held between his knees. A fancy lady’s bootie, almost done, crowned the last.

    “Lyubka, Lyubka, you Jezh-zhe-bel!” Yurik hissed through wooden pins clenched between his teeth. “You terror, you...

  4. 3 VICIOUS CIRCLE
    (pp. 18-21)

    Boris had figured out how he could make fun of the inefficiency of the Soviet system. It was allowed to satirize its “isolated shortcomings.” So, one day, he wrote the following story:

    I was about to become a grandmother. Any day my grandson or granddaughter would appear in this beautiful world of ours. Everything had to be ready for the event. And a baby carriage came right after mother’s milk in order of importance.

    For two weeks I visited Detskiy Mir, a large store for children’s products in our city: toys, clothes, furniture. However, every day the section where they...

  5. 4 A LATE-NIGHT VISIT
    (pp. 22-27)

    The man at the door in the polo shirt was not a coach from the Dynamo sports association. He was another official and made no apology for knocking so late. Behind him in the hallway, Mitka shifted from one foot to another in confusion. He was there as a neighbor witness, a mainstay of Soviet legal practice. And a third man stood farther back, the mustachioed Zakharych, a police officer from the local precinct. He was there for the same reason. The official pulled a slip of paper out of a small briefcase known as a “Diplomat,” checked it, and...

  6. 5 THE LAST STRAW
    (pp. 28-32)

    Boris’s failed attempt to publish “The Wheel” was the tipping point in his thinking about whether to emigrate. He finally accepted what his parents had been saying for a long time. He felt what many young people in the country were feeling, not just the Jews. The Soviet Union had no future, and neither did he so long as he lived there. He was not yet thirty years old, healthy and full of energy. He yearned to live life to the fullest, but his energy had no outlet in his homeland. It depressed him.

    Is this all there is for...

  7. 6 ALL IS LOST!
    (pp. 33-38)

    Smiling and smacking his lips as though he had just enjoyed a delicious meal, the police inspector asked Yurik whether he knew Koshtinsky. As soon as Yurik uttered, “Generally, I don’t,” the inspector snapped, “Generally? What about in particular?”

    “In particular …” he hesitated. His mind was racing. He grimaced. Denying his relationship with Zhora was stupid. The police inspector must have known he and Zhora were former classmates.

    To say Yurik was scared would be an understatement. The world around him shape-shifted as if he were in some modern painting. Yurik’s sight was altered; he had the vision of...

  8. 7 A LETTER FROM AMERICA
    (pp. 39-46)

    Boris knew well that, in the West, you couldn’t live without a car. After filing his application for an exit visa, he took driving lessons from a stocky, blond driver recommended by his friends. Screaming over the motor and into Boris’s ear, the driver yelled, “Easy, easy! Treat it like a lady!” Boris gripped the steering wheel. He jerked the gear knob while slamming on the gas pedal, and then the brakes. The old and rusty Muscovite jumped under his uneasy control, like an inflatable toy in a baby’s hand.

    He knew he would go to America, not Israel. His...

  9. 8 WHO’S GOING TO SAVE ME?
    (pp. 47-50)

    The inspector left, but Mitka still loomed in the doorway. He spread his muscular, overworked paws in an apologetic gesture. His downcast appearance revealed that, although he did not understand what had just happened, he had a gut feeling his credit line with Yurik had been closed, at least temporarily. Now Yurik would have to worry about other things. Mitka shook his head dejectedly as if saying fate screws us all over in ways we’re not prepared for. He wanted to say something, but, shuffling his feet a little more, waved his hand in defeat and left.

    Yurik sank into...

  10. 9 WATER FLOWING AND NOT FLOWING
    (pp. 51-53)

    Boris waited for the decision regarding his exit visa. He knew that whether they permitted him to leave or not, his life was bound to take a dramatic turn. Recalling the last Winter Olympics, held in the Austrian town of Innsbruck, Boris thought the way he felt now must be the way a luger feels. Lying on his back, he flew, feet first, on an unfamiliar track at an eye-bulging speed. He didn’t know which way the route would turn and which side to put his weight on. Boris stopped reasoning altogether, submitting to whatever instinct overwhelmed him at the...

  11. 10 STROLLING ALONG THE BROAD
    (pp. 54-59)

    After leaving the building where Lyubka lived, Yurik roamed the streets. Finally, he stopped. With difficulty, he pulled himself together and headed toward the city center. He figured he might see one of his friends there, and maybe they’d give him some advice. He couldn’t perish, just like that. He had to do something.

    It was late May. The lilacs were in bloom, the air saturated with their smell. The air stopped moving, unwilling to cool the overheated bodies of the city dwellers. Impatient by nature, they cooled themselves, acting out the old Odessan joke, “If fanning your face tires...

  12. 11 THERE ARE ALL KINDS OF JEWS
    (pp. 60-64)

    Boris was lucky; he waited just over three months to get permission to leave the country. He sighed in relief. His fear of being stuck in his home country had vanished. But they let him go. Who would want to hold on to a satirist, let alone a Jewish one! The emigration stream of the late sixties, which began as a small trickle, had grown into a wave that had been swelling rapidly.

    Boris threw a farewell party, inviting friends and acquaintances from his fraternity of journalists. A bunch of people crammed into his small room and drank that evening....

  13. 12 WE’RE GOING, GOING, GOING TO SOME DISTANT LANDS
    (pp. 65-73)

    The air was hot and thick on Zhukovsky Street. At the open window stood a drawing board, behind which sat Evgeny Arnoldovich Pozniak, a sanitation engineer. A seltzer bottle stood within reach of his hand. On a chair next to him, an oscillating fan, which Odessans called “little toady,” blew over his sweating face. His wife Irina had long been in bed. There was a good reason why, at this late hour, the master of the house didn’t feel like sleeping.

    “So,” Evgeny Arnoldovich Pozniak said to himself, looking over little notes spread out on the drawing board, “objectivity is...

  14. 13 TRAVELING COMPANION KISA
    (pp. 74-77)

    Before leaving the country, Boris flew to Odessa to visit his family, and then took a train to Chop. His family couldn’t come to visit him in Moscow because his father’s old war wound had reopened. Boris had a long journey ahead of him, a voyage into the unknown, and he could not leave without bidding farewell to his mother and father.

    To prepare him for his long journey, Boris’s mother fried a whole chicken and boiled half a dozen eggs, as was their custom. His father gave him a Parker pen. It was beautiful: burgundy in color with a...

  15. 14 HOW TO MARRY QUICKLY
    (pp. 78-83)

    His relatives had already been trying to marry off Yurik. He resisted, making all kinds of excuses. He was ashamed to admit the truth: he was still in love with his ex-wife. To hide his true feelings for Lyubka, he would scold her when his mother was present. His mother would often bemoan that her heart wept over the sight of his suffering. Lyubka outraged her. Although Lyubka was still a divorcée, Yurik’s mother would say the woman behaved like the “worst goyka,” a non-Jewish woman. A woman of that kind wouldn’t think twice about dumping one husband to marry...

  16. 15 THERE’S MANY A SLIP BETWEEN THE CUP AND THE LIP
    (pp. 84-88)

    The train from Odessa had arrived at Chop, a railroad station on the border between the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. When Boris emerged from the train to go through customs and transfer to the train to Bratislava, there was a sea of emigrants from all over the country already waiting there. With the instinct of a reporter, he sensed the historical significance of what was going on. He was mentally recording everything he saw; he knew he witnessed history in the making. The scale of the events made him think of the Great Patriotic War as the Soviet media called...

  17. 16 PLAY THE LUNAR RHAPSODY FOR ME
    (pp. 89-94)

    Lyubka had married Yurik out of pity. He rambled and clambered around her. He whined. Lyubka was already over twenty years old, and, though she was as gorgeous as Odessan women come, men walked right past her, not realizing what they were passing up. Besides, Lyubka was rarely alone; she always had a bunch of girlfriends around her. She was only alone when sewing dresses at home. However, her countless girlfriends would visit her, even if just to chat. Lyubka’s machine did not stop moving, and neither did her mouth. Young women who came for a fitting shared all parts...

  18. 17 THE VIENNESE DIVERTISSEMENT
    (pp. 95-99)

    Kisa jumped off the windowsill, stretched, and lifted her pretty little muzzle up to Boris. Take me out for some fresh air, and do it fast, her stare was telling Boris. Otherwise, I don’t care if I hurt you. You know how my Turkish blood riles me when I’m depressed.

    That morning, the train had pulled up under an arch of the Vienna train station. While the emigrants unloaded their luggage on the platform, representatives of the Jewish Agency for Israel took aside a small group of those headed for Israel to the Schoenau Castle, a transit center in the...

  19. 18 MORE RELIABLE THAN STOCK IN COCA-COLA
    (pp. 100-105)

    Yefim Butko made his first fortune in the early fifties. The city was recovering from the destruction of war, so many buildings had to be built or repainted. At Privoz, he opened a booth with a sign above it that read paints and lacquers, and people came looking to freshen up their apartments with joyous colors. However, neither paints nor lacquers inspired Yefim. The bluing, which these people loved for its ability to impart freshness to whitewashed ceilings, did not excite him either. A businessman with little imagination might slip fine sand into the bluing powder and rejoice at the...

  20. 19 SURVIVOR’S GUILT
    (pp. 106-114)

    Boris found a quiet corner in the Viennese post office and read the letter from America:

    Boris, hello!

    So, you are in Vienna. Congratulations! You’ve finally crossed your Rubicon. I’m very happy for you, and I can’t wait to give you a big hug at the first opportunity.

    I have exciting news. Though my emotions are not on a par with your life-altering state of mind—been there, done that—I’m also overwhelmed with what’s been going on lately here, in America. I want to share it with you because it concerns not only me but you too. All of...

  21. 20 YOU GO RIGHT, AND I GO LEFT
    (pp. 115-117)

    Like any normal Jewish person living under ripe socialism, Lyubka became excited when she learned about the opportunity to emigrate. She was still young, full of energy, and she wanted to start her life anew. She hardly knew what she would do on the other side of the Soviet border. However, her intuition told her that, although it was doubtful she’d be able to take over the market cut of Dior or Gucci, she could make a living in the business. If she could survive in the Soviet Union on her own and support her daughter, she would not die...

  22. 21 ALL ROADS LEAD TO ROME
    (pp. 118-129)

    Ten days after arriving from Chop, together with the other ex-Soviet tenants of the boarding house, Boris headed back for the railway station. This time, he was going to Rome. Everyone took seats close to the windows. Nobody wanted to miss the opportunity to admire the views of the mountains, which they knew only from Vasily Surikov’s famous painting, General Suvorov Crossing the Alps. Several Austrian soldiers brandishing Uzis passed through the aisle, proceeding to the open vestibule. There, they settled in, lit cigarettes, and exchanged short guttural phrases.

    One emigrant, a middle-aged man with a short professorial beard, informed...

  23. 22 BEATING THE SYSTEM
    (pp. 130-134)

    In response to Lyubka’s reminder that she is only his wife on paper, Yurik shook his head and muttered under his breath that he would agree to whatever she demanded. But his secret hope to win her back, which was all but withered away, reignited within him. Yurik was so encouraged by her compassion that he became more determined than ever. He’d show Lyubka she had him wrong all along. Emigration is a complicated matter filled with unpredictable problems. A single woman with a teenager on her hands wouldn’t be able to handle it on her own. It would be...

  24. 23 THE ÉMIGRÉ DECAMERON
    (pp. 135-144)

    The stay at Miramar was about to end. Together with other expats, Boris had to find shelter in private homes while they processed the entry visas to the countries that accepted Soviet refugees. It was possible to rent an apartment in Rome, but it was expensive. The emigrants settled on the shores of the Tyrrhenian Sea, which was half an hour from the city by train. The town’s name was Lido di Ostia, which the émigrés gave a Russian-sounding endearing twist. They called it Lidochka, or “Little Lida.”

    A sizable Russian-speaking community had formed there a few years earlier. The...

  25. 24 THE BRATISLAVA TROUBLES
    (pp. 145-147)

    The train was running through the territory of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic toward Bratislava. The Bumshteins would have to wait five hours there to make their final transfer to Vienna. When Yurik began dozing off, the train suddenly stopped. Outside the window of their compartment, the night, biblical in its magnitude, was pitch black, save for the North Star. It was as if God himself was squinting, looking curiously at the train of Jews fleeing from the country of Red Pharaohs.

    Yurik lowered the window, leaned out, and found that their car had been uncoupled from the train. Maybe that’s...

  26. 25 STILL AT THE POST OFFICE
    (pp. 148-155)

    At the Poste Restante, they gave Boris three letters. One of them was from Odessa, from his parents. The letter was full of worries about his well-being (as expected), asking him to write back as soon as possible. There was also an elongated American envelope, which he knew meant a letter from Ilya:

    Hello, Boris!

    So, you’re already in Ostia, congratulations! Where do you stay? Hope you’ve found a suitable apartment, without troublesome neighbors. Bella insists I pass along her tips to you. While in Rome, buy yourself some clothes made of suede or leather. They cost too much in...

  27. 26 MAYBE WE’LL PATCH IT UP?
    (pp. 156-158)

    The Bumshteins arrived in Vienna late in the evening. From the station, together with other emigrants, the representatives of HIAS took them to the city center, then down a quiet lane to their boarding house, Bettina. They placed Yurik, Lyubka, and Faina in a room with three beds.

    On his first night, it became clear the hurdles of the long journey had damaged Yurik’s mental capabilities. He lost his grasp of reality. After a long separation, chance brought him next to the woman of his dreams. As soon as the scent of her favorite perfume, Red Moscow, and her body,...

  28. 27 HOW TO GET EXILED WITHOUT REALLY TRYING
    (pp. 159-169)

    Boris had hardly stepped out of the post office when he heard someone call his name.

    “Boris? Schuster?”

    Some man of average height, but of powerful physique, came up to Boris and slapped him on his shoulder. He did it with so much emotion that, out of surprise and the man’s sheer power, Boris was almost knocked over.

    It was his compatriot, the poet and screenwriter Leonid Mak, with whom Boris had once attended the same Odessa High School No. 43. Both were happy they ran into each other. What are the odds! You pass two state borders on your...

  29. 28 ROME IS A DANGEROUS CITY
    (pp. 170-174)

    When the Bumshteins reached Rome and settled in Miramar, Yurik became reclusive. He hid his dream of getting back with his wife as much as he could. After all the trouble he had caused his former family in Chop, Bratislava, and in Vienna, he didn’t dare take the initiative in everyday affairs. He took hold of his pride and did everything Lyubka told him to do—as much as he could without snapping. He took solace there remained reasons for him to have hope. Lyubkа’s lover stayed far behind, beyond the Carpathian Mountains, beyond the nighttime clatter of the rails,...

  30. 29 YOU CAN’T TAKE THE COUNTRY OUT OF THE COUNTRY BOY
    (pp. 175-188)

    After parting with Mak, Boris walked to the sea. The skies were clear. The waves glittered in the sun like they did in his native town of Odessa. It was comforting. The sea is the sea, anywhere you go. He was not that far away from home …

    It was the off-season, and the beach was lacking swimmers and sunbathers. Boris set himself down under one of the beach umbrellas and continued reading Ilya’s letter, which he had perused at the post office and shoved in his pocket.

    Now, dear Boris, when you are on this side of the Iron...

  31. 30 THE DANGEROUS COLONEL
    (pp. 189-192)

    Yurik still had a hard time, all because of Lyubka. It took so much to get her out of dangerous Rome and move into quiet Ostia, but soon enough new trouble came knocking. Damn it! He moved to keep Lyubka from the gaze of suave foreigners, only to see a former compatriot hitting on her. Lyubka, his former and future wife, the love of his life—Lyubka, whose breathing alone was enough to intoxicate his consciousness—became the object of adoration for a slick devil of a man. His cheeks were oily, his lips soft and girlish, and his bald...

  32. 31 DEAR LIDIA, DEAR OSTIA
    (pp. 193-203)

    Boris finished reading Ilya’s letter. He needed to absorb and think over many things in it. It would take not one day, perhaps not even one year of his future American life to do it. He agreed with Ilya on one thing: he still has to discover his inner self when living a different life, under different circumstances and a different moral climate.

    He wandered along the beach, inhaling the salty seaside air. It smelled just like the Odessa beaches—the algae that had been cast away on the sand and heated by the sun emitted the odor of iodine....

  33. 32 A MOTHER’S GIFT
    (pp. 204-210)

    Next day, having settled in Ostia, Boris went back to Rome by a commuter train. The weather was hardly favorable for an outing. It drizzled. The gray felt of the clouds upholstered the skies all over. However, Boris remembered Ilya’s advice—to see as much of Italy as possible while he was here. Who knew how his American life would turn out, or how soon he would be able to visit the beauties of Rome again? …

    On the train, across from him, sat a short, lean, and brawny man in his early forties. He slouched a bit, clasping his...

  34. 33 IT DOESN’T COUNT HERE!
    (pp. 211-216)

    Used to living on the run as a journalist, Boris led a sedentary life now. Soon after he settled on the second floor of the building on Vasco da Gama Street in Ostia, populated by the Russian emigrants, he dreamt of his longtime friend, Alexei Lesnoy, who was a Soviet celebrity.

    They had met on a train; Boris was returning from his trip to the Siberian city of Tyumen and Lesnoy from his tour in Alma-Ata, the capital of Kazakhstan. They befriended each other in the Russian “railway manner.” Having a long trip ahead and plenty of time, you confide...

  35. 34 POOR WILLIE
    (pp. 217-224)

    Staying in Italy began weighing down upon the Soviet émigrés. The dramatic changes in their lives took a toll on their state of mind. They wanted to believe what lay ahead of them was their final hurdle. The anticipation revived their old anxieties. What should they expect? How would their lives change in the new land? With each day, the conversations at the post office resembled those of Soviet college graduates heading to their government-assigned workplaces.

    “Where are they sending you?”

    “To Cleveland. What do I know about Cleveland? Zilch. And you?”

    “We’re going to this, uh, Wisconsia …”

    “Milwaukee?...

  36. 35 ARRIVEDERCI, ROMA
    (pp. 225-236)

    It came time for the Bumshteins to leave. Lyubka arranged a farewell party in her room. She was a sociable person, and people clung to her like burrs on a fur coat. Like all good-hearted people, she found pleasure in bringing joy to others. She went to the Rotondo Market near the Termini Railway Station in Rome and, with the proceeds from selling her Palekh lacquer boxes, bought the cheapest chicken parts—just thighs and wings. These inexpensive poultry parts became popular with the emigrants and gained the nickname “The Wings of the Soviets.” Lyubka was a true culinary master,...