Bittersweet memoir by Draitser (Russian/Hunter Coll.; The Supervisor of the Sea & Other Stories, 2003, etc.) chronicles his postwar childhood in Odessa, where he learned to feel shame for his Jewishness.
Born in 1937, the author emigrated to America more than 30 years ago. His narrative sifts through his first memories immediately at the close of World War II. The Soviet Union, having defeated Nazi Germany, “was choking on the fear and false optimism produced by its victory”; Joseph Stalin unleashed a culture of hate. Jews were suspected of “bourgeois nationalism,” branded “cosmopolites” and openly persecuted until Stalin’s death in 1953. Draitser first became aware of the opprobrium attached to being Jewish when his first-grade teacher stumbled over the pronunciation of his name, prompting jeers from his classmates that he was a “kike.” He traces some of their anti-Semitic sentiment to the fact that during the war many Jews fled to Central Asia and were branded as cowards, though it was their only means of avoiding death at the hands of the invading Nazis. As a boy, he learned that many of his family members, survivors of pogroms in the Ukraine and elsewhere, had Russianized their Yiddish names and were leading double lives. Later, the author also changed his name, eschewing the giveaway Samuil for the European-sounding Emil. Moreover, reading such favorite writers as Pushkin and Gogol, he recognized how deeply ingrained the idea of the bad Jew was in Russian literature. The politics of hate espoused by Soviet propaganda was powerfully embodied in the Young Pioneers, and he felt humiliated by his eccentric, Yiddish-speaking relatives. Draitser examines Odessa’s social fabric as exemplified in film, literature, humor, headlines, holidays and vernacular to offer valuable, poignant snapshots of this turbulent, terrifying time.
Messy as memories are, but whimsical, heartfelt and candid.