Title: My Mother’s Smile: A Novel of the Jewish Autonomous Region
Author: Alina Adams
Publication Date: 11/21/22
Categories: Historical Fiction
With his dying breath, Lena’s father asks his family a cryptic question: “You couldn’t tell, could you?” After his passing, Lena stumbles upon the answer that changes her life forever.
As her revolutionary neighbor mysteriously disappears during Josef Stalin’s Great Terror purges, 18-year-old Regina suspects that she’s the Kremlin’s next target. Under cover of the night, she flees from her parents’ communal apartment in 1930s Moscow to the 20th century’s first Jewish state, Birobidzhan, on the border between Russia and China. Once there, Regina has to grapple with her preconceived notions of socialism and Judaism while asking herself the eternal question: What do we owe each other? How can we best help one another? While she contends with these queries and struggles to help Birobidzhan establish itself, love and war are on the horizon.
New York Times Bestselling author Alina Adams draws on her own experiences as a Jewish refugee from Odessa, USSR as she provides readers a rare glimpse into the world’s first Jewish Autonomous Region. My Mother’s Secret is rooted in detailed research about a little known chapter of Soviet and Jewish history while exploring universal themes of identity, love, loss, war, and parenthood. Readers can expect a whirlwind journey as Regina finds herself and her courage within one of the century’s most tumultuous eras.
Part One: 1935 – 1940
She had her ticket. All that was necessary now was to get on the train.
Regina glanced furtively over her shoulder. Yaroslavsky Railway Station was as bustling as ever. Men in grey suits and ties, patched jackets, and caps with brims that flopped into their eyes jostled women wearing wool coats trimmed with rabbit fur, some with kerchiefs over their heads, others sporting more fashionable berets. All rushed to board trains for Vladivostok, Kirov, Tomsk, and a host of other Eastern destinations. No one had any reason to pay attention to an eighteen year old girl struggling to drag a scuffed leather bag she’d thrown together a few hours earlier, blindly tossing in random items in Regina’s haste to be gone before the black-booted militsioners returned for her. They might only want to ask her questions about people she knew, people who’d already been arrested. They might arrest and then release her… if she provided them with the answers they were seeking. Or they might put her on trial. The kind of trial where an innocent verdict wasn’t an option. If Regina were braver, she might have stuck around to find out. If Regina were braver, she might have stuck around to defend her friends, who she knew had done nothing wrong, same as her. If Regina were braver, she wouldn’t currently be at the train station, glancing furtively over her shoulder.
She had her ticket. What she didn’t have was permission to leave. Or settle elsewhere. Soviet citizens were the freest in the world. Maintaining this freedom necessitated their leaders knowing where each was at all times. This led to stability, the seedbed of liberty. There were over two dozen scheduled stops between Moscow and Regina’s destination in the Far East. At any of them, the conductor could demand to review her propiska. If she failed to provide one, he had every right to yank her off his train and deposit Regina in the care of local authorities. Who would promptly, likely under armed guard, return her to Moscow. Where Regina’s attempt to run would bury her into deeper trouble. The proper course of action for those who wished to relocate to Birobiddzhan, the newly formed Jewish Autonomous Region (JAR) between the Bira and Bidzhan rivers of the Russian-Chinese border, was to register a request with KOMZET, the Committee for the Settlement of Jewish Toilers on the Land. KOMZET would authorize the appropriate travel documents. They might also bring her name to the attention of the authorities. She couldn’t risk that. Not until everything blew over. Which it would have to, sooner or later. Regina hadn’t done anything wrong. It wasn’t her fault she’d failed to realize until it was too late that those around her might have.
If only she could make it to Birobidzhan. Comrade Kaminsky, head of the village Soviet, would surely vouch for her loyalty to the state. They’d always had a good rapport whenever he’d visited Moscow. Regina had listened, enthralled, to his tales of Birobidzhan, its rich farmland, its plump livestock, the trees full of fruit and the rivers of fish. As Comrade Stalin had pronounced one month earlier, “For the first time in the history of the Jewish people, its burning desire for a homeland, for the achievement of its own national statehood, has been fulfilled.” It was one of the many reasons why all Soviet children, dressed in school uniforms of brown dresses with black pinafores for every day, white ones for special occasions for girls, or brown pants with white shirts for boys and crimson scarves for all began their day by reciting, “Thank you, Great Comrade Stalin, for my joyous childhood.”
KOMZET flourished under the oversight of Lazar Kaganovitch, Secretary of the Central Committee, Commissar of Communications, the most powerful Jew in the Soviet Union. “The nationality of the Jew is the nationality of the merchant,” he quoted Karl Marx when establishing the JAR. “Emancipation from huckstering and money will be the self- emancipation of our time.”
Regina had always intended to make her way there. She’d always intended to be part of the pioneer movement to build an independent, thriving, Jewish, socialist state, where Yiddish literature was taught in schools, Yiddish plays were performed in theaters, Yiddish newspapers educated the public, and Yiddish speakers could walk streets marked with Yiddish signs, safe from violent attacks. At the close of the Great October Revolution, Jews, like all worthy Soviet citizens, had been accorded their own plots of land to work. Unfortunately, the previous owners – kulaks Comrade Stalin needed to show the error of their ways a decade earlier – weren’t happy with the redistribution. Thus it was determined that, in the interest of keeping antisemitic violence to acceptable levels, the optimal course of action was to convince Jews living in the USSR and its surrounding territories to relocate to the furthest eastern point on the Trans-Siberian railroad, where they would be safe, out of the way, and no longer annoying their neighbors.
Regina had always intended to go. She didn’t need the posters paid for by ICOR, the American Association for Jewish Colonization in the Soviet Union; black and white lithographs promoting spending 50 kopeks on a lottery ticket to help “build a socialist Jewish Autonomous Region,” or garishly colored illustrations of workers with bulging muscles carrying sacks urging, “Let us give millions to settle poor Jews on the land and to attract them to industry.”
Regina had always intended to go. She simply hadn’t intended to go this soon. Or this hurriedly. She’d intended to finish University first. Regina was specifically studying agriculture, horticulture, animal husbandry, and medicine, human and veterinary, so that she could be of the most use once she arrived in her new home.
She never intended to be sneaking out of town, feeling, though it was the middle of the day, like a thief in the night, a scarf tossed over her head, chin pressed nearly into her chest, not making eye contact with anyone. Regina attempted to take as little space as possible, to shuffle her feet along the concrete station floor lest the clack of her high-heels attract attention.
She only looked up when it came time to hand her ticket to the conductor. She peered into his face, eyes open wide, lashes quivering, and offered her most dazzling smile – as well as a peek down her blouse. It was a maneuver she’d evolved during her early teens. It worked on male teachers wavering between a higher and lower grade on an exam. It worked on butchers to double-check if there was truly not a scrap of meat left for sale. It worked on boys who felt inspired to buy you a slice of Napolean cake. Regina could hope it worked on train conductors.
It did. He barely glanced at Regina’s ticket. He was too busy leering at her. And he never got around to asking for her travel documents.
The trip from Moscow to Birobidzhan took eight days. Regina passed every one sitting upright atop her barely cushioned seat, staring out the window, gritting her teeth to keep from clicking her fingernails, tapping her feet, or performing any other nervous tick which might betray her anxiety. Except whenever the conductor came by. Then, Regina lay on her side, face turned towards the seatback, knees tucked under, pretending to be asleep. It was the most stomach- churning portion of the journey. She could hear the conductor’s footsteps growing closer. Would this be the day he decided the hell with good manners and shook Regina awake to demand her travel documents? There was the moment he would pause above her, his breathing as audible as if he were puffing into her ear. Her impulse was to squinch her eyes tighter. She worried that wouldn’t look natural. Truly sleeping people weren’t tensed up. Truly sleeping people were blissfully relaxed. Regina attempted to imitate that state while her throat cramped, her lungs shriveled, and her intestines pinched each other mercilessly. For eight days, the conductor paused right above her. Then he moved on.
That wasn’t the worst part of pretending to be asleep, though. The worst part was how, the second Regina closed her eyes, her eyelids turned into a blank screen for the projection of her otherwise repressed panic. There were flickering images of her future, where she arrived in Birobidzhan to be judged wanting and unwanted. And there were images of her past. The nights of arguments and outbursts. The joking, the singing, the drinking, the planning. Comrade Berger. Comrade Kaminsky. Cecilia. They’d seemed so heroic, so united. So unaware of what was lurking on the outskirts of their grand dreams. Or maybe she’d been the one unaware. She’d been the fool. Mama and Papa had implied as much from the moment Regina first got herself entangled. They stopped implying, moving on to flat out saying it when Regina stood before them, begging for help. She’d trusted the wrong people. She’d listened to the wrong voices. She’d heeded the wrong advice. Regina vowed to never make such a mistake again.
If she ever got the chance.
Regina’s train pulled into Birobidzhan’s solitary station, Tikhonkaya, after one in the morning, the darkest possible hour. Regina suspected it would have appeared so even without the rain whipping her window. She was the only passenger disembarking. She felt like tiptoeing, as you would into a library. Or a funeral home.
One more sweep past the conductor, one more smile, one more loosened button, and she would be home free. None of her efforts proved necessary. At one in the morning, the conductor wasn’t faking sleep like Regina had for over a week. He was deeply in it.
While in Moscow Regina had curled into herself, trying to appear insignificant, here, she strove to make a robust first impression. To appear confident, strong, the sort of woman who’d be welcomed to join in building a socialist Jewish state, not deported home in disgrace, trailed by disparaging laughter like a foul stench.
So Regina forced herself to stride down the train steps and onto the platform. A woman who had nothing to fear. A woman who had nothing to hide.
Her attempt to appear confident – and guileless – proved superfluous. There was no one there to see it. Rain poured down in torrents, soaking Regina the instant she left the cover of her train. She couldn’t make out an awning or a station door to duck through. No attendant manned the ticket office. She’d disembarked on the left side of a wooden platform between two tracks. There was a second train across from her. Not a passenger one, but freight. A flash of lightning corrected Regina’s perception. Each car was filled to burst with people. Men? Women? Regina couldn’t tell. They were pressed against the walls, faces peering out the few barred windows. They reminded Regina of Uzbekh, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz people who’d been coming to Moscow to work and study ever since their republics became members of the USSR.
The idling train’s engine sputtered in preparation for pulling out. Which was when Regina caught sight of a second figure on the platform. A man was running alongside the departing train, holding a sack, reaching into it, pulling out a handful of something Regina couldn’t identify, and shoving it into the outstretched hands of those who’d managed to squeeze their arms through the window’s slats. As the train sped up, so did he, running so quickly he tripped at Regina’s feet, dropping his sack. She bent to help him retrieve the loaves of bread he’d fumbled. Not the kind she knew from Moscow, machine baked, uniform and soft, but misshapen lumps, coarse, heavy, soaked. He scrambled up, frantically continuing distribution as waiting hands whipped by at swifter and swifter speeds. Regina imitated his actions, lifting a grimy trio of loaves, standing on tip-toe to reach. The bread was ripped from her grip with such force that it knocked Regina down, back, and over her bag.
She thrust out her hands behind her, hoping to break her fall, feeling the splinters of the wooden railway floor dig into her palms as her teeth painfully smacked against each other. She rolled onto her stomach and pushed herself up, first to her knees, then to her feet. Regina futilely dabbed at the front of her dress, as if a few swipes with dirty, bloodied hands would do any good against the streaks of mud, wondering why she was bothering, no one would see her.
By the time she looked up again, the man with the sack was gone.
Regina stood, soaked, on an abandoned railway platform. She’d expected the town of Amurzet to be there, the way all of Moscow’s nine stations were within city limits. You stepped off the platform, and there you were. Regina stopped off the platform in Birobidzhan, and she was ankle deep in a swampy, unplowed field, surrounded by mountains in the distance, and the outline of a dirt road that led into more darkness. Tree branches whipped in the wind. Waist-high grasses bent and curled. The road, Regina reasoned, had to lead… somewhere. If she followed it, she would eventually emerge… somewhere. If it wasn’t the settlement she was looking for, it would likely be some other, where she could solicit directions to her desired destination. Regina started walking. No, Regina started dragging; her feet through the mud, her face through the sheets of rain, her bag behind her, bumping into every rock, slipping into every cavity.
Her clothes clung to her skin, her feet slid in her shoes. Regina’s hair fell into her eyes and, after a half-dozen futile attempts, she quit trying to prevent it. She peered out into the world through a slit in her dripping bangs, which scratched her eyes like bugs crawling on her pupils. Regina stared ahead, willing herself to think only of her destination, ordering herself to ignore the voice in her head, the one reminding Regina she could turn around, retrace her sloshing steps, and catch the next train back to Moscow. What was waiting for her there might be worse, but at least it wasn’t the unknown. She was concentrating so hard on ignoring that voice, telling herself the danger in Moscow couldn’t possibly be less than the danger of a stroll in a light mist, it took several moments for her to comprehend the voice she was hearing – a male one – was coming not from inside her head, but from the side of the road.
Regina craned her neck, raising an arm to rub the back of her wrist across her face to clarify her vision. Through the torrent, she caught sight of a horse, its hooves digging a parallel gulley of mud Regina’s way. Presuming it wasn’t the animal she’d heard addressing her, Regina squinted, following the horse’s reins to the accompanying wagon, where legs, wrists, and a head peeked out from beneath a loose muslin covering to beckon Regina.
The man from the station had come back for her.
About the Author:
Alina Adams is the NYT best-selling author of soap-opera tie-ins, figure skating mysteries, and romance novels. She was born in Odessa, USSR and immigrated with her family to the United States in 1977. She combined research with family stories to write her first historical fiction, “The Nesting Dolls,” and for her November 15, 2022 release, “My Mother’s Secret: A Novel of the Jewish Autonomous Region.” Read more at: www.AlinaAdams.com
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