Uncle Abram’s Story: “This Is What I Was Fighting For”
When I was a child, we had our kitchen painted every summer. My family usually hired Abram, the seemingly scary looking one-legged man, to do the job. With one real and one wooden led, Abram managed to jump up and down the ladder, and he did a good job of painting.
Strangely, my tough grandmother – who yelled and argued with all the other workers who were hired to do work in our home – made no comments about Abram or his quality of work. Every now and then, Grandma told Abram to take a break, and she insisted on feeding him whatever we had on that day.
Still, I was afraid of Abram, and when he painted our home, I usually stayed away.
Abram did not live in our neighborhood, but he visited regularly on weekends. Most of the times, he showed up drunk, standing in the middle of the yard and loudly screaming his protests against whoever or whatever was bothering him that day. Drunken Abram always made a lot of noise, hitting the metal structure in our yard with his wooden leg and sometimes screaming that he would demolish the structure with a tank. These scenes usually ended with him falling near the bushes or in the communal hallway to take a nap, and eventually he would leave. During calmer times, Abram sometimes tried giving cookies to kids, but most of us were scared of him and ran away.
When he painted for us, though, Abram was a different person. He was on time and accurate; he was quiet and absolutely sober. Still, I was afraid of him. One time, as Abram was painting our kitchen, my Grandma noticed me sneaking away and asked, “Marina, why are you acting strange?” I told her, “Babushka, I am afraid of Abram. He is scary.”
“He is not Abram to you,” my Grandma said. “You must call him Uncle Abram, and he is not scary. He is a good person under bad circumstances.” Then she explained to me what those circumstances were.
Before the war, Abram had a big Jewish family – parents, siblings, a wife, kids, and numerous aunts, nephews, and nieces. When the war began, Abram was drafted to be a tank crew member and with his tank, he went through the war from Odessa to Germany. Just before the end of the war, Abram was wounded near Berlin, losing his leg – but he got crutches and bravely continued on his long and difficult journey to return to Odessa. As Abram traveled through Europe, he knew what had happened to Jews, but he still had hope. When he finally arrived in Odessa, though, he learned that none of his family survived. Someone – who survived by crawling from underneath the corpses after Nazis mass murder of the Jews – told Abram when and how his wife, kids, parents, and siblings were killed.
That’s how, after defeating the Nazis, Red Army tank crew member Abram Tzatzkin found himself alone in life. Of course, even without his family, he had to continue living, but he found he could not handle the pain in his soul and the phantom pain in his amputated leg. And so he started to drink. Though Abram was miserable when he was drunk, he quickly became addicted and could not seem to stop.
But Abram – or Uncle Abram, as I came to call him – always looked happy when he was working, occupied and glad to being doing something useful for others. If only he could be occupied more, all day every day, then perhaps the pain in his soul would slowly become duller. But thousands of men returned wounded from the war, same as Uncle Abram, and their wounded country did not give them more than a tiny pension. Despite his hard work, most people didn’t need a man with a wooden leg to do work for them, except some people who occasionally hired him to paint.
“Uncle Abram is a good person,” my grandma told me, “and he would not harm anyone. He became handicapped fighting against Nazis. Be kind to him and pay respect.”
After learning his story, I became ashamed of my fear of Uncle Abram and of running away from him. I thought about how I could make it up to him, but I couldn’t come up with any ideas. Finally, I asked him: “Uncle Abram, can I help you in some way?”
He stopped working, looked at me for a moment, and responded in a way I will never forget: “You are already helping me, kiddo,” he said, “by being here, alive and healthy. And your friends, too. Grow up and study. Become somebody. This is what I was fighting for.”
I think of Uncle Abram sometimes and wish he could see me now – and my childhood friends, too. Most of us now live far from Odessa, but we are healthy and alive. We are thriving. We have families, children, grandchildren; we have full and happy lives. I wish I could tell Uncle Abram: Your leg, your pain, and your ripped-apart life weren’t sacrificed for nothing. We are Jewish, and we are still here.