Some Preliminary Thoughts

Lev Bolotnikov, 1932–2023

Meet Lev

Lev Bolotnikov, 1959. Black and white photo of stern-faced young man with dark hair, a tunic with geometric patterns visible under his jacket

Photo taken ca. 1959. Note Uzbek patterns on the tunic.

Marina's grandfather, Lev, passed Wednesday at the age of 91; his funeral is tomorrow, July 16. He was a lover of jazz, of animals, of art and architecture and walking around St. Louis’s vast parks and museums—the slices of the old world he could still find in the new.

He was also deeply, indelibly afflicted by the trauma of the Holocaust. This is true of entire generations of European Jews, but their stories are all distinct. With every death, we lose some of that memory. So this is Lev’s story—one of many.

Detail of map depicting Operation Barbarossa in 1941. Minsk was occupied by 27 June, Babruysk by 13 July, and Rogachev and Gomel by 25 August

Via Wikimedia/US Mil. Acad.

Today, we see the Nazi invasion of the USSR through lines on a map, or through grandiose, cinematic images of massed tanks and planes. For nine-year-old Lev, the experience was one of confusion as paratroopers landed in his hometown of Babruysk and as the foe captured the capitol Minsk. It was an exhausting, 37-mile walk, days ahead of the advancing fascists, to Rogachev, and then a trip further east in a packed cargo train. It was backbreaking work on a collective farm in Voronezh; an orphanage in sweltering Tashkent, 2,000 miles from home, after losing his mother to starvation and his father to conscription.

And yet, Lev was one of the lucky ones. His family could have stayed in Babruysk—many other Jews did. After all, they had survived the pogroms of the Tsarist era, and the chaos of civil war barely two decades earlier. Babruysk was, at the dawn of the 20th century, a majority Jewish city. Even after a decade of Russification, it was known as the city of 40 synagogues. Until 1938, the state emblem of the Byelorussian SSR had “workers of the world, unite” in Yiddish alongside the Russian, Belorussian, and Polish.

The state emblem of the Byelorussian SSR: Hammer and sickle over a rising sun over a globe, under an arch of oat, wheat, and clover, and bearing the motto "Works of the world, unite" in Russian, Belorussian, Yiddish, and Polish

Yiddish on the bottom-left; via Wikimedia

Almost all the Jews who stayed behind were forced into ghettos, then shot, then buried in mass graves. Few survived, often as partisans. Twenty thousand were killed from Babruysk alone: I could give each of them the space I’m giving Lev here if I re-wrote War and Peace's 1300 pages—fifteen times over.

The traumas of evacuation Lev endured were a shared experience of nearly all Soviet Jews, for the simple reason that those who survived the war were those who evacuated.

Lev lived a long life after the war—in Tashkent, then Babruysk, then St. Louis. He cared deeply for his daughter, who remembers him giving her too much food and too many layers of clothes every morning before school, and his granddaughter. He worked long and hard, well into retirement, but still found time outside of work to repair his neighbors’ homes. He was proud to have worked hard enough to own his apartment in Babruysk, and his own 1990 Cadillac in St. Louis—he insisted on maintaining the latter long after neither he nor it would drive again.

Smiling man (me) and woman (marina) on the left and right of an elderly man (Lev), with a cake in front of him reading "Happy Birthday Lev"

Lev's 90th birthday

Yet so much of what made him Lev Bolotnikov, the man I was proud and honored to know, was likely forged in those terrifying years: his pain at leaving Babruysk once again, five decades later; his deep suspicion of all authorities and institutions, from Putin’s Russia to the hospital where he spent his final weeks. He tempered an immigrant's appreciation of the opportunities his granddaughter found here with an intuitive understanding of many of America's ills—from its hostile urban geography to its kafkaesque healthcare system–and a refugee's knowledge that what comfort and safety we have can be taken from us without warning.

Lev’s memory will, and must, live on. Because he was Lev. But also because we lose something when we see history through lines on a map, as titanic clashes of industrial leviathans. It’s hardly an original observation to see the loss of Lev’s generation as deeply tied to the rise of today’s particular strains of antisemitism and totalitarian nationalism.

I’m no scholar of genocide or historical memory, so I won’t extrapolate too much. But the evil that depicts a nine-year-old boy and his family as a harm to society (which still has apologists in surprising places), or sees any class of people solely as vectors of threat or disease (which is even more popular), is a precondition for so many other evils. As Lev’s family remembers him this weekend, see what you can do to see the individual people fleeing calamity and working hard to build a better life, often far from a home they deeply miss. By refusing to abstract away our shared humanity, you’ll make it that much harder to extinguish it.

Marina's written a bit about Lev on Twitter & Instagram. You can also read more about her own experience as a 1.75-gen immigrant in The Forward.

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