Discover more from Homo Vitruvius by A. Jay Adler
No Place You’ll Ever Be
* Greek ou "not" + topos "place"; from which the Modern Latin, via Thomas Moore, Utopia (“nowhere”)
“Nobody owns anything but everyone is rich –”
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In last Monday’s Recs & Revs letter (usually paid, but free to all last week like this week) I wrote about my commitments as a writer, and that “thrownness, for each of us, individually, precedes the state, systems, and power. They may precede us in the world (though they didn’t always), but they don’t precede us in ourselves. That’s the place where I begin.” A statement like that has implications for what I think about political art, particularly political fiction and poetry and the like, and that was what I intended to write about for today. Then I realized I needed to write what I’m sharing here first.
I also wrote last week,
To be clear, thrownness, as a concept, includes all those things that precede us in the world, that determine so much of how our lives will proceed. My own father’s life – shaped in early childhood by antisemitism, the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the Russian Civil War, famine, pogroms, and the impending Holocaust – determined for me that understanding. And in my interest in thrownness, those determinants are ever present in my creative workings. But I create to acknowledge people, not to oppose systems, however much I may otherwise oppose systems. I oppose humanity-crushing systems because I value humans. The human is my concern.
I realized that I need to write a little more about my father. I have, multiple times, and still do, on a larger scale, but this was needed now.
My father lived through all those calamities above, all around him in the shtetl of Orinyn in southwestern Ukraine, by the time he was 12 years old. At some point, he and his sister Golda had been left behind by their parents, who emigrated to the United States and divorced, or divorced and emigrated to the United States: Dad was an uneducated little boy during all these events, and his understanding and recollection of what was going on was limited. As an adult, too, he was never very forthcoming or articulate about his formative experiences. After their parents left, my father, Meyer – Mac – and Golda were then cared for by their maternal grandparents and an aunt, Aikah. Then their grandmother died, followed by their grandfather. My father couldn’t tell me how. In my efforts to piece together the details of this family history in Ukraine, my best calculation is that the two died somewhere between 1920-22. These were years of the still ongoing civil war, of anti-Jewish pogroms that are estimated to have killed up to 150 thousand Jews, and of a first, less historically heralded famine than the 1930s Holodomor, during which, from 1921-23, up to one million Ukrainians may have died. Did my great grandparents thus die of starvation, or in a pogrom, or as casualties of the ongoing civil war? Or did they die from natural causes? I don’t know.
In any event, at the ages of about 12 and 14, the two children were aided, in what based on the particulars was some kind of escape, and rowed at some point by a stranger across the Zbruch River in midnight darkness.
Mac and Goldie had another aunt living in the medieval city of Kamenets-Podolski, about 8 miles from Orinyn, and an uncle and his wife living in Lviv. This was a heightened period of Zionist and Jewish relief organization activity within the Pale of Settlement, aimed at rescuing Jews either by aiding a millennially delayed return to a Jewish homeland in Israel or by settling them in the U.S. and other welcoming nations. (All four of my grandparents had emigrated to the U.S, during the historic U.S. immigration period of 1880-1920.) What role various family members and organization had played in their departure and journey onward my father could not tell me, though he did say a “Jewish organization” was responsible for the sibling’s final travels and arrival in the U.S.
My father was then 17. It had taken 5 years.
Somehow, Mac and Goldie reconnected with their parents in New York City. (Greater detail was always nearly impossible to obtain: on Thursday, I will share a transcript, from memory soon after, of a conversation I had with my father in his final years that offers indication of what it could be like to try to get information from him.) Both parents had by then remarried and had more children, born in the U.S.
My grandfather Yoina (Joe), a tailor, who died before I was born, got my father his first work in New York’s garment district. (I have the official document, signed by Joe, attesting to my father’s age of 17, in 1927 – necessary for Mac’s legal employment.) All would seem by then, under the circumstances, to be at last well and good, with a new, rescued life at a still young age and guidance to learn a trade: my father became a sewing machine operator in New York’s fur trade. That put him in the thick of labor history.
Amid the working-class tumult erupting across the world, unions were fighting for workers’ rights. Organized labor, with much struggle, was ascendant, and as it happened at the time, the International Fur and Leather Workers Union, under Ben Gold, was one of the most Communist infiltrated and run in all the American Federation of Labor. My young, inexperienced father, given his past and present, was ready-made to join the class struggle. Then, Mac had arrived in the U.S. just as the country and the world were falling into the Great Depression. By 1932, the young man was out of work, along with a quarter of the American working population. People, if we know our history, we know were desperate for new directions.
In a little-known story of the era, inspired by tales of the new working-class Utopia being created in the Soviet Union – in that desperation to sustain a life and, idealistically, even build a new world – as many as 10 thousand Americans emigrated from the U.S. to the still young Marxist state.
Mac was one of them.
In 1932, in the midst of the depression, scant years before Stalin’s Great Purges and Terror, long before I was born and well before he met my mother, my father returned to the Soviet Union.
I was well into my adulthood before I learned this. Dad didn’t keep it from me. He just didn’t talk about those things, and trying to extract information from him was like interrogating a trained spy playing an innocent bystander in a case of mistaken identity – who speaks a different language.
Obviously, Mac managed to get back out, after about a year. He’d ended up in St. Peterburg, far from where he was born in Ukraine. I have no idea what kind of work he did there, and I’m 18 years too late to try to torture it out of him. One detail remained vivid enough for him to share with me. He’d lived in an apartment converted into a barracks, and on the walls by his face, as he lay in his bunk in the freezing winter, were icicles he scratched off with his fingers for water. How I began to learn of my father’s Depression-era return to the Soviet Union and his lucky escape back to the U.S. is a subject of this Thursday’s post.
What about the remainder of the 10 thousand Americans? It is a story that went untold for a long time. Neither the Soviet Union, or afterwards Russia, nor the U.S. had incentive to tell it. In 1987, through Progress Publishers in Moscow, Paula Garb published They Came to Stay: North Americans in the U.S.S.R. It received pretty much no attention. Then, in 2008, came The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin's Russia, by Tim Tzouliadis.
Reviewing the book in Foreign Affairs, Robert Legvold wrote,
The story of the magnitude, savagery, and arbitrariness of the purges has been told umpteen times, but learning the fate of individual Americans devoured in the process gives the story a perverse freshness. Tzouliadis tells it well, but he reserves his special passion for those on the U.S. side who did little to help and much to make the outcome more tragic.
Everyone, it seems, was untrusting of Americans who went to live among the Soviets. Everyone was suspicious of those who, having found not Utopia but an emerging dystopian terrordome, wished to return home. Writes Tzouliadis,
Most were stripped of their American passports soon after their arrival. Considered ideologically suspect by Stalin’s paranoid and totalitarian state, the foreigners were swept away in the Terror - and the American jazz clubs, the baseball teams, and English-language schools where they once gathered, quickly vanished with them.
Those who thought to leave before 1937 were often, with great difficulty, finally able to get out. Many of the remainder were swept up in the Terror, killed or condemned to slower deaths in the Gulag. Those who survived those threats faced the same miseries as did Soviet citizens, including all those of the Second World War. And then there are those who succeeded in living out their lives in the Soviet republics. The Los Angeles Times in 1991, produced a poignant, in-depth Column One story by Jonathan Peterson about those survivors and the loved ones they lost:
A few of the wanderers and their children survive in the old Soviet Union to this day, having outlived the country that proved a false utopia. Their personal tales are remarkable and often troubled--stories of tragedy in the severe Russian landscape, of noble fantasies and brutal letdowns, of innocent choices with heart-breaking consequences.
As always, the dangers were greater for Jews, as they would have been for my father had he delayed his departure in fantastic hope. Lenin had spoken out against antisemitism, but that was because Marxists, going back to the Jewish Marx himself, as has been regularly so on the far left, tolerate Jews best when they are deracinated, in the manner of Leon Trotsky. But authoritarians, in convenience, always turn against Jews as scapegoats, and Stalin did, too, once he allied with Hitler, purging Jews from government positions, instituting his “anti-Cosmopolitan” campaign of the late 40’s and concocting his Jewish “doctor’s plot” of the early 50s, before his death.
Had my father stayed in the Soviet Union, who can say what conspiratorial caricature of Jews, as contrastingly “rootless cosmopolitans,” without national allegiance, or demonically devout anti-Christian, anti-Muslim, or wicked settler-colonial force of ill among the nations’ peoples might have provided cause to end his life. But had my father never left Ukraine at all, we do know what would have happened to him.
In August 1941, just one month after Mac’s first child, my older sister, Sharyn, was born, an SS Einsatzgruppen under the command of General Friedrich Jeckeln, in the first great massacre of the Final Solution, murdered, in three days, 23,600 Hungarian, Polish, and Ukrainian Jews in Kamenetz-Podolski – and, as a side action, all the Jews but 3, who managed to escape, of Orinyn.
My father was a small man, short and slight, uneducated, never in his 94 years possessed of power or influence to do anything in this world but work hard and love his family and walk in the warmth of the sun. Like most of the rest of the approximately 117 billion humans who have so far lived on this planet, he survived, while so many didn’t, pressed between the vice jaws of those who are ravenous for power and wealth and those righteous and rageful rectifiers of history who would take it from them.
It's what Faulkner said of Dilsey, to close The Sound and the Fury. “They endured.”