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Saul Bellow

In Memory of Yetta Barshevsky


Written in 1996. Used by permission

Sixty five years ago in the Humboldt Park District of Chicago, Yetta Barshevsky and I were students at the Tuley High School. Although we were born in the same year, she was just a bit ahead of me, graduating in June 1932. Yetta was class orator. The title of her speech, a speech I remember very well, was “The Future Belongs to the Youth.” Well of course it does. Actuarial statistics make it obvious that, like it or not, youth will inherit the future, or, less pleasantly, that it will be thrust, if not dumped on them. Al Glotzer tells me that it was Karl Liebknecht who invented this clumsy slogan. Totalitarianism in the thirties produced very nasty youth organizations – Hitlerjugend in Germany, Pioneers in Soviet Russia and also the Young Communist League. Mussolini had his blackshirt boys. In England and in the U.S.A. we had nothing worse than Baden-Powell’s Boyscout movement. The best that can be said for the boyscouts was that they didn’t do the future much harm.

Yetta in her high school days was for a time a member of the YCL. She left the movement. Perhaps she was expelled. She was far too good, too gentle, too charming to be a hardfaced Third Period Stalinist. Her mother, as I remember, was upset when Yetta dropped out of the movement. The mother was a spectacularly handsome dark haired woman. I, you see, lived right around the corner, on Lemoyne Street. The Barshevskys were on Spaulding Ave. just north of Division St. I was a frequent visitor. I knew her brothers and also her father. I believe he was a carpenter. The back seat of his galopy was filled with saws and sawdust. In those days one didn’t have a car and a truck. If you were a family man you preferred an old touring car to a truck – the front seat would not accomodate four kids and a wife. Barshevsky was fairly silent and clearly good natured and affectionate with his children. I even came to know Yetta’s grandfather, whom I would often see at the synagogue when I came to say Kaddish for my mother. He was an extremely, primitively orthodox, short bent man with a beard that seemed to have rushed out of him and muffled his face. He wore a bowler hat and elastic sided boots. The old women, it seems, were wildly radical, communist sympathizers. The grandfathers were the pious ones.

The immigrant parents at the graduation ceremonies were delighted with Yetta’s oration. On the platform, this slight, high-voiced young woman was fearless and formidable. Her manner was militant, urgent. From her you heard such words as ”penury” and ”mitigate.” I knew ”mitigate” only from books. I had never heard it spoken. It took boldness to say it publicly and with natural confidence. And Yetta was a gentle creature with a fiery irrepressible message for the parents of the graduating class. “We will do right by you,␅ was what she was telling them. “We will give you mitigation.” There was a curious earnestness about Yetta.

This, remember, was 1932. The great depression was upon us. Hitler and FDR had gust spoken their first words on the world’s stage.

Yetta introduced me, after a fashion, to world politics. We often crossed Humboldt Park together after school. I was even then “literary,” while she was political. She gave me Trotsky’s pamphlet on the German question. The view Trotsky developed was, as I remember, that Stalin’s policies facilitated Hitler’s rise to power. Stalin would not enter into a defensive alliance with the Social Democrats and other Left elements.

In good weather we sat on the steps of the Humboldt Park boathouse, under the huge arches; or in the Rose Garden, where the two bronze bison stood. She lectured me on Leninism, on collectivization, on democratic centralism, on the sins of Stalin and his inferiority to Trotsky. She was engaged, by now, to Nathan Goldstein, and Goldstein had turned from the C.P. to Trotskyism.

By 1933 Yetta and I had moved on to Crane Junior College, an institution that soon went under for lack of cash – the usual thing, in those years.

Mayor Cermak went down to Florida after Roosevelt had won the November election with the aim of getting money to pay the teachers. It was there that an assassin shooting at Roosevelt shot Cermak instead. Cermak was a martyr, therefore, who sacrificed his life for education. With his death the Irish Democrats took over creating a machine that has ruled Chicago ever since.

I was, at best, a peripheral observer of the political drama. But Yetta loved novels too. She had me reading Romain Rolland’s Jean Christophe – all three volumes of it. Enormously stirring, this life of a Romantic Titan. When I tried to read it again, decades later, it seemed to me nothing but twaddle.

I suppose I entered into Yetta’s enthusiasms for Yetta’s sake, for her importance to me was very great. She was one of those persons who draw you into their lives and also install themselves in yours. Even the small genetic accident that made one of her eyes seem oddly placed added warmth and sadness to her look. She always seemed to me to have a significant sort of Jewish beauty. One no more understands these things than the immigrant parents who heard the class orator understood the word ”mitigate.” There is something radically mysterious in the specificity of another human being which everybody somehow responds to. Love is not a bad word for this response. Today’s memorial testifies to Yetta’s secret power – the power of being Yetta.

Saul Bellow


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