Shush! Growing Up Jewish under Stalin: A Memoir

Shush! Growing Up Jewish under Stalin: A Memoir

Shush! Growing Up Jewish under Stalin: A Memoir

Shush! Growing Up Jewish under Stalin: A Memoir


Many years after making his way to America from Odessa in Soviet Ukraine, Emil Draitser made a startling discovery: every time he uttered the word "Jewish"--even in casual conversation--he lowered his voice. This behavior was a natural by-product, he realized, of growing up in the anti-Semitic, post-Holocaust Soviet Union, when "Shush!" was the most frequent word he heard: "Don't use your Jewish name in public. Don't speak a word of Yiddish. And don't cry over your murdered relatives." This compelling memoir conveys the reader back to Draitser's childhood and provides a unique account of midtwentieth-century life in Russia as the young Draitser struggles to reconcile the harsh values of Soviet society with the values of his working-class Jewish family. Lively, evocative, and rich with humor, this unforgettable story ends with the death of Stalin and, through life stories of the author's ancestors, presents a sweeping panorama of two centuries of Jewish history in Russia.


Only now do I begin to understand the numbing of memory. It’s when you push something shameful so deep down in yourself that you won’t stumble on it. When asked why I left Russia some thirty years ago, I usually shrug. It seems obvious to me. I couldn’t have explained it clearly to anyone. Maybe I could do it just in the most general terms. Only recently, little by little, carefully, as if stripping bloodstained bandages from a half-healed wound, have I begun to retrieve those deeply hidden emotions that go back to the early years of my life.

A small incident prodded me in that direction. Some ten years ago I was invited to speak at the State University of New York at Albany. Later, at lunch, the chair of the Russian Department, Professor Toby Clyman, told me her story. She had come to America from Poland as an eight-year-old Jewish girl. I told her about my life in my native city, Odessa, then in Kiev and in Moscow. Suddenly, she stopped me: “Do you realize that each time you pronounce the word Jewish, you lower your voice? Why? American Jews say, ‘I’m Jewish,’ calmly and clearly, without looking around.”

I winced. Indeed, she was right. By then I had been living in America for a long time, almost twenty years. Russia was left behind, beyond an ocean, beyond the mountains and fields of many countries. But I still spoke in half whispers about anything concerning matters Jewish.

Recently, while lecturing on twentieth-century Russian culture, I had to . . .

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