Yulia Levit on what Inspired Her to Start the Speak Memory Project / by Marina Eybelman

Ilya Shabadash, my grandfather

This is my grandfather, Ilya Zusyevich Shabadash. I did not record all of his recollections – we ran out of time. And, frankly, he didn’t reminisce much. It was only in his later years that he started talking about the war at all. But even from what little he told me, I realized just how different life was then compared to now. How completely remote the context of that life is, both in the broad sense and in the smallest details of everyday existence. I realized that, to my children, who were born in the USA, this context will surely be even more foreign than to me, a woman born in the USSR during the Brezhnev administration. And there will be no one to answer our questions. That was when I felt this life – the life of my grandfather’s generation, with its incredible stories and memories – disappearing before my very eyes.

My grandfather once told me how he managed to convince my grandmother to marry him. My grandmother was a student at a music college at the time, and music was everything to her. My grandfather had proposed to her several times, but somehow my grandmother could not quite make up her mind, though she clearly liked him. Being a student, she was as poor as a church mouse, if this can be said of a Kiev Rabbi’s daughter. Her belongings consisted of a single mattress on which she slept. One day, when she was away on a concert tour, my grandfather came into her dorm room, picked up her mattress, and brought it back to his place. It was then that my grandmother finally agreed to marry him, since her mattress had already made the leap.

My grandfather served from the second day after the Soviet Union entered World War II and into 1946 – he was deployed to Bulgaria for an additional year. He asked to be sent to the front. He became a commander of a tank repair brigade: he and his men followed a tank regiment on foot and made repairs as needed. So, basically, they were walking behind a tank in the middle of all of the shooting in case something needed to be fixed, without so much as a bulletproof vest. The fact that my grandfather survived at all was a miracle.

 This project is an attempt to continue the conversation I began with my grandfather, an attempt to find out more about life before my time, and even before my parents’ time. What were they like, the people in my grandparents’ generation? What was their childhood like, their adulthood? What was their world like, the world in which my grandfather lived years before I was born?

My questions were not only about the war but the answers invariably involved the war in one way or another.

The people I interviewed did not know my grandfather, but lived their lives in the same “context” that shaped my grandfather’s life. It was their time, and it was his time.

This project is an attempt to freeze time, to steal another moment to look into my grandfather’s eyes and talk a little more.