Essays

The Life and Death of Zadie Avrohom Krolik

HAL NIEDZVIECKI

He was a storyteller, a raconteur, who dealt in the epic—risk, reward, heroism. But did we really know him?

The memorial service for my grandfather, Zadie Avrohom (Abraham) Krolik, was held in the old Jewish cemetery in Montreal in June 2009, a few weeks before he would have celebrated his ninety-fifth birthday. Aside from the rabbi, who had never met Zadie, I was the only one who addressed the small crowd.

I spoke confidently on that perfect summer day, having been well schooled in my grandfather’s story. I informed the gathered mourners that Zadie had been born in Poland in 1915, smack in the middle of the First World War. His father returned from the army to attend his bris. He lived through the Spanish influenza, the Great Depression—and then the horrible aftermath of the Depression, World War II.

Zadie grew up in Zuromin, a small town in central Poland, 120 kilometres northwest of Warsaw. Zuromin was a shtetl, straight out of a Sholem Aleichem story, and Zadie’s first language was Yiddish. His was the last generation to be born and raised in the kind of town where boys got their education in the cheder, a shack that was boiling hot in the summer, freezing in the winter and policed all year by the town’s rabbi, a man who drilled his charges endlessly on the abstractions of the Talmud and never hesitated to smack them on the back of the head should their attention wander.

Zadie’s rabbi teacher, like almost all of his childhood family and friends, died before his time, murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators when the Germans overran Zuromin in the early years of World War II. But not Zadie. A young man trained by his father the tailor to continue the family trade, a young man taught to recite Torah and patiently await the Messiah, Zadie, almost alone, chose to flee everything he knew.

This was the story I told of my grandfather: the escapee, the survivor, the hard-working peasant who laid the foundation for us to live in prosperity and peace. It was a true story. But it was also a lie.

For Zadie’s story is full of gaps, holes in the narrative that nobody, not even my mother or my lawyer/amateur historian older brother seems able to fill. Under a hot morning sun, we murmured the Mourner’s Kaddish and said our goodbyes. Funerals are about endings. But the man I had described was not necessarily the man we buried. His story, spanning centuries and generations, was in many ways still embryonic, still to be determined.

My grandfather was a hard-drinking, heavy-smoking, barely educated autodidact who espoused theories on history and politics in a Yiddish-inflected growl. He was always stoic, but happy only when he was the centre of attention. He was a poor man who loved to gamble, tip, haggle and ultimately avoid having to pick up the tab. My father thought he was a pain in the ass. My mother could never figure out how all the money she sent him disappeared so quickly. We projected on him. We told others about the sweeping arc of his life. But in the end, we didn’t really know him.

The questions begin with the Nazis approaching Zuromin. Zadie, in his twenties, recently married, flees the town of his birth along with his young wife, my Bubby Theresa, who all of us came to call Little Bubby because of her diminutive size. Why do they leave when almost all the others stay? We’ll never know. Zadie never told us. From here, the picture falls apart, like a face etched in sand slowly decomposing in the wind. We know that the couple travelled by rail to the Russian border. We know that at some point a German soldier called Zadie a dirty Jew and hit him on the head with the butt of his rifle. And we know that Zadie and Little Bubby walked for hours and hours in the forest (where? why?) before finally reaching Russia. And we know that at twenty-four years old, on the cusp of a new life in a new country, he was never to see his mother, father, two brothers—Moshe and Wolf—and two sisters—Leah and Gena—again. But we don’t know how he managed to overcome or what he really felt about such total erasure.

The important part of the story was always the result: the survival of my grandparents. Yet it seems unbelievable that after all the times I heard Zadie recount the story, all the times I asked him about exactly when and where things happened, in the end there was such opaqueness. Zadie was, or seemed to be, unclear on the wheres and hows and even the whys of this journey. If you pressed him, he would shrug and change the topic. Or he would become agitated, bang the table with his hands and rattle the saucers, and insist that it had happened—the German had hit him on the head. Here, he’d say, putting his hand on his temple. There was blood here.

Once inside the USSR, Zadie befriended a Russian major. No surprise there: Zadie bubbled with charm and quickly made life-long friends of anyone willing to stop for a chat. Again, we don’t know exactly how the friendship came to be. All we know is that the major sympathized with Zadie in his predicament, living hand to mouth on the border, and decided to help him avoid the fate of many Jewish refugees—a stint in a Siberian gulag working the mines. The major arranged for Zadie and Bubby to become Russian citizens and move to the city of Chelyabinsk, a distant outpost just east of the Ural Mountains. Chelyabinsk made sense as a destination: in World War II, the city boomed as one of the USSR’s most important industrial centres. It was far away from the German front, and it boasted the most important factories in the sprawling territory, including the giant tank plant where Zadie was put to work.

Zadie test-drove tanks for the Russian army. He joked about it in a remarkable speech he gave when his family and friends gathered for his ninety-second birthday in 2007. “Can you imagine,” he said mirthfully, “a little guy like me driving a Russian T34 that went top speed 60 kilometre [sic] an hour?” The world was in turmoil and his family had been slaughtered, but it was a period of relative calm for Zadie. He settled down with Little Bubby and they had three children, all born in Chelyabinsk. My mother was the eldest. Then came my uncle Victor, followed by my aunt Luda.

When the war ended, Zadie got a job at a clothing factory and then became manager. He worked there for almost a decade, during which the USSR became an increasingly uncertain place for Jews. Jewish intellectuals were disappearing and Stalin was ramping up his campaign against what he described as “corrupt Jewish bourgeois nationalists.”

At least two more decades would pass before Soviet Jews were set free. But Zadie wasn’t planning to sit around and wait. The story—another famous bit of Zadie lore involving another mysterious benefactor—goes like this: he was taken aside by someone. A higher-up in the army. A friend. (Could it have been the same major who helped him years earlier?) This unnamed man told him to gather his family and get out of the USSR. Zadie argued with him. Things were good. The war was over; there was food on the table, steady work. But the unnamed benefactor convinced him. Go, the man said. Go while you still can. Zadie went.

Why? I want to know. Why did Zadie leave when, again, almost everyone else stayed? Zadie wasn’t given to self-reflection. He was a storyteller, a raconteur. He dealt in the epic—risk, reward, heroism. I craved details, but Zadie did not particularly like to be interrupted.

At forty-one, after almost twenty years in the Soviet Union, Zadie took Little Bubby and the three children back to Poland. He returned as a refugee. He had spent every cent he had bribing Soviet officials to allow him to leave the country. The Polish government settled him and his family in a small town. Which one? Nobody seems to know. To Zadie, it didn’t matter: he hadn’t returned to Poland to sit around sewing pants and waiting for the next Holocaust. As soon as he was able, he applied to emigrate to Israel. He was stalled by the Polish government, then under the control of Stalin, who did not like the optics of the Jewish population of the Soviet bloc leaving en masse for Israel. The proxy government of Poland said Zadie would have to wait at least two years before being allowed a permit.

So Zadie applied to go to Canada. Six months later, almost three years after returning to Poland, Zadie arrived in Montreal with his wife and three kids. The family spoke Yiddish, Russian and Polish, but not a word of English. They were straight off the boat. My mom, the oldest kid, was already a teenager. Here’s a rare detail: according to Zadie, the family’s only resource was a single American five-dollar bill tucked into his pants pocket.

Times were tough in 1960s Montreal. Broke, Zadie worked long, gruelling hours in the schmatta factories that lined St. Lawrence Boulevard, work that paid $70 or so a week. He once told me that the Jewish bosses he had at that time were the worst bosses he ever worked for. Slaving night and day in what was the Canadian equivalent of a sweatshop, Zadie pondered his future. He had become the man I would eventually know: charming, impatient, demanding, funny, easily angered, attuned first and foremost to the survival instinct. He hadn’t come all this way just to work himself to death in a Montreal sweatshop.

He saw an ad in a newspaper: a valet business was for sale because of the illness of the proprietor. Right then and there, Zadie made up his mind. He would buy the shop. He had no money, but again his charm came to his aid. Another bit of Zadie lore: somehow he persuaded the owner to accept a monthly payment of $127 in lieu of any cash up front. The total cost of the business: $2,000. The next day he went alone to the little shop on the corner of St. Mathieu and Ste. Catherine and received the keys. He unlocked the door, walked in and fell to his knees and thanked God.

Now Zadie had another problem: he needed money to make the promised payments, not to mention turn on the gas and electricity. Without that money, he couldn’t open the business. Again, a benefactor—a random human being fallen under the sway of Zadie’s considerable charisma. This time it was Solly, who owned a newspaper stand on a nearby corner. Somehow Zadie persuaded him to go to the bank with him and co-sign a loan for $500 (about $3,500 in 2011 dollars). Why Solly would do such a thing for a total stranger we’ll never know.

Zadie worked twelve hours a day cleaning and repairing clothes. After eighteen months, he had paid off all his loans—the $2,000 he owed for the shop and the $500 he owed the bank. He closed the shop for two weeks and took his family to the Laurentians on their first and only official summer vacation.

My grandfather laboured in the shop for the next twenty years. Most of that time, Zadie and Bubby lived on Mountain Sights Avenue, a few blocks from the main drag of Décarie, and only four doors down from my dad’s mother. On weekends we would drive over from Ottawa, where my father worked for the federal government. My brother and I roved back and forth between the two houses. At Zadie’s house, we drank tea from the samovar, ate rock-hard sugar cookies and listened in fascination as Zadie grumbled a mixture of Yiddish and English insults at my grandmother and at Hockey Night in Canada. By then, Zadie had become a true Jewish Montrealer—a perpetually frustrated Habs fan well versed in the ins and outs of language laws, various Quebec politicians and the price of a burial at Paperman’s, the only kosher funeral home in town. When I was a bit older, say ten or so, Zadie liked to beckon me into the kitchen right before breakfast and offer me a bissle vodka, still cold from his freezer.

That’s not to say that Zadie spent time with my brother and me, exactly. He didn’t take us to the park or the zoo or out for ice cream. A few times he took us to his shop, and occasionally he paraded us down the sidewalk in front of his house. After he retired, he would take us into his basement workshop where the Hassids in the neighbourhood came to get their pants let out. Zadie encouraged them to pinch our cheeks, and forced them to watch as he demonstrated how he could still put one of us in a bear hug and lift us off the ground, a manoeuvre he was still attempting well into his eighties.

Zadie was almost as proud of his grandchildren as he was of his cars. He treated them the same way: as things to be taken around and shown off. Of course Zadie never actually owned a new car. Part of the ritual of our visits to Montreal was for Zadie to insist that my father go out to the curb with him to admire his latest jalopy. My mother would shoot my father a look that said, You better go, if you know what’s good for you. We kids trailed along. Zadie would pop the hood of some ten-year-old Ford he’d managed to get his hands on for a song. Then, all the while describing the deal he’d concocted, he’d slip into the driver’s seat and rev the engine while my incredulous father looked on.

In his late seventies and still terrorizing the drivers of Montreal—which is no easy task—my grandfather once took me out for breakfast. With the increasingly diminutive Zadie barely cresting the wheel, we tore through the byzantine avenues of Montreal, often going the wrong way down a one-way street, and then hurtled onto a busy road. My heart leapt into my throat as Zadie lurched at full speed right onto the sidewalk, slammed on the brakes and threw his clunker into park. I could almost step right out of the car and into the diner, our apparent destination. The Québécoise waitresses all knew Zadie. He flirted with them by demonstrating how he could raise me a half inch off the ground. They brought us both the $2.99 breakfast special without even asking. Zadie made a big show of paying.

At Zadie’s memorial service, these are the stories I told of the man I knew. They made the assembled mourners chuckle as they slipped off my tongue. Even as I was speaking, I had a sense of déjà vu—I’d said these same things in the same way many times be-fore. But now it occurred to me that for a long time, for years before his death, we had been talking about Zadie as a kind of fictional construction. At some point in his long life he had become for us a living, breathing character. (He would have fit nicely into a Mordecai Richler novel.) And he was complicit in this reduction. It was his ultimate survival strategy. He kept his own deep hurts at bay by living large at the centre of his much-mythologized whirlwind of sound and fury. Despite all that was remarkable about his life, Zadie had accomplished, in the material terms of our society, very little. He was estranged from one child, a burden to the other two. He was always poor, and when he died he had all of $500 in his bank account. Survival was his sole legacy. He clung to it, endlessly retelling the stories of his adventures. What else could he do but relentlessly position himself as an everlasting character, the bridge between what had been, what was and the world to come? But his compulsive self-obsession kept us from understanding who he truly was. Ultimately, a will to survive defined him, but also consumed him.

Zadie rarely talked about his parents, his siblings or even Little Bubby, who passed away when I was in university. He wanted his audience to admire his strength, his courage, his smarts, his capacity for survival. It was an approach to life that left little room for vulnerability. Maybe that’s why Zadie never spoke about his three children, how he felt when they were born, what they were like as kids, what they went through in Montreal as teenaged immigrants schooled entirely in Slavic tongues.

On the morning before the funeral, I went for a short walk with my Uncle Vic, a burly heat-and-air-conditioning contractor who had moved from Montreal to Windsor during that city’s car-manufacturing heyday. We talked about Zadie. Did he ever play with you when you were a kid? I asked. Uncle Vic looked at the cracks in the sidewalk. No, he said. He thought about it some more. Never, he said.

There were only a few times when Zadie hinted at what he kept inside him. Once, when I was in my early twenties, we were looking through a cheaply printed half-Hebrew, half-Yiddish paperback devoted to the memory of his childhood village (one of many similar books that sought to memorialize the grim demise of these tiny outposts, once the heart of Eastern European Judaism). Suddenly, Zadie jutted a thick thumb into a grainy picture. My brother and I peered at a fierce-looking elder, a rabbi with a beard, earlocks and a round fur hat. That, Zadie said sombrely, was my teacher.

Despite everything, we loved Zadie. We talked about the party we’d throw when he turned 100. We joked about the interminably long speech he would insist on giving. But it was not to be. Bed-bound in a rest home, constantly poked and prodded by well-meaning caretakers, he lived in increasing solitude. Most of his friends had passed on and his family, taking advantage of the opportunities he had made possible, had long since moved away from his adopted city.

In the end, there was no one to listen to his stories, no one to try to fill in the details, no one to break through the well-practised patter. Zadie was finally silenced. “Nina,” he said to my mother during his final stint in the hospital, a few weeks before he died peacefully and of no particular cause in his rest-home bed. “Nina, it’s time. I’m ready to go. I’m ready. Let God—and Paperman’s—take me.”

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HAL NIEDZVIECKI

Hal Niedzviecki is a writer, cultural commentator and editor. He is also the founder and fiction editor of Broken Pencil magazine. He lives in Toronto.


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