When I was a boy in knickers, history was a story about events we saw around us, but there came a day when suddenly I saw that there was an unseen, unspoken, history of what was going on when we were not looking.
On that day, many decades ago, I was sitting in the dimly lit classroom of a parochial school when there was a knock on the door followed by the entry of the Principal, Sister Norbertine, a kind, dwarf-like German nun who had in tow a tall, lean youth, his head bent, looking straight ahead, walking in slow, hesitant steps, as if he was disabled. He seemed several years older than the rest of us. Sister Norbertine looked about and said, as if in explanation of his appearance, “This is Yuri Kirov, he’s from the Ukraine. He will be our guest for two days.” She directed him to the desk next to mine. I greeted him, hand extended. As he sat down, he looked not at but towards me, as if I were not there. He did not shake my hand.
At the end of the school day, Sister Norbertine signaled to me from the hallway and in a whisper asked me if “for the sake of Jesus” I would take care of Yuri who had suffered for Jesus in the Ukraine, she said. “What happened to him?” I asked. “I can’t say”, she said. “Is he from our neighborhood?” I asked. “He was sent by that Ukrainian Church on the West Side. Just do it for Jesus,” she said crankily, and glided away as nuns seem to do when they move.
I bent towards Yuri and told him that he would be eating with us tomorrow in the school’s cellar. He didn’t answer, and then suddenly said “Yes”, looking at me as if he knew something that I didn’t know.
The cellar was long and narrow, its walls covered with a paint that long ago had faded from white. Small electric bulbs gave off a weak light over a scarred, wooden table with wooden benches astride it. Fixed into the wall was a life size wooden crucifix from which hung the bleeding Christ. At lunch time the next day I took Yuri to the cellar. The class, in the main made up of Russian boys, thought Yuri weird, and so followed behind us.
When we were all settled, I turned to Yuri and told him that my father was Irish but my mother’s family were Ukrainian Cossacks. He stared at me and said nothing. I then asked him to tell us about himself, and that then we would eat the inevitable cabbage soup that the German nuns had prepared.
Yuri shot up, straight as a rod. With an imperious, almost laughably melodramatic look around the cellar, his hands at his waist, he began in a sing song voice, rapidly, as if a gun were being held against his head, to name his village, his farm’s location, its area, its age, every piece of machinery on it, its products, his horses, cows, pigs, chickens, and then his parents, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins and then, without a sign, he stopped as if controlled by a turn table in the sky….and, looking at the ceiling directly above him, he yelled, not shouted, but yelled with all his might at the ceiling at the top of his voice.WHERE ARE THEY? DEAR AMERICAN COMRADES, WHERE ARE THEY! MILLIONS DEAD EVERYONE EVERY THING DEAD! AND IN YOUR PAPERS NOTHING! MILLIONS OF UKRAINIANS DEAD IN CRAZY STALIN LAND AND NOTHING IN YOUR TIMES PAPER! PEASANTS HANGING FROM TREES AT RAILROAD STATIONS, GRAVES IN CITY PARKS, TENS OF THOUSANDS OF PEASANT KIDS IN WAREHOUSES STARVING, LOCKED UP BY OGPU, PEOPLE HOLDING ON TO ONE ANOTHER’S BELTS FOR PIECES OF BREAD, LITTLE GIRL – LISTEN TO THIS – SHE WENT TO HEAD OF BREAD LINE AND WAS BEATEN TO DEATH BY THE BAKER!
Some boys began to laugh, nervously. One of them said, “Get this freak out of here! He’s nuts. Is this a joke?” But everyone was afraid to move. And then, Yuri strode over to the huge crucifix and leaning against it on his elbow, as if he was pretending, mockingly, to be a passing friend of the hanging Jesus, he whispered in Jesus’s ear, “Tell them what I saw in the barn, Jesus. Go ahead. Tell them about Aunt Sophie and what I saw. Tell them. Tell them! Go ahead, tell them how I was beaten after I ran yelling across the field and told my father what I saw and he ran to the barn and came back and grabbed me by my mouth and beat me to keep me quiet…..Tell them, Jesus, tell them I saw my aunt Sophie eating her dead baby! I SAW MY AUNT SOPHIE EATING HER DEAD BABY! I SAW MY AUNT SOPHIE EATING HER DEAD BABY! I SAW MY AUNT SOPIE EATING HER DEAD BABY!”
Comrades, my dear comrades, I’ll bet you didn’t see that in your glorious newspapers!
And with that, Yuri sat down, his seizure over. Reaching for his spoon he wiped it against his sleeve and ate his cabbage soup as if it was his last meal.
We didn’t know what to do. And so we watched him, without moving, without touching our soup, without uttering a word.
When he finished, he crossed himself, rose, and trudged up the cellar steps and disappeared in the peaceful quiet of the tenements of the Lower East Side. We never saw Yuri again.
A Ukrainian priest came to bless the cellar the next day. When we asked his reason as he cast holy water on the crucifix, tables, and walls, and particularly where Yuri had sat, he said nothing except that Stalin had starved several million Ukrainians to death because he wanted their farms. In a flash, I realized why the Ukrainian Church had sent Yuri to a school filled with Russian children.
In four months, Germany would invade Poland and an unending, catastrophic tsunami of human blood, eventually called World War II, would begin, having long been hiding in a little cove of unspoken history where no one had been looking.