Somehow we’d lost our passports the afternoon before. Frantically we’d searched for the embroidered little Chinese purse that held them — I’d given it to Hannah just ahead of the trip — which had suddenly gone missing from her wrist. We’d combed every section of pavement and scraggly patch of grass — everywhere that we’d walked, sat or talked over the previous hours. But we might have done better if we’d been less panicky and stood stock still…
We had as yet no idea, much less a clear one, what we’d need to do to continue our trip, or even to get home from there; this was 1985, a Cold War year, and we were located deep within the Other. We had hopes, which some encouraged, that a good citizen might find our passports and pass them along to the police to return to us. Others, more cynical, imagined the passports were worth real money and would be used to move another person across a frontier like in the movies, or maybe transport valuable contraband. You know, “smuggling.”
But meanwhile, the next day was May 9th, Victory Day throughout the USSR. And it was the fortieth anniversary of that historic event. Considering that almost every current resident of Kiev had lost at least one family member in the Great Patriotic War, it was a staggeringly more powerful and more personal holiday for many locals than July 4th is for most Americans. I hope it won’t disappoint you if we lay aside the sad recounting of individual suffering and private losses of the war years in Kiev, and the woeful tale of struggles with the opportunists and collaborators, which I am ill-equipped to write. Instead I’ll stick to our more modest ambition and dive at once into the 1985 Victory Day story.
The authorities, in recognition of so momentous a holiday, had renamed various days of the week — e.g., Thursday, the next day, became “Saturday” — with the result that they had created a super, four-day holiday. Our friends had planned a picnic for us on a grassy island in a lake we could walk to, with a few of their Kiev friends and, passports or no, we were determined to celebrate.
We’d already learned the protocol. Friends of exotic foreigners like Americans were kept in separate cells, so to speak; considering no one knew which individuals were working for the authorities, the separation protected these friends. And since anyone willing to talk with Americans could fall under suspicion, these people were taking a risk.
Everyone spoke more quietly than Americans, partly out of general courtesy but also out of fear of being overheard. To be sure, American tourists have long been known for speaking decibels beyond any local norm; but in Ukraine in 1985 there were those extra risks…
Our Baltimore friend Stan who’d been living in Kiev eight months cautioned us about saying anything revealing in our hotel. Indeed, my expectation was that the KGB or police listened to every conversation emanating from the various bugged hotel rooms, and other private and public rooms. But another friend said there was so much bugging and it had been done over and over so many times that no one could be sure any more, not even the police, which hotel rooms were bugged and which weren’t.
That was our first surprise and it struck me as a little funny, and hinted at some distant limit to evil. But we were cautioned constantly that it was unsafe to speak freely and the police were anything but bumbling; they were effective and dangerous.
None of that was about to stop us from enjoying our holiday, exploring the city, and trying to experience something of the habits and customs of the locals. That being said, the faces in the tram and on the street seemed somber compared to those on an average American busload — dour. Oddly — to us — they made no effort to appear as though they were enjoying themselves, delighted with their jobs, thrilled with their partners and their lives. They weren’t smiling. But a friend from Missouri claimed that, paradoxically, the Kievans were less unhappy than Americans! — that Americans felt pressure to pretend joy and to push aside worries that were in fact real; while the Kievans, who’d experienced — certainly in recent generations — more severe suffering on several levels, were content to accept their joys and fears of all kinds. I told Missouri I didn’t see much in the way of “joys”…
Be all that as it may, on May 9th, Victory Day, we set out for the picnic by tram. It was a beautiful spring morning, the chestnut flowers that were the symbol of Kiev and that had appeared that week were now in full bloom. We met with Yevgeny, Pyotr and Bela the Hungarian but not Nikolai — he was in a different ‘cell.’
We arrived on the island and selected a spot for our blanket and began to set our things and ourselves down. The remaining clouds slid away and the sun beamed; we were in a different world — all spring and laughter and greenness, all freedom and countryside. We passed around the vodka till everyone had loaded their glass. No more reason to speak carefully now… We carried out the Ukrainian toast: “Boot moh hey, Boot moh hey, Boot moh hey hey hey!” As soon as each individual had downed the contents of the glass — all at once — they bit into a pickle or a piece of sausage or salami or, if nothing else was available, grabbed a companion around the forehead and inhaled the smell of their hair to the bottom of the lungs.
End of Part One
Part Two. Later the same day…
What did we talk about there? Cultural differences between the U.S. and Ukraine, Russia, Hungary? Personal history, stories. How the office workers here spent workday afternoons at the movies… Much much later, the last bottle providing only drops, the picnic was over and we started back.
The locals gradually peeled themselves off and Stan’s wife Edna went back to take care of an errand. She was to meet us in an hour, at a shuttered bakery on the edge of Red Oktober Square, during the Victory Day celebration. At the picnic Edvard had told us that the fireworks were a big draw, but also that this was typically the “most spontaneous” rally of the year. Not saying much: Any action that smacked of what we would consider real spontaneity was at once suppressed.
By the time we left the island and headed back into town, it was altogether dark. Beautiful lights made streets and alleyways glow in the soft spring and illuminated the ubiquitous chestnut blossoms. When we reached the square, already lively with holiday and vodka and excitement at being together, there was an underground street-crossing, a perezhod in Russian, and the three of us started to descend the steps, as per local custom, to avoid the busy traffic on the surface. That was the beginning of our troubles.
Halfway down there was a great view, toward one stairway in the foreground and another in the distance. Without hesitation I snapped a photo.
Instantly two men came up to me and demanded the film. From their air of high-handed authority, there was no confusion about who they were. Less than two months had passed since the Soviet leader Konstantin Ustinovich Chernenko had died and a man from the provinces named Gorbachev had been named the new leader. But it would be many months before his inclinations and intentions would begin to show. Meanwhile the KGB would do what it had habitually done.
Impressed, I suppose, by my own courage, cleverness and presence of mind, I played dumb tourist, pretending not to understand what the man wanted. Stan didn’t share this view of my smart tactic and translated — or ordered, rather — “Give him the film.”
I complied and the man’s fist closed over it.
Then he wanted us to go back up the stairs. On the street he ordered some local police who were loafing in their patrol car to get out and made it clear to us that we should get in. It was a small car, and with the three of us — plus our KGB guy at the wheel and his sidekick in the front — this was a tight fit. We set off.
We didn’t know how far we were going. The car stopped along the street apparently for our captors to notify another operative what was happening. We could hear the detonations and in the sky we could see jaw-dropping fireworks over Red Oktober Square — from which, in the movies, ordinary people would still be able to come to our rescue and free us from indefinite detention. But without Tom Cruise or a mass of drunken revelers in sight, we alighted and were marched upstairs. This seemed to be a police station; not secret police, just a non-secret police station.
They sat Hannah and me on a bench and invited Stan into an office and closed the door.
Unexpectedly they kept him a good 45 minutes. Meanwhile we were afraid of compromising the Kiev friends — they had more to lose than we, who would likely suffer no more serious fate than expulsion from the USSR. Of course these police, if they were interested enough, determined enough, could develop the film, with photos of Stan and Edna’s local friends, though I preferred to believe they’d just expose it.
Assuming we would be interrogated soon, and individually, as per U.S. television, we needed a story that was agreed on — among Hannah and me and Stan. But we didn’t know what he’d say — and Hannah and I couldn’t (assuming the room was bugged) risk talking to each other. And if we wrote notes, they could be confiscated and read. I decided that, this being 1985, they wouldn’t have video, so we could use our fingers to draw letters in the air, or on Hannah’s leg.
Hannah feared that we might be put in separate jails: I for men and she for women. And with the 4-day holiday we likely wouldn’t be able to get hold of anyone at the American Consulate to help us get out…
End of Part Two
Eventually we were called into the Room. There were four officers, all in street clothes, but no one interrogated us. There was after all no need to get our story straight, or even to have a story. We were somehow in a second, unrecognizable phase, a world that didn’t fit the movies, and it was a relief. Evidently they didn’t care. These police weren’t determined at all. One man explained, using Stan as his translator, that we’d broken the law by taking a photo of a military target or sensitive installation. We learned much later, at the U.S. Embassy back in Moscow, that this was in fact true — there was such a law, and it was taken seriously.
But here, the officers seemed eager to get this rigmarole over with and begin the four-day holiday. Soon we were dismissed and headed home to Stan and Edna’s apartment, again being reminded as we passed some open windows not to talk so loud.
But once we were free enough to speak with each other, we learned from Stan that the police were not as relaxed and lackadaisical as it had appeared. In fact, while we were working to “get our story straight,” they were exhausting themselves on Stan: Under the direction of an officer wearing a shoulder-holstered pistol, a confession for all of us to sign had been typed up, with impressive slowness, on a manual typewriter. Then they had pulled two holiday-clad citizens off the street to witness the expected signatures. But Stan insisted, repeatedly, that we needed a representative of our embassy — and would not sign. So this was a Phase Three that called to mind those famous Cold War era movie interrogation scenes, in one of which I remembered a kind of torture: the hosts positioned a giant bell over the hero’s head and ears and then struck it repeatedly…
At any rate, Edna was greatly relieved to see us, but agitated, having worried over our failure to appear anywhere near the designated bakery for the whole two hours. All this was still in the pre-cell phone era.
So we didn’t get to see much of the Victory Day celebraton (or “rally”), nor any of the fireworks…
End of Part Three
We hung out with our friends in Kiev through the 4-day holiday, but as far as we knew, no one turned in our passports.
We got to visit Babi Yar where possibly 150,000 individuals were murdered. The largest group of these were Jews, who at that time made up 20% of Kiev’s population. The decision that all the Jews should be killed was made by the military governor, Major-General Kurt Eberhard, the Police Commander for Army Group South, SS-Obergruppenführer Friedrich Jeckeln, and the Einsatzgruppe C Commander Otto Rasch.
Now, 44 years later — and 31 years ago today — we two Jews needed to go back to Moscow, to the U.S. Embassy, to be issued new passports. For the next ten years immigration officers of numerous nations — in Asia, Europe and Latin America — took an unplanned second look at me when they read “Issued at Moscow, USSR.”
Unlike the U.S. where semi-endless choices create anxiety and spur competition to make and eat more and more, in the USSR of that period there would be a single ice cream flavor each day — and it was excellent! In fact all their dairy products seemed pure and wonderful.
End of Part 4
Part 4 continued; call it Part 4b.
We took the train to Minsk, Belarus, and in the brief stop nearly failed to get off the train. This is where Hannah’s grandparents came from.
From Minsk we took a day trip to Khatyn, an award-winning memorial. On March 22, 1943 the Germans had locked the 156 inhabitants of this typical town in a shed and set the building on fire. Those few who finally broke out were machine-gunned. Each of the town’s households was now represented by a concrete gate and a concrete chimney, and every thirty seconds, at each household, a bell rang.
War crimes like these were not atypical. At least 5,295 Belarusian settlements were burned and destroyed by the Nazis.
This Khatyn is not to be confused with the similarly-spelled Katyn massacre where, in 1940, several thousand Polish officers were massacred, apparently by the Soviet People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (“NKVD”).
End of Part 4b
After a night in Minsk, we were back on the train for Lithuania, following roughly the route of the retreating Germans into the Baltics in late 1944, disembarking at Vilnius. We stared up at one of the gates, then walked through the city, once the capital of East European Judaism, “Jerusalem of the East,” with 125 synagogues. To be sure, that was then, now there was a single synagogue.
Not only that, but now men on the street outside that synagogue were struggling to find a tenth Jew for a minyan, so they could hold a service. They quickly scooped me up. Hannah, though she could read Hebrew, could not — on account of a gender problem — be considered; I who knew nothing made the tenth man.
Next on the street we stumbled on a Jewish refusenik. He was called a ‘double-refusenik’ because he had been twice refused permission to leave the country, presumably to go to Israel. His request led to a state of being unemployed and unemployable, and this did not immediately foster a sense of being re-integrated into society.
This man did say one thing that I’d expected to hear at the earlier stations of our trip, where we’d been told that everyone was happy with everyone else, the East Germans were good people now that they’d got past capitalism, the Ukrainians and Poles were at peace, as were the Belarusians and Lithuanians and Jews, people who’d fought and bled across these fields over hundreds of years. The refusenik said, “They’d kill each other if they could…”
End of Part 5
We’d hoped to visit Western Ukraine where my father and my maternal grandmother were born. Back in the States the Soviet agency Intourist told us we couldn’t go there. There were no adequate tourist facilities was their line. Just as on a 1966 trip the AAA had insisted, falsely, that we could not go to East Berlin. As it happened there was no problem visiting East Berlin and now none flying into L’vov — now known as Lviv.1
We arrived on a Friday afternoon, five o’clock. The tourist office people were happy to accommodate us but they took the weekend seriously. However, efficiently enough, they arranged with us for a tour to my grandmother’s birth-town Radzuwill, then called Chernovoarmeisk (as we’d accidentally learned from Sergei in Kiev) in honor of the Red Army. We also wanted to arrange a guide and a car for a trip to my father’s birthplace, which was in almost the same district, but that was too much to ask of workers already more than half launched into the weekend-prepping happy hour…
Next morning we met our Intourist guide Igor. The city’s many beautiful Austrian buildings, which we loved, he pooh-poohed — as in fact he did to anything other than the few Renaissance buildings that had withstood the ravages and struggles of recent centuries. For the ugly high-rise apartments he had contempt: “Around the world,” he said, “everywhere the same.”
My grandmother had said Radzuwill (the old name was restored since our trip, perhaps in 1989 or 1991) was a quarter-hour by rail from Brody, the first real stop out of Lviv. We reached it by car in an hour.
We walked around and saw what was once the market. There was also a crumbling church. What was most startling was that there were no particularly old people. The oldest woman we could find was only 65, and she said that after the War “Only stovepipes were left…”
Back in Lviv Saturday night we stopped in at an ice cream shop and bought their version of sundaes: not hot fudge but local fruit preserves as a topping, always good. The shop’s window listed 10 (“22:00”) as closing time but at 9.40 the employees were already barricading the door.
A provision store was still open. I went in and bought 100 g of hard cheese, labeled “CIR.” I also bought the same amount of what looked like a softer cheese labeled “ZHIR,” which I assumed was Ukrainian for the Russian “CIR.” Back in our hotel, we hungrily tried these without bread but the “Zhir” was painfully unsatisfactory. Our dictionary revealed “Zhir” was actually a Russian word for suet: beef fat.
End of Part 6
Back home I sought with the utmost care to develop the nine remaining rolls of film that I’d managed to bring back from our trip. I asked the artistic director of the company I worked for to name the best, most reliable shop for this purpose. Accordingly, with maximum alertness I made my way to Regester Photo’s North Baltimore shop and with proud confidence delivered them my treasure — specially telling them to exercise the most fastidious attention to my irreplaceable rolls.
When I returned three days later to collect the prints I learned that — perhaps on orders from the KGB — they had destroyed the two most important rolls. They apologized and gave me two rolls of spotlessly unexposed film.
Nevertheless, a print that sneaked through Regester’s process and evaded the long arm of the Committee for State Security provided a kind of reward: It showed Hannah with the silk Chinese purse I’d given her within which she carried our passports. It was on her wrist in front of a park where we’d been only a minute before we discovered it was missing… If it was stolen, it was not stolen just yet but in the moments that followed. If it had slid off Hannah’s wrist into the grass, it had not yet done so. Instead of searching a square mile we’d been wiser to open our eyes and really see where we stood. But such a skill can take a lifetime to hone.
We would never know whether — according to melodramatic Cold War expectations — our passports were stolen and used to transport weapons across frontiers. Or whether the cheap Chinese purse that held these documents lay on the grass at our feet and, unnoticed by malefactors, was swept into a drain by one of the ubiquitous janitors, distractedly humming either the Internationale or an old Sinatra chestnut, “Fly Me to the Moon.”
- In 1939 there were 97 synagogues and one-third of the population were Jews — almost all murdered. The city had slid from empire to empire over the centuries, usually through no action of its own.