My paternal grandfather Mikhail Gefter was a historian, philosopher, intellectual.
As an adult, years after his death
I learned of his pupils throughout the world,
of his philosophical and historical writings,
and of the www.gefter.ru platform for social sciences and intellectual thought named after him.
Many called him МЯ (Михаил Яковлевич – Mikhail Yakovlevich).
I called him Misha. I kept a couple letters from him and a couple of recollections of our time together.
I never asked about his childhood when I was little, when I had a chance.
When the question popped up in my head, he was long gone.
I asked my father and my uncle.
They never asked either, and МЯ never talked to his two sons
about his pre-war childhood in multi-cultured Crimea,
about his grandmother who adored him,
about growing up without a father,
about losing his mother and cousin in the Holocaust, and his uncle in Stalin’s purges.
I knew none of it when in April 2015, out of the blue, an email from my uncle popped up. Attached were the scans of four postcards sent by my great-grandmother shortly before she was killed in the mass-murder of Jewish population in Crimea in 1941.
It was the first time I heard about her. She had a name. She was a piano teacher.
Two days later at a friend’s birthday party in London I met Olesya Zdorovetska, a musician and composer from Southern Ukraine who now lived in Dublin. We talked about families, politics, arts, languages. Crimea had been annexed in 2014. The war was on between Ukraine and Russia. Many sensitive subjects came up.
Olesya invited me to visit her in Dublin in September.
When September came, Olesya suggested I came with her to Lviv, to the annual Book Forum. I agreed without a slight hesitation. Those postcards were on my mind, even though Lviv and Crimea are 1000 km apart. I also felt the urge to revisit my childhood places in the Carpathian Mountains, near Lviv. But most importantly, after years of wanderings, I felt like I was getting closer to finding the right doors.
With Olesya and alone,
I explored the cobble streets,
peeped into Lviv courtyards,
climbed onto the roofs,
wandered in the cemeteries.
At the Book Forum Olesya bought a collection of poetry by Debora Vogel, a female writer, art critic and intellectual, who perished in Lviv ghetto in 1942 and remained in obscurity for a long time. We learned that between the two wars Lviv was this inspiring metropolis for modernist thought in philosophy, mathematics, literary theory and arts, as well as a place of social and ethnic conflicts. It was among Lviv intellectuals and artists, during the period of rising chauvinism and anti-semitism, that the idea of an inclusive and open culture was formed. This redemptive and progressive vision was brutally squashed in the Holocaust, and yet not entirely extinguished. Fragments of it survive to be discovered through scavenging, collecting and juxtaposing.
What emerged was a patchwork of fragments, leads, innuendos and images in my lost and elusive family stories. Fragments of Memory brought me back to those postcards from 75 years ago. Lviv prompted me to recognise similar patterns centering around the figure of my grandfather, a scholar whose life was largely impacted by war, revolution and genocide, the details of which were suppressed.
МЯ was born 100 years ago in Crimea, where he grew up before travelling to Moscow to study History in 1936 and where he met my grandmother, born also in 1918 in Mariupol on the Azov Sea in Southern Ukraine. Neither did she talk to her sons and granddaughters about her childhood.
What about their families? Who were their parents and grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins? Where and how did they live? What did they do during those cataclismic times of Enlightenment, Zionism, Pogroms, Revolutions of 1905 and 1917, World War I, Russian Civil War, raise of Communism, World War II?
The search, online and offline, took me to Kerch and Simferopol in Crimea; Odessa, Kherson, Kharkiv, Zhitomir and Rivne in Ukraine; Moscow, St Petersburg, Vologda, Tomsk and Irkutsk in Russia; Lublin in Poland; Berlin in Germany; Lausanne in Switzerland; Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Washington in the US.
I made this a short video piece ‘A sketch for the centenary’ for the centenary of my grandfather’s birthday on 24 August 2018. As for now the story behind the imagery is in Russian, but with time i will put on my other hat and will be making this work in English.
My grandfather’s voice in the video is an excerpt from the interview recorded by Lorenzo Scaccabarozzi in January 1989: “We aim to learn seemingly everything about the lives of people who lived before us, or about our our own lives. But we do not know beforehand, that we would not be able to find out everything. Either way we are making a selection. And this selection is not an artifical selection, at the same time this is our choice: by choosing from what was before us, what entered us as ‘past’, we choose who we are. And by choosing ourselves, we choose our future, consciously or subconsciously.”