Through the eyes of a child: Diaries show war as thief of youth Raimonda has a new life now

April 03, 1994|By Ann Egerton

Raimonda Kopelnitsky. Remember that name, for you will hear it again.

The teen-ager (16 now) can express her thoughts and feelings in English, her second language, in fresh and profound ways. She is a Russian Jewish immigrant from the Ukraine who has been keeping a diary, named "Kitty" after Anne Frank's, since she was 12 and still living in the Soviet Union. "No Words To Say Goodbye" is that diary, written with journalist Kelli Pryor; it was published a little more than three years after she and her parents and older brother emigrated.

Miss Kopelnitsky records the tumultuous historical events of the crumbling Soviet Union as well as personal and family history. Although the writer's emotional and intellectual development progresses dramatically during the four-year period that she keeps this diary, even some of the early entries are moving and show an awareness and maturity beyond her years. Of anti-Semitism she writes: "All children hate. It's not their fault. It's their parents'. How can children hate unless they are told?" Her description of the explosion at the nuclear facility at Chernobyl (near her hometown of Chernovtsky) and its aftermath is horrifying:

"We were all sick in our throats, and we coughed. Our lymph nodes were swollen, and we wanted only to sleep. Our bodies felt bad all over. . . . The Soviet government, radios and newspapers, kept silent." Raimonda became ill with pneumonia and nearly died. Then Perestroika made her family's emigration both possible and necessary, for Jews were allowed to leave and in doing so, thinned their ranks, lost their solidarity and became more vulnerable to attacks of anti-Semitism.

In the first few sections of "No Words," Raimonda describes her experience and reactions in Russian, so over half of the book, spanning the family's wrenching departure, months in Vienna and Italy, and about 18 months in America, is translated. She describes the bounty and anti-Semitism of Vienna and comments on what her life is doing to her: "In Chernovtsky, I gave up playing with dolls. But here, I want them again. . . . There is too much missing from our lives."

At age 14, she begins writing in English, and her reporting is

alternately charming and heartbreaking. Allowed to be a kid again, she buys clothes at the Gap in Manhattan and finally tires of McDonald's. We learn of the combination of personal and Jewish organizational assistance and sporadic federal welfare ("like a right") that help the family until it becomes self-sufficient.

The mother works part time in a real-estate office; the father sells jewelry and has some success as an illustrator for the New York Times. She describes her family's frequent quarreling (with some physical violence) during their long pilgrimage and in their cramped Brooklyn apartment and concludes, "in reality we are the 'Addams Family,' the poor ones, the crazy ones, and still the Russian immigrants who are trying not to fail the American dream."

Raimonda excels both in junior and senior high school. She reports the diminishing language barrier and strangeness of American inner-city schools, and wryly appraises the ethnic differences of her school-mates while she is in English as a

Second Language class: "It seems the Koreans and Russians have a silent war to be better or best. Others (the Spanish and Arabs) don't care."

She ponders her religion: "I don't know how to pray. . . . I pray my way. I believe inside myself. . . . I don't like this American synagogue that is always free and open to me." With irony and passion she notes, "I believe in the synagogue of my childhood, full of mystery, always closed for me. I believe in the old people . . . dressed in black. I still feel their mystery, their voice, their trembling fingers praying and calling for death." She mixes fading memories of her native land (whose government collapsed shortly after she arrived in America) with life in Brooklyn: "I am glad to be here and have nothing to do with Russia. I have nothing to hate there, but soon there'll be nothing to love . . . when my grandparents come there'll be nothing to remember."

"No Words To Say Goodbye" is quite different from "The Diary of Anne Frank." Both are testaments to the human spirit, but Anne Frank was captured by the Nazis and died in a concentration camp, while Raimonda's diary has as happy an ending as there can be nowadays.

The Kopelnitskys got out of Russia, found a place to live in Brooklyn and found work and success (including the sale of her diary) in a relatively short time. The journey and adjustment are painful and frightening, but this natural writer concludes triumphantly: "I am in America and free from everybody. I am big and large and huge." The teen-ager from the Ukraine now sounds like Walt Whitman.

Ms. Egerton is a writer who lives in Baltimore.

Title: "No Words To Say Goodbye"

Author: Raimonda Kopelnitsky with Kelli Pryor

Publisher: Hyperion

Length, price: 272 pages, $22.95

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