For decades, readers of the Forverts have been delighted by Miriam Hoffman’s wry, literary vignettes. Fresh and personal, historic yet contemporary, Hoffman tells stories of family lives as they intersect with history. Beginning with this story, first published in 1987, her vignettes with be translated into English and published on the forward.com web site.
Translated by Miriam Hoffman and Beverly Koenigsberg
What, you may ask, was the nature of the relationship between my mother and Stalin? The answer is that both of them made use of the same railway tracks — he on his way to the Kremlin, she on her way to the Gulag. This intimate kinship was not one to be lightly dismissed, because in fact the grizzly old man with the impressive mustache was attempting to convince half the people of the world that he was the “Father of All Nations.” Following his own line of reasoning, didn’t that inadvertently make my mother his daughter?
What did he have against her? Nothing! So why the Gulag? Though busily engaged in the distribution of hell on earth, Stalin hadn’t failed to make provision for my mother. He had guaranteed her a fair share of jails and labor camps, starvation and misfortune. This combination of catastrophes might have continued indefinitely. But not for my mother! She declared unequivocally that such tactics would not work with her. On the contrary, she would teach him that you don’t fool around with Tilche Bryndl of Lodz. When push came to shove, she didn’t hesitate; she rolled up her sleeves, took pen in hand, and showed him what she was made of.
After being liberated from the slave labor camp, we were lodged in a big Russian city as tenants in a dreary, wet cellar, with not even a drop of fresh air to breathe. My mother decided to write Stalin a series of letters and to demand what every lawful citizen was entitled to — namely, a decent home. Of course, at that exact time in 1942 Stalin was preoccupied with the war, engaged in a thousand matters: keeping an eye on the front at Stalingrad… and sending people to Siberia; defending Leningrad… and sending people to Siberia. And now, to top it off, another affliction surfaced — my mother’s letters.
My mother was a hotshot with the pen, and she deluged him with her correspondence. For Stalin her approach was unique, and her letters often began with an elaborate salutation:
“Most Exalted Father of the Nations, who has assured humanity of fairness and justice and freedom, who has sacrificed himself for the working class, put them on their feet and made of them what they are today. Believe me; they’ll remember it as long as they live. Loyal protector of the persecuted and the pursued, guardian of the exhausted masses, and faithful redeemer from the yoke of capitalism — how can I recount your accomplishments? There is none with whom to compare you in the annals of the human race. One can only be left speechless by your achievements. Who is there to sing your praises? You are one of a kind, unique in the universe.
But though you have provided for everyone, you have forgotten me… me and my innocent husband, who is rotting in the jails and labor camps for absolutely no reason whatsoever. You’ve forgotten also about my tiny child, who lies ailing in a dark cellar and doesn’t see the light of day. Why do I deserve this, dear Father of the Nations? You must arrange for my husband to be freed and provide us with a home of our own.
I know full well how busy you are; your plate is full, what with Smolensk and Stalingrad. Nevertheless, I don’t see how you can be indifferent to my requests! I realize also that you consider some matters to be greater priorities, but I won’t stop writing until you pay attention to me. As soon as I finish this letter, I’m going to sit down and write a second and a third letter; I won’t rest until you respond.
Send my regards to everyone at the Kremlin. Your loyal citizen, Tilche Bryndl.