Old Lives and New

by Edith Rogovin Frankel

Excerpt from Old Lives and New


By 1941, at age nearly 13, Zakharia had experienced considerable changes in his life. In 1933, his father, part of a German Jewish family that had a far-flung leather-working business, had moved with his immediate family to Kovno (called Kaunas by the Lithuanians), the capital of independent, inter-war Lithuania, to run his part of the business there. He and his wife had two sons, Alexander, born in 1923, and Zakharia, born in 1928. Zakharia was sent to a Jewish school (where he first learned Yiddish) and, from third grade studied in Hebrew. When the Bolsheviks came in 1940 the school switched back to Yiddish, as Hebrew was a language associated with religion and Zionism, and thus considered unacceptable for study in the Soviet Union. In the ensuing years the child also learned Lithuanian and, later, Russian. The family kept up certain Jewish practices: bar mitzvahs, Passover seders, occasional Saturday prayers at the synagogue. The family name plate is still on one of the seats in the synagogue in Kovno today.

Business was good: the whole world was preparing for war. There was a need for shoes for soldiers, coats for officers, all made of leather. The prices kept going up. His father realized that their personal situation was precarious and gradually made plans to take the family to Palestine. Large sums of money had to be accumulated in pounds sterling for their immigration certificates and this was arranged with a London bank. “I imagine that the person receiving the goods my father sent was also a Jew. And he would transfer a little money from each shipment so that we would be able to leave.” But business was so good it was hard to give it up and move and in the late nineteen thirties Zakaharia’s father kept putting off the decision from one week to the next. “And if we have been in the Diaspora for 2000 years, what’s another two weeks?” This went on until the Bolsheviks came, and then it was too late. Zakharia’s father later likened his experience to that of a monkey in one of Rudyard Kipling’s stories of India. Because it was such a rare monkey, the local Indians tried in every way possible to catch one, alive. But the monkey was very clever and managed to keep out of their reach until, finally, the men devised a clever trap. Knowing that the monkey loved pineapple, they designed a cage with a juicy slice of pineapple inside. The bars of the cage were spaced widely enough so that the monkey would be able to reach in. However, once it was holding the pineapple, the monkey could not withdraw its hand—not without dropping the desired piece of fruit. He wanted the fruit, and he wanted to escape, but he could not have both and was thus captured. And I, said Zakharia’s father, I am like that monkey and now we are caught.