For Arlington resident Yelena Lembersky, writing a memoir with her mother Galina Lembersky about their life as Jews in the Soviet Union was difficult but necessary. It illuminated not only the injustices they had suffered under the Soviet regime, but also the family connection to Holocaust history: Her grandfather, Felix Lembersky, is credited with the first artistic representations of the infamous 1941 Nazi massacre of Soviet Jews at Babi Yar in Ukraine. The site is also known by its Ukrainian spelling, Babyn Yar.
The Lemberskys’ memoir, “Like a Drop of Ink in a Downpour,” was published earlier this year. Yelena Lembersky has spoken about the book at two Cambridge landmarks – the Harvard Coop and Porter Square Books. She also had a letter to The New Yorker published referencing a development that was halted by the war in Ukraine: Two of her grandfather’s paintings were scheduled to be sent to the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, where they would be publicly exhibited in Eastern Europe for the first time.
Even today, a decade after the memoir project began, some passages are too difficult for Yelena to reread, she acknowledged in a recent telephone interview. As she and her mother were preparing to emigrate from the USSR, her mother was arrested and sentenced on trumped-up charges. While incarcerated, Galina wrote letters to her daughter, including a poem with the sentence, “forgive me for the false sense of well-being, the fact that I am not with you.”
“The letters are very difficult,” Yelena said. “They make it real.”
Galina wrote her first letter from the Kresti prison in 1981, as her daughter was about to turn 12. She smuggled it out on a page from a notebook. It included a numbered set of instructions on how her daughter should live her life. Yelena finds it easier to speak about another letter that her mother sent after being transferred to the Sablina labor camp for women. In this letter, Galina criticized a short story her daughter had sent her.
Calling the letter both critical and funny, Yelena sums it up as follows: “You do your mothering thing, criticize your daughter on writing … She was an unbearable perfectionist. I wonder if it helped shape my attitude toward writing.”
Educated as an artist at prestigious schools in the USSR, Yelena went on to get an undergraduate degree in fine art from the University of Michigan after she emigrated. She eventually became an architect, then turned to writing. Her first book chronicled her grandfather’s life and occasioned the one time she went back to Russia since arriving in the US.
Her latest book required some persuading.
“My mother didn’t want to write it,” Yelena said. “I always wanted to write it.” The original focus, she added, was on “what the KGB … did in the case of an innocent woman with a child, put her to prison for nothing.”
It expanded to include a larger family narrative. While writing it, Yelena re-evaluated her relationship with her father, who had become estranged from her mother.
“For better or worse, he was a part of my life,” she said. “I think he loved me. He was flawed. He was no hero. He represented the system, or worked for that system … I don’t have the right to judge him.”
Yelena also discusses her childhood home of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and its long connection to her family. The city endured a devastating German siege in World War II, from 1941 to 1944, with some 1 million deaths. Yelena’s maternal grandparents both lived there at the time. At a bomb shelter, her grandmother helped feed other residents with a stash of candy during a time of starvation.
“She always said willpower is everything in life,” Yelena said. “It was the heroism of everyday people.”
Growing up, Yelena recalled learning much about certain parts of Russian history, such as celebrated moments from World War II, but not about the devastation the war wrought on Soviet Jewry.
“Babi Yar was the biggest massacre of Soviet Jews,” Yelena said. “It became emblematic of the mass Holocaust sites, the terrible murder of Soviet Jews in Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus. Everywhere the Nazis went, they executed Jews by shooting.”
While the Soviets drove out the Nazis, life for Jews in the postwar USSR was difficult.
“There was only one synagogue in Leningrad,” Yelena said. “We would go there. That was very dangerous. My mother took classes in Hebrew in the 1970s. Just by taking lessons in Hebrew, you became a dissident. In those classes, the people who went to class were followed by the KGB … My mother had great courage to participate in those classes.”
She said that in school, “Jewish history didn’t exist, Jewish language … no one talked about the Holocaust.”
Her grandmother did not tell her that her grandfather’s parents were victims of the Shoah.
“I remember the words ‘Babi Yar’ as a child,” Yelena said. “I remember those paintings … Guests came in to see my grandfather’s paintings. Everyone stood up in silence. I asked my grandmother and mother, what was Babi Yar? My grandmother took the paintings away.”
When Yelena relocated to Cambridge, she researched her grandfather’s birthplace in Berdichev, Ukraine. She found his parents’ names on a list at Yad Vashem.
“All of a sudden, it started to make sense,” she said. “It was the reason he did the paintings. It was not abstract. He was portraying his parents.”