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Shush! Growing Up Jewish under Stalin: A Memoir

Emil Draitser
Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: 1
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Shush! Growing Up Jewish under Stalin
    Book Description:

    Many years after making his way to America from Odessa in Soviet Ukraine, Emil Draitser made a startling discovery: every time he uttered the word "Jewish"—even in casual conversation—he lowered his voice. This behavior was a natural by-product, he realized, of growing up in the anti-Semitic, post-Holocaust Soviet Union, when "Shush!" was the most frequent word he heard: "Don't use your Jewish name in public. Don't speak a word of Yiddish. And don't cry over your murdered relatives." This compelling memoir conveys the reader back to Draitser's childhood and provides a unique account of midtwentieth-century life in Russia as the young Draitser struggles to reconcile the harsh values of Soviet society with the values of his working-class Jewish family. Lively, evocative, and rich with humor, this unforgettable story ends with the death of Stalin and, through life stories of the author's ancestors, presents a sweeping panorama of two centuries of Jewish history in Russia.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94225-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Prologue
    (pp. 1-4)

    Only now do i begin to understand the numbing of memory. It’s when you push something shameful so deep down in yourself that you won’t stumble on it. When asked why I left Russia some thirty years ago, I usually shrug. It seems obvious to me. I couldn’t have explained it clearly to anyone. Maybe I could do it just in the most general terms. Only recently, little by little, carefully, as if stripping bloodstained bandages from a half-healed wound, have I begun to retrieve those deeply hidden emotions that go back to the early years of my life.



    • ONE How I Failed My Motherland
      (pp. 7-17)

      “You’re making trouble! What’s got into you?”

      First barely audible, then more and more clearly, my mother’s voice reaches me. I look back to my childhood, trying in that faraway fogginess to detect and, if I’m lucky, to solve the riddle of my life. After several unsuccessful attempts, gradually, like the decals of my childhood, the events of that faraway time begin to become faintly visible. We used to paste these little decals on the covers of our notebooks, their patterns half hidden under a layer of paper until we moistened them with our saliva and carefully, with our finger...

    • TWO Fathers at War
      (pp. 18-32)

      “All jews are cowards. During the war, they hid in Tashkent.” My schoolmates’ words ring in my ears. This attack made a very lasting impression on me, probably because it was totally unexpected. There was no signal or warning sound of impending trouble. I already know of one warning sound—an air-raid siren, howling and piercing my head. Along the deserted predawn streets smelling of cooled dust, a man’s monotonous voice resounds from loudspeakers on lampposts: “Citizens! Air-raid alert! Airraid alert!” It sounds as if the announcer himself is sick of repeating the same thing several times a day.


    • THREE Path to Paradise
      (pp. 33-45)

      “All jews are cowards!”—my schoolmates’ words keep ringing in my ears.

      They accuse me of cowardice, but I am silent. I feel guilty when boys halloo around me, jumping on the school desks. The looks they give me are those of hatred and contempt. But alas, it’s true; I spent most of the war with Mama in Tashkent.

      It’s also true that I didn’t feel happy about it. No matter what my life in Central Asia was like, as a child, I accepted it as the norm. Now, from a distance of more than six decades, my life there...

    • FOUR What’s in a Name!
      (pp. 46-56)

      “They always worm their way in front of others. They’re not used to staying in line like everybody else!”

      Now, recalling the events of my first school days, I realize that they weren’t completely unexpected for me. Something in my classmates’ voices was distantly familiar.

      Back in Tashkent, where my mother took me to escape the Nazis, and after returning to Odessa, Mama pulled me into countless lines, despite my resistance. They were an integral part of our everyday life. Just as the atmospheric pressure could be higher or lower, the lines could be longer or shorter. But both existed...

    • FIVE Black Shawl
      (pp. 57-68)

      I memorized these pushkin lines right way. And I never forgot them. Perhaps they stayed imprinted on my memory because they reminded me of that day of darkness that I lived through.

      Early September 1949. I’m almost twelve. It’s still warm during the day, but in the mornings there’s already an autumn chill. I shiver a bit as I rush along the sandy trails of Primorsky Boulevard, little pebbles crunching under my feet. I am heading to the Young Pioneers Palace at the other end of the boulevard. No one in Odessa calls this palace by any other name, except...

    • SIX Us against Them
      (pp. 69-82)

      My forced retreat into myself, my frantic division of the world into “us against them,” coincides with the time when the world around me is divided into black and white, friends and foes. I grow up when the psychology of confrontation (“Who will do whom in—will they destroy us or we them?”) weighs upon my chest. “If the enemy doesn’t surrender, he has to be crushed.” Though this slogan is old, in the early postwar years this intolerance is an echo of the giant battle that has just rumbled away. Fear and hatred are still alive in our hearts,...

    • SEVEN I Don’t Want to Have Relatives!
      (pp. 83-96)

      We stand around kotya liubarsky, my friend from the courtyard. He pokes each of our stomachs in turn with his paw of a hand. Kotya resembles the young revolutionary poet Mayakovsky; his forelock hanging diagonally across his forehead, his gaze piercing right through us. We play hide-and-seek. Kotya counts, reciting the rhymes, and each of us has to pick one of the characters mentioned. Then, he counts again, and the one who guesses the right person goes off to hide, relieved of the duty of having to seek.

      The finger that Kotya sticks into us looks ugly. He was seven...

    • EIGHT Friends and Enemies
      (pp. 97-106)

      “Zi is a kristlekhe,”Mama addresses Aunt Clara in that terrible language, Yiddish.“Ikh vil nisht oysbeytn zi oyf a idishke.”

      I understand already: even though some lady is a Christian, Mama wouldn’t swap her for any Jew. My mother switches to Yiddish every time she wants to express emotions she thinks are too complex for me to comprehend. Her statement surprises me indeed. As a rule, in moments of anger, Mama casts ethnic Russians in one of only two roles: either askhazeyrim, “pigs,” or asshikerim, “drunks.” But here all of a sudden, she would “never swap” this...

    • NINE The Girl of My Dreams
      (pp. 107-115)

      Like all my peers, I adore the cinema. Nearby, a half block from our house, on Deribas Street, at an entrance to the City Garden, the Utochkin Movie Theater is located. To get in the screening hall, you have to scale the steep ladder to the second floor. The theater is narrow and small. On both sides of the screen, a quotation from Lenin’s work is displayed in huge letters: “Of all the arts, the most important one for us is cinema.” I am too little to know any subtleties of Marxist-Leninism. I don’t know yet that “for us” means...

    • TEN How They Laugh in Odessa
      (pp. 116-130)

      “You’ve certainly heard about the famous writer Marshak?” my father’s colleague, a housepainter and wallpaper hanger himself, whose surname is also Marshak, asks when introduced to new people.

      “Well, certainly!”

      “So then, you should know that I am no relation to him.”

      Papa frequently invites Marshak to birthday parties and other holidays in our family. His first name is Adolf. It goes without saying that, because of the recent war, the name is hardly pleasant to pronounce. Everybody calls him by his surname. The moment they cross the threshold, the dinner guests invited to our home ask Mama, “Is Marshak...


    • ELEVEN Papa and the Soviets
      (pp. 133-148)

      My belonging to an unpopular tribe is not the only reason I am always tense.

      “Abram,” Mama says to my father one morning, “would you finally go to the Savings Bank? How many times do I have to ask you?”

      “Oy, Sonya,” my father waves his hand. “There’s still plenty of time.”

      “Tomorrow’s the last day. It’s Saturday. The bank will be packed. You always put everything off until the last day.”

      “Sonya, stop nagging me. There are no more than thirty rubles in our account.”

      I already know what they’re talking about. It’s the last week of 1947. I’ve...

    • Plates
      (pp. None)
    • TWELVE A Dependent
      (pp. 149-158)

      One day, some little old man—a dried-up boletus mushroom of a man—visits us. An emery-colored greasy little jacket. A pair of steel-frame glasses perched on the bridge of his nose. The old man is of that breed of retirees whose generation is devoted to the Soviet power; they still blaze with revolutionary ideals. He comes with a pack of some papers under his arm. The reason for his visit is either a population census or some other campaign of filling out uncountable forms. To get rid of this old man under some specious excuse is impossible.

      The man...

    • THIRTEEN Without Declarations
      (pp. 159-168)

      “Auntie sonya, what should i do? I’ve gotten caught.”

      “What have you gotten caught for, my dear?” Mama asks.

      “Well, it’s just an expression. Got pregnant by accident. And, when I ask him what I should do, my bastard sits on the fence. To do an abortion or not, ah? I’d like to have a little one very much. But I’m scared. Will I manage all by myself ? Ah, Auntie Sonya?”

      I’m angry at Mama. She always whispers with saleswomen. I notice with astonishment how different her face becomes from her domestic face—often tense and overpowering. It brightens...

    • FOURTEEN Who’s Who
      (pp. 169-178)

      “Well, how’s botvinnik doing over there?”

      In the evening, just home from work, Papa washes himself, as usual. It takes a while to get all the paint off his hands. He motions to me to talk to him, “So tell me, how’s Botvinnik?”

      Spring 1948. In the evenings, on the wall of a building adjacent to the City Garden and facing our Deribas Street, an illuminated screen blazes up. Crowds of strolling Odessans stop to look up at it. I also stop and lift my head. On the screen is a table with scores of the participants in the match...

    • FIFTEEN A Strange Orange
      (pp. 179-185)

      Gradually, not quite conscious of it, I find myself following Papa’s suit: I also begin dividing the world into who is Jewish and who is not Jewish. Apparently, trying to overcome my feeling of inferiority, I search for Jews whom I can be proud of. One day, in the course of our conversation, Papa reveals to me what isn’t mentioned in my textbooks—that Karl Marx was Jewish and so is Albert Einstein. I mentally give credit to both of them as outstanding Jews. (Since books, newspapers, and radio usually mention Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx in the same breath,...

    • SIXTEEN Who Are You?
      (pp. 186-194)

      Each year, in the last days of December, Papa brings home a spruce tree. To me, the tree has nothing to do with religion in any way. It is just a custom. As the New Year approaches, we put the spruce in a bucket with sand so that it won’t fall over onto my bookshelf. Then we dress it up and place some gifts underneath it to open on New Year’s morning.

      On New Year’s Eve, a few minutes before midnight, the radio suddenly stops broadcasting. You don’t hear anything besides city noise. Interrupted only by the occasional car horn...

    • SEVENTEEN One Passover in Odessa
      (pp. 195-202)

      It is the spring of 1951. Passover is approaching. All Mama’s energy is spent on getting a carp at any cost. A carp for the Passover table becomes an obsession. I do not understand what is specifically Jewish about carp. This fish, I read in theBolshoi entsiklopedicheskii slovar’(Unabridged Encyclopedic Dictionary), “is the domesticated form of wild carp. The main product of pond-fish breeding in most countries.” That’s it? Then everyone eats carp. Not only in the USSR, but also everywhere in the world. Why then is it specifically required for Passover?

      Does eating a carp that Mama has...


    • EIGHTEEN On Commissars, Cosmopolites, and Lightbulb Inventors
      (pp. 205-212)

      “Have you heard?” Uncle Misha asks in Yiddish. I prick up my ears. If adults in our house switch to Yiddish, it means something bad has happened. I have no clue why they do it. Though I don’t speak Yiddish, I have understood it for a long time. If it’s not from me they hide the content of their conversation, then from whom?

      It’s January 1949. It’s Sunday, around noon. We’ve had our breakfast late. Mama is feeding farina to Vova, my one-year-old brother. In his high chair, he turns his head left and right and looks around with the...

    • NINETEEN Them!
      (pp. 213-223)

      August 1949: i’m twelve. I don’t feel like going home. Empty, devastated, I roam the streets making wider and wider circles. At first I go around our block. I go along Deribas Street, turn onto Gavan Street, then onto Lanzheron Street. I try not to raise my head. From the newsstands on my right and my left, the headlines ofPravda, Izvestiya, Literaturnaia gazeta, Sovetskaia Ukraina(Soviet Ukraine), andChernomors’ka komunashout at me: cosmopolitanism’s ideology of imperialist bourgeoisie. Love our motherland, hate cosmopolites. Rootless cosmopolitanism serves warmongers. Sometimes I dare to look up. But I wince every time I...

    • TWENTY No Kith, No Kin
      (pp. 224-235)

      People “without kith or kin,” I repeat the newspaper words. I still don’t fully understand their dark purpose. I get only their literal, bitter sense. The earth hasn’t cooled down yet from the flames of the war. The bones of the slain haven’t crumbled into dust yet, haven’t vanished without a trace. My kin, my tribe, are nearby, under the very same soil I am treading, I am rubbing against, with the soles of my shoes.

      To be without your kin, without roots, means knowing neither your grandfather nor your great-grandfather. If I belong to the “rootless,” I am not...

    • TWENTY-ONE Grandpa Uri
      (pp. 236-249)

      I don’t have to guess how Uri, my paternal grandfather, left this world. Eyewitnesses reported: SS guards stabbed him to death with their bayonets. Four of them were needed to do the job. He was a sturdy man.

      It’s a pity I don’t recall his face. I was only two years old when he visited us in Odessa. After that, World War II consumed all the material things related to his life. Not even a photo of him is left. Only separate episodes of his life have been saved in the memory of his children. Well, it isn’t much. But...

    • TWENTY-TWO Missing Mikhoels
      (pp. 250-259)

      Once late at night, after listening to his Grundig, Papa whispers, “They’re on our case again!” He rubs his knees over and over, as he always does when anxiety takes hold of him.

      November 1952. The green napping cat’s eye of the radio tuner is blinking again. There’s a lonely whistling on the radio. Suddenly, a trumpet roulade resounds. It repeats several times before an energetic male voice, quite unlike that of the Muscovite newscaster, who’s never in a hurry, pronounces,“Kol Yisra’el. Kol Tzion la-Golah”(Voice of Israel. Voice of Zion to the Diaspora).

      And then in pure Russian:...

    • TWENTY-THREE Black on White
      (pp. 260-268)

      “Milya,” my mother’s voice reaches me for the third time. “Get up! You’ll be late to school.”

      Early morning January 13, 1953. It’s cold. Gusty winds howl outside. They thrash window frames, as if whipping them with giant sheets. Wind whistles mournfully through the telegraph wires above the roofs. There’s no snow. It was raining last week. Now ice covers the puddles. I don’t feel like getting up this morning, but I have to go to school. It’s a regular weekday, Tuesday. My couch is in the corner of our one-room apartment.

      Finally, I manage to sit up, eyes closed....

    • TWENTY-FOUR Time Like Glass
      (pp. 269-281)

      “This is the bbc. The latest anti-Semitic campaign has begun in the Soviet Union, a campaign that may have far-reaching consequences.”

      Later in the evening, Papa moves closer to our Grundig radio. The station’s commentator speaks calmly, in a measured tone, as if letting you know that no matter how sensational the events are, you won’t confuse him. He sounds encouraging, “It is hard to believe that Soviet generals and admirals, who rarely have health problems more severe than a light head cold, could fall victims of false diagnoses of the Kremlin doctors.”

      The broadcast comes to an end. A...

    • TWENTY-FIVE The Death of Stalin
      (pp. 282-292)

      “Look at him,” uncle misha says in Yiddish, appearing in the doorway of our one-room apartment. “What a time for you to fall sick. Along with Stalin!”

      March 4, 1953. I’m in bed. I didn’t protect my throat from the cold. I have difficulty swallowing. My fever is one hundred degrees—a good enough excuse for skipping school.

      My uncle always teases me. Isn’t he joking now? Some joke!

      This news of Stalin’s illness catches me off guard. In my consciousness, the wordssickandStalindon’t belong together. For me, he’s a bodiless being. If there’s no body, what...

  9. Epilogue
    (pp. 293-301)

    “Nisht gekhert gevorn,”Uncle Misha says. “That’s unheard of. That those bastards would ever apologize? It’s a miracle!”

    After Stalin’s death, the anti-Semitic articles in the papers disappear, and in a month, on April 4, those doctors implicated in the “heinous crimes against our leaders” are fully rehabilitated.

    As soon as she hears the news, Anna Ivanovna comes to us with a big Kiev cake that she bought after standing in line for almost half a day. She rejoices enthusiastically, as if not only our family but her own as well had been in danger of being exiled to Siberia....

  10. my genealogical tree
    (pp. 302-304)