Perfect Family Tales And Other Trivia

The art of the short-story writer is that of the cartoonist. It is the magical craft of creating entire worlds with a few simple strokes of a pen. Tales told by an idiot? Maybe! But my tales are also a mix of reality and fantasy; truth and lies; some based on my own family; others, not. Readers must guess which characters are real; who are inventions - and who are an amalgam of both. Please draw the boundaries for yourself.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

‘The Charge of the Hate Brigade’

‘All things move, not in progress, but in a ceaseless round’ (William Hazlitt)

Aunt Khava had sliced lemon, sliver-thin.

“This is how we served it in the old country” she said, lighting the samovar  for our tea. “I prefer life without oranges”. 

This was silly. Khava habitually pares  all her food super-fine. This is because she’s known only privation, not glut; so hates waste and loves oranges!

“Is this about the synagogue attacked at Simferopol, Aunty”? Ukraine.Simferopol.Reform.Synagogue.2014

“Yes! Also ancient and more recent outrages in places all over the  Ukraine and Crimea you’ve never heard of. You must live through events to truly understand them”.

Her disquiet was infectious and I began crumbling a biscuit into tiny shards as she spoke.

“Do you feel like telling me more”?

Khava smiled faintly. “Don’t fret about me. I learned to cope with hard facts long before I came here to Israel – many years before you were born. But I’ll never stop worrying about things there. Don’t forget, for me it’s where the world began.

“Still” she went on,  “no matter what other people think, I don’t compare Putin with Hitler or Stalin. He’s his own man”.


“We may see historic parallels in his actions but we should look at curves – not lines.  What we see is simply  the wheel of history continuing to spin”.

I nodded in respectful silence. Here I’d found my aunt’s hidden depths. 

“As a child in Crimea, I caught adult whispers about our area becoming another Soviet homeland for Jews, like the one in Birobidzhan. But Stalin changed all that. Allowing the birth of a socialist State of Israel was good. It would strengthen Soviet influence in the Middle East and speed the end of British imperialism to boot. But the Jews at home? Feh! Better a dead Zhid than one disloyal to Mother Russia. So, he had our intelligentsia scythed,  one by one”.

Then I spoke.

“But why did so many of our cousins stay on after Communism collapsed, scorning the chance to flee to Israel and join us here in Kfar  Zuskin”?

“You’re still young”, said Khava. “Perhaps too youthful to appreciate the comfort  that familiarity affords. They made – invented – reasons -  not  excuses. But what could they justify? Most had long denied, if not simply forgotten their Jewish roots. They didn’t want to learn from history; admit that the Jewish story in the Ukraine is the universal one”. 


“That, of course. But like everywhere else, the personal terrors are pooled with those of people on the outside. I’ve already said that it’s too easy to compare Putin and Hitler; to match everything that happens  in 21st century Ukraine to Nazi activity in Europe during the 1930s”.

“From what I’ve read” I said, interrupting her flow, “the entire region’s history is streaked with Jewish blood”.

“Ha! Most poetic! But while the naked facts bear no decoration I’ll indulge in one simile.  Let’s say that while Arik Sharon’s anti-terrorist security fence on our West Bank is built with concrete and razor-wire, Jews were welcomed to the Ukraine by Catherine the Great as a human wall against the neighbouring Turks. But when we became too successful and were accused by surrounding non-Jews of all sorts of trickery, Empress Catherine fenced us in, behind the notorious Pale of Settlement.

“Life occasionally became better before it got much worse. But nothing that the Nazis or Stalin did – or anything that Putin may imagine he can do now – will be different from what’s always happened”.

“Aunty, I’m not sure I understand”.

“All right. Let’s examine, by example, the pogroms during the Russian Revolution, when at least 100,000 Ukrainian Jews were massacred between 1918 and 1921 on an industrial scale. In one incident,  800 Jews were decapitated at a sitting – a fine example to set the Nazis! And as an aside, who do you think first invented the ‘big lie’? Neither  Goebbels nor Hitler. They pinched the idea from Lenin”.

Then Khava lowered her voice as if to share a secret.

“But all this is a prelude to a rarely told family story that I hope you’ll pass on after I’ve gone. Please wait until then.

“Even as the British soldiers involved in the  ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ were entering their ‘valley of death’ at Balaclava, Jewish boys in Crimea as young as ten had tumbled headlong into a graveyard of their own. SMITHSONIAN PHOTOGRAPHY

“Your grandmother had two great-uncles, Fishel and Zamel.  Fishel died before he would have been barmitzvah  but Zamel lived until his thirties, long enough to produce Leya and Shaya, so being your great-great-great uncle”.

“What happened”?

KANTONISTS“Czar Nicholas 1  decided on enforced Jewish army conscription, which involved young boys known as kantonists entering the elementary schools established for soldiers’ children and orphans. The kids were given basic military training and schooling until they were aged 18. This was followed by twenty-five years’ regular army service.

“But many Jewish boys like Fishel died from the extreme conditions and drastic punishments they received as a way of forcing them to baptise. The Czar’s insane, brutal idea was that the Jews would become Christian on demand once torn from their natural families. Fishel died aged 12 after endless beatings and bizarre torture”.

“And Zamel”?

“As the elder, he was tougher and somehow escaped after enduring the notorious steam torture. But the experience so weakened his constitution that he coughed himself to death aged 35”.

Finally,  I understood. It was the fruit of orange scented revolution my aunt so deplored.

Natalie Wood

(© Natalie Irene Wood – 09 March 2014)



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