In Memory of my Beloved Grandmother Elga bat Chana, my First and Best Friend
The story of the first 33 and a half years of my life is the story of my grandmother, Elga Abramovna Divinsky. She was my first and best friend. The earliest memories I have are
of her. My first pictures are of me in her arms, of us playing at our Moscow dacha, of the two of us picking blackberries and mushrooms in Estonia where my family vacationed every summer, of our family in my grandparents’ Moscow apartment, and so on.
Grandma was born on Feb. 12, 1924 in Kineshma, Russia. She never told me much about her childhood, mentioning only bits and pieces.
Grandma’s grandparents remained in Lyadi after the rest of the family had relocated to Moscow. Grandma would often visit them and spend weekends there. She had wonderful friends whom she’d never forget, even many years after we’d moved to America.
In 1941, the Nazis blitzkrieged their way through the Soviet Union. No one in Lyadi realized they were in mortal danger until the very last moment. The Nazis entered the village, forced all of its inhabitants into the town synagogue and set it on fire.
My great-gandparents would spend a few weekends in Moscow every year. They “just so happened” to have chosen to visit there the day the Nazis came. This is my family’s personal survival story from the bleak years of the Holocaust.
Grandmother’s father, a talented engineer, was sent by Stalin to study chemical engineering in England. Industrialization, like everything else, arrived a few decades late in Soviet Russia, and Stalin, for all his defects, was sending the country’s most talented engineers to study overseas.
My grandma’s father, Avram was one of those. He took the entire family—my great-grandmother, Anna Gregorevna, who passed away when I was three, and my grandmother; then a little girl alongside with him to the UK. Grandma would reminisce about the years she spent in England with a special fascination. England of the early 1930’s held a special allure and my grandma’s family took immense pleasure in living in London, one of Europe’s cultural hubs.
The family’s stay in London lasted just a few years before one of my great-grandfather Avram’s coworkers defected to the UK and the family was hastily summoned back to Russia. My great-grandfather would always have trouble finding work after that embarrassing episode. It’s a miracle he wasn’t arrested and shot upon return.
While in the UK, grandma learned English. Apparently, she was a natural with languages because she went on to be one of the top English experts in Soviet Russia. Following the war, she attended and graduated the prestigious Moscow School of Foreign Languages. While she had her two English textbooks published and used by the Soviet school system, she never did get the privilege of teaching university English in the Evil Empire.
When we immigrated to the United States in 1989, grandma finally got a chance to teach at the university level. By then, she was in her 60’s, but that didn’t stop her from educating many of her fellow Russian Jews at a community college in Chicago where she earned her peers’ admiration as a talented and devoted pedagogue.
Grandma had a unique teaching style. She knew how to earn her students’ admiration by proving her mettle as both teacher and friend. She knew how to be tough and at the same time had the ability to calm down immediately after a big spat. She applied this ability to her marriage with my grandfather, whom she’d sometimes complain about, but inwardly adored for his immense intellect and gentle spirit.
Grandma used to tell me about her father. His one quality she’d mention most often was his hospitality. I’ll never forget her story of how he was at his death bed but continued to welcome guests. His house was always open to strangers. Grandma learned from his example. Strangers were always welcome in her house–even if it was a tiny Moscow apartment.
Grandma would always extol Russian literature giants: Pushkin, Lermontov, Gorky, Chekhov, and countless others. Her erudition of literature—Russian, American, British, German, French, you name it—was unparalleled. She was truly an avid reader.
Grandma had an amazing sense of humor. She always had something witty to say even in the most dire situations. She was also one of those unique people who was really able to feel others’ pain and suffering. She was able to see the world from the perspective of people she didn’t even know in real life.
Even as an elderly woman, grandma remained a child at heart. I will never forget reading “Peter Pan” and “Gulliver’s Travels” with her. I can truly say she was both the most mature, practical person I knew and the most playful, joyous one at the same time.
Grandma was small in stature but possessed a colossal spirit. I remember one time when we were at our dacha on the outskirts of Moscow. I was perhaps five or six at the time. An angry goat approached me. I’m sure I must have done something to earn the wild creature’s ire, but here we were: a small child and an elderly woman taken to task by this beast. As was typical of her, grandma chose my well-being over her own. She moved between me and the goat. This infuriated the animal even further and it ended up butting my grandma’s leg so that she had a big bruise for weeks. This was just a small act of selflessness, but one of many examples of my grandma’s noble spirit and ability to place others before herself.
Grandma had many students and friends. Perhaps her closest friends in America were Nadya and Lena S. Nadya arrived in the United States a decade before us and settled in Chicago with her husband Ed. She’d been amongst my grandma’s favorite students and they ended up staying in touch long after she’d graduated. Nadya was always there to help. They spent countless hours analyzing literary works and frequenting Chicago’s numerous museums (they especially enjoyed spending time at the Art Museum and Civic Opera). Nadya’s family enjoyed my grandma’s presence and she valued theirs in return. Nadya’s daughter and grandkids absolutely adored grandma.
Lena and her family were among the first friends we made in the New World. Lena is an extremely sharp-witted individual with an ever-positive outlook on life. I remember visiting their family the first–most challenging years following our arrival. Even though I was very young, I remember those to have been times extremely well-spent.
Grandma kept in touch with Lena long after her loyal friend moved to Florida. They’d email each other till grandma’s last days, exchanging thoughtful discussions alongside funny tidbits of news and gossip that appeared online. Nadya and Lena were true, devoted friends who added a great deal of meaning to grandma’s life.
My grandma’s life was filled with purpose. It was a life truly worth living. Hopefully, my words and deeds will be a testament to everything she taught me. She’s sorely missed by not only me, but all those she ever encountered and had a positive effect on–and there were many. My grandma stood for all that’s good with the world. May we all learn from her example and may her memory be an eternal blessing.