Most of us who grew up in the Soviet Union will remember Samuil Marshak’s rhyming dramatic tale Koshkin dom — The Cat’s House. A wealthy angora cat builds herself a new residence. Two destitute kittens show up at her doorstep, begging her to share her house with them: We’re your nephews, they say. We’re poor orphans. Won’t you let us in and feed us? The wealthy angora cat has her servant shoo them away, setting off the action of the drama in which the angora cat eventually gets her punishment for refusing help to the kittens in need, and the orphan kittens prove to be in the position to give her shelter.
Marshak’s rhymes were at the tip of my tongue while I was reading Daughter of the Shtetl: The Memoirs of Doba-Mera Medvedeva (Academic Studies Press, 2019), as though Doba-Mera and her brothers were the original orphans, the prototypes behind Marshak’s dramatic tale — except their life’s story didn’t make room for happy endings.
Doba-Mera Gurevich was born in 1892 in the shtetl of Khotimsk on the eastern edge of Belarus and the Pale of Settlement — that part of the Russian empire where Jews were allowed to live. Her mother died in 1903, when Doba-Mera was eleven, and as she was dying, she left Doba-Mera this parting message: “From the moment I close my eyes, the whole world will reject you. Because only happy children are loved.”
This is, indeed, what happened: Doba-Mera had to leave school to take care of her brothers; Doba-Mera’s father, a teacher, remarried, and because his new wife didn’t have the resources to raise the children from his previous marriage, Doba-Mera and her two younger brothers went from relative’s house to relative’s house, working and suffering their way through their childhood. Several years later, her baby brother, of poor health from birth, succumbed to an illness and died.
Doba-Mera describes one occasion on which, after spending time with their grandfather for High Holidays, she and her brothers were sent by a hired wagon to their uncle’s house:
Uncle himself came out and asked in a saccharine way, “Who are these children you have brought me?” “They are the orphans of your younger sister Rokhl”… “So why did you bring them to me? asked Uncle. “You, Veniaminovich,” said the driver, “take them off the wagon, warm them up and feed them — they are hungry and wet — then ask your questions. Look, the poor little ones are frozen stiff.”…. And Uncle stood by the door and stroked his beard and said, addressing the driver by name: “I have nowhere to put them, but they have an aunt here, their father’s sister. They don’t live very far; take them there.”
Eventually, Doba-Mera’s family put together the money to apprentice her to a tailor, and after learning how to fend for herself in a male-dominated environment, she acquired a trade. She witnessed a pogrom and was lucky to come out unscathed physically. She married a distant relative whose parents hated her and made her married life very difficult. She describes years of fear, poverty, and anguish during WWI. After October 1917, she and her husband were eventually able to leave their shtetl and settle in Leningrad, improving their fortunes somewhat, but then came WWII and its attendant horrors.
I won’t overstate the matter if I say that this was a relentlessly sad book down to the very last page. In fact, the most horrific incident comes in a footnote on that page: in this footnote, Michael Beizer, Doba-Mera’s grandson and the force behind the publication of this book, recounts a story told by a resident of the town of Klintsy (not far from Khotimsk), who had been forced to bury the dead after the Nazi shooting of the Jewish residents. I won’t tell this story here — it’s painful. I have to admit, at first, I was deeply angry at Beizer for leaving me with this story on the last page of Doba-Mera’s book, and it’s only with time that I came to realize how appropriate it was to end the book with this Holocaust story. Though Doba-Mera and her children had been able to escape it, it is the Holocaust and the loss of so many lives and so much knowledge that necessitated if not the writing than the publishing of her book. It still hurts to recall that story though.
Doba-Mera began writing her memoirs in the 1930s, living in Leningrad and wanting to tell her children something about her past. Having left school at the age of eleven, she clearly took a lot of pride at her abilities as a learner and deeply regretted that life hadn’t allowed her to use those skills more. She wrote in Russian and addressed herself to her Russian-speaking children and grandchildren, explaining Jewish customs and a way of life. The memoir comes to us in English in a deeply nuanced translation by Alice Nakhimovsky, who in her accompanying note marvels at Doba-Mera, ascribing to her membership in “a vanishingly small group of memoirists who are neither elite nor highly literate but whose observations from the ground cast a vivid light on a lost world.” Nakhimovsky helps to illuminate that world by bringing into English Doba-Mera’s particular idiom, a Russian infused with concepts and a particular cadence taken from Yiddish — the memoirist’s first language.
To me, this memoir feels valuable also because of the way Doba-Mera not only captures her personal experience but constantly connects it to the larger social structures that governed her life. For instance, this is how she recounts life at the edge of the Pale of Settlement (her town was apparently right on the border of what is now Belarus and Russia):
One summer day after work I went with my girlfriends to walk along Barabanovka Street. The street was on the other side of the river, where everybody used to go walking. Jews were allowed to walk but not to live there. A landowner lived there by the name of Robert. He couldn’t stand Jews, but as our stetl was in Mogilev Province, and Jews were permitted to live there, he got the government to make his street part of Orel Province, where Jews were forbidden to live. And he got all the Jews sent away from there. The empty houses where the Jews had lived were boarded up, and nobody would buy them because the Russians were confident that they would get everything anyway.
So on the Sabbath and holidays everybody would stroll there. The street was beautiful, with a lot of greenery, and so everybody liked to stroll along it.
This moment from the year 1907 is probably one of the happiest in Doba-Mera’s life. She goes on to describe her encounters with various socialist revolutionary groups during this period of her life. She wasn’t a revolutionary herself — she had her brothers to provide for — but she recalls going to underground gatherings and gives us the outline of the underground activity in her area.
The other distinct pleasure of reading this memoir is the candid way Doba-Mera writes about her own emotions, including the times when they turned ugly. She doesn’t shy away from describing her feelings of regret, sadness, jealousy. In one particularly devastating moment, she drops her work for several months to travel with her ailing father to Kiev, in the vague hope that he might be saved by the doctors there. She gets recommendation letters to distant family members and with trepidation approaches them upon arrival, encountering in their way of life such luxury and wealth that she hadn’t seen in the Pale.
I was seized with anger and at the same time envy, because [a relative’s son] was a student and could get nothing but Cs and was given everything he could possibly need, while I studied so well but had to become a tailor and live a life of piteous need and, to make matters worse, turn up in a big, unknown city where Jews weren’t allowed to live with a sick father, without money, wondering every minute whether I would get him home alive. At every step I cursed the day of my birth and came to the conclusion that only rich people should have children, because poor people get only suffering from them and the children also suffer.
The bitterness of Doba-Mera’s voice felt deeply familiar to me and eventually I realized that it was bringing back the intonations of my grandmother’s speech. My grandmother Raissa (Reesya) was born in Tikhinichi, another Belarusian stetl, about 130 miles from Khotimsk in 1912 or 13, about the same time as Doba-Mera’s first child. Like Doba-Mera, Raissa received her first education in a male cheder (elementary school where boys learned to read Hebrew and studied the Torah), though being a generation younger and having her mother to help her, she was able to continue her education in Leningrad. Nevertheless, life, to Raissa was a series of trials and punishments for sins she didn’t commit, and though she believed that she improved her lot by hard work and sacrifice, she refused to talk about things like “love” and “happiness.” When I tried to ask her about these things, the most she would tell me was pozhivesh–uvidish, which loosely translates as “just wait and see what life is really like.”
As a child in the 1980s, I resented this attitude and was only too happy to have a chance to escape “my lot” by moving to the United States. I have escaped, and so completely that I needed Doba-Mera’s book as a reminder of this way of thinking. Today, I find myself deeply grateful to Michael Beizer and Alice Nakhimovsky and to Academic Studies Press for this brave book. Its nonconformity to the expectations we place on the genre of the memoir (tell us what your struggles have taught you; or in any case, please land on an uplifting note) is liberating and feels deeply true to my ancestors’ ways of conceptualizing their own lives.