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A Ukrainian Family’s Sadness and Strength

Review of The Circles of Life, by Anna Aizic, published by Meir House Press, 2014.

Ukraine is frequently in the headlines lately. It is a place filled with inordinate amounts of bad karma for Jews–from the vicious enthusiasm of WWII Nazi collaborators to the 17th-century hero of Ukrainian Nationalism Bohdan Chmielnicki, whose statue still besmirches a main square in Kiev. Among Jewish people, that man was known for his intention to eradicate Jewish life in Ukraine. Ukraine is a place where escape has sometimes been the most viable option.

Not surprising, then, that a family history following the lives of Ukrainian Jews from pre-war Odessa and beyond would be filled with pathos. Written as a series of letters to no one in particular, the book traces a mostly chronological journey through of an Odessa-based Jewish-involved family. The quirky format, random typos, and odd syntax were jarring but ultimately charming and served to draw the reader into the heart of a family of gifted, intelligent activists whose lives at various points are crushed by history, bureaucracy, and evil. But these people also flourish against all odds. An enthusiasm for life and possibilities pervades the pages.

The author, Anna Aizic, was born in Odessa, grew up in Israel, and now lives in Bergen County. Her descriptions of that Black Sea town with its acacia trees, resort beaches, and cobblestone streets are hauntingly beautiful, while at the same time darkened by the corruption, antisemitism, and unrelenting poverty of life under Communism. Pogroms are part of Odessa’s history.

Aizic’s idolized grandfather, Meir Davidovich Skulski, known as Zeida, ran an underground Hebrew language school–the first ulpan in Odessa–from his small apartment where floor-to-ceiling bookcases covered most walls. A month after his death in May 1971, the author, her sister, and her parents left for Israel. They had requested permission to leave about a year earlier and that was when their sort of charmed life began to change. Her father lost his job as a chemical engineer at a major pharmaceutical company, and to survive the family began to sell their fascinating accumulation of treasures. The author regards everything as an adventure and as she parts with beloved toys and gifts at an open-air market in Odessa, she is fascinated with the other vendors and the street life opening before her.

She carries this sense of wonder and fun throughout the book. One longs for a happy ending when the family reaches Israel; however, real life is not so perfectly packaged. But again they take things in stride, surround themselves with happy, confident, optimistic, cultured people and plunge into the dream. Her father, an inveterate collector, manages to fill their Ashkelon apartment with antique daggers, his own paintings, and “a few mammoth ivory pieces my father had managed to get from Russia which were decorated with skillful seal-hunting engraving by the Inuits.” But the center doesn’t hold. Life rubs raw sometimes and so it is with life in Israel for these amazing people.

The book seems to be written for the author’s two children, but it also includes the reader in the world of upheaval and renewal.

“There were so many amazing stories from our family’s journey about things that had also affected many other people of that time, and all that was too important to not document and just let fade away. Each one of us has a story to tell, don’t we?”

The reader may be left wanting to reexamine and review his/her own life, to share stories and painful secrets. This book reveals sad clandestine tales, nonetheless disturbing for not being totally unexpected. Even the known recollections carry an almost unrelenting despondency. Although opening up the hidden stories yields a strength of sorts, the collective sadness envelops the reader–we mourn for our past together. And along with that shared unhappiness, we feel the author’s compelling positive energy, which propels her forward and pulls the reader along into the circles of life.

Helen Weiss Pincus is a freelance writer, exercise instructor, and editor of Yediot Yeshurun.

By Helen Weiss Pincus

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