“Are you not speaking because you can’t speak or because you don’t want to?” As soon as the words slipped out of my mouth I regretted them. If he couldn’t speak, how did I expect him to answer? And it was a double negative, for crying out loud! My 98 year old grandfather was sitting opposite me in his wheelchair in the dementia ward at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal. He seemed more alert than most of the bodies that had been rolled into the hallway. He still sat with the straight upright posture he’d always had, his eyes were meeting mine intently.
My grandfather had always been a quiet man. He wouldn’t waste words. His wife talked enough for both of them. He was happy to watch and listen. When he did make a comment, it was invariably witty, incisive, or both. My grandmother, my mother, my Montreal aunts, uncles and cousins all had favourite lines of his they would quote. I had grown up thousands of miles away from him, back in the days when both air travel and long distance phone calls were expensive. What little I knew of him came mostly from stories my mother told me. Finally, at age 30, I was mature enough to be truly curious about his inner life, but it was too late to probe.
I had heard of Holocaust survivors who didn’t want to talk about their past, but he had been safely in Canada during World War II. What I didn’t realize was that he had lived through other deadly times. Born in the Russian Empire in 1892, in the small town of Igumen in Belarus, his childhood can’t have been easy. His father had died when Boruch (as he was then known) was only four years old. One branch of the family believes Boruch’s father died after being thrown from a moving train by a Cossack. Another says he died from tuberculosis. Either version is possible: TB and Cossacks were both frequent plagues at the time.
He was the eldest of three boys, and his mother struggled to feed them and keep a roof over their heads. Unlike the other kids in the village, Boruch was eager to learn. He had wowed the locals by being able to read the Mourner’s Kaddish after his father’s death. The local rabbi was determined to turn him into a scholar. His mother was less convinced. She worried that he spent so much time reading books that his eyesight would fail. She would drag the table over to the window and open the curtains so he could have more light, but as soon as she turned he’d close the curtains. He dreaded having the other village children see him inside studying instead of outside playing.
Learning Torah wasn’t enough for young Boruch. When his mother took in a boarder who could read and write Russian he begged to learn it too. Most of the villagers made do with Yiddish and biblical Hebrew. At age 12 the Rabbi sent him to the big city of Minsk to continue his studies. A place had been secured for him at a religious school, but it didn’t come with room or board, so he slept on the hard wooden bench where he studied all day, and he was expected to arrange with local Jewish families to feed him. He was shy, so he went hungry a lot.
After a few weeks, he ran away and got himself apprenticed to a tinsmith. Minsk at the time was a hotbed of revolutionary activity, which was bubbling up all over Russia in the early years of the 20th century. It seems likely that it was during these years that he became a socialist.
[Readers: the story goes on: to avoid being drafted into the Russian army or killed in a pogrom, he travelled alone by ship to Canada in 1913. In 1916, nationalization papers in hand, he fled Canada, which was then talking about possible conscription for World War I. As a good socialist, he didn’t support the war, which he saw as a capitalist, imperialist battle for territory. He went to New York, and was there when Trotsky was in New York, inspiring young men like him to support the Revolutionary cause. After getting a U.S. draft notice, he decided that if he was going to have to fight anyway, he might as well go back to Russia and help the Bolsheviks. I know that he stayed for two years, but cannot get any documentation about what he did while there. In 1919 he stowed away on a ship from Yokahama to Vancouver. Eventually he made his way back to Montreal, where he married and settled down into a quiet life as a peddler and father. …. Readers, here’s my question: would this even work as an essay? I’m working on a book about his life, but stymied by the big unknowns, like what he did during those 2 years back in Russia. I would work in some paragraphs (in the essay) about what was happening in world history at the time, and end it something like this:
Was his mind back in Russia? In New York? In his years as a young father in Montreal? Or were those eyes staring at me taking in my question about why he wasn’t speaking? After a few moments, his eyes glistened. His mouth opened to form words, but no sounds came out.