Judith Baumel

Happily blundering about.

July 14th, 2009

We knew there were two towns called Peremyshel.  At least two.  Today, the brilliant and knowledgeable Alex Dunai confirmed that there are probably half a dozen towns with the exact formulation of this name.  I wanted to go and stand in front of the house that Askold Melnyzcuk’s mother, Helen, lived in.  I wanted to pay homage to her at the house from which she and her father and brother saved Jews.  I had asked Askold where the town was but maybe I wasn’t clear what I needed to know.  He didn’t answer specifically.

I should have been very clear before I contracted, through the assistant to the Lubuvache rebbe of Zhitomir, for a car and driver to take us to the Ukrainian Peremyshel.  Before I agreed to meet the head of the Jewish community in nearby Slavuta.  Only after I met Gleb-the-assistant in Zhitomir did he tell me that he had not done the research I thought he had done.  At that point,  he told me he thought we might be going to the wrong town.

Indeed, we went to the wrong town.  It was a great trip through the countryside, however.  We had a great soup– bullion v pelmenni—chicken broth and dumplings.  We saw a great exhibit about the Stalinist collectives and the Ukrainian famine (at the castle in Medzhibosh).  We saw the dogs and cows and horses and chickens and goats.  All the animals were small.  The dogs feral.  The goats seemed calm.  And we talked and talked and talked. Great to be with cousins Edie and Barbara.

Exhausted and cranky, we arrived in Lviv at the Opera Hotel past midnight yesterday.  This morning, sunny, elegant, Hapsburg, Ukrainian Lviv was refreshing.  We had a morning walk with Zloczower group, guided by witty Alex Dunai.  Soon, we meet Marjana Savka for a tour of literary Lviv.

Kiev notes:   Thank you Reed Professor of Sociology Alexandra Hrycak for the recommendation.  Lunch at Domashnja kukhnja, by the Kiev Opera House, was a great adventure.  We met most of the group on Sunday morning and realized that there is a type of blustering, lecturing Galician-in-diaspora who will pontificate on any topic.  Having more than one in a group is a bit like keeping two alpha dogs in with the poodles.  Middle of our second Kiev day at Baba Yar ravine. Improvised prayer service of Kaddish, Yevtushenko poem, Hatikva (by Zloczow native Imber), etc.  D Schott’s  2009 travel blog is a big hit in our Ukraine group. All agree he told it well, told it funny, took great pictures.  In one day in Kiev we traversed 11 centuries. Sunday morning  started at Lavra Monastery & Caves prayer service and ended with Damien Hirst “Requiem” at Pinchuk museum.

Fill Out Both Halves Of The Border Control Form

July 10th, 2009

We touched down to Boryspil Airport in lovely summer weather,  to applause from the cabin.  I wish I didn’t just view the applause as the charming custom of others; I wished to have clapped with them.  To physically express my relief, my praise (to God or the co-pilot, who are not one and the same.)

So far, I have two pieces of advice for Ukraine.

1) Fill out both halves of the border control form, the Arrival and the Departure.   You will have plenty of time to do it as you wait in a relatively small  arrivals hall that can handle about three planes of people.  Forty five minutes or an hour of quiet, orderly lines  until we reach the border agents.  These are all young men, close-cut hair, not the near shaved heads of American men their ages.  Our agent looked at our four passports and laughed.  Shook his head and laughed.  Passed them back over the counter.  Pointed to the blank side of the departure form on one  and waved us to the side. No words spoken.

Kiev is a magnificent city.  A city kind of city, with grand streets and parks, glorious buildings. After we checked in to the Radisson on Yaroslaviv Val, we took a walk down the street past The Polish Embassy. An hour before, coming in from the airport, we saw a motorcade of the Polish president going out. The guards at the front of the embassy don’t seem any different after he’s gone.  Maybe a little more nervous.

Soon we are at The Gold Gate of Kiev.  The last piece of original city fortification.  Massive gate, massive brick structure, massive reconstructed wooded structure surrounding it.

The Golden Gate of Kiev

The Golden Gate of Kiev

Advice #2:  Study the alphabet.  Why did I waste my time on anything other than absolutely mastering it.  Posta, Bankomat, Restaurant  are among the few words I can easily recognize.  But I should have been able to understand the monument to Yaroslav the Wise, founder of St. Sophia, at the foot of the gate.

Phil can read Cyrillic letters.  He says he doesn’t understand most of the Ukrainian he’s reading.  But he’s reading and is better off than I, in my dulled imperviousness to the text that surrounds me.  As soon as I post this,  I’m going back to my lessons.  I want to know what the commercial signs are saying, to read the building names, the street signs.  To revel in the ubiquitous historical plaques whose bas-relief illustrations are filled with emotion.

Our brief walk before dinner brought us to the grand vistas and the serious 18th and 19th century public and middles class architecture.  I love and recognize the ambitions and success of this city.   “They’ve been doing this for over a thousand years,” Phil reminds me.  “They’ve pretty much figured it out.”   New York is a baby in comparison.

All night in the airplane from New York to Zurich, and then again in the airport, and then again in the plane to Kiev, my father took notes in a small pocket notebook. The notes were all data.  The time Sara picked us up, the time we arrived at the airport.  The time we left the gate, the time we started takeoff, the time we were served food .  Getting out his pen and notebook, he kept jostling me while I slept and I was getting irritated at the pointlessness of it.  Irritation was easier to feel than the sadness of it—my father’s short term memory is going.  He’s trying to stop information from disappearing.  He’s the Borges story “Funes el memorioso”  in reverse .  For as long as I can remember–ahem, ditch that memory-based phrase, I should just say the follwoing has always been true:  For over sixty years my father has recorded the following  set of data each time he fills his car’s gas tank:  Date, miles driven, gallons, price, mpg for the trip.  It was, he told me in one of my kitchen table driving lessons, integral to the proper functioning of the car, this ability  to see when the car is doing well.  The glory of the physical sciences, he told me, was that the scientist need memorize very little.  A few basic formulas.  A few constants.  The periodic table.  That was the beauty of  the discipline.  But I think the matter of memory was far more fraught for him, even when he had it.  He prefers non-fiction because it offers “facts.”   Now, my father is trying to keep hold of the things that make his world.  Not the names of people who did good in the world, but the numbers that would confirm it.

I’m off to Zolochiv, Ukraine. When my father and grandmother left, it was called Zloczow, Polska.

July 9th, 2009

malcah_bummyHere’s one of the reasons I’m going:  It’s this picture my grandmother sent to her husband to introduce his son, my father.  Malcha was pregnant when her husband, Hersch, got his papers for America.  So he went ahead to The Bronx to set things up.  Bummy (Avraham) was eight months old in 1927 when she took him to the photo studio.  It would be four years until the family was back together.  Bummy never quite got over the shock of meeting his father for the first time.  When I read Call It Sleep I wondered if Henry Roth’s story was my father’s.

I love the way my grandmother grips my father with her fingers.  Until the day she died in 1990, age 93, her fingers retained that power. Her fingers are a recurring motif of my memories.