Gospitalnaya and Isaac Babel: fact and fiction

Looking up Moldavanka and Gospitalnaya, it is not long before the name Isaac Babel appears. His Odessa stories take place around Hospital Street during the time of the pogrom. There is an Odessa newspaper article that comes up on Google about fundraising for repairs of the Moldavanka courtyard, Gospitalnaya 23, the possible childhood home of a famous Jewish bandit who was thought to be the model for Babel’s Benya Krik,. He was born Moyshe-Yakov Vinnytsky probably at Zaporizka 9, around the corner from Gospitalnaya.

Gospitalnaya 23

Later he took the name Mishka Yaponchik and became an actor. Besides that the early life of Vinnytsky/ Yaponchik seems lost in myth, Babel always insisted that there was never one person behind any of his characters and that everything he wrote was fiction. Even his own life. He loved making up stories and never separated fiction from life. As he made up so many stories about his own past, including the short stories he wrote in the first person which people believed were autobiographical, very little is known about his early life. Possibly he didn’t think it mattered, or it mattered too much.

Isaac Babel

Babel was born in Moldavanka where his father had a farm machinery business. Shortly afterwards they moved to Nikolayev where the family business became very successful. After the 1905 pogrom, Isaac was sent back to Odessa to enter the Nicholas I Commercial School, open to Jewish guild merchants’ sons, and to live with his aunts and grandmother on Tiraspolskaya St in Moldavanka. His parents returned the next year and lived at 23 Dalnitskaya St, before moving to 17 Rishelyevskaya Street, in the centre, where his father had his business, around the corner from the Brodsky Synagogue. Because of the Jewish quota Babel was unable to attend the University of Odessa and went to the Business Institute in Kiev. This much of Babel’s life is well-known and fairly factual.

17 Rishelyevskaya Street

If there had been stand-up comics in 1920s Russia, Babel would have been one. He loved pranks and acting parts, the more absurd the better. Walking along the street he would suddenly begin to act the part of someone with a limp or a partially paralysed leg. Or begin coughing or groaning, simply to see the puzzled looks on people’s faces. And because he enjoyed acting. Possibly it was simpler than trying to be himself, which, in the days of Stalin, was a difficult thing to do as so much needed to be hidden. Fiction was easier than truth when everyone needed to hide their thoughts.

One source about his life are his letters, many of which were written to his sister who had left Russia for Belgium in 1925, and his mother who joined his sister in Belgium in 1926. His wife, Evgenia Gronfein, a painter and daughter of a Kiev merchant, who he met when he was studying in Kiev and married in 1919, also emigrated to Paris in 1925, at first with Babel. He spent time with her there in 1925 and 1927-1928 but felt he could only write back in Russia.

His daughter, Natahlie, was born in 1929 and he was not able to see her until she was three years old in 1932. In that year he met Antonina Pirozhkova, a young engineer working on the Moscow subway, who later became his ‘wife’ and had his second daughter, Lydia, in 1937.

Antonina, Lydia and Isaac

Babel saw Nathalie for the last time in 1935 when he attended the Antifascist International Congress of Writers for the Defence of Culture and Peace in Paris. He had had a son in 1926 to an actress in Moscow with whom he had had a long affair and who was the cause of his wife’s emigration to Paris. It was not until the 1960s that Nathalie went to Russia and met her sister and brother, whose existence she had only discovered when she arrived in Russia. In 1964 Nathalie wrote in the introduction to her father’s last letters The Lonely Years 1925-1939, “I grew up wishing that someday, somewhere, a door would open and my father would come in. We would recognise each other immediately and without surprise, without letting him catch his breath, I would say: ‘Well, here you are at last. We’ve been puzzled about you for so long. You left behind much love and devotion, but very few facts. It’s so good to have you here. Do sit down and tell us everything.’”

As Babel had to hide his thoughts about what was going on around him in Russia, the letters themselves cannot be honest and are certainly not revealing. They are mainly about everyday matters, his and his family’s health and endless plans to try and meet up. He also did not write to his mother and sister about his new wife in Russia, as they knew his first wife and daughter in Paris. Babel was always trying to escape from Moscow to the country where he could concentrate more on his writing and he particularly loved returning to Odessa. He had bought a piece of land on.the coast hoping to build a dacha there, but his last trip to the south coast was in 1936, from where he wrote several letters that he was working on a very personal work with a new style. He hoped to finish it within the year, but the book never appeared and he was arrested in May 1939, having written no more than a few stories since 1936. He was shot in January 1940, although his family did not know for many years.

In 2003, Robert Rosenstone wrote a novel, King of Odessa: a novel of Isaac Babel, imagining Babel’s 1936 summer in Odessa and the novel he was working on. Like Babel, it is a novel of jokes and farce, of sex, spies, crooks and serious thoughts about life and love. He uses the letters, documentary evidence and Antonina’s memoir of his final years and her search to find out what happened to him (AN Pirozhkova At his side: the last years of Isaac Babel, 1996). I think Babel would truly have liked to have been able to write honestly about his life but it was not possible to get beyond the silence and distrust of the time. On a 1935 visit Babel made with his wife Antonina to Odessa, she writes that she asked him what he was thinking about as he paced back and forth in his room, and he answered with a sweeping gesture, ‘I want to tell about all this… and use the minimum words, but nothing seems to work.’

Photos of Moldavanka

Leaning shed Moldavanka

Moldavanka gate

Moldavanka courtyard

 

 

 

 

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