During the Making History Together programme, we ask the participants to read the excerpt above and write a short piece in which they pretend to be living through the quickly changing times of the early Soviet Union. They have complete creative freedom and the pieces can come in all forms. Most of the contributors are 13 years old. Here is a selection:
From around the age of three, when I went to my brother’s Bar Mitzvah, I began to plan my own. In our shtetl, whenever there is a big celebration, there is a bustle in our village as everyone excitedly runs around helping with the preparations.
The years ticked by, and the days until my Bat Mitzvah were getting closer. I was extremely excited as people started to get busy organising my special event. My brothers had gone with my father to the market to buy fresh berries for the fruit salad. Women were running in and out of houses carrying large trays of challah and pots of chicken soup – the unique smell of shabbat. There was a buzz of people cooking, building and laughing which made me want to leap into the air.
But then we heard the devastating news announced so matter of factly on my father’s wireless radio. No bar or bat mitzvahs are to be allowed. My legs shaking, I ran to ask my parents what to do and my mother said, “Devorah darling, there is no other choice, we must cancel it, we do not want to be imprisoned or worse”. I stared into my mother’s solemn eyes and tried not to cry – I did not want to upset her further.
By now, the guests would have arrived and the music would have started playing but instead I am in my room, alone in the dark. I must learn from this never to raise my expectations.
– Ella C.
22nd February 1928
I was extremely excited for my upcoming Bar Mitzvah at the shul in our shtetl of Babruysk with our friends and family, when the Soviets began a pogrom to wipe out all the Jews in our area. When I first heard the news, I was petrified. I asked my parents, “What is happening?” as we sat trembling in our home where our family have lived for generations. Recently, when I have walked down the street to school or accompanied my mother with the shopping in the village, Soviet soldiers have tormented and spat at us. As loud as a gun, they shout, “Dirty Jews.” Under this new Soviet system, any form of organised religion is prohibited and punishable by death. Everyone in the Soviet Union is declared a Russian – but we are not all equal. Bystanders watch on the side of the streets as soldiers and Soviet officials strike Jews with their batons, and most observe, amused by the spectacle. I cannot see how we can continue to live here.
My mother came back from the neighbouring village, traumatised, as the friendly fruit seller refused to sell his produce to her, just because she is Jewish. This was a shock as we had been buying food from him for years. My father used to be a trader in the local area, but he cannot find any work as people will no longer buy his stock as they think he is untrustworthy.
A few days ago, an angry mob beat up my father and left him for dead on the street. Luckily, our neighbour helped him home and my mother has been at his bedside ever since. I’ve heard my mother and father whispering about us moving away. They mentioned my father’s cousin, who lives in France. I have no idea how we will get there. I have never been on a train, but this seems to be our plan.
– Leo M.
Never Truly Lost
Lost in the dark
Our identities stolen
Oppressed and shunned
For who we are
But it does not work
They may think
That we are weakened
But they cannot change our core
Who we will always be
We are sons and daughters Brothers and sisters
Fathers and mothers
We are family
We are Jewish
And we are proud.
– Logan L.
Dear Uncle Samuel,
How are you? I haven’t seen you much recently, but I am writing to you as I am wondering what my bar mitzvah will be like with the Soviets hanging around. I’m not even sure I will have one at all. I have a few questions for you also? Do you know why my classmates have stopped letting me play football with them, or not allowing me to walk back home with them? When I asked them they said it was because I am Jewish. What’s wrong with that? I feel scared. Will my Bar Mitzvah even happen? I hope so. And I want these people to go.
– Natan J.
When everything you know and love is taken away, what is left?
Is it the music of a fallen crow, a song as sad as the wild waves be,
The weight of the melodies crashing down on me in guilt,
The lost voice of time trying to sing and dance and shout, as if wanting to leap; never to land.
Is it the fire, soaring out of reach, touching the sky, only to miss by a mile or,
The flames of a heart soaring into the night with golden heat,
The hate of a mind that is blinded by the unknown.
What’s left is memory.
The memory of being who you are,
The memory of living freely,
The memory of being a person.
We are all human, so what is our difference?
The memory burns until we can only wish for what we lost.
The people who are blind to us,
The people who do not care,
Will never know what it is like to be in the shade from everything around you.
That’s what is left when all you know and love is gone.
You are left with the memory of who you are.
I am Jewish and I’m scared.
– Tamara L.
In this bittersweet time,
1930s Soviet Union is not a welcoming place for Jews
And yet with my Bar Mitzvah approaching speedily
The preparations for my 13th birthday hushed up and minimal
I cling on to hope
Anti-Semitism is all around the streets
And no one to stop the perpetrators of hate;
Not a care in the world
I am ‘just a Jew’ and we are
An unimportant minority.
Still, I try to remain optimistic for a better future.
Me, my family my neighbours, my town
We must all stick together
And not lose out Jewish identity
Not to the Soviet Union , not to anyone
– Yishai E-L.
I’m almost 13! Only 4 more days until I turn into a man! I’ve been practicing for my Bar Mitzvah for over a year now and am very excited to see how all the work paid off. Sadly, due to reasons I’m still confused about, and that my parents are not going to tell me, my Bar Mitzvah won’t be at the Brest Choral Synagogue . We are only able to invite close family like my Grand-papa who’s guiding my mitzvah and we also have to be very quiet when doing it which will be difficult. Even with these difficult precautions I will stay strong and become a man. I will tell you how it goes after I finish in a future letter.
– Ziggy S.