MY MOTHER HAD TOLD ONLY a few stories of her childhood in Vilna, but the one that featured visiting her grandmother in a horse-drawn sleigh always sounded like a fairytale, especially when contrasted with the subsequent nightmare of the Vilna Ghetto. When she took me to see David Lean's Dr. Zhivago on an enormous screen, one wide enough to hold that epic masterpiece, Lean's so-much-larger-than-life depiction of Tsarist Russia and the early days of the Russian Revolution added yet more mystique to my mother's vanished backstory. Although I'd grown up in an area of Upstate New York referred to as "the snowbelt," I'd never imagined how much snow and ice could collect on the inside of a house, not to mention the mountainous white drifts a steam locomotive could plow through. Since even the traumatic deprivations suffered by Zhivago and his family were suffused with a luminous aura, I developed an ever-growing fascination with that lost world of my ancestors, the one whose destruction began not with the Nazis but long before.
In reading Susan Sherman's remarkable novel The Little Russian, my brief study of pre-revolutionary Russia has been magnified beyond measure. The book makes clear how many untold stories are missing from our first- or second- or even third-generation American lives. The primary myth, of course, is that most, if not all, of our predecessors came here in the name of religious and/or political freedom; others arrived with the feverish hope of achieving wealth and fame. It is easy to remain less aware of the ones who crossed oceans reluctantly, those who fled their beloved homelands out of desperation, flung into exile because they had no other choice.
Sherman's novel spans the decades from May 1897 to May 1921, opening with the depiction of a horrifically vivid pogrom that conveys all too well the episodic history of European anti-Semitism, when Jews were either expelled or mass murdered. No mere literary device, this scene foreshadows later repetitions of both small- and large-scale destruction of Jewish communities. Although the book ends more than a decade before the Holocaust begins, readers can't help but recognize the cumulative devastation that would go on to haunt even the most assimilated Jewish citizens. We know, of course, that worse would await those who managed to survive the pogroms.
After The Little Russian quickly cuts forward to genteel Moscow in 1903, the novel slows its pace. We are introduced to our protagonist, Berta Lorkis, as she travels by train from the refined life she has temporarily adopted in Great Russia back to her origins in Ukraine. Despite her convictions about having permanently outgrown the shtetl outside Kiev, her lack of affiliation with her Yiddish-speaking, grocery-store-owning parents and sister, she learns with horror that her "service" as companion to a distant relative has officially concluded. She is no longer "The Lady from Moscow."
It was lonely in Mosny. There was nobody to talk to. They were all so irritating in their fanatic adherence to Jewish law and custom, so stubborn and unchanging, without the least appreciation or understanding of culture. No one spoke Russian. They only read Yiddish newspapers and penny dreadfuls. They all dressed badly and bathed infrequently-this being particularly noticeable on hot summer days. No one had ever heard of ...read more