art by Justine McGreevy
Seven Losses of Na Re
by Rose Lemberg
My life is described by the music of mute violins. When my parents married, my great-grandfather, may the earth be as a feather, ascended the special-guests podium, cradling the old fiddle to his chest. "And now the zeide will play the wedding melody," they said. "A special blessing," they said, a sgule, a royal blessing. But the bow fell from his fingers.
When I was born, my parents couldn't name me. They wanted a name na Re, which means "beginning with the letter R," after my great-grandmother. She was born Rukhl, the brilliant daughter of a penniless shlimazl cobbler. As the revolution fumbled all archetypes, they called her Rakhil'ka; a kind of ironed, bronze-buttoned, bright-Soviet-future Rukhl. Later even Rakhil'ka became too bourgeois, and my great-grandmother changed her name to Roza, Roza like the beautiful Jewish communist in the propaganda film Seekers of Happiness. They banned that film long before I was born. And by the time I was born, Rakhil'--or worse yet, Rukhl--was a name never to be uttered in polite company. Roza was reserved for aging fat Odessan fish peddlers with a mole on their upper lip.
In addition to Roza, my parents rejected Regina (pretentious), Renata (pretentious), Rimma (low-brow), Rita (uncultured), Raisa (worse than Rita), Rina (too Jewish), Roxana (too Ukrainian), Rostislava (too Russian), and Raya ("I just don't like it").
Na Re bypasses names--bypasses the rest of the sounds that would make me too pretentious, too low-brow, too bourgeois, too communist, too Jewish, too goyish. The letter R doesn't have a history. The letter R does not remember Stalin.
All letters of the alphabet remember Stalin. The repressions started before 1937, and lasted long after. They took my grandfather because he was an historian.
History and memory are not the same. History must be written, made, organized. Memory is herded on trans-Siberian trains, memory disappears in labor camps, memory pines and withers from hunger, memory freezes under fallen lumber, memory thaws and erases all traces. My grandfather remembers. He was composing a dictionary of Russian synonyms in his head, and this is what kept him alive. He couldn't compose history there. Or since.
Snow: blizzard, frost, permafrost, firn, cold shower naked on the snow (see also under punishment), snowstorm, graupel, rime, ice, névé, gale, absence, my little girl is safe elsewhere, whiteout.
They let my grandfather go in 1965. Stalin was dead, and so was Beria. My grandmother, Roza's daughter, had prostituted herself, so grandfather believed, because he no longer remembered their little girl. And after the shouting was done, my grandmother became opaque to him, thawing like absence over timber, buried under Siberia, gone. History is events and processes, history is rustling archives. It's oral interviews conducted inside the safety of the future, protected by course assignments and gleaming recording hardware. Memory compacts the permafrost under skin. When skin thaws, we are left with nothing.