The voice of those who brought the rest of us here
My seventh book for the Soviet-Jewish Decade Top 10 is an award-winning poetry book, small things left behind. Full disclosure — the author is my mother, Ella Zeltserman.
This is my most deeply personal, and yes, very biased, selection for the list. It’s my mother’s first book, and it explores our family history through her life in the USSR, immigration and integrating into Canada, all with a toddler (me) in tow. But it also preceded what’s more recently become a minor explosion of post-Soviet poetic voices. Zeltserman is a generation ahead of this newer wavelet— the one that came of age in the USSR and raised the rest of us. They are the mothers and fathers in our essays, memoirs, novels, and films.
(And in the interest of full disclosure on top of my full disclosure, I’m not alone in my assessment of the book — it won the Betty Averbach Foundation Prize at the 2016 Western Canada Jewish Book Awards, and the 2015 Robert Kroetsch Poetry Book Award from the Book Publishers Association of Alberta.)
Most of the works I’ve covered in this list explore either the Soviet-Jewry movement and history, the generations before and during the war, or the experiences of those of us who were born and raised between countries. small things left behind is our parents’ story. It’s one of the few voices from an in-between generation—born just before or after Stalin’s death, they were the people who stood in line at the OVIR offices, who lost their jobs and friends, who got on a plane or train somewhere in the USSR in the earliest dark days when those leaving were escorted as if about to climb into coffins, who left with young children and, often, elderly parents, who were stripped of their citizenship and forced to rely on the kindness of strangers to survive through foreign cities and languages, waiting for western countries to take them in.
They were, by and large, too busy surviving and raising us — and creating the space for us to think and write — so they didn’t do their own writing and reflecting. But they were among the thousands of regular Soviet-Jews who made the decision to uproot their families and leave. Most especially in the 1970s and early 1980s, when leaving carried both the overwhelming finality of never being able to return and virtually no knowledge of what awaited. About 250,000 Soviet-Jews left during this period, long before the cracks in the Soviet facade had appeared. They were lucky enough not to become refuseniks, but their steady trickle bolstered the claims of the refusenik-activists — that average, ordinary Soviet Jews were desperate to leave the country of their ancestors that so hated them.