A few victims

Yesterday was Holocaust Remembrance Day (there are a few of them and I’m not quite sure why that is — but I think this one was started by Israel) and my mom sent our family chat a reminder of some of the people from our extended clan who died in and around World War II.

“Today is the Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom Hashoah). Several members of our own family were murdered or died during WWII, let’s remember their names even though most of you never had a chance to meet them (including me and deda Borya). The ones I know about: Nahem-Mendle Onikul (my paternal grandfather): mass grave in Mogilev, Belarus, 1941; Wolf Khusid (my maternal grandfather) died of starvation during siege of Leningrad, 1942, Gregoriy Minkin (Roman’s biological father) was killed in the concentration camp in Poland after his capture on the Ukrainian front, 1941; Raulf Starusberg (Shifra’s late husband) was placed in a concentration camp, Auschwitz with his entire family in 1941, he was the only one who survived; Nathan Gorin (my mom’s second cousin-in-law) was taken to a gulag as a potential American spy and never came back home, 1941; Zinoviy Onikul (my uncle), died of starvation in 1941 in Leningrad. We will remember them.”

My grandfather Gennady almost made the list, as well.

The son of a cobbler, he was in the Red Army and participated in the battle that broke the Nazi siege of Leningrad. In 1944, near Narva — the old fort city that separates Russia from Estonia — he got a shrapnel hit to the head. The hunk of metal got lodged in his forehead and the wound turned gangrene. Doctors gave him almost a zero chance of survival and he had already lapsed into delirium by the time the surgeons got to him. But he was young and strong and he somehow survived. Most of this large extended Jewish family in Belarus wasn’t lucky. They had been slaughtered in the opening days of the war.

Gennady died when I was 6 so I don’t remember him very well, but I do remember the big scar and indentation on his forehead. He’d have to wear a hat even if it was slightly cold. A chunk of his skull was missing, so he’d freeze his brain and get migraines otherwise.

The story of Nathan Gorin is one that I only recently found out about from my mother.

He was an American communist plumber from New York who moved to the Soviet Union in the early 1930s to help build a revolutionary worker state. He lived in Leningrad and was friends with a relative of mine, Benya, who had emigrated to America right around the time of the revolution (apparently not for political reasons but to escape the family of a shtetl girl he knocked up out of wedlock). He then returned to Soviet state during the Great Depression, abandoning his new wife and daughter in America. Pretty clear that Benya liked women but didn’t care much for responsibility.

Because he spent his early adulthood in America, Benya was Americanized and hung out with a lot of American commie expats back in Leningrad. That’s how Benya introduced Nathan to his sister, Evgenia, who was my grandmother’s cousin. Nathan and Evgenia eventually got married.

But the good times didn’t last. For whatever reason Nathan was detained — probably by the NKVD — in 1941 right after the Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union. He never returned. No one knows for certain what actually happened to him. But his children think he was suspected of espionage because he was a foreigner and was either executed or died in a camp or on the way to one. His disappearance wasn’t discussed in the family and kept secret. His wife Evgenia was afraid to ask the state about his fate — afraid that his possible traitor label would put a black mark on his children. So the official family version of what happened to him was that Nathan was killed by German bombs while trying to put out roof fires in Leningrad. It was a great cover story — a hero’s death — for what was probably a much grimmer fate: whacked by your own comrades, the people you were out there building humanity’s communist future with.

—Yasha Levine