The surprisingly thin canvas of the large painting eventually had a triangular rip where a long nail had pierced it. It was a framed painting that hung in the basement of our house in Queens, by a wire attached to its back. The walls of the basement were wood, installed in vertical strips, by a guy named Hymie in the years before I had any memories. I was told Hymie did the work, though I have no idea who Hymie was. The painting hung on a large nail driven into the wood. It was no doubt this nail that gouged the painting toward the end. I may, as a teenager, have had something to do with that inadvertent rip.
The painting had belonged to my grandmother, had hung over the couch in her living room in Kew Gardens, Queens. When she and my grandfather moved to Miami Beach, the large painting was moved to our basement. I remember my grandmother once smiling at the painting, already in our basement, and looking at me and saying that’s exactly what her home looked like, the painting was exactly Vishnevitz. I can picture that smile today.
The painting was of a wide dirt road, surrounded by huge, lush trees. There may have been a wagon traveling through it, I think there was. What I remember are the lush, leafy trees, painted toward the glorious end of an early summer day. It was an idyllic painting, an idealized homage to nature and the goodness of the universe. I didn’t particularly care for the sentimental painting, but my grandmother clearly loved it. Though it was painted, sold and purchased in New York, it was the best, and to my experience, only, souvenir of her home town, Vishnevitz in the Ukraine.
The letters from Vishnevitz stopped coming some time in 1942, when Einsatzgruppen and local anti-Semites began collecting the local Jews in towns like Vishnevitz. All I was ever told was that the letters had stopped coming, those unanswered letters stood in for the rest of the untellable story. It would be fifty years before I stumbled on the Vishnevitz Yizkor book, on-line, page after page of narratives from survivors of the torture and destruction of the writers of those letters that stopped coming. The details are horrible, every one of them.
Watching Ken Burns’s documentary on the Civil War, a 1990 masterpiece, I learned of the massacres of surrendering black soldiers. Ulysses S. Grant demanded this practice stop, that the Confederates treat black prisoners of war as both sides treated white prisoners of war. Confederate president Jefferson Davis refused. Grant stopped prisoner exchanges with the South. As a result, prisons began overflowing with American prisoners on both sides. One notorious Confederate prison camp, Andersonville, designed to hold 10,000 prisoners, soon had more than 30,000. The commandant, a German-Swiss fellow, turned the place into an early version of Auschwitz. More than 10,000 died of starvation and disease in a short time, the rest only wished for death.
Ken Burns does the Ken Burns pan up a photograph of the skeletal body of a survivor of Andersonville. Every moment of the pan is horrible. A narrator reads an account by a southern woman. She is sure of God’s terrible vengeance against the Confederacy for this crime of reducing humans to living skeletons. Americans did this to Americans.
Down that idyllic dirt road, through the lush, beautiful forest, we are just outside Vishenevitz in 1920, when Yetta, my grandmother was an idealistic, ambitious young woman. In the war after the Russian Revolution Yetta’s family had housed cossacks, Bolshevik cossacks, men who had behaved like perfect gentlemen, according to her. They hung blankets down the middle of the house to leave the family some privacy. Perfect gentlemen, of course, do not rape the young women, or the older ones either, as many other cossacks were known to do. These gentlemen cossacks were idealists, they inspired Yetta and her generation to envision a world of brotherhood among workers who threw off the yoke of oppression that keeps everyone killing each other for the war profits of a few cynical rich people.
“Why are you writing this, man?” asks a disembodied voice, possibly the driver of the wagon in the lost painting. “Why don’t you call friends, make a plan, enjoy this bracing, sunny Sunday of your life?”
I have no good answer, except that I saw the painting in my mind, with its triangular rip. Through that rip the rest followed, as naturally as overturned Jewish gravestones followed the election of a presidential candidate endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan. The founder of the Klan, a self-made millionaire who made his fortune in land speculation and slaves, was also a self-made general of undeniable military genius. He led small bands of men against large armies and inflicted terrible damage as thirty horses were shot out from under him during the course of countless battles. He killed 31 men in hand to hand combat and figured he came out ahead in that count of killed horses and killed men.
“Why are you writing this, man?”
One day the letters from Vishnevitz just stopped.