Survived or Remained Alive?: An Imagined Interview with Babushka Vera

Julia: Is it alright that I’m writing about you?

Vera: Well, I suppose so. I just do not understand why you would want to. And when it comes to poetry, I have no place in it at all.

Julia: I write about you because of what you witnessed, what you endured, and how you went on living after. I write about you because you survived.

Vera: I saw what everyone of my generation saw. The war. The famine. The loss. Some saw it all far more closely. And most of them did not return to tell their stories. Who knows what your great-grandfather saw in the forest or wherever he was. Who knows on whose body he fell after they took him, the Nazis or locals or maybe even those he considered friends. I cannot talk about that. I do not know how to put into words what I did not see myself. I have tried to imagine it many times, what he saw and went through, but I always just see what I know. The mosquitoes and heat and lack of water in evacuation, в эвакуации (v evakuatsii). The dust and dead still on the streets when we returned to our city. The Jews treated as Jews. The same before the war as during, the same as after. Only there were less of us after. I am not sure anyone except us took notice.

Vera & Sima: May 30, 1935

Julia: So you are a survivor then? Why isn’t that enough to make you worth writing about? The fact that fragments of what you lived through have survived too. You, unlike so many others, are here to share what you remember or wish you remembered, at least with your daughters and then their children and now, with me. That’s something worth writing about, isn’t it? The survival of your experience?

Vera: This word you use, survivor, it does not mean the same thing to me as it does to you. It does not even exist the same way in the languages I speak. Survivor—in Russian, оставшийся в живых (ostavshiisia v zhivykh) or in Yiddish lebn-geblibene—is literarily someone who remained alive, nothing more. It does not have anything to do with being a hero, the way you are making it sound. Many of the Nazis ostalis’ v zhivykh, remained alive, does that make them survivors too? To me, surviving makes me fortunate. It makes me grateful and blessed, yes. But beyond that, those who did not survive are much more worthy of having their stories told.

Julia: So if stories of the dead are the ones that should be told, who should be telling them?

Vera: It is like you have already said, Vnuchen’ka. The stories pass to their children, of course. And to theirs and theirs and so on. That is the way it has always been.

Julia: But how can children tell what they did not witness themselves? How can they tell what they themselves never knew? And even if they take on the task of telling or writing, how can we know what is true or real if what is being told is unwitnessable?

Vera: How was the Torah written? And most of history? How do you know what truth comes from a book? Or a poem? Or when you look out through a window or into a mirror? Or anything for that matter. Asking all these hows is your kind of thinking, Vnuchin’ka. I confess, it just goes over my head. For me, though I did not choose for my name to be Vera in Russian, I have started to live by its meaning. Everything I cannot answer, and there is so much of that, I have leave to faith, vera. Faith in the future, not just in spite of the past, but because of it. And faith, most of all, vera, in my children.

Julia: But if you can’t even talk about what you didn’t witness, can’t imagine it yourself, then how am I, how are we, supposed to?

Vera: That is just it, lyubimaya, I cannot imagine it because there is so much else I cannot stop imagining. So much I saw that I never want to tell you about. I would hate to burden you with my memories. The things I cannot stop seeing. Things I wish for you never to see in your lifetime. But I do know I would rather you write your great-grandfather’s story. I would rather you write what he may have witnessed, without having to endure any of it yourself. This way, the rest of us, can at least feel some resolve. Even if it is incomplete and maybe even far from the truth or the real you talked about. That truth, Yulichka, is just as far from me as it is from you.

Julia: I’ve searched the archives, you know? I’ve looked for his name what feels like everywhere. I took pictures and catalogued the ones that sounded similar—maybe he also went by the Russified Simon, the shorter Sima or Simo, or maybe in death, he was labeled more Jewish as Simcha. I wanted to find it more for your daughter than for you, because even though I never heard you say his name aloud—not even when your memories would emerge outside of your control—your daughter, my grandmother, would say it. I even went to Poland, Babushka, though I’m sure he never made it that far West, and I doubt you would have wanted me to go—your daughter sure didn’t. From record to record, I looked at places of origin and places of death and causes that seemed like they could fit the one you thought must have been his—Babi Yar, unmarked mass grave, Kievskaya oblast’, gunshot, origin unknown, unknown, unknown always the refrain, but nothing’s matched so far. In the big book of names on display in Block 27 of the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum, I found so many by the last name Barash: Sima, Leova, Romanian, murdered in Romania; Simko, Slavuta, Ukraine (USSR), unknown; Shlomo, place of death unknown; Sioma, 1928, Luginy, Ukraine, murdered in Luginy, Ukraine (USSR); and the list goes on. I’m sorry for repeating their names, but every one of them could’ve been him, and at the same time, he is none of them. I still know him the same way you had to, as unknown.

Vera: Thank you for looking and for continuing to look. I do not know if I could have…

I only went to the place where I think it must have happened once, you know. Long before it had a plaque honoring those killed, and even longer before the memorial recognized Jewish victims—recognized that we were targeted and what that meant.[1] What it still means. Long before Yevtushenko immortalized that крутой обрыв (krutoi obriv), sharp cliff or pit or ravine really, in poetry. Before he made it one of the only mass graves known by name everywhere. I think it helps me to think of him as having died there. If it was there, then I have a place to name and mourn.

I went the day after hearing how he was taken from our apartment. Who told me this? Some things are so easily forgotten. It was early morning though. I remember that. Your grandmother always slept best in the mornings, so I thought it was a good time to sneak away without my mother noticing. I stood on the overhang looking down. I stared. Stared unblinking for so long that my eyes started to water. I was not crying though. I know I did not cry. You know the worst part? It did not smell like death anymore. It smelled like the oven we would light to warm our hut when he was sent out west to manage a kolhoz. How he wanted me to stay back in Kiev and never know a Siberian winter. Never know that smell. But that morning, the layers of ashes on ashes, his or not his at all, but ashes of so many, they smelled of that winter. Not the bodies. Not his body. But the winter in Siberia when the cold and night felt endless. How wrong we were to wish for it to end.

Julia: This is what I mean, Babulya. This story. Your story. It needs to be told. Your story is intertwined with his—Dedushka, the man and the ghost. The brave partisan whose story you believe is worth telling and reimagining. His story couldn’t exist without you or without your story.

На память Симочке, От лучшего друга и товарища Веры, Август, 17, 1937. For Simochka to remember me by, from your best friend and companion, Vera, August, 17, 1937

What if you hadn’t come back from evacuation early, when Kiev was still under fire and residents were told not to return yet? What if you settled for not knowing without going mouth to ear to mouth, asking anyone and everyone who would listen, until you finally found the neighbor or whoever it was who had heard from someone else altogether how the man living in your apartment was disclosed as a Jew and given up to the Nazis? Grandma mentioned that it might have been the woman who had been charged with taking care of that nearly abandoned building’s upkeep during the war years. It must have been you who told her this. With so few people around and the limited means you had at your disposal, you were able to discover more about what happened than I have in all my years of research and travel and limitless access to technology.

Vera: Well, if the generations that follow keep remembering and telling the stories of the dead, I have no doubt that they will tell the ones of those who continued living after the war too. They will retell what they have been told. The stories they grew up hearing that have become parts of their own story. The way it seems your great-grandfather and I have become a part of yours. But aside from how it relates to our family’s past, I still do not know what makes my story worth telling.

Julia: It’s worth telling all the more because you don’t see a reason for it, Babulya. Because even though you see yourself as one of so many, you are also one of so very few. And your story, while of greatest value to me, is no more or less important than that of others.

Maybe I keep returning to it myself to show you just how necessary it is and how necessary your life was. How much your story matters, not more or less than other stories, but just as much. How much your individual life matters, far beyond me and our family.

Vera: The generations never see eye to eye, you know, as much as they might try. The past struggles to understand the present and vice versa, but each end up failing in their own way. Turgenev’s age-old disagreement of fathers and sons or Shalom Aleichem’s of father’s and daughters or ours now. Still, everything I have done, or survived as you put it, has been for my children, for you. That means, Vnuchen’ka, if my story matters to you, even if I do not quite understand why, then you should keep telling it.


[1] The original plaque, erected in 1976 read: “Here in the years 1941-1943, over ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND citizens of Kiev and prisoners of war were shot by the German fascist invaders” (здесь в 1941-1943 годах немецко-фашистскими захватчиками были расстреляны свыше СТА ТЫСЯЧ граждан города Киева и военнопленных.) In 1991, 50 years after the first mass killing, a Menorah Memorial was erected honoring the targeted Jewish victims and plaques in Ukrainian and Yiddish were added to accompany the original Russian.


photo credit: Ekaterina Izmestieva

JULIA DASBACH is a poet, scholar, who dabbles in nonfiction and translation. She holds an MFA in Poetry from the University of Oregon and is a Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania where her research focuses on contemporary American poetry related to the Holocaust. Her poems have appeared in Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, The Missouri Review Online, and Narrative Magazine, among others. She has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf and TENT Conferences as well as the Auschwitz Jewish Center. She is four time winner of the William Carlos Williams Prize from the Academy of American Poets as well as the New South‘s 2016 Poetry Prize. Julia is the author of The Bear Who Ate the Stars, winner of Split Lip Magazine’s 2014 Uppercut Chapbook Award. She is also Editor-in-Chief of Construction Magazine. Visit her wordpress to contact her or read her failed blogging attempts.

Vikhlya “Vera” Moshka Gershkovna Khalfin (1912-2003) was born on May 4th in Belaya Tserkov (Bila Tserkva in Ukrainian, Shvartze Timme in Yiddish, and literally White Church in English), a city in the Kievskaya Oblast’ (region) of Ukraine. For school, Vera moved to the capitol city of Kiev and there, she met her husband Simon Barash. They married sometime between 1930 and 1932; had their first daughter in 1933; their second, my grandmother, on April 27, 1941; and on June 22nd of that year, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. Simon organized evacuation passage for his extended family to Bolshoi Istok—a selo (small village) in the Sverdlovskaya Oblast’ of the Urals, while he stayed back in Kiev to organize a partisan troop.

While in evacuation, Vera never heard from her husband, so in 1944, while Kiev still under threat of bombings, she returned to find her husband. Neighbors talked of him being given up to the Nazis, and some even said that they saw him in the crowd of people being walked to the mass execution at Babi Yar. According to United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) figures, there were a total of 7 million Soviet Civilian losses, of which 1.3 million were Jews, likely shot by the Einsatzgruppen. There are another 3 million Soviet POWs deaths, which included about 50,000 Jewish soldiers. Various sources claim that of the nearly 3 million Jewish residents in Ukraine before the war, by the late 1950s, there were less than a million remaining. By the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the majority of Jews left for other countries like Israel, Germany, and the United States.

In the postwar years, Vera worked 15-17 hour shifts in a cafeteria and then in an office supply store. In 1952, she remarried and moved to Dnepropetrovsk with her younger daughter. There, her husband forbade her from going back to work because as a jealous man 14 years her senior, he feared someone would steal away his vibrant 40-year-old bride, who always painted her nails and wore bright lipstick. In February of 1987, her husband Yuzya passed away, and a month later, her great-granddaughter was born and named Yulya in his honor. By this point, Vera had such severe arthritis in both her hips and varicose swelling in her legs, that she had difficulty walking and could only do so slowly and with the help of a walker.

In 1993, the family of seven—Vera, her younger daughter, son-in-law, grandson, and granddaughter with her husband and daughter—were granted Jewish Refugee status and immigrated to the United States. As early as a year later, Vera started displaying symptoms of psychosis, with paranoid delusions, which ultimately lead to her believing that a Nazi had come back to life to “take her.” Because she required around the clock care, she spent her last few years of life at the Hebrew Home, being visited every other day by her younger daughter, and every weekend by her granddaughter’s family. At age 91, she died on December 26th, the 7th night of Hanukkah, the day after remembering all the words to the old Russian songs and singing along loudly as her then 16 year-old great-granddaughter played them on the guitar.