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by Esther Cohen
The Story Begins
MANY OF US believe we know what happened: how people went from there to here. This country in particular is full of stories, stories of departures and then arrivals.
Bobst is where my own story begins. In the late 19th century. Let’s say 1883. Before my grandmother Rivka was born. Her parents were young peasants on a shtetl street that was an okay enough place to live. The people had food and all the men worked and every single Friday night each house had a chicken. That’s what they told us, anyway.
Bobst is an old Lithuanian town. The Lithuanians called it Babtai. The Jews, Bobst. In the middle of Lithuania, it’s right on the Nevezys River, not too far from the real city of Kaunas, about thirty miles away. In the 19th century, Bobst had a real Jewish community, with a serious rabbi named Moshe-Eliyahu, son of Yakov Burstein, who was in charge of life for the Jews. About 1,030 Jews lived in this small town.
My grandmother was born right there. Her name was Rivka. What I did actually know was how short she was, close to the ground in that Eastern European way. Short and white and wide. When she was young, my guess is she looked okay. My first memory of her was when I was a very young child. We visited every Sunday morning, and she lived in a white house around the corner from ours. We did not go there to eat. Just to visit. Although she was probably twenty years younger than I am today, she seemed Very Very Old. Her hair, uncut, was thin, straight and grey, and looked like no one’s hair that I have ever seen again. She wore it in a bun, a very tight bun, at the very top of her neck. Looking at her, you’d imagine that her hair would not dare move. Not for reasons of spray. She wasn’t a hairspray type. No lipstick either. She washed her face with soap and water, and that’s how she seemed. Unadorned, completely. Her face was pale, and you couldn’t imagine that she’d ever seen much of the sun. Some people are outdoor types, and then there are the others. Today when the whole world, or much of it, anyway, seems to go hiking or biking or at least for long walks, it’s hard to imagine my grandmother Rivka, inside. Because of my grandmother, at least a little, I am here, telling you her story. And mine.