Tuesday, May 12, 2020

In memoriam, Isaak Grazutis.

My great-uncle Isaak died last night. I am honoured to have dedicated my forthcoming novel, centring around the Holocaust in Lithuania, to him. He was happy about that. A couple years ago, I interviewed him about his remarkable life.

In 1941 Lithuania, he literally walked away from the Nazis as an 11 year old. He and his aunt began walking out of Lithuania as the Nazis were arriving and the killing started. A truck full of Soviet soldiers told his aunt, "We only have room for one. Pass us the boy and we'll take him out of here." That was the last he saw of his family. (He did eventually connect with an aunt, years later, who had made it to Israel.)  My grandfather—his nephew—eventually found him in 1979 in Chicago where he was working as an illustrator/designer.

Here are three pictures. One (above) shows Isaak (on the left) this year, at 90 with his wife, Galina; my aunt, my mom and my father. Another is Isaak as a young man—he was a painter—painting a familiar face on the wall in a sports stadium. Art students were required to do this, as well as plough fields on Sundays. The last is a painting by Isaak of a street in Vilnius.

When I showed him my last novel, Yiddish for Pirates, he examined it very closely, thoughtfully, tenderly, intelligently noting and commenting on each design feature—from cover, colophon, chapter headings, fonts, and so on. He was, after all an artist and graphic designer all his life. This was his way of engaging with it, and with me, and his reading in English wasn't quite up to the novel.

Despite the hardships he endured, he was an exceedly warm, positive man alert to life's joys, humour, and beauty.

When I spoke to him, I asked him about returning home after escaping. He'd ended up in an orphanage in the Urals, then having caught a train from Vilnius to Moscow (climbing on the roof)  where he worked at a Yiddish language newspaper because of his facility with language. They noted his talent as an artist and he eventually started art school there. I wondered about the feeling of horror, of dread when he returned from the Urals, before he hopped the train. He said, he was young and with no family or expectations, the world was open to adventure and possibility. I found this hard to understand. This willingness to think of the future, to make the best of it. "Whatever it is, it is." In conversation, certainly he recalled his lost family with love, tenderness and affection. It wasn't for lack of that, I came to understand that it was something irrepressibly vital about him, something that held onto the roof of the train of life and let him make the best of things and be open to the possible.

And then there was that great story about when he worked as a graphic designer in a munitions factory where they manufactured guns and cars somewhere east of the Urals. He finagled a car out of the deal (they were exceedingly rare and expensive at the time in Soviet Russia.) And so, not knowing how to drive, he drove it the several thousand miles back to Vilnius, over frozen rivers and in deep cold. Also, without any windshield wiper fluid or heater, if I remember correctly, he used vodka.

I wrote more about him here 


1 comment:

Eccentric Scholar said...

A beautiful tribute to a remarkable spirit.