Letter to My Mother
after My First Visit to Leningrad.
December 1973 (Part 2).
by Tamara Brill
When Ida met us I was stinking of pickled gherkins. We got to the flat, washed and started preparing lunch. One by one our friends began to turn up and, with the exception of Benjamin whose working day doesn’t end till 6.30 pm., we were all together again by 2 pm. with the addition of the 2 younger of Benjamin’s 3 children. This reunion was one of the most heart-breakingly moving moments in what was, as you’ll appreciate, a concentrated period of very strong emotions. Everyone had come bringing us little gifts, all souvenirs that they had obviously spent time, thought and money on buying from us. The gift I treasure most, and which I hope to be able to show you soon, is a beautifully produced book of sketches of Leningrad, which the Lotvins had chosen from among their own books to give me. (Jean was given another picture book, also from among their own.). These books were given to us apologetically, as if they were really rather ashamed to be giving us second-hand things.
I was so choked up at this that I had to go and pretend to be looking out of the window; there was no other way of hiding my tears.
Again, we sat round the table on which there was far too much food; everyone had brought something to contribute to the meal, too. Again there were jokes, discussion, argument, laughter and only very occasional traces of sadness. At no time was there even a hint of bitterness. For the first time in my all-too-unthinking life was I able to realize how it is that the Jews have survived 2,000 years of persecution. I saw it in their laughter and in their conviction, in the teeth of all reason and logic, that they would eventually win. Unfortunately for them, this conviction did not go hand in hand with blind faith. They are only too aware of the realities of their situations.
Religion, incidentally, means very little to most of them. It is a Jewish national consciousness they have, not a religious faith; which is not surprising when you realize that on all their documents their nationality is described as “Jewish”. They aren’t even Russian citizens although all the “crimes” that they are ever convicted of are crimes against the Soviet citizens’ “ideals”.
But this is supposed to be a brief (!) diary. The commentary is unnecessary; you probably know it all better than I.
During the course of the meal, which lasted 3 hours (!), another very moving incident occurred. I was sitting next to little Aya (10) and noticed that today she was wearing the Magen David, which her mother had worn the previous night. Jean and I, though pitifully unprepared for these face to face encounters, had taken the very faint risk of wearing a cheap Magen David each, under our clothing as Jean had learnt from her trip to Moscow last year that these were the tangible links with Judaism that are denied Soviet Jews. I asked Aya whether the Magen David she was wearing was hers or her mother’s and when she whispered “Mama” I gently undid the clasp round her neck and handed the locket back to Asna. There was a sudden silence and looks of puzzlement all around I then pulled the Magen David from under my jumper and put it on Aya; at almost the same minute, Jean pulled out hers and gave it to little Misha Taratuta (12). It was everyone else’s turn to be choked up then.
We gave them everything we had, Mama. As I said, we were unprepared for this sort of encounter. The most we had hoped for had been a brief visit to the Leningrad Synagogue at which we thought to leave the Magen Davids and perhaps some tights. In the event we gave them some dozen pairs of tights and virtually all the clothing we had that we weren’t actually wearing. We gave them lipsticks, biro pens, cigarettes...even a cheap little torch that Jean had in her handbag elicited a thrilled interest.
But what seemed to give them the greatest pleasure was reading matter; the Sunday Times and the Observer were distributed among themselves with strict fairness and I wish that you could have seen Ida’s delight when I passed on to her my old copy of C.P.Snow’s “ Corridors of Power.”
Their hunger for intellectual stimulation is phenomenal. This seems to apply everywhere; even the lift attendants at the hotel – and there are no lifts without lift attendants even though the lifts are fully automatic – sit and read while ’operating’ the lifts. I noticed one who was reading the “Forsyte Saga” in Russian!
Where am I? My hand aches; forgive my handwriting. I feel as though I have been writing for days (which I have!), and my mind is working so much faster than my pen
Back to Wednesday 19th.December:- Late afternoon. We had to be back in the hotel for 6 pm. dinner (and we’d been eating all afternoon!) so as to be able to pick up our tickets for “Eugene Onegin” and to book a taxi.
How we tore ourselves away from our friends, I don’t know. I took a few flash photos till the flash attachment broke. The men tried to mend it but it proved impossible. Lenya Lotvin offered to give me his camera to assuage my disappointment and I had to work hard to convince him that it was not my camera that was broken and to stop him from going to his flat to bring me his own. (The Lotvins are the family now ‘eating’ their car so I imagine he had a good camera too.)
This time our farewells were more emotional. Apart from having promised to phone Benjamin after the opera so that he could give Jean the names of a couple of relatives in London whom he wanted traced, we had no plans of further contact (about which, more anon!). So there were tears and very real pain at the Metro as they once again saw us off.
It is fortunate that Jean and I are very compatible and, despite our many differences, we have similar reactions to things that matter. We had both, independently, decided that when we telephoned Benjamin after the opera, we would suggest meeting him once more, as he’d been the only member of the group missing that afternoon.
With that plan in mind, going to the opera, which we’d booked for before we’d met our friends, became something that we could look forward to enjoying, which was as well because it was quite an experience in itself.
You will, of course, know the Maly Theatre, though perhaps you knew it as the Mikhailovsky in the Mikhailovsky square with its statue of Pushkin? It is the most exquisitely beautiful theatre I have ever seen, with an incredibly delicate ornateness which must be unique. I won’t attempt to describe it but will only tell you that the performance was excellently done and the whole experience totally enjoyable. During the interval we found a tea bar where tea was served from individual samovars at every table, together with open sandwiches and amorally fattening cakes which seem to be readily available everywhere!
We carried out our plan afterwards and when we suggested to Benya that we might meet somewhere, he immediately invited us to his flat. By the time we met him at his Metro, it was 11.30 pm. I had, idiotically, worn a long skirt to go to the opera in. On the metro and in the streets this aroused so much interest and attention that we begged him to reconsider allowing us to be seen with him and going to his flat. He brushed all our protestations aside and, linking arms with us, led us to his flat.
I have yet to be clear in my mind how much of this constant arm-linking was warmth and affection and how much a purely practical solution to walking along icy streets without falling over!
The Khaikins flat was also in a vast complex of flats on a rather more modern estate in a rather less mean-looking suburb. There was what looked like a superb children’s playground in the center of the complex but, as it was dark and everything covered in snow, I can neither laud nor criticize the environment. There was no lift so we had to climb 6 flights of stairs, ( the Taratuta’s block had a service-type lift but they never used it.), but it was definitely more modern and the stairs did not look as if they led to a public loo as did the Taratuta’s.
The welcome was overwhelming. Asna, Benya’s wife, who’d seemed so quiet and retiring in company, blossomed in her own surroundings. She bustled around, loading the table with food, making us drink brandy and eat chocolate before starting a meal, claiming that this was a mandatory custom! We had been eating all day but forced ourselves to eat again as this was obviously her way of communicating with us. Danya was made to translate, out loud, directly from Russian into English, a letter recently received from friend who had just emigrated to Israel; he did this remarkably well. Benya proudly showed us his obsessively elaborate family tree which went back some 3 or 4 generations with a little box for each member of the family meticulously named and outlined in green if still living and in black if dead. The black boxes painfully outnumbered the green but I expect that this is typical for any middle-european Jewish family
What really tore at the heart-strings was the poignantly meticulous care with which the whole operation had been carried out. Pieces of paper had been stuck together to accommodate the vast spread of the tree and also every single member of the family had a little biographical paragraph to himself. It must have taken moths, if not years, to complete. Was I over reacting, I wonder, in interpreting this as a mind-filling and mind-anchoring operation undertaken by a brilliant man whose mind was being chronically under-utilised?
The Khaikins begged us to stay overnight; they even began pulling out a settee for us. We had to refuse for fear of exciting curiosity at the hotel by our absence. Once again the kisses and the hugs, the barely disguised tears and the promises of maintaining contact as Benya prepared to escort us to the Metro for the last train (1.30 am ). Leaving him was perhaps marginally more searing than any of the other farewells. His stoicism and intensity were leavened less by the apparent carefree humour of the others; he looked so much older and had been waiting for such a long time.
It was a silent Metro journey that night. We had no heart to talk and were certainly not in a receptive mood for the attempts at picking us up of two Leningrad youths who heard our English as we came out of the Finland Station. Wouldn’t we like to come to their flat for tea, music and conversation? No, we would not, but that didn’t stop them talking long and loud to us in the middle of the road for some 15 minutes.
Our average of 5 hours sleep a night was shortened even more that night by the drunken behaviour of the lads in the room next to ours. When we called for help from the floor-attendant it was obvious from her reactions that, seeing us standing there in our frilly nighties, she was convinced that we’d been encouraging the lads. However, she soon changed her attitude on seeing them trying to scramble from their window to ours. (We were 10 floors up and there were no window ledges!). She threatened them with the Militia and they shut up.
Thursday, December 20th was originally earmarked for souvenir shopping but, once again, Jean and I were on the same wavelength. A whole 12 hours in Leningrad without seeing any of our friends was surely out of the question. Of the whole group, only Ira Lotvin was out of work and her husband, Leonid, had recently had an operation and had been off work, although we weren’t sure whether this was still the case. We got into town and rang them. Ira answered and said she’d love to meet us for coffee and suggested we meet on the Nevsky Prospekt, but not outside the “Dom Knigy” as I had suggested but inside. She told us that Lenya would come with her. She welcomed our call as a wonderful excuse to stop doing her housework. What a gloriously universal ring her last statement had!
As it would take them an hour to reach us, we thought we’d have plenty of time to do some minimal shopping in the special foreign currency shop in Gerzen Street. This exercise proved to be time-consuming; more complicated, more frustrating and more exhausting than we’d anticipated. When we got to the Dom Knigy ( which used to be the Singer Sewing Co. building on the corner of Neva Ave. ), they were waiting for us, one stationed at each of the 2 entrances in order not to miss us. Another delighted reunion, inevitably to lead to yet another farewell.
They helped us finish our shopping and then led us to a very splendid café called “Sever Café”. It is a vast mausoleum of a place with some attempt at modern décor but giving a rather tatty overall impression. However, we were led to a round table, fully laid with white linen tablecloth and all, by a waitress dressed in, believe it or not, a black dress with a frilly white apron!
I didn’t follow what Ira ordered but we were soon served with tea, coffee, ice-cream mixed with whipped cream and decorated with sponge biscuits and some incredibly rich cakes, and this was at 1.30. pm! We sat there talking, oblivious of the time and occasionally topping up the tea and coffee. Lenya sought, and obtained, special permission from the waitress to smoke ( strictly forbidden ), provided we did it ‘carefully’, which gave us cause to giggle. After our second cigarettes, she very politely asked us to smoke no more.
I no longer remember what we talked about; I only know that the conversation lasted nigh on three and a half hours and it was only towards the end of it that they admitted to never actually having spoken English before. Very awe-inspiring and very humbling for us.
Jean and I had to be back at the hotel by 6 p.m. for final briefing as our coach was to leave for the airport at approximately 7 p.m.. Lenya and Ira suggested walking us back so that we could continue talking. Conversation ranged from quasi-philosophical, through politics and religion, literature and the arts to factual descriptions of family, jobs, homes and environments. They wanted to know what Paris was like and whether street lighting in London was brighter than in Leningrad. We tried to describe the concept and the reality of advertising and neon-lit hoardings but were left with the impression that we had failed!
But the hardest questions of all were “ Is the Western world aware of our plight?” and “ Does the Western world care?” They feel very strongly that their only hope lies in the West and this means hope of resistance to the whole totalitarian regime in the USSR, not only of alleviation of the lot of those Jews wishing to emigrate to Israel. They see no light of opposition in the USSR itself. “Only Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov are left; that’s not enough.” I found myself a totally inadequate apologist for the apathy borne of political expediency which the UK seems to be showing.
Then came the final parting. They led us to the back of the hotel and we parted on a sort of no-mans’ land area half way between the hotel and their bus-stop. It was a wordless farewell, for the most part, and impossible to describe without sounding either melodramatic or self-conscious.
All that was left of our 4 days in Leningrad was to face the crowded dining room, to make facile conversation over a meal we didn’t want and to pile into our coaches for the trip back to the airport.
I need hardly underline the fact that, uppermost in our minds was the unbearable contrast between us, jolly trippers merrily making our way home from East to West, and them, prisoners in the land of their birth and aliens in their homeland.
In order to try and prevent ourselves thinking, Jean and I, sitting as we were in the front of the coach, got talking with the Intourist guide who blithely assured us, in the flat, affectless tones of total certainty, that Russians were all free to travel at will, anywhere they wanted and anytime they liked provided they applied in the right way, at the right time, to the right authorities and were prepared not only to travel in highly organized parties, continually guided towards such interesting and uplifting sights as steelworks, shipyards and the like but also to find the money to buy their visas. Examples quoted were $200 for a visa (i.e. not including the cost of the trip.) to the U.K. and $300 for the USA.
The pretty automaton of a guide momentarily gave herself away by showing really genuine surprise when Jean told her of a holiday she had recently spent in a family home in Holland ...”Oh really? Can you do it that way?”
Once removed from the necessity of keeping a conversation going, I’m afraid I just let go and let the tears flow. God knows what the other members of the group thought of me. Jean shielded me as much as possible, she herself becoming more silent, grimmer and more tight-lipped, while I skulked in dark corners and gulped my way through customs. To try and describe my emotions, as I sobbed my way over Finland and Sweden, would be impossible without sounding grossly histrionic but I do confess to feeling useless and ashamed as I watched Jean get out an exercise book, sort out all the facts she had jotted down illegibly on scraps of paper scattered throughout her handbag, and prepare a comprehensive dossier on the preceding 3 days.
During one of our many conversations with our new friends, we had asked everybody to help us decide whether we should go back home and make as much noise as possible to publicise their situations, and so, incidentally publicise ourselves, making ourselves possibly ineligible for future visas to the USSR, or to keep quiet and return to visit next year. It was a stupid question really. Of course they would answer “Come back”, as they did with obvious sincerity. So Jean and I agreed between us later that she, having now visited the USSR twice, would waive her desire for another visa and would use all her available contacts to give publicity to the plight of Soviet Jews while I would, at least for this year, try to keep my hands clean in the hope of being able to go back. Of course, so much can happen in a year…..
Meanwhile we shall ‘phone them, so long as they still have their ‘phones connected and write to them constantly, whether they get every letter or not. On both sides, we seem to have gone through a tremendously emotional experience; for us, a shattering, eye-opening trauma and for them, an apparently positive and supportive ‘happening’.
I only wish I knew whether, when and under what circumstances we’ll meet again.
Dare we hope that one day we’ll all meet in Israel?
Sequel:- I went back again, both with Jean and with my husband and 9 year old daughter ( who spent a night at the Taratutas on one occasion.)
We met more families; names springing to mind are Epstein, Abezgaus, Blank and Zaidenberg. We had more “experiences” and we had bizarre contacts with the customs officials, whom we got to recognize!
I could tell more tales but this document, which took me a couple of days plus the night in between to write (34 pages of long-hand.) poured out of me with total spontaneity.
Interestingly, I showed it to a non-Jewish friend who urged me to publish it. That struck me as a bit ‘over the top’ but I did show it to a friend who was a member of the “35’s” group and she asked my permission to photo-copy it. From there on, it seems to have been distributed widely. I only knew about this when I started getting more involved in the Soviet Jewry movement and began to get responses such as “Oh, you’re THAT Tamara, are you?” It also circulated in the USA as I heard from various people we had contact with over the ‘phone.
All this is now history and everyone we met, with the exception of the Lotvin family and others whom we did not get to know so well, are in Israel. When I look at that fact, from the standpoint of 30 years back, I begin to feel that even I have lived through one of the multitude of miracles that have helped the Jewish People survive.