Among the many stories I have heard about my family ancestry, one in particular that has intrigued me is the story about my paternal great grandfather’s brother and sister who left Canada to return to Russia after the revolution. The truth is that it is not much of a story, because once they went back, they were never heard from again.
Now at least, thanks to Rhea Tregebov’s novel The Knife Sharpener’s Bell, I can at least imagine what they may have encountered upon their return to their homeland and what likely happened to them under Stalin and under the Nazi occupation.
Tregebov is a Winnipeg raised poet, children’s author and editor who now lives and teaches in Vancouver. Her debut novel, published by Coteau Books, unfolds in Winnipeg, Moscow and Odessa. Her protagonist and narrator is Annette Gershon, an older woman who, in packing up her house in order to move to an apartment, begins to reflect on her life experiences, her loves and her losses.
Annette’s parents, Avram and Anne, like hundreds of thousands of other Russian Jews, had immigrated to North America in the early part of the 20th century to escape poverty and persecution. Settling in Winnipeg, Canada, they manage to eke out a living in their Main Street delicatessen, but following the success of the Russian Revolution, began to dream of a return home. Invigorated by their idealism, and weary of watching as the Depression steals their neighbours and friends of their livelihoods and dignity, they decide it is time to act, to go back in order ‘to help give birth to some sort of a better world.”
The going back, of course, turns out not to be quite what they imagined, and is particularly difficult for 10-year-old Annette. Still Avram and Anne persevere, refusing to dwell on the negative and determined to find a place for themselves and their family in a system that promises equality for all, even for Jews. “It wasn’t just that they had laws against anti-Semitism,” Avram had promised his family, “it was that the laws were being enforced.”
By the end of the Second World War, the life of the Gershon family has changed dramatically. At this point, Annette, now a young adult, is given the choice of returning to Winnipeg or remaining in Moscow. She chooses the latter, still hesitant, in spite of all that has transpired, not to betray her parents’ decision “to believe in the workers’ paradise.” Although this choice in the end costs her dearly, it also brings her unfathomable rewards.
The Knife Sharpener’s Bell is a sharply conceived, beautifully written story about the forces of history, the passion of ideology and the inescapable tug of memory. For me, it is as well, a cherished glimpse into a lost part of my family’s history.