Autumn Gales and Griefs
It was very quiet in the cellar. The low storage room
had no windows and no outside door. The monotonous dripping of autumn rain over the gutters and the occasional rattle of withering
leaves in the wind were only shadows of sound, like the muted voices of the family gathered around the dim light of the kerosene
lamp set on a packing case. On my cot in the corner where Id been put to bed, I listened to the talk droning on, first one
low voice then another feeding it, as if they could hold at bay the panic that might descend with silence, as the lamplight
held back the dark.
Fraülein, as always, was knitting socks. Mamma had brought
her mending basket, but was not even pretending to darn in the uncertain light. Papa was sprawled in an overstuffed chair,
trying hard to be gay and funny. Half aware, half dreaming, I stared up into the cobwebbed beams. Sleep could not find me
in this strange shadowy place, where chairs and cots and buckets of water were crowded in among the storage shelves and packing
Mamma was talking wistfully about our summer at the dacha,
only a few months ago, when war and revolution were worries but not yet calamities. Yet every happy memory led somehow to
the doleful present and the menacing future. Things had not "straightened out" as Papa had confidently predicted. Far from
it. The troops had come swarming back from the front to take sides in the civil war that was now fragmenting the country into
hostile factions. Even Papas stubborn optimism was shaken by the news of violence and terror that came closer day by day.
Now the talk was not of trouble far away in Petrograd or
Moscow, where the capital had been moved but here in Samara. A provisional anticommunist government had been set up in our
area. Conservatives, Cossacks, even Czech deserters clashed with Bolshevik forces in Volga villages, and they were not winning.
Today there had been a report that Red troops were advancing on Samara. Tonight at least half the citys families were sheltering
in their cellars from the dreaded first rush of armies in battle heat.
What is going to happen to us? I wondered, my head spinning
with overheard rumors of burnings and lootings, of casual shootings and wanton destruction by the mobs military and civilian
that ranged through the countryside unrestrained. All my life I had loved to listen in on grownups talk; now my curiosity
only fed my fears. My feverish imagination pictured soldiers overrunning the city. I saw them as a human tide pouring into
the streets, like the Volga did in spring when it rose over its banks, flooding the low places and sweeping away anything
in its path. They would smash windows, kick old ladies out of their way, steal whatever they wanted, ravish women. I wondered
what "ravish" meant. It was an intriguing new word that kept turning up in peoples talk, and shoot anybody that tried to stop
They might shoot Papa! I suddenly realized. All at once
the swarm of amorphous dangers crystallized into one overwhelming threat. Papa might be hurt. I could not imagine him dead.
In my sunlit life death was not yet a reality. But any risk at all to Papa was more than I could bear.
Though I smothered my sobs in the pillow, Papa heard, and
had me in his arms at once. "What is it, dushenka, little soul, what is hurting you? Tell Papa. Did you have a nightmare?"
"Oh, Papa, Im afraid of the soldiers. They might hurt you."
"Me? Never!" Papas merry laugh banished the brooding shadows.
"Do you hear this?" he asked, carrying me into the lamplit circle. "Shes afraid for me. Not for herself. A real heroine."
Settling back in his big chair, Papa cuddled me close,
tucking a warm shawl around me. "Dont worry about me, dushenka. Nobodys going to hurt your Papa. We just have to stay here
quietly until things settle down. It wont be long, youll see."
But Mamma too was overwhelmed by her fears. "Oh, Adya,"
she sobbed. "How can you be so unrealistic? Our whole world is collapsing, and you say things will soon settle down!" Her
voice was rising toward hysteria. "Life will never "
"Olya, youre not to talk that way." Papa cut his wife short
with unusual sharpness. "Life always settles down after a time of troubles. Here on the Volga our history is full of such
times. Have you heard of Stenka Razin, Fraülein?" As he turned to the governess, I guessed he was really trying to divert
Mamma and me with a story. "Hes an old folk hero in these parts, a famous Cossack chief who led a peasant revolt about three
hundred years ago. Razin captured several Volga cities, even Samara, before the revolt was put down."
"I heard about him, Papa. Nyanya used to sing a song about
"Thats right, darling. There are many songs and legends
about him. But he was only one of many warriors who fought over this land. Our Volga has always been at the heart of trade
routes, and our black earth is rich and fertile. Its vital to anybody who wants to rule Russia. Over the centuries this town
has seen many upheavals, but its always managed to survive."
Mamma found ancient history uncomforting. "Thats true,
Adya, but this is different. Now the revolution "
"Well live through the revolution too, Olya." Papa would
not allow her to sink into her natural pessimism. "I myself have already lived through many kinds of trouble, but Ive managed
to survive, even when it seemed impossible. I remember when . . . "
I snuggled down into my warm cocoon of lap and shawl. When
Papa said, "I remember when," I knew a story was coming. Papa told wonderful stories. Panic retreated into the shadows beyond
the lamplight, the gusts outside sounded less menacing.
"I remember when I worked for my uncle in the lumber business.
I had to go deep into the northern forests to buy standing timber. One freezing day, we were traveling through heavy snow.
We had only one horse, just the driver and me in a light sleigh. So we couldnt go very fast, and night came on before we reached
the lumber camp." Papas eyes were seeing far beyond the lamplit walls to the majestic forest shimmering in moonlight, the
branches of spruce and hemlock bending low, heavy with snow. He saw firs towering above them, and white birches shining among
the dark evergreens.
"The woods were beautiful, and so still until suddenly
we heard a howl. Other voices answered, and in only a few seconds four or five big gray wolves were running behind us. The
driver whipped the tired horse, urging her on, but the wolves were faster and hungry."
"Oh, Papa." My eyes must have been like saucers. "Did you
really think the wolves were going to eat you?"
"Well, it had been a hard winter, and they were probably
desperate for food. They certainly wanted to eat our horse. Once they had her, there was no way we could escape on foot. We
had no guns, only the drivers whip. I can tell you that for a few minutes there, I was pretty sure it was the end of me. They
were gaining on us pretty fast." He stopped to take a long breath.
"What happened, Papa? What happened then? How did you get
away?" The suspense was not to be borne one more second.
Papa smiled. Once more he had managed to make the family
forget their immediate danger. Mamma was quiet, enjoying my excitement. She had heard the story before, but she still felt
her husbands terror and relief. Even Fraülein was leaning forward, eager to hear the outcome.
"We were lucky. We were already quite near the camp, and
they were expecting us. So when they heard that howling, they guessed we were in trouble, and rode out to meet us. They were
well armed, of course, and started firing even before they saw us. Boom! Boom! And the animals howled and ran away. You can
imagine how glad we were to see our rescuers. So you see, dushenka, something always turns up."
I drew a long relieved breath at the happy ending. "Oh,
Papa, that was an exciting story. I like scary stories. But . . . " I thought for a long moment. "But I guess I like them
because theres nothing to be afraid of really. I knew the wolves wouldnt eat you, because they didnt. But now well, this is
a different kind of scary, because now I dont know how its going to turn out so its really scary."
Papas own life offered ample proof that something always
did turn up. Born Avrom Yefimovich Lurye in a shtetl near Minsk, where his parents struggled to keep afloat with a tiny dry
goods store, he had come far by grabbing the coattails of every passing opportunity, and often making one. Only fifteen when
he managed to shake the rural dust from his heels, the ambitious boy was determined to find a richer life than Ulas threadbare
His uncle owned a lumber business. In those days the law
forbade a Jew to own land, but Uncle Shmuel circumvented it by a stratagem widely in use. He bought forests and property for
his sawmills by paying an illiterate peasant to act as nominal owner, using his name to legalize transactions. A well-grown
boy and a charmer, Avrom badgered his mother to speak to her brother about taking him into the business. Then he set himself
to absorb all he could about the larger world of commerce. Within ten years he had parlayed his drive and social talents into
a successful career as a sales agent, progressing from lumber to a line of chemical products that took him all over central
and eastern Europe. The Russian name Adolf was given to him at the passport office, as was customary.
The next step up came to him unsought. One of his customers,
Simeon Ratner, who owned a small chemical products plant in Samara, took a fancy to the enthusiastic young salesman; so did
his wife. They had become good friends by the time Ratner fell victim to cancer. His widow grateful for Adolf Yefimovich Luryes
sympathy and help with her affairs offered to sell him the factory on surprisingly easy terms. She could not run it, and her
only son was a rising actor with the Moscow Art Theatre who had no interest in the family enterprise.
So before he was thirty, Adolf Yefimovich had acquired
a thriving business with a comfortable home included, had brought his family to Samara and installed them in a nearby apartment.
He was able to help one sister with a dowry and the other with dental training. Then he was ready to take a wife and settle
down to prosperity. His was truly a life compounded of opportunities. He could hardly be blamed for considering himself a
child of fortune.
This time the tide of battle ebbed away southward and the
threat of occupation seemed to be averted, at least for the moment. For a week, nothing happened. After three uncomfortable
nights in the cellar, the family went back to sleeping in our beds and to an uneasy "normalcy." It was normal only in the
most relative sense.
First we lost the servants, one by one. The housemaid went
home to her mother in the country. One night the cooks husband turned up, an army deserter, and she fled with him to the hills.
The laundress just stopped coming, without a word. The family concentrated on trying to manage from day to day. Only Fraülein
remained, loyal as ever, determined to help "her family" through this hard time. Always calm and efficient, Fraülein was the
rock on which we all leaned more and more. She knew she must soon go back to Germany. Russia was not the place for foreign
governesses any more. But making her way through the war-torn border areas in the west was risky. So she lingered, knowing
she was badly needed, hoping against hope that conditions would improve. In the meantime, she quietly took over the marketing,
cooking and washing, while Mamma made stabs at tidying the house and tending to me. Mostly my distraught mother played the
piano by the hour. It seemed to be her talisman against terror.
I was the one who had the least trouble getting "back to
normal." The problems of caring for a family in crisis, of finding ways to run a factory without workers or materials, of
trying to prepare for a threatening future and the loss of all ones usual comforts these miseries were not in my lexicon.
I considered things much improved, since I was back in my own cozy room and the weather was sunny and warm, so I could play
on my balcony.
Next week was my fourth birthday, the first with a new
birth date. The old Julian calendar had been reformed to make Russia conform to the Gregorian system of the west. As a result
thirteen days were lost. Papa explained it all to me several times. I was rather pleased by the idea of having my birthday
officially rearranged. It made me feel quite important, and I looked forward eagerly to the occasion.
Alas, by the time the birthday week arrived Red troops
were once more headed for Samara. The town again wore the hushed air of impending doom. But I had been promised a party, and
I had Papas assurance that I would have one.
Yet the natal day did not start out like a holiday. Shortly
after breakfast, I saw that Papa had a visitor. They talked for a long time in the library, while Mamma and Fraülein came
and went, casting anxious glances at the closed door. As he was leaving, the man wrung Papas hand and wished him luck, then
checked the street before slipping away. Papa reacted with only a frown to the worried faces of the women, and shut himself
up again. But soon he called Mamma in, and they talked for a long time before going into their bedroom, where they could still
be heard in earnest conversation.
Fraülein distracted me by calling me into the kitchen to
help get the party ready. Carefully hoarded sugar, an egg or two and even a little butter came out of hiding. With the last
nuts and raisins, a real cake could be managed. Happily picking the meats out of the nuts Fraülein was cracking, I was too
lost in anticipation to dwell on the strange events of the morning. We hadnt had a party in so long, or any fun at all. Today
would be a special day, reminding me of so many others days with visitors coming for tea and cake, with flowers in the drawing
room, and nothing to worry about.
And it was a lovely afternoon, after all. The whole family
came. Babushka brought a jar of her own raspberry jam for the tea, and Aunt Sonya had found a few real bonbons somewhere.
Even the cake turned out remarkably well, considering the skimpy ingredients. Everybody brought gifts, a picture book from
Aunt Sonya, a game from the cousins. Aunt Tanya had made new clothes for one of my dolls, and Babushka had knitted me a blue
sweater. There was a warm dress from Mamma. Papa produced a small gold bracelet, which made me feel very grownup.
After the cake the cousins romped and shouted. We were
busy with hide-and-seek and blindmans buff and hardly noticed that the grownups soon took their tea into the library, leaving
Fraülein to keep order.
When it was time for the guests to leave, the goodbyes
were strangely fervent. Everybody hugged Papa so hard and whispered so many little messages, assuring him that he was not
to worry. Only then did it dawn on me that something ominous was in the wind. After all, my grandparents lived only around
As soon as the guests had left, Papas packed suitcases
appeared in the front hall with his hat and coat. Fraülein came in to announce that the droshky was waiting. Papa hugged me
hard and held me close for a long moment. I felt the familiar rough tweed of his coat scratching my arm.
"I have to go away on a trip," he said, "and I have to
rush to catch my train. It may be a while before I can get back. You must be a good girl, dushenka, and take good care of
With a last quick kiss for his wife he was gone. Mamma,
eyes brimming, shut herself in her room. Fraülein set about clearing up, finding one chore after another to keep me busy and
the tears at bay.
We were just finishing up the dishwashing when the front
door banged. Papas hearty "Where is everybody?" sent us all rushing into the front hall.
"You didnt go." I shrieked as I threw myself on him. "Youre
not going away."
"No. I didnt go." Papas grin widened at my excitement.
"But only because I missed the train. I will have to go tomorrow. I should have left much earlier, but I couldnt spoil your
While I hung on the arm of Papas chair, he admitted that
he hadnt really arrived too late. "The train and the station were so crowded I couldnt get near enough to even try to board
it. My only chance will be to arrive hours beforehand and try to bribe my way on past the hordes of refugees and baggers."
"Baggers?" Mamma asked.
"They come from the big cities, where food is getting really
scarce. After the harvest failed in the north, people have been getting desperate. Here in the Volga basin we had our usual
good crops. So they come here looking for food and drag it home on the train in long cloth sacks. The station was full of
them and their sacks."
"So many?" Olga shook her head sadly. "There must be so
much suffering in the big cities now."
"Yes, and a lot of profiteering too." Papa pulled me into
his lap as he explained. "Many of these people speculate with the food and trade it for manufactured goods, which are scarce
in the country. Then they trade these goods for food, and so on. Always at a profit, of course."
"But all this must make traveling conditions difficult."
"It certainly does. Between the baggers and the refugees,
who are all lousy and diseased, were ripe for an epidemic of some sort. But dont worry," he hurried to reassure us as the
saw the fear rise in Mammas eyes. "Ill be fine. You know I never get sick. Only you must be careful not to let Niurochka play
with any strange children or go near any beggars."
I was playing with Papas mustache while he talked and thinking,
I wont be able to do that after tomorrow.
"Papa, why cant we go with you? Youll be so lonely without
us, why cant you take us along?"
He laughed at the idea. "I wish I could, dushenka. But
its going to be a long hard trip. I dont even know where Im going, exactly. I just need to get out of Russia till things quiet
down. Mamma could never stand such a trip."
"Then take me," I said. "Im strong. And I could take care
"But then Mamma would be all alone. You wouldnt want her
to be lonely here by herself?"
"Oh, Babushka could take care of her . . . and Aunt Sonya,
"Im sorry, darling. It just cant be. But I want you to
take care of Mamma for me, and not let her get sad. Ill come home just as soon as its safe, but now I must go, and alone."
He set me down and got up. "Lets just enjoy this extra evening together, and not think about tomorrow."
What a mixed-up bittersweet time those bonus hours were.
To have Papa back when wed scarcely begun to miss him was a special present. Yet in all our thoughts ran the mournful refrain,
"Hes going away tomorrow." I could see that poor Mamma needed all her courage to restrain her tears and not spoil her husbands
last few hours at home, and I kept grumbling to myself, "I wish I could go with him."
It was only years later that I learned just how dangerous
Papas situation was. It was a chance encounter earlier in the week that had prompted his decision to leave. He was uptown,
futilely searching for replacement workers, when he ran into an old business acquaintance. Pyotr Ivanovich Arbatyeff was a
member of the zemstvo, the local governing body that lately, in the breakdown of central authority, had assumed almost total
control over citizens lives and property. Most members of the provisional government had fled to Omsk with the Czech Legion
and joined the counter-revolutionaries under General Kolchak, or had been arrested as "bourjui," as the middle classes were
now disdainfully categorized. The citys administration was now largely in the hands of unprincipled opportunists and inexperienced
peasants and laborers, though a few conciliators still managed to keep their posts, striving somehow to control the chaos.
"Adolf Yefimovich, youre still in town?" The old man was
shocked to see his friend. "You should have left long ago. Surely youve heard whats been happening in Saratov, and all over
"No, I cant say that I have. Ive been spending all my time
trying to keep the factory running though it seems pretty hopeless. But why shouldnt I still be here?" Adolf asked, puzzled.
"Oh, my goodness! Forget about the factory. Its going to
be confiscated anyway. The zemstvo received a directive two days ago to nationalize all private enterprises. Expropriating
the bourgeoisie, they call it. Youre in great danger of arrest, or worse. And you know how trigger happy the Reds are. Your
name has sometimes been linked with the anti-communist group. Anyone who owns a factory or a large business is automatically
considered a capitalist."
Adolf couldnt believe his ears. "Shoot me just because
I managed to buy a small factory? But I started out as poor as any peasant."
"Please, Adolf Yefimovich, dont try to make any sense out
of these crazy times. There isnt any. Just get yourself away until this wave of killings is over. Its the only way to survive,
because any tipsy soldier can put a bullet between your eyes and ask questions afterward if ever."
"But my family? How can I leave "
"The Bolsheviks usually dont bother women and children
so much at least in the cities. Its the businessmen and public officials who are in danger right now." The old man glanced
fearfully around. "I must go. I shouldnt be seen talking to you. Its not wise." The caprices of the new rulers created a climate
of paranoia among those who had most to lose, who saw betrayal lurking around every corner.
Adolf raised an inquiring eyebrow.
"Nevertheless," added Arbatyeff hurriedly. "Youve always
been a fair man, and youve helped me a time or two. I wouldnt like to see anything happen to you. Russia will need men who
can run things, when all this frenzy quiets down. The best thing," he repeated, with a hurried look over his shoulder. "The
best thing is just to go away for a while. Go east things are quieter there and go soon. God go with you." And he scuttled
around the corner.
Adolfs head was spinning. What to do? How could he leave
his family a frail wife, a small child, aging parents. Everyone had always depended on him, the strong one, the manager. But
what good would he be to anyone if he was dead? He had never before been political, but now his standing in the community
marked him as a member of the hated "bourjui."
He realized with a start that he was still standing where
Arbatyeff had left him. Automatically he turned in the direction of home. In his minds eye rose a vivid picture his wife a
despairing widow, prostrated with grief and fear, his daughter a pitiful orphan starving in the streets, his parents broken
by sorrow. Surely the worst risk for them all was for him to stay. He was already realizing that his precious factory the
enterprise he had worked so hard to build, was trying so desperately to keep afloat was gone. He had been steeling himself
to accept its loss. But to leave his family to abandon them to face heaven knows what hardships without him . . . How could
In times of trouble, Adya always went to his mother. It
was her strength the family turned to in need. She was the one who had kept them going in hard times, and still held them
Babushka spent most of her day in the kitchen now, trying
to concoct adequate meals out of the ever-shrinking supply of food, performing miracles of ingenuity to tempt Zeydes failing
appetite. She heard her sons news with unexpected calm. Pouring two glasses of tea from the faithful samovar, she sat listening
to the unhappy details, nodding her head gravely as he described Arbatyeffs advice and his own quandary. She was not surprised
by any of it.
"Weve already heard some of this this confiscating order,
the terrible news from Saratov. Your father and I were planning to come over this evening and talk to you about leaving. We
think its the only way to save your life."
"But Olya, and the child? If only I could take them with
me. But theres so little time. And I dont know where Im going." Papas usual level-headedness had for once deserted him. His
mother led him patiently to a rational decision.
You must go east, as Arbatyeff said. Its the direction
that has the least fighting. And you have to get across the border, out of Russian territory. Of course it would be better
if you could take your family with you, Adya. But I dont believe Olyas health would stand a trip across Siberia, let alone
the kind of life you might have to live. Where will you go, do you know?"
Her son shrugged gloomily. "I wont know till I get there.
Babushka nodded encouragingly. "Darling, youre strong and
you learned long ago how to get along, wherever you found yourself. I am not afraid for you. But Olya is different. She has
been so ill, and her stamina is so low. She needs to stay near the family, where we can help her. And if anything would happen
to her out there, how could you manage, alone with a small child to care for, among strangers? No, you must go alone."
Babushka reached out and covered her sons hand with her
own. "You know well take care of Olya and Niurochka. Well just wait here together until things settle down, and then you can
come home. It cant go on being so crazy forever."
Papa got his optimistic nature from his mother. She was
a realist, but in spite of a life filled with vicissitudes, pessimism was impossible for her.
So his going away was decided. Even Olga, though terrified
at the prospect of being left alone, came to see that he must go. He was making plans to organize his affairs and be ready
to leave in a week, but early the next morning he had a visit from Arbatyeff.
"Why havent you left?" his friend demanded as soon as the
library door closed behind him. "I came by to see if I could help your wife, and youre still here. Adolf Yefimovich, I warned
"Im leaving, Pyotr Ivanovich," Adolf assured him. "Im getting
everything arranged for my family and will be ready to go on Tuesday or Wednesday."
"Forget it." The old man shook his head, disgusted. "Youll
be arrested long before then. They are already making up the list of suspected anti-communists to be liquidated, and youre
on it. I would say you have two days three at the very most, but you mustnt wait till the last minute. Nobody can be sure
just when " He grasped Adolfs arm. "Go today! Go at once."
Adolf hesitated. Arbatyeffs urgency was making him understand
that his safety was now numbered in hours, not days. "Were celebrating my daughters birthday this afternoon. I couldnt spoil
that. But I will leave right after the party," he promised. "I am really grateful for your concern, Pyotr Ivanovich."
"You neednt be. I am really thinking mostly of our poor
Russia. She is losing so many of her best people in these wanton days. If I can save one or two for her, I must do it."
Next morning Papa left for the second time, and didnt come
back as I secretly hoped he would. Now alone, we settled down to a strange half-life of waiting for what, no one knew. How
we missed Papa and his cheerful smile, his ready talent for turning glum into gay.
I would sit in my window seat, looking at the river and
trying to imagine where Papa might be now, how his trip might end, when he might come home. He was all alone now, and I thought
sadly how lonely he must be without his Niurochka and his Olechka to love him.
Im sure his Olechka was thinking the same thoughts. Alone
in their bedroom at night, her heart would go out to her husband in his lonely exile, without family or home, without the
factory he was so proud of. A lifetime of struggle and success had been snatched away overnight. She yearned to comfort him,
yet dreaded the possibility that he would find other comfort. Adya was a man whom women would always rush to console. She
wanted to write to him, to tell him she loved him, but where was he?
And Adya, cramped in his corner of the crowded compartment
for interminable hours that stretched into days and weeks as the ramshackle train slowly chewed up the eastward miles, what
were his thoughts? His mind must have been a turmoil of anxieties. Would he manage to elude official notice and escape beyond
Bolshevik control? Each time the train stopped, often for hours, each time officials came through looking at papers, he steeled
himself for arrest or questioning, though he had managed to get all the papers he needed to validate his trip.
Would the train, which kept breaking down and seemed barely
able to negotiate the narrow passes of the Urals, even manage to complete the journey that was taking him three thousand miles
from all he loved? How would his family endure the coming hardships without his strength and ingenuity to shield them? In
what alien city would be finally settle, how would he spend the lonely months maybe years that must pass before he could hold
his wife and daughter in his arms again? Would he ever again live the life he had achieved and had rejoiced in? His body chained
in unaccustomed inactivity, his imagination leaped ahead to probe the unfathomed future, or ranged homeward to relive his
happy history in Samara, to wonder how his city was faring, to touch in thought the loved ones he had left there.
Though the year was rapidly falling toward winter as bright
October faded into gray November, the first snow was late in coming, and the thermometer stayed above freezing. The water
level in the Volga sank until shallows and sandbars stood revealed like momentary islands in the stream. Autumn fogs drifted
over the city veiling the dingy streets and the downcast people who haunted them.
The town lived in anxiety over fuel scarcity as well as
the looming occupation. By now, no one really believed any more that the conservatives could stem the Red tide. Though local
clashes ebbed and flowed, the Bolshevik grip on the country was inexorably tightening.
Just when the passage of one uneventful day after another
was beginning to ease the tension, Red troops appeared in the streets. After the weeks of trepidation the undramatic reality
was almost a release. There was no turmoil, no fighting in the streets; not even any gunfire. Like the fog the Red tide simply
flowed in and inundated the town.
One day the thoroughfares were practically empty, citizens
waiting tensely behind locked doors. The next there were soldiers everywhere, in uniforms marked with the red star, going
from house to house, taking a census of the number of rooms, inhabitants and facilities.
In a few days they came to our house. When the loud knock
sounded, Fraülein looked fearfully at Mamma, who clasped her hands convulsively, took a deep breath, and nodded. The unbolted
door opened to a tall young officer with a patch over one eye and surprisingly correct manners.
"Lieutenant Ivanov to see Comrade Lurye," he announced.
"I am sorry, Gospodin Lurye is away on a business trip."
Fraülein started to shut the door, but the lieutenant was already inside.
"Then I will speak with his wife. My business is official.
Comrade Lurye," he addressed himself to Olga, correctly gauging her family status. "I have to notify you that your husbands
factory is being transferred to state control, effective immediately. As soon as he returns from his trip he is to report
to the zemstvo for formal notification. Also, we are taking a census. My men must come in to count the rooms in the house
and list all conveniences. With your permission." With a slight bow he opened the door to two soldiers waiting outside. "How
many people live in this house?"
Nothing more happened for about a week, except that soldiers
came and ripped out a bathtub from every house that had one, commandeered for the military hospital. The tubs were left by
the curb to be picked up. There they stayed all winter, covered with snow, of no use to either patients or householders. Happily
for our family, the yellow house had two bathrooms. The unsuspected second tub in the servants attic was left intact. We lived
quietly behind our bolted doors, managing on stored supplies and Fraüleins market forays.
Mamma spent many hours playing her piano and visiting her
house. Sitting in the airy rooms with their long windows and blue velvet portieres, rooms filled with the elegant French furniture
and oriental rugs that she and Adya had chosen with so much pleasure on their honeymoon trip, she would lovingly finger a
Dresden figurine on the mantel or the Meissen clock, as if to memorize their delicate curves and tender colors. She tried
to fill her memory with the gracious setting of her brief married life. Each object became a symbol of the happy years spent
there, of a life she was sure was gone forever.
Perhaps sensing my mothers fears, I too looked at our house
with a new pleasure and love. Though I had always wanted to be with the grownups, now I loved to play in my pretty nursery
where the row of solemn bisque dolls sat primly on the cushioned window seat, the small painted table was set for tea, and
Mishka in his own little chair sat waiting to listen to my troubles.
Darling Mishka. He had been my best beloved ever since
my Aunt Xenia had brought him from Tashkent. That visit had been such a happy time. Though I was not even three at the time,
I still remembered it. I loved playing with Xenias daughter Asya. I envied my cousin her curly black hair and soft brown eyes
like Mammas, and wished I had a sister like her. We were only three months apart in age, very different in coloring yet with
the same features Aunt Xenia called us "Snow White and Rose Red" and were both named after our grandmother Annette. Mamma
glowed with joy to see again, after so many years of separation, the older sister who had been almost a mother to her.
Aunt Xenia told us stories about her exotic eastern home
in Turkestan a place half-European, half-Asian, where people roofed their houses with mud in which wild poppies grew, so that
in the blooming season the city suddenly turned red. Among the presents she brought us was Mishka, a tawny stuffed bear who
captured my heart at once. Ever since then he had been my inseparable companion. My pretty French dolls sat ignored in a row
while I dressed Mishka in my own baby clothes, entertained him with tea parties, and slept curled around his chubby back.
I clutched the bear for comfort now, as we waited for the
next development. The slow days went by, unreal and lonely. Then suddenly we were invaded. The lieutenant must have been taken
with the yellow house, and decided to commandeer it as quarters for his group of seven junior officers. However, he kindly
allowed us to choose one room for ourselves.
Mamma was terrified at the prospect of those "savages"
camped in her sanctuary but was also unexpectedly stubborn about leaving the house to them. "This is our home," she decided
with surprising courage, after a discussion with her in-laws, declining Babushkas invitation to move in with them. "This house
is all we have left. I have to try to hold on to it till Adya returns if I can."
I remember how she and Fraülein, with me helping and hindering,
moved the most necessary and most valuable things into the nursery at the back. Though small, it was strategically suited
to be our stronghold because it was farthest away from the main living areas. Uncle Pavel installed a stout bolt on the inside,
and we made ourselves as comfortable as three people can be in one crowded room. Mamma carried some of her most precious things
to Babushkas for safekeeping, just in case.
Many of Mammas initial fears proved groundless. Our non-paying
guests were not abusive, indeed were usually polite; some of them were even kind. Occasionally they brought home scarce food
meat, fresh vegetables, once even some almost-coffee and asked Fraülein to prepare it in return for a share in the meal. But
mostly they ate at the officers mess.
We were never molested or threatened. In a way we were
even protected. Sometimes one of the soldiers would romp with me. I often ventured out of our room as I got used to them.
He would ride me on his knee or bring me a rare treat of candy. After many months of hard living and brutal fighting in the
field, the men seemed to revel in the sense of home that the house radiated, even with its real life so disrupted.
Even so, the situation grew more and more tense. The young
men were merry and boisterous, and used the house as if it were their own. Their evenings were spent in carousing, with plenty
of vodka, any number of guests military comrades and complaisant local girls and dancing far into the night to an accordion
or a couple of balalaikas.
As soon as our own supper was cooked, Fraülein would bolt
us into our little refuge, bracing for another night of revel. We listened to the drunken laughter and the loud voices. Mamma
cringed when a scuffle ended in a crash, or a toast in the tinkle of shattered crystal. We clung together nervously when heavy
boots came toward our end of the corridor. Our nights were passed in exhaustion and our days in despair over the fresh havoc
we found on emerging from our citadel each morning. Mammas helplessness to protect the house must have been a constant frustration,
a rising rage.
Other developments brought matters to a head. The zemstvo
announced that all dwelling space was to be apportioned equally, a national policy designed to cope with the swarms of homeless.
Adding in the thousands of refugees who had poured into the town from the war zones, the troops already quartered there, and
the starving peasants arriving daily from the north, something like sixty square feet was all that could be allotted to each
person in Samara.
My grandparents lived on the parterre floor of a three-family
house, halfway up the avenue that ran down a long hill to the river. Aunt Sonya, not yet married, lived with them. But it
was obvious that three people were not going to be left in sole possession of an entire five-room apartment. Obsessed by the
fear that strangers would be assigned to some of her rooms, while the rest of the family would have to share their homes with
other unknowns, Babushka launched a campaign to convince Tanya and Mamma to fill her extra space and keep the family together.
We had already started to bring objects of value to store at Babushkas; but my mother could not yet quite reconcile herself
to abandoning her house.
Then, as November neared its end in a heavy snowfall and
a sharp freeze, Fraülein at last made up her mind to go. Rising anti-German feeling was making her position too risky. Babushka,
meanwhile, was becoming frantic, because her friend uptown had just been forced to house three refugee families people who
didnt understand indoor plumbing and had already stopped up the toilet, causing a bad overflow and a terrible stink.
The morning after Fraüleins decision was made, Mamma emerged
to find the debris of a wild party, with vodka poured all over her piano, and the center of the drawing-room rug burned through,
where some drunken soldier had tried to start a bonfire. That was the last straw. After her hysterics subsided, she and Fraülein
came to the inevitable conclusion.
"Theres really no use staying here to protect the house,"
Mamma had to admit. "I cant do anything to stop their destroying it. In fact, its very likely the place will be burned down
before theyre through. Even if it isnt, nothing of value will be left whole. Winter is here, and I cant keep up the fires
or find coal, so well freeze." She turned to Fraülein, her eyes filled with despair. "Now you must leave, and I dont even
know how to do anything not even cook."
"I wish I could stay, Madame." Fraülein had long since
become a friend rather than an employee, but in spite of the harrowing months they had shared, her formal habits were ingrained.
"But I absolutely agree that theres no sense in your trying to live here. You should go to the Luryes, for your sake and the
childs as well as theirs. Theyll take care of you and you will help each other. Even if you dont feel entirely at home with
them," she added. "It will be much better than here among strangers.
"And after what the Reds did to the Volga Germans around
Saratov, I know I must leave Russia while I can."
Mamma turned her tear-wet face to the governess. "Yes,
of course you must go home. Theres really no other choice. Im grateful youve stayed this long. And we must leave too. I really
cant bear to watch this ravaging of my house. Every new boot scrape on a table, every shattered figurine, is such an agony.
You know, I had no idea I felt so strongly about my things." She sighed wearily. "Of course I couldnt manage here without
you for even a day. I am so poorly trained for a hard life, so ignorant "
"Poor Madame." Fraülein patted Olgas hand in an unaccustomed
show of sympathy. "Im afraid no one is trained for the life this unhappy country will have now. Youll have to learn to be
strong, and not give way. For your childs sake, and for your husband, who depends on you to survive until he can come back."
"Yes, I know." She gave another great sigh and got up,
gathering purpose and determination like skirts around her. "We must think how we can move what we can save. Will you be able
to help me do that before you go, dear Fraülein? Its the last service I shall ask. Do you think we can manage it today?"
As I tried to choose the few toys and books I could take
with me, and resign myself to leaving all the rest, I thought about all the changes in my life since that birthday less than
two months ago. Still acutely missing Papas presence, I now had to face the loss of Fraülein, who had shared every hour of
the day with me for more than a year. How strange it would be when Fraülein was not there any more.
Was I sad to leave the yellow house? No, I decided, it
wasnt home any more. Papa wasnt there, it was filled with strangers and noise and mess. Mamma was always nervous and afraid
and I didnt know how to help her.
I shut my eyes and remembered the days when it was home.
I hadnt known then how much I loved it all. I pictured myself coming into the big bedroom for the morning ritual, where my
parents would be sitting up against their big square pillows in their high carved bed.
I would curtsy and address them politely in German as Fraülein
had drilled me, "Guten morgen, Papa, guten morgen, Mamma. Moechte ich die schluesseln haben?" Prim in my white dress with
the eyelet ruffles, my blue satin sash and matching hair bow, I would get my good-morning kisses and the keys for Fraülein.
From that world of happy days and tranquil nights, memory
called back laughter, sunshine, music, comfort, loving voices, learning and play, everything ordered and secure. All gone
in a few calamitous weeks. Would it ever come back?
Grateful for the snow-covered streets, Mamma and Fraülein
spent the day dragging sled-loads of clothes, linens, food and whatever valuables they could move, around the corner and up
the hill to my grandparents house, while I carried my own small burdens behind them.
As we rounded the corner of our street on the final trip,
Olga noticed along the waterfront the ragged peasants in their sackcloth and birchbark shoes, dragging their grimy bundles
as they streamed ashore from a riverboat. Refugees from the war-ravaged villages, they were crowded aboard every steamer,
sleeping all over the decks, carrying all they owned in their pathetic sacks.
Now I am a refugee too, Olga thought gloomily, with my
life in bundles and my home lost. Yet there was no comparison. She still had shelter, food, people to care about her. As we
came up the hill, we were welcomed by a relieved Babushka and Zeyde. Before the short daylight had faded we were settled in.
Pavel was taking Fraülein to the station to wait for the next train west. The little back bedroom now abandoned, life in the
yellow house had come to an end.
As the housing crisis deepened, the family closed ranks
again. Aunt Tanya, with husband Pavel and their three children also moved in with her parents. They took over the large parlor
which, partitioned with portieres and blankets, housed all five. Yet the ten of us, stuffed into a modest apartment designed
for three, counted ourselves lucky. All around us we saw families forced to share lifes intimacies with total strangers.