The Country We Lived In

by Natasha Lvovich


You want me to talk about my name? It is a complicated story. When I was born, in 1929, it was absolutely normal to give a child a Jewish name. The child had to be named by a family elder, so my parents asked Baba Hannah. Remember her? She was a family patriarch.

No, she was a patriarch because she was the oldest, the wisest, and very, very powerful. I mean, she had the influence on all the family, she was the boss. They had lived in a village in Belarus called Shumilino, a tiny shtetl, they were very poor, a mother with four children, a cow, and a garden. This is how they lived. Baba Hannah lost her husband very early and raised all her children by herself, she was illiterate but very, very smart, and when she aged, they took good care of her, until she died at 94. She was wise and diplomatic and when she issued her commands to the family, she called them “wishes.” Remember her notorious “Ali ya khochu kak luchshe” (I just want things to be better)? Her kids they all turned out fine, just fine, without all that psychology or therapy, your American thing, just another way to squeeze money out of people. There was nothing like that then, only religion and strict discipline. Baba Hannah’s children all became somebody, especially her sons. Your grandfather, he was a college president, and his brother, Mulia, he was Attorney General of Belarus.

Yes, it is possible they were involved with what was going on… I don’t know… it is complicated. Anyway, they occupied important positions, and they still went to Baba Hannah to make family decisions. And your grandfather, the oldest son, he had hundreds of employees under him and could walk just like that into the Moscow mayor’s office, he obeyed her every word. Yes! This is how it was. I was the first grandchild—it was a big deal! Baba Hannah decided to name me after her late husband, Yakov, but she couldn’t give a girl a male name, could she? She agonized over this for a long, long time, until my parents faced a fine for not having a birth certificate issued, and you couldn’t issue a birth certificate without a name. Supposedly Baba Hannah went to a synagogue and talked to a rabbi and to some very wise old women, and they told her that there was a name cited in Talmud or in Torah, I don’t know exactly, and that this name was the female equivalent of Yakov. Nobody ever heard of such a weird name. Even here, in New York, there are so many Jews here, and nobody ever heard of a name like that! I always have to spell it. I-O-K-H-A, Iokha, Иоха in Russian. What kind of a name is that?

Why did my parents give me such an ugly name? They couldn’t disobey Baba Hannah, for them Jewish traditions were more important than anything else, they acted as if they still lived in a shtetl! Maybe they were…blinded, first by their religion and then by communism? They did not anticipate the rise of anti-Semitism and the dictatorship, they just did not see it coming. In 1929, when I was born, anti-Semitism was not bad, it was normal, I mean there wasn’t any state policy of anti-Semitism, only the usual Russian kind, like calling us names, zhid, zhidovka, or spitting in our soup in a communal kitchen, or pulling off a fight in a line for sausage or cabbage or what have you. And your grandfather, Yefim, his real name was Khaim, did you know that? It was normal then to have a name like that, there were many Jews among Bolsheviks in the highest ranks of the government. It was their creation, I mean the Revolution, and they paid dearly for that. So I was supposed to be Iokha Khaimovna. This is the first name and the patronymic—oh God! Will they understand that? Nobody ever called me that, they found a way around it, this is what Jews do, always maneuvering, always having a double life, it is in our blood! They gave me an ugly name to obey the rules, but they never called me that! At home I was always Yeva, like Eva in English, Americans will understand that, right? Yeva also sounded a bit odd for a Russian girl, but could I ever pass for a Russian girl with a nose like this?

Anyway, for some time it didn’t matter, but occasionally there was a problem with a double identity situation—Yeva in real life, Iokha on paper. I got used to it. Then, during the war, you know, Jews or no Jews, everybody was at the battlefield and everybody fought for “Mother Russia,” everybody felt it was their land, and they died for it. You would think, the victory, the triumph, and a new life would start, as if the country had been cleansed. But no, Stalin was still alive, and after the war came the second wave of repressions—strashnoye vremya, terrible time, the time of terror! Jews were accused of such atrocities, like of causing famine during the war, of hiding their riches, of selling themselves to the enemy, and of being spies, poisoning the hardworking Soviet proletarians.

Why was this happening? What kind of question is that? Don’t you understand? You lived there! Jews in Russia have always been scapegoats, someone to blame for problems, and governments used that to direct people’s anger. If there was hunger or poverty or war, let’s beat the Jews! Remember that joke, a crossword puzzle: a favorite Russian entertainment, six letters?

Yes, pogrom. No wonder most Russians had been happy to give them away to the Nazis during the occupation. And after the war, the most prominent medical doctors and professors, the best of Soviet medicine, were accused of poisoning of murdering their patients. Stalin’s government called it “the doctors’ plot,” most of these doctors were Jews, and there was a show trial, and letters appeared in the newspapers every day from peasants and proletarians accusing the “cosmopolites,” that was the bad word for Jews, the traitors, and the slayers. They were declared “people’s enemies,” conspiring to strangle the happy Soviet nation. And everybody believed that nonsense! They wanted to believe! Russian people are like this. Oh my God! Hysteria, panic began, people refused to see doctors with Jewish names, and they were fired of course, their lives and careers destroyed. Remember Beba, Bebochka, that doctor who saved your life when you had dysentery? We almost lost hope then, we called her in and she told us what to do, no CAT scans or MRIs or any other fancy stuff they do today to pull money out of you. And she would never take money because she was a real doctor, let her rest in peace! She saved you and Aliona, and many other kids. So at the time of the “doctors’ plot,” you had not been born yet, she was so frightened and had to run for her life from the hospital where she worked and then stayed home, for many years. Your grandfather tried to help her, money and all…

Yes. I don’t know how we have survived that. You have to live it to understand it! Stalin declared war against all Jews, and those who were not exiled and killed were to be sent to Birobidzhan to found there a Jewish Republic, this is how they called an empty uncivilized land in Siberia. It was a mass deportation, even Hitler did not come up with such an idea! That was Stalin’s plan to get rid of all Russian Jews, to transport all Jews there like he had transported Crimean Tatars, the whole ethnic group. He played God, the beast, the assassin, and allegedly trains were ready for transportation, but he died, he died on Purim, like Haman, and Jews were saved! My father, he cried of joy, openly, in front of all of us at home, when everybody around us wept of grief. He was honest with us about what was going on and called him a tyrant. He thought that Stalin was just a terrible mistake, like history’s accident, otherwise the system was okay.

I am not sure what my father thought about his life, people then did not think and did not talk about that. They did not analyze anything. Fear froze their brain, it was such a mess, a kasha, and even if they started a sentence, they couldn’t finish it. It was safer to believe in nonsense. But I am ahead of myself. When, right after the war, anti-Semitism was on the rise and it was pretty much a state policy, imagine how it felt to have a name like Iokha! It was on my passport, and you had to show your passport everywhere. It was a killer! This is when your grandfather changed his name from Khaim to Yefim, it was a bit safer, he was a big shot and he used all his influence and his contacts to have his children’s names changed, too. Americans don’t have that, but we had an internal, domestic passport with the ethnicity line, in Russian, “nationality,” like Jewish, Ukranian, Georgian, doesn’t matter that we all were Soviet citizens. And that in the passport we were “assigned” to our home addresses, it was called propiska, like residency, without it you couldn’t live in Moscow and you couldn’t work. And spouses and children were also inscribed in the passport—like feudal serfs! You didn’t need any computers to track people down! Remember when your father-in-law refused to give you and his granddaughter that propiska! He was afraid that you would claim for yourself a share in his apartment!

Anyhow, my father managed to get me a new passport with my real name, Yeva. I guess he finally realized what country he lived in. So in my new passport, it said, Yeva Yefimovna instead of Iokha Khaimovna, sounding a little bit less Jewish, right?

And then guess what happened? This is an unbelievable story, and I can’t forgive myself. You know how I am, I have this urge to clean, for everything to look spic-and-span, just perfect. This is how my father was, super-organized and neat, and I take after him. Some time after I got this new passport, I decided to clean up my desk and I found my old passport there. I threw away lots of old papers from my drawers and I ripped off my old passport the best way I could, but of course you can’t rip it off completely because of its cover. I should have burned it! But I just ripped it off and threw it in the garbage can. I forgot in what country I lived! In a few days a policeman showed up at my door, he took me to the police station, and they showed me my old passport and charged me with God knows what crime. You understand, somebody found it in the garbage and, instead of bringing it to me, they took it to the police station. This was normal behavior, to report on someone, especially with a Jewish name! All morality was gone, there was no such thing as trust and good neighbors. Then a real nightmare started! I had to prove that Yeva Yefimovna and Iokha Khaimovna was the same person! To make a long story short, with lots of help from all ends, I managed to set up a hearing, and at that hearing, my case of double identity was examined, with witnesses, evidence, and the rest of legal stuff. It dragged on forever, and finally the court officially recognized that those two names were one person and that the person in question was Iokha Khaimovna! The court validated my official birth name as authentic, and this is how I remained Iokha on the passport and Yeva in real life, the normal Jewish way.

Ilia, you know, was luckier with her name. She was originally named Rakhil, also by Baba Hannah, but from day one we called her Ilia. So, at the same time as me, she got a new passport, and her name had been changed from Rakhil to Ilina, something sounding less Jewish if not more Russian. Ilia was not as crazy as me about keeping things in order, especially as a teenager, and good for her, she stayed Ilina, one person, one name.

About the telegram and papa’s name? Yes. That was quite a story, and we always laughed when we reminisced about it, your father and I. It was a family legend, only it was true. Your father’s parents were wiser or maybe more realistic than mine. They didn’t want to complicate their son’s life and named him Yury, a normal Russian name. When he was born, his father sent out a telegram to the family: “This morning Yulen’ka gave birth to a healthy boy, three kilograms 200 grams, named Yury after great-grandfather Borukh.”

Sure, Yury doesn’t sound like Borukh! These names have nothing in common, but they honored or at least pretended to honor the Jewish traditions. They made their son’s life easier, they knew what country they lived in.

Your name? Well, when you were born, we were completely assimilated, like all Jews who lived in Moscow and in other big cities. Jewishness was practically non-existent, Judaism and Jewish culture had been severed. My parents occasionally exchanged a few words of Yiddish and on May First, the revolutionary holiday, we had Passover, but you remember that. We appeared like everybody else, only somehow different when we had to enter universities or get jobs or stuff like that. Having a Jewish name was a suicide, so we named you girls Natasha and Aliona, the most Russian names you can imagine. And look at your nose, it is so small, not Jewish at all, just like your father’s! He wanted to name you Nina, after the main character in Lermontov’s Masquerade, he adored Lermontov and knew his poems by heart. Deep inside, your father was a romantic, in spite of his very difficult life—or maybe because of that? His other favorite Lermontov’s poem was Mtsyry, about an orphan in a monastery. Maybe it reminded him of his awful childhood when he was teased and harassed as “a son of the people’s enemy,” and his mother dragged him all over Siberia where his father was in gulags and exile? Anyway, I did not like Nina, and we picked Natasha instead. It is pretty close. I don’t know if it helped. I hope it did. So this is the story of our names. Do you think they will understand?


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