I think we all have an incident from our childhoods when we Got Caught Doing Something Wrong and then spent the next few days (or weeks, or longer depending on what you did) expecting doom to befall us. The sheer terror you can feel as a child is overwhelming, especially when you can’t quite comprehend the exact extent of your wrongs beyond the worst possible scenario. In grade school I accidentally let slip a family secret to a classmate and cowered in terror for ages waiting for it to come back to me. Now that I’m grown I know that the secret was nothing particularly horrible and could reasonably ride the same situation out, even if I did feel embarrassed for having told it (honestly I’d tell you the secret now, but it needs a ton of context, and this story is not about me.)
The problem with growing up in the Soviet Union was, the worst possible scenario you could come up with was a lot worse, and a lot more likely.
There were always books and songs and information that was “forbidden” in the USSR. The list changed constantly with The Times (not that anyone had ever even seen that list), and sometimes a book that had been forbidden before was suddenly reprinted. Or vice versa; a book you still had that had been printed ten years before suddenly became forbidden. (Books printed during the late fifties and early sixties, during Kruschev’s “thaw”, were especially susceptible to this.) Since The Times were relatively more relaxed than when under Stalin, people were more reluctant to part with their books. Among Jews, the “People of the Book”, it was even more unlikely that reading material would be purged. So Mama, as a normal Jewish child, was given free reign to read anything in the Jewish households she visited. In one of them, she found a poem.
This is where Bobrik comes in. At this time, Bobrik had already been asshole enough to Mama, but he hadn’t singled her out personally just yet. During one of his classes, instead of writing notes, Bobrik found Mama transcribing, from memory, that poem she had read. It didn’t have anything anti-Soviet in it. It was about a Jew who went about his day, and mentioned that he was a Holocaust survivor. Mama liked it and had read it many times, mostly because it was so hard to find anything written about Jews at all. She has a memory that is as close to eidetic as I have ever met, and she was simply making herself a copy of that poem when she had a free moment.
Bobrik held Mama after class. He interrogated her over and over about where she had read that poem, and who had given her the material. She hadn’t realized that the poem was so dangerous and perhaps it wasn’t, but Bobrik certainly wanted her to think so. All through the interrogation Mama refused to say anything about where the poem had come from. If she had been a few years older she would have known to say that she had found it abandoned in a telephone box, which was the standard answer to where one had obtained questionable material. She could have also asked how Bobrik knew it was forbidden, but she was twelve and frightened. Bobrik didn’t get anything out of Mama except a personal problem with her.
The state of terror Mama was in was so fierce that at some point, she found herself sitting on a bench a few blocks from school with her coat around her shoulders and no memory of how she had gotten there. Ira had waited for Mama to go home with her, and having seen the state Mama was in, had grabbed Mama’s coat and chased her down as she left the school in a daze. Mama came back to with Ira shaking her.
Mama hadn’t noticed what was happening because her mind had been swimming with what she may have just brought upon herself, her family, and anyone else who claimed a close relation to her. Her mother could lose her job, which could get her arrested as a “parasite” and Mama sent to an orphanage. Ira’s father, Uncle Lyova, whose library held the magazine, might also be implicated and have the same or worse done do him. If they were reported, the KGB could decide Mama and her mother were a risk and have them exiled to Siberia. All these things were theoretically quite possible.
(Even the memory of this is so bad that Mama had to get up to pace as she tells me this.)
Ira was panicked; she had to get to art school, but she couldn’t leave Mama alone in the state she was in, so she did the smartest thing she could think of: she took Mama by the hand and led her to the nearby home of another Jewish classmate, where the father was a lawyer. Ira left Mama on their doorstep, and when the father answered the door, he got one look at Mama’s face and said “come in, I’ll give you some tea with Valerian.”
(Valerian is an herb thought by Russians to have calming effects. It is better known in America as Catnip.)
Uncle Tasya listened to Mama’s tale, and then he said, pensively, “Of course he’ll never be able to prove it was forbidden. But then again, when have they ever needed proof?” Eventually, when Mama was calmed down sufficiently, Uncle Tasya told her to go to school the next morning, pretend that the incident had never occurred, and that it would probably blow over. He was right. The day’s events were never mentioned again — either Bobrik figured out that the poem wasn’t necessarily forbidden, or his devious little mind preferred to leave Mama in a state of fear of the sudden and unknown, or some combination thereof, we’ll never know.
But he sure hated Mama after that.