Sunday, February 21, 2010

DBTL 63: My Hometown

This is the latest installment in the Drowned Baby Timeline, an alternate history where Adolf Hitler drowned at birth and where World War II never took place. The Danzig War of 1936 - 37 saw an aggressive German regime under Ernst Röhm defeated by the combined forces of Great Britain, France, and Poland, and the three nations are now the dominant powers of Europe.

In Europe, scientific research and industrial expansion surge ahead, while the United States lags behind. As a result, there is a steady flow of American talent to Europe, including chemist and science fiction writer
Isaac Asimov. While attending a book publication party in Warsaw, Asimov finds himself shanghaied by two Jewish writers into traveling to Petrovichi, the Russian village where he was born . . .

Somewhere in Belarus Devo, Polish Commonwealth
4 March 1953

"Have I ever mentioned how much I hate to travel?" observed Isaac Asimov conversationally in Yiddish.

"I believe this makes the five hundred thousandth time you've mentioned it," said Chava Rosenfarb in the same language.

"Six hundred thousand," Simcha Simchovitch corrected her. "I've been counting."

The three were in Simchovitch's Porschewagen, on the road between Minsk and Smolensk. Asimov had immediately vetoed Rosenfarb's suggestion of a side trip north to the mass graves at Kurapaty. "If I want to be depressed," Asimov insisted, "I'll just contemplate the idea of Tom Dewey in the White House."

American politics was a mystery to the two Poles, and Asimov didn't feel like explaining, so he added, "The sooner I'm back in Wales behind my typewriter, the happier I'll be."

"How do you expect to be a writer," Rosenfarb had asked, "if all you do is sit behind a typewriter? You need to get out and experience life if you want something to write about."

"Sure," said Asimov, "I'll just jump in a rocketship and spend some time gossiping with the Martians. I'm sure I'll get plenty of story ideas that way."

Perhaps sensing an argument brewing, Simchovitch intervened. "So how do you decide what to write about, Isaac?"

"I get my ideas from anywhere and everywhere," Asimov answered grandeloquently. "The Foundation series came from an illustration in a collection of Gilbert and Sullivan operas. 'Nightfall' came from a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson. I wrote The Caves of Steel to prove that it was possible to combine the science fiction and mystery genres."

A translation of The Caves of Steel had come out three years before, and Simchovitch had read it, and he wondered aloud what inspired Asimov to create the nightmarish environment of his claustrophobic future New York City.

"What nightmarish environment?" Asimov wondered.

"People living underground," Simchovitch said with horror in his voice. "Never seeing the sun, or the outside world."

Asimov shrugged. "I like enclosed places. When I was a boy, my dream life was to live in a newsstand in a subway station. Moving to Delaware was a shock. All that open space, and nothing within walking distance. That's where the Spacers' suburbanized planets came from, and as far as I was concerned, that was a nightmarish environment."

This last observation led to a long discussion between Rosenfarb, a big-city girl from Łódź, and Simchovitch, who had lived his entire life in the Warsaw suburb of Otwock, on the merits of city versus suburban life. Asimov was pleased to have Rosenfarb's barbs aimed at someone other than himself for a change.

The sky had been overcast all day, and in the absence of the sunshine that had helped heat the car the day before, the car's tiny heater was proving inadequate. The gray light also served to make the brown landscape they passed through even more depressing than it would have been otherwise. The missing sections of the autostrada grew more frequent, and the state of the back roads between them grew worse. It took them over three hours to make the 200 kilometers to the city of Orsha, and even though it was only ten o'clock, they stopped there for lunch. Once again, Simchovitch had no trouble finding a Jewish restaurant -- according to his guidebook, about half the people in Orsha were Jews.

Asimov knew that this was part of a pattern all across the eastern devos of the Polish Commonwealth, a relic from the days of the Old Commonwealth, as the original 16th century Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was known. The Jews and merchants from the Hanseatic League gathered into the cities like Orsha, Minsk, and Brest-Litovsk, while in between would be the countryside inhabited by peasants ruled by Lithuanian or Polish nobles. It was highly segregated and socially stratified, but it worked. Then in the 17th and 18th centuries the Russians had moved in. The nobility, the szlachta, were gradually impoverished and dispossessed, and the Jews had to suffer periodic pogroms. Then had come the 20th century, war with the Germans, two wars with the Poles, and now everything was back the way it had been four hundred years earlier. And the Jews were still here, along and the peasants and the now-impoverished szlachta.

"Except with added autostradas and Porschewagens," said Simchovitch over a meal of corned beef sandwiches. He and Rosenfarb drank tea, while Asimov had coffee.

"And Donovs and volkshäuser," added Rosenfarb darkly.

"And cinema houses and televisions sets," said Simchovitch. "They're even bringing electricity out to the countryside. The commissars tried, with their usual mix of ineptitude and brutality, but they had barely started when the Second War came, and after that the Poles had to deal with the problem."

"After America joined the Pact," Rosenfarb went on, "the government in Minsk sent some officials there, to . . . T'nessi?"

"Tennessee," Asimov corrected.

"Thank you. Tennessee Valley, to see how it had been done there."

"And who do you think they ran into?" asked Simchovitch with a grin. "Some of Fermi's boys from Lublin, keeping an eye on the atomic scientists at Oak Ridge."

Orsha was their last taste of Commonwealth-style civilization. Fifty kilometers beyond the city was the Soviet border, with Smolensk another sixty beyond that. The A5 ended at Orsha, so they had to make do with a gravel road that ran parallel to a railroad track.

At the border there were the usual suspicious guards and officious officials. They gave the three travelers' bags a thorough going-over, while a man in a shabby suit quietly hit Simchovitch up for a bribe, which he quietly paid.

"That was unpleasant," said Asimov as they drove on into the Soviet Union. The gravel road had ended at the border; they were on dirt now.

"That was nothing," said Simchovitch. "Back in the old days, when the Boss was running the country, the NKVD had charge of the border guards. Believe me, those were some scary bastards."

"So, are things getting better here now that Gordov is in charge?" asked Asimov.

Simchovitch shrugged. "Different, yes. Better? Depends on who you ask. The thing to keep in mind about Gordov is that he's a soldier first, a Russian second, and a Communist a distant third. He pays lip service to the dogma, and he's careful to trot out the big banners with Marx, Lenin, and Stalin every May Day, but his first loyalty is to the state. He's got the upper hand over the Politburo and the Central Committee, but they're not fully under his control, and that's something he's not happy about."

It may have just been the lowering sky, but it seemed to Asimov that Smolensk was distinctly less appealing than Minsk, or even Orsha. There were a lot more soldiers around, and the streets weren't as well kept-up.

"Are those bullet holes?" he asked as they passed by one particularly dilapidated brick house.

"I wouldn't be surprised," said Simchovitch. "The Polish Army passed through here about a week before the fighting ended. Under the terms of the armistice they pulled back to the Byelorussian border, and I think about a third of the people in Smolensk packed up and left with them. If I'd lived here, I would have. The government was still busy fighting the Japanese, and they let a lot of stuff slide here in the west. Plenty of damage left over from the war that they haven't gotten around to fixing.

"The thing to keep in mind about the Russians is that they've always been of two minds about whether they want to be Europeans or Asians. Losing the two western republics to the Commonwealth, and then conquering Manchuria and Japan, seems to have given the country a big shove to the Asian side. I think that's why Gordov is still fooling around in China."

It wasn't long before the pothole-laden streets of Smolensk gave way to a rutted dirt road heading south. This, Asimov knew, was the final leg of their quixotic journey to his home village of Petrovichi. Sixty kilometers south of the city was a village called Pochinok, and now Asimov began to experience the tiniest bit of enthusiasm for the venture. Back in Brooklyn, his mother used to tell stories about their departure from Russia, and she mentioned that in Pochinok his sister Marcia had grown sick. The family had had to stay in an unheated room in December, and his mother had had to pay the owner to light a fire. As the wooden buildings of Pochinok went past, he found himself wondering which of them had the room where he had stayed thirty years before. However, he was not curious enough to ask Simchovitch to stop the car.

South of Pochinok they turned right onto a side-road that seemed to him to be little more than an ox-cart path. He hoped they didn't pass any cars going the other way, because there didn't seem to be room for two of them at once. The narrow road led them eventually to a crossroads village called Khislavichi, and once again Asimov felt a tug on his memory. His father had once come across a map of Russia, and had eagerly sought Petrovichi, but in vain. It wasn't there; worse, Khislavichi was, along with other villages called Mstislav and Krichev. His father had called his mother over and said, "Look, they have these hamlets and hick towns and Petrovichi they don't have."

Asimov had told him, "Maybe they're bigger than Petrovichi, Pappa."

Horrified, his father had replied, "They were smaller. They were nothings. I don't understand why they don't have it."

After Khislavichi there was Zabor'e, then Mikshino, and then . . .

It was a small Russian hamlet, no different from any of the others they had passed. Wooden buildings and dirt streets, with patches of old snow on the ground. A church steeple at one end, and a synagogue at the other. Simchovitch pulled up in front of the latter without being asked, and the three of them got out of the car.

It was a Wednesday afternoon, so there was no particular reason anyone would be at the synagogue, and no one was.

"Where should we go?" Rosenfarb asked him.

"The general store," Asimov decided. "My mother's family owned it, and she used to work there."

"I doubt if they own it now," Simchovitch said. "They frown on that sort of thing here."

"My father once told me he and my mother ran an agricultural cooperative after the Revolution. He was also friends with the local commissar."

"That was thirty years ago," Simchovitch pointed out.

Asimov shrugged. "It can't hurt to try."

"So where is it?" asked Rosenfarb.

"Search me. My parents' stories didn't include any maps."

The three of them finally decided to head down what seemed to be the village's main street. Two days on the road had already left Asimov feeling a sense of unreality, so when his father passed by on the street, he simply said, in English, "Pappa! What are you doing here?"

The man stopped and gave him a curious look. "Do I know you?" he said in Yiddish.

Asimov immediately realized that the man was not his father, though he looked and sounded an awful lot like him. With suspicion dawning in him, he asked the man, "Do you remember a man named Judah Asimov?"

"You mean my brother? The one who moved to America?"

"My name is Isaac. I'm his son."

If Asimov's companions were expecting a tearful reunion, they didn't get one. The man, who turned out to be his uncle Samuel, shared his father's reserved nature, to his relief. He simply shook Isaac's hand and asked him the names of his companions. After the introductions were made, Samuel invited them to come into his home and meet his family.

The Samuel Asimovs lived in a neat wooden house two streets over. Samuel's wife was out, but his teenage daughter Serafina, a pretty blue-eyed blonde, was home. She, it turned out, was a science fiction fan who had read pirated Russian editions of several of his books, and she was terribly scandalized that her father wasn't making more of a fuss over him.

"You're my cousin?" she exclaimed. "Pappa, you never said that Isaac Asimov was my cousin!" She was also excited to meet Rosenfarb and Simchovitch, though she admitted she had never heard of either of the Polish writers.

"They're the ones who talked me into coming here," Isaac told her, whereupon she showered the two of them with thanks, much to their amusement. Serafina then rushed to her room and brought back four books with his name spelled Исаак Озимов on the covers. She had to translate the titles into Yiddish for him to tell that they were Foundation, Mutant Enemy, Now You See It, and Against the Galaxy. He offered to autograph them, then did so in Yiddish and English: To my cousin Serafina, whose beauty is exceeded only by her taste in literature.

Samuel insisted that they stay for dinner, though Isaac suspected that his wife would not be pleased at the appearance of three unexpected guests. Isaac told him of the family's doings in America, and when he mentioned the candy store Samuel nodded and said, "Anna always did have a head for business."

Samuel's wife Olga came home an hour later, and it turned out that she was also a relative -- a younger half-sister of Isaac's mother. She also insisted that her nephew and his two friends stay over for dinner, and Isaac knew that he could not refuse.

Dinner with the Samuel Asimov household was much the same as dinner at the Judah Asimov household had been, and Isaac found that he enjoyed it enormously. The conversation covered his life growing up in Brooklyn, and Serafina's life growing up in Petrovichi. During the war, the Polish Army had bypassed the village, so there were no tales of rampaging Polish soldiers to tell of. There were rumors, though, Serafina reported, of Polish troops setting fire to synagogues in other villages.

"Nonsense," insisted Simchovitch. "I was in the army -- plenty of Polish Jews were -- and we would never have let anything like that happen. The way I heard it, though, was that Russian troops would set the synagogues on fire -- and loot the shops -- before pulling out of a town."

"Nonsense," Samuel Asimov responded in his turn.

The Asimov family offered to put them up for the night, but this time Isaac had to say no. "We have to be back in Smolensk by tonight," he told them. He got kisses from Olga and Serafina, and another handshake from Samuel, as he left -- as did Rosenfarb and Simchovitch.

"We don't have to be back in Smolensk," Rosenfarb scolded him as they made their way back to the car in the growing dusk.

"Chava, I like them, and we share some genes, but they're still strangers. I couldn't impose on them, and I really don't want to stay the night here. It looks like snow, and if we're going to be caught in a storm, I'd rather it be in Smolensk."

Rosenfarb was shaking her head as they piled into the Porschewagen."But they're your family!"

"My family is back in Aberystwyth," Asimov insisted. "And it's time I was getting back to them."

1 comment:

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Belarus Devo+ The Caves of Steel reminds me of this.

I have to ask, J.P., was the "Polish Commonwealth" inspired by the Polish empire in Randall Garrett's "Lord Darcy" stories? The stories, which are Sherlock Holmes "pastiches" set in a parallel universe, were originally published in Analog.