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A Bend in the Stars


Once Vanya and Yuri both agreed to Miri’s plan, time ran too fast. In less than an hour, they’d packed their bags and marched together to headquarters, where Vanya volunteered before the conscription order was made public, and together he and Yuri requested a placement in Riga. That was the only way, Yuri said, because volunteers had some choice in their placement, with the right bribe. Conscripts had none. And once they were gone, as much as Miri wanted to grieve, she willed herself to believe it would work as planned, that they’d reunite in Saint Petersburg soon. There was nothing else she could do. At least Vanya had taken a few of Baba’s rubies to pay for the photographs, for bribes—or for both, if necessary.

They had only barely moved swiftly enough. Before nightfall, the czar’s army swooped down. No Jewish house was spared. No Jewish child over the age of eight was safe. When Babushka heard the first glass shatter, a window next door, she grabbed Miri. “We must hide,” she said. “Looting will be the best of it.” Tzvi, the boy who lived across the street, yelled for his mother. Miri wanted to rush to him, to hide him with her and Baba, but before she could move, she saw him heaved into the back of a wagon. That poor child.

Baba took Miri’s arm. “Hide,” she hissed. All the kindness in her voice was gone, replaced by an urgency Miri had never heard. “Survive.”

But before they could move, a soldier burst through the kitchen door. An ogre caked in mud. His eyes were narrow and cold. Baba was the first to confront him. He brushed her aside as if she were an insect, and she hit the wall. The pots overhead rattled. One fell. It landed with a thud that left it lopsided. Miri screamed. “I’m fine, child,” Baba mumbled, but Miri saw her gaze was unfocused.

Miri heard the soldier coming toward her. She didn’t have time to bend for the dagger in her boot, the one Babushka insisted she take everywhere, so she grabbed the misshapen pot, whipped around meaning to defend them with it, but in that same instant, he took hold of her wrist and the two were locked together. The pot in her fist hung suspended over them. The soldier looked surprised by her strength, by the fact that she didn’t let go or give in. But he was stronger and he seemed to like taunting her, not overpowering her as quickly as he could. She understood that once she stopped fighting, he’d be merciless.

“Maratovich, enough,” Ilya Dragunovitch yelled. He shoved the soldier away. “Leave this Jewish whore. Go! Our orders are for men and boys only.” Ilya shook a piece of paper between them to show Maratovich the supposed orders, but Miri saw that Ilya held the paper upside down, and Maratovich didn’t object. They were both illiterate. The pot fell. The soldier skittered to the door, and Miri staggered back. Terrified and full of rage.

“Dr. Abramov,” Ilya whispered once Maratovich was gone. “Are you okay?”


“I almost didn’t recognize you. Did he hurt you?”

Could she recognize herself ? She’d never fought anyone in her life, not really. Her dress was torn. Her hair was loose. She didn’t see any cuts or blood, but still she felt injured.

Babushka was talking, waving for Miri to come close. “Stop muttering,” Baba said.

“I wasn’t.” Was she?

“A ruby. Give Ilya a ruby.” Yes, Baba was right. Miri reached into the secret pocket sewn into her grandmother’s belt and took one. “Child, clear your head.”

Miri caught Ilya at the door and slid the gem into his hand. He closed his fist around it. Then Miri went back to her grandmother. “We need to get into the cellar and hide,” Baba said.

“Not yet. I’m going to the Yurkovs’.” Their neighbors. The bakers. “I’ll bring their boys. They can hide here. With us.”

“Mirele, you’re not thinking. Ilya can’t protect you out there. You won’t make it to the Yurkovs’. If they’re smart, they’ll be hiding, too. All we can do is try to stay alive until the morning. By then, maybe . . . ” She didn’t need to finish for Miri to understand. Baba was right.

Miri opened the hatch in the kitchen floor and helped her grandmother down the stairs. The cellar seemed darker than it had been. And the smell of mold was replaced by something metallic, something closer to blood. Baba slumped onto the cot where they’d sat just that morning, a lifetime ago. Miri pulled a blanket over her grandmother and climbed into bed with her, tried not to imagine what was happening to their neighbors even though their screams were piped through the chimney. When the terror hit a crescendo, it made Miri shake so violently her teeth chattered. Even with her eyes open she couldn’t stop picturing little Tzvi being heaved into the wagon, hearing his mother’s screams. She hated herself, hated that dozens of neighbors all around them were suffering and she couldn’t, wouldn’t move. That she wasn’t helping.

“There’s nothing we can do. This isn’t Zhytomyr,” Baba said as she stroked Miri’s hair. Baba had told Miri and Vanya stories about the famous Jews of Zhytomyr at least a hundred times, and with each repetition the story started larger, more like a fairy tale—but better because it was true. Led by youth groups, the Jews of Zhytomyr stood to fight when a pogrom broke out. They turned the attacks into a bitter battle, killed as many as were killed. The czar’s men won—but the Jews of Zhytomyr fought, and that was what mattered. They inspired others to do the same. But there in Kovno, there were no youth groups or trained Jewish fighters. If Miri tried to take a stand, she’d be slaughtered. “One day, Mirele, it will be different. Perhaps in America.”

Miri nodded and realized they were alone. Truly alone. Everyone they loved was dead or far away. Had Mama and Papa felt this way when their boat sank? What if the Russians started burning houses the way they did in Odessa? Baba had been right. In the blink of an eye, Kovno had changed. But did they have to run as far as America to find safety? Life in the United States wouldn’t be perfect, only better. The Okhrana wouldn’t come in the middle of the night. Neighbors wouldn’t disappear. They had family in a city called Philadelphia. Baba’s cousins had written describing their lives there, saying their work left them bone weary but safe. Safe. Only now did Miri understand what that word meant, did she begin to understand what her grandmother must have seen as a girl.

When the screams died down, Babushka fell asleep and Miri lost herself thinking about her mother. She remembered her smell, the creams she used on her dry, cracked hands, her promises that they’d meet in America. Of course, now that would never happen. What else would she lose? Miri was scared to get on a boat, scared to stay, but she understood she had no choice. Not anymore. She kept her eyes wide and waited for morning.



Only two of the Abramovs’ windows were smashed that night. Ilya had protected them, and so Miri rewarded him with another ruby in the morning when he sneaked into their house before dawn to tell them the conscription roundups, and looting, were over. The additional ruby was a rich payment, yes, but both Miri and Babushka were alive, and that was worth any jewel. And

they needed him to continue protecting them. For now, he was their best hope.

Miri watched Ilya tiptoe off over shattered glass. Would Vanya and Yuri find a man as good as Ilya to help them, too? Then she turned back to the house and went into the kitchen. She didn’t know what to do. She was used to Babushka taking charge, but she feared her grandmother was more shaken than she’d admit. She was up in her room, resting. Ilya had helped carry her up, and now Miri stood staring at the lopsided pot still on the kitchen floor while she heard women outside sweeping splintered wood and glass. The neighbors were scrubbing away the blood because once it was gone they would be free to imagine their children were safe. They could dream their sons were the lucky ones who’d make it back alive. Miri had seen too many women at the hospital who’d done the same in the past, and it broke her heart.

Miri thought about going to help them, but she couldn’t bring herself to step outside. She was still shaking. Was still scared and ashamed of herself for it. And on top of it all was another layer. Anger. She was still enraged that Yuri had gone behind her back, enraged that Vanya put the eclipse above their safety. And, this was the heart of it, disappointed in herself for letting it happen, for pushing the two men she loved into the army, the very place she had hoped to protect them from at all costs. There hadn’t been time to think. Had she acted too quickly?

Miri went to check on her grandmother. Baba’s eyes were closed, but Miri knew from her breathing she was awake. “What do we do?” Miri asked.

“You go to the hospital.” Baba’s voice was weak. “Appearances are important.”

“But we’re leaving.”

“Not until Rosh Hashanah. If we leave earlier, people will be suspicious. We don’t want questions. The women will be here soon. We’ll mourn together. Dream of our boys coming home.”

“I don’t know if I can go to the hospital.”

“You must. Our neighbors look to us for strength, and we will provide it.” Miri knew Baba was right. Theirs was an odd position in Kovno. While on the surface the generosity of Baba’s clients made it appear that Miri’s family, the Abramov family, was integrated into the Jewish community, they weren’t. Kovno’s poorer Jews thought the Abramovs were above them, and the richer Jews believed they were below them, but both agreed Baba’s position went beyond matchmaker— she was the anchor that held the community together. And they needed her and her sitting room where they could gather because, above it all, Kovno’s Jews were united by ideas, by the belief they could assimilate and become Russian Jews, not just Jews. Nearly one quarter of Kovno’s population was composed of Jews who shunned their ancestors’ black hats and insular enclaves, who chose to dress and work in the mold of their cosmopolitan neighbors. Kovno was one of the few cities in Russia that permitted its Jews to make this choice, to join guilds, become politicians, and even live in the center of the city as long as they were useful. All for a price, of course. A double tax and an outrageous tariff on “Jewish meat,” on butcher shops, grocers, and professions. This group believed their updated way of life was worth it, even worth the lingering violence against them. Or they had. Now what did they think? Baba was right; many would arrive soon to discuss and debate.

Miri helped her grandmother out of bed. She brushed her hair and braided it, her hands becoming steadier as she worked. By the time her grandmother was ready to receive clients, Miri was, too. Downstairs they found a dozen women collected outside their front door. Miri and Baba hurried them in, and then Miri excused herself and started toward the hospital—alone, painfully aware of Yuri’s absence.

She walked over blood in the cracks between cobblestones and found a woman cowering at a wall. Her eye was injured. The woman had her hand over it, and blood had dried down the back of her arm even while it trickled through her knuckles. “I’ll help you to the hospital,” Miri said as she pulled the woman to her feet. In another block, an old man with a wagon saw them. Miri had set his son’s broken leg a year earlier. The man offered to take them. “Thank you,” Miri said, and helped the woman into the wagon. Along the way they stopped to pick up a girl with a broken arm, a woman left for dead but who rasped loud enough for Miri to hear, her skirts gone, and others. None beaten as badly as Sukovich. At least on the surface.

Dr. Kozlov, Yuri’s replacement, met Miri at the door just as she was leading the injured inside. He told Miri she was permitted only in the women’s ward, that she was prohibited from operating. Already, it seemed, with Yuri gone, the power of her promotion diminished. But didn’t she deserve that, after she’d failed? Either way, she was too tired, too scared to object. And there was too much work to be done to worry about her own position now.

After twelve hours on her feet, stitching wounds, setting bones, and wiping tears, Miri was near collapse. She staggered to her office and sat down in the chair across from the sink. From that angle she stared into a mirror. She had her grandmother’s green eyes and dark curls, the same ones Vanya inherited. Yuri called her beautiful, but that night she recognized the beginnings of the same circles she saw under Babushka’s eyes, along with the same lines around her mouth. She felt far older than she should.



When Miri came home she expected to find her grandmother in their sitting room, surrounded by a crowd of mothers and grandmothers still consoling one another or debating how to move forward, how to save their sons, but from three blocks away, Miri saw the house was empty. The lights were on, but there were no women standing near the windows, no carriages parked in front. And it wasn’t just their house. The neighborhood was deserted. Even the street cleaners who made rounds at this hour were missing. The conscription order had hit hard, yes, but it felt too quiet even for that. Something else had happened. Miri broke into a run. Her footfalls ricocheted off the gray stones, sounding louder than they should. “Babushka?” She must have yelled. A neighbor opened a window.

“Miriam Davydovna, do you need help?” Elena Levovna, the baker’s wife, called.

“No. Thank you.” Miri hurried inside. Just past the door she found Ilya.

“We’ve been waiting,” Ilya said. His voice was harder than it had ever been. His eyes, though, were soft and apologetic. He raised a finger to his lips, asking her to keep quiet. She didn’t understand, but already she knew something bad was coming. Her heart rattled.

“What are you talking about?” Miri whispered.

He gestured with his chin toward the sitting room and used the same hard voice. “Dr. Abramov, I presume? Your grandmother is waiting for you.” Still not understanding, Miri dropped her bag and pushed past him. She found Baba in her chair with her fingers twisted together in her lap. Her skin was pale, translucent, and her shoulders were folded forward so she looked smaller. “Baba,” Miri said, dropping to her knees next to her. “What?”

“Mirele, please, greet our guest.” Baba inclined her head toward the shadow at the cold hearth, and Miri smelled the stranger before she saw him, the reek of stale cigars and sweat. He hovered in the corner. A tall, thick man dressed in black. He was wound with strength and his eyes were so dark they matched his suit. Although they’d never met, she knew him because he was exactly as Vanya said he’d be.

“Miriam Abramov,” the man said. “It’s a pleasure. I’ve heard so much about you. From your brother, of course.” She knew that was a lie. One of Baba’s first rules was to keep home at home. Miri calculated she could have the horn-handled dagger from her boot in a heartbeat.

“Kir,” she said. Though she tried to keep her voice polite, it came out sounding like a hiss.

“Yes. Kir Romanovitch,” Baba said. “The chair of Vanya’s department.” The one who stole her brother’s work. Babushka must have known that was what Miri was thinking because she glared at her granddaughter, a warning.

“I’ve been your brother’s mentor for all these years. Teaching him what I can. Did he mention I’ve been promoted? I’m now the head of the university.” He gave a shallow bow. “I’m worried for Vanya. I do hope he wasn’t caught up in that nasty business, the conscription. Ilya Dragunovitch, please.” He signaled for the officer to come closer. “Light the fire. The women are freezing. Look at how they tremble.” Kir turned back to Miri. “I came as soon as I could.”

“You’re too late,” Baba said. “Vanya’s gone. I told you.”

“Yes. He should have come to me. I told him I could keep him safe.”

“Maybe he didn’t want your help,” Miri said, even though she knew she shouldn’t.

“My granddaughter means that Vanya is proud to serve Russia,” Baba intervened.

Ilya stumbled into the room. He struck a match and it broke. He tried again, two, three times before the kindling under the grate caught. Flames slapped the bricks. Smoke spiraled. “I could have kept Vanya from the war. We’re so close to an equation for relativity,” Kir said.

“Of course,” Baba said.

“I thought you were denied funding for it,” Miri prodded.

“He was thrilled for your support,” Baba said, her voice rising over Miri’s.

Kir ignored them both and continued, “I was the one who pushed for his acceptance into the university, you know. Despite him being a Jew.”

“Tell me, how can we help you?” Baba asked.

“I’m hoping to carry on,” Kir said. He approached the fire, took the poker from Ilya, and stabbed a log. “I’m hoping he’s left notes behind, some of what we were working on. I want to finish what we started.” Liar, Miri thought. Kir looked at her as if he’d heard. “Imagine what it would mean for Russia, for the work on relativity to be finished by a Russian. Not that I expect either of you to fully understand. But you do know the czar’s glory on the battlefield could be magnified by my—our—glory at the university.”

Miri expected Baba to object, but instead she sighed. “Look through his things. Maybe you’ll find what you need,” she said. “Take it all.”


“His room is upstairs.”

“Good. Ilya will show me. I understand he knows the way.” Kir paused to let his words sink in. Miri tried not to let him see her cringe. No one was supposed to know about their relationship with the officer. Kir flashed a cruel smile. “Yes, Ilya Dragunovitch has become very close to your family. I know all about it. But after tonight he’ll come with me. You’ll need someone else to keep watch. I’ve already made the arrangements.”

“You’re putting us under guard?” Miri asked.

“After all that’s happened, you need a guard to keep you safe. Don’t you think? Surely Vanya would appreciate it,” Kir said. “Miriam, you’ve seen what’s happened without protection, the wounds your Jewish neighbors bore, that you stitched today? The watch will be around the clock. Someone will accompany you to the hospital. Another will stand outside your front and back doors. We will make sure you’re never hurt again.”

“I don’t—” began Miri.

“Thank you for looking out for us,” Baba interrupted.

“Of course. This way you’ll be safe. And when Vanya comes home, or tries to contact you, I’ll be able to help.”

“Oh, now I understand perfectly,” Miri said. She looked to Baba to say something but her grandmother only nodded. How could she keep her face so still? Her anger under control? It took all Miri had not to spit on Kir before he turned to go upstairs. Ilya went after him, but his toe caught the side of the divan and he tripped.

Baba leaned down and put a hand on his shoulder. “Is your family safe?” she whispered.

Ilya nodded. His eyes were wide and scared. He scrambled to his feet and up the stairs. Once both men were in Vanya’s room, Baba pulled Miri close. “Our poor Ilya.”

“Anyone can be cajoled into talking,” Miri said.

“Yes, of course. It’s what I’ve always said.” Miri got up off her knees and sat next to her grandmother. Above, she heard books hit the ground, papers ruffle and tear while she watched the logs crumble in the hearth and disintegrate into ash. Ilya came down five times carrying bundles of journals and notes. Miri assumed Kir would try to reconstruct Vanya’s equations, but he’d never succeed. She knew her brother well enough to know he’d taken the notebooks that truly mattered. It was why Baba was so willing to let Kir take whatever he wanted; still, Miri hated how easily she’d given in.

After Kir left, Baba turned to Miri. “We go upstairs now,” she said. “And burn whatever remains.” Miri nodded. Before following Baba, she peeked through the curtain. In the thin lamplight coming from the corner, she saw the new guard posted at their door.

A Bend in the Stars
by by Rachel Barenbaum

  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
  • ISBN-10: 153874628X
  • ISBN-13: 9781538746288