When I first met my cousin Naum from Russia, I
was struck by the strong family resemblance. The same square cheek
bones, bulbous nose, and dark bushy eye brows. But my grandfather
was convinced that he was an impostor. It was impossible he stated;
his sister Miriam didn't have any children. "But you left Russia
almost eighty years ago," we tried to explain. "No,"
my grandfather insisted," he's a fraud, he's just here because
he wants your money!"
I begged my grandfather to teach me a little Russian
before I went to visit the family in Leningrad. He refused, insisting
that he wouldn't speak Russian, that he wasn't a greenhorn! But,
he added, "Why don't you want to learn Yiddish."
When I arrived in Leningrad in 1989, English speaking
friends and relatives had been lined up to take me around the city.
Everyone was very proficient as a tour guide, but one cousin in
particular, Olga, knew about the history of every bridge, every
building. I had to tell her to stop; I couldn't possibly remember
any more details.
She told me that she knew so much because her grandfather
had been a history professor. She regretted that he died before
she fully believed the lessons he had to tell. Capricious deportations,
starvation of millions, mass graves, the atrocities of the Germans,
of Stalin--as a child, she had insisted that he must be exaggerating.
We always vaguely knew that we had cousins in the Soviet
Union because one cousin who survived the camps came to New York after
the war. As a child I was haunted by his story. He was found in a pile of dead
bodies, missed by the Germans as they machine-gunned everyone down at the
end of the war.
This cousin had gone back to the Soviet Union once to
visit his sister. But he went to his grave resentful that his cousin Naum
refused to see him. He was the last one to see Naum's brother before he
died in the camps. How could Naum be such a coward?
Now Naum replied, "What could I do? It was only
a question of whom I would betray. Soviet authorities said they would
keep my children out of the university if I dared visit.