Memphis

The shortest route from Kansas City to Memphis is via Springfield, MO and rural Arkansas where highway is controlled by the roaming gangs of deer who stand around the road contemplating if they will let you live. I wouldn’t recommend driving there in the dark.

I didn’t want to go to Memphis. Even though I learned English trying to sing along with Elvis (and that’s why people often ask me if I am from Tupelo),  I didn’t feel the need to visit his house and other Memphis attractions didn’t really seem worthy of a fairly boring 8-hour drive. Usually we try to see things along the way, but there wasn’t much to see and the only memorable item was a town called Cabool, mostly because of how out-of-place the name seemed somewhere in rural Missouri.

Memphis

Memphis turned out to be a fun place for a weekend trip, with enough things to keep you busy for a few days.

…but wait,there is more… Memphis

Grigory Semenovich Obershmukler

I don’t make New Year Resolutions, but I start every year hoping to interview an Old Jewish Person®. Then I realize that I have no interviewing skills, or patience or determination to actually do it, and soon another year rolls around. So this is probably as close as it gets to having a narrative on this blog. This text is translated from an older gentleman’s blog I’ve been following for many years. He lives in Israel and seems to be retired after a long career as a physician. His stories are always fascinating, honest, and told from an old Jewish doctor point of view I find so relatable. If you read Russian you will find his blog to be a unique personal account of the long-gone era, mixed with tragic and funny stories he encountered in his latter years while working in Israel with ex-Soviet immigrants. And if you are Russian-impaired, you have to rely on my crude translating and editing skills. Translating takes a long time and there only so much of it I can do at work so this is only the first part. I also edited out an episode that cannot be possibly explained to a non-Russian reader without writing a small book. Part 2 that covers WWII and the years after is coming up sometime in the future.

In the early sixties, after three years of working in a rural area, my family came back to Minsk. I got a job in a TB clinic; my wife was hired as an ambulance doctor.

Soon I’ve met an interesting man in the clinic.

It was our consulting thoracic surgeon Grigory Semenovich. He was a distinguished man, a veteran of WWII, a PhD. Actually, when he was born in the beginning of the 20th century he was named Hirsch, his father was Simha, so his full name was listed in the passport as Hirsch Simkhovich. Not willing to pronounce such a tongue twister, people at his Worker and then Medical school called him Grisha, and later Grigory Semenovich. His last name was Obershmukler, which is translated from Yiddish means “chief smuggler”. It’s hard to say how his ancestors got that name, but in the early 19th century by the order of Tsar Alexander I all the Jews in the Empire were required to produce last names. And then it all depended on the imagination of barely literate clerks and happy owners of new names.

When I met him, he was an old man of sixty, small in stature around 160 cm (5’2’’), with a large bald spot surrounded by a narrow rim of gray hair. Thick black mustache streaked with gray, barely concealed a rough scar on his upper lip – a reminder of a childhood surgery. He had nasal and slightly hoarse voice. During surgeries he had to stand on a step-stool.
All this combined – a tiny height, baldness, big mustache and a voice – made for somewhat of a strange impression , although he was a good surgeon , very well-read and educated .

Grigory Semenovich had his habits.

During surgeries, when complications and difficulties arose, he did not yell at nurses or scolded assistants; did not throw tools like many venerable surgeons I’ve observed in my many years of study and work. He calmly and quietly muttered some unintelligible words in his nasal voice, and if all went well, even tried to sing something totally unfamiliar. When asked what it meant, he replied -
- Do not worry, I am commenting on the progress of the surgery to myself in Latin…
Once at the front, after a complicated and successful surgery, a higher-ranking doctor who was there with an inspection, said in Yiddish after a modest dinner and a “front-line hundred grams” (*of vodka):

- Hirsch, you need to be more cautious with your cursing , special agents (*of NKVD) may know what  “mome loshn” means but may not understand who it’s directed to …
Colonel inspector also grew up in a shtetl , went to a heder and was able to understand  all the terrible curses on the heads of Germans , crappy instruments, war, dumb commanders , bleeding and this lousy life …

Once when I was present with my electrocardiograph during a heavy thoracoplasty surgery performed by Gregory Semenovich, I was also able to make out the words of an indecent song that I heard as a child from my father .

In my translation of an arbitrary and totally outrageous pronunciation (after all , the last time I heard this song seventy years ago !) One verse of this specimen of folk art translates roughly as follows:

Jew has sex with a Jew , goy has a goy ,
Rabbi has a rebbetzin and all enjoy …

It is known that in the USSR from NKVD to kindergartens people disgruntled with someone or something wrote anonymous complaints on a variety of subject to different organizations. Grigory Semenovich didn’t escape his. Clinic received a directive from the regional party committee with the request to verify the facts, investigate the matter and report back to the regional committee. The attached anonymous letter stated that the operating surgeon Obershmukler writes off a lot of valuable medicinal alcohol, but in reality he drinks the alcohol with no zakuski, while getting drunk with other physicians and operating nurses but the junior staff is never invited, as if they are not human… and these drunken parties cause harm to the Soviet state in general and all of medicine in particular.
Everyone knew that Gregory Semenovich cannot drink more than one shot during the evening. When they showed him the letter, he grinned into his mustache and said -
- Tomorrow is my surgery, send the commission, they will see for themselves …
The next day, Gregory Semenovich came to work with a large portfolio. Commission gathered soon – assistant director of the hospital Anna Artemovna, secretary of the local Communist Party organization, the chairman of the local union and chief nurse. Surgeon Obershmukler dumped a few thick monographs with bookmarks and a pile of printed instructions on the table.
- Please verify that I am following the guidance. This is a monograph with existing hand sanitizing methods, and these – he pointed to the printed sheets – are the latest instructions of our ministry. Now I’m going to wash my hands, and you will observe … Nurse, are you ready? Begin!
They began the long process of hand sanitizing while Gregory Semenovich explained.
- We are using the Fyurbringer’s* method with modification by Alfeld*. Sometimes we use Spasokukotsky* – Kochergin* method (*all these names could be medical-sounding gibberish). In all three methods the last stage is rinsing of the hands with a 70 % alcohol solution for 2 to 5 minutes; we will use 2 minutes. Nurse, give me a sterile napkin, start the stopwatch and slowly pour the alcohol on my hands!
Alcohol started trickling down on his palms, and then to the sink …
What are you doing! – screamed the Chairman of the Union, retired paramedic and a no stranger to drinking.
Last drops emerged from half-liter bottle.
- Now have to leave, patient is waiting, – Gregory Semenovich raised his clean hands and looking like a surrendering prisoner, shuffled over to the operating room …

Few more episodes.

In those years, our clinic expanded, changed staffing and simultaneously recruited several young graduates of medical school. One of them, Valya, came the first time to work in a mini-skirt. Minis were just beginning to come into vogue and assistant director Anna Artemovna stated that the Soviet young people and members of Komsomol cannot appear at work dressed like this. Reprimands did not help, and Anna Artemovna used every possible way to find fault with a young girl.

Anna Artemovna was a partisan nurse and after the war she married a former guerrilla commander, barely finished college and once admitted that after the college has not read a single book.
Once she burst into the staffroom, where doctors spent their free time and in a raised voice began berating Valechka for her transgressions. Valya didn’t have to look for words and said loudly -
Why are you attacking me like a Fury?
Assistant director froze for a few seconds.
- Girl! What did you say to me? I am an honest woman! I have a husband! It’s you who is shaking her tail, flashing your panties and bare hips to everyone, be ashamed! I would never put on skirt like this!
-Of course, at your age you have nothing to flash and have nothing to show, and no one wants to see it anyway!
From the far corner came a hoarse voice nasal voice of Gregory Semenovich -
-Anna Artemovna why are you boiling so much? Fury is not a prostitute, as you though. In Greek it means an evil vindictive woman and it may not be too far from the truth.
- You are and old man and on her side…
Anna Artemovna left the room and slammed the door.

Grigory Semenovich didn’t have a lot of work in our hospital. He dealt mainly with adhesions after the placement of artificial pneumothorax, occasionally performed therapeutic thoracoplasty and some others. For several days after a surgery, even on weekends, he visited his patients, punctured the pleural cavity, changed wound dressings and made new prescriptions.

During those years he lived with his wife in a small two- story Khrushchev-style apartment building, she was often sick, and he felt lonely. I often picked up duty hours in the therapeutic ward to make extra money. Grigory S. came to me in the duty room and we had long conversations …

Grigory S. was born in the early 20th century in a small shtetl near Minsk , and as all the local kids went to heder – elementary school at the synagogue. Since the childhood he started helping his father who was a cobbler, but always wanted to study and become a doctor.

The boy was born with a small genetic defect – a slight cleft lip and had surgery in his childhood to repair it. For the rest of his life he remembered the majestic figure of the surgeon in a long white coat and mask with clean hands raised up in the air…

After the revolution, Grisha went to Minsk and began working as a mechanic at the depot at the railroad station, while attending a night school. After 2 years local Communist cell, the trade union committee and the director gave him a referral to the technical school. Grisha successfully graduated and enrolled in medical school.

Student years were difficult – Grisha worked nights as a nurse in a hospital, then as a surgeons’ assistant and studied hard.  He often participated in simple surgeries …
Then graduation. He, a Jewish guy, son of a shoemaker – a medical doctor! Joy knew no bounds!
But he was yet to become a surgeon …

Initially he worked in Polesia, in a remote village in a forsaken district hospital with 10 beds. He worked alone, treating all diseases, delivering babies. Queues at the reception were huge, and after a day at work – night house calls …
The following year they hired a midwife, and then came a paramedic – life became a little easier. Grisha set up an operating room, started performing minor surgeries. The village had no electricity so he arranged for a power generator near the hospital. When the old steam generator started huffing and puffing at night – the whole village knew that there was a patient or a birth.
After three and a half years he was sent to a surgical residency.
Gregory never came back to the village, he was sent to the district center to work as a general surgeon. At the age of almost 30 his lifelong dream came true!

At the new job young surgeon met a charming female colleague, an obstetrician -gynecologist, who started working there a couple of years prior.
Her name was Rachel. She was a tall, stout, pretty blonde. Her face had a disproportionately large nose that made her embarrassed …
Her path to medicine she was easier than Grisha’s – her parents were able to get medical education during the Tsarist years and escape from the Pale of Settlement – her dad was a pharmacist and her mother a midwife , and they were allowed to live in big cities .
Rachel was three years younger Grisha, 16 centimeters taller without heels and 15 kilos heavier …
Grisha always liked big women. He realized that it was his destiny and started a proper siege.
Fortress did not especially resist, Rachel liked miniature men and, in particular, Grisha. After a few months a simple wedding took place in the yard of a small house, where young people found an apartment – just a friendly dinner. Toward the end of the event happy and tired groom took a nap in the corner. Rachel took him in her arms like a baby, and carried him into the bedroom next to her powerful chest   to the applause of the remaining guests.

Gregory S. and Rachel worked at the district hospital for a few more years, when they encountered the first trouble – they did not conceive. Pregnancies ended in miscarriages, doctors’ advice did not help, and to get the advice they had to go to the regional center or to Minsk. And the young family decided to move to Minsk, the capital.

In the early 1930’s, doctors were needed in all hospitals. Without much difficulty and patronage Rachel and Grisha got jobs in their respective specialties, and moved into an apartment with Rachel’s aunt.
Finally, nature took its course, Rachel became pregnant and in 1936 and delivered a healthy girl.
In the fashion of those years she was named Svetlana.

Time passed quickly, maternity leave has ended. Not so young mother-doctor knew that to send the infant to the nursery meant to put the long-awaited child in danger. A thought to leave work did not cross her mind. They had to find a nanny. One of the former patients suggested his distant relative – Alesya – a 16-year-old girl, an orphan from a distant village, almost illiterate , but familiar with young children , decent and clean .

They took the girl took into the family and she raised Svetlana from the age of 8 months! They even looked similar, both were round-faced blondes, only  Svetlana had green eyes and Alesya’s were blue …
When friends asked the Alesya where she works, she nonchalantly replied “I do not know, some surgeon” …

Few more years passed. Svetochka started in kindergarten. Alesya helped around the house and attended night school. Grisha and Rachel worked hard and taught Alesya all they knew themselves – from cooking to nursing care. They took care of her future – Alain finished seven grades, passed the entrance exams and in the autumn of 1941 was supposed to go to nursing school.

Grigory Semenovich didn’t have a lot of work in our hospital. He dealt mainly with adhesions after the imposition of artificial pneumothorax, occasionally performed therapeutic thoracoplasty and some others. For several days after a surgery, even on weekends, he visited his patients, punctured the pleural cavity, changed wound dressings and made new prescriptions.

During those years he lived with his wife in a small two- story Khrushchev-style apartment building, she was often sick, and he felt lonely. I often picked up duty hours in the therapeutic ward to make extra money. Grigory S. came to me in the duty room and we had long conversations …

Grigory S. was born in the early 20th century in a small shtetl near Minsk , and as all the local kids went to heder - elementary school at the synagogue. Since the childhood he started helping his father who was a cobbler, but he always wanted to study and become a doctor.

The boy was born with a small genetic defect – a slight cleft lip and had surgery in his childhood to repair it. For the rest of his life he remembered the majestic figure of the surgeon in a long white coat and mask with clean hands raised up in the air…

After the revolution, Grisha went to Minsk and began working as a mechanic at the depot at the railroad station, while attending a night school. After 2 years local Communist cell, the trade union committee and the director gave him a referral to the technical school. Grisha successfully graduated and enrolled in medical school.

Student years were difficult – Grisha worked nights as a nurse in a hospital, then as a surgeons’ assistant and studied hard.  He often participated in simple surgeries …
Then graduation. He, a Jewish guy, son of a shoemaker – a medical doctor! Joy knew no bounds!
But he was yet to become a surgeon …

Initially he worked in Polesia, in a remote village in a forsaken district hospital with 10 beds. He worked alone, treating all diseases, delivering babies. Queues at the reception were huge, and after a day at work – night house calls …
The following year they hired a midwife, and then came a paramedic – life became a little easier. Grisha set up an operating room, started performing minor surgeries. The village had no electricity so he arranged for a power generator near the hospital. When the old steam generator started huffing and puffing at night – the whole village knew that there was a patient or a birth.
After three and a half years he was sent to a surgical residency.
Gregory never came back to the village, he was sent to the district center to work as a general surgeon. At the age of almost 30 his lifelong dream came true!

At the new job young surgeon met a charming female colleague, an obstetrician-gynecologist, who started working there a couple of years prior.
Her name was Rachel. She was a tall, stout, pretty blonde. Her face had a disproportionately large nose that made her embarrassed …
Her path to medicine she was easier than Grisha’s – her parents were able to get medical education during the Tsarist years and escape from the Pale of Settlement – her dad was a pharmacist and her mother a midwife , and they were allowed to live in big cities .
Rachel was three years younger Grisha, 16 centimeters taller without heels and 15 kilos heavier …
Grisha always liked big women. He realized that it was his destiny and started a proper siege.
Fortress did not especially resist, Rachel liked miniature men and, in particular, Grisha. After a few months a simple wedding took place in the yard of a small house, where young people found an apartment – just a friendly dinner. Toward the end of the event happy and tired groom took a nap in the corner. Rachel took him in her arms like a baby, and carried him into the bedroom next to her powerful chest   to the applause of the remaining guests.

Gregory S. and Rachel worked at the district hospital for a few more years, when they encountered the first trouble – they did not conceive. Pregnancies ended in miscarriages, doctors’ advice did not help, and to get the advice they had to go to the regional center or to Minsk. And the young family decided to move to Minsk, the capital.

In the early 1930’s, doctors were needed in all hospitals. Without much difficulty and patronage Rachel and Grisha got jobs in their respective specialties, and moved into an apartment with Rachel’s aunt.
Finally, nature took its course, Rachel became pregnant and in 1936 and delivered a healthy girl.
In the fashion of those years she was named Svetlana.

Time passed quickly, maternity leave has ended. Not so young mother-doctor knew that to send the infant to the nursery meant to put the long-awaited child in danger. A thought to leave work did not cross her mind. They had to find a nanny. One of the former patients suggested his distant relative – Alesya – a 16-year-old girl, an orphan from a distant village, almost illiterate , but familiar with young children , decent and clean .

They took the girl took into the family and she raised Svetlana from the age of 8 months! They even looked similar, both were round-faced blondes, only  Svetlana had green eyes and Alesya’s were blue …
When friends asked the Alesya where she works, she nonchalantly replied “I do not know, some surgeon” …

Few more years passed. Svetochka started in kindergarten. Alesya helped around the house and attended night school. Grisha and Rachel worked hard and taught Alesya all they knew themselves – from cooking to nursing care. They took care of her future – Alesya finished seven grades, passed the entrance exams and in the autumn of 1941 was supposed to go to nursing school.

Marxism-Bremzenism

We had no housing to speak of, we had no cars to speak of, we all wore the same clothes
Anya Von Bremzen

It rained communism and income redistribution.

In dim light reluctantly released by the Government so the citizens wouldn’t bump into each other I was schlepping to kindergarten. It was 5 in the morning. I turned 5 just few months before and my sleeping in days were long gone. The System wouldn’t let me stay in bed past 7 for the next sixty years, when it will spit out my chewed up and worn out shell of a body patched up like Frankenstein monster by the torture they called free medicine.

I looked around. Zombie-like builders of communism were slowly moving past me. Same clothes, same faces, empty eyes. Years of being fed just bread and fat-free ideology drained the will to live out of people. At night, when the curtains were closed and my parents covered up the listening devices, they whispered about something they called meat.  Once a year they tried to recreate meat out of contraband mayo and turnips. It was horrible but we stunned our taste buds with vodka to make it palatable.

It was early spring but one couldn’t tell just by looking at the Communist-controlled weather. Behind the barbwire fences, system’s functionaries, the apparatchiks,  were frolicking in the sun and warmth. We got what was left.  Used air contained hardly any oxygen. I stopped to take a deep breath.

The International Women’s Day – a holiday celebrating heavy women in cotton-stuffed waist jackets, head scarves and year-round galoshes was approaching. Communist cell in the kindergarten was preparing a concert where like trained monkeys we would attempt to entertain these never-smiling representatives of the weaker gender. Weaker? I evil-laughed on the inside, grinding my teeth. My face remained stoic and expressionless.

I was assigned to perform a Russian folk dance. The System knew I was Jewish and it was their way of putting and extra-painful twist on the torture that was dancing. My head yearned to be covered. My feet were itching to break out in Freilach. I craved gefilte fish even though I didn’t know what gefilte was. Or fish. Instead I found myself standing next to a girl, dressed in a Russian shirt and shorts. It was so cold inside that even ever-present Lenin’s portrait on the wall was covered with frost. My legs were slowly turning blue to match the shorts.

Marxism Bremzenism
When the music started the headmistress’s eyes told me I had to smile and dance or I will be forced to read Das Kapital while marching around the room for the fifth time in a month. My smile felt like a grimace and my dance moves were awkward, but I couldn’t bring myself to read about the plight of the proletariat one more time.

Scary women in the audience did not smile anyway. They just didn’t know how. After the performance the teachers force-fed us disgusting chocolates filled with Marxism and Leninism. I willed myself not to gag. This came useful later when I lived on the streets of New York doing anything for a buck. Just like Marx predicted.

Standing there ashamed and smeared with chocolate, in a room where one could cut ideology with a knife, I had a dream that I, I someday will tearfully tell about my hardships to the American press and be quoted in every article about Russia.

Fucking Anya Von Bremzen.

Don’t Tempt Me, Bro

I’d be willing to txt twice if it kilz both Brown & Grouppen.
Dont Tempt Me, Bro

Out-Russianed

When I started this blog, I made a conscious decision to write in English. There is a billion Russian-language blogs on the Internet, some are very good, but for the past 6 years mine is the only somewhat Russian-themed blog in English in Kansas City. And, dare I say, the entire State of Kansas. And probably Missouri, Oklahoma and Arkansas. I never promoted it to my Russian friends, never told my relatives, even my kid doesn’t really know what I do here. The reason was that I didn’t want people like me reading this and then trying to argue that it’s wrong, or never happened, or this ingredient doesn’t go into borscht, etc. Because, everything written here about my life in the USSR is the truth according to me, as it it’s known, remembered and cooked by me, for the years when I lived there, in the place where I lived. I knew Americans would buy anything be less inclined to argue with me.
Out Russianed
…but wait,there is more… Out-Russianed