“Longing” was first published in Yiddish in the New York online magazine Yiddish branzhe. It is the epilogue of a novel in Yiddish that Ber Kotlerman, professor of Yiddish language and literature at Bar-Ilan University, will soon publish with the Swedish publisher Olniansky Tekst. Ber Kotlerman, who was born in Irkutsk in 1971, has the distinction of having grown up in Birobidzhan. The “autonomous Jewish region” founded in 1934 as part of the USSR is the backdrop to his book.
For the original Yiddish version: בענקעניש
“My father never went back there,” said Mrs. Dobrovsky bitterly. Outside the window of her room danced the boundless blue ocean flowing into the endless blue sky. The clouds, scattered here and there, reminded me of that other wonderful phenomenon I had already witnessed several times in Camps Bay: the morning breezes pushing a dense mass of clouds across the waves of the ocean. This was a magnificent performance of nature: the clouds forming a wall that became the mirror image of the Apostles – the monumental cliffs that stretched along the shore. The wind would mercilessly drive the clouds to their fateful meeting with the cliffs. Soon the clouds would collide with the Apostles and disintegrate into formless pieces dispersed among the indifferent peaks.
“It became the tragedy of his life,” Mrs. Dobrovsky continued. She was lying on the covered bed under an exotic multi-coloured embroidered blanket, while I sat opposite her in an old-fashioned armchair with carved armrests. On the walls hung unusual impressionist paintings. Behind me, without so much as a squeak, the door opened, and a black servant-girl, with a charming smile and wearing a white apron, carried in a Chinese tea service on a tray. Mrs. Dobrovsky nodded her beautiful grey head, and the girl put the tray down on a small table near the bed.
“Pour yourself some tea,” Mrs. Dobrovsky said. “My father always liked tea, not coffee. He still made himself – what’s it called? Chifir, yes?” She smiled. “They taught him that over there. You have to use a lot of tea, a whole packet. Well, you probably know that. Over there everyone knew what it was.”
The servant girl gave me a kind of knowing look and closed the door behind her. Holding the Chinese teapot by its elegant handle with its gold trim, I poured the amber liquid into a shallow saucer, also decorated with gold trim. I could see that the tea was still weak, apparently not chifir.
While I was handling the teapot, Mrs. Dobrovsky continued her story. “He was among the first to arrive there, either 1929 or 1930. I don’t know exactly. He did the hardest work – draining swamps, uprooting trees, building roads. That’s what my father wanted. He was a real party man. Not everything turned out the way he had imagined from afar, but this was a real life, a life one lives with all one’s senses and with all one’s heart. And my mother – she remained in Riga with my older sister. Each day she waited for his letters. He described everything in great detail. She remembered his “mantra”: “Perhaps I really don’t need Birobidzhan, but Birobidzhan needs me – us and our children…” Mother then wrote him that this was a very serious matter, and she had to discuss it with him personally, and that was impossible in letters… you understand me. But almost three years passed before he could get away and come to her. I don’t know how he succeeded in doing that. He took a leave and promised his comrades to return with his wife and daughter.”
“Did you really grow up there?” Mrs. Dobrovsky suddenly asked me quite excitedly. Her “there” sounded deeply meaningful, even mystical. I nodded silently, and, holding the little saucer to my lips, I sipped my weak tea. “I was not so lucky…do you know why?”
Behind me the door opened, and the smiling face of the servant girl reappeared: “More tea?” she asked in a kind of clipped English. But Mrs. Dobrovsky did not hear her. She looked at the blueness of the ocean and sky through the window and kept speaking in a language completely incomprehensible to the servant girl. The girl gave me a quizzical look but seeing that I understood the strange words of her mistress, she disappeared behind the door.
“Do you know why I did not have the good fortune to grow up there? That was because of my mother. When my father got to Riga, she did all he could to keep him there with her for as long as possible. I don’t know how she managed it … he was, after all, a loyal party man, always muttering: ‘They need me there; they need us there’. Nine months later I was born.”
Mrs. Dubrovsky fell silent for a moment and looked at me as though begging my forgiveness. “Mother had argued that for now the children needed to be in warm place and that Birobidzhan would have to wait. ‘When our daughters are a little older, then …’ My father let himself be persuaded. Mother quickly packed the valises, and we travelled to London. From London we took a ship here, to Capetown. Mother had distant relatives here. In those days, everyone went to relatives, not like now. Look at my children – one son lives in Australia, the other two – a son and a daughter – live in England. The went away to find work without having anyone there, and here I am … lying here … all alone since my husband died. He was a prominent university professor and a good … sportsman – bicycles, yachts …”
With a sigh Mrs. Dobrovsky straightened up a little. “Can you pour me some tea?”
From the teapot I poured the amber liquid which was no longer very hot but much darker than earlier.
“Please don’t add any sugar. I drink it vprikusku, like my father … that’s how they drank tea there, vprikusku.”
She stretched out her arm and opened a little box. With two fingers, she took out a little sugar cube and put it whole into her mouth. She sipped from her little saucer, and for a few minutes we were both silent. The silence was not a difficult one. She was engrossed in her bitter-sweet memories, and I was imagining a young man, the future father of Mrs. Dubrovsky, sitting somewhere by the river on a fallen tree near a campfire and a boiling pot of water. Sitting and lying on the ground around the fire are boys and girls just like him, poorly dressed, their hair disheveled and faces laughing. They are about to drink tea which will probably remain the most delicious drink of their lives. Who knows what they are destined to suffer, especially those, who had made their way there from abroad. They tell each other jokes, and their fate is already foreseeable, yet they still hold their future in their hands. I feel the smoke of their campfire, and of many other campfires, and I very much want for God to protect them from all future troubles. I now see my own relatives, travelling great distances over blue seas, where they will spend their days in bittersweet longing for something that never happened.
“It was not because of your mother,” I say suddenly, immediately regretting having said it. It would have been better to remain silent. But Mrs. Dubrovsky nodded her beautiful grey head, and it was unclear to me whether she was agreeing with me or nodding about her own thoughts.
“I think that to the very end he never forgave her… the whole time he yearned to go there. But, as you know, times changed – the war, that dreadful Stalin, and afterward it was too late – the years … that is how he died, still yearning. Tell me, how was it there, how did you live? For so long I have wanted to meet a true Birobidzhaner! When they told me that you were here, I tied up all the telephone lines, asking about you!”
I opened my mouth to tell her how we lived there. I didn’t mind describing the bicycles and yachts we had there… but she did not hear me. She was talking to herself. “We literally grew up on his dream. We knew the names of all his comrades with whom he built the road to Valdheim. Even when he was seriously ill, he still remembered and recalled that place, as though it was the most important thing is his life. Was this a form of madness? What would have become of us there?”
Her meaningful “there” fell from Table Mountain and echoed mournfully in my head. We both began to sink into the silence that was filled with longing. Mrs. Dubrovsky again looked out the window. The sun was already making its way toward the horizon, the blueness of the ocean and sky was laced with gold. Mrs. Dubrovsky, exhausted, closed her eyes. I said goodbye, stood up and left, closing the door to the room with the boundless twilit ocean flowing into the endless sky.
Translated from Yiddish by Vivian Felsen
Vivian Felsen is a translator of both French and Yiddish into English. Her published translations from Yiddish include books on Canadian Jewish history, Holocaust memoirs, and short stories by Yiddish women writers. They have earned her a variety of awards, including the Canadian Jewish Book Award and two J. I. Segal Awards.