The first Purim I remember began in sadness and ended in joy.
It was 1946, and World War II had finally come to an end. My family was back from Siberia, where we had spent most of the war years (our mother had passed away). Now, in our one-room Moscow home, my two brothers and I were sitting on the floor playing chess. That is, my oldest brother was trying to coax me, or perhaps I should say coerce me, into playing chess with him. He was just about to give my hand a forceful push so that I would move the rook across the chessboard, when the door opened and in walked a tall uniformed soldier. It was our uncle Itche Mordche, returning from war.
His World War II had finally come to an endwife, who was my mother’s sister Rivka, and their baby had been murdered by the Nazis in their hometown. And now Itche Mordche had returned from war and wanted to find out what he could about his family, whom he had left behind when he went away to fight three years ago.
Our uncle asked us when our father would be home. My older brother told the visitor that Papa would come home after work.
Then the soldier began to examine some spoons and a plate that were on the table in the middle of the room. The plate was caked with the days-old remnants of something that used to be food. Next he looked inside our little food cupboard, which was hiding forlornly in a corner of the room. Then he went to the kitchen, which we shared with our neighbors, and examined our private kosher cooking space there. Every place our uncle looked was empty of food.
The soldier left.
We didn’t expect the visitor to return, but sometime that afternoon the door opened and there was Itche Mordche again. And this time, nestled in his hands was the biggest loaf of black pumpernickel that my brothers and I could remember seeing.
For decades, waiting long hours to receive a ration of bread was part of life in Soviet Russia.
“A freilichen Purim!” [“Happy Purim!”] the soldier boomed, dropping the black loaf on the table with a loud thump. He took off his green military jacket, and ceremoniously pushed up one shirt sleeve and then the other. Then he picked up the bread knife that was on the table, and proclaiming, “Shalach monos, a freilichen Purim!” our guest began to work on the pumpernickel, splitting it into chunks, while three hungry pairs of eyes stared at the knife in their uncle’s hand as it moved up and down and side to side on the black loaf.
(The next day, after Itche Mordche had left, my brothers and I speculated about how our uncle had procured the bread. My oldest sibling, who in my eyes was an expert on practically everything, came up with this scenario: When Itche Mordche left us earlier that day, he went to the bread store, which was mobbed with people eager to buy bread. Using his strong fighting elbows, the soldier delivered a left jab, then a straight right, then a front punch, and all the while he kept muttering loudly over and over again, “Daetee, daetee, golodniyae daetee.” [“Children, children, hungry children.”] And so the line at the bread store had split in front of our uncle, and he crossed all the way to the head of the bread line.)
After handing each one of us our meal, our uncle went to the kitchen to wash his hands. He whispered a blessing over the bread. Undoubtedly, he was thankful to G‑d for allowing him to acquire this bread, which was drawn out of G‑d’s good earth in time of hunger. Then he sat down at the table. And all four of us ate our first Purim meal, leaving a sizeable portion of bread for later, when we would have a second meal with our father.Deep sighs punctuated their whispered words
After we finished eating, while waiting for Papa to come home, our uncle and my older brother played chess together happily. And I was glad not to be forced to move the chess pieces at my brother’s commands.
When the chess game was finished, Aunt Rivka’s husband sat silently, waiting to talk to Father, who could give him information about his wife and his baby.
Father came home. After they greeted each other, and ate a Purim meal consisting of more black pumpernickel, Father and Uncle sat on chairs facing each other, talking. Deep sighs punctuated their almost whispered words about mass graves and the date of Aunt Rivka and her baby’s yahrtzeit. Tears, bright like tiny crystals, glistened in the tall soldier’s eyes.
The next day Uncle Itche Mordche left Moscow. That year he succeeded in joining many chassidic Russian Jews who escaped the Soviet Union. Once out of the Soviet Union, our uncle made his way to England, where he remarried and began a new family and a new life. I never saw him again.
My father, brothers and I left Russia as well. After several years of wandering through Europe, we came to America.
The author with her father and brothers in France, on their way to the U.S. (Photo courtesy of the author)
Decades later, in my American home one Purim. The reading of the Megillah; the sound of graggers; the clamor of children, toddlers and adults; the delicious homemade sesame candy, After several years of wandering, we came to Americahamantaschen and hot chocolate all mixed together to create the happy atmosphere that celebrates the Jewish people’s victory over evil.
I was sitting quietly amid the roar, and let my thoughts wander. In my mind’s eye, here was Uncle Itche Mordche rolling up his sleeves one at a time and booming, “Happy Purim! May all the Hamans have a downfall, and we should have warmth, happiness and great celebrations all together!” In my mind’s eye, a circle of children would mill around Itche Mordche, and he would dance with all the children and make l’chaims in fine Purim spirit.