Alex Gordon presents an original story.
My grandfather Ilya Gordon was an assistant pharmacist in a Kiev pharmacy. He made and sold medicines, weighed portions of medicines on scales, and was always accurate in his work. He was allowed to settle outside the Pale of Settlement in Tsarist Russia and move from the shtetl to Kiev because of his high qualifications. Thus, he had a great advantage over many Jews, in particular over my other grandfather Yaakov, who lived in the town of Korosten, a “shtetle”. When the Civil War broke out in Russia and the Jewish pogroms broke out, this advantage became even greater because Kiev was a safer place for Jews than the shtetls. Grandfather Ilya was an attentive, pedantic, and affable pharmacist, greeting visitors with a kind smile and encouraging words. Sick people felt better at the sight of a radiant, cheerful and reassuring pharmacist.
Grandmother and grandfather were secular people, but there were ideological differences between them. Grandmother referred to herself as one of the working intelligentsia, since she was a teacher. She called grandfather a “petty bourgeois element” because he sold medicine. She created a regime of one-man leadership in the family: she was the legislator, while her husband had an advisory vote. Her sons internalized their mother’s unwavering authority for life. Grandfather Ilya was a typical city man, elegantly dressed and attracted female customers with his beauty and charm. There were women who loved to come and weigh themselves on the scales that stood in the pharmacy to talk to Grandpa. He accurately calculated portions of medicine for the sick, but he did not accurately calculate relationships with women. Once he behaved recklessly and was caught in the act: he cheated on my grandmother Anna (Hannah) with another woman. He was not the first man to do so, but that did not make my grandmother feel any better, especially after she found out that the cheating was with her best friend. Although I don’t have statistics, it seems to me that cheating with one’s best friend is common and popular. But cheating on my grandmother was like cheating on the socialist revolution. My grandmother was a socialist, a moral and principled person. Cheating she neither tolerated nor forgave. Although grandfather Ilya was a well-looking and trustworthy man, grandmother did not believe his repentance or assurances that there would be no more cheating. The couple in that dramatic year of 1919 had two sons, the eldest Lev, aged eleven, and my father Yaakov, aged six. During wars and revolutions people still needed medicine, maybe even more than in times of peace. So, my grandfather made good money during the most difficult Kiev period. But these material considerations did not stop my grandmother. She excluded grandfather from her life, which was as frightening as exclusion from the Bolshevik Party. The sons remained with their mother, who forbade them to meet their father or even talk about him in her presence. His photographs were destroyed. The union of grandmother and grandfather was problematic from the beginning: grandmother was a stern, strict, serious and demanding person, grandfather was an easygoing, cheerful, witty man. Apparently, the isolation from his children finally pushed Grandpa into the arms of his wife’s best friend. And so, at this point, the family drama merged with the national drama.
In October 1919, White Volunteer Army troops carried out a terrible pogrom in Kiev. They robbed and murdered Jews. Hundreds of Jews were killed. The pogroms were carried out at night. At night, the thugs broke into houses where Jews lived. Writer Ilya Ehrenburg, who lived in the Ukrainian capital at the time, recalled, “Women, old men, and children screamed all night long in the black houses; it seemed as if the houses, the streets, and the city were screaming.” Another Kiev resident, artist Boris Yefimov (Friedland), wrote: “Kiev was pogromed and looted. […] It became unsafe to show oneself in the street, and the nights of Kiev became frightening: in different parts of the city there was an unstoppable scream of hundreds and thousands of human voices. It was the shouting of the inhabitants of the houses where the […] thugs were breaking in. The scream was picked up by neighboring houses, then more distant ones – and now the whole blocks, alleys and streets were screaming.” Writer Konstantin Paustovsky recalled “the first night pogrom on Bolshaya Vasilkovskaya Street”: “The thugs cordoned off one of the big houses, but did not have time to break into it. In the lurking dark house, breaking the ominous silence of the night, a woman screamed shrilly, in terror and despair. There was nothing else she could do to protect her children, only this ceaseless, unceasing cry of fear and helplessness. The woman’s lonely cry was suddenly answered by the entire house, from the first floor to the top floor. […] Already all the houses on Bolshaya Vasilkovskaya Street and all the surrounding alleys were screaming. The shouting was spreading like the wind, taking over more and more quarters. The most frightening thing was that the scream came from the dark and seemingly silent houses, that the streets were completely deserted, dead and only rare and dim street lamps seemed to light the way to this scream, shuddering and flashing … Screamed Podol, Novoye Stroenie, Bessarabka (the writer lists quarters of Kiev. – A.G.), the whole huge city screamed.”
My grandmother’s friend, the treacherous traitor, screamed when the pogromists burst into the apartment in which she lived with grandfather Ilya on Bolshaya Vasilkovskaya Street, where the first night pogrom took place. Fear gripped grandfather Ilya and his girlfriend, and they decided to flee Kiev. At the time when my grandmother Rosa and my grandfather Yaakov, my mother’s parents, were fleeing the pogroms from the shtetl to Kiev with their two young daughters, my grandfather Ilya decided to flee in the opposite direction, from Kiev to the shtetl where his relatives still remained. He convinced himself and his girlfriend that pharmacists were needed everywhere and always, even in times of war and pogroms. Grandfather Ilya, who loved precise calculations and weighing on apothecary scales, was mistaken: a bloody massacre awaited him and his girlfriend in the shtetl: they were both hacked to death with the sabers of pogromists. Later I learned that the same fate befell my great-grandfather Joseph Polovolotsky, my grandmother Rosa’s father, a doctor, who had his head cut off by the rioters while receiving patients in his clinic. The terrible news had powerful wings: my grandmother quickly received the news of the death of her husband, the father of her children. Had she believed in God, she would have concluded that the traitorous husband had suffered God’s punishment. As a socialist and atheist, she could not even pronounce that fate had restored justice and punished the culprit, for such a train of thought was contrary to Marxism. She could not even utter that the boomerang was returning, for Grandpa Ilya’s punishment did not correspond to his transgression. Grandma knew what pogroms were. She hid from the pogroms in 1905-1906. She managed to escape, her husband died.
The Kiev scream in the fall of 1919 was wordless. Of the other Kiev scream, Ilya Ehrenburg wrote a poem in 1944 called “Babii Yar” about the execution of the Jewish population by the Nazis in the fall of 1941, which had lines:
My untold kinfolk!
I hear from every hole
You are calling to me…
The dead Jews of Kiev were calling him from the ground. This one was a frozen cry-prayer, “Hear Israel!” Those two words were the last words in the life of my non-religious grandfather Ilya Gordon.