Erma Odrach, in Conversation with Olga Stein
photos: Erma Odrach and her father, Theodore Odrach
Interview with Erma Odrach, translator of Wave of Terror
Theodore Odrach was born Theodore Sholomitsky on March 13th, 1912, near Pinsk, Belarus (the area was then a part of Czarist Russia; between 1921-39 it fell under Polish rule; and between 1939-41, it became part of Communist Russia). At age nine, guilty of some minor offense, and unbeknownst to his family, he was sentenced to a reform school in Vilnius, Lithuania (then a part of Poland). Released as a teenager, Odrach remained in Vilnius doing odd jobs around town, and put himself through university. He earned a degree in ancient history and philosophy. With the Soviet occupation of Vilnius in 1939, Odrach returned to Pinsk, and worked as a school teacher as well as an editor of an underground anti-Communist newspaper. Targeted by the Soviets, he fled to Ukraine. He changed his name from Sholomitsky to Odrach, acquired the necessary papers, and escaped through the Carpathian Mountains into Czechoslovakia, where he wound up getting married, and later divorced. He moved to England. There he married Klara Nagorski. In 1953, the couple immigrated to Canada and settled in Toronto’s west end. They had two daughters, Ruta and Erma.
It was in his Toronto home that Odrach was most prolific, writing short stories, novels and plays, all in the Ukrainian language. The Toronto literary scene was pretty dismal in the 50s, and even more dismal for an immigrant writer. Odrach’s books were banned in the Soviet Union, and his readership in Canada was limited to a handful of fellow-immigrants, but he continued to write nonetheless, driven by the need to record the injustices committed under Joseph Stalin. He wrote novels, short stories, and articles for local Ukrainian newspapers. When Erma was born, he told his wife Klara that Erma would one day translate his works, and this strangely gave him some consolation.
Erma began translating Wave of Terror in 1998, but her efforts were on and off (due to work and family). Theodore Odrach had planned a trilogy, with Wave of Terror being the first installment; he felt that if he ever finished this trilogy, he would feel complete as a writer. But he just barely finished the first book. Odrach died on October 7, 1964, of a massive stroke. He is buried in Prospect Cemetery. Wave of Terror was the first of his novels to appear in translation.
This interview was conducted with Erma Odrach in early 2008, for the literary magazine, Books in Canada. Because the publication folded in March of 2008, the interview wasn’t published. Yet Wave of Terror, and the historical record it offers, remain timely and relevant. Library Journal said of the novel: “Wave of Terror is news that stays news and should be on the shelves of libraries where patrons care about the world beyond their immediate ambit.” Indeed, given the current-day horror transpiring in Belarus, these words couldn’t be more true. A list of Odrach’s other published works is appended at the end of the interview.
Erma Odrach, an author in her own right, went on to write Alaska or Bust and Other Stories, which was published in October, 2015.
Olga Stein: Your father passed away when you were nine years old. When you visited Pinsk in 2005, did you discover things about your father that surprised you? Who was Theodore Odrach?
Erma Odrach: I traveled to Pinsk, Belarus, to do research for Wave of Terror. Pinsk is a beautiful town spread over the high banks of the Pina River, about 100 kilometres east of the Polish border. It never occurred to me to look for family, as I had always been told my father’s relatives had perished during the war. I was stunned to learn that this was not the case at all. With the help of an aid, we (husband and teenaged daughter) ended up meeting thirty or forty people, all claiming to be related to me in some way or another. Unfortunately, this all happened on the last day of our stay there, so it was a lot to absorb in a very short time. One second cousin pulled out a photograph of my father at age of maybe twenty. Another cousin called him by his patronymic, Theodore Damianovich. And another still held a book by him that had been published in Winnipeg in 1953. Everybody was crying and hugging, and they seemed just as shocked to see me as I was to see them. But there was something not quite right about it all. My father was Ukrainian and none of them spoke Ukrainian, only Russian or Belarusian. When I asked why this was so, shaking their heads and looking at me rather oddly, they answered that they spoke no Ukrainian because they weren’t Ukrainian. They were Belarusian, and my father was also Belarusian.
It was at this point that my father’s past, at least in part, started to unfold. During the Soviet occupation of Belarus he had been a teacher, writer, and an editor of an underground newspaper, and because of this, he was deemed an “enemy of the people.” In order to protect his Belarusian family, and save himself from arrest and possible death, he fled south to Ukraine, where he changed his name from Sholomitsky to Odrach and took on the identity of a Ukrainian. When my father immigrated to Canada in 1953, he did so as a Ukrainian, still fearing for the lives of his family back home.
Who was Theodore Odrach? From the eyes of a child, he was tall, mysterious, a little scary, and somehow he seemed to me more like a stranger than a father. But he was kind, gentle, and loving—all the things a father should be. My sister had more of a bond with him than I did. The two of them regularly went off on outings to the park, art galleries, and the museum.
picture: Theodore Odrach
OS: Is Wave of Terror the first work you translated? It amazed me to learn that your Ukrainian was weak before you began working on this book. You’ve essentially turned yourself into a translator of Ukrainian text in the process. Is this right?
EO: I don’t consider myself a translator of Ukrainian text, or even a translator for that matter, at least not in the normal sense of the word. Translation is purely a personal thing for me, a labour of love. I was always aware I had a certain facility with words, so I was confident that sooner or later I would be able to do my father’s work justice.
My Ukrainian still isn’t the best. Just to decipher Wave of Terror was a very long and arduous process. I had to look up every fourth or fifth word, and when working on a text of four hundred pages, that’s a lot of words to check. My mother was a great help, as my father had read all of his manuscripts to her, and she remembered much and in great detail.
OS: Author and literary critic, T.F. Rigelhof, writes in his Introduction to this novel that Wave of Terror shows the influence of Anton Chekhov and Isaac Babel. I wonder whether your father drew on Kafka as well. There’s a very modern appreciation, like Orwell’s, of the powerlessness of the individual in confronting the ubiquitous and all-powerful machinery of an authoritarian regime. Such novels do not have heroes, at least not the traditional kind of hero. The most an individual can do heroically is avoid becoming an instrument of the State. Ivan Kulik, the main protagonist of Wave of Terror, decides to flee in the end, even though it breaks his heart to leave behind the people he loves. Some of these people are destined to perish. How do we interpret Kulik’s flight in the nightmarish context created in the novel?
EO: Kulik’s life is torn apart by forces beyond his control, and he lives in fear and insecurity, trying to make sense of the chaos and violence around him. In many ways the book can be read as a study of the psychological effects of oppression, where one can easily succumb to hallucination, even madness. But Kulik proves to have an independent inner voice, one that protests against the new regime, and it is this voice that gives him the strength to go on. And so, he becomes a sort of spokesman for the truth, and in his flight he takes this truth with him, turning it into an exposition. It is through Kulik that the reader comes to learn about the atrocities committed in his part of the world.
I don’t know which writers my father drew on, but I can certainly see Chekhov as a possibility. According to my mother, the Norwegian author Knut Hamsun and Franz Kafka were among his favourites. This is not surprising, as both focused on the inner workings of the mind, often with themes of alienation and persecution.
OS: Wave of Terror works on several levels. On one level it’s an account of the terrible things that happened to ordinary people—in cities and villages—when communist apparatchiks thought—or found it convenient to think—they were encountering resistance to the new Soviet regime. It’s an account of the brutality of the Communist system. On another level the book is a satire. There are moments of hilarity, when representatives of the new system trip up on some of the absurdities of the ideology they’re preaching. This happens especially when ‘theory’ is put into practice—as for example, when teachers in the schools in the Pinsk marshes (historically part of the Ukraine) are ordered to abandon their native Ukrainian, and teach in Belarusian which neither the teachers nor students speak. The satire also pokes fun at the low cultural level of those who were recruited as functionaries of the new regime. In the novel they are portrayed as extremely uncouth, the very dregs of society, and what they say and do provides moments of comic relief. Did you reflect on the wonderful balance between humour and the tragedy portrayed? It takes enormous skills to pull off this kind of combination.
EO: The novel is set in the Pinsk Marshes of Belarus, a land of ancient settlement. It is also Europe’s last great wetland, very flat and monotonous, covered by dense forests with many ponds, moors, swamps and streams. Though today much of it has been reclaimed and thoroughly modernized, in 1939 the marshland was virtually impassable, thus cutting off the inhabitants from nearby towns and cities. The people were poor, uneducated, and regarded as backward and degenerate. They survived mainly as subsistence farmers and fishermen. It can be easily understood that people from such remote rural areas could sometimes become a great source of entertainment. Very much aware of their independent spirit, my father played on this comical side of his characters. As an example, he writes of Dounia—an oversized, oversexed fishmonger turned teacher, turned Deputy of the Village Soviet—that her appetite was said to be so great and insatiable that she was capable of accommodating the entire Red Army.?
Wave of Terror has scenes of violence and horror, but it is also often sarcastic and ironic. The dark humour is meant to make things more human and moving in the novel, but without making the prose sentimental. For a translator, this balance of humour and horror was a pleasant surprise.
OS: My own mother tongue is Russian. The first works of literature I was exposed to were written in Russian. But more to the point, I now realizse that I had been taught to think from an early age that Russian was the most beautiful and richest of the Slavic languages. I had no awareness of any other national literature that could have existed within the USSR. It was an attitude which no one I knew, who spoke and read in Russian, ever seemed to question. So Wave of Terror was truly eye-opening. It made me realize that such an attitude was the result of, for want of a better phrase, a concerted policy of cultural imperialism on the part of Communist Russia. Coincidentally, a friend of mine who was born in Kiev, and speaks Russian and Ukrainian fluently, recently recited and then translated lines from Ivan Kotlyarevski’s The Eneida (1798), and it blew me away. As far as you know, to what extent was Ukrainian literary culture suppressed during the Communist era? Is there a revival happening now?
EO: Local nationalism was always a main threat to Soviet unity, and Ukraine always tended to be more nationalistic than other republics. Ukrainian language schools were closed down, Ukrainian teachers were arrested, and works of literature were removed from libraries. It is estimated that during Stalin’s Great Purge of the 30s, 250 prominent Ukrainian writers were either killed or driven to suicide. At the same time, there was a glorification of everything Russian, suggesting that all non-Russian languages fostered ignorance and provincialism. Wave of Terror touches on this theme when Kulik says to the lovely Marusia, “In spite of all that’s happening, you still insist on speaking Russian. And your Russian isn’t as good as you think it is.”
In the 1960s, during Khrushchev’s political thaw, Ukrainian literature was revitalised. It continues to develop with such writers as Yuri Andrukhovych and Mykola Riabchuk.
OS: Your father had a wicked sense of humour. The threesome he describes between sexually insatiable Dounia and her two besotted admirers, the Communist functionaries Kokoshin and Leyzarov, is extremely funny. I’m not sure that even by today’s standards the escapades of this menage à trois wouldn’t come across as risqué. Perhaps this was your father’s way of demonstrating their, as you say, independent spirit, or maybe he was aiming to show, by way of their sexual depravity, the absence of a moral centre, despite the ideological pedestal to which they aspire (another character, the NKVD man, Sobakin, is also a sex maniac). In any event, there’s a great deal of humour in all of this. You’ve been translating some of your father’s other works. How prevalent is this humorous touch, this ability to make fun of human foibles?
EO: Dounia is quite the character and it is through her sexuality that she is able to work the system. In some ways, she is representative of the new Soviet woman—taking it upon herself to challenge single-handedly, and in her own special way, patriarchal oppression. Of course, sexuality, whether subtle or overt, was a forbidden subject during the Stalinist era, and my father deliberately pokes fun at the hypocrisy of it all. But as far as political satire in general goes, one doesn’t have to look far to see its importance in the development of Stalin-era literature, beginning with Zoshchenko and Bulgakov. I don’t believe my father’s aim by any means was to show an absence of a moral centre, at least not consciously. He was inspired by people, and rather than inventing characters or even situations, he drew from the wealth of material around him. Being thrust into this moment in history certainly worked to his advantage. Ultimately, he simply wanted to bring the people of his world to life and tell their story, as horrific and violent as it was.
Some of my father’s other works have similar humorous touches, but others are quite serious. Though most of his fiction takes place in Eastern Europe during WWII, toward the end of his life he started dabbling in stories set in Canada, namely the Toronto Islands (which he loved), and the Ontario countryside. I believe that at last he was starting to get the horrors of WWII out of his system.
OS: Thank very much Erma for taking the time to answer my questions. I hope to read more of your father’s translated works very soon.
This is a list of Theodore Odrach’s publications. Some books have been available in a few libraries for many years, including the Toronto and UofT libraries. There are also unfinished manuscripts of plays, a children’s story, and another novel.
Voshchad (Wave of Terror). Toronto: Y. Sokolyk – The Committee Voshchad, 1972. (published posthumously)
Na Nepevnomu Grunti (On Precarious Ground). A memoir. Toronto: O.O. Basilian Publishers, 1962. (Have begun translating)
Pokinuta Oselia (Forsaken Land). Short stories. Toronto: O.O. Basilian Publishers, 1960. (Some are now translated. These stories are largely set in Ontario)
Pivstanok Za Selom (Stebly Station). Short stories. Buenos Aires: Julian Serediak Publishers, 1959. (All translated)
Shchebetun (Wood Warbler). Novel. New York: Organization for the Defense of Four Freedoms of Ukraine, 1957. (Untranslated)
Nashe Polissia (Our Polissia). Historical/geographical text. Winnipeg: Research Institute of Volyn, 1955. (Untranslated)
V Dorozy (On the Road). Novel. Buenos Aires: Peremoha Publishers, 1953. (Translated)
Erma Odrach is a Canadian author and literary translator. Her book, Alaska or Bust and Other Stories (Crimson Cloak Publishing), is available on Amazon and other places. Her translation of Wave of Terror by Theodore Odrach (depicting the era of Stalinism in Russia) is available at most places online (Chicago Review Press), and can be purchased from Amazon. Publishers Weekly has reviewed the book as follows: “Odrach’s delightfully sardonic novel about Stalinist occupation … is rich with history, horror and comedy.” More can be glimpsed of the author and her work on: https://ermaodrach.wordpress.com/about/