Aunt Vera was not my aunt, but a second cousin. But I called her “aunt,” because she was my mother’s age and her close friend.

How could such an age disparity arise? Our family was such a confusing kinship that there could have been all sorts of exotic cases of kinship. One reason for this kinship confusion was that my grandmother Rosa and her mother were married to brothers, the youngest and the oldest. There were eight brothers and two sisters. At that time Jews in Russia had many children, for it was God’s will. Then God was forbidden in the Soviet Union, and there were fewer and fewer children. In our family we obeyed God’s commandments less and followed the Soviet laws more, and so it turned out that there were many law-abiding people among my relatives. They lived modestly in Kiev under socialism and did not complain.

Aunt Vera was born in Kiev a year after the October Revolution. Of course, she had some sort of Jewish name, because Vera was a typically Russian name meaning religious faith. I have not been able to establish her real Jewish name. Aunt Vera did not recognise any religious faith. She was a freethinker. She was an unusual person in our law-abiding family. She could be called a “black sheep,” for she was neither a Pioneer (a member of the Children’s Communist Organisation) nor a Komsomol member (a member of the Young Communist Organisation). She did everything gracefully, with a certain amount of cunning and dexterity and managed to avoid wearing the red color of socialism that burned on the breasts of young Soviet people in the pioneer tie and the Komsomol badge.

Not being a Pioneer and a Komsomol girl meant defying Soviet authority. Although Aunt Vera did not engage in any counterrevolutionary activities, there was some hidden challenge to socialism in her: she conducted operations to buy and sell all sorts of things, obeying the capitalist instincts forbidden under socialism. People as energetic and resourceful as Aunt Vera were called “speculators” under Soviet rule and were sometimes imprisoned. In post-socialist Russia, they are called “entrepreneurs”.

Aunt Vera had another quality that was hostile to the Soviet authorities. She was a German language teacher and a great enthusiast for learning foreign languages. In the USSR, Russian was considered the main and only important language. Aunt Vera was in a way representative of the bourgeois dynamic world, which was not loved in the Soviet Union. Even her appearance stood out sharply in the Soviet crowd. She was a bright, swarthy, beautiful brunette who walked slowly and thought quickly. She had a Jewish, biblical appearance. Aunt Vera did not walk, but sailed stately. Although Aunt Vera had a Russian surname, she pronounced the “r” in a Yiddish manner, so she was unmistakably identified as Jewish. With this appearance, Aunt Vera must have aroused anti-Semitism in Soviet citizens, but she always addressed the people around her with affection and tenderness, so that her Jewishness was often forgiven. She had a great sense of humour, making people around her laugh with her witty remarks.

Aunt Vera was born in Kiev, but as a result of the disasters of World War II she ended up in the Urals’ city of Sverdlovsk, from where she often came to her beloved Kiev. Sverdlovsk is a large city named after the Jewish Bolshevik Yakov Sverdlov. In August-September 1918, after an attempt on Lenin’s life, he replaced the wounded founder of the Soviet state as chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars (Prime Minister) of Soviet Russia. Sverdlov died of Spanish flu in 1919, that is, in time, for he was not a victim of Stalin’s purges. And the city bore the name of the revolutionary Jew for a long time – until the transformation of the USSR into the Russian Federation, which returned the city to its former name of Ekaterinburg, the city of Catherine, which it received in honour of the Russian Empress Catherine the Second.

In our family, some of the female members, especially those close to me, had an iron-fisted, overbearing character and were gloomy and acrimonious individuals. Aunt Vera was a cheerful and optimistic person. Her visits to Kiev created in our family a joyful, cheerful atmosphere, impossible without her.

One day an incident happened to Aunt Vera, which became known far beyond our family. A Jewish neighbour named Isaac Davidovich lived in our communal apartment and stood out for his heroic participation in hostilities during World War II. After his discharge from the Soviet Army, he worked as an administrator at the Kiev State Circus. One day he and Aunt Vera had this conversation:

Isaac Davidovich, I like you because you have the same name as my husband. He, like you, took part in battles during the war. He became a senior lieutenant and received the Order of the Red Star for the capture of Koenigsberg. I respect Jewish war heroes, Aunt Vera remarked. You think I don’t know what war is like. During the German invasion of the USSR I was on student pedagogical practice in Stalingrad and got bombed. 

What do you want, Vera Semyonovna, in exchange for your compliments and tales? The neighbour reacted in a business-like manner.

I know that you are the director of the circus, Isaac Davidovich. Where is the circus in Kiev?

On Victory Square, nervously answered the neighbour.

Oh, I see, that building is on the place of the Jewish market.  I used to sell things there before the war. I did an internship in the market.

Vera Semyonovna, I have known you for many years. I think you’re organising a Jewish bazaar now. Do you want to buy or sell something?  said an irritated neighbour.

Do not worry! Take your teeth away, Isaak Davidovich, I won’t bite, my aunt laughed. You react so sharply to my words, because you probably participate in the training of beasts of prey in the circus., softly remarked the aunt. I know that you are a business man. I need your help. I need a steamer.

Vera Semyonovna, you want to buy a steamship, but in the USSR steamships are not for sale, they are the property of the State, my neighbour clarified.

I respect sharp-witted people, Isaak Davidovich. I need a steamboat which doesn’t sail. It stands on the Dnieper River, and it is the sanatorium of the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. You told me that you have connections at the Academy of Sciences.

Of course, Vera Semyonovna, I arrange for the children of academics to get tickets to the circus, and what do you need at the Academy of Sciences’ rest home?  asked the surprised neighbour.

I need a holiday on a steamer, even if it doesn’t sail, and I have no money for a holiday, Aunt Vera explained.  I need to improve my and my son’s health. 

Our neighbour actually arranged for Aunt Vera to take a free month’s vacation for two, since he got her a job as a barmaid. She worked in the cafeteria, sold food and drinks to scientists and for this she had a free vacation with her son in the cabin of a luxurious steamboat of the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, standing still on the Dnieper. There was no more beautiful, cheerful and witty barmaid on the riverboat of the Academy of Sciences. Aunt Vera told Ukrainian academics jokes and the contents of letters from German prisoners of war from Sverdlovsk to Germany, which she read in the German language she had learned well. She resembled Scheherazade telling tales and stories to the Arab lord from One Thousand and One Nights. The academics demanded that Aunt Vera continue her work on the steamer next summer, but she already had other projects in mind. She dreamed of sea and even ocean steamers.

Article by Author/s
Alex Gordon
Alex Gordon is a native of Kiev (USSR) and graduate of the Kiev State University and Haifa Technion (Doctor of Science, 1984). He immigrated to Israel in 1979. He is a Full Professor (Emeritus) of Physics in the Faculty of Natural Sciences at the University of Haifa and at Oranim, the Academic College of Education. He is the author of 8 books and about 500 articles in paper and online and was published in 59 journals in 12 countries in Russian, Hebrew, English and German. Literary publications in English: "Jewish Literary Journal (USA), Jewish Fiction (Canada), Mosaic (USA) and Arc (Israel).

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