The question that Sanford Pinsker asked, "What is Isaac Babel, a nice Jewish boy from Odessa, doing riding with the Cossacks? (Midstream, Jan/Feb 2006)--with two changes--could have been asked of my father. Only in the last years of his life did I learn that Mordcha Yaffe, from the Ukraine, was also in General Budyenny's Bolshevik cavalry. Like many war veterans, my father did not talk about his experiences until his later years. Isaac Babel wrote dispatches from the front and later, Red Cavalry, his memorable account of the disastrous venture by the young Bolshevik government to export its Communism to Poland.
There were other differences between Babel and my father. Babel traveled, as a war correspondent while my father was a rank-and-file cavalryman and courier. More noteworthy was my father's being openly Jewish while Babel used the pseudonym of Kiril Lyuto and pretended to be a Christian. My father's youthful candor (he hadn't started shaving and was never taller than five feet four), along with his bravery in battle, resulted in his winning the respect of his fellow peasant soldiers despite their antisemitism. In fact, they were protective of a brave Jewish youth who could have been their son's or grandson's age.
While Babel's father was a businessman and Babel had a comparatively decent education for a Jew in Tsarist Russia; my father came from a working class family and attended cheder and the equivalent of 7th grade in a Russian school. Babel was an aspiring writer during the Russian Revolution, while my father simply tried to survive.
While Babel's embracing of Bolshevism was primarily ideological, my father's was more personal. After his cousin was "sabered" by a "White Russian Cossack" who thought that any Jew in the shtetl was fair game for slaughter, my father joined the Bolshevik militia. Despite being only fifteen, he wanted not only to avenge his cousin's murder but also to protect himself, his mother, and his fellow Jews from the pogromists whose only opposition were the Bolsheviks.
Babel and my father were also different in their commitment to family. When Babel had the opportunity to remain with his family in Paris, he returned to the Soviet Union and his career as a writer. My father's first loyalty was to his family. In 1913, his father and two older brothers had immigrated to America, leaving behind my father, then only ten, and his mother. What was to be a short separation was lengthened by World War I and the Russian Revolution. When my grandfather finally located his wife and son, my father, on leave after being wounded, deserted the Red Army to accompany his mother to America.
As a decorated Red Army cavalryman, my father could have risen in the ranks of the army. Despite his age, being literate and patriotic, he was assigned to train illiterate peasant recruits. He was also the courier who brought a confidential dispatch from the Central Committee to the isolated Bolshevik fleet in the Baltic. He rode through a storm in an exceptionally cold winter, and in recounting the incident (I taped him before he died), his nearly frozen horse had to be lowered by hoist into the hold of a warship to be defrosted. Needless to say, my father had to be thawed out as well.
In another noteworthy incident, during the Polish campaign, my father was awarded the Order of the Red Banner. He gave two accounts of that battle. In one, he said that he left the battlefield with the boots of a Polish general. In another, he mentioned that he was the cavalryman who shot the general. While I never asked--and he never directly said--I don't believe he was a member of the Communist Party. But had he remained in the Soviet Union, I'm sure the party would have welcomed him. However, he most likely would not have survived the Stalin purges. He had strong convictions and, as a house painter in America during the Great Depression, joined the painters union. He organized workers into the union and helped oust the gangster leadership, which was not above beatings and murder to remain in power.
Their lives ended differently. Babel, not yet 45, was in Lubyanka prison when he was executed with a bullet into the back of his head. My father had retired to Florida and was 81 when he died of heart failure in a North Miami hospital. I'm certain that if my father had remained in the Soviet Union, he would have been one of those with a utopian vision of a new social order and would have become a victim of Stalin's paranoid terror.
While Babel left a legacy of his writings, my father left an oral history in the form of audiotapes of his life in the Soviet Union. But my novel, Land of Dreams reveals much about my father through the eyes of his ten-year-old son. In a sequel-also in the genre of memoir fiction and not yet published--there is a scene in which Babel and my father meet at General Budyenny's headquarters where my father delivers a communique from the Central Committee of the Communist Party. While I have no evidence that my father delivered a communique to Budyenny, he was a trusted courier.
But first let me present some actual historical background. The Bolshevik Central Committee had sharp differences about invading Poland. Stalin was in favor of the venture, which was to be led by Budyenny. The general had deserted from the White-Russian army to cast his lot with the Bolsheviks. A drinking buddy of Stalin, he was the exceptional Bolshevik who survived the later purges to become even a Field Marshal in World War II. My father described Budyenny's blundering plunge to the gates of Warsaw without bringing up the second wave of troops, my father among them. (Historians spread the responsibility to Stalin, the Central Committee of the Communist Party, others, and the vagaries of war.) My father described how Budyenny's retreating troops recklessly rushed past the second wave of Budyenny's army, which was still advancing. My father, among the advancing troops, was surrounded by the Polish troops.
In telling how my father survived, truth is stranger than fiction. He ran into the hallway of a house and was greeted by a man who recognized him as a relative. After an embrace, the relative pointed where the Poles had not yet entered the town. My father darted in that direction and escaped.
Stalin expunged from Soviet history his role in the Polish invasion. But back to the imagined scene, where Mishka, the courier, meets the general, who dismisses the courier's formal greeting with, "If the Central Committee's words had the power of bullets, this Bolshevik revolution would have long conquered the world. Besides, you don't have to repeat the Red Army Oath every time you greet someone--or fart!"
I describe Budyenny's wheezing laughter, which made his long whiskers quiver and his breath assault Mishka with vodka fumes. Mishka feels a "mixture of contempt and awe for the besotted former Tsarist Cossack cavalry officer who had cast his lot with the Bolsheviks. The rumor was that it was to save his neck rather than an ideological conversion."
Budyenny claims to have "misplaced" his glasses and asks Mishka to read the communique, warning, "Keep your voice down--I don't want that spy of a Commissar knowing everything." Then, with a sneer, "Never fired a rifle, but I have to let him counter-sign my every order!" He takes out a flask and after a swig offers Mishka a drink and cackles, "The fuel of the revolution!"
Mishka reads the communique signed by Comrade Trotsky, and Budyenny says, "All those words to warn me against 'petty bourgeois adventurism' while wanting me to deliver decisive victories...Stalin wants to impress Comrade Lenin and the Central Committee with quick victories while Trotsky wants to prove his military prowess by avoiding humiliating defeats." He roars, "Does the Central Committee help me?'" and answers his question with, "They send ignorant peasants too cowardly to attack and too disorderly to retreat. Why don't they send Cossacks? Or even Party members? They're undisciplined, but at least they fight."
After questioning Mishka about his age and reason for joining the revolution, Budyenny asks, Who should I listen to--the clubfooted Georgian or the fiery Jew?" His eyes, whetted by vodka, sparkled with mischief.
Mishka suspects Budyenny was laying a trap and thinks, "Men had lost their lives with careless remarks or unintentional insults. "When the Commander's whisker-stroking becomes impatient, Mishka says, "Tell them you'll attack after they send reinforcements."
Budyenny is convulsed with laughter and says, "No wonder your people have survived." Mishka marvels at how antisemites uncannily recognized a Jew. Yet he feels safe and is reassured when the Commander roars, "I'll crush Petlura and Deniken before going on to obliterate Pilsudski and arm the true sons of the Polish working class. If Stalin fails me, I'll need the support of our People's Commissar." Then, more a command than a request, "when you return with my answer to the Central Committee--if anyone asks--tell them how battle-ready you found me. And if Comrade Trotsky mentions my Tsarist past, tell them I'm a loyal son of the revolution."
Then Budyenny whispers, "I want you to know I've been especially protective of your people. But my patience is being tried by a worthless Jew who pretends he's Kiril Lyutov, a Cossack correspondent. He never rode a horse before the revolution and I'm told he's really Isaac Babel. Do you know him?" When Mishka shakes his head, Budyenny says, "Claims he's a writer, but if he writes like he fights, I won't search for my glasses to read him."
When Mishka goes to the barn to make sure his horse has been fed, he meets a soldier with thick glasses who whispers, "God grant me what gentiles find so easy--killing their fellow men. Learn that, my little friend, and you'll soon sport a Commander's tunic even though you're a Jew."
Mishka replies, "First Budyenny and now you! Does my face look as Jewish as my p--?" The man's face twists in laugher, and he says, "If I had my notebook, I'd write that down." When Mishka asks, "Who are you?" the man replies, "A poor writer swept into the whirlwind of our times and temporarily masquerading as a Christian soldier-journalist."
"You're Babel!" says Mishka, relishing Babel's astonished expression before Babel burst into laughter....
JACOB JAFFE is a psychologist who has been on the faculties of Columbia and colleges of the City University. He has published Land of Dreams, a novel of the immigrant experience of his parents' generation, Hobgoblins, about a plot by a presidential candidate to become a modern-day Hitler, as well as several short stories.…