My Heart

 

“The first time Franz came into the toy shop, Galina was dusting the nearly immaculate shelves, her back to the door. She was half-singing a new song she had heard in the park, filling in the spaces between words with uncertain humming. My heart, it is not peace you want…hmm hmm my heart…

Spasibo, siertze,” he prompted, causing her to spin around in surprise, the dust cloth clutched to her chest. One of Ilya’s carved squirrels fell to the floor behind her….

After he left, the figurine pieces tucked securely in his shirt pocket, she stood a moment, recalling the touch of his fingers against her palm, and the way he nodded politely at the door, waiting until he stepped outside to put the cap back on his head. Siertze, kak horosho na svete zhit’. The lyrics rushed in from some recess of her memory.

“What nonsense,” she said aloud. How good it is to be alive, indeed. Try to remember that when in line for a half-kilo ration of worm-eaten potatoes, the skins creased like walnuts and about the same size, too.”

from Roads, copyright 2017, Chicago Review Press

Author Note

How did this book happen? The truth is, of course, that it did not happen. A book never does; a book is built. It emerges from elements as surprising as they are banal: an overheard remark dropped by a passing stranger; a random thought; the seed of an idea; a memory.

This book is built of stories – the ones I started collecting, unawares, as a child growing up among Russian expatriates in a community that sheltered its members while they learned how to live in a postwar world that would never again be the same. Like refugees and displaced people everywhere, they carried their mementos, their recipes, their customs and beliefs, their language and music wherever they went. These were the tools with which they began to carve out a home among baffling and sometimes hostile strangers.

Some of the stories were given to me, passed on as heritage. Others I absorbed whenever friends and newcomers gathered around the table, affirming the bittersweet victory of survival through shared recollections, covering their scars with deep melancholy as often as with laughter and song. Among these people, there were those who said nothing at all. Their enigmatic silence carried, for me, its own mysterious eloquence.

Some narratives I surmised for myself. I pieced them together from scraps hinting at an ordeal too painful to recall in its entirety, an ordeal that nagged at the mind or troubled the heart, refusing to be completely forgotten.

I grew older, people aged. Some died, leaving a trail of memories that started to seem less reliable. The stories had changed in the retelling, tinged by nostalgia. There were omissions, contradictions, discrepancies. The people who had made those journeys, endured those terrors, were the survivors; they had buried the fallen and searched for the lost. But the picture was starting to blur. If I was going to tell the tale, I needed facts.

There were books to read and maps to study, Internet sources and firsthand narratives to evaluate and absorb. It was not enough. I had to go, to see some of the places where these things had happened. It would all be different now, after so much time had passed. But I had to go.

I traveled to Russia, Belgium, Germany. I saw the Elbe at Dresden, sailed down the Danube from Regensburg. Trains carried me through the Bavarian countryside and its legendary forest, past villages with tile-roofed houses and into teeming cities. Waiting on the platform for a connecting train to my last destination, I heard the conductor announce, “Plattling, Track Two.” Plattling. It was not on my itinerary, but it was in my story. I had the time.

And what would I see there? Barbed wire around weathered barracks, watchtowers, a labor camp museum, a commemorative plaque? Or a housing development, a shopping mall, every trace of the grim history obliterated under concrete and steel? Which would be worse?

I didn’t go to Plattling. After visiting Dresden, I went home. I had a solid historical framework on which to hang the stories; fresh impressions of people, customs, outlook, and language. And I had a landscape through which to move the composite characters I had created, following them as they embarked on a journey I would now begin to imagine and describe. Already, images, plot points, and lines of dialogue were taking shape in my mind. The work had begun. It was time to build the book.

Clearly, I did not travel the long road to placing this work in readers’ hands alone. I thank my editor, Lindsey Schauer, without whose skilled effort to clarify every narrative and grammatical detail these pages would lack much of any polish or cohesiveness they might possess. Of the fellow writers who accompanied me along the way, I single out these: Roselee Blooston, who was the first to take me seriously, and to give public exposure to my fledgling work; Steve Otlowski, who gave no quarter when it came to historical accuracy, and read an early draft of this book in one exhausting sitting, and Rosa Soy, for her keen ear, her stalwart friendship, and her unflinching confidence in my ability to see this project through to its completion.

Many others listened to the emerging work. I thank them for their attention, for their focused criticism and cogent questions, for suffering through my moments of self-doubt and patches of bad writing. I cannot name them all, for fear of leaving out anyone important; each was important in their own way, and to each of them, I am grateful.

-from Roads: A Novel, copyright 2017, Chicago Review Press.

Immigrants

These are immigrant children.

My brother, his favorite (and one and only) fluffy bear, and my four-year-old self, posing for a photograph in a Belgian studio.

What was certainly a luxury was seen as an important way to document our existence, to make a necessary statement: we were here. In the family archives, there are few such records.

Later, with the war receding into memory, my father will own a Brownie camera; there will be snapshots. But for now, the only way to capture our likenesses is to present ourselves, dressed and combed, at the photo studio.

Where is the line between refugee and immigrant? Legal status, yes. Receiving asylum, protection from deportation, permanent residency. Right to work, attend school, receive medical care. The promise of citizenship, not now, but sometime in the future, perhaps. Choosing where to live, once the flight from home is behind you.

There are other, less obvious but no less crucial signs. Asking a gendarme for directions without cringing in fear. Trying out your new language by talking to a neighbor over – why not? – a cup of coffee. Resisting the urge to hoard food, though cleaning your plate is a habit you will never lose as long as you live.