A long time ago in Kotovsk, a small town in Ukraine, right before dusk, a little crowd of the neighborhood children gathered around the handmade, rough picnic table. The usually unruly kids sat quietly on the four wooden planks hastily attached to the table's perimeter and waited for Baba Sasha's arrival.
I first heard the name Baba Sasha from Alyssa, who became one of my new friends in the neighborhood we had just moved to. All I knew was that my friend called Sasha Babushka and that she was the one who took care of her during the day while Alyssa's parents worked. It never crossed my mind how they were related because I was too young to get into the intricacies of family relationships. At eight, I did not care about things like that.
A few days later, after our initial introduction, Alyssa invited me to her place, and I had a chance to meet Sasha. At a glance, Alyssa's Babushka looked quite ordinary. She did not seem any different than any other grandmother I had met before. Sasha perfectly fit the definition of a Russian Baba.
She had a face full of wrinkles and the saddest blue eyes I'd ever seen. When I looked into Sasha's eyes, they seemed lusterless and devoid of life, as if the light within was extinguished and gone.
Sasha's eyes shocked me and drew me in. I kept looking at her, noticing that she was slim and tall and wore her silver-gray hair in a traditional Russian style. It was neatly braided, rolled into a tight bun, and pinned to the back of her head. On her head, Sasha wore a platok—a large kerchief neatly folded into a triangle. She tied the two protruding ends into a knot under her chin. The platok perfectly outlined the oval shape of her weathered but still beautiful face, and as I continued to look at her, I realized Alyssa's Babushka only looked old. Physically she was strong and healthy, and she moved her body with an agility of a younger person.
Everything about my friend's grandmother screamed ordinary, and I was not impressed by either her looks or clothes. Sasha wore a modestly dressed, loosely fitted, and simply designed household coat. It had a V-neckline, long sleeves, and a button-down front. The hemline of the dress reached below her knees. A colorful apron with two large pockets covered the housecoat. On her feet, Sasha wore soft slippers.
However, my first impression of Alyssa's Babushka changed when we were introduced. It was not at all what I had envisioned. My friend took me by the hand, and together we walked towards Sasha. We stopped about a foot away from her when Allyssa extended one of her arms and gently pulled the bottom of Sasha's dress.
Her gesture stopped me in my tracks, and the unusual scenario that followed captivated me. I could not help but notice the intensity with which Alyssa's Babushka stared at her granddaughter's lips when she pointed her finger at me and slowly pronounced my first name. Sasha did not break her gaze even for one second.
Bewildered, I thought how unusual and awkward it was. After Alyssa stopped talking, Sasha looked at me and said my name. It sounded weird and guttural coming out of her mouth, and it made me realize that my friend's grandmother was not an ordinary person. She was different.
I could not get over the sound of Sasha's voice. It left me perplexed and curious. I wanted an explanation, but instead, I politely smiled at her. After that, Alyssa's Babushka patted me on my back. She insisted we have cookies and tea, and she stepped into the kitchen to prepare those treats.
In the meantime, my friend invited me to her room, and I followed her there. Inside, Alyssa revealed that her Baba was completely deaf. Her revelation satisfied my unspoken curiosity because I now knew the reason behind the weird introduction and the unique sound of Sasha's voice. My friend did not offer any additional explanation, and I didn't ask. We spent the rest of a lovely afternoon playing, drinking tea, and eating cookies prepared by Sasha.
Alyssa was one of the first friends I made in the new neighborhood. After waiting in line for almost thirty years to receive a governmentally subsidized apartment, my parents' dream had become a reality, and we acquired our permanent dwelling. Our family of five was ecstatic because we did not have to live anymore in one room inside a dark semi-basement that had no running water, gas, or amenities. Still, the most significant benefit to us was that our family no longer had to move from one miserable place to another.
Arriving at a new place, I was excited to learn everything about it. One day, I met someone who showed me the table where, at dusk, the neighborhood children gathered to listen to Baba Sasha's stories. Ironically, the secret rendezvous took place in front of our apartment building.
That evening for the first time, I visited the table and joined the group that was anticipating the storyteller's arrival. I looked at the front entrance of our building and anxiously waited. I didn't know what to expect as I was a newcomer, but I was eager to learn who she was.
Baba Sasha slowly approached, and nodding her head, she greeted us.
"Good evening, children."
"Hello, Baba Sasha," we answered together.
One of the children moved over to give her a spot. I could not take my eyes off her. Mesmerized, I watched Sasha's every move. She first made herself comfortable and then began to tell her story.
It was not at all what I expected to hear. I assumed Sasha would tell a children's fairytale, which we had already read or heard from our parents. Instead, her tale was different. I had not heard anything like it before. Sasha's story shook me to the core of my being. It held me in its grip because it was so riveting and spellbinding.
That night, Baba Sasha talked about the infamous Leningrad Blockade, the dark and controversial part of Soviet World War II history. I listened to Sasha's tale about perseverance and survival with my mouth agape. It took my breath away.
"Tonight, I will talk to you about the Leningrad Blockade," she said.
I had not heard anything about it from my parents or schoolteachers. At eight, history was not part of my curriculum, but that night not only did I learn about it I also lived it.
From September 1941 to January 1944, Leningrad, one of the most beautiful Russian cities, was besieged by Nazi Germany. The devastating Blockade lasted for almost nine hundred days. It is said that close to a million people died of starvation during the deadliest city blockade in human history.
Sasha told us that she lost her hearing during one of the heavy bombardments by the German Blitzkrieg. Surrounded by other children, I sat at the table and listened to our storyteller's detailed description of the event.
When the bombs started to fall, Sasha ran towards the shelter. She was within its reach when one of them went off not far from where she stood. The powerful blast lifted her body into the air and everything went dark. Sasha lost consciousness, and when she finally opened her eyes, a team of doctors and nurses surrounded her hospital bed.
At the table, Sasha looked at us children and continued with her story.
“I asked, ‘What happened? Why am I here in the hospital?’”
“I could see their mouths move but could not hear their words. It scared me. I wanted answers and repeatedly said, ‘What is wrong with me?’ Their silence overwhelmed me. I became agitated until one of the nurses took hold of my arms and gestured with one of her hands to look at her. She then brought one of her palms to her ear and made a gesture. It was at that moment that I realized that I was deaf.”
A physical loss like hearing can wreak havoc on someone's life, especially when she is young. A tragedy of this proportion could make or break a person's spirit. It can traumatize and destroy anyone under ordinary circumstances, let alone during a war. Sasha was no more than eighteen when this incident transformed her life. However, this young woman did not declare herself a victim, and instead, she continued to live her life the only way she knew how: helping other people. Sasha became actively involved in saving lives in her beloved city. She volunteered at hospitals, took care of the wounded, and provided comfort to those who starved.
It was getting dark, but no one wanted to leave our unique place at the picnic table. The children quietly waited to hear the rest of Sasha’s story.
Sasha continued. “I told every wounded person, ‘Please look at me and hear my voice. I lost my hearing during the bombardment, but I am alive. I did it, and so can you. Don’t give up hope.’”
Every time there was a chance, Sasha told sick people her story. Getting back to normalcy proved to be a challenge for her. But somehow, she found the strength to do it. I was fascinated by her story, and I wondered how anyone could wake up one morning and, after finding out she can no longer hear, act as if nothing had happened to her?
When Sasha could no longer hear, she knew that her life would not be the same as before. Still, she desperately wanted some semblance of it and needed to do something about it. The more Sasha thought, the more she concluded that daily human interaction was what she missed most from her previous life.
The young lady set out to find a way to communicate with people. She understood that unless she told her story, she, as an individual, would cease to exist. Sasha was determined. She refused to become another casualty of the terrible war and another chapter in the history books.
Sasha began to observe facial expressions and peoples’ hands. She wanted to figure out what they said and how they moved their body. She tried and tried, but she soon realized that her approach was not working. Sasha could not maintain conversations in this way. Still, not wanting to turn into another statistic, Sasha came up with a different plan.
Knowing that her disability was not a major concern to others during the Blockade of Leningrad, Sasha understood that she could not count on anyone’s help. She bravely took control of her own life and trained her mind to read people’s lips. Sasha worked at it tirelessly, investing hours at a time, until she mastered her skill and was able to communicate with people.
In 1962, I listened to our sagacious storyteller's voice in childlike awe, and I witnessed Sasha's mastery of reading lips. Even at such a young age, I was mesmerized by her story. She was truthful, spellbinding, and non-judgmental. She didn't sugarcoat the events of her life to make us feel better. She told her story of being deaf like it was: painful, horrific, and sad.
War changes everything. Some priorities take over others, and disabilities and handicaps were not a number one concern during the Leningrad Blockade. Those citizens still alive were consumed by one desire only: to stay alive. People died by the thousands during the siege.
On any given day, dead bodies littered the streets of the city. Their deaths were not caused by the bombings alone. Citizens died of starvation and the cold weather; they lived under extreme and horrific circumstances. No one cared if somebody could hear or needed help with a newly acquired disability.
Sasha’s story made us think. If we thought we had it bad, we had to think again because the life our Baba Sasha endured was much worse. In minutes, she transported us to a different time and place when people were deprived of the basic needs. The people of Leningrad suffered from a food shortage for almost three years, and Sasha saw her neighbors kill and eat rats, cats, and dogs. Sadly, to survive, the citizens of Leningrad ate their pets. Sasha, too, scavenged the trash containers for sustenance. She lived through depravity and degradation.
That evening as I sat with other children around the crudely put-together table, I heard the most horrific part of Sasha's story. It was her recollection of people eating human flesh. In unison, we gasped in shock. A deadly silence followed. Not one of us children could have even imagined such a probability. And then our Baba ended her story.
She didn't mince any words as she recounted the painful events of her life. I knew she did not tell her story to scare us. She wanted us to understand that the life we lived was better than that of the people of Leningrad during the war. Enthralled, I looked at Sasha. I felt her pain and wished she could forget the pain of her journey that pressed so heavily on her heart. I also thought how incredible she was.
After that evening, I became a fan of Baba Sasha's storytelling. I had the privilege of knowing her for ten years before leaving my parent's home. As I became older, my admiration for Baba Sasha did not diminish; I grew fonder of her because she represented someone who was not a quitter. I never heard Sasha complain or feel sorry for herself.
Most of the children who lived in our neighborhood were post-World War II children, and many of us had never had a chance to meet our grandparents. They either died fighting for the country or were captured and put into German concentration camps. Many of them did not survive.
When I first met Baba Sasha, I took it for granted that my friend called her Babushka, an endearing Russian nickname for a loving grandmother. Later, after Alyssa became my best friend, I found out how they were related. Sasha was her mother's sister and Alyssa's aunt. Through the years, I often wondered why my friend referred to Sasha as her grandmother until I figured it out one day, and the answer became obvious.
Under any other circumstances, my friend would have called Sasha an aunt, but in the sixties inside the USSR, as post-war children, we lived through difficult times. Most of us never knew our grandparents. I believe my best friend Alyssa had assigned Sasha the nickname "Babushka" for the same reason all of us did—her real grandma did not survive the war.
We called Sasha "Baba" because she had fulfilled one specific need for us all. Sasha loved each child unconditionally, and by example, she showed us how to be decent and courageous under the most difficult circumstances. Sasha became our neighborhood grandmother because she earned "Babushka" status, and for that, she justly was our Baba Sasha.
It has been years since I thought about our Baba Sasha. But when I look back, I realize how vital Sasha's stories were. I believe they helped and influenced me in many ways. I became strong, kind, and non-judgmental. Baba Sasha, in some ways, shaped me into who I am today.