By Alex Gordon
Translated from French by the author
If you have never had a brother six years older than you, you will not understand the discomfort your parents have spared you. In the first years of your life your brother pays no attention to you, because you are too small a person to be interesting. But when you grow up, he turns into a teacher of life and tends to impose things on you that you don’t need at all. My older brother taught me how to live my life without understanding anything about life. The thing is, he was a bigot. Fanatics are not only people with glowing eyes who make revolutions, coups d’état, great scientific discoveries, and imagine themselves geniuses. Fanatics are also people who believe that what they are passionate about is more important than other people’s interests. A student of our father’s used to say, “A fanatic is an ideological fool.” A fanatic burns in the fire of his stupidity and, for company, involves other people in his fire. My brother Michael was a Jew. Our parents happened to be Jewish. In the Soviet Union, being Jewish meant not only belonging to a certain, Jewish nationality. Being a Jew in the Soviet Union meant being sentenced to disgrace, to the shameful background that you had inherited from your parents. You were sentenced to life imprisonment among Jewish people. Being in the ranks of the Jews imposed on you the rules of conduct prescribed by the inscriptions in the Odessa1 streetcars. It is said about Odessa that while in all other cities the streetcars had inscriptions Keep your head down!, in the streetcars of Odessa instead it was Stick your head out, stick your head out! We’ll see what you stick out tomorrow! If Jews stick their heads out, standing out in the midst of other peoples, they incur the wrath of non-Jews. Jews have this characteristic: they get ahead of everyone else. If society is pregnant with revolution, Jews tend to be the midwives of this monster. If a country is looking for ministers to lead it, Jews rush to become ministers. In the Soviet Union, however, there were restrictions: Jews could not be directors, only deputy directors. There were many restrictions: universities where Jews were not allowed, jobs where Jews were not allowed. Nevertheless, Jews managed to participate in the Soviet atomic and hydrogen bomb projects. Such Jews were not called Jews, but “heroes of socialist labor”. But such successes only angered the “native” population. Such Jews stuck their necks out so far that it was hard to put them back in. From time to time the government of the Soviet Union conducted campaigns to muzzle the Jews, but the Jews were dragged into active activities. There was some incurable desire to make Russian or Ukrainian science, culture, and art better than the “native” peoples’. In one of the Jewish jokes that make up popular folklore, there was such a story. A Jew asked Stalin the question, “What is cosmopolitanism?” (This took place during the antisemitic campaign against so-called “cosmopolitans” in 1949.) Stalin referred him to a member of the Politburo of the CPSU Central Committee, the Jew Lazar Kaganovich, for an answer. Kaganovich recommended that this Jew carefully read the inscriptions on the streetcars. It turned out that in addition to the inscription Keep your head down, there was a warning: Don’t take other people’s seats! In this joke, Jews laugh at their desire to be like non-Jews and take their seats.
Although my brother knew the dangers of violating streetcar rules, he couldn’t keep his head down. He had a splendid memory, knew everything, quoted everyone, was quick-witted, and loved to instruct others, not just me. If a Jew becomes an excellent specialist, that’s half the trouble, especially if he’s an engineer or a scientist in the field of mathematics and science. But my brother was a scholar in the humanities, as was our long-suffering father, stigmatized for “cosmopolitanism,” for worshipping foreign art to the “detriment” of Soviet art. Those Jews were called “passportless vagrants” or “rootless cosmopolitans,” that is, people without a people, who had no homeland and no attachment to the Soviet Union. After the Holocaust, the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, and the creation of Israel, Jews became too visible, they “stuck out” almost as a collective, as a nation. And the Soviet authorities decided to silence the Jews, to relegate them to a different status — from the people they began to approach as a result of World War II and the establishment of Israel, to turn them into faceless and rootless citizens. This is what the campaign of the “rootless cosmopolitans” and “passportless vagrants” was for. This was still under Stalin, after whose death the Jewish problem lost its acuteness. But not only was Mikhail a researcher in the humanities — that is, he was constantly suspected of ideological deviations from the CPSU general line — he chose folklore as the topic of his research. Having experienced the misadventures of his father and aunt, researchers in the humanities who were accused by Soviet ideologists of betraying socialism, he nevertheless followed in their humanitarian footsteps. Because my brother lived in Kiev, he studied Ukrainian folklore. When people looked at him, they laughed at how this typical Jew could discover something new in Ukrainian folklore. But my brother knew the Ukrainian language, Ukrainian literature, Ukrainian history, and Ukrainian traditions so well that it was very difficult to knowledgeably make fun of him. The fact that this great Ukrainian pronounced the letter “r” with a typical Yiddish accent was especially laughable.
If Mikhail had limited himself to studying and collecting Ukrainian folklore, our family could have been reconciled to this. But suddenly something quite amazing happened: he became interested in Jewish folklore. If a Jew is engaged in socially useful work, he can still be tolerated. When a Jew dissolves into Ukrainian society or even dresses up as a Ukrainian, he can still be tolerated; but if he engages in Jewish folklore, he challenges society. Why Mikhail felt cramped by Ukrainian folklore and became interested in Jewish folklore, I don’t know, because he treated me with condescension and was not open with me. Maybe he would have needed to become a Ukrainian nationalist to be successful as a Ukrainian folklorist. This transformation would probably have been unnatural for him, in view of the victims of the pogroms in our family. Anyway, something went wrong with his Ukrainian folklore and he decided to take up Jewish folklore instead. I have a suspicion that our father influenced his transition. Although my father was an internationalist (which is why he was accused of “cosmopolitanism” in 1949) and an assimilated Jew, and worked as a literary contributor to a Ukrainian magazine, he loved to tell jokes, among which were Jewish ones. Among my father’s friends were “masquerading” Jews, people who spoke wonderful Ukrainian, who were considered Ukrainian writers and poets, but who were well versed in Jewish customs and who liked to talk about Jewish problems in our conversations at my home. My brother probably heard the stories of these “Ukrainians” and sensed their ambivalence, which in the post-Stalin era, when everyone was panicky and fearful of repression, hindered him. Perhaps Mikhail’s switch to Jewish folklore occurred when he learned about the image of the Jews in Ukrainian folklore: the Jews are villains, the Jews rule the Ukrainians and oppress them.
What is Jewish folklore? Folklore is folk art, that is, diction, music, theater, and jokes. Mikhail printed articles about Ukrainian folklore and secretly wrote articles about Jewish folklore, and klezmer, as well as purimshpiels, and jokes. He did not write about Jewish literature, for he did not read Jewish literature because he did not know the language. He also enlightened me with his findings on Jewish folklore, but I was not interested in the humanities, and I was not persuaded about the importance of Jewish folklore. Mikhail did find an audience to whom he spoke enthusiastically about Jewish folklore. I do not know how many people were interested in his research, but he was successful, because he received a summons to report to the KGB. It turned out that he was under surveillance. Apparently, the authorities of the Soviet country were also interested in the problems of Jewish folklore. The building of the KGB was on the same street we lived on, only the numbering of its house and ours was in the reverse order: our house was at Vladimirskaya Street 51, and the KGB’s at Vladimirskaya Street 15. That’s where our father was once summoned. I do not remember my father’s visit to that institution as I was very young, but Mikhail remembered our father preparing a suitcase with the most necessary things in case of arrest. My brother did not prepare a suitcase in case he was arrested. He, unlike our father, did not believe that he could be detained, because he had “done nothing wrong,” as if our father had done something illegal, and as if innocence were a guarantee of safety.
I have already mentioned that my brother was disconnected from life. What a shame to have a brother who understands nothing about life and what country he lives in, but fanatically defends his hobbies. He returned from the KGB interrogation alive and unharmed, but pale and trembling. At first he refused to answer our questions. Mom fainted. Coming out of the faint, she came down with a hypertensive crisis. Some time ago my mother’s sister, also a “cosmopolitan,” was in contact with her “colleague” in “cosmopolitanism,” Moisei Beregovsky, a doctor of musicology, a well-known collector of Jewish folklore, who in 1950 was put in a maximum security camp for ten years for “anti-Soviet group propaganda.” One day Beregovsky was at our house discussing with my aunt the fate of Jewish musicologists, victims of antisemitic repression. My mother well remembered his visit and their conversations. She was horrified that her son could share the fate of the Jewish folklorist Beregovsky. Either my brother was too weak a folklorist or Stalin’s repression was no longer as powerful as before, but he was not arrested. When he was finally able to tell us about his experience with the KGB, it turned out that he was told he had been engaging in nonsense because there was no such thing as Jewish folklore; and he was urged to stop his silly, defiant activity. Apparently, the state security service was conducting research on the existence of Jewish folklore. The press often made lists of all the different peoples living in the USSR. The list included all the peoples of the fifteen Soviet republics happily living under socialism. Sometimes, in addition to Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Georgians, Uzbeks, and a dozen other nationalities of the USSR republics, it included Tatars, Bashkirs, Buryats, and Yakuts, but never Jews. The existence of Jews was forbidden. It is possible that Jews were not on this list because, according to Lenin’s teachings, such a people could not exist. Lenin wrote that the Jews were obliged to dissolve into the family of Soviet peoples. In the years leading up to World War I, Lenin developed the theory of the “assimilation” of the Jews as the main solution to the Jewish problem in Russia. Whoever put forward the slogan of Jewish national culture Lenin called “the enemy of the proletariat” and “the abettor of the rabbis and the bourgeois.” And so it turned out that even though the bourgeoisie in the USSR had long been done away with, my brother turned out to be a part of it. Mikhail heard this accusation at a reception given to him by the organization that cared most about protecting the Soviet power from the bourgeoisie. When my brother timidly explained that he was not a bourgeois and not a capitalist, but only a lover and researcher of Jewish folklore, the KGB major who questioned him stated that since Jews are not a people, they cannot have folklore.
What did my brother do after visiting the KGB? He fled. Where? To Kharkov, as if there were no KGB in that city! Besides the KGB, our grandmother and uncle, fervent Communists, lived there. Our grandmother was a Soviet teacher and our uncle an economic engineer who helped the Soviets save money. Together they returned the lost grandson and nephew to Ukrainian folklore. But the Soviet Union fell apart. In the independent Ukraine, folklorists began to wear national clothes, a shirt sewn shirt of linen, and cloth pants with an embroidered slit in the front. The shirt was tied at the collar with braids, tucking the hem into the pants, which were attached to the body with a string. This new Ukrainian folklorist’s uniform puzzled Mikhail. It upset him and he struggled over how far he could go in identifying with the Ukrainian people. After much deliberation, he decided once again to flee. He emigrated to Germany, and there he pursued German folklore.
1 Odessa and Kiev are spelled in this story the Russian way since this is how they were spelled when this story is set, prior to Ukraine becoming independent.