On a Sunday in June, 1993, having completed the field research for a magazine assignment on the aftermath of the Chernobyl tragedy, I filled Volodya Tikhii's car with black market gasoline in Kiev, and we drove into the steppes of central Ukraine, to the village where my father was born.
Tikhii was a gaunt, slightly stooped Ukrainian nuclear physicist in his early 40s with thinning blond hair and thick, owlish glasses, who had accompanied me earlier to Chernobyl's destroyed reactor. He spoke deliberate, thoughtful English, gleaned from scientific texts at Moscow State University, then humanized through increasing contact with international environmentalists. He warned me that the 200 kilometers to Mala Viska, a town he'd never heard of until we found it on his map, would take us at least five hours, bumping over roads that partly explained the former Soviet Union's inefficiency at distributing its harvests. That didn't matter, I explained. One reason for this pilgrimage was that my father had died the previous September. Seven weeks later, my mother unexpectedly followed.
Those losses, and the fact that, as a boy, my father had to flee his birthplace for his life, were justification enough for Volodya Tikhii, who understood both bereavement and exile. Seven years earlier, his own father had perished in the Gulag (his crime, for which he was jailed repeatedly: teaching the Ukrainian language). Recently, Oleksa Tikhii's remains had been exhumed in Russia and carried back to Kiev. His reinterment as a martyred hero had at last accorded his family some peace and closure--a consolation his son now kindly wished to extend in some way to me, with the loan of his aging blue VAZ sedan and his offer to be my translator.
What I didn't tell Volodya Tikhii was that this journey involved more than honoring my late father's memory. All my life my father had told me what had happened to him and to my grandfather back in the Ukraine ("which," he always added, "was part of Russia.") I heard the story so often it assumed mythological dimensions. I read it again in newspaper columns that eulogized him. But not long before his death--yet after strokes had so ravaged his memory that I could no longer challenge him--I'd heard a sharply different account of the same events. Now I was driving through a rolling landscape of collective farms, whose vast, pale fields of wheat and hops disappeared over the horizon toward Mala Viska, where I hoped someone could tell me the truth.
This is the story my father told me all my life:
My grandfather, Avraham Weisman, was born in a village between Kiev and Odessa. Because his father--my great-grandfather--administered a powerful man's lands, he survived the pogroms that either killed or banished many of his own relatives around the turn of the century. Although the law limited the right of Jews to own property, over the years my great-grandfather nevertheless managed to acquire substantial acreage in reward for his services.
In his early 20s, my grandfather Avraham traveled to Hungary, where for two years he worked in a mill, studying its function and memorizing its construction. When he returned to his Ukrainian village, he built one on his family's land. By the time his first child--my father--was born in 1912, my grandfather had more than 100 employees and lived in a large house overlooking the Malayavis River. Milling wheat and pressing sunflower seed oil had made him rich enough to marry a rabbi's daughter.
There is a sepia photograph taken in their yard in 1917 or early 1918. My father, Shimon Vaisman in Yiddish, Simon Weisman after Ellis Island--is in knickers, mounted on a tricycle with large iron wheels. My father and uncles were attended by a governess. My grandmother, Rebecca Weisman, nee Gellerman, did not have to work, although she often sewed clothes from fine fabric with my great-grandmother Frieda, the rabbi's widow, who lived with them.
My father clearly remembered the day the soldiers came, he said. They were not Czarist troops, but Bolsheviks. He recalled how they tramped into the house with muddy boots. When his grandmother barred their passage across the imported carpet, the revolutionary who led the ragged column drew his sword and slew her. Six-year-old Simon ran at her attacker and pounded him with his little fists. The soldier hit him with the butt of the sword that killed my great-grandmother. At this point in the story, my father would show me the scar on his forehead, next to his dark widow's peak.
They marched the family outside. My grandfather was summarily tried and convicted of being a capitalist collaborator for selling wheat to the imperial Czar's army. His mill and adjoining fields and forests were confiscated for the revolution. With his wife and children helplessly watching, Avraham Weisman's communist captors stood him against the house and shot him.