LAMENT

Roses

From the Author’s Afterword:

Almost five years ago, my Russian friend and neighbor Lara Mikhaylova invited me to a family dinner and said she wanted to tell me a story she’d heard from one of her clients. Lara works with seniors in a Russian-speaking medical office, and the story concerned two Jewish sisters who grew up in Odessa before the outbreak of the Second World War. Knowing that I’m a writer, she wanted to tell me the story so that I, in turn, might be inspired to write about these sisters, their family, and the ordeals they faced in the Soviet Union. And in fact the whole thing captured my imagination right away.

Living in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, its sometime namesake, had made me familiar with images of Odessa as a picturesque and literary Jewish city on the Black Sea. But I’d never known about how the Soviets had set aside territory for Jewish settlement in the Siberian Far East, never heard of the place called Birobidzhan. I was equally unfamiliar with Transnistria, the area of Romanian-occupied Ukraine where one of the sisters was trapped by the Nazi invasion of 1941 and locked up in the Jewish ghetto of Obodovka. As Lara’s daughter Marianna and I listened, we were searching for these unfamiliar places and their histories on our smartphones and soon realized how rare this story had to be—and how important it was to save and tell it, not only for those who survived and are descended from the times of tragedy, but for the many who never had a chance to survive.

With a little page of notes I’d brought home from dinner, one night I sat down and started at the beginning of this story about two sisters, their family that’s not so unlike many families, and their different characters—spinning fiction from the real events. The writing felt like it would go quickly. My idea was to work the plot into a fast-paced “female-centric” mid-length novel and be done in about eight months. As one of its eventual characters adapts the Yiddish saying to go, “Woman plans, God laughs.” It took four and a half years of steady work, constant reading and research, some Beginner’s Yiddish classes, and some times requiring simple perseverance before I made the final draft edits on the very long novel you hold.

LAMENT follows Musya Kotz and her sister Liza to many grim places, all based on life. Yet as I’ve kept the particular story Lara’s client Betya told in constant view, handling the images and words to do justice to the true facts inside the fiction I was building through a difficult stretch of years for me personally and for the rest of the planet in general, what emerged is a survival story, yes, an astounding one—also miraculous and nonetheless tragic—a story that resonates loudly with contemporary events, strong-man states, refugee crises, wars and women’s and children’s suffering—the story of an imaginative well-meaning romantic young woman who loves movies and poetry and sun-bathing but whose happiness and freedom are stripped from her always—who longs for perfect love even while she’s marked for racial extermination—who winds up penned, enslaved, her body violated—left without refuge, unprotected in motherhood, to see her children made homeless, penniless—haunted in exile, burdened with trauma, shunned and targeted—at last to lose the dearest people, pets, and places and still preserve her sense of humor and a welcome-giving heart—this woman’s presence has been a strengthening tonic to me every day. I hope LAMENT’s readers find they derive something of the same benefit from the finished book in turn.

Finally, to Betya and to Lara and and her daughters, Marianna and Katya, and her mother Bronya—and to the women of Ukraine and the women of Russia and their descendants in Brooklyn, Israel, and everywhere else—I offer back this story not my own, written with gratitude.

reka-Bira
The Bira River, Birobidzhan