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A Blessed Curse

A Blessed Curse

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I departed for Leningrad, full of optimistic expectations and dreams of scientific pursuits and other lofty subjects. I was sixteen-and-a-half years old.

At the platform of the Warsaw railroad station I was met by Uncle Naum, a cousin of my mother. He was a widower whose wife had died of hunger during the siege of Leningrad. They had never had any children.

He received me like a son. He had a room in a large communal apartment on the Petrogradsky side. This once-splendid dwelling was now occupied by five families, with shared kitchen and hallways, presenting a classic example of a communal apartment. There I saw for the first time a kitchen with five tables and five primus burners. Even more amusing: in the bathrooms there were five separate lights. Next to the light switches on the wall hung a homemade placard on which was written: "Seat! Don't flood it and don't dirty it! Respect yourself and others!"

Leningrad caught me by surprise and won me over. I arrived there in the second half of June when the white nights were already coming to an end. But something of them still remained to excite the soul.

Having come to Leningrad while still a young man, Uncle Naum, like most Leningrad old-timers, was unrestrainedly proud of his city and in love with it. He took me to the great boulevards and squares, to the bridges crossing the silvery brilliance of the Neva River. He took me to Peterhof and to the Tsarkoye Selo Village and showed me the Hermitage, deriving unspeakable delight from the deep impression which these places made upon me. Even more marked than the clear aesthetic impression of the city was the contact it gave me into with history. For the first time in my life I met things about which I had read in textbooks, in the works of Pushkin and Dostoevsky--places and events which until then I had thought were separated from me by the barriers of irreversible time. The possibility of crossing the bridge over the Winter Ditch, of walking along the casemates of the Petropavlovskaya Fortress, of going right up to the Bronze Horseman, seemed to me, somehow, wondrous.

Leningraders impressed me. Many of them --at least at the time--were distinguished by erudition, by readiness to help one another, and by very touching sentiments toward their city.

However, there wasn't much time for enjoying interesting sights. My entrance examinations were approaching, and I had to prepare for them.

The exams began. That was in the summer of 1948; Stalin had already delivered his famous toast to the "great Russian people." Mikhoels had been murdered already. The epoch of Jewish newspapers, theaters, and publishing houses was reaching its last days. The era of the Stalin-Zhdanov ideological decrees against "cosmopolitanism" was beginning. Rumors spread that institutions of higher learning were going to be restrictive about accepting Jews, particularly in schools of nuclear physics.

I did well in the examinations. True, in the oral examination on Russian literature an unpleasant incident occurred. After I had thoroughly answered all the questions on the examination form, plus several additional ones, the woman examiner threw this question at me: "At what time of day and to whom did Korobochka go after Chichikov visited her!" I, honestly, had read Gogol's Dead Souls all the way through more than once, but when and to whom this Korobochka had gone I couldn't recall. "You have shown disrespect to my national writer," the examiner angrily accused me, emphasizing the word "my"-- and struck me down with a three.

Despite this unpleasantness, my average mark was on the level of the best students taking the examination. Moreover, my three was in literature, and I was applying to the physical-mechanical faculty. Yet when they posted the lists I found myself among those rejected. After the tears in my eyes dried, I started to study the lists in greater detail, and I found nearly fifty obviously Jewish names among those not accepted. I could not find a single such name among those that were accepted. My discovery not only did not console me, but it shocked me even more.

I was ashamed to tell Uncle Naum what had happened, and there was no one else with whom I could share my feelings. The tram ride home from the end of the Viborgsky site of the Polytechnical Institute to Uncle Naum's apartment took close to an hour. But this was not enough time for me to calm down sufficiently to feel able to talk with anybody.

I didn't drink vodka, and therefore all I could do was go to the grocery and buy two pieces of pastry and eat them. Finally, all the same, I had to go home and tell Uncle Naum what had happened. To my great surprise, my news didn't shock him very much. First of all, he just naturally didn't understand what it meant to me to see my dreams of being a physicist wrecked. Secondly, it did not strike him as either impossible, surprising or new that I had been rejected because I was a Jew.

The next morning I went to the Institute to protest and plead my case. I knew that the vice rector of the Institute was Professor Levy. I had seen him once. He had a definitely Jewish appearance and spoke in an unusually thin voice, pronouncing the "r" more gutturally than most Jews. True, I didn't know then that he was called Ivan Ivanovitch and that his father had been baptized.

The secretary didn't let me see Levy, but I firmly resolved to wait for him at the door of his office. Evening had set in already when he appeared, making his way to the exit. I followed him. I was very agitated since I had never spoken face to face with a Professor before. We left the building. There was a strong thunderstorm, pouring rain. We jumped over puddles, and the wind muffled my voice. "Tell me," I pleaded, "tell me just one thing. They didn't accept me because I'm a Jew, right?" He replied something about the equality of all nationalities in the Soviet Union and added that the next day they were going to suggest that those who had not been accepted should enroll in other faculties. Then he disappeared in the wet, lightning-blazed darkness.

I remained standing there drenched, humiliated and miserable, not yet knowing then that, possibly, this moment--when I deeply and painfully understood that I was not like all the others around me because I was a Jew--was the start of the most important and fortunate turning point in my life. I was not able to know then that three thousand years ago the Almighty had said to the Jewish people: "Here I give you a blessing and a curse, life and death. Choose life." Naturally I did not realize yet at that moment the blessing and therefore far from feeling the happiness of being a Jew, I deeply felt the curse. But this was great progress in comparison to the time when I was certain that I was the same as everyone else.

From Return (Feldheim 1982), by Professor Herman Branover
Artwork by Sarah Kranz.
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Mimi Brooklyn June 12, 2011

A blessing and a curse... I am a black Jewish woman in America.Just try it for a day. Reply

Anonymous August 12, 2010

It is an odd thing about humans. We tend to consider that we are all alike until a jolt or a shaking up, shows us that we really are different. Sometimes that is a bit of knowledge worth the hassle to find out.
Jews have become better people, in no small part, because of the troubles they endured and rose above.
If everyone loved and accepted Jews, would they have survived the centuries? Or would they have blended into the larger groups and ceased to be a people?
Many times I have wondered about Jewish history and marveled. Reply

bruce glencoe, IL May 15, 2005

History repeats itself This story is symptomatic of Jewish history e.g. Jews were forbidden to study torah in public during Roman occupation. Rabbi Akkiba was tortured for such an act. However, as Jews continued to study Torah, so did you study within your vocation; that too is our lot. Reply