When my father was about 10, he lived with his family in the Ukraine. The Russian civil war had ended with a Bolshevik victory, and the Ukraine was convulsed by a series of pogroms: mob attacks on Jews, usually encouraged by whatever authorities (anti-Bolshevik, Ukrainian nationalist, Bolshevik) were in local power.
Just before a pogrom, as the mob started to form, there was time for family members to hide. But if everyone hid, the house would be ransacked until everyone was found, and then everyone would be killed. My father told us about a pogrom in which the men hid (because they had the least chance of survival) and my grandmother and the four youngest children (including my father) did not hide. They waited, hoping the mob would skip their house.
I always imagine that they waited in a wooden shack with scraps of furniture, up a flight of wooden stairs from a dusty street. In fact, they were relatively prosperous and would have had one of those overstuffed living rooms with lace doilies protecting the upholstery. I imagine the hovel because that way it seems more imaginable — one of the shocks in the movie “Hotel Rwanda” is how much the houses of the Tutsi about to be slaughtered look like American suburban tract houses.
So they waited, and four or five thugs broke the door open. My grandmother didn’t scream or grab the children or try to protect herself. Instead, she looked at the leader and calmly said, “Your hand is injured. It could become infected. Let me take care of it for you.” So she washed his wound, and bandaged it, and, while she was at it, served them all tea. They asked for all her money. She gave it to them. They returned some of it so her family would be able to buy food the next day. Then they left.
The words my father always used to describe his mother’s actions were: presence of mind. “She had remarkable presence of mind.” I think his idea was that her mind was calculating very quickly, seeing her one shot at survival, and grabbing it. Maybe. Or maybe she saw the wound and some kind of instinct to help took over. Maybe. Maybe both. Maybe she just didn’t want blood on the lace doilies. Who knows? Somehow she stepped out of her role as victim and he stepped out his role as attacker, and because of this my brother and cousins and I are here to tell the tale. Or maybe we’d be here anyway.
It’s tempting to draw some kind of lesson from my grandmother’s actions. But this would dishonor her memory. Many people with presence of mind were slaughtered, and many people without presence of mind survived. Rather than draw some kind of tidy moral around her actions, I’d like to leave you with a picture of a mother serving tea to her attackers after bandaging the leader’s hand, while her children watch, and hear the slaughter outside. And also leave you with a URL, http://storycorps.org/listen/stories/julio-diaz, for a similar remarkable story.