|Solomon (Sol) Tetelbaum|
Family Matters and More: Stories of My Life in Soviet Russia
…I stumbled upon Family Matters and More: Stories of My Life in Soviet Russia, looking for a read that would keep ‘me’ balanced. Shortly after I posted my thoughts on Sol’s moving collection of stories, he stumbled across my review… and contacted me. It was a pleasant surprise, another encouraging treat that convinces me, ‘authors supporting authors’ is important.
From Solomon (Sol)’s bio on Goodreads, he is a Research Engineer in Nuclear Engineering, born in the city of Odessa, Ukraine (formerly USSR) where he lived for over 50 years. “After earning my Ph.D. degree, I managed a research sector and became an associate professor. In 1989, I entered the USA under refugee status. My first book was published in 2007; my second book was published in 2009. Both books were written in English which I started to learn coming to the USA when I was well over 50.”
It pleases me without end that Sol has granted OEBooks with an interview. (Completed February 2011)
OE: What did you hope readers would take from reading your memoir?
Sol: I wanted my readers to understand what my life in the Soviet Russia was about. I have written episodes about my and my family's lives in the Soviet Russia explaining things about the country, about us and other people around us. Through stories of my life, my readers would get ideas about life in Soviet Russia. Finally, what I have written was about the life of a person who had the fortune to be born in the country which promised its citizens a paradisiacal life, and who had the misfortune to experience that paradise for over fifty years.
Americans who read the very first version of the manuscript liked the stories, but opinions differed regarding the readers’ preferences. Some readers preferred more personal and family stories; others wanted to read more about life in Russia. Several critics suggested that I separate family matters and personal stories from the stories related to other issues - political, ideological, etc. The suggestion seemed feasible and I followed the advice.
Initially, I wasn’t going to publish the part of my recollections related to domestic and family matters. However, my friend and English teacher, whose opinion I highly appreciate, after reading this part, recommended that I publish it as a separate book. Even more: she helped me to find a publishing company.
I am very glad I followed her recommendation. The book Family Matters and More (Stories of My Life in Soviet Russia) in which I described the most memorable family events starting from early childhood until the day we left the country, was appreciated by the vast majority of readers. In the book, I intentionally avoided discussions of political and ideological matters. However, the insightful American readers were able to see much more. Thus, Eamonn McKay has written in his review of the book: “This is a simple book: this is a human side of politics, the human side of discrimination.”
OE: Can you share a little about what topics you plan to expound on in your upcoming book?
Sol: After Family Matters… publication, I selected the stories for my main book, devoting the book to the other sides of my life in Soviet Russia, such as my career, my fight to realize my dreams, expounding topics related to the unfairness and discrimination we experienced in the mendacious Soviet System.
OE: Looking back, what is the fondest memory you miss about Russia.
Sol: My fondest memory is my early childhood before the German invasion. On the surface, it was a peaceful and enjoyable time: I was too young to understand what was going on around me.
I lived in Russia 50 plus years; during my life there, I had many friends, I knew a lot of nice people; I dearly loved them. I miss them. They are all in my memory.
OE: It’s always been a curiosity, (and I’m going “Back to Odessa”), how easy it is to forget a language once learned. I understand how you may have forgotten Ukrainian language, but have you lost some Russian words after now living in America? And please share at least one English phrase you can no longer find words for in Russian.
Sol: Yes, you are right. They say what you learn in your early childhood you will never forget. Russian is my native language. I loved it and knew it well, but English was and still is one of my biggest challenges. I came to America at age 53 without the language and did my best to learn it. Wishing to learn English the fastest way, I minimized communicating in Russian and avoided reading Russian texts. Wherever and whenever I could, I tried to speak English. I had a huge Russian vocabulary. Living in America I spoke limited Russian, and my active vocabulary began shrinking; I guess I forgot many Russian words, especially passive ones.
Although I had already lived in America for a while, English still was “like Greek to me.” I recall a funny episode.
I remember my coworker programmed his computer to, on startup, greet its owner with words from an American hit: “Go ahead, make my day.” By intonation, it was possible to guess the meaning of this phrase, but I could not translate it into Russian because I couldn’t understand what “make my day” meant. My coworker tried to explain it to me a dozen times. He used many different analogies, but for me, the exact meaning of the phrase remained not much clearer than a shaman’s spell.
A long time passed before I understood the meaning of this mysterious expression, but now I have a hard time to find proper Russian words to translate the phrase into Russian.
OE: In Family Matters, “My First Engineering Project,” is another recollection I fondly recall. The part where you talk about how you and your friends celebrated is an example and testament of your humility…and humor. Can you share a little here about how you felt going into the project, and aside from the toast afterwards, how you felt completing the project?
Sol: Usually, in the Soviet Union, designing buildings, roads, developments, etc., wasn’t challenging, creative work. It was, at least from my standpoint, pretty much routine, ordinary work which I didn’t like. When I began my engineering career in a designing company, nobody knew me. I was a young ambitious fellow. I dreamed to do something significant challenging and people would recognize me. The project I worked on was a unique project for my company. When I successfully completed it, our clients were happy and my bosses recognized me. I was proud and happy.
I shared my feelings with my coworker. He laughed and said: “You are like our cleaner, Aunt Masha.” “Why?” I wondered. “Let me tell you a story,” he said.
One day, employees of a local engineering designing company began complaining that too much garbage was in offices. They started looking for the company’s janitor, Aunt Masha. After a short investigation, they caught two tigers from the neighboring zoo, which had a habit of visiting the company. The people believed that these tigers ate up Aunt Masha. Animal control people put the tigers into a cage to return them to the zoo. On the way to the zoo, the older tiger said to the young one:
“What a moron you are? We had such a nice life. We have eaten engineers and nobody noticed it. And you are a brainless ass, what have you done? You have eaten a cleaner, Aunt Masha. They immediately noticed her disappearance and now it is causing us so many troubles.”
Then the guy added: “Maybe somebody would notice your disappearance, but I doubt that tigers would like to eat you.” “Why?” I asked. “You are too bony” He said.
OE: Sol, understanding the value you place on family, I just can’t express enough how much I enjoy your stories. Please share your greatest rewards and thoughts about coming to America, and your thoughts after living here. Please let our audience know a little about your upcoming project.
Sol: I am considering my life in America as my second life. By my new life experience that I gained, volume and depth of emotions, feelings, etc., my 20-years living in America is comparable to, in some sense even greater, than my over 50-years living in Russia. It is just impossible to tell briefly about all of this; I am going to write a book about my American experience. But now, I’ll answer you by quoting the end of my previous book:
“Coming to America, we all became American citizens and each year, while celebrating the anniversary of our arrival in the USA, we never forget to pronounce our first toast for America.
I look at my granddaughter Suzie, a nice beautiful girl. She was a six-month old baby when we came to the United States. I look at my two grandsons, cute and lovely boys, Gregory and Benjamin. They were born in America. For all of them, the events described in my books are “Hoary Antiquity,” but I hope that after reading my memoirs, they and many others, both recent emigrants and those who were born here, will understand better what meaning we emigrants put in the words: “God Bless America.”
I would like to add a couple of words about my upcoming project: the book I just have completed I entitled Recollections Of a Former Soviet Invalid of the Fifth Line (Pictures of My Life In the Soviet Paradise). It is the second part of my memoirs that I have mentioned, answering your second question. This book is very special for me: I put my heart and soul into it.
Let me please explain.
Many books and articles have been written about Soviet Russia. Most of them are historical or depict pieces of a person’s life in extreme situations. This book is not historical, it is more personal and truthful description of what I experienced while living in Soviet Russia. I avoided generalizations and described my everyday life as it was, with relevant details, and some phenomena and events that had the greatest impact upon me. I had an active life, met both good and bad people, and experienced a lot of hardship, unfairness and discrimination. I witnessed many disgusting, ugly, and tragic events. I want my children, grandchildren, and all my readers to understand why, at age over fifty, I made up my mind to leave the country of my birth. I am describing details of life, events, etc. which have never been described, and the readers will learn things they will not be able to find in other books. I don’t want anybody to repeat my Soviet experience. It made me feel obligated to share my story.
I wouldn’t like my book to be totally lost in the ocean of other books; I would like it to be read. For this reason, my desire is to publish this book by a traditional publisher.