Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The last supper

When I finally reached the Kiev archives after 24 hours of travel from Lisboa through Warsaw, it was an hour before closing. I had all my luggage with me. The receptionist showed me down pea-coloured hallways (walls, ceiling, floor) where various side doors were not only padlocked but had a seal of wax hanging from a string, the string melted into the seal and stamped. I was shown into an office, where two secretaries faced one another at desks and gestured me into one of the adjoining inner sanctums. That was where I met the future antagonist for the next Bond movie. Blond spiked hair, perhaps seven feet tall, glittering blue eyes and an air of not just annoyance but open hostility, before I even opened my mouth. "I'm Jewish," I began. "I'm looking for my family." It went downhill from there.

The conversation progressed from a thorough talking-to and various questions about why I was there, to why I hadn't done this or that first (which I had) and what I could possibly hope to find because all of the records except from 1857 and 1897 had been completely destroyed. Finally, the worm turned. Once it did, she relented a little, writing down an address for the regional Kiev archives. Russian women are very, very formidable.

On my way out, I chatted with the security guard who spoke three words of English. I've begun to realize, after so much time on my own in countries where I don't even read the characters of the words of a language, let alone speak it, that this kind of bubble has its advantages. "Do you always hire such loving people?" I asked him. "Does she whip you in the back room when no one else is around? I suppose archives are best if people can't access them?" He smiled. I smiled. We both thought everything was just fine. He walked me to the corner and showed me where to catch a bus, and wrote out the number. To celebrate, I hauled my bulging 48 pound suitcase up the road and let myself be swindled by another taxi driver who snap chatted his friends the whole way to the hotel.

That night, I went out to the most expensive restaurant in Kiev. Thirty dollars later I had drunk a full bottle of wine, tasted Georgian pie and eggplant and baklava and a coffee that came with its own set of cutlery. I walked back and climbed to the 12th floor and watched the city, and thought about lostness, and loneliness, and how long this trip has been, and how short, and started to feel the first strains of panic at my impending departure. I love home, but I never want to go back there.

The next day, I almost blew off the regional archives and just went walking. Thank goodness I didn't. After waiting, and waiting some more, I was shown into a room with rows of interesting looking people bent over blond wooden desks full of yellowed papers. Alex Lipes greeted me in English. "You're also a Jew? I am responsible for Jewish archival history here." He took me into a back room so we could chat. Chances are, he told me, your family's name wasn't Nuchims but Nuchman, and that it wasn't Nuchims but Nuchim, with the "s" added for "son of." And chances are, they weren't from Berdychiv but one of the shetls nearby. Or they passed through on the way to a city that could take them to the new world. Or they were lying. "There are 80 books of census records from 1897," he told me. "We can look at four at a time." He showed me one. It was two inches thick and both sides of each loose page were covered in beautiful cursive, displaying the names, progeny, ages, sex, literacy, language and location of each person, as well as their religion (J). "There's nothing you can do today," he told me, "but I can help you from Canada." Alex grew up in Ukraine. He said that most Jews in Ukraine these days are from areas in Northern Russian where Jews were banished to in the last century, or they're from Israel. Many, he said, don't even realize they are Jews, as the records were lost, or the family deliberately hid the truth. Over 30,000 live here today who are from Israel. He spent eight years there, and returned with his wife to work in the archives. He does work for people all over the world. He walked me outside. "This is the road," he said, pointing at the main street in front of the archives, "that the Jews marched down during the second world war to be executed. The memorial park is just down there, where they were all shot. The land this building is standing on used to be a Jewish cemetery." Of course they were. Of course it was.

I walked through the park, after saying goodbye. Across the road were the familiar faces in enamel on tombstones that I had seen and photographed in the cemetery of Berdychiv. The grass was long, but the stones looked tended. I turned into the memorial park, which covered many city blocks, and ended up wandering through the poplars and groves of wisteria-like trees that smelled incredible for over an hour. It was my first time walking in a forest since Poland, and it was also the site of a mass killing.

Tonight, I found a French restaurant with the freshest bocconcini and tomatoes, caviar and eggplant, foie gras and balsamic, and am writing while the courses come. After, I will go back to the Cuban bar to see if there is any music. It's a tough life. It's my last night in Europe. If I had not been so preoccupied with candidacy exams and all the other madness that the spring entailed, I'd have got my wits about me and arranged to stay here. Stay where? Where does one feel at home? Where the unsmiling faces of a city full of Russians (because they do speak Russian over Ukrainian, and consider themselves Russian in a way that Lithuanians do not) feels intensely familiar? Or where the heart feels lighter, but foreign, in the winding streets of Sevilla? Or in Vilnius, where a passel of Jews are remembering for us, and creating Yiddish societies, and Klezmer music appreciation nights? Or on the shores of a small, shall-remain-unnamed lake on an unnamed island on the West Coast of North America, eating chanterelles by lantern-light and laughing about everything while watching the dog take another swim under the moon? Maybe it's true, maybe it's too late to feel at home anywhere. Or it's too soon.

Two Russian men have lit cigars behind me, telling the server, more or less, to go to hell when she tells them there's no smoking on the patio. I think they may be planning the next Mafia insurgency. She comes and moves my table a little out of their way, out of concern for me. When they leave (without paying) she heaves a sigh of relief, and confirms my suspicions. It's 22 degrees at ten at night. I think of the white trunks of the poplars, giving out their seeds in cottony drifts, and the birches and red pines and the Israeli soldiers and the incredibly fierce and human and strange and antagonistic look in the eyes of so many I've seen in this city passing me in the streets. I've never seen so many blue eyed people. I'm far from unusual. But still they look at me strangely. As if they're seeing a vestige from the past. I remember the Polin museum in Warsaw, the history of Jewish peoples over the last 1000 years in Poland. The best museum I've seen in my life. People lived right outside the Warsaw ghetto, its interpretive text said, and they did nothing, for the most part, to help those inside.

Maybe, as Mark Strand writes, I'm still moving to keep things whole.