At many points in my life, I have been glad to know Yiddish. But as I darted through the darkened lobby of the Hotel National in Chisinau at one in the morning, trying desperately to reach the elevator bank before I was spied by a man with a stained beard and rancid breath, I reflected that this was not one of those points.
I had come to Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, once more widely known as Kishinev, to follow the path that took the family of the great writer and mystic Clarice Lispector, then an infant called Chaya, from their Ukrainian homeland to Brazil.
Despite the bad roads and the chaotic border crossing, it was a short trip from Chechelnik, the tiny town where she was born, to Kishinev. Although, it would not have been a short trip in the early 1920â€™s, when the Lispector family was trying desperately to flee the pogroms, famine, and civil war that, in the wake of World War I and the Russian Revolution, were ravaging their homeland.
The numbers will never be known, but hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed in those years, the worst episode of anti-Semitic violence in centuries. The events that followed World War I were the Holocaustâ€™s opening act, though they are today almost completely forgotten, even by Ukrainians and Jews, for whom even worse was shortly to come.
The victims included Clariceâ€™s beloved mother Mania, who was raped by a gang of Russian soldiers in 1919 and contracted an untreatable venereal disease that would kill her when Clarice was nine. Yet the Lispectors were luckier than many: Maniaâ€™s husband and daughters survived, and she herself lived long enough to see her family safely established abroad.
Clarice Lispector, the tiny infant her heroic parents carried through this wasteland of rape, necrophagy, and racial warfare, grew up to become Brazilâ€™s greatest modern writer, a legendary beauty once called â€œthat rare woman who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf.â€