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Photo by Katie Moum on Unsplash

When I was growing up in the Soviet Union, I would spend at least a month in Summer Camp. My mother was the head nurse of the camp, and my best summer-time friend, Elena Altchoul, would also be there. While at camp, my father would visit from Minsk on some Sundays. My life during summertime was idyllic, and for the most part, relaxing.

Elena and I would spend hours in a meadow surrounded by the woods, laying on soft grass, staring at tree-tops moving in the breeze, talking about everything and nothing. Or we would practice somersaults and cartwheels, or create imaginary houses, and divide rooms with walls defined by neat lines of pine needles. We did everything together, including sleeping next to each other in the cot-like beds in the cabins. The only time we spent much time apart was when either Elena or I were sick.

I remember spending the night in the nurse’s cabin, being the only sick person there. I stared out the window, watching the moon and the trees, and bushes move in the wind. Outside of the nurse’s cabin there was a small bronze statue of a deer — but it was well-hidden most of the time. The statue stood on a small pedestal, in a tiny clearing — big enough for one child could walk comfortably around, but not two together — surrounded by tall bushes and a few trees. A little gravel road led up to the deer statue. I have visited the statue many times, and although I could have climbed up on it to ride the deer, I never did. I was terrified of doing so, instead just climbing on the pedestal and petting the little deer. I was not the most adventurous child.

But that night, watching the wind separate the leaves of the bushes and catching a glimpse of the deer in the moonlight from time to time, I fell in love with the night. The muted, dark greens of the leaves, the air that seemed full of silver moonlight, the night was the place that hid cracks and dirt, and encouraged deep breaths. The statue seemed to move, just a little bit. The whole experience felt enchanted, as if I was privileged to witness an act of wild magic.

I also remember that every June 22, our quiet lives at camp were disturbed, when the whole camp did a reenactment and recreated the fall of Belarus in 1941 to Germany. We were divided into two enemy combatants — the word “German” or “Russian” wasn’t used, we were just two opposing armies. We ran, we crawled on the ground, climbed trees, hid, took prisoners (the other team did the same). I don’t remember the purpose of the war games, except to always be prepared for an invasion by staying in shape as well as commemorate the date of the beginning of the war. Did we play to capture the flag? Something like that, I think. It was fun, but also a little bit scary — a war game.

I also remember my friend, Elena, began to get really good in draughts/checkers. She was beating not just other kids, but most adults, too. One time, I overheard two girls saying that she and I were no longer friends, just to be mean. I was pretty sure I was supposed to overhear their stage whispers. I found Elena playing checkers against a counselor. I told her what I heard, and then she grabbed my hand and pulled me towards those girls. We found them playing cards, sitting on one of the beds. Elena and I linked arms and walked around them, whistling loudly. We were best friends, and we showed them. Even though we only saw each other in the summer, that didn’t matter. We could always count on each other.

When I was 11 years old, I knew that I was leaving Soviet Union. We were moving to the United States. I called Elena to say good bye. After that, her mother got on the phone with me. She asked me not to contact Elena again. It appeared that she was going to become the youngest checkers champion in the adult division at age 12 — a sort of like a Gary Kasparov/Bobby Fisher of the checkers world — a big deal. Her mother didn’t want her to have any extra obstacles — any connection to those who had “betrayed the Motherland.” Like me, Elena already had the stigma of being a Jew.

I don’t remember what I told her. I actually don’t remember much of anything after that part of the conversation. I had known Elena since we were both about 5 years old, in the summer camp’s kindergarten. But I could no longer see her or talk with her. I hung up the phone and started crying so hard, I began to hiccup, having trouble catching my breath. My mom hugged me and tried to explain how prevalent anti-Semitism was. Of course, I knew it was just a part of life growing up, but I was hurting too much to think logically about this.

I never begrudged Elena’s mother her request — she was only doing the best she knew how to do in the world she was living. She was only trying to protect her daughter. From time to time, I would hear about Elena’s meteoric rise to the top of the checkers world, and I was happy for her. The last I heard about her was that she and her husband were living in Germany. Armed with this rumor, I surfed the web until I found her — or rather information about her. Her husband’s name is Vadim Virny, born in Ukraine, both now living in Muster, Germany. I was also informed that she was the Women’s World Draughts Champion in 1980, 1982, 1983, 1984 and 1985. I didn’t see any photos of her, although there was one of her husband, playing checkers (he, too, was a champion in his own right).

I still think about our wonderful summers together as friends, and I wonder if she thinks about me, reminiscing about her childhood. I hope so. They were good times.

Written by

Writer and storyteller, immigrant, wife, mom, knitter, collector of jokes, lover of cheap, sweet wine.

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