Isaac Babel and Mordche Yaffe

By Jaffe, Jacob | Midstream, July-August 2008 | Go to article overview

Isaac Babel and Mordche Yaffe

Jaffe, Jacob, Midstream

Part One

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. …

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