When I was eighteen, I wanted to write a screenplay based on my father’s life: from his birth in
poverty, how his family gathered around one scant meal a day of potatoes and onions and maybe a
knuckle of meat, to when the Russians came, teaching them the glory of socialism and peasantry,
and then the Germans who rounded up the Jews of the town, separated men and women, and
surrounded them with machine guns, until the town madwoman cried out, Run Jews!
They’re going to kill you, and my father and his father fled out of the square, his mother and sisters gunned down in the dirt, and how my father and grandfather survived two years hiding in a forest,
nearly dying of hunger and cold, until the Russians came again and drafted my grandfather into to
the Red Army and soon after exiled him to death by starvation in a Siberian gulag, how my father
waited for him in Kyiv, taken in by the Jewish poet Hoffstein, how when he heard of his father’s
death, fled the USSR and escaped to Switzerland riding atop trains, then walked across the Alps
into Italy where he embarked on a ship bound for Palestine that was curtailed by the British who
held him in a refugee camp on the isle of Cyprus where he learned to be a lithograph artist—and
all of this before his eighteenth birthday, nearly the same age I was when I presented my proposal.
My stepmother looked me in the eye and said,
your father doesn’t want you riding his coattails.
I turned to my father, his pupils beginning
to recede into the dullness of dementia.
He nodded in agreement although I knew he would
forget this ever happened in less than a minute.
Ride his coattails, I thought before crying myself
to sleep and dreaming I was swinging from the knotted tallit
of my father’s prayer shawl as he belted out the Shemah,
the final words on the lips of good Jews before sleep or death,
swaying there like a child on a swing no longer pushed
or a man dangling from the end of his rope.
Little did I know that one day my father would ride
my coattails as I carry him every day,
even now, more than twenty years
after his death, living out the endless echo
of a genocide that came so close to obliterating my birth,
my sisters’ births, the birth of my daughter,
continuing the burden of the survivor, the one who made it,
the one who thinks he shouldn’t have,
the one who tries so hard to keep the dead from dying
with words said in silent prayer bent over the page.