10 June 2010

Letter to My Daughter Sophia

A letter to my daughter, after reading “The Year is ‘42” by Ukranian/French author Nella Bielski...

Dear Sophia,

My grandfather Eli, your great-grandfather, once showed me a scar on his head he said was delivered by a Cossack’s sword. Maybe it was a tale made up to impress a little boy, but I could see the red scar on his glistening bald head.

In the year 1908, Eli and his future wife Ida came to America from Byelorussia, fleeing bad times for Jews. They had been living, unknown to each other, in neighboring cities, Minsk and Pinsk, where Jews once made up more than half of the population.

Eli met Ida in New York City. A relative urged him go knock on the door of this lovely young woman. He did, and soon the two refugees had married. They moved to San Francisco, where Eli worked as a house painter, Ida as a seamstress.

They lived on Wood Street, a one block microcosm of the old country. Yiddish was spoken up and down the street and housewives competed to see whose laundry appeared earliest on backyard clotheslines.

Ida and Eli had one daughter, Florence, my mother, your grandmother. She commuted by ferry to school at UC Berkeley, then found depression-era employment in the news department of a Chicago radio station.

That’s where she met my father, Joe Miksak, your grandfather. He was a second generation Czech Catholic, an out-of-work actor reading news for a living. Florence wrote scripts and watched him read them through studio glass. Together they attended the Art Institute of Chicago, working with Bauhaus great Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, then moved to Greenwich Village in New York, where their friends were bohemian artists and performers.

On Sunday, December 7, 1941, Joe heard on the radio the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Next day he enlisted in the Army. “What did you do in the war, daddy?” I would later ask, and he would say “I never was in the fighting. I was officer in charge of wash cloths.”

First Lieutenant Miksak took part in the invasion of north Africa, then the invasion of Sicily. He was sent home near the end of the war, and I was born in 1945. Ever since, I’ve associated my birth with the first atom bombs and the beginning of a middle-class era of hope and prosperity. My brother Matthew came along in 1950. Much later, in Mendocino in 1976, you were born, Sophia.

“The Year is ‘42" is an uncorrected proof from 2004, back when I ran a bookstore. I have no idea why I picked it off the shelf last night, but there it was and here it is now.

It’s a short novel that takes a group of German and Russian characters through one difficult year of the Second World War. Kurt Bazinger, a Wehrmacht officer, is living well in Paris under German occupation. Gradually he comes to the attention of the SS and also of resistance forces. He volunteers for the Eastern Front, and as the publisher writes, “a beautiful, stoic Russian doctor with her own painful history will heal Karl and offer him hope and goodness in the midst of hell.”

This book feels real, Sophia. Wallowing in death and destruction I found myself reflecting how fortunate we are to be alive today, progeny of an unbroken line of survivors that stretches back through countless generations.

It is a powerful thing, survival. It’s certainly something to ponder.


“The Year Is '42" by Nella Bielski, translated by John Berger. Vintage Books paperback $12.95. ISBN 1400076641. First published in 2004.

Nella Bielski also co-wrote a two-part novel with John Berger:

“Oranges for the Son of Alexander Levy” (Arcadia Books paperback $12.99 ISBN 1900850338) is described by the publisher as “Two novels in one. ‘Isabelle’ is John Berger and Nella Bielski's powerful story in shots which brilliantly recreates the life of Isabelle Eberhardt. ‘Oranges for the Son of Alexander Levy’ is Nella Bielski's powerful meditation on the nature of love and loss ...

Nella Bielski is the author of several novels and has also written for the cinema. Her play A Question of Geography was staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company. She was born in the Ukraine and lives in Paris.

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