‘Do you remember when your classmate told you to go to the gas chambers?’ — A letter from a Soviet-born parent to her American child
Do you remember how you used to sneak into the kitchen at one or two o’clock in the morning because you were hungry and your young, growing body needed Oreos or SmartFood or a plate full of spaghetti? And how lots of times I told you this wasn’t a good idea because your body was supposed to be resting and not digesting during the night, and that eating that late wasn’t good for your health or your teeth or your mother’s insomnia? And do you remember how I mentioned that I never ate at night at your age since having the munchies wasn’t a Soviet thing, mainly because there were no munchies to be had in the refrigerator or in the pantry?
I kind of lied there a little bit. Not about the munchies, because that was true, but about me never eating at night.
When I was 12 I was hospitalized for about a month. There were eight girls in the room and we were all in for the long haul because the department in which we convalesced was some kind of “infectious diseases” department, although none of us appeared infectious. I was there with a recurrent sinus infection and maybe just having the word “infection” in your diagnosis was enough to bolt the doors and ban all visitors.
Picture COVID times when you weren’t allowed to accompany a loved one to a hospital, then populate that reality with a decrepit Soviet building where anyone could roam at will and, thus, possibly sneak onto a floor where “infectious” children were locked away “for their own good.” Barricade that floor with an old door that locks with a key the size of your middle finger, then lock that door and give the key to a babushka who manned the Moscow anti-missile system during World War II and knows the meaning of the phrase “they won’t pass.” What you get then is a long queue of parents on one side of that door, and a long queue of their apparently infectious spawn on the other — all of them using their borscht receptacles to speak through the same keyhole for a meticulously-timed-by-everyone-three-minute-long conversation. What you don’t get is any supplemental food packages.
I don’t remember what they fed us in that hospital, but I remember I was hungry all the damn time. And because I spent my mornings being held down by nurses while the doctor drove a needle the size of his arm into my sinuses without anesthesia, and my afternoons trying to convince myself he hadn’t scooped any of my brain cells as he cracked what felt like the entire insides of my scalp on his way up and sucked out the pus on the way down, my still-developing body needed calories to face the same procedure the next day.
And so, every night, my roommates and I waited until all of the night nurses were on the other end of the long hallway either sleeping or drinking themselves into oblivion or watching the latest installment of Sledstvie vedut znatoki, a Soviet crime drama show. Once the coast was clear we made our way to the kitchen and binged on the stale, cold cream of wheat until our stomachs entered that dairy-induced bliss only Soviet breakfast cereal cooked with full-fat milk could induce, or until the neighboring room demanded their turn, whichever came first.
My last day of this life of midnight crime coincided with the adenoid surgery the doctors decided I needed. That morning, instead of my usual skull-cracking-sinus-pus-sucking procedure, the nurse brought me to an operating room and, in lieu of anesthesia, tied me to a chair. “It’ll just be a second,” the doctor said, and asked me to open my mouth. “I’m only going to measure first, I promise.” The naive idiot that I was, I parted my lips thinking that when he really needs to go in and yank those adenoids out, I’ll keep my mouth tightly shut.
Then a grenade exploded inside my head and set fire to me, the doctor, the nurse, the building, and the stale cream of wheat I planned to plunder that evening. I screamed as loudly as the gurgling noise my throat was making would allow, because we needed a fire brigade and we needed it fast.
“One down, one to go,” the lying cheat of a doctor said, and at that point I couldn’t really be strong and keep my charred lips together, so they pried my mouth open and exploded another grenade and then patted me on the back and said, “Good girl, you get ice-cream today.”
Let me tell you, I loved ice cream as much as the next tween who regularly scouted ice-cream kiosks in search of the elusive plombir that showed up for sale almost never. And, sure, in a Soviet hospital ice-cream was a fair deal for scooping the roof of my mouth free of its lining (see what I did there?). What wasn’t fair, however, was that they were giving me only two scoops, they were giving them to me some THREE HOURS after unpeeling me from that satanic chair, and it was going to be my only sustenance for that day. Cream of wheat wasn’t going to cut it for me on that midnight raid; this shit was getting serious.
That evening we crept slowly along the hallway the way we did every night and, sure enough, the cream of wheat was there — still in a huge pot and gelled over as usual. My roommates made a beeline for it, but I focused my attention on a few remaining loaves of bread, stale but still edible. I reached for one, ignoring a faint but annoyingly persistent voice of reason telling me that the stale bread might not be the best idea for the scorched earth my throat had become, when I noticed a pair of beady eyes staring right at me. A mouse sat on top of one of the loaves and regarded me with a “scoot away now, I was here first” kind of expression.
The scream that came out of my mouth a second later summoned all the nurses into the kitchen before my roommates could wipe the traces of the stolen cream of wheat from their mouths and nightgowns. The nurses punished us by getting the babushka with the keys to LOCK THE KITCHEN DOOR for that night and all of the following nights. Thankfully, while the commotion was going on all around me I had enough presence of mind to stow some of that stale bread under my nightgown. Then I hid it under my mattress and feasted on it for the next few nights in a Soviet, thank-you-comrade-Brezhnev-for-our-glorious-childhood-munchies kind of way.
Good thing you’ve grown up with the availability of real munchies. And of anesthesia.
Do you remember how at five you were cast to dance the part of a tiny fairy in “The Nutcracker” in one of those older-than-Gorbachev dance schools of St. Petersburg? How you, a tiny cherub-cheeked munchkin, had one of the starring roles in a ballet par excellence while I, along with the rest of the parents and the grandparents and the aunts and the uncles and the cousins of the performers, ohhh-ed and awww-ed in the audience as you pranced on stage next to the big girls and boys?
And then, do you remember how during the rhythmic gymnastics practice you snaked your ribbon, or spun your hoop, or caught your ball while simultaneously sliding into a split every Soviet-born mother would shed enough proud tears for to replenish the Aral Sea? And how you jetted off to Atlanta or to Tampa or to some other American town your grandmother braved turbulence to take you to so you could compete at a meet?
Do you remember coming home with a trophy and maybe a win and definitely a suitcase full of gifts you deserved for contorting your body the way neither God nor evolution ever intended? And, then, do you remember I told you a story about how, when I was young, I also performed a routine worthy of the Bolshoi stage while simultaneously tossing my bright red ribbon into the air to celebrate the coming of the communist paradise?
About that last one. Never happened actually.
My ballet — and, by extension, any possibility of the adjacent rhythmic gymnastics — career ended on the first day it began, and namely when my mother brought me to a local Palace of Pioneers to sign me up for an after-school ballet activity.
The matron in charge took one look at me — and by “one look” I mean a continuous stare that slid down from my still somewhat chubby neck to the thighs she was pursing her lips at — and said, “She’s too fat for ballet.”
Granted, I was no Maya Plisetskaya, and my legs were as far removed from the ideal of a Russian ballet beauty as kindness was from the Soviet ballet industry; but, at seven years old, I didn’t yet know that. Still, if people were good at anything in the Soviet Union — aside from being good at ballet and gymnastics and other disciplines that involved a thin frame and straight legs — it would be at telling you straight up that you’d be crap in all of those. Which I suppose I should have been thankful for, because I was never ever going to make it in the world of Russian ballet and would have probably bled to death from my toes while needlessly trying.
All of this is to say that I’m thrilled you got to dance, and to throw that ribbon, and to even seriously entertain the idea of becoming a “doctor-ballerina” one day.
Do you remember how you came home from school one day and told me that a classmate had asked you where you kept your striped pajamas? And how you recounted that he had also told you to “go to the gas chambers” and that others in your class WhatsApp group routinely texted “Heil Hitler?” And how I was horrified that history was repeating itself and not in an abstract or Nate Silver kind of way, but in a very personal “how is it possible that my daughter is on the receiving end of the same insults as I had been 30 years earlier how is this happening in a supposedly advanced and democratic Western society” kind of way?
I think I might have offered to go and yell at everyone at your school, to which you very wisely — and may I add, in a totally poised, confident, and badass kind of way — replied, “No need, mother, I got it.” And do you remember how that made me so proud and so teary that I lost it right there and then and hugged you for all of eternity and then some?
I was not like you. I confronted antisemites exactly zero times, instead pouring all my efforts into the ostrich-inspired strategy of “if they don’t see me, they won’t know/remember/realize I’m Jewish.” Sadly, that only occasionally worked, and only if my Soviet passport and my birth certificate and all official roll call documents where our ethnicities were recorded with more attention than ever went into Chernobyl’s design were MIA. What worked eventually was packing up and immigrating somewhere I thought neither my offspring nor I would ever have to turn in our shoulders and hang our heads because we belonged to one of the 12 tribes.
It didn’t quite work the way I imagined. Because nothing ever working the way you imagine is one of the glitches in the world’s operating system. Another glitch is that antisemitism is still a thing, and without being an actual clairvoyant I can tell you it’s here to stay. Because for humanity to let go of its oldest hatred we’d all have to become better people and lose all of our prejudices, which is way more difficult than agreeing that Hitler was a horrible person, but some people apparently still take issue with that.
So, I’m glad you’re using your voice and speaking up against the same evil I was too much of a chicken to take on. And that even though this is one instance where your coming of age and my coming of age seem to coincide, your response to it is as different as our respective reactions to the mess in your room.
Lots of love,
Excerpted from “I NAMED MY DOG PUSHKIN (AND OTHER IMMIGRANT TALES” by Margarita Gokun Silver (c) 2021. Published by Thread Books, an imprint of Bookouture, part of Hachette. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher.