- My Grandmother Tells Me This Story
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Some say the Story begins in Europe, and your mother would no doubt interrupt and say it begins in New York, but that’s just because she can’t imagine the world before she entered it. And yes, I know you think it begins specifically in Belarus, because that’s what your grandfather tells you. I’ve heard him describing those black sedans speeding down Pinsker Street. I’ve been married to the man almost sixty years and know how he is with you— he makes every word sound like a secret. But he wasn’t even there. He was with his youth group by then and even though I was there I don’t remember being scared. Even when they knocked on our door, I didn’t know what was happening. Even when they dragged us outside with our overstuffed suitcases spilling into the street, shouting through megaphones to walk in the road with the livestock, I still didn’t know. I was thirteen.
The story really starts in the sewers. Everybody in the uniform factory whispered about them, and everybody had a different theory. Some said they were an escape route a plumber had spent years charting, an underground [End Page 13] system of tunnels running from Poland to Belarus to Lithuania. Others said they were an impossible maze with no way out. But when my mother pulled me aside after only six days in the factory and whispered that she’d worked out a plan for me—smuggled vodka for the guards, a shoulder bared (my poor father, a lifetime of loving a woman who knew just how to spark another man’s sympathy)—I simply stood there, taking notes in my head. After dinner, she said, I’d slip past the guards and down the street, around two corners and up a road where I’d see the slats of a sewer. The grate would slide off easily, she said, and she and my father would find me soon. I had no reason not to believe that was true, no way of knowing the sewers would lead me to the forest. That night all I knew, as I climbed inside the manhole and down the metal ladder, was that it smelled worse than anything I’d imagined, of shit and piss and garbage all together.
It was black in there, and dank and cool, the ceiling so low I sank to my knees and crawled. I just kept following the crowd of voices speaking in yiddish, which was both comforting and horrible, hearing that language forbidden in the factory. Then there was a rumble, and water rushed in and knocked me down. I gasped and tried to wade forward. The sewer started filling up, and I felt around in the slimy water for the person in front of me. But everybody seemed far ahead, and it took me a minute to realize dinner must have been ending aboveground, everybody washing dishes and taking baths and pouring water down the drain all at once.
Soon I had no sense of how long I’d been underground. My eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, and I saw the shapes around me: The woman up ahead, the hunched slope of her back. The walls of the sewer. The shadow of a rat before it ran across my arm. Then my whole body started to shake, and I knew I wouldn’t make it through a wave of morning dishwashing, so when I saw lines of light through the grate, I stopped.
Keep going, the woman behind me whispered.
But I couldn’t. I waited for the group to pass, and when I heard nothing above, I slowly lifted the grate and climbed onto the streets of a village that looked as if it had been completely passed over by the war. I wasn’t used to the sun after an entire night in the sewers—it was just rolling up over the houses, and the forest beyond was so bright it looked painted. Dirt, barns, sky—everything stunned me. That...