ODESSA, 1973

Everything in his life
was shaping up perfectly:
his desires were divined,
his requests, granted;
his achievements were everyone's delight
and further greater achievements
were anticipated. His rare talents
were the talk of the town;
people asked him to repeat his cleverest remarks.

A truly marvelous life!
Pity, it lasted no more
than five years.

We keep at home a photo
of a small, serious boy
in shorts and a sailor's jacket.
On the photo's back, in block letters,
is written: Boba! Katz!

His older brother,
who also astonished his neighbors
with his rare talents, was sent to school
in the U.S., where the beginning
of World War II found him.

Of his large family, he knew neither
how they tried to survive under the Soviets
nor how they died under the Nazis.

He just had a feeling, one moment,
that the distance between him and his family
had increased a thousandfold.

No big deal for him, a mathmetician,
simply a quantitative leap,
a statistical discontinuity.

They became anonymous dust
mixed into the soil
of Galicia and Trans-Dnieper;
he became a reknowned scientist,
a fellow of numerous institutes,
the organizer of an annual seminar
which bore his name.

We met him once,
when he came to a conference in Kiev
and later (without official permission)
by train to Odessa

to visit his aged aunt, the sole survivor.

I don't know which bewildered him more--
our country or our family.

He didn't get it,
why poor relations wouldn't take his money,
why the streetsweepers didn't sweep the streets,
why there were posters all over
that began with the word "glory."

He tried to joke, asking
"What kind of glory? Glory in what?
In any civilized country
they would be thrashed!"--

and was astonished that no one laughed.

He probably didn't get it--
what a strange brew
of curiosity, hope and fear
possessed us
in his presence.

Getting into a taxi returning to the station
he patted the driver on the back, saying
"Brother--to America--and step on it!"

The driver slouched down. Nobody smiled.

The rest is silence.
He let the correspondence lapse
and so did we, thinking
the first word should come from him.

After a year, Father couldn't take it
and mailed to Uncle
a polite but stiff letter.

A reply came from one
of the scientist's many protegés,
on behalf of his widow, asking that we excuse
her not notifying us of her husband's death
shortly following his return,
in a hospital, the name of which
I can't recall.

© 1996 Boris Khersonsky. All rights reserved.
Translation by Ruth Kreuzer and Dale Hobson.