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Lobster Necks and Red Balloons

Sholem Aleichem’s fame rescued his family from war-torn Odessa. His granddaughter went back to gaze at her “jewel on the sea.”

Bel Kaufman
June 24, 2004

Odessa—”the golden city, the jewel on the sea”—the very name conjures up the sights, smells, tastes, and sounds of my childhood. The Odessa I knew was a city of poets and sailors, merchants and musicians, Jewish intellectuals and exotic strangers from beyond the Black Sea, like the two Chinese women I once saw walking on small stumps instead of shoes, or the Mandarin whose long, curling nails rested on a red pillow. I remember the wide boulevards, the chestnut trees, the steps leading to the sea. In summer—large yellow sunflowers on our dacha on Bolshoi Fontan; in winter—high snow banks, the sound of sleigh bells, and later, during the revolution, the sound of gunshots outside our window.

I leap over 85 years to my early childhood. My father had studied medicine in Berlin, where I was born in 1911, and on our return to Odessa practiced it in our two-story house on Rishelyevskaya Street, no. 57. I remember our large black iron gate, too heavy for me to push. I remember it well because Vasska, the janitor’s boy, once crushed my fingers in it. Behind the gate was a courtyard, and upstairs a balcony with the scent of acacias from the tree above it.

Childhood is a private place, crowded with first impressions and strong feelings. I remember jumping up and down in my crib, screaming with wordless joy when I saw my father, who had been away at “the front” in the war, towering above me in his splendid uniform.

My memories are not consecutive, but flashes of scenes and sensations. I remember my first taste of ice cream in a cafe on Deribasovskaya Street and my discovery of a delicious candy called rakovye sheiki (lobsters’ necks). And of course there were the popular semechki, roasted sunflower seeds sold in large baskets on street corners. I would lift my apron for the saleswoman to pour a cupful into it and walk down the street practicing a newly learned skill: placing the semechka at a special angle against my two front teeth and clicking smartly twice, so that the kernel popped right into my mouth.

I remember the taste of chocolate during our famine, in the Hoover Package of food my grandmother sent us from America. We nibbled on it for days, like mice. My mother declared it to be far better than any chocolate she had had in Switzerland. It wasn’t until we were in New York that we learned it was not for eating. It was cooking chocolate.

I remember my pride in my first published poem, a four-line paean to spring printed in a children’s magazine, Kolokol’chiki, signed Belochka Koifman, 7 years. And my envy of the little girl in the park with the exotic name Sylvia, who wore a real wristwatch. How I wished I had her name, her watch! And how I longed to grow up to be like the older schoolgirls in their neat uniforms of brown dresses and black aprons, with the status book bags on their backs.

Papa Sholem Aleichem played an important role in my early childhood. We called him “Papa”; he was too youthful and full of fun to be a grandfather. He lived in New York during his last days, and he used to write me letters: TO ODESSA FROM AMERICA, FOR BELOCHKA. They have been preserved, and I have them before me now. In one, dated August 15, 1915, he writes in his minuscule Russian script:

I am writing you that you have a war, we don’t. And that you have a sea called the Black Sea and we have a sea called Atlantic Ocean. And I am writing also that I love you very very much and that I hope to see you and your mama and papa Michael, who will soon be a doctor. I am not a doctor, I am a writer.

In another, written a few months before he died:

I am writing you this letter for you to grow up and learn to write me letters. And in order to grow up, it is necessary to drink milk, eat soup and vegetables and fewer candies. Regards to your dolls. Your Papa Sholem Aleichem.

I did grow up. I did learn to write—but not in time. In May 1916, a telegram arrived from New York with only three words in English: PAPA VERY SICK. It was understood what they meant.

Most vivid are my memories of the turbulent days of the Revolution of 1917—the chaos and confusion of the rapid changes of “temporary governments” occupying Odessa: Bolsheviki, Mensheviki, Reds, Whites, Kerensky…The words were meaningless to me. Only one word, repeated in frightened whispers by the adults around me filled me with anxiety: Cheka. It was something that could take away my parents. Some names were fun, like the popular rhyming chant about the manufacturers of tea and sugar: “Tea—Fisotsky’s; Sugar—Brodsky’s; Russia—Trotsky’s.”

We lived in peril, since we were the enemy bourgeois, with our own house and servants and possessions. I remember the Day of Peaceful Uprising. It was far from peaceful; it was a sort of Russian mini-pogrom. Soldiers burst into our house, among others, breaking things, taking things, shouting, and shooting. A man who had apparently tried to escape from the street into our courtyard was shot and killed. I was forbidden to come to the window, but of course I peeked. He lay there for several days in a grotesque frozen posture, his arm raised stiffly as if in a grim salute. The first day his shoes were gone, the next his jacket, then his pants. After a while, he was no longer there.

I remember standing in line for our ration of green bread made from the dried shells of peas, and I remember the taste of hunger.

Although we were not proletarians, I was sent off for a short time to a camp for the Children of the Proletariat because there, once in a while, the children were given a small piece of meat. I watched those children pull the meat apart into thin strings, to make it last. I did the same. One day my father brought me a precious gift: half of an orange. I hid it carefully under the pillow of my cot—but another child stole it. I can still recall my sense of outrage.

When I was 9, my baby brother was born. One day I was wheeling him in his carriage on the street in front of our house when two young “new women” in leather jackets lifted him out of the carriage, thrust him into my skinny arms, said: “We have babies, too,” and wheeled the carriage away. I remember going upstairs, my tears falling on the baby’s blanket. “They have babies, too,” I explained to my mother.

In between volleys of gunfire, during what we called the “calm days,” our life in Odessa went on as normal. We had our Friday night vecherinkas—evenings when friends, Jewish writers and artists, came to visit. The poet Chaim Nachman Bialik, and Ravnitsky, and Ben-Ami, and a man by the name of Elman with his little son, Mischa, a violin prodigy. There were long grown-up discussions around the table about poetry and the price of firewood, and much laughter.

I recently came across an old diary of my mother’s, in which she mentions a writer, an admirer of Sholem Aleichem, who had come unexpectedly.

Of course, it was necessary to serve tea. Yet one could not serve tea without sugar. Since our small ration of sugar had to last a whole month, I placed the sugar bowl unobtrusively behind a vase on the table and began a lively flirtation with him in the hope that he wouldn’t find it. He found it.

Everyone in our family wrote. While momentous political events were shaping history in Odessa, I was busy writing a drama—a play with a cast of many characters whom I described in the Dramatis Personae in minute detail: the color of their hair and eyes and socks, their coats and hats and hobbies. I wrote in a lined tetradka, notebook, with a pencil which, when wet with the tip of the tongue, wrote purple, and by the time I was about to start Act One, Scene One, there was no room left for the play itself. I still have that faded tetradka.

Whenever possible, my mother would drag us to a photographer. I hated those expeditions; it meant getting dressed up and holding my breath without moving for a long time. In one photograph, I am sitting between my two big dolls; they are dressed in clothes exactly like mine. In another, my father, mother, and I are posing in “native costumes”—Russian Cossacks’ hats and coats.

Once a week a Hebrew teacher came to give me lessons. I can recall only one sentence, which I never found useful: “Ani khafetsa sus“—I want a horse.

What I liked best was reciting the poems of Pushkin, who at one time also lived in Odessa, and listening to Russian and Yiddish songs on the gramophone and hearing glowing stories about New York, where we would one day emigrate.

That day was inevitable. Several of my father’s colleagues, bourgeois like us, were jailed or shot trying to cross the border. But Sholem Aleichem, posthumously, saved us. Even in the worst of times in Russia, he was translated, published, read widely, and cherished. We went to Moscow, where my mother managed to see Lunacharsky, the Minister of Culture. As Sholem Aleichem’s daughter, she requested permission to go with her husband, daughter, and small son to visit her widowed mother in New York. Permission was granted, and we left in style, legally and safely.

I did not return for 45 years. In 1968, while in Moscow as guest of the Soviet Writers’ Union, I arranged to make a brief visit to my Odessa. A woman was assigned to accompany me as guide or escort. We set out at once for my old home on Rishelyevskaya, no. 57. The street was now called Lenin Street and no. 57, we were told, was about to be razed, like all the rest of the dilapidated houses on the block. I did not recognize our house. Where was the large iron gate? A small rusty gate swung half off its hinges. The courtyard (where the dead man had been) was a muddy garbage dump. There was no acacia tree. We tried to enter, but a woman at the window screamed at us to go away.

I had come home a stranger. It was like meeting a distant, long-lost relative, and trying to make an emotional contact. The streets looked drab, the people glum and suspicious of an American.

I had occasional flashes of recognition. While my companion and I were walking on Deribasovskaya Street, we passed a large sign: PASSAGE. A name suddenly swam into my mind. “Was this ever called Galantereiny Passage?” I asked. It was, and I remembered my panic when I was lost, separated from my mother, who was in one of the stores shopping.

And here was the corner with the red balloons. It was the corner, but there were no red balloons.

The next day I managed to go out alone. I was walking down the wide steps leading to the pier (the famous Potemkin Steps). In one hand I held my pocketbook; my free arm kept unaccountably lifting itself up. I was puzzled, until I realized that as a child I could not navigate those steps without holding on to an adult’s hand. My arm remembered what I did not.

To hear Russian spoken everywhere was thrilling, and even the semechki were still here; I hadn’t lost the knack of popping the seeds. I wanted to revisit the beach on the Black Sea. What I found were sharp stones and blaring public address announcements and directions, as well as loud, ceaseless, unbidden music. “Why such loud music all the time?” I asked. “So that people wouldn’t get depressed,” was the answer.

Odessa was much livelier when I was there again thirty years later, in June 1998. This time I came as a VIP, a best-selling author, invited by the Jewish religious community to attend the unveiling of a plaque on 28 Kanatnaya Street, honoring my grandfather. It read, in Yiddish and Ukrainian:


A huge crowd, it seemed all who were left of the old Odessa Jewry, had gathered on Kanatnaya Street, thrusting questions, mikes, television cameras, Yiddish books, and letters at me, reading poems dedicated to my grandfather, giving speeches on the contribution of Jewish culture to Odessa, and expressing what my visit meant to them. They poured out their love for Sholem Aleichem, and it spilled over on me.

To my surprise, most had read my book, Up the Down Staircase, in Ukrainian translation, and many Ukrainian non-Jews were familiar with Sholem Aleichem.

Odessa was no longer a Soviet city; it was Ukrainian. The street on which I had once lived was no longer Lenin Street. It was once again Rishelyevskaya. I had no wish to see it. But I noted sadly that the former Sholem Aleichem Street was now called Myasoyedovskaya (Meat-eating). This was a busy city, bustling with people and cars, but on Primorskaya, the lovely boulevard abutting the sea, people were strolling slowly, families with children, some arm-in-arm or sitting on benches watching the sea.

Deribasovskaya was now quite Americanized: stands with Cokes, signs in English, sounds of jazz and rock. Strangers ran up to me with: “You’re the granddaughter!”—recognizing me from television and newspapers. I bought an ice cream sandwich and walked licking it like a teenager.

Since Russian is my language, I was able to address many different audiences; the response of old-timers was overwhelming. In a Jewish old age home, Gimel Hessed, I was greeted with a special program on Sholem Aleichem and presented with a worn copy of the 1918 magazine Kolokol’chiki, in which my poem was circled in red.

I went to the still-noble Opera House, shamefully shabby inside, to hear an indifferent Faust. I visited the huge market, rich with aisles of vegetables and festoons of sausages. I walked on broken sidewalks, past half-remembered buildings, looking for my childhood. It wasn’t there.