Babushka Left Behind
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because sometimes family history repeats itself.
By Margarita Gokun Silver
Margarita Gokun Silver is a writer and an artist living in Madrid. You can see more of her writing at www.margaritagokunsilver.
The first call comes at 2 in the morning. “Mama had a stroke.” My grandfather’s voice breaks through the static. “They just wheeled her into the emergency room. I’ll be waiting here, no need for you to come,” he says to my mother before she has a chance to answer. The second call comes an hour later.
“Mama died.” This time sobs, not static, interrupt his speech.
The next evening my parents, my grandfather and I gather in the kitchen. Outside, Moscow’s winter begins its advent with October frost settling on raspberry and gooseberry bushes. Inside, the pillows of the bed where my grandmother slept still carry the contours of her head.
“What do we do?” my mother breaks the silence. “Should we stay and just forget the whole thing?”
It’s Oct. 9, 1989, and in 10 days we have five tickets for a flight that’ll take our family out of Russia forever. Yet leaving without my grandmother Betya seems unthinkable.
This wasn’t babushka Betya’s first stroke. Two years earlier, my grandfather awoke at night to faint tapping on the wall that separated the living room of their Moscow apartment from the bedroom. He’d taken to sleeping on the foldout couch because my grandmother’s heart condition made it difficult to share a full-size bed. She slept almost upright, pillows piled high to make it easier for her to breathe. When he got up to investigate, he discovered my grandmother unable to speak or move half her body. “A stroke,” said the ambulance doctor. “You’re lucky she’s survived.”
Our future was anything but bright, in a country where “kike” was an epithet I had heard since the age of 10.
A retired physician, babushka spent the next two years re-learning to walk by dragging her right foot behind her. She talked with half her face motionless, and cared for herself using only her left hand. In the middle of her recovery, my parents agreed to my pleas to leave the Soviet Union and immigrate to the United States; we hoped that Western medicine would prolong her life. The doctors said she wouldn’t survive a second stroke, and her health became one of our motivations.
The other was anti-Semitism. In 1988, Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost brought to the surface undercurrents of Russia’s oldest hatred. Bigots now had a platform, and vitriol against Jews engulfed the mainstream Soviet press. Right-wing groups scheduled pogroms, and we spent many an evening with lights off, hoping the darkened apartment would keep attackers away. Our future was anything but bright, in a country where engineering was the only widely available profession for a Jew and “kike” was an epithet I had heard since the age of 10.
In 1916, my great-grandmother Rivka watched a train chugging away, with her family disappearing in the distance. She never saw them again.
My grandmother had always been my most fervid supporter when I lobbied my parents to leave. She knew better than anyone that, despite its claims of equality for all, the USSR would always ostracize Jews. In 1952, her office stood eerily empty as patients, alarmed by the arrest of Josef Stalin’s doctors — all Jews — for an alleged attempt on his life, spurned her care. The affair that became known as The Doctor’s Plot earned her the label “doctor-murderer,” led to the arrest of other Jewish professionals, and, had Stalin not died, would have likely ended in the expulsion of all Soviet Jewry to the far East, under the pretense of saving them from the crowd’s ire. Then for years, she consoled first her daughter — my mother — and later me when anti-Semitic bullying brought us home from school in tears and when Jewish quotas in Soviet universities diminished our career choices. She didn’t believe Jews could have a future in the USSR.
There was still another, more personal, reason behind babushka Betya’s desire to leave. In addition to securing a chance at a better life for us, she wanted to accomplish what her mother, my great-grandmother Rivka, never did. In 1916, as Rivka’s family was leaving the anti-Semitic Russian Pale, she stepped out for water and returned to see a train chugging away, with her family disappearing in the distance. Just 16 at the time, my great-grandmother had to build her life in Soviet Russia alone — while her parents and siblings continued on to Argentina. She never saw them again.
Back in the kitchen, an old clock strikes 8. “She wouldn’t want us to change our plans,” my grandfather says. “She dreamed of completing her mother’s trip for a long time. We must do it for her.”
We buried babushka Betya on a frigid, sunny morning. A week later we leave her, and Moscow, behind.
- Margarita Gokun Silver, OZY Author Contact Margarita Gokun Silver