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Interview'It’s not stereotypical, it’s real life'

Relics of a USSR both maddening and sweet emerge in blockbuster Jewish memoir

Yelena Lembersky’s ‘Like a Drop of Ink in a Downpour’ is a surprisingly even-handed tale of escape from the Iron Curtain with her grandfather’s famous Babyn Yar massacre paintings

Yelena Lembersky, author of 'Like a Drop of Ink in a Downpour.' (Courtesy)
Yelena Lembersky, author of 'Like a Drop of Ink in a Downpour.' (Courtesy)

When she was a girl, Yelena Lembersky lived in a high-rise building on the outskirts of Leningrad, the Russian city today known as St. Petersburg. Her grandfather, Soviet artist Felix Lembersky, died in 1970, when she was still a baby and too young to remember him. But his paintings marked her earliest memories.

On special occasions, when visitors came to the apartment, furniture was moved and the canvases were taken out of the closet and lined up along the walls. Some of them were as tall as Yelena, and she liked to stand very close to them, running her fingers along the uneven surfaces of the layered paint.

One painting in particular attracted her attention, but she didn’t understand its meaning. Untitled, it was simply known as “Execution. Babi Yar” (also spelled Babyn Yar). This painting had never been exhibited in the Soviet Union, but posthumously it would become one of her grandfather’s most famous works. Painted soon after World War II, it is the first known depiction of the most infamous massacre the Nazis committed on Soviet territory.

“What is Babyn Yar?” Yelena asked her grandmother one day.

But her grandmother didn’t reply. Instead, she quickly walked over to the painting and turned it around to face the wall.

This is one of the scenes portrayed by Lembersky in her new book, “Like a Drop of Ink in a Downpour,” published in Boston this year. It is one of the very few English-language memoirs about life in Russia in the 1970s and ’80s authored by a Jewish woman.

Yelena Lembersky, author of ‘Like a Drop of Ink in a Downpour.’ (Courtesy)

“It took me at least 10 years to write it,” Lembersky tells The Times of Israel. “I didn’t think anyone would read it… I felt like by taking the time to work on it, I was taking time away from my family. I felt like it was a selfish thing to do.”

But the book has met with unexpected acclaim. Lembersky has been interviewed on National Public Radio in the United States and the book was Radio Boston’s first recommendation for this year’s summer reading.

The story, co-written with her mother Galina Lembersky, is a saga about trying to escape from the Soviet Union and save her grandfather’s paintings from being forgotten. Felix Lembersky’s more abstract works were not exhibited in the USSR because they didn’t conform to Soviet ideology and the art form called “Socialist realism” that Soviet artists were expected to adhere to, Yelena Lembersky explains.

Felix Lembersky’s painting of Babyn Yar, from 1944. (Courtesy Yelena Lembersky)

The mother and daughter — Lembersky’s father was estranged — eventually obtained visas to Israel and surrendered their Soviet passports. But just as they were ready to go, everything changed.

Lembersky’s mother was arrested for allegedly stealing three liters of rubbing alcohol from the hair salon where she worked. After a short trial, she was found guilty and sent to prison. But as Lembersky explains, this was just a transparent pretext, a KGB punishment for trying to escape the Iron Curtain.

“Everyone who tried to leave the country was seen as an enemy of the state. [The KGB found] any excuse [to arrest them], and there were repressions,” she says.

The prison sentence was exactly equal to the duration of their exit visas.

While her mother struggled to survive in prison, 11-year-old Lembersky was shuffled between acquaintances, sleeping first on an aluminum cot in the apartment of her mother’s coworker, then on the sofa of a generous old lady. Narrowly avoiding being sent to an orphanage, she feared all the time that she might be asked to leave if she did anything wrong. At the age of 12, she remembers asking passersby on the street for spare change to buy a milkshake.

Author Yelena Lembersky as a child in the former Soviet Union. (Courtesy)

“When I started writing, I imagined that I would write a very angry book about the Soviet Union,” Lembersky says. “For me, it’s about clearing my mother’s name. My mom still has this fabricated criminal case.”

But despite it all, the book doesn’t portray the Soviet Union as an evil empire. It poetically brings back a lost world, a country that no longer exists. Lembersky writes about the music teacher who gave her free lessons in his home, the art school where she was taught to draw with her eraser, the neighbor who would stop by to borrow some cash before payday but would stay for tea; even the aging alcoholic plumber who was rumored to beat his wife is portrayed as a sympathetic character in her nostalgic vision. As a toddler, Lembersky loved to sit on his lap, and she tells of how he threw her up in the air and caught her. She remembers him telling her grandmother how he wished that he had his own children.

“Here [in the United States] a lot has been said about how terrible life in the Soviet Union was. But many readers, especially young people, tell me that they like how life is portrayed in my book. It’s not stereotypical, it’s real life,” she says.

Jewish in the Soviet Union

“Like a Drop of Ink in a Downpour” is about many things — living in the USSR as a refusenik, Soviet prisons, the relationship between a mother and a daughter — but it also touches on what it was like growing up Jewish in the Soviet Union.

For instance, Lembersky wonders why in history class they learned about ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt, but not about ancient Jerusalem.

When she asks her grandmother to explain what the word “antisemite” means, the conversation takes a very strange turn.

“There were people called Semites in ancient Mesopotamia,” the grandmother answers.

“And the antisemites? Did they live across the street?” Lembersky asks.

“Perhaps. Don’t repeat this word,” the grandmother says.

Felix Lembersky’s ‘Portrait of the Artist’s Daughter,’ Leningrad, 1961. Oil on canvas. (Courtesy Yelena Lembersky)

The Holocaust was never mentioned in their home — the word didn’t even exist in the Russian language at the time, Lembersky observes. But even the words “pogrom” and “occupation” were never said aloud, and the word “Jew” was said in a hushed voice.

“In her oral chronicles of war, revised for the peace of mind of my mother and me, [my grandmother’s] younger brother Levushka did not perish during the [Nazi] occupation, but was killed on the northern front,” Lembersky writes. “My grandfather’s parents were not murdered by the Nazis in the shooting fields, along with thousands of Jews in Ukraine. No! They were killed in a bombing as they tried to evacuate, en route to safety. They died quickly and without suffering, so we don’t have to carry the heavy load of shame for our good life.”

When reading this, one wonders if many Jewish families in the Soviet Union kept similar secrets. And why? Because to speak of such horrors was terrifying? Or because there was an element of shame in talking about those who succumbed to the Nazi genocide?

“I think the reason [my grandmother] did not speak about the Holocaust is because she did not want us to live with this dark shadow,” Lembersky says. “But looking back, I think the knowledge of what happened would have protected us more.”

Felix Lembersky’s painting of Babyn Yar, from 1952. (Courtesy Yelena Lembersky)

There are also questions about her grandfather’s famous paintings. Felix Lembersky painted the massacres at Babyn Yar three times. When he depicted this unspeakable horror, he probably thought about his own parents, who were murdered in Berdichev, Ukraine, Lembersky says. And people often ask why the paintings contain no Jewish symbols — the people do not have a Star of David sewn onto their coats; they are not carrying a Torah scroll in their arms.

“Why should he paint them like that? Why should he paint them naked? That would perpetuate the atrocities and racism,” Lembersky says. “He was painting his parents. He was painting his mother and father. He was painting the human condition.”

Lembersky says she hopes her book will be translated into Hebrew and published in Israel.

“Twenty percent of Israel’s population is from the former Soviet Union. It’s their story too,” she says. “It’s a Jewish story.”

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