BELTSY, 1939; LVOV, 1993

When the Soviet troops came
they took his father and brothers the first night.
Next morning he went to military headquarters
to ascertain their fates and didn't come back.

After a week, the house was confiscated--
mother, sisters, wife, two kids--
out in the street. Even so,
they felt fortunate who still were free.

Unfortunately, it wasn't to be--
those the Soviets spared,
the Nazis and Romanians finished off.

He and one sister, by some miracle, were saved.
She was unharmed, mostly
(but her story is another story).
Ten years in Siberia destroyed him
(though strange as it may seem, he survived).

It must be that the camps hardened him.
He seldom remembered his wife
or the two children. By chance
a photo was found at a Ukranian neighbor's,
on the back of which was noted:
"The Jews Rivka, Moshka, Srulik:
exiled, January, 1942."

He gave the photo to his sister.

In 1960 he remarried, joking,
"Having become accustomed
to maximum security, I stick with what I know."
A daughter quickly grew.

A former zek, a slogger, he had
become accustomed to conning his keepers.
Swearing and laughing, even in the gulag
he could get his own. He kept his head.

A sweatshop. Khrushchev's laws
threatened draconian measures.
The partner who cooked up the scam
with him was less than unfortunate--
marked--salve smeared on the back
or on the front of his head
(I don't recall exactly
what the camp slang is for it).

And he--disappeared. Nearly fifteen years
the investigation remained open. Possibly
the family paid bribes to prevent a successful investigation.
They subpoenaed the wife, the sister--
interrogated his daughter before her teacher--
all in vain.

His face was on wanted posters
throughout the whole country.
He joked then that he was as famous
as a Central Committee member,
only smarter and more successful.

Now I know he spent those years
in a certain Leningrad apartment,
hidden by a woman. Who?
He never would say.

He lived, never for one moment
going out onto the streets,
never hearing any news from home.

He survived, and survived in the way
to which he had become accustomed.

He said, "Let them open the border
the least bit, even a tiny crack--
I will be the first one gone--
just watch me. . ."

Who didn't go when the time came!
But he couldn't make up his mind.
Daughter and granddaughter said farewell
to him fifteen years ago; they live
not far from Tel Aviv.

He makes his home in nationalistic Lvov,
aged, nearly blind. What vision is left
is sufficient, however, to observe how
hundreds of youngsters in well-ordered ranks
pass beneath his windows chanting
words whose sense he can't quite catch.
Later, as darkness gathers, torches are lit.
In torchlight, the meaning becomes clearer.

He watched, thought a bit, and stayed put.

Around that same time, he was in Moldavia
where his father's house still stood,
occupied at the time by some official
from the Moldavian District Committee.

He was taken with the peculiar notion
to reclaim for himself this princely domain.
God knows why--for decrepit old men
a one-room flat is sufficient.
He disagreed. Three years of dreary
senseless litigation. No doubt
the flurry of papers, the court edicts,
gave purpose to the rag end of a long life.
If anything anchors him to the planet now,
it is the expectation of a verdict
in this pedestrian proceeding.
He dreams more and more often:
an open gate, the lawn,
an apple orchard blooming,
gravel-sprinkled paths,
high roofs, the threshold,
father at the open door,
a pair of infants playing at his feet,
Moses and Israel. Riva not seen,
but felt, somewhere nearby.
She will sneak up from behind,
cover his eyes with her palms
and say, "Guess who?"

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