Sergey Kanovich
Memory is stronger than the bullets
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Dancing La Cumparsita with Frida

She sighed, looking somewhere far off in the distance: 'How long I have been waiting for you. How very long. All my life.'
A screenshot from Saulius Beržinis documentary "Petrified Time"
A screenshot from Saulius Beržinis documentary "Petrified Time"

“Šeduva? Oy, oy, oy. What’s your name? Sergey? Oy, great, come, I’m waiting. When will you arrive? Tomorrow. Really? Šeduva? Come. Oy…”

That’s how I rang into her life last spring. Neither I nor she knew what this encounter is about to bring. I have knocked at the chambers of people’s memories many times before knowing that for some the trip back into the past will be pleasant, while for others it will perhaps not be such a joyful return to memories stashed away in the most remote drawers.

I found Frida’s house easily enough, after all it wasn’t very long ago, just two decades ago, that I lived almost right there. She opened the door for me, so fragile, so small, always smiling. After listening to my short introduction about how some strange people were concerned with recording her life and those of her neighbors, their deaths and disappearance from their hometown, she sighed and, looking somewhere far off in the distance, as if at the Milky Way of memory, said:

“How long I have been waiting for you. How very long. All my life.”

We spoke for a long time afterward, she looked through the several photographs I had brought with me, and kept sighing whenever she saw one face or another which she, now a woman aged almost 96, hadn’t seen in over seven and half decades. Her memory and her energy kept surprising me, her optimism, her graceful, elegant movements and poise, as if those of a ballerina who had recently retired; it seemed as if she were floating in air. Such a smiling butterfly of memory, alighting now upon one, now upon another blossom, caressing it with her translucent wings and then flying off again to yet another. We said goodbye, I promised to come back. And I did. At her door now stood four of us: the gallant and cultured film director Saulius, the quiet operator Titas and the good fairy of our future museum, collecting everything, everything in her curator’s treasure, Milda. Frida embraced me, kissed me upon both cheeks, but before that was quick to pay heed to Saulius, who had kissed the wing-hand of the butterfly and poured forth a few unsupported words uttered for dear Frida’s hearing in Yiddish.

While Titas prepared the camera and lighting, Saulius chose the best angle and Milda put the notes in order and prepared to scan, Frida immediately started trying to get me to talk:

“You promised to return after a half year,” Frida objected politely, looking pleasantly at me.

“And I came back, Frida, you see I kept my promise,” I said.

“You promised to come back after a half year, and you came back?”

I began to count. Frida’s phenomenal memory was perfect here as well:

“Well yes, I visited you in April.”

“Oh! Well, what did I say? It’s January now! You think that two months here or three months there are nothing. Time passes differently for me now.”

We engaged her in conversation and filmed as much as we were able. Actually it was never enough and we visited her again and again, and again. The last time we returned with a very rich photo album from another family – a rich photo album dating back to her youth days in Šeduva. She attentively gazed at the photographs and remembered those who no one except her could ever recognize again. She told us more of the history of Šeduva and gave a start when for the first time since June 22, 1941 she saw her grandfather Rachmiel in an old faded photograph. Frida was 20 then. She was married to Shlomo from Radviliškis and carried on her arm her firstborn, the beautiful Rachmiel ben Shlomo with his curly locks, named in honor of her grandfather.

The camera kept filming. I no longer tired Frida with questions. She sat across from me on the sofa, supporting her head on her miniature palm, listening and singing along with Dolskis now one, now another of the songs of her youth, always keeping the beat with her other hand on her thigh.

“Sergey,” Frida asked, “but do you have any tango? Shlomo and I really liked dancing the tango.”

“Of course, Frida,” I replied.

The omnipotent internet after a few seconds of searching recommended that I play for Frida  play an Uruguayan tango recorded in 1930. Tango, the kind of music heard as well in that wooden barn on whose dirt dance floor Shlomo and Frida embraced each other  in the summer evenings in Šeduva. Then there were first chords of La Cumparsita – ta-ta-ta-ta, tarim-tararam-ta-ta-ta-ta… After several more, keeping time perfectly and silently singing along, ta-ta-ta-ta, Firda arose:

“Let’s dance,” she said, and softly embraced me.

Ta-ta-ta-ta, tarim-tararam-ta-ta-ta-ta, the old orchestra played. My whole life I dreamt of learning to tango, lordy, my whole life.

I danced with Frida.

We turned slowly, and I felt I wasn’t dancing with her, I was dancing with all of her memories, I was dancing, embracing not her – I was embracing her wedding, when secretly, from the Soviets, the rabbi blessed them both, I was dancing with her murdered grandfather, with the well from which she drew water for the Shabbes tea, I was dancing not with an elderly and attractive woman, but with her husband, hurrying to her in Germany after four years of not knowing what happened to her and her not knowing what happened to Shlomo, I was dancing with Shlomo who was going to Šiauliai, where he had returned from Dachau to wait for his wife, with her husband who, after coming back to Lithuania in 1947 was wondering if Frida was alive, with Shlomo who could only say to the messenger who brought him the news from Germany: “What, have the dead begun to resurrect already?” With the man who only was convinced Frida was alive when the messenger drew from his pocket cookies Frida had baked in Bergen-Belsen, I danced, ta-ta-ta-ta, tarim-tararam-ta-ta-ta-ta, with Shlomo, going by night from Šiauliai to his beloved Frida Itzkovich, to liberated Bergen-Belsen, I was dancing with a British military jeep whose soldiers had disembarked at Frida’s concentration camp, of whom one British officer who praised Frida’s wonderful Litvak Hebrew language made a promise and kept it: to come back in the evening with a cauldron of porridge, whose eating allowed some to live, while others died in the middle of digesting it, standing against the barracks walls for support and frozen there like religious statues bestowing blessings, left to gaze forever with unwavering eyes towards Germany’s western sky.

Ta-ta-ta-ta, tarim-taram-ta-ta-ta-ta I was dancing with the Bristish officer who fed Frida and who after many years will smile back at her from the television set after becoming president of Israel, Chaim Herzog, and Frida and another dozen inmates wanted to wash from his jeep all the filth of war, with their tears. I danced with the handsome curly Rachmiel (“Oh, what a child he was, oh what a beautiful child he was”), I was dancing with that moment when never, never, never again ta-ta-ta-ta, tarim-taram-ta-ta-ta-ta, she couldn’t find him, just as that day another six hundred mothers of the Šiauliai ghetto couldn’t find their daughters and sons.

I was dancing with her past, ta-ta-ta-ta, which, it seemed to me, despite all the losses, all of the misfortunes which fell–ta-ta-tra-ta, tarim-taram-ta-ta-ta-ta–upon the wings of this butterfly of memory, is warm like Frida’s cheek on my shoulder, as warm as her wing-hand in my palm.

And I don’t want, Ta-ta-ta-ta, tarim-tararam-ta-ta-ta-ta, I don’t want this dance to end, I want it to go on forever, so that Frida the butterfly and thousands of other butterflies wouldn’t drift off into oblivion, but would fly from person to person, from flower to flower, and the unheard fluttering of their wings would caress like the warmth of the summer night the curly heads of the babies.

The tango with Rachmiel ends. Thanking her, I escort Frida. “Too bad that I limp a little when I dance,” Frida says.

“You dance the tango wonderfully, Frida. Wonderfully.”

“I want to go to Šeduva. Will you take me to Šeduva? I dream about it.”

“Certainly, Frida. Certainly.”

I went outside. It was raining. My dream of dancing the tango has been fulfilled. And my tears along with the rain of the Israeli winter were washing the street lined with figs and palms. That’s where the butterflies who dance La Cumparsita live.

About the Author
Sergey Kanovich is Vilnius born poet and essayist founder of two NGO's - Litvak cemetery catalogue Maceva and Seduva Jewish Memorial Fund and the author of idea of the Museum of Lost Shtetl. Sergey currently is Project Manager of Lost Shtetl. In February 2018 for his efforts in preserving Litvak heritage the President of Lithuania awarded him with medal “For Merits To Lithuania”. Sergey holds a BA from Vilnius State University, faculty of philology
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