Collage by Olivia Beens

No Monument Stands

September 30, 1941


Anna waited until sundown to light the oven, impatient that these final days of September kept getting shorter. She had the bird trussed and oiled; she’d lined the pan with potatoes, onion, garlic, and carrots.  And yet she felt unsettled.  She wiped her hands on her embroidered apron and stared out the window on the bleak Chicago evening, watching for the men to return from shul as the sun set over the windy streets.  When she spied the first group, she would put the water to boil for the kugel.


Since the radio was silenced over the High Holy Days, she had not heard much news about the war in Europe, but she couldn’t shake her sense of unease. It wasn’t her daughters. They were clever girls, and she was proud that they were so American. When they’d heard from their friends that there were many civil service jobs opening in Washington, they went there and immediately found work in the War Department. They sent her postcards with photos of the Lincoln Memorial, cherry trees, and the White House and the news that they were being promoted. It seemed like practically every week they got new titles. She was surprised when they sent her ten dollars. “We got raises,” they wrote. “Buy yourself something special.” Oy, those smart girls, they knew their father was not much on presents. They were both married now to Jewish boys. No, the girls gave her no more worries. It was the war, too awful to comprehend. So far away, yet so close to home. Such ominous rumors of what was happening in Germany, Poland, and even France. It had been a while since she’d had a letter from Pavolitch. Uncle Velvel was so busy, he never had time to write.

The Forward had run a three-inch front-page headline when Hitler broke off the pact with Stalin in June.  Shortly after, she had received one of those cryptic letters from her childhood crush Moishe, who had barely been able to get out of France before the Nazi occupation. She was so relieved for him, but she hadn’t dared tell her husband that Moishe was on this side of the Atlantic. Harry didn’t like her receiving letters from men, even from this childhood friend. So she concealed Moishe’s increasingly frequent missives, each one decorated with whimsical sketches. He wrote that he was optimistic that the Soviet Army would prevent Hitler’s troops from reaching Moscow or their beloved Kiev. She wished she could hold this uplifting letter in her hand, to calm her fright, and read it over and over; but, of course, she had to destroy it like all the others, so that Harry would not know. And then there were the sparse, frightening radio bulletins. Last week, the BBC reported that the Nazis had crossed into the Ukraine and were heading to Kiev. Harry told her that could not be true. He said the British were just trying to put pressure on the Americans to enter the war by exaggerating the strength of the German army. She wanted to believe him.

But the radio said that Kiev was a strategic goal of the German invasion, along with Moscow and Leningrad. Under the Soviet’s Five-Year Plan, Kiev had been transformed into a key industrial city.  It would be a real prize for the Germans. She shivered thinking of what it must be like for her family and friends there, worried about Hitler’s advance. She hadn’t paid as much attention to what was going on in Germany and Poland; they had no people there. But now that Hitler had broken the nonaggression pact, the war struck closer to home.

She worried about her Uncle Velvel who had decided not to come to America with the rest of the family so many years ago. Her mother said it was because his wife was too sick to travel, and oh, how he loved that beautiful Batsheva. Anna thought differently.  She knew he believed in the dreams of the Bolsheviks and wanted to be part of their revolution. Just like she once had.

She remembered her uncle’s attentions during her childhood after her father had left for Chicago. Even now, decades later, she could easily conjure up Velvel’s smile under that bushy brown mustache, and his green eyes twinkling with silver.  His rough hands would scoop her up and hold her high. He always had something in his pocket for her: a barley sugar, a satin ribbon; after she learned to read, a small book or journal, sometimes a poem from Mayakovsky or Blok.

How she missed him after her mother took her to Chicago. Once his wife died, she thought for sure he would join them. Everyone said life would be better in America. But he never came. She discovered later that he had become a member of the Central Committee of the Kievskaya Bund. His letters had very little news about his life, but were full of questions about America. He was not like her other relatives who wanted to know about jobs and movie stars and the price of kosher meat. He wanted to know about the labor union strikes, Emma Goldman, and especially the Negroes.  Did she know any Negroes?  Had she read W. E. B. DuBois?  Had she ever heard DuBois speak?

Yesterday at the A&P, Anna froze in the vegetable aisle when she overheard an argument between two babushkas. The market was jammed; everyone was shopping for the best foods for the post-Yom Kippur feast. Yet the voices of these two women, loud and adamant, rose above the general din.  One claimed that the Germans had already reached Kiev and they had ordered all the Jews to report to the park at Babi Yar. “Stupid Germans, there’s nothing in that park — what would they do with them there?”

Waving her arm in contempt, the other woman shouted, “They’ll deport them, of course. Just like in France. The Germans are rounding up Jews all over the place and forcing them to work in their war factories making guns and tanks.”

“Ach, that’s just rumors.  Don’t be scaremongering!”

“It’s not idle talk. That’s what’s happening in Germany, my cousin wrote me.”

“Germany is a long way from Russia. Why would the Germans bother to take Jews all the way from Kiev just to work in their factories?”

“Hah, you’ll see,” the first woman said, before turning to pick over the cabbages and leeks, muttering curses.

Anna pictured the big park at Babi Yar, fragrant with flowering cottonwood and cedars. She remembered sitting with Uncle Velvel under the shade of a willow when he treated her and Moishe on a trip to the city. But the park was so far from the train station, it would not be practical to deport the Jews from there. Why wouldn’t they just order them to go to the train station? And why would they have to transport Jews to factories in Germany, when they could just take over the plants in Kiev and force them to work there? She knew the Germans were nothing if not efficient.

It was all rumors. No one really knew what was going on. Still, the shrill argument between those women rang in her ears. Tomorrow, when she could play the radio again, maybe there would be some solid news from Kiev to reassure her.  A letter from Pavolitch was probably too much to hope for; no one in the building had heard directly from home for a long time.

She parted the curtains to get a better view of Maxwell Street. It was darkening now and the street lights blinked on. The first group of boys in their yarmulkes and payes were running down Cottage Grove, their tallits flying, full of energy after sitting for hours during services. After fasting all day, they were already anticipating their mothers’ juicy brisket, roast potatoes and sweet tsimmes.

Anna lit the stove and turned the water on to boil for the kugel noodles. The kitchen was beginning to fill with the buttery sage aroma of the roasting chicken. She basted the carrots with a mixture of honey, lemon, and cinnamon. Soon those warm smells would fill the small apartment, a nice welcome for Harry after a day of fasting at shul. She surveyed the dining room. The table was set with her best linens and crystal glasses, but it seemed empty with only four place settings. The girls said they couldn’t leave their work in Washington, so it was only Harry and her and the Polashooks from upstairs. They, too, were from Pavolitch, like so many others in the building.  Practically a replica of the shtetl right here in Chicago’s Near Westside. Everyone knew everyone—sometimes a good thing, sometimes not. She knew the Polashooks still had people back home; maybe they would have more news. Please God, not another pogrom, it couldn’t be. Hadn’t the Soviet government outlawed pogroms and ended all the Jewish laws—no more ID cards, no more quotas at the universities? Wouldn’t the Red Army soldiers protect the Jews from Hitler’s storm troopers?

And the Jews themselves were much more organized now; they even had a reputation among the goys as fearless partisan fighters. Years ago, newly arriving relatives had told them that Uncle Velvel was revered for leading bold self-defense units around Kiev during the overthrow of the czar. Imprisoned for hiding a stash of pistols in the back of his watch repair shop, he escaped and joined the partisans.  Though her mother fretted when she heard these stories, Anna’s heart filled with pride, and a little envy. Those early reports were followed by years of silence. For such a long time, no one knew whether he was dead or alive. How she missed him.

It was almost a decade after the victory of the October Revolution when they finally had a letter from her uncle. He had returned to Kiev and was in the regional soviet, assigned first to land reform, then education.  “Annele,” he wrote, “you’re such a reader.  I wish you could come and help these children learn. They’ve never held a book before, and they’re so eager, just like you were, my little ketzele.”  Anna longed to go, but was already married to Harry and knew it was impossible.  After that letter, they lost track of him again. Would he survive a German invasion?

Anna shivered even though she was wearing her good blue wool dress and the oven had warmed the kitchen.

She was tempted to switch on the wireless to hear the war news. Maybe her premonitions were completely unfounded, and would be disproved by reports from Europe. Maybe the Soviets had finally stopped Hitler’s army. Harry would disapprove if he came in and the radio was playing. He would assume she’d had it on the whole day, the Day of Atonement, when it was sin to turn on the electric. Of course she knew that, so despite the temptation she had not turned it on. Despite her restraint, he would probably doubt her and assume she had listened. He always doubted her.  Ach, Harry would never understand her.

She salted the simmering water and dropped in the egg noodles. Taking the gefilte fish and horseradish out of the icebox, she placed the rosy, salted ovals on a green glass platter, interspersing the fish with sprigs of parsley and slices of bright orange carrots. The first course would be ready to eat as soon as they lit the candles.

As she went back into the living room, she kissed her fingers and pressed her hand to the tzedakah box, a blessing on our house. On the wall above was Moishe’s pen-and-ink sketch of their old village: chickens, goats, sunflowers, and a klezmer musician who looked just like Uncle Velvel. She couldn’t help giving the glass frame a kiss too, and adding a blessing on our Pavolitch. Then she returned to her vigil at the window and watched the steady line of men, their fur collars turned up against the wind, hurrying towards the building in the dusk.


Author's Comment

In today’s world of instant communication, it is hard to imagine how long it took during World War II for news of great political and personal importance to be transmitted. On Yom Kippur 1941, the Nazis ordered 34,000 Jews to Babi Yar, a huge park on the outskirts of Kiev, ordered them to strip naked, shot them, and buried them in large pits. It took months before reports of this massacre reached the United States; meanwhile the Nazis slaughtered Roma, Ukrainian partisans, and Soviet prisoners of war at the site. In 1961, Yevgeny Yevteshenko wrote a poem decrying the murders and the lack of official recognition of this tragedy.


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Elaine Elinson is coauthor of Wherever There's a Fight: How Runaway Slaves, Suffragists, Immigrants, Strikers, and Poets Shaped Civil Liberties in California, winner of a Gold Medal in the California Book Awards. She was named a San Francisco Public Library Laureate in 2010. A former ACLU communications director, Elinson is a book reviewer and writing workshop leader. The title of this story is the first line of Yevgeny Yevteshenko’s poem “Babi Yar,” which commemorates the site of a notorious Nazi massacre of Ukrainian Jews during the Holocaust.

Mixed-media artist Olivia Beens lives and works in New York City. She explores issues of culture, identity, and feminism through the lens of personal experience and is especially interested in the “sacred and profane” in art.

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