GRANDPA - DOC by wuyunyi


									Volume 3 | Issue 1
Spring 2008


Grandpa.... Speak to me in Russian

Louis Lentin


The following paper, delivered at the „Identity and Cultural Diversity in Irish Writing
Conference‟ at Trinity College Dublin, Saturday 23 August 2003, derives from work
in progress for my documentary-drama Grandpa…Speak To Me In Russian. It
explores the relationship between my paternal Grandfather‟s migratory path and my
feelings as a hyphenated Irish-Jew.

                                      Amid our celebrations
                                       Somehow we forgot
                                         To remember…

                                       So now I try to tell.

                                  One hundred years ago
                                      Or so „tis said,
                                  Kalman L left his shtetl
                                Bound for God knows where
                                    And landed here!

                                    I am not concerned
                                       Here and now
                            With the pilpulim of journeys, boats,
                                      Tickets, trickery
                                    Why here, not there-

                               But with the heart of Kalman L
                               Turning his back to face West.

                                What happened during that
                                   pulse of his departure?
                              Did its dawn, lead to his sunset,
                                       And now mine?

                                       If a simple turning
                                        As „tis said of old

                           Once built a pillar from salt,
                        Cannot an inevitable leaving of heym
                               Scald a heart to stone?
                                   Who can tell?

                                God rest us Kalman L.

                         We all need an identity, a sense of
                  belonging .. ... the condition of being understood.

For many Jews things are somewhat different. We know our parents, usually our
grandparents. Further back many are only vaguely aware of East European names
and places, for others - nothing. For some, that‟s sufficient. Many like myself
however, find that a time comes when we need to know. Where did my family come
from; what was it like, does anyone still survive?

In 1796 the Jewish population of the Pale of Settlement parts of Lithuania, present-
day Latvia and Poland where in 1791 Jews were forced to settle, were ordered by the
Russian authorities to adopt surnames. Before that I would have been simply Leib
ben Itzhak, ben Kalman... (Louis the son of Isaac the son of Kalman) but after that
you became Kalman Lentin, Isaac Lentin and so on. Much easier to trace

For Jews a family name was a nuisance, an intrusion, an alias...... Many took a name
from their occupation.... others used their place name.... names were changed as
required, anything to avoid taxes, above all the dreaded recruiting officer.

So what of my name? Where did it come from? The Dictionary of Jewish Names
from the Russian Empire provides a choice between a village in NW Lithuania called
Lentiny, just add on „a Y‟, or another spelt L-e-n-t-y-n-i . Simple enough.

Most of my life I‟ve lived in Ireland. I was born here. As a youngster I found out that
my grandparents came from Lithuania. You could say I am here, because they came
here. So I am Irish by birth, an Irish-Jew, and for years I left it at that.

I joined the fledgling RTE where I produced and directed drama, most of the subjects
deeply Irish. Yet it was there that a senior colleague shocked me by saying “how can
you possibly understand that, you‟re not Irish, you‟re Jewish?”. Far from being the
anti-Semitic ravings of an anonymous nutter and emphatically not quoted here as an
indictment of RTE, this was a blunt statement from a respected friend, stating that as I
was not a member of the parish, never could be for that matter for there had to be
matters I could not possibly be expected to comprehend. So possibly for the first time
I was forced to confront the perpetual dilemma of the Jew in the diaspora. Was it
possible to be accepted as Irish and not be of Ireland? Where did that leave my work?
More to the point, where did it leave me as a hyphenated Irish-Jew? Perched now I
felt on the thin branch of a tree that any moment might snap.

.... What are we if not reflections of our past? And if we don‟t know our past what
can we bring to the present? But what is my past? I certainly hold no allegiance to
Lithuania. Yet after what my colleague had said, plus anonymous anti-Semitic letters
and phone calls over the years, can I hold... indeed am I allowed to hold allegiance to
Ireland; and yet be not of Ireland? Do I simply exist here in a state of perpetual exile,
sans roots, in a sense, always afraid?

For a few years as a very young boy I shared a bedroom with my paternal Grandfather
....Solomon Kalman Lentin. He had come to live with us shortly after his first wife
Annie died in 1936. He was then 60. Every morning I would watch him shave with
an open razor, tzitzit (ritual garment worn by religious Jews), arm bands... hard collar
and stud.... .... the only person I knew who drank his tea from a glass held in a metal
holder, sucking it through lump sugar. He had to be different.

He had settled in Limerick, but it wasn‟t his real home. Even then I realised that our
family were kind of different.... Jewish. In Catholic Ireland that makes you different. I
was born in Limerick, but I knew Kalman hadn‟t been. That must have made him
really different.

I was told he had come from Akhmean, a small shtetl (Jewish village or section of a
small village) in North Lithuania, not far from the current border with Latvia, then the
Duchy of Courland. Akhmean my Mother said, was in Russia.... so for some time as I
watched him dress I would ask “Grandpa, speak to me in Russian”.... silence… Then
one morning, peering out above my blankets I tried, “please Grandpa, tell me the
word for bread”......after a moment he barked at me... khleb! Or maybe it was a loud
grunt. I never asked him to “speak to me in Russian” again. Now of course I realise
that the last thing he wanted was to be reminded of his past; not as it turned out in
Akhmean but in the nearby shtetl of Zhidik where he was born on 1 September 1876,
one of five boys. Two older brothers, Marcus and Max had already left for America
and in his early teens Kalman also departed, leaving younger brothers Isaac and Jacob
to follow

Now devoid of its Jews, Zhidik is known as Zidikai. But in 1897 the village housed
914 Jews, some 73% of the population. Zhidik, as its name implies, was in every way

Cheder (literally „a room‟) education for the boys, the Hebrew alphabet, some
Talmud. Everyone spoke Yiddish, „the mother tongue‟, that unique polyglot
mamaloshen language of necessity and of the heart. Hebrew was kept for prayer and
the synagogue.

A related group who agreed to call themselves Lentins had lived in the area in various
shtetlach for over three hundred years, long before they became Lentins. The shtetl,
cosy, snug but stifling ....everything and everybody controlled by religion. A
frightened people. Mostly earning their living through small trade, many in the local
tanneries, some peddling across the border.

When Czar Alexander 1st. was assassinated in March 1881, Jewish repression, always
prevalent, increased. In May 1893 Alexander 3rd. implemented the notorious May

Laws and matters got even worse. Only ten per cent of Jews were allowed attend high
schools..... Jews were banned from traditional trades of distilling, running inns and
taverns, many were expelled from their shtetl ... and forced to live in the collapsing
houses of the towns where they worked as cheap labourers, dependent on money sent
from children abroad. So it‟s not surprising that all the young and many of the old
had itchy feet. Get out at any cost. Forbidden to do this, forbidden to do that.... a
wretched place without hope.

Of course there were wealthy Jews, some with large estates, who took on the culture
and language of Lithuania and stayed. But others who could afford to, left in their

Between 1868 and 1898 over 50,000 departed.... by 1914 over 2 million. Amongst
them, some time in the early 1890s, my Mother‟s father Louis Goldberg, and around
the same time, Kalman decided enough was enough.

But what brought Kalman and others to Ireland? I can only conjecture...

Maybe a landsman (countryman), perhaps a close relative of his mother Bassia, had
reached Ireland and wrote home, “come here it‟s not so bad.” Indeed could it be that
the settlement of Jews in Ireland in the 19th century arose from one letter written by
one landsman who found himself here?

There were many reasons for leaving.... ever increasing restrictions, taxes, the
constant threat of pogrom and above all conscription which meant twenty five years
in the Czar‟s Army. An annual quota of Jews in each area had to be met, ten per
thousand between the ages of 20 to 25, with a three hundred rouble fine, an enormous
sum, on the family of every Jew who evaded service.

They did everything to avoid it: bribery, self-mutilation, names altered. The choice
fell to the community leaders. It was difficult to send married men with children.
However someone had to take their place... and who else but paupers, or children,
grabbed in the streets, in Yiddish „khapped‟. If the khappers were on the run the
whole community was terrified.

The children, some younger than twelve, were sent to military school deep inside
Siberia. Constantly pressured to convert to Christianity. At 18 if you survived the cold
and the regime you were inducted for full military service of 25 years. What sort of a
Jew were you if you were still alive at the end of that time? For the family you were
already dead. Kaddish (prayer for the dead) said and shiva (seven day mourning
period) sat.

And so at some date early in the 1890s in his early teens, but not before Barmitzvah,
maybe fourteen, Kalman left Zhidik, a small decrepit village, but nevertheless der
heym (Yiddish for „home‟).

He must have known he could never come back, that he was cutting all connection
with his parents, family and homeland forever. How can it have been possible for

Kalman and the many like him to sever themselves so completely from their
hinterland? Surely the rupture must have damaged many forever? I am convinced

that from the day he left, Kalman split into the young man left behind and the silent
man he became. But who can tell? Would he find another homeland? I don‟t believe
you can. I don‟t believe he ever did.

Like many he may have taken the overland route to Hamburg and Königsberg. But he
could easily have crossed the ill defined border to Courland then on to the Baltic port
of Libau now called Liepaja. Libau makes sense. A small port west of Riga, mostly
for cattle, horses, timber and Jews.

A passport to leave the country was essential. However as someone familiar with
animals, he could have signed on as a minder and journeyed as a member of the crew,
no passport needed! As a religious Jew he would have brought his own food, biscuits,
hard boiled eggs, herrings. But no records exist... So I stress all is conjecture, which
of course is part of my problem.

I have often wondered why, during those years when the Jewish communities of
Eastern Europe were becoming politically active…with Zionism in the air, Kalman
turned West and not South, to Palestine. But he didn‟t. I did, twice. The first time as a
volunteer during Israel‟s Six Day War. Both times I returned to Ireland, leaving my
heart behind. So here I am, caught forever „twixt Shem and Sean.

Whatever his destination, Kalman knew he would have to earn enough to send money
home to his parents and bring out his two remaining brothers Isaac and Jacob. Exactly
as Max and Marcus had sent money for him.

So many stories exist how Jews in the late 19th and early 20th century found
themselves in Ireland. People swear their ancestors were swindled, sold half -way
tickets then put off the boat at Queenstown, now Cobh. Others, that the emigrants
heard Cork! Cork ! called, mistook it for New York and off they got. Why spoil a
good story?

But experts stress that whilst there could have been the odd swindler, these stories are
myths .......migrants were pretty savvy folk, they gathered information before they
left. The postal system in Lithuania was extremely good. Letters would have been
shown to everyone, news spread. Once it became known that Ireland was badly in
need of Jewish peddlers, others decided to give it a try.

Journeys were extremely well organised, with competition between the various
steamship lines fierce. Local agents sold tickets, others saw to arrangements along the
routes. There was money to be made packing holds with human cargo. If your
destination was America you most likely took one of the larger boats from the
German ports.

Presuming Kalman left from Libau he would have landed either in London,
Grimsby or Hull on the east coast of England…. directed to the Liverpool train...
then the boat to Dublin.

And that‟s why... by sheer happenstance I came to be born in Ireland, where, apart
from a few years in the US and Israel, I have lived and worked. I could have found
myself elsewhere. Would it have made any difference?

Unknowingly however, did the thousands of Kalmans doom their offspring to
another and longer lasting form of exile? A limbo between der heym, that tattered
tapestry that can still entwine, and a new abode into which maybe you find you don‟t
quite fit? The Jewish diaspora is peppered with, as Isaiah Berlin has it, “the poignant
passion of the Jew for institutions that admit him but do not allow him to belong”, so
we can find ourselves constantly gliding uncertainly in a dance of exiles par

As poet Irena Klepfisz so succinctly writes

Think of it: heym and home the meaning
the same of course, exactly
but the shift in vowel was the ocean
in which I drowned

One way or the other Kalman made it. Met dockside by a member of the Dublin
community and put on the road to Cork, making his way on foot through countryside
not unlike that he had left. Churches, crosses.....poverty. Each step taking him deeper
into the mire of the diaspora, further and further from der heym.

First the corner of a cheap room with a landsman in Hibernian Building, Cork,
amongst the 60 or so Jews already in the city. .

The local shul (synagogue) was the centre of everything, here he would have been put
in touch with a wholesaler, instructed in the craft of peddling, prices explained .
Blankets 4 shillings and 3 pence, undervests 10 and a1/2 pence each, and so on.
Made to memorise a few words in English “Good morning”, “Do you want a shawl,
a blanket, a petticoat?” then complete with pack and licence sent on the road with a
band of brothers. Day after day from door to door, up hill and down dale. Their best
sellers... Holy pictures!

Despite the holy pictures, the peddlers often found themselves surrounded by hostile
crowds of men, women and children. Stones and mud thrown, bodies and faces
struck, their packs grabbed, with cries they understood as “You‟re not wanted here”.

Quickly Kalman would have learnt enough English to sell, “three-pence...six- pence a
week”. Those who couldn‟t afford the full price at once , were only too glad to be
able to get a blanket in their hands for sixpence a week. Selling on the weekly system,
the peddlers would note the name and debt in a small book, writing phonetically in
Yiddish. In their broken English „weekly‟ became „vickla‟... and so Kalman became a
„vicklar‟. Their simple system, the beginning of today‟s hire purchase. In time he
graduated to a pony and cart.

Then on 25 May 1899 he married Annie Clein who did come from Akhmean. Both
were twenty three. The couple moved round the corner from Hibernian Buildings to
12 Eastville , Cork‟s very own Jewtown, “a self contained Lithuanian village in the
midst of a very parochial people”.

However still seeking the Goldene Medina (Golden land), in July 1903 Kalman
sailed for America to join brothers Max and Marcus who had established a dry goods
store in Globe, Arizona... If all went well the family would follow, but… as one of
his daughters told me

“He missed the train to Arizona and on his first night in New York, was robbed of
all his money. This meant working his way, saving a dollar when he could and then
moving on. He arrived some three months later to find his brothers in a one roomed
shack, three to a bed, no shul, “and here, put that under the pillow”... it was a pistol.
He lasted three months...”

By January 1904 he was back to a new address, 1 St. Joseph‟s Terrace, Limerick,
where the family had been joined by brothers Jacob and Isaac. Kalman missed the
birth of his third son, but was in time for the anti-Semitic rantings of a demagogic
meshugener galuch (crazy priest), the Redemptorist Father Creagh and what became
known as the Limerick Pogrom. This religious son of the soil had quickly brought
matters against the Jews of Limerick to such a pitch, family lore has it, that when
Annie gave birth, news spread that the child was the Anti-Christ born with one eye in
the middle of his forehead. Only police protection stopped the mob from breaking into
the house, saving his life.

I won‟t go further into this shameful episode except to say that Kalman survived.
Trade in the city had been ruined, some half the Jewish population of the city left. But
those like Kalman who worked the country districts, were still doing fairly well.

In 1905 he set up as a Marine store dealer in Lower Little Gerald Griffin Street,
buying and selling all kinds of metals, rags, skins. A cash business, all the books kept
strictly in Yiddish.

Over the years it provided a good living. His family, who called him Boss, now took
holidays, he could just about afford to send three sons to Medical School.

In 1927 my father, who as a young lad had been packed off to work for the Lantin
Importing Company now in Phoenix Arizona, returned, and in a deal with Kalman
acquired Cliftonville, a large attached Victorian house on the outskirts of Limerick .
Solomon Kalman Lentin finally moved out of the shtetl.

Then in 1936, three years after I was born, Grandma Annie died. Married 37 years,
she had given him seven children, five boys and two girls.

Kalman lived on in Cliftonville for some time, then moved in with us. I remember
Cliftonville being sold, everything went.

But most of all I remember his store and the scrap yard round the corner. I would
watch fascinated as tinkers and gypsies emptied their sacks of scrap onto the
flatbed scale. Kalman would throw a few weights on the other side, step into his
tiny cubby-hole of an office then palm them a few coins. No haggling. They would
tip their caps with a “thank Boss” and go. Occasionally he‟d find a copper
measure, polish it up and take it home.

He rode a large boneshaker of a bicycle to work. Opened sharp at nine, closed
promptly at six..... drank a lonely glass of stout in a pub down the road and came

...on Sundays he might take me for a walk, conversation amounting to little more
than his “have you been a good boy?” and my “...yes Grandpa”. After asking him
as a child to speak to me in Russian, I never again enquired into his past. He never
spoke of it. Why? He had so much to say, so much to tell. Why, why, why could he
not share that past, which in turn would have become part of mine and which the
older I get the more I need so badly. I repeat, what are we if not reflections of our
past? But if we don‟t know our past what can we bring to our present? But he
couldn‟t, or indeed wouldn‟t.

Taciturn, of one syllable, barely able to read or write in English, totally out of
place… a kind man, strong, his large bald head always tightly shaved. At moments
you might catch a shy spare smile, yet I never heard him laugh, express pain,
happiness or joy. I never saw him read a newspaper, much less a book. I never saw
him sit in an easy chair, only at a table.

In October 1913, sensing maybe it was about time he had some official status, he
took out naturalisation papers and was deemed a British subject. But he could no
more be British than he was Irish. Throughout his life my grandfather remained a
Litvak (Lithuanian Jew).

In the early 1940s my parents decided to move to Dublin, but not before Kalman
surprised us by marrying again and setting up house. A marriage of convenience.
He was now in his early sixties, his new bride in her early forties. After we left I
saw very little of him.

He died alone in Dublin in on 7 March 1959. He was 83. I missed the funeral.

I can‟t say I truly knew him, but over the years he has gained an importance in my
life. The two of us, totally contrasting, yet in many ways so alike. In retrospect it
seems as if for him, belonging was of no importance. I cannot remember him ever

participating or joining in anything. He seemed to purely exist. He had decided
that Ireland was as good a place as any to be left alone, earn a living, to have a
family Or perhaps the legacy of the shtetl, those pockmarks of Jewish fear that
linger in so many, never fully left him .

Spoken over forty years ago, those words, “how could you possibly understand
that, you‟re not Irish you‟re Jewish” still resonate. Being Jewish is central to my
existence. I am a Jew and it has never occurred to me that I could be anything else.
That being so, can I also truly be of Ireland?

“Home is that place when you can recognise yourself in the people passing in the

 I live amongst the passing faces of Dublin, but I cannot say I truly recognise them.
Sadly I have to declare, despite my attempts to seek a touch…. “Ni‟l aon duchas
agam le hEireann”. Or am I amongst those who unknowingly carry a genetically
embodied sense of exile? All I can offer up, even at my advancing years, is a
mostly un-admitted commonality with many Irish Jews, that no matter how long
we stay „Ireland of the Welcomes‟ and it is not alone, are but a ”Resting Place”, a
night shelter for the eternal homeless.

So, is it my lot, indeed that of many Jews, to remain the inside-outsider, existing
under a slightly cracked glass ceiling? The exotic other, conscious of a sense of

being an irritation, tolerated but not truly understood. Not entirely of.

Over the years Irish Jewry has contributed strongly to the arts, professions, politics,
you name it. But for many, again unadmitted, a feeling exists that our success, our
„interference‟ is viewed by some Irish as in ”their affairs”, “their country”. Both
my children and many of their friends realised this many years ago. They have left,
never to return. Why?

During the Nazi era, out of 1,500 or so applications for visas, the Irish Government
granted asylum to a mere 60 Jews. “No, I‟m afraid you can‟t be Jewish and Irish,
no, certainly not, not even for a few years”

In Joyce‟s Ulysses the Orangeman Mr Deasy says, “ Ireland had the honour of
being the only country which never persecuted the Jews... And do you know
why?...Because she never let them in.” The vitally important word in that passage
as far as I‟m concerned is “in.” My English dictionary defines the word “in” as
amongst other things “belonging to, being a member of, having a share or part
in”. So maybe Mr Deasy was spot on after all.

In June 1941 the Germans detained the 150 Jews left in Zhidik in the Beit Midrash
(religious school) for a week without food and water. In August they were
murdered by Lithuanian Nationalists. Zhidik no more, became Zidikai.


Louis Lentin, former Head of RTE Television Drama, is a Theatre and Television Director

  Productions for RTE by Louis Lentin include ”King of the Castle” and “Roma” both by Eugene
McCabe; “Deeply Regretted By” by Maeve Binchy; “Insurrection”; “Teems of Times” by Dominic
Behan; “Sean” based on the autobiographies of Sean O‟Casey and “Messiah”. Prize winning
documentaries for his own production company Crescendo Concepts include “Dear Daughter”; “No
More Blooms”; “Ar Dover Fein” and the four part Drama series “Tales for the Poorhouse” by
Eugene McCabe. His most recent film, from which this article derives, “Grandpa…Speak To Me in
Russian” shown by several festivals in Europe, Israel, Canada and the US was transmitted by RTE
in January. Louis Lentin is a member of Aosdana.


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