Some say the story begins in Europe, and your mother would no doubt interrupt and say it begins in New York, but that’s just because she can’t imagine the world before she entered it. And yes, I know you think it begins specifically in Belarus, because that’s what your grandfather tells you. I’ve heard him describing those black sedans speeding down Pinsker Street. I’ve been married to the man almost sixty years and know how he is with you—he makes every word sound like a secret. But he wasn’t even there. He was with his youth group by then and even though I was there I don’t remember being scared. Even when they knocked on our door, I didn’t know what was happening. Even when they dragged us outside with our overstuffed suitcases spilling into the street, shouting through megaphones to walk in the road with the livestock, I still didn’t know. I was thirteen.
The story really starts in the sewers. Everybody in the uniform factory whispered about them, and everybody had a different theory. Some said they were an escape route a plumber had spent years charting, an underground system of tunnels running from Poland to Belarus to Lithuania. Others said they were an impossible maze with no way out. But when my mother pulled me aside after only six days in the factory and whispered that she’d worked out a plan for me—smuggled vodka for the guards, a shoulder bared (my poor father, a lifetime of loving a woman who knew just how to spark another man’s sympathy)—I simply stood there, taking notes in my head. After dinner, she said, I’d slip past the guards and down the street, around two corners and up a road where I’d see the slats of a sewer. The grate would slide off easily, she said, and she and my father would find me soon. I had no reason not to believe that was true, no way of knowing the sewers would lead me to the forest. That night all I knew, as I climbed inside the manhole and down the metal ladder, was that it smelled worse than anything I’d imagined, of shit and piss and garbage all together.
It was black in there, and dank and cool, the ceiling so low I sank to my knees and crawled. I just kept following the crowd of voices speaking in Yiddish, which was both comforting and horrible, hearing that language forbidden in the factory. Then there was a rumble, and water rushed in and knocked me down. I gasped and tried to wade forward. The sewer started filling up, and I felt around in the slimy water for the person in front of me. But everybody seemed far ahead, and it took me a minute to realize dinner must have been ending aboveground, everybody washing dishes and taking baths and pouring water down the drain all at once.
Soon I had no sense of how long I’d been underground. My eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, and I saw the shapes around me: The woman up ahead, the hunched slope of her back. The walls of the sewer. The shadow of a rat before it ran across my arm. Then my whole body started to shake, and I knew I wouldn’t make it through a wave of morning dishwashing, so when I saw lines of light through the grate, I stopped.
Keep going, the woman behind me whispered.
But I couldn’t. I waited for the group to pass, and when I heard nothing above, I slowly lifted the grate and climbed onto the streets of a village that looked as if it had been completely passed over by the war. I wasn’t used to the sun after an entire night in the sewers—it was just rolling up over the houses, and the forest beyond was so bright it looked painted. Dirt, barns, sky—everything stunned me. That the wooden cottages lining the road were still intact, that people were feeding their horses and selling vegetables and sweeping leaves into the gutter.
A man passed with his young daughter and she stared. The father took one look at me, yanked her arm, and hurried down the road. I knew then not to spend another minute standing there in the daylight, so I crossed the road and entered the forest. It was cold and dim, and when I leaned against a tree trunk, exhaustion came right at me.
I wasn’t sure how long I’d been asleep when I heard footsteps. I opened my eyes and stared up—into the barrel of a gun. I swallowed, hard, refusing to make eye contact. That much I knew to do. I looked at the sticks and pinecones littering the forest floor and thought up a story. I was lost, searching for mushrooms, and could he help me find my way back? But how to explain the smell, or my work uniform, and before I opened my mouth, the boy put down the gun and said my name.
How odd that the first word I heard in that forest was my own name, and for a minute I wondered if that night in the sewers had made me crazy. Then I looked at him. I know how you see your grandfather, sweet and smiling, always insisting that we put on a movie after dinner and then dozing on the sofa halfway through. Your chess partner, your theater date, the man who checks out the minute your mother and I start up. You wouldn’t have recognized him. His long, bony face splotchy and pink from the sun, his light brown beard growing in sparse, threadbare patches—he was only fifteen—and his straight hair obviously hacked off with a knife. But even with that terrible haircut, even with a rifle over one shoulder and paper sacks swinging from the other, he still looked like the same Leon Moscowitz I’d grown up with.
It was one of the great miracles of my life, finding someone from home, right there, in the middle of the woods. But I won’t lie and say he was the person I’d wanted to see. I barely knew him back in our village. He was two grades above me and had struck me as bigheaded and bossy, one of those boys who always raised his hand in class. I hadn’t been the shining student he was but had been a good girl, a rule-follower. Your grandfather had not only seemed the opposite—it was like he saw anyone not challenging every point made in class as a weakling. His whole family was like that. His father had been a professor, and the one time I’d gone to his house to make a delivery from my parents’ tailor shop, I remember how dark and dusty it was: books pulled from the shelves and strewn on the floor in a way that must have made his family feel intellectual but to me just looked sloppy, brown drapes so thick you immediately forgot about the sun outside. That past year your grandfather had stopped coming to school one day, but I wasn’t surprised—so many were fleeing by then that I hadn’t spent much time wondering where the Moscowitzes had gone to hide.
You look like shit, Raya, he told me then.
I know, I said.
No, he said, eyeing me more closely. You have actual shit on you.
I came from the sewers, I said.
He nodded, as if I wasn’t the first he knew who had, then said, And your family?
Back home. In the uniform factory.
Your grandfather nodded again. He reached into a paper sack, and when he handed me a loaf of bread, it was so heavy I almost dropped it.
When’s the last time you ate? he said. I had no idea. I didn’t know what time it was, or even where I was. As I followed your grandfather through the forest, he talked. His family had escaped to a city in the North that past winter, he said—this was all happening in September—where he and his three younger brothers had trained with a youth group. The entire family had gone from there to Palestine, but he had met a plumber, Yosef Zanivyer, who’d seen something special in him (I couldn’t help but roll my eyes that even then, in those silent, deserted woods, your grandfather had to let me know how fabulous he was) and asked him to stay. Yosef was the plumber who’d engineered the sewer route I’d just come through, he said. For the past few months, your grandfather and his group had been roaming a labyrinth of tunnels, committing them to memory for an evacuation and supply route they’d use to smuggle weapons and food into the forest.
He led me in a zigzag through uncleared scrub and over so many marshes and creeks I couldn’t count, until finally we reached the densest part, a cluster of trees so tall and thick it suddenly felt like evening—an area protected sufficiently by branches, he told me, that no military plane could spot us from the air. He took my hand, and we elbowed our way around trees and bushes until an entire village emerged. There were blanket tents held up by logs, what looked like an infirmary, a makeshift kitchen surrounding a fire pit. About forty people, all teenagers, almost all boys, unbathed and bedraggled, were at work in different stations. Everybody was speaking Yiddish, and the whole scene was so stunning I didn’t know what to look at first. But your grandfather just kept leading me forward, as nonchalant as if he were giving a tour of our school back home.
This is Yussel, he said, pointing to a squat, suntanned boy. He was a medical student and runs the infirmary here. And this is the kitchen—here he handed me a potato, still hot from the fire—and this is where we run drills after dinner. He waved to a bigger kid, this one fifteen or sixteen, oafish and freckled with red, flyaway hair, the parts of a gun spread out on his lap. That’s Isaac from Antopol, he told me.
Isaac, your grandfather said, meet Raya. We grew up together.
I’m trying to concentrate, Isaac grunted without even shooting me a sideways look, and your grandfather shrugged and said, He’ll grow on you.
Then your grandfather stopped. Can you cook?
Not really. My mother cooks. I could barely say it.
What can you do, then?
I thought about it. I can do ballet, I said. I can play the flute.
That was when your grandfather started laughing. Wow, he said, throwing his hands in the air, thank God you’re here, and I wanted to smack him. But your parents are tailors, right? he said. So I’m guessing you can sew, and I can’t tell you how much it meant to me right then that there, in the middle of the forest, someone knew this basic fact about my family.
Yeah, I can sew.
Good, he said. We already have a tailor, but if you’re quick with your fingers, you can go in the armory.
So that afternoon I went to work, learning how to repair broken rifles and pistols, mending cracked stocks and replacing worn parts. He was right: All my years helping my parents sew on buttons and rip out seams made the job come easy. I was grateful I was good at it, and for many hours I sat alone, a little relieved I didn’t have to talk to grumpy Isaac. Your grandfather was running around, stopping at every station. It seemed obvious he was the leader, which I learned for certain that night at dinner, when five new boys arrived at the campfire.
They were young, your grandfather’s age, and had just come back from a mission. Your grandfather crouched beside me and explained. Everyone here was part of a brigade, he said, called the Yiddish Underground. He’d started it back with his youth group, doing combat training in basements around the city. In the beginning, they’d slipped into nearby villages and robbed peasants for food and tools and weapons. But every day the war seemed to be getting worse, he said, and now the brigade was traveling farther to carry out attacks. They torched cottages and stole guns. When they ran out of bullets, they sneaked into cities with empty shotguns and long, straight branches, which, from a distance, could pass as rifles. They chopped down telephone poles, attacked supply depots, burned bridges to disrupt military routes—and that night, the five boys at the campfire had just returned from dislodging two hundred meters of rail line.
And? your grandfather said then, turning to one of the boys.
And the conductor stopped the train, the boy said, spearing a sausage from the fire. And I walked right on and shot four soldiers in the dining car. They didn’t even have time to put down their forks.
Your grandfather clapped the boy’s shoulder like a proud parent, and I just sat there swallowing.
I told the other passengers to tell the police the Yiddish Underground was responsible, the boy continued, and your grandfather nodded. Everyone on the train was so scared, the boy said, and I just kept saying it as I walked through the cars. I took all of this, he said, gesturing at the suitcases and sacks of vegetables and bread by his feet.
Perfect, your grandfather said, and when he flicked on his radio, everyone put down their food to listen. He tuned through static until an announcer came on with word of the day’s casualties. But when the announcer described the ambush, he said it was the work of Russian guerrilla fighters, Communists camping out in the woods. The Yiddish Underground wasn’t mentioned at all. All around us were these kids, huddled together in stolen coats, waiting for their commander to speak. Your grandfather cleared his throat. He looked his age for that second, wide-eyed and serious and more than a little frightened, and I had a flash of that same boy in the schoolyard, the market, walking his younger brothers down Pinsker Street. I knew that whatever he said, inside he felt as lost as every one of his fighters. But he stood up. He switched off the radio and said the only way they couldn’t ignore us was to plan bigger. We have to let them know, he said, that there’s a secret army they can’t touch, soldiers fighting back with weapons taken from them, then retreating deep into the forest to plan their next attack.
* * * *
This is the part of the story where I know you want to hear how we fell in love. I understand—don’t think I haven’t noticed how you’re always free to visit your grandfather and me, even on Saturday nights. How five years out of college you’re still living like a student, still alone in that shoebox studio. Even when you were little, it was your favorite part of every story. It used to kill me when I’d overhear you asking your mother those kinds of questions about your father, this young chubby you with long blond braids and a dreamy expression. As if with your eyes half-closed you could envision a time when your parents weren’t sneaking around your living room at night, scribbling their names into each other’s books, or storming after each other outside your old apartment, fighting over who got to keep this ceramic, fish-shaped platter your mother said she made at summer camp but that your father claimed he made at an adult ed class at the Y—a fish, he yelled, that held his nachos just right.
And I remember after he left, you and your mother piled all of your possessions into a taxi and headed over the bridge to our apartment in Queens, where the two of you moved into her childhood bedroom, sleeping side by side on her trundle bed, surrounded by her spelling ribbons and stuffed-animal collection, as though you were living in an exhibit in the museum of her life. And I remember all the dates she’d bring back—Philip and Hugh and the one who wore his sunglasses inside—how she’d parade those men into my home with the same defiance she had in high school, only she was thirty-six then with a four-year-old daughter in the next room eating dinner with her grandparents. From the kitchen the three of us would listen to her carrying on, her voice high and clear and always drowning out the other person’s, which probably made her a good teacher during rowdy assemblies but not such a hit on those dates. There were so many nights when I’d watch her crawl into bed beside you after her date had left, her back to the wall, her bare feet wrapped around yours, holding on to your stomach so tightly it was like she feared the distance you might fall was so much greater than from the bed to the carpet.
I want to tell you mine was a great love affair, but the truth was that the only reason your grandfather started coming into my tent at night was to protect me. There were so many things to be afraid of in the forest. Not just the soldiers but bears and snakes and wolves. Russian Communists who lived in other parts of the woods, coming by our camp, offering bullets for a night with one of the girls, sometimes taking one even if refused—men who disliked your grandfather but respected him enough, even as a boy, not to touch the one he was with. Anyway, it was almost winter—I will always remember that as the coldest season imaginable, the winter I watched hot tea freeze in a cup—and when your grandfather climbed in one night and lay beneath my blanket, his hands roaming up my shirt and into my pants long before he thought to kiss me, it didn’t feel romantic—more like a basic physical need that had little to do with me.
We’d already seen each other naked, anyway—we all bathed around one another, there was no other choice—and even though I was thirteen years old and he was my first kiss, I wasn’t so naive as to believe your grandfather was in love with me, though for a lot of my life I did believe our relationship wasn’t so bad. We had no one but each other when we first arrived in the States, and a big part of me wondered if I had another option, if there were any other Jewish men left. We never even talked about marrying—we just did it. I think your grandfather and I both wanted to forget everything that had happened and try to be as normal as all our neighbors on Dinsmore Avenue. It was only years later when you and your mother were living with us that I had to listen to her opinions on how I would never be normal, my fuse was just too short, she’d never met a person who could go from zero to sixty so quickly. From the beginning, though, it was like that with your mother and me—even in the womb I think she was kicking me on purpose. Whenever we argued, your grandfather would walk out the door and around the block, as if your mother and I had taken up all the air in the apartment. But you would always stay. It used to drive me crazy, watching you watch us, as if our fight were being transcribed and filed away in the card catalog of your mind. But the truth was that there were moments when I’d look at you—you always resembled me more than your mother, especially when you were young, with your light hair and cheeks that went red no matter the weather—and think that you reminded me of another version of myself.
I too might have lived in my head if, when I was a girl, I’d had a school to spend my days in and an apartment for my nights, rather than a tent and a bed of pine needles that I shared with your grandfather. But to his credit, he never once tried to pretend ours was some sweeping romance. At fifteen, he’d already had a life separate from our village, a life of organizing and combat training and falling in love with Chaya Salavsky, whom he called the most brilliant thinker from his youth group and promised to reunite with one day in Palestine, where she’d gone with his two younger brothers and most of their brigade. After the war, he said, he’d join his brothers on the collective they’d started, and every day he’d swim in the sea and eat grapefruits and lemons that grew wild from trees. You can come with me, he’d say, always an afterthought. But during those talks I’d be lying quietly beneath the blanket, trying to convince myself that if anyone in a uniform factory was going to stay alive, it was tailors like my parents. I’d heard reports on the radio that the soldiers were finding themselves ill equipped for the Russians, and since winter was coming, they’d put more people to work sewing uniforms and fixing weapons and equipment. I held on to the belief that my parents were safe for as long as I could—it would be another eight months until I knew for sure they were not.
When your grandfather wasn’t talking about Palestine, he was talking about the war. The rules were changing every day, he said—soldiers patrolling nearby villages in grimy work clothes, passing as farmers; military planes flying so low we’d hear their engines rumbling. And the day before, Isaac had been on watch when he found a teenage boy wandering the woods, claiming he was looking for blackberries, when anyone from the area knew they weren’t growing so late in the year. It was halfway through November—I’d been in the forest two months by then. Your grandfather felt it was time to move, to scout another location in the woods to set up camp, but first he wanted to plan one more mission, and he wanted me to come. With my light hair and green eyes I could easily pass as a gentile—and anyway, your grandfather said, who would expect a girl so young?
I didn’t want to go. In those two months I’d found a routine that made me feel almost safe: cleaning barrels and collecting spent shells from the forest floor, going to target practice after helping the other girls clean up dinner, or working with Yussel in the infirmary, where he was always concocting a new treatment out of herbs and pig fat and other loot the fighters brought back. But the forest had become home to me, the brigade a kind of family, and—I know this will make you uncomfortable, so I’ll say it very quickly—in many ways your grandfather was beginning to feel more and more like an older brother than a boyfriend, even those nights together in the tent. I think that, at thirteen, I still needed to be taken care of, to have a hand guiding me through the forest, and if your grandfather felt I was ready for a mission, I believed him. So I sat and listened the following night as he and Isaac strung together the plan in the dugout beside the kitchen, where they always held their meetings.
The train, your grandfather told me, would carry sixty-four soldiers and two cars’ worth of supplies. At nine fifteen the following night, it would stop in Haradziec, where I’d have already laid out explosives.
It’s a stupid idea, Isaac said, crouching low in the dugout—I was the only one short enough to stand up straight under the ceiling of blankets. Maybe she’ll go unnoticed, he said, but she’ll slow us down.
Secretly I agreed with Isaac, but your grandfather ignored him. He had a way of dismissing people without starting an argument simply by pretending he hadn’t heard them to begin with. It’s a trait I now can’t stand (sometimes I feel like he’s walking around the apartment wearing earplugs), but on that night I admired it, watching him roll out a map on the dirt floor, the yellow light of the lantern flickering across his face, which was getting thinner every day. It was an old map, one I remembered from school, from when my village was still part of Belarus. Right then I didn’t know what was what. I stared at the names of towns, trying to will them to memory as your grandfather dragged a finger along our route.
We won’t have to worry about snakes in this weather, but watch for bears, he said, passing out pistols and bullets to Isaac and me.
I’d never pointed a gun at anyone. I’d held plenty—in the armory workshop and at target practice. Back home my father had a rifle above the fireplace, but I’d never seen him load it. I touched the slide of this one now, feeling my way to the trigger.
A pistol’s entirely different, Isaac said, and I sensed he was right: I’d been using shotguns during practice, but these would be easier to hide. You know how to push your weight against a shotgun, remember? he continued. With this, it’ll be twice as hard to have the same accuracy.
I wrapped my hands around the grip. Even before Isaac could criticize me, I knew my stance was wrong. My shoulders were hunched, my arms stiff. I hated the way your grandfather looked at me then, as if he suddenly recognized every risk in bringing me and was embarrassed for thinking up the plan at all.
But he just sat beside me and said, Push the magazine all the way up until you hear a click, then pull back the slide to chamber a round—that’s the only way to know it’s loaded for sure. You probably won’t need it anyway since you’ll be with us. And remember that if you do hear something, don’t shoot. It might just be an animal.
I nodded. I knew the rules. They’d been hammered into me since my first day there, your grandfather reciting them around the campfire every night: Don’t get cocky with your weapon. Remember what happened to three of our fighters who were loud and overconfident on a raid and were gunned down from a window (their stupidity was already forest legend by the time I’d arrived). If you kill an animal, make sure the carcass doesn’t drip blood as you carry it back to camp. Don’t forget that many of the peasants in the surrounding villages are good people, suffering as well, some even risking their own safety to protect us. If you have to rob them, take only what you absolutely need. These rules were important to your grandfather. To Isaac and some of the others, not so much, though they always did what he said.
I didn’t know if Isaac had always been gruff or if the war had made him that way. I knew he’d seen things I hadn’t, that when he’d heard soldiers coming into his village, he’d been quick to scramble behind a barn and from there had submerged himself in a pond to hide, and that when he crawled out hours later, he found himself completely alone. It was like Isaac was running on adrenaline to stay alive, whereas with your grandfather it was something different. Even that night in the dugout, I knew he was considering morals only partly out of decency—in his heart of hearts he saw himself as a boy with a legacy. A boy who, after the war was over, would be written about in textbooks, talked about in reverent tones: Leon Moscowitz, whose rebel army not only changed the course of the war but did so ethically.
I had never met a person so aware of his own voice, carefully stringing together sentences with the hope they would be quoted later, even as he told me to cup my hands as he passed out explosives. First a grenade, then six long sticks of dynamite.
This part’s easy, your grandfather said. Lay the sticks flat on the tracks.
And then what? I said.
For God’s sake, Isaac said.
Just before the train comes, your grandfather said calmly, hold the spoon of the grenade down with your thumb. Then twist off the pin with your other hand, and the moment you throw it, start sprinting toward the woods.
This is ridiculous, Isaac said. She’ll get us killed. Why not stay back in the armory?
Your grandfather stood up, as if secretly grateful Isaac was running his mouth so he had a reason to lecture. Just this week a statement went out all over the country, he said, offering farmers two sacks of grain for every one of us killed. Do you think anyone else is wasting their time with these concerns, pondering the differences between kids and teenagers, boys and girls? His eyes flicked around the dugout as though his audience was much bigger than Isaac and me.
Then he turned to me. If anyone stops you, he said, you have to remember, even if you’re terrified, to keep the Yiddish out of your accent. Okay?
Okay, I said.
You could be a Dina, he said then, looking at me.
Or maybe Henia, Isaac said. Henia from the North, visiting her family?
He handed me a stack of clothes, all from a previous raid. Folded on top was a knit brown hat, which I slipped over my head. Your grandfather pushed it back, scrutinized my face, and said, There. Already she looks like a different girl.
Yeah? I said, fingering the hat. What about Sonya? Sonya Gorski, I said, sounding it out, almost beginning to enjoy our game. It was like the dress-up I used to play back home, my best friend, Blanka, and me playing around in my parents’ tailor shop, darting between the tall spools of fabric and draping the scraps around each other, pretending we were classy society ladies, dressing for the opera where our handsome, imaginary boyfriends would be waiting outside on the marble steps in suits.
* * * *
The following day I got ready for Haradziec. A gray wool dress and coat, leather boots, and thick brown stockings. The boots were too large but everything else fit so snugly it was as if I’d picked out the clothes myself. In my pocketbook were my pistol and a case of bullets. I clutched it under an arm as I followed your grandfather and Isaac down the dark path. These woods I knew—it was where we foraged for shells and mushrooms. We were quiet walking through, your grandfather brushing the ground with a stick to cover every footprint. Then Isaac called out to me, If the police stop you while you’re casing the station—
I’m Henia Sawicki. Staying with my grandparents nearby.
And if they ask what you’re doing on the tracks?
Looking for my ring. It slipped off somewhere.
These lies, I knew, were the easy part. But really, the entire plan was simple. We’d walk along the edge of the forest— far enough in the woods to go unnoticed, close enough to glimpse the villages through the trees. In Haradziec, I’d slip out and cross the tracks, set the explosives down, run back into the forest. Your grandfather had made it sound so effortless in the dugout, but here I worried about keeping it straight in my mind. If one wary soldier saw through my lie, that was it—I’d be shot, your grandfather and Isaac probably next, or maybe tortured until they led the soldiers to the brigade. So I was trying to remember the plan—Henia, the ring, the grandmother—while clonking along in my toobig boots, and that was when I tripped on a rock and fell to the ground, twisting my ankle so hard I couldn’t stand up. There I was, splayed in the dirt with my ankle throbbing, and even before your grandfather helped me to my feet, Isaac was already moaning about how he knew something like this would happen.
Twenty minutes out, he said, and your grandfather snapped, Tell me, Isaac, one of us couldn’t have fallen?
Before your grandfather could hoist himself back onto his soapbox, I started hobbling along the route, and all they could do was follow.
Don’t be stupid, Isaac called.
He’s right, your grandfather said, catching up with me.
I was suddenly so angry—with your grandfather for always acting like he knew what was best, with Isaac for being so hard on me, with myself for botching the attack. For the first time since the sewers, I felt utterly hopeless and alone. I had no idea what to do, or who to ask what to do, because—and this was the first time it really became clear to me—I had no one left. The only people I had in the world were these two boys I barely knew at all, who looked so unbelievably confused right then, walking in their oversized coats, Isaac breathless and jittery, your grandfather’s cap falling over his eyes. Up ahead, through a gap in the trees, I saw brown fields, the jagged steeple of a church. I kept limping down the path, and when a village came into view, I slipped out of the forest. We were still two hours from Haradziec. My ankle was swelling, my clothes covered in dirt. I pushed through town, not even sure what I was looking for. The streets were empty and so eerily quiet it was as if something terrible had happened the second before we’d arrived.
Your grandfather and Isaac hurried behind me, whispering to get back in the forest. But I kept on, and that was when I realized this was the town I’d crawled into from the sewers. Huddled along the road were the same houses, the same barns and mill and school, only now the buildings were deserted and destroyed: broken windows, piles of bricks, rats darting up stairways leading nowhere. The war, it seemed, had finally arrived here. A few cottages were still smoldering. A man, hardfaced and dirty, dragged a skinny horse past without even looking up. This time, I knew, I was no more shitstained than anybody else.
Along the strip of shops was a bakery. The door was open, and when I walked inside, I saw the glass cases were smashed, the shelves bare, only half the tables standing. But as I kept on, through the kitchen and up the stairs, I saw shadows flash beneath a door. I pulled out my gun, pushed the door open with my shoulder, and strolled inside.
The room was small enough to take in all at once: just two wooden chairs facing the fireplace with a bed and dresser in the corner, a stove, sink, and table against the wall. A mother washed dishes. She had a cinched little mouth like a balloon knot and dark hair twisted tight at her neck. A boy, eight or nine, bent over homework at the wooden table. The mother glanced at me and at my gun, and put down the pot she was drying. The boy stared. My hands wobbled as I aimed at them.
I need something to wrap up my ankle, I told the mother. It was the first time I’d spoken, and my words sounded loose and heavy in the silent room. And boots and a coat and your warmest hat and scarf. And gloves, I added greedily as she sifted through drawers.
She handed over the clothes, and I peeled off my dirty ones. I didn’t even have my tights off when the mother yanked the boy’s head toward her chest, and it took me a second to realize I’d gotten so used to bathing around everyone in the forest that it hadn’t seemed strange to strip down in front of this family.
Henia, Isaac hissed from the doorway, where he and your grandfather were standing. Let’s go.
But I couldn’t, not yet. As I sat at the table and tied a clean sock around my ankle, bruised and puffy but possibly only sprained, I looked at the math problems the boy had printed out neatly on lined white paper, and imagined, for just a second, what it would be like to have homework again. Not that I’d even liked math—it had been my worst subject, the one my father had to spend close to an hour correcting every evening. But to be at a table again with my mother, to have class work and meals and chores—I had wished for my family every day in the forest, but never before had what I’d lost been flaunted so vividly in front of me. I was filled with a sudden rage at this boy. This kid who had so little, whose father could be dead or at war or just not around, whose school was certainly shut down, and whose mother was probably trying to keep up some semblance of routine by making him practice math in the middle of this chaos—at that moment I resented them both.
What was for dinner? I asked them.
Soup, the mother said.
Fill three bowls for me.
It’s gone, the mother said. She held up the empty pot she’d just dried.
What do you have? I said.
She handed over a potato and three turnips.
I pocketed the food as I walked the length of the room, opening cupboards, rifling through drawers, feeling under sweaters and pants for a hidden stash of something.
I need your money, I said.
We don’t have any, the mother said.
Why should I believe you? I opened their closet, overturned pillows, shook out blankets.
I promise you, the mother said, looking at me pleadingly. It was already stolen—everything was.
You’ll be sorry, I said, if you don’t give me your money. It took me two tries to pull back the slide, but it didn’t matter, I realized, when I was the only one holding a weapon. I grabbed the boy, circled an arm around him, and pressed the gun to his cheek. He was shaking, and his fine brown hair was damp with sweat. He felt like such a child next to me, his skinny arms tight at his sides, his breath coming out in short, hot gasps.
The mother was blinking quickly, and she kept looking at her son, then back at me. A sound came out of the boy’s throat, squeaky and remote, and I pressed the pistol more firmly against his skin. The mother closed her eyes. Then she crawled under the bed, ran her hand along the bottom of the mattress, and pulled out a thin stack of bills. It was a small amount, enough for maybe two weeks of food.
Give it to me, I said. We’ll starve, she said. Leave us something. Please.
Give it to me, I said again, and when she did, I let go of the boy. I waited for him to run to his mother’s arms, but it was like his feet were nailed to the floor. The room was so quiet I could hear a horse’s hooves clicking by outside. I walked backward with the pistol still cocked, out to the stairs, where Isaac and your grandfather were waiting.
They wouldn’t talk to me as we made our way through the bakery and out the door, where the cold air chilled me through my new coat. We were halfway down the road when your grandfather said, That family did nothing to you.
He grabbed my shoulders and shook me, like a box my voice might fall out of.
How could you take everything they had?
But I kept walking. I don’t know how to explain it except that a haziness washed over me where I could hear his words but they suddenly meant nothing to me. I will always mark that as the moment I stopped listening to your grandfather, and also as the day Isaac started looking at me with a curious, cautious respect. We were back in town, the same route we took in, and as we passed that row of gutted shops, I caught my reflection in a broken window. There I was, thirteen years old and stumbling around in someone else’s boots, looking more hideous than I could have imagined. I hadn’t been in front of a mirror since back home with my parents, I realized, and in that time I had become an ugly girl. My hair was greasy and knotted and so beaten by the elements it had turned a shade lighter. Black circles rimmed my eyes, scabs dotted my chin and forehead and lips, my teeth had gone as rotten and brown as tree roots. In only a couple months I had become a medusa, a monster, a creature from the forests of a fairy tale.
I still see glimpses of that ugliness now. At the salon, when the hairdresser finishes my blowout and spins me around to face the mirror. Or sometimes on the subway, when the person across from me gets up, and I’m shocked to see that same terrifying beast staring back at me in the scratched, blurred glass.
But I want you to know it wasn’t that way for everyone. Your grandfather did the same things, lost the same things, watched that same boy doing math at the table—and responded by patiently sitting with your mother the entire time she was growing up, helping her with algebra and history and even with spelling, though it pained him to sound out words in a language he barely knew. I’d watch the two of them hunched over her homework at the kitchen table and wish I was the kind of person who could be grateful I was still in the world to join them, rather than always standing a few feet from everybody else, slouched in a doorway.
Your grandfather, once the biggest loudmouth I knew, became a quiet, almost invisible man in America, stumbling over his English, bashful in public, shy to ask directions on the street after hearing some teenagers singsonging his accent. He was rejected for every job he tried to get—an immigrant without even a junior high school education. I was the one who found work first—in a clothing factory, if you can believe it, back in a hot room sewing in seams and zippers. Your grandfather was humiliated that he could provide for the brigade but not for his own family, humiliated when he finally did find a job, making deliveries for a beer distributor, just another tired man dozing on his subway ride to work.
Still, he found small parts of his life to genuinely appreciate: growing tomatoes on the patio, listening to the radio after dinner, taking the train to the city on weekends. And yet none of those things I could ever teach myself to love. Your mother and I may not have the easiest time together, but I’ll admit when she’s right. And though it pains me to say it, she told me something once that I know is true: I never stopped thinking people wanted to hurt me, even when they no longer did, and that rage would rumble through me during even the nicest times: Walking in the park with your grandfather on the first real day of spring, eating at a good restaurant on our honeymoon in Atlantic City. On vacation in Israel, almost forty years ago, when we could finally afford to go. Finally your mother met that side of her family, finally your grandfather visited his parents’ graves, finally he saw his brothers, middleaged by then, with wives and children and grandchildren. I remember sitting in your great uncle Natan’s backyard in Ramat Gan, drinking orange soda and eating cashews, and right away your grandfather started asking about Chaya Salavsky. I hadn’t heard his voice climb so high since his speeches in the dugout. Did they still see her, what was she up to? He assumed after all these years she’d married?
His mouth quivered on that last word, and when his brother said she’d died a couple years ago, rather than taking my husband’s hand and murmuring condolences while he blinked back tears, I started chewing on my lip the way I always did before saying something risky.
How dare you ask about her with me right beside you! I yelled, in front of all my new in-laws, in the backyard surrounded by the grapefruit and lemon trees your grandfather had dreamed about for so long. Get over yourself, I continued, though I wasn’t actually angry, or jealous of a dead woman I’d never met, a woman he hadn’t seen since he was a boy. I was simply filled with an urge to fight, so electric and immediate I felt my face flush. So I carried on, even as your grandfather cleared his throat and looked at his shoes and rattled the ice in his empty glass.
And no, I won’t tell you the rest. You can guess. You can go to the library and read about the sixty-four soldiers killed that night in Haradziec, in a train explosion engineered by an unknown anarchist group. You can waste full days in the research room, ruining your eyes scrolling through microfilm. You can read about the attacks that followed—eight more before the war ended—about how your grandfather and I missed the quota to Palestine and were loaded instead on a boat to the States, not an option either of us had ever considered. The place didn’t feel real even as we docked at the immigration port and saw Manhattan glittering in front of us. You can even find stories about Isaac, killed a year after we left for New York when his homemade bomb went off prematurely, still on his way to some unknown mission—one of those kids who couldn’t imagine living anywhere but Europe even once we were allowed to leave. Maybe because he was addicted to the fighting, maybe because he could finally go home but no one was there. Search for his story in the library—for that and everything else. But you won’t learn what happened to that mother and son I robbed, because believe me, I’ve looked and looked and there’s just no way to find out whether those people survived the coldest year of their lives.
I don’t understand you. All your life you’ve been like this, pulling someone into a corner at every family party, asking so many questions it’s no wonder you’ve always had a difficult time making friends. It’s a beautiful day. Your grandfather’s on the patio grilling hamburgers, your mother’s new boyfriend is already loud off beer, she’s hooked up the speakers and is playing her terrible records. Why don’t you go out in the sun and enjoy yourself for once, rather than sitting inside, scratching at ugly things that have nothing to do with you? These horrible things that happened before you were born.
Molly Antopol reflects on writing “My Grandmother Tells Me This Story”
My relatives love to tell stories, but the one place I never heard about was Antopol, the Belarusian village, virtually destroyed in World War II, where my family originated. A little more than a decade ago I was living in Israel and wound up at a holiday party in Haifa where I met an elderly woman from Antopol who had known my family. It was an extraordinary moment in my life. She led me to an oral history book about the village, written in Hebrew, Yiddish, and English. The moment I finished reading it, I began working on this story.
But it ended up taking me almost two years to get the story where I wanted it to be. I read every memoir and biography of partisan life near Antopol that I could get my hands on, spent months in different archives, and traveled to Eastern Europe to visit partisan bases and conduct interviews. But it was only when I realized, after more than a year of wrestling with the story, that the tension in the piece was as much about why the granddaughter was so obsessed with these dark periods of history (a question I’ve been struggling to answer about myself for years) as it was about the war that the story really cracked open for me.