Jacques had often talked of wanting to return to the Donbas with Omar. That was not to be. Omar died in 1991, plunging Jacques into something even deeper and darker than grief. The one person on earth who had shared his worst memories was gone. Hesitantly, Jacques began sharing them with me. He became capable of tears, which he'd never allowed himself before for fear they'd never stop. We got through it, but I learned that an experience that extreme is something you never "get over." It's always there, and the best you can do (like Jacob with the angel) is grapple with it till it yields its blessing.
The chance to do that finally came in 1999, when Jacques was invited to a karate tournament in Kiev, Ukraine. The breakup of the Soviet Union had left the Donbas coal region, with its capital city Donetsk, in southeastern Ukraine—just a two-hour flight from Kiev.
I kept a journal:
5/19/99 I realized how I feel about this trip: the way I have felt being winched up the initial slope of a roller coaster—artificially calm, slightly breathless.
5/21 J can hardly believe it: The Ukrainian authorities just glanced at his U.S. passport and waved him through! He half expected to be arrested for escaping 52 years ago.
5/25 Yesterday we got hold of a driver and set out to find the mine where J worked. We had to drive a good three hours east of Donetsk. When J saw the first slag tower, he said, "my heart did a double take." We kept stopping to ask people about Mine 28, where J had labored—and getting answers we couldn't understand. J, the only one of us who knew any Russian, was confounded by the fact that he was so close, yet recognized so little.
We spent the next day finding an interpreter to go back with us.
5/27 At a mine called Schachta Luganskaya, we met a lovely Susan Sarandon look-alike named Lyudmila, who told us that Mine 28 was shut down years ago, and pointed out its old slag heap, sprouting vegetation, becoming just an old hill. The mark J made on the earth is still there. As is the mark he made on women's hearts, evidently.
J mentioned names of Russian girls he'd worked with, and everyone agreed that at least one of them, Dusya, was still alive. So we went to find Dusya's house. Jacques remembered her as beautiful, fiery, and young. Out came a little old woman with very few teeth, merry blue eyes, and high cheekbones. As soon as they told her who J was, she picked up her apron and wiped tears from her eyes. She crowed, "Vanyushka, Vanyushka!" and babbled to him in Russian.
J's little remaining Russian deserted him completely. He took refuge in beneficence, giving Dusya a $20 bill ("What's that?" she wanted to know) and asking through our translator what she wanted from New York. "A lot!" she shot back. "A washing machine!" So now he looks forward to coming back and giving her one.
5/31 At home in New York, I find that the trip's effect on J has been releasing. Donbas is no longer a private wound. It's a place on earth, with a life that has gone on. While that robs it of some of its dark power, it has also lessened the dread and isolation.
Many prisoners, J told me, hated all Russians. He never did. He hated only those who enforced a brutal system. I see now that he not only loves the extravagant Russian soul, he has one.
We Hear You!