The fucker shot me, by surprise, right there on Seaman Avenue. We had a deal, I’d already given in, he was walking me at gunpoint to the subway, I was carrying the bag of evidence, ready to hand it over to the boss so he could cover up his crimes. We were walking toward the subway on Dyckman Street, it was a nice day, we were making small talk.
The guy stepped in front of me at the corner of Academy. I stopped, waited for him to speak. He said “you stupid fuck,” then shot me in the liver. I fell to the street, feeling betrayed, thinking what a dick move that was. Then I was awake, shaking my head. It was all just irony after I woke up, no wound, no sweat, no shuddering, not even an after-shudder. I’d learned, as an adult, to shrug a bad dream off.
“Well, that’s what you’re supposed to do, Elie. I don’t know where you learned it, but that’s one thing I never learned to do,” said the skeleton of my father. “It wasn’t nightmares, per se, it was my daily, demon-ridden reality. I never mastered the dispassion you need to recover from trauma, I was always flexing my muscles, weaponizing myself against any possible attack.
“As your sister pointed out, if I lost a quarter it was the same, to me, as if you or your sister had been killed. Sounds insane, and I suppose it is, but that missing 35 cents change from buying my newspapers would drive me crazy, I’d stalk from room to room cursing, turning the house upside down in an inconsolable frenzy. Can I appreciate how insane that is, now? Of course. Could I have done anything about it when I was alive? I never learned how.”
The only hope we have here, it seems to me, is waking from our personal nightmares. I have little hope of convincing a world determined to annihilate itself, and everyone I care about, not to do it. I can choose my personal reactions, somewhat. That’s all the control we get in human affairs.
“You know, Elie, it occurs to me now, as five hundred and thousand to one storms become more and more common, as the denial of human-made climate disruption grows shriller and more insane with each sweeping devastation — they do love to double down, these ignorant zealot fucks– that in seeing an enemy as an alien Other there is no chance of ever finding compromise, let alone wisdom.
“We never talked about this, but in 1942, 1943, when the Nazis swept toward their ill-fated invasion of Russia, the Soviet Union, they crossed the area where my mother’s family was, in Belarus, and simply stomped all of them into the swamp where no trace was ever found. As you know, after more than a decade of putting every available clue together, looking for a trace. To the south, in the Ukraine, they finished off grandma and pop’s families, and you discovered exactly how horribly the end came to all of them.
“A year or so of starvation, freezing, lice, disease, barbed wire separating them from the Christians, random murder, and then a march out to the ravine for the survivors. Amid the banging of drums and the shouts of the drunken peasants some cries and whimpers could be heard all the way back in town. Those were the sounds of grandma and pops’s surviving siblings and their families, as Ukrainians lined them up in rows, made them kneel, shot them in the back of the neck. We never spoke of any of this, of course, and I and everyone else was dead before you learned all the details, finally, but there’s a point here.”
Got you covered, dad. The Jews of that area, not far from Khmelnitsky, a town named for famous Ukrainian nationalist and pogromnik Bogdan Khmelnitsky, had been persecuted for centuries. In Vishnevitz, every so often, Ukrainians would ride into town, beat up and kill Jews, rape the women and girls, smash the Jewish houses and stores. Then, when grandma was a teenager, Bolsheviks marched into the area, fresh from overthrowing the Czar, spreading the intoxicating story of world workers united, controlling their destiny, free from the polarizing hatreds of the past. Grandma was swept up in it, along with many other hopeful, idealistic young Jews in that area, for reasons too obvious to explain. This was around 1919.
Fast-forward to the 1930s. The world economy had collapsed, there was a world wide depression, mass desperation. The Communist government in the Soviet Union was consolidating its power on the surrounding areas, areas long disputed between Russia and Poland. Including the Ukraine, at one time Russia’s “breadbasket”. Stalin was in charge now, not exactly a political or moral philosopher. Heavy handed, murderous, ends justify the means, psychopathic-type with a big mustache. He decided to starve the Ukrainians into submission, killed millions with his forced starvation regime. Made them starve next to mountains of their own wheat, guarded by machine guns, ready to be exported to hungry Russians.
No surprise, a few years later, when the Nazis marched in, that Ukrainians would rally with the world’s most fervent anti-Communists, the Nazis. Many Ukrainians were more than happy to lynch Communists and put bullets into Jews, aiders and abetters of the equally hated universalist Reds, and they felt supremely justified. Not only was it no problem for them to take this bloody revenge, the ones who did so participated with zeal.
“And to this day you shudder at the mention of Ukrainians, picture them like wild, demented monkeys, nimbly scrambling over the dead bodies of the Jews in that ravine, as their Nazi overseers grimly nodded,” said the skeleton of my father.
Yes, but it’s pretty much an involuntary shudder, a mental picture that comes reflexively. A second later I recall that there were always also loving, sensitive, decent Ukrainians on the scene, even as their vicious, enraged neighbors were burning Jewish kids.
“Well, isn’t that special?” said the skeleton. “I don’t mean to mock you, Elie, but, really, what the fuck?”