Donbas is back in print!!!
Visit to Oregon Middle School
My Friendship with Mas Oyama
5/18 J has started dreaming again, and being unreachable in his sleepinconsolableas if this was a job only he can do.
5/19 I realized exactly how I feel about this trip: the way I have felt being winched up the initial slope of a roller coaster: artificially calm, slightly breathless.
5/20 The roller coaster (which is an emotional one) has already taken its first plunge. The hours before we left, J was very down. He said "I feel like I'm going back into the coal mine."
5/21 J can hardly believe it: the Ukrainian authorities just glanced at his U.S. passport and waved him through! He half expected to be arrested for escaping 52 years ago.
5/25 Yesterday we drove out to find Mine 28, where J worked. We just got hold of a driver and jumped in his cab and took off in more or less the right direction. No one had even heard of Rovenkinot in Donetsk, and not in adjacent Makayevkathe city where J's sister died. We kept stopping to ask people, and after a while they said they thought it was near Snezhnoye ("Snowy"). Our quest left the main highway and twisted through a labyrinth of villages. Suddenly, in the middle of nowhere, you'd come upon a statue of Lenin presiding ironically over the ruins, or some other socialist-heroic monument topped with a motheaten red star. They haven't bothered to dismantle this stuff, they're letting the weeds do it. Lenin looks so forgotten standing there, so dated and irrelevant. Everybody ignores him; it's funny that he now belongs to the failure and decay of his bad idea.
Now everyone we asked about Rovenki said "Oh yes, it's down this road." Near the sign at the Rovenki town limit, we were directed into an area of interpenetrating mines and villages that almost certainly is where J worked. We kept asking old people for directions to Mine 28 and getting contradictory answers. We suffered from a terrible language barrierJ, the only one of us who knew any Russian at all, was dumbstruck, confounded by the fact that he was right there, yet he recognized nothing. He was disappointed by this betrayal of his memories and expectations, until I reminded him of the classic movie "The Time Machine," the way Rod Taylor sits in the same spot on earth while the world molts and metamorphoses around him. Then it made sense.
The driver knew a "shortcut" back by highway, so while finding the place had taken 5 hours, getting back took only half as long. Except for that moment when he saw the tower J had failed to connect emotionally with the past; the mission felt incomplete. The drive back was enough quicker and easier so that we could imagine a better-planned encore, so we spent the next day setting it up. We went to an old Intourist office and found an interpreter and a car and driver. I have been particularly obsessed with finding Nina or Lisa or Katyaone of the girls/women who worked with J and shared food with him, who would now be an old lady. I can't, I don't, I won't believe they are all dead. I am stubbornly sure there's someone there to welcome him and close the circle. What's striking is that as we've gotten closer, the fear and suffering have fallen away and what he's feeling, for that time in this place, is love.
5/27 Back to Rovenki Our translator explained that many mines are inactive because it costs more to run them than the income they produce. At a half-functioning mine called Schachta Luganskaya, perhaps Mine 28's granddaughter on the same coal vein, we learned that Mine 28 was closed and
Schachta Luganskaya had an active slag heapblack with severe, precise lines and a track running up itand not far away was a dead one, like a dead volcano, reddish and rugged, still smoking but beginning to sprout vegetation too, on its way to
As is the mark he made on women's hearts, evidently.
J was too stunned to take in much of this. His Russian pretty much deserted him. To deflect the raw force of emotion, he took safety in benevolent-padron mode, giving Dusya a twenty-dollar bill ("What's that?" she wanted to know) and asking her what she wanted from New York. "A lot!" she shot back. "A washing machine." So now he looks forward to coming back and giving her one.
After we saw Dusya, we drove to the metal gate of the closed shoe factory on the former grounds of Mine 28. We went in, and walking into the woods, found what had almost certainly been the entrance to the mine shaft: a downward-angled hole in the ground, now filled in with earth and leaves. J realized that he was now truly in the Time Machinealmost certainly standing on a spot he'd stood on over 50 years before.
Back on the road to Rovenki, Lyudmila told us to stop by an open meadow. By the roadside stood a rough tablet, like a gravestone, and as we approached it we were amazed to see the hollow-eyed face of a prisoner, one hand holding a strand of barbed wire. Lyudmila explained to our translator that it was a memorial to all the prisoners who had lived and died here. It had been built at the instigation of a local math teacherhimself now deadwho was obsessed with history and felt this part of it must not be forgotten. Although J didn't recognize anything, slowly it dawned on us that this, this meadow where the only sign of life was a staked, grazing calf, must be the place where the prison camp had stood, where J buried so many of his friends. The Russians had not built anything here for fifty years, out of respect for the dead.
5/31 Back in New York, finding that the trip's effect on J has been releasinghis memories are more accessible, no longer so dangerous and taboo, and the emphasis is on the happier ones, the friendships, the work. It's as if the barbed-wire fence of trauma that quarantined off that part of his life and brain has been taken down. Sharing it with friends and with me also helped. "Donbas" is no longer a private wound in his psyche. It's a place on earth, with a life that has gone on as his has gone on. And while that robs it of some of its black magic, it has also lessened the dread and isolation.
5/5/00 We are about to go againthis time more consciously, I think. We're not in a daze of disbelief. That was protective, but at a pricewe sort of sleepwalked our way through that visit.
5/15 Donetsk Sure enough, the plane was one of those little propeller tubs with "DONBAS" on the side, but this had lost its shock value.
5/16 In Big Sasha's car on the way to Rovenki, Little Sasha told me that 1.5 percent of Ukraine's population is fabulously wealthy; everybody else is poor. There is no middle class. There are no jobs for the educated and willing, and no pay for the employed, since the state is the employer and the state is bankrupt, robbed dry by its president and other kleptocrats. Ukraine makes Russia look prosperous.
So we packed ourselves back into the car, and Lyudmila guided us through the labyrinth of mud-carved ruts and gullies to a splintery blackened wood fence facing some kind of dully roaring mine machinery, and a waste pond where a few little boys played, probably poisoning themselves.
She told us that her husband was very ill and senile, and that he wandered around at night and wrecked thingsAlzheimer's, it sounded like. Then she invited us in, saying in factual apologywithout shamethat she'd given up housekeeping since her husband's rampages made it futile. Her house was small, low-ceilinged, settling and crookedy. A few chickens strutted around the dingy courtyard. Through a doorway we could see her husband lying emaciated on a bed, staring out a window in empty-eyed misery. Marusya told us her son and his wife are both doctors, but they haven't been paid for months and get help from her and her husband, whose pension at least still comes regularly . . . about ten dollars a month!
Terrible as her situation is, I was prevented from feeling too sorry for Marusya by her absolute lack of self-pity, her hard vitality, and in spite of everything, merriment. She joked and laughed a lot. She has a strong voice and an almost aggressive quality, as if the only way to keep such a life from flattening you is to push back harder.
We said we'd come back, and drove through some more ruts to Dusya's. Dusya came out, also pushy and merry, and demanded good-humoredly to know where we'd been all this time! We promised to come back the next day with the washing machine and left to drive back to Donetsk, J still marveling numbly at having found Marusya. The full force of their reunion hadn't hit him yet, however.
5/18 We decided to take a day off to rest, since we were both exhausted. We spent the
In the morning, when we had to go back to Rovenki, he was sick. He was overwhelmed with a wave of weakness, and didn't want to go. We got in Big Sasha's cab and went off to buy the washing machine. J was dopey and a little confused, as if in a trance, so weak that Big Sasha had to help him in and out of the cab. We stopped at Dusya's first and unloaded the washing machine and they invited us to dinner. Then we went to Marusya's and gave her a roll of over 400 hryvnias, about $80. We sat outside in the courtyard, and J actually conducted a conversation in Russian with Marusya, who was chattering away, full of memories. J understood and responded in his trancelike way, but mostly he just sat there smiling, abstracted and faraway.
Back at Dusya's, outside in the courtyard they had made a very pretty table out of almost nothing. J was silent while everyone else laughed, ate and drank vodka. Halfway through dinner he needed to sleep so badly he almost keeled over. They showed us inside, and with Big
When he woke up, the Sashas got us into the car and we left. J was really ill, burning hot, alternately dozing off and asking if we were on Queens Boulevardthe way home from JFK airportwhich I found piteous. He'd had enough and wanted so badly to be home that in his delirium he'd made it so.
Back at the hotel, we got J inside, and he got undressed and into a hot bath, and then he couldn't get out by himself. I had to climb in and help lift him. I was pretty sure he was just reacting physically to being clobbered emotionallythe hardest hit he's taken since Omar died. It was a direct penetration from now to then, too intense for his heart and mind to bear. I slept lightly, listening to his breathing. Around 4 A.M. it slowed down, and from then on he was fine.
A quote found in Olga Silverstein's The Courage to Raise Good Men should be illuminated over our doorway:
"She loved me for the dangers I had passed,
10/17/00 Third trip to the Donbas. This time, at Big Sasha's invitation, we stayed with his
This trip is both less and more magical. J is beginning to take it more in his stride, to integrate it without the shocks of the first times. He can no longer speak Russian with Marusya (like some creature out of Mary Poppins that's forgotten its mystical origins); she rails and tugs at him and he just looks blank, unless Little Sasha translates. Since the winter is coming, the winter J remembers with such dread, we brought along down coats for Marusya and Dusya.
J did not get as thrown, this time, by seeing his old Donbas friends. Seeing Marusya last time broke the ice. He was very emotionally affected by Nina, but it wasn't a traumatic flashback. He seems to have made a path now between the past and the present that is firm and well trodden, not treacherous. As his experience there becomes less of a minefield for him, it becomes more real in another way to me. For the first time I can really grasp that he was a healthy young boy from a good family who was taken prisoner and made a slave laborer. It's come out of the realm of myth and into time.
I observe that Oregon now has more of an emotional grip on J than Rovenki. Maybe he is instinctively gravitating more towards the future, and giving something to the young, than to the past.
2/8/01 Hard to believe this will be our fourth visit to the Donbas in two years. But first, we went to a karate tournament in Ekaterinburg, Russia, in the Ural Mountainswhere the last tsar was killed, where Boris Yeltsin was bornand where it was 35 degrees below zero when we got off the plane.
2/14 It's about 3 A.M. the day we will drive to Rovenki. We slept so much of the day, just to stay warm by staying in bed while the gas was off (some kind of screwy kleptocratic rationing), that I couldn't sleep.
2/16 On Aeroflot on the way home. We never did go to Rovenki on Wednesday. It was snowing, and J and I relieved Big Sasha greatly by coming to the conclusion before he had to broach it to us that the roads would be impassable, maybe dangerous. Even if we'd made it all the way there on the highways without mishap, we would surely have gotten stuck on the back roads to the village. It was a relief to us too to decide not to go: it would've been one ordeal too many. We left money, pictures, and a down coat for Nina with the two Sashas to take out there once weather permitted.