A Euology for My Grandmother
It seems to me that a funeral is an opportunity to reflect on three things: a person’s life, the historical context in which that person lived, and of course her impact on those gathered to mourn and to celebrate. These three elements of a funeral are especially relevant to my grandmother, whom I called Baba, for her life was deeply influenced by some of the most brutal events of the 20th century, namely Stalin’s reign of terror, Hitler’s invasion of Russia and the ugly anti-semitism of the Soviet Union. It is not surprising, then, that history left an indelible mark on Baba’s life, one that manifested itself in the form of a pervasive sadness that was evident to me for as long as I can remember. Finally, I can also say that though her past left her with an understandable cynicism, her love of me was unequivocal, and the safety and comfort of that love afforded me helped to shape who I am today, a person that has dedicated his life to fighting the injustice that Baba and so many others on this planet have had and continue to face, be it in the form of poverty, racism, environmental degradation or blatant inequality.
And so it is after contemplating these three elements of a funeral–reflection on a person’s life, the events that shaped that life and the effect the deceased had on the living–that I decided to title this eulogy ‘Honoring the Dead by Serving the Living.’ I’d like to take a moment, therefore, to tell you a little bit about Baba’s life, as well as how her life and its meaning has affected me, her only grandson.
Baba’s father was a communist who hoped that the revolution, and the ideals it espoused, would end the rampant anti-semitism in Russian society. When Lenin died in January of 1924 he had yet to become disillusioned with soviet-style communism, and so when Baba was born on April 24th of that year in Nikolaev, Ukraine, her father named her Lenina, after the recently deceased revolutionary hero.
Growing up, Baba was considered one of the most beautiful girls in her school. In Russia’s equivalent of high school, that beauty caught the attention of my future grandfather, Alex, who fell deeply in love with her. However, not long after, Hitler invaded Russia and Alex, despite being 17 and technically too young to do so, volunteered to join the army in order to fight the Germans. At that point, fearful for her safety and that of her family, Baba, her mother and her brother were evacuated to Uzbekistan. While there she worked as a secretary for a communist party organization, where she saw the greed and complete lack of justice and accountability inherent to the soviet system, and it was at this point that she lost all faith in the communist ideals instilled in her by her father.
Her future husband, Alex, was wounded during the war, for which reason he was discharged from the military in 1944. The story goes that, not long before Alex’s discharge, Baba had a serious argument with her mother that ended with her declaring that she would marry the next person that proposed to her. And so it was that, at the age of 20, she married Alex. The happiness she must have felt after the wedding, however, was quickly marred by the ongoing war; because Alex’s family had evacuated to Karaganda, in Siberia, the young couple went to assist them in their move back to Nikolayev, Ukraine, where my mom was born in 1946.
It didn’t take long, though, for the brutality of Stalin’s regime to impinge on my grandmother’s life. Her young husband, like millions of others living under the autocrat’s paranoia, was arrested on trumped-up charged and subsequently spent three years in a prison camp in Siberia. Fortunately for him, the years were less tortuous for than for so many others because he organized a prison camp musical group that offered concerts to the decidedly and understandably bored prison guards. This was made much easier by the fact that Stalin had imprisoned so many of Russia’s best poets, actors, musicians and intellectuals; pulling together a world-class orchestra from a soviet prison at that time was surprisingly easy.
During the year’s of her husband’s imprisonment, Baba tried to find work, only to be turned away for being Jewish. What made this experience especially galling was that, because she did not look Jewish, she wouldn’t be denied employment until when, at the last moment, the potential employer would inquire as to her nationality and, only then, either directly inform her that they could not hire a Jew, or else make up an excuse.
These experiences–the jailing of her husband and widespread anti-semitism–compelled Baba to initiate the process of immigration to the US. And after several years of trying, in 1974 she finally succeeded in clearing the various bureaucratic hurdles to her departure. Upon arriving in the United States, one of her first acts was to change her name from Lenina to Lena, the name by which most people knew her for the rest of her life.
By the time she settled down in the US, she had lived 50 years marred by war, anti-Semitism, totalitarianism, and the hypocrisy of the soviet system. I wish I could say that she emerged unscathed from these events, but by all accounts, Baba was never a happy person. According to my dad, the happiest he ever saw her was when I was born in November of 1984. Growing up, my memories of Baba were mixed: I remember the joy of helping her make peroshki and playing with her in our yard, but I also recall her outbursts of anger and her frequent gloominess. Yet whatever criticism I may have of her personality, I can say without a shadow of a doubt that her love for me was complete and unyielding.
And so as I reach the end of this eulogy, I want to turn towards the impact she had on me and towards what I believe is the best way to honor the dead. As some of you may know, I have spent the last four years of my life working to tackle poverty in America, where one out of three people either lives in poverty or perilously close to it, and where the wealthiest 400 individuals control more wealth than the bottom 150 million. I cannot say that Baba directly influenced my passion for social justice, but I can say that she indirectly influenced that passion in two ways. First, growing up in the safety of her love, as well as the love of my parents, afforded me the freedom to contemplate the plight of others and to pursue my dreams and my passions unencumbered by financial or emotional concerns. Second, I was always aware of how much she suffered in Russia. In fact, I have become obsessed with World War II, having read nearly a dozen books on the war and its aftermath. In short, the life Baba lived, the things she suffered, and her love for me, have profoundly influenced who I am.
And so I want to conclude by reiterating the theme of this speech: that to honor the dead, we must serve the living. For all our flaws as human beings–and believe me, Baba had her fair share of them–the vast majority of us earnestly struggle to find happiness, love and meaning in the face of both internal and external forces that often conspire against us. If we are to celebrate Baba’s life with love and compassion, we must turn our attention to the forces that shaped her. And it seems to me that if we truly do so, the only logical response is to commit ourselves to leading lives of authenticity, of meaning and of justice. Looking at Baba’s life I feel that the 80 hours I have worked week in and week out for the past four years to better the world have not been in vain. Think about how the society in which one lives can affect so many on such a personal level: all of us gathered here have been indirectly touched by everything Baba experienced. So when we work to do good in the world, our impact is far greater than we can ever imagine. I therefore ask that we all pause for a moment and reflect on how, be it through actions grandiose, infinitesimal, or somewhere in between, we can do our part to serve the living, honor the dead and strive to fill our lives with meaning, with love, with passion, with hope and, in recognition of our own suffering as well as the suffering of others, with words, ideas and actions that spread joy and justice to all.