“The individual and collective memory of Yevbaz is a certain construct; it is a mosaic of personal experience and the recollections of relatives and neighbors”: A conversation with Maryna Hrymych, pt. 2

The continuation of the conversation about the Jewish Bazaar, Yevbaz, the renowned location in Kyiv that is portrayed in the novels of Maryna Hrymych.

Iryna Slavinska: What is Yevbaz today?

Maryna Hrymych: Today, Yevbaz is first and foremost a construct that is being created in the here and now; as they say, on the basis of collective memory; to be more precise, through the compilation of small scraps of personal recollections and with the aid of old photographs that function not only as memory aids but also help construct personal memory.

Take me, for instance: I am a person who tries to apply a scholarly approach to everything. I pick up a photograph and realize that I don’t remember this, but after some time, I notice that I am using this information from someone’s photograph to present my own recollections. I am aware of this process, but a lot of people do this unconsciously. Our individual and collective memory of Yevbaz is a certain construct, a mosaic of personal experience, individual recollections, and recollections of relatives, neighbors, and members of Facebook groups. On the basis of all this, a contemporary image of Yevbaz as it once was is being formed.

Today this construct is indispensable to us in presenting the history of Ukrainian Jews and Kyivan Jews, as a brilliant example of cross-cultural history. As an anthropologist, I am attracted to Yevbaz not only as the place of my childhood but also as the history of the Soviet-era slums of Kyiv and the history of Kyivan cross-cultural communication.

For a long period of time, Kyiv was presented pretentiously in mass consciousness: the golden domes of churches, blooming parks, the Dnipro River with its pedestrian bridge, ostentatious Soviet architecture, gorgeous architecture dating to the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century, when Kyiv started growing rapidly during the sugar boom and the development of railway transport.

The history of the small neighborhoods that had been sidelined out of this mainstream image of Kyiv remained long ignored and was deemed unpresentable. Once this Kyivan pretentiousness began to pall, people started craving the slums of Yevbaz.

It has to be said that in the late nineteenth to early twentieth century this neighborhood was a pretty decent part of town. This is attested, in particular, by the development of apartment buildings by merchants along Dmytrivska Street as well as Bulvarno-Kudriavska Street, all the way to Turgenev Street and farther—to Hohol Street.

In the early Soviet period, Yevbaz was populated by newcomers or “people who have just moved in.” Specific Jewish characteristics began to be diluted somewhat by non-Jewish elements, although who knows who had the greater impact on the other.

Ploshcha Peremohy [Victory Square] with its obelisk, the circus, the Ukraina Department Store, and Hotel Lybid were built up in the 1950s and 1960s, part of the series marked by the slogan “to the founding, then we will build our world, a new world.” Indeed, the monumental square divided the northern and southern parts of Yevbaz. It is clear that this loss of integrity demoralized Yevbaz. Later, in the 1970s, the appearance of the square continued to change as a result of the clearing of the slums, dark little buildings with those thrift shops and their labyrinthine entryways.

Finally, the recent construction of high-rises particularly damaged, in my opinion, the exotic nature of Yevbaz. I understand that the city is developing, and that is all to the good. However,  Yevbaz today, as a historical place, as a cultural landscape, exists only in the memories of people.

Iryna Slavinska: Yevbaz is mentioned in your novel, Klavka. Some of the events in the novel take place in Yevbaz.

Maryna Hrymych: Yevbaz left a noticeable mark on my creativity. It appears in three of my works, so we can ramble through it, driving in a car or in a time capsule, as they say in the West.

It is the year 1947, the bazaar on Halytska Ploshcha, which is teeming with people and goods, including many German trophies. Within a few years, the old market stalls will be taken down, but one-on-one buying and selling will continue for a long time afterwards. Klavka, the main heroine of the eponymous novel, lives nearby. She regularly goes down Chkalov Street (today: Honchar Street), not just to buy something, but to find out if her neighbor, a war invalid and accordion player named Uncle Havrylo, has gotten himself into a scrape, and simply to wander pleasantly among the rows of stalls, to dream, to see what’s happening all around, to listen to what’s new.

Yevbaz bubbled like a pot of thick borshch. For Klavka, a stroll through it was a good substitute for a daytime movie. In addition to the indispensable items required for daily living, a lot of “bourgeois junk” was sold here. Oh, how she loved these trinkets that would never prove useful in the economy of a real builder of socialism! She started her scrutiny of the bazaar rows from the end and shuffled her worn shoes all the way to where they began. It was not she who was pushing along the uneven, chaotic rows—they were moving before her on an endless, multicolored conveyor.

From time to time, she stopped it with a glance. When something appealing or incomprehensible caught her eye, hooked her attention, she stopped and could stand for a long time inspecting the item, turning it over in her hands, communicating with it, and dreaming that when she has some money, she would definitely spend it on this kind of junk. Here, for example, is a table lamp in the shape of a cockatoo. Who can possibly use it today? The main thing was to eat one’s fill. Would someone be tempted by it? Klavka turned the lamp upside down and saw that it was a trophy item from Germany and very impractical. This beautiful monster takes up half a suitcase. How many porcelain figurines of shepherds and shepherdesses you could transport in its place! And lace napkins or curtains made by the caring hands of German housewives. And so much more!

The “conveyor” continued to move forward: binoculars, kaleidoscopes, seashells, crystal vases and ashtrays, nickel-plated samovars, brass and silver candlesticks, a carafe made out of red glass, a siphon for carbonated water, statuettes made out of bronze and marble, little vases and onyx jewelry boxes, Japanese dolls dressed in kimonos, heavy supplies for ink, a small blue, glass bottle with an atomizer for eau de cologne, a photo album with a leather cover, piggy banks, copper handles for doors and windows, old postcards. In a word, junk, or, as they say in Yevbaz, junk. If it were up to her, she would have scooped up all these things without haggling! And in the evenings, she would sit and touch them, eat them up with her eyes, sniff them. She would sleep with them, but after the previous year’s cold and hunger, her hand did not rise to buy something that could not be eaten or worn.

Iryna Slavinska: The novel Yura is a continuation of Klavka. How is Yevbaz portrayed in it?

Maryna Hrymych: Yura is a continuation, or sequel, as they say today, to Klavka. Yura, the main hero, is Klavka’s son. He lives in the ostentatious neighborhood of Pechersk, but from time to time, he goes to Yevbaz. It is now 1968. The bazaar is long gone; replaced by the circus, and behind it begins Menzhinsky Street—today’s Dmytrivska Street. And where it starts, where the Inter television channel building stands, there are small, dark shops and workshops, where old Kyivan petty-bourgeois customs have been preserved.

He suddenly recalled an incident that happened a month earlier, when he and his mother went to the tailor’s to order a new suit. Klavka did not bring him to an official Soviet atelier but to an old tailor’s workshop in Yevbaz. The Jewish Bazaar was long gone, but its infrastructure remained, located on the small streets that radiated from Ploshcha Peremohy. The workshop was located on the first floor of one of the buildings at the top of Menzhinsky Street, almost at the point where the no. 13 and no. 9 streetcars turn off the street with a screech, letting ahead the no. 2, which rushes full steam ahead along Vorovsky Street, blindly trusting the reliability of its brakes and glancing, displeased, at the no. 9 or no. 13, which have stalled on the turn. Are they preparing to turn right without rushing ahead of it? These small Kyivan streetcars, their ringing and rumbling—this was the real voice of the big city, not, according to his mother, the ritual silence of Pechersk, where they lived. And there, at the top of Menzhinsky Street, was arrayed a line of small, antediluvian workshops and thrift shops, one crowded closely to the other.

At the tailoring workshop, there was an old man named Yasha, who sewed the best men’s suits in Kyiv. That is where Klavka brought Yura. Uncle Yasha had known her for a long time, and they enthusiastically discussed the quality of the suiting fabric brought by the mother. They patted it, turned it face-up, then over, they brought it to the light at the window, crushed it and observed how quickly it bounced back into shape. And this lasted so long, as though what was being discussed was the purchase of a car rather than an ordinary piece of fabric. Suddenly, a woman in a jug-shaped hat with some ridiculous feather on the side who was waiting patiently for her turn, asked the mother: “Lady, are you a Kyivite?”

For Yura, this was like a peal of thunder from the heavens. It was as though a “female non-Kyivite” could not end up here, at Uncle Yasha’s, in this dark, tiny annex located in a sloping, two-storey building, in this Old World-appendage of Kyiv. And this word “lady” was weird! Not zhenshchina [“woman” in Russian], as was customary in public places, but dama [“lady”]. Klavka was utterly unruffled by this, as though this little doll in a neat knit suit was addressed this way every day: “Lady, are you a Kyivite?” And they set about discussing the places where they might have seen each other, so familiar did their faces seem to them. And Yura finally realized! He understood the logic behind the question posed by the little woman in the funny hat: “Kyivite” in this case did not mean a “person registered in Kyiv” but a “native Kyivite,” whose grandparents and great-grandparents had lived in this place. And the two of them seemed to be from a distant past, as though from that Old World Kyiv, from the Kyiv of Paustovsky [Konstantin Paustovsky was a Soviet Russian writer nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature in 1965—Trans.], from antediluvian Kyiv. Those who had survived the Great Flood that had swept their old Kyivan civilization off the face of the Earth.

Iryna Slavinska: In your novel, Frida, you shifted one of the small houses of Yevbaz to Berdychiv. What was in Berdychiv?

Maryna Hrymych: The small Yevbaz house that appears in Frida becomes a house in Berdychiv. Incidentally, its prototype exists in Berdychiv to this day, at No. 4 Torhova Street. I, of course, did not live there, although that is exactly what the current residents of the house will say. I saw such small houses in the Yevbaz slums in the 1960s and the early 1970s. And the building-tree that I describe in the novel—these are reminiscences, allusions, and retrospective reflections on the building opposite which were the windows of my childhood bedroom, which hid the industrial landscape of the Dmytrivsky Bath and Laundry Plant.

No. 4 Torhova Street was a kind of spacious phantasmagoria; it was a challenge to the science of architecture and the laws of physics. Ungainly outbuildings, sheds, and balconies were randomly molded onto the house in various places that were completely unimaginable and had no connection to building regulations. Doors were cut through walls in the most unlikely places, where no normal person would ever place them, and vice versa: entrances and exits were bricked up where they were desperately needed.

As with all genuine merchants, this house was like an iceberg, the submerged part of which exceeded the above-ground part. The lower part led to the city’s underground passage, which permeated Berdychiv all the way to the Hnylopiat River. In the underground part of the house was concentrated a huge number of real and virtual secret passages that existed only in the imagination of the residents. Despite all the prohibitions and police searches, they still led to the municipal dungeon, about which various rumors circulated. Some claimed that these were the underground passages of the Berdychiv Monastery; others said that Jews hid the contraband that they brought there.

This was not a building; it was a mythological world-tree with three layers: celestial, earthly, and underground. On the top layer lived its saints: Moisei Davydovych the furrier; Rafik Bardanian, director of the Berdychiv market; Berta Solomonivna, a commission agent who was well known in the trading circles of Berdychiv, Bessarabka, and Podil; and the Rzewuskis, people without a definite occupation, but very wealthy and respected.

Terrestrial people lived on the ground level: military, educational, and official persons of various ranks—the Sobolevs, Alperoviches, and Kovals, as well as cats, dogs, and cockroaches. The underground level was the darkest and the most mysterious. It was comprised not only of basements, where various spirits roamed (of old smugglers who had lost their way in the Berdychiv dungeons, of aborted children, of tonsured monks) but also a few small, semi-underground rooms where all the marginal people of Berdychiv—genuine beggars, fake beggars, thieves, false prophets, etc.—periodically took up residence and from where they periodically disappeared in the same way. So, this was a mythological world tree.

This tree at No. 4 Torhova Street did not have a strictly symmetrical shape, like in the ornaments of the peoples of the world; it was a monster, a Chimera. The trunk (that is, the central passage) was bifurcated, maybe even trifurcated, so that at the top it intertwined in a single crown (the entirety of all the inhabitants of the Chimera house), its branches (back doors) intertwined in a strange knot that could only be understood by the inhabitants of a certain part of the house, and the roots (that is, the basement and basement rooms, underground passages) were the most confusing part of the house. One root went deep down, in an unknown direction, or, rather, into the unknown, into eternity. The second root was cut (the passage was blocked or bricked up), the third root, at first glance, had rotted, but it only seemed so, and the trained eye of the resident of the Chimera house saw how a completely healthy little root (another tunnel) leads from the rotten and hopelessly sick sprout, stretching to that unknown, even eternity.

This was a single, complete organism; its own world, isolated from the rest of the world; a kind of small state within a state; a parallel dimension in which everything happened not in an arc-like fashion—life flowed here according to its own laws and rules.

The little house at No. 4 Torhova Street was a challenge to classical ideas about space and time. In this scrap of Berdychiv, incredible metamorphoses of space and time took place. To Iryna, it seemed that if you combined all those scraps of space where rooms, shared kitchens and toilets, storerooms, secret passages, front and back stairs, sheds, and entrances were situated, their total area would exceed the area of Berdychiv.

This was a time-space knot: As soon as you pulled one thread, it unwound to the size of infinity, where people were born, sucked their mother’s milk, got to know the world, ate, slept, committed incredible frauds and geshefts [deals—Ed.], hid their treasures, quarreled, reconciled, collectively defended themselves from the encroachments of the Housing Department, the police, the sanitary and epidemiological station, and the District Department of Education, got married, conceived, and gave birth to children and again ate, slept, committed incredible frauds, geshefts, hid their treasures, quarreled, reconcile, and eventually died.

This program is created with the support of Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE), a Canadian charitable non-profit organization. 

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.

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