I got into the cab and sat back after telling the driver where I was going. Then I looked to see what country he came from, but the taxi driver’s face didn’t match what I thought was the Russian Jewish name on the license barely visible behind the clouded-glass partition.
He was dark and unshaven. He had that surly kind of feel, so I thought I’d best not engage him in any discussion. It was going to be a long ride, so after a while I let my curiosity overtake my better judgment.
“Are you Russian?”, I finally asked him.
He looked in the rear-view mirror and said, “What about it?” All I could think of was that I was once again demonstrating how absolutely stupid I could be, but I had to answer him and so I said, “My grandmother was from Chernigov,” as if that had anything to do with my question. It was my way out, or so I thought.
“You speak Russian?” he asked, to which I replied, “No, but I speak Yiddish.” Suddenly, the swarthy DeNiro-wannabee smiled and said, “Nu, lomir reiden Yiddish” — “Well, speak Yiddish to me.”
Where else but in New York City is this possible? I told him he looked kind of mean.
“Du kukst ois vee a gonif, efsher erger ve a gonif” — “You look like a thief,” I told him, “or worse.”
He laughed. “This is how I want to look,” he said, his brown eyes sparkling with mischief. “No one bothers me. No one ever talks to me or gives me trouble, but you, something made you want to talk to me.”
“Yes,” I answered. “Your name and your face didn’t match. I wondered if maybe you got rid of the guy who’s name is on the license and just took his cab away.”
He started to laugh and said, “You should write a book; you have a good imagination.”
He was from Minsk in Belarus, which brought him even closer to home, since my father was raised in Zelva, a small shtetl between Volkovsk and Slonim, then in Poland, now in Belarus.
“Tell me about what life was like when you left,” I asked.
“No good,” he said. “I was a baby, but it was never a good life for Jews.”
“How did your parents survive during the war? They must have still been children. Were they hidden?” I asked. “You know, ‘fahrbahlteneh kinder.’” He suddenly seemed quieter. “How did you know?”, he asked.
I had no answer except that I couldn’t imagine anyone surviving the war intact without being in hiding either as a Christian with false baptism papers, or in an attic somewhere learning the true meaning of silence.
I had read so many stories over the years and never stopped believing it possible that my father’s mother and sisters, their husbands and children, might have hidden somewhere and perhaps changed their names. When I was a child and learned about the fate of our family, I couldn’t accept that they no longer existed.
“Was your family hidden by neighbors?” I asked. Maybe I was going too far now. Maybe this young man with the five-day growth needed to maintain that distance he sought from strangers, but I had crossed the line, and it was too late.
“They lived in the vald,” he told me. “Zei hauben zich fahrbalten in drerd.” He said they hid in the earth, and I could only imagine the trenches and giant pits they dug and camouflaged so they could protect themselves. “My parents told me there were many Jews in the forest,” he went on to say. “Hundreds who stayed together and lived in swampy areas where they knew the Germans wouldn’t go.”
I had struck pay dirt. Here was someone with real memories to offer, a person whose family had hidden in the Belarussian forest. My driver needed no imagination. His mother’s milk was filled with bedtime stories.
The taxi pulled up to my dentist’s office on West 74th Street, but I didn’t want to get out. I was hungry for more, but I could see my taxi driver was done.
I thought if I could only keep him interested in disclosing more, I might learn something about what happened to my family. There it was again, the eternal question that had a life of its own. What exactly happened to them? What was the precise event that took place so I’d never get to meet them? Was it neighbors who killed them?
The young man never turned around to look at me while he drove his taxi. All I saw were his dark eyes that barely left my own in the rearview mirror.
“A scheinem dank,” I said getting out of his taxi, thanking him for more than just the ride.
Roseline Glazer is a writer living in New York.