Unknown Relative

Story posted on July 10, 2009 at 3:49 PM

That day will remain with her forever though many other interesting encounters and events have happened to her since. She will automatically and unconsciously compare each new meeting with the one had that day when these feelings came into her life.

She was tall, well-shaped, blonde-haired and not above thirty. Her straight bearing, proud gait, and somber wardrobe underlined a severity and independence. Her old blue eyes never sought out men in crowd and seemed to be telling the world “don’t come near me”.

She was awaken that Saturday morning by a telephone call from her girlfriend who told her that they would not be able to visit the Guggenheim Museum as they has planned. She was determined to go out that day so she dressed quickly, and walked directly to the Metropolitan Opera Building at Lincoln Center knowing that two of her favorite singers would be singing in “La Traviata” that afternoon. She got to the long ticket line after a 40-minute walk. She heard someone behind her ask politely and calmly. ”Who’s next?” Since the question was unusual and she detected an accent which was oddly familiar she assumed it was a foreigner.

She divided all people into two groups: those who could spear grammatically, delicately and with certain a musicality and those who couldn’t. ”A musician”, she thought to herself. She turned her head to look at him and saw a slender man of about 40, wearing jeans and a blazer. His wavy black hair was cut short and his clear brown eyes looked steadily though his glasses. From long habit she answered abruptly, “Don’t you see the lines?”

After regarding her a second he responded, “Yes I do, but I thought that I would ask a relative.”

“How am I your relative?”

“Well you are from Russia, aren’t you?” he said smiling

“As a matter of fact, I am.”

“Well then we are relatives.”

She looked at him a moment. Each of them stood their ground, thinking to themselves that the other looked quite pleasant.

When her turn came, she bought a ticket for standing room and walked out of the building to wait the two hours until the performance.

It was a beautiful April day and the bright sun and fresh air put her in a good mood. Around the Metropolitan Opera Building that day there was an out door market. There were jewelry, antiquary, and a small exhibition of paintings. She browsed a bit, bought a snack, and selected a place to sit down. She passed by the stranger and noticed that he was reading a newspaper in a foreign language. She sat on a bench across from him and as she ate slowly she noticed that the paper was in Russian. Childhood memories rushed up on her.

She recalled her beloved neighborhood of Arbat in Moscow where she had lived with her parents such a long time ago. In her mind she saw its narrow, curved, old-fashioned and unforgettable beautiful streets and alleys that were like a labyrinth. She remembered how easy it was to lose one’s way but it was pleasant to walk and rediscover familiar places. Their building had been along one of those little alleys. The family rented a single room of about 25 square meters on the fifth floor of this municipal apartment building. They shared a single kitchen and bathroom with seven other families. The central corridor between the rooms was used for celebrating holidays, special occasions, and weddings. There they would set up a long table laden with food and drinks. After dinner, the table would be taken away to make room for dancing.

Their family’s small room was frequented by people who would play piano, sing, and tell jokes and funny stories. When her parents were free, they would take her to children’s performances at theaters, movies, or music conservatory. She absorbed their love for art and culture.

As she sat on that bench and remembered her former life, she often glanced at the stranger. When he got up to head for the entrance, she followed him without thinking. They went to their standing room places on the topmost balcony. Since he had been right behind her on line, their spots were next to each other.

The performance began and she was captivated by Verdi’s magnificent music, the excellent acting, and Zeffirelli’s incomparable staging. In her mind she felt she was on the stage, invisibly participating in the spectacle. Her reverie was broken only the intermission and only then did she again think of the stranger. He was sitting on the carpet with the program and a Russian-English dictionary. She went downstairs to the bar and looked though the glass walls to the white fountain outside. There were people milling around it. When she came back to her place, she felt his stare following her. She wanted to say something but the beginning of the second act interrupted her intentions.

When the opera ended and the applause had begun to die down, she heard him asking: ”Please, could you tell me where Central Park is here?” Her face lit up with a smile. She said that she lived in Manhattan and would be glad to show him around this part of New York.

They left the Opera House both feeling the warm afterglow of listening to “La Traviata” and walked directly towards Central Park. They passed many strolling couples near the fountain in the large plaza between Avery Fisher Hall and the New York City Opera. They crossed the street and walked by old-fashioned buildings which reminded him of narrow side streets of Moscow. When they came to the west side of Central Park he saw the amusing view: a huge green field encircled by skyscrapers with a blue sky overhead. After the city streets it seemed to him that he was in a valley surrounded by mountains. He was fascinated.

He asked her: ”Where did you learn to speak Russian so well? I can’t believe that this difficult language can be mastered even in college.” The light intonation of his voice and the intimate atmosphere disposed her to open-hearted conversation. As she told him about herself she watched his eyes grow wide with surprise. She said that her parents spoke only Russian at home so that she wouldn’t forget their language. She then began speaking a mixture of Russian and English so that they could understand each other better. He smiled, understanding all.

“I was born in Moscow in a circus actor’s family. My father loved the circus and musical comedy. At the dinner table he would began singing arias from I. Kalman’s “Circus Princess”. I became accustomed to the circus at an early age and joined my parent’s act. In the Soviet Union my father’s position in the company was not secure. He felt that the administration wanted to throw him out of the troupe. He took his earliest chance to defect and when we were visiting Australia all of us were granted asylum there. I was 10 at that time. By then the three has created our own successful high wire act and we were quite popular in the Melbourne circus. It was wonderful but everything ended one day. My mother slipped off the tightrope during a performance.

My father remarried but I felt like a stranger in my own house. So when my mother’s sister invited me to come to New York to live with her I quickly accepted. She and her husband owned a large antique store in Manhattan. They loved me like their own daughter. They had lost their children in a fire many years before.

I graduated High School in New York and got a job as a waitress on weekends while I attended college during the week After I graduated I took a job as a Mathematics teacher in private school not far from my little apartment on the Upper West side I’ve developed a routine. I keep the weekends free to go with girlfriends to theatres, movies and museums. On weekdays I do some private tutoring after work to make a little extra money. If there’s any time left over I go jogging in Central Park. My aunt has tried to get me married but I didn’t like the candidates.’

They continued walking towards the East Side and passed joggers, people strolls, children in carriages and people playing soccer and relaxing on the benches. They stopped by a children’s playground and watched the kids play and their parents fussing over them. They each felt their loneliness in the world.

As they moved on she told him about the landmarks and sights of Central Park and a little about American History and politics. She told him about upcoming performances at the Opera, at Carnegie and Avery Fisher Halls, at American and City Ballets and about some art exhibitions she was interested in seeing. Together they discussed life in Russia, immigration problems, modern Russian art and music. They felt that invisible bond based on a high level of culture and knowledge linked them together. They continued walking though that beautiful place not noticing the many cheerful people in crowd, not noticing anything except the feeling of having found each other in this enormous, contradictory world.

Hearing someone speak Russian, they hurried a little table where a husband and wife were selling Russians souvenirs: pins, portraits and view of the Russian landscape. They began a conversation. The couple had left the Soviet Union for political reasons 6 months ago. The man had worked as a senior researcher at Moscow Physics Institute was dismissed as a dissenter three years before and only found work as a plumber. For similar reasons his wife had been dismissed from Moscow’s Foreign Institute and subsequently worked as a cleaning lady in a grocery store. Here in New York they often met people with a high level of education who had left the Soviet Union because they could not tolerate the lies and terror. These were people now wandering the world with broken destinies.

They left the couple and walked to the Children’s Zoo where the trapped animals seemed to be putting on funny show. He remembered how his mother had taken him to the Moscow Zoo one summer. It had been the first time in his life that he had seen animals playing in cage. Right now he felt that his own life was being played out in a cage. As he calmly began to talk about himself he felt her emotional and benevolent attention.

“I grew up in an industrial town. The railroad to Moscow ran right though and divided it into two districts. On the west side were the big civilian plants as well as the cultural and sports centers. On the east side there were military installations. The very presence of these designated our town as “limited access” Our family came to this town at the beginning of Second World War.

My father was an electrical engineer. He was energetic and talented and was given the nickname ”Motor”. During the war his assignment was to evacuate a sprawling industrial plant in the Ukraine to prevent the Nazi from capturing our equipment. He helped rebuild the plant at this new location near Moscow. He was electrocuted while installing the power lines and his left side was paralyzed for life.

My mother was very popular in our town. She is a graduate of the Academy of Music and worked as a piano teacher. I saw Shirley Mac Lane in movie “Madam Sousansky”, it reminded me strongly of her.

My mother’s philosophy was that although it is wonderful for every one to have a general music education but only the most talented students should continue to study music seriously. This was a unique stance in a country where official’s children are ushered though conservatories. All my mother’s students loved her because she gave each personalized and challenging assignment. The result was that they all played at a high technical level regardless of their fundamental talent".

They were now passed the lake and a charming view opened before them. He invited her to sit and have a coffee. She continued listening to him.

“1952 was a terrible year. The newspapers had branded certain Jewish medical doctors as capitalist agents who had tried to poison communist party leaders. It was a big lie. Whenever the economic or social situation in a country gets bad the government always looks for scapegoats. They accused Jewish of being responsible for all the country’s ills. I was dismayed and nervous.

I couldn’t imagine that these hard-working, honest Jews I knew could be traitors. I used to walk home with a girl whose family lived in the same apartment complex for industrial plant specialists as ours. We would walk home together through dangerous neighborhoods where I’d hear “Save Russia, kill Jews”. One day we stayed late after class. She told me her family respected mine and didn’t want anything to happen to us. She said that our great country was the first in the world to build a socialist state and that we were surrounded by enemies. America’s capitalists wanted to destroy the Soviet Union. She said my last name sounded too much like an American’s capitalists and that we should all change our name and the designation on our passport from “Jewish” to “Russian”. As you may know, passport in the Soviet Union is our basic an indication card. She said we didn’t look Jewish because of our fair skin and could pass Russian. Her father would help us in all of this. I answered that we couldn’t do any of that. Our family was well-known in town and besides, people should not be judged by their names but how well they work. After all people in the United States don’t have to show their passport every time they want to get a job or apply to school.

You know, our family had tried to get to America in 1922 by way of the Romanian boarder but my uncle arrived late that day. The arrangement we had fell apart. My uncle regretted it his whole life. Anyway, Ifinished telling this so-called friend of mine my reasons for not wanting to change my name nor my documented nationality. That same day when we left the class she said we couldn’t walk together any more because her father was up for high position at the plant and she didn’t want to spoil his chances be being seen with me.”

He paused, took a gulp of coffee and continued his troubling story which contrasted so sharply with the peaceful silence around.

“And then my mother was arrested. Early one morning the phone rang. My mother was asked to come outside and step into a black car. We went to the window and saw the car drive off. It was what we called the KGB’s “Black Raven” May be you know that KGB in the Soviet Union which means State Security Committee is very powerful agency. My father had gone through a situation like these 15 years before when his brother who was Metallurgical Plant General Manager and my mother brother – in -law who was Red Army Brigade Commander were arrested on false denunciation. They died in prison. as so called “people enemy”. He was afraid that this would happen with his wife and took action right away. He called the director of the music school were she worked and also contacted the many former music students of hers. I couldn’t believe that my mother could be arrested. Why arrest decent, hard-worked people? I lost fait in our system. Days passed and still my mother didn’t return. Finally, after a period of constant effort to get her out she returned to us. She said that the chief of local KGB had tried to force her to sign a document stating that she was a member of an organization which had tries throughout the Soviet Union and was linked to Jewish organization in the United States. The KGB wanted to prove the existence of a spy network. My mother never signed that document. KGB’s official said to my mother: You will be free when you sign this document. He moved to her a paper but she moved away. She didn’t eat and used a bathroom during of 24 hours. Others, who signed out of fear, were immediately arrested and only Stalin’s death in 1953 spared them from being executed. My father wasn’t taken away in that purge because a medical doctor certified that in his condition he couldn’t withstand the ”interrogations”. During that period I would wake up in the middle of the night and looked out the window. There would be always a “Black Raven” waiting outside.

He interrupted his story to go use the phone. She overheard him saying: “Mama” and her mind went back to an image of her own mother during their circus days. A man in black overcoat approaches her and is trying to drag her away. The stranger came back from his call and woke her out of her daydream.

“So graduation day came and the school principal announced that I was awarded the golden medal for achievement in my studies. I was happy because this certificate allowed entering an Institute without taking an additional entrance examination. But my joy was short lived. The other parents went to the principal to protest his “immoral” decision and said they would appeal to the town education council. The principal said that all teachers had been unanimous in the decision. I began to regret that I’d ever gotten the medal. I only wanted to get the first train out of there for Moscow.

Theoretically, I could have been to an Institute of my choosing but, being Jewish, this wasn’t practical reality. I was forced to take examination at one Institute after another even though the medal was supposed to have exempted me. This procedure was called “interview” but without any regularity and written record of examination. I failed every one of this examination. At one Institute a personnel officer saw my dismay and said caustically:” If you want to enter a good Institute you should change your last name.

You’re not going to have success in your life with your passport. The way is it.” He was voicing an unwritten law which has had much effect on my life. I began to lose hope of entering any Institute but by a twist of luck. I was called by a technical Institute which didn’t have a good known and need to fill a quota of medalists.”

As he spoke she thought of her own situation. She also had very high grades in high school and could have entered any university she liked. She eventually chose. Teacher’s College in Manhattan because this was her passion. He went on with his story.

“The student body was in a state of unrest that because of Stalin’s death seemed to promise some freedom from Communist party and perhaps a loosening of travel restrictions but the system continue to exist without many changes. We returned to study very hard. I researched a method of calculating for the production of new equipment. I presented my findings at an engineering colloquium and had them published in an article in a professional journal. I hoped to get an invitation to do post-graduate work there at the Institute in order to continue my research. But the all-powerful Personnel Department, which reviews all possibly PhD candidates, refused my application and none of my professors could help me”.

The years fell away from her eyes she remembered the different musicals she had performed with Manhattan theater group which had accepted her after her experience in high school where her favorite part had been the lead role in a musical-asquealto Bernstein’s “West Side Story”. She remembers dancing well – a skill she had retained from her circus days. The principal suggested that she switch from Math to Theater but when she wrote her father about it, he warned her that actor’s life is very precarious and that she should stay with something more secure. Her mind continued to wander back. There was that young man from Harvard who she met during a summer semester while she was teaching teenagers at Jewish center. His grandfather had come from Russia at the beginning of the century. This man spoke several languages including Russia and could converse intelligently on many topics such as anthropology and world politics. After that summer he’d often come down from Boston to visit his parents and they had many good times together. One day she received a call from his mother. He had died in a car accident.

Her companion’s voice startled her. He was asking if she’s like to walk along the part with him. He continued his story.

“After Institute the only place to find employment was back in my hometown at the plant where my father worked. His friends helped me obtain a position in the Design department. Since my hopes for post-graduate study were destroyed I accepted to enter the Research division where I was put to work on interesting problems. I did a large volume of research asked the Department Chief to have it submitted as a thesis in order to apply for a PhD by that route. I had prepared all the necessary documents for obtaining my degree this way and handed everything over to this man. He claimed to hold the search for truth in science precious above all else but he turned out to be nothing more that a petty bureaucrat and demagogue who primary occupied himself with seducing young girls in his department even though his wife worked there too. He took my work and after a certain period told me it had been rejected. Actually, he had submitted it under his own name. He received the PhD degree using my work. It was only much later and after many more obstacles that I finally obtained the degree but even then it did not significantly improve my status or living conditions.

 The situation in my office also continued to be oppressive. The Department Chief never directly insulted me but I’m sure he instructed the Laboratory Chief at my office to do it for him. For instance, during 6-day war in Israel with Arab countries my Laboratory Chief told me: “We’re going to crush you all very quickly”. I felt I was not working on a team at laboratory but was a minority in an Islamic country. What was all this intense hate?”

She wondered how someone could go through all this and still retain his humanity in such a hostile environment. This, she felt, proven the strength of his spirit. She herself couldn’t are exposed to such constant derision.

“I felt like a real outsider in that laboratory. The hierarchy was structured like this: Laboratory Chief, researches like me and what was called the “bog” or pool of assistants such as technicians, typists, janitors and machine operators. ( one of them was KGB agent).When we held our so-called democratic elections within that laboratory the incumbent chief was always re-elected because he gave many petty concessions to the numerous ”bog” workers who each had a full vote. The Department Chief often took “fact-finding” trips abroad and I would sometimes brief him as to what specifications to ask about at foreign plants. He pretended to take my advice but he’d return from these trips it was clear that he hadn’t done any work at all. All he talked about was the women, the sights he’d seen, and the parties he’d gone to. I began openly criticizing this system where the “bog’ voted for incompetent Laboratory Chief and where the Department Chief used his trip for pure pleasure and not to help production at our plant. I complained that this system was doing no good for our country.

I was subsequently invited to the local KGB office where I repeated my criticisms. The official there interrupted my explanations with a Communist cliché which essentially means ”shut up and work better”. I heard this phrase echoed again and again from everyone at work. When my yearly evaluation came up in a conclusion was written I didn’t conform to a position which I have been taken. I was put on 6 months probation to see whether I could better “adjust’ to my position. After this period the Department Chief decided that I longer fit in with that organization. I was forced to find other work.

All doors were closed to me. I could not fond anything in my field. I worked temporary as boiler repairman then as a louder at a railroad station and then as an operator of moving stage at a theater. Throughout this period, I was striving to leave the country but was imprisoned for short periods every time a foreign leader visited. This was common procedure with suspected dissidents. They were afraid we’d try to get attention by demonstrating. This was terrible time in my life. I lost my father, many closely friends didn’t want to contact with me. Only my mother stood by me through all this tragedy. Finally, when I managed to get here to the United States she came with me”.

This man and his story stuck her like an epic hero’s tale-one man’s struggle against impossible odds. She imaged that he must have pondered, like Hamlet, whether “to be or not to be”. She sensed had that a spiritual, honest, artistic force was driving this man. Her parents had always pointed out such people and characterized them as modern-day heroes.

Once again, his voice interrupted her musing: ”I have to leave now. My mother has been waiting for me and must be worried.” They had arrived at a subway entrance. ”Goodbye” was all he said. He disappeared down the steps. ”Bye” she called after him. As she walked away she could hardly believe that this simple, abrupt good-bye meant they’d never meet again. She thought that they would have had much more to share together. Perhaps they were made for each other but fate disposed otherwise.