Friends Old and New

April 2, 2023

Calva, Betty, and Joel beneath a sculpture commemorating the end of WWII, Sarasota, Florida

My travels in March were to Florida and Texas, and the conversations and places offered a strong contrast— tropical Florida’s lushness and the rolling hills and dry grasslands of Austin’s hill country. And though there were stark differences in the landscapes, there were underlying and connected themes in both visits — music and Eastern European culture.

The first week was spent in Sarasota, Florida in a senior community along Tampa Bay with my friends Joel and Calva Leonard. Joel and I were high school buddies. After graduation, we lost touch, and after sixty years, we successfully reconnected in 2018. Joel and I were both part of immigrant families from the Pale of Settlement (Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine). While Joel and I enjoyed exploring past interests, his wife Calva, and I had a wonderful experience getting to know each other better. 

Joel had had a very successful career as a NASA scientist and along with playing the violin, expanded his love of folk music to help found the Washington Balalaika Orchestra, a community of musicians who perform the music of Russia, Ukraine, and Eastern Europe on traditional Russian folk instruments. I have enjoyed listening to their concerts on CDs Joel would send me. While visiting, I sat in on Joel’s folk music group preparing for a Spring concert. While this was not of the stature of the Balalaika Orchestra, it was fun to hear them practicing well-known folk tunes.

During the week, Joel had arranged to have The Lee Trio (three sisters) play an exciting concert of pieces by Ludwig van Beethoven, a modern Finnish composer Uljas Pulkkis, and Robert Schumann. The Trio consisted of Lisa Lee on the violin, Angela Lee on the cello, and Melinda Lee Masur on the piano. Another evening, a member of the senior community gave a presentation on the Beatles and whenever he mentioned a song, the audience burst into singing.

During a visit to Sarasota’s harbor area, we visited an exhibition of large billboard-sized paintings on the subject of diversity from all over the world. Schoolchildren submitted the images and other people were invited to submit quotations about diversity. The organizing committee then paired them together (see image gallery below). The exhibit demonstrated that there are many ways to express the importance of recognizing, supporting, and valuing our differences as a way to heal our world.

Filled with a week of good meals, conversation, music, and walks, I flew to Austin, Texas.

Reading Between the Lines

My second week was with John and Jane Wulsin, former Waldorf colleagues who taught at the Green Meadow Waldorf School while I was teaching at the Sacramento Waldorf School. Jane and I had become friends while serving on a Waldorf committee for many years. John and I shared a parallel career teaching high school students, especially passionate about the Transcendentalists and Russian literature. John accompanied Jim Staley and me on our trip to the USSR in 1987. John, Jane, and I always look forward to our times together, filled with animated conversation, checking out country music, exchanging good books and movies, and sharing Jane’s amazing meals. Since I had mentored teachers at the Austin Waldorf School for five years before the pandemic, I regularly spent a weekend with the Wulsins, but it was always too short.

Jane, Betty and John, Austin, Texas

John and I share a special interest in Russian writers and poets such as Dostoyevsky and Pasternak, and, in particular, two —Andrei Voznesensky (1933-2010) and Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1932-2017), who bravely used their words to stand up to the government. They, and others of their generation, the Poets of the Sixties, felt they had to bring back real meaning to words that had been corrupted during Stalinism. Huge crowds gathered to hear them recite their original works. When Nikita Khrushchev’s advisors felt that he was allowing too much literary freedom, they sentenced the writers and poets to ten years in prison, stopped the publication of their poems, and ended their travel outside the USSR. After he was able to exonerate himself, Vozesensky wrote forty volumes of poetry, collections of fiction, three plays, and two operas. He also wrote poetry against the Russian involvement in Chechnya. Fortunately, he wasn’t arrested.

During our trip to the Soviet Union in 1987, John was able to make a connection with Andrei Voznesensky, and we shared an unforgettable evening with him at the Dom Literatura in Moscow. At one point, I quoted a line from his poem, “Mother” in which he writes,

“Don’t go to America, son.
You won’t go will you?”
She asks, frightened by TV.
“Don’t go, they’ll kill you.”

I asked, “Did your mother really think you would be killed in America?”

Voznesensky kindly replied, “No, you have to learn to read between the lines.” The “they” referred to the KGB. When I returned home, I enjoyed challenging my high school students to read between the lines to understand what a poet really meant, but could not say, at risk of being arrested.

I had heard Yevgeny Yevtushenko speak his poems from memory in Berkeley in 1987 when he was a guest teacher at several American universities. Yevtushenko was born in Siberia, a fourth-generation descendent of Ukrainians exiled to Siberia. He moved to Moscow with his mother. During the Khrushchev Thaw in 1961, he wrote “Babiy Yar” in which he chastised the Soviet Union’s indifference to the Nazi massacre of tens of thousands of Jews in Kyiv in 1941. The government spoke only of the massacre of Soviet citizens, making no mention that these were all Jews. The poem was circulated through carbon paper copies, but it was not published in the USSR until 1984. In 1991, Yevtushenko stood on the ground of Babiy Yar, overlooking the trench where the gunned-down Jews had been hastily covered with soil, and defiantly recited the poem. The poem, “Babiy Yar”, along with four others by Yevtushenko, was set to music by Dmitri Shostakovich in his “Symphony No. 13.”

Yevtushenko had been at the forefront of many human rights protests such as the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and went on to write plays and novels, and direct films. He died in 2017 in Tulsa, Oklahoma while he was teaching at the university. Yevtushenko told the Associated Press in 2007 that he would not call his work “political poetry.” “I call it human rights poetry; the poetry which defends human conscience as the greatest spiritual value,” he said.

Splinters of the sun book cover

Poets in Russia felt pressured to choose and use expressions that seemed to be riddles so that they did not incriminate themselves. In this way, they criticized their country’s behavior while expressing love for it at the same time. Because they had to get their work past the Soviet censors, the reader has to read between the lines to understand the poet’s true intentions. Those who had “ears to hear” championed their work and felt at one with their meaning.

One of my former high school students commented on the task of reading between the lines to understand what the poets actually said and what they meant. “In short, this course gave me a reason to read poetry. It let me know that poetry can be more than wilting flowers and the over-stated grievances of life written into rhyming couplets. The poems gave me an experience of Russia and its people that reading history books and listening to lectures could not have done — that understanding is the part, about this course, that I most underestimated.”

If you want to learn more, check out my book Splinters of the Sun, Teaching Russian Literature to High School Students.

My time with Joel and John during my two-week travels brought back memories of my visits to Eastern Europe. Whether listening to the music of the Balalaika Orchestra or reciting the poetry of Russian dissident poets, we were very aware of the present tensions between Russians and Ukrainians and the complex history of that part of the world. 

I include the words of “Babyi Yar” as a tribute to all poets who courageously stand up against their government’s crimes. It is also a reminder to all of us in these times of the horrific war in Ukraine that there are people everywhere who disagree with their government’s actions and risk their lives to speak out. 

Babi Yar by Yevgeny Yevtushenko
Translated by Ben Okopnik

No monument stands over Babi Yar,
A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.
I am afraid.
Today, I am as old
As the entire Jewish race itself.

I see myself an ancient Israelite.
I wander o’er the roads of ancient Egypt
And here, upon the cross, I perish, tortured
And even now, I bear the marks of nails.

It seems to me that Dreyfus is myself.
The Philistines betrayed me – and now judge.
I’m in a cage. Surrounded and trapped.
I’m persecuted, spat on, slandered, and
The dainty dollies in their Brussels frills
Squeal, as they stab umbrellas at my face.

I see myself a boy in Belostok
Blood spills, and runs upon the floors,
The chiefs of bar and pub rage unimpeded
And risk of vodka and of onion, half and half.

I’m thrown back by a boot, I have no strength left,
In vain I beg the rabble of pogrom,
To jeers of “Kill the Jews, and save our Russia!”
My mother’s being beaten by a clerk.

O, Russia of my heart, I know that you
Are international, by inner nature.
But often those whose hands are steeped in filth
Abused your purest name, in name of hatred.

I know the kindness of my native land.
How vile, that without the slightest quiver
The antisemites have proclaimed themselves
The “Union of the Russian People!”

I seems to me that I am Anna Frank,
Transparent, as the thinnest branch in April,
And I’m in love, and have no need of phrases,
But only that we gaze into each other’s eyes.
How little one can see, or even sense!
Leaves are forbidden, so is sky,
But much is still allowed – very gently
In darkened rooms each other to embrace.

“They come!”

-“No, far not – those are sounds
Of spring itself. She’s coming soon.
Quickly, your lips!”

-“They break the door!”
-“No, river ice is breaking. . .“

Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,
The trees look sternly, as if passing judgment.
Here, silently, all screams, and, hat in hand,
I feel my hair changing shade to gray.

And I myself, like one long soundless scream
Above the thousands of thousands interred,
I’m every old man executed here,
As I am every child murdered here.

No fiber of my body will forget this.
May “Internationale” thunder and ring
When, for all time, is buried and forgotten
The last of antisemites on this earth.

There is no Jewish blood that’s blood of mine,
But, hated with a passion that’s corrosive
Am I by antisemites like a Jew
And that is why I call myself a Russian!