The Power of Pushkin’s Poetry in Karen Hesse’s Letters from Rifka

I write this letter to you with my good school pencil in the blank pages at the front of your Pushkin. I am writing very neat and tiny so as not to spoil the book. I hope you do not mind that I am writing in your book, Tovah, but I have no other paper. I know this letter can never reach you, but in writing to you, I feel less frightened. You have been a big sister and a best friend to me. I cannot bear to think of never talking to you again. So I will talk to you by writing about my journey. (p. 15)

I chanced upon Letters from Rifka written by Newbery Medalist Karen Hesse in the Community Library by accident. And I am glad that I did since it is one of the perfect books to be featured for our Message in a Bottle Special this January/February 2011. I guess one can say in this case that the book has found me.

The Author’s Note indicates that while certain details have been adjusted, the story is largely based on Karen’s Aunt Lucy’s experiences as a twelve year old Russian immigrant and how she managed to travel to America. She considers this book as her “gift to my grandparents and to my heritage and to people like Rifka who have made the passage between two worlds” as seen in the jacketflap of the book.

Russia in the 1920s – The Peasants and the Jews. The first letter from Rifka was dated September 2, 1919 in Russia. The entire book consists of letters that Rifka wrote to her Cousin Tovah, detailing the heart-in-your-throat moments that surround her Jewish family’s escape from Russia to Poland then ultimately to the United States. Rifka’s three older brothers who are in America have saved enough money to send for them. The challenge is how to get past the Russian army (Rifka’s brother has deserted his regiment), get through the inhuman medical examinations as they pass through borders, and finally find their way to the three waiting brothers in the land of milk and honey, America.

What makes this book powerful is that it shows us in letter-snapshots how Russia was like in the 1920s. While history texts provide us narratives on what the socio-political zeitgeist was at the time, Rifka shares this with us through the eyes of a 12-year old child. I googled Russia in the 1920s and I saw these photos from this website.

Traveling school for peasant children - click on the image to be taken to the websource

A gathering of the Russian peasants, click on the image to be taken to the websource

While The Diary of Anne Frank also accomplishes the heart-rending moments of hiding, the realities and inhumanities of war, the starvation, and the animosity felt among people, and yes the kindness among strangers – Rifka’s letters managed to highlight a different facet of the Jewish experience during this period.

Rifka likewise shares with excruciating detail the dynamics between the Russian peasants and the Russian Jews that no history book or academic textbook can possibly compare with, during the height of the Russian Civil War in the 1920s. It is spoken with such authenticity and insider’s view that one can not help but feel through that staggering sense of unreality, distrust, and anger among people who have been ripped apart, divided, and made to hate one another.

Russian Civil War (1917-1920) - Photo Courtesy of EmersonKent.Com - click on the image to be taken to the websource

Karen Hesse’s Historical Notes at the end of the book contextualizes Rifka’s story even further. Hesse related how the government placed agents in the small towns and villages to stir up trouble and divert the peasants’ anger away from the government and redirect it instead toward the Russian Jews.

Growing Pains. As one reads through Rifka’s letters, one is struck

This photo shows the destruction wreaked by the Russian Civil war in the 1920s. This is a Ukrainian family, suffering from typhus and sitting at the wreckage of their house. Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

by the series of tragic events that swept through Rifka’s 12 year old life. From using her blond curls to distracting German soldiers, to stripping down naked as a Polish medical examiner fumigated their bodies before they were allowed to enter Warsaw, to contracting typhus and nearly-dying, having ringworm (sores on her scalp) and losing all her precious curls, being left behind in Antwerp Belgium by her family for nearly a year so that her sores can be healed, nearly dying at sea, and finally, being detained in Ellis Island because she was bald. All at 12 years of age. Imagine the possibilities of such richly-textured discussion with teenagers inside the classroom or even your own child as you read this book aloud in the evenings. To quote from Rifka about her growing pains:

As I write, I am thinking that sometimes I don’t like growing up, Tovah. Sometimes I wish I could run back to Berdichev, into Bubbe Ruth’s arms, and lose myself inside her warmth. She protected me from everything around me and inside me.

But then at other times I am so glad to be who I am. Rifka Nebrot. Only daughter and youngest child of Ethel and Beryl Nebrot. Baby sister of Isaac and Asher and Reuben and Nathan and Saul. Traveling forward – to America.

When I think of myself that way, even though we are homeless and our lives are in danger even now, still I believe everything will turn out well (p. 40).

Caught in Between Worlds – The Story of the Foundling, the Lost, the Immigrant. Perhaps one of the reasons why this book has such an enormous impact for me is because I am now currently based in Singapore (Fats, I’d love to hear your thoughts about this having moved to San Diego for a few years now). The sense of being caught in between worlds, being occasionally lost (both geographically and emotionally), and being essentially a foundling – is very real.

In the 1920s America was more than a country for Rifka and her family and the thousands of immigrants who arrived during this period of social and political unrest with famine and diseases spreading out through cities. It was a place where one has a possibility of transforming one’s life. It meant Hope. And perhaps even more basic, it was Survival.

In Russia, all America meant to me was excitement, adventure. Now, coming to America means so much more. It is not simply a place you go when you run away. America is a place to begin anew.

In America, I think, life is as good as a clever girl can make it.

Very soon, Tovah, I will be in this America. I hope someday you will come, too.

Ellis Island and the Great White Hope that is America. When I googled Ellis Island there were quite a number of images that turned up. It has enormous historical significance because this is the area where the Immigration detains people whom they think may not be suitable to enter the United States. With Rifka having ringworm (despite the fact that it was healed), she was held at the hospital for contagious diseases.

These are some photos taken from Lillian Alling’s website which features quite a number of pictures of Ellis Island during this period.

Click on the image to be taken to the websource

Ellis Island was later named as the Island of Tears. Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

Despite the series of unfortunate events which barred Rifka’s entry to the United States, her time in Ellis Island was also a period of awakening, friendship, and realizations that go beyond her 12 years of age. Here, she met a Russian Peasant boy whom she knows she must hate yet couldn’t.

I tried not to look at him. I did not want anything to do with him. But there he was, in front of me. A little Russian peasant. (p. 100)

The narrative goes on to tease out issues of personal identity, how it is linked to having a sense of nationhood, what one’s citizenship means as soon as you cross borders, and who you are as an individual. Rifka explores all these with these statements:

I have been thinking, Tovah. To turn my back on the part of me that is Russian is impossible. I am Jewish, yes, but I am Russian too. I am both Jewish and Russian. And I am also more. I am so much more. (p. 117, emphasis mine)

A photo of the poet Aleksandr Pushkin. Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

 

Poetry and Survival – Words that Heal, Transform, and Transcend Physical Boundaries. Each of the dated letter entries in the book began with passages from Aleksandr Pushkin’s poetry. A testament to the healing power of words and narrative and the music of the soul, poetry. Our little twelve year old, Rifka, clung to the book of poetry by Pushkin that was given to her by her Cousin Tovah like a drowning person clings to a raft in a seastorm. She recalls how she was introduced to Pushkin by Tovah:

Listen to this, Rifka,’ you would say, and you would read me something from one of Uncle Avrum’s big books. Or you would open the Pushkin and sometimes your voice would go deep and husky. I could not understand why, but tears would stand in both our eyes. Tovah, I loved the words that sprang from your lips. It is you, my cousin, who made me want to learn. (p. 59)

Her companion as she was left alone in Belgium by her family – was the pages of this book. As their ship going to the States was being torn almost in half by a storm, the passengers trapped in the ship’s hold, and everyone getting sick – Rifka wishes she was able to bring her Pushkin with her in that little hole at the bottom of the ship where “it

Photo of Newbery Medalist Karen Hesse, Author of Letters from Rifka

stank worse than a flood of soured milk.” The thread that bound her to what should have been her enemy, a Russian peasant boy named Ilya, was Pushkin’s poetry. It was also Pushkin’s words which spelled the difference between Ellis Island being an Island of Tears to being an Island of Hope for both Rifka and Ilya.

Teacher Resources and Guides. When I surfed through and googled Letters from Rifka, I found an amazing array of educator resources that could help assist teachers in coming up with lesson plans and activities inside the classroom. Click here to be taken to Teacher Link and this WebEnglishTeacher website that lists a number of useful resources for Letters from Rifka.

References
black and white pictures of Russia – http://www.katardat.org/russia/pictures/photos1926.html
Immigrant photos Ellis Island – http://lillianallingopera.blogspot.com/2010_06_01_archive.html

6 Comments on The Power of Pushkin’s Poetry in Karen Hesse’s Letters from Rifka

  1. Like Mary, I try to stay away from books with socio-historical context. Or anything to do with war, political upheavals, injustice, and the like. I would always come across Karen Hesse’s Letters from Rifka, and I would always ignore it. But thanks to your illumination of Rifka’s adolescent life in the middle of turmoil, I’ll give this book a second chance.

    Moving to America was not something I looked forward to three years ago. I didn’t want to leave the Philippines, but I also didn’t want to pass the opportunities waiting for me “o’er the land of the free, and home of the brave.” Like Rifka, America for me was an adventure. So many places to visit, and so many people to meet. Although it looks as if I have embraced the culture, I think it would take more than three years to become fully adjusted to this country. (Then again, can one ever be “fully adjusted” to an alien place?) Time and again, I still find myself missing the simple life I had in the Philippines. America is a land of opportunities, but I will only truly feel “at home” if I can find the same kind of friends and family I have in the Philippines.

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    • myragarcesbacsal // January 21, 2011 at 8:11 am // Reply

      It’s actually not as heavy-sounding as it looks. It’s written with such innocent simplicity it moderates the ‘ugly truths.’ =)

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  2. Rifka is a great book. My class just read it and we are on the last letter. Well I read a head and it was awesome. Thank god that Iyla got to go to America but the part that scared me was that they had to check Rifka’s head to see if she was growing some hair. Rifka thought that she had ring worm again and that she was going to be sent back so Ilya stepped in and told Rifka to read Puskin and that was a good part. Then Doctor Askin said “ok your going to go to America” and that part shocked me the most. After that there was a big group hug and Rifka felt her kercheif falling off and she tried to grab it but Doctor Askin was holding on to her arm so hard. Saul saw and Doc. Askin saw it too. So Rifka grabbed so quick that no one else could see. Then Saul said ” Rifka take it of and lets us see it” But Rifka kept saying “no” and thats all i remember.

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    • myragarcesbacsal // April 7, 2011 at 7:52 pm // Reply

      Hello there, thank you for dropping by our site. I can recall that part that you just cited vividly and distinctly, I was literally holding my breath – everything just happened so swiftly, Karen Hesse is truly a master in story telling. I thought that Rifka would get sent away again. Truly very dramatic. I hope you can visit our other blogposts and let us know what you think. =)

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  3. I read this book years and years ago and loved it. While the plot of the story is a bit fuzzy to me now (it’s been a long time!), I can very distinctly remember Rifka living on ice cream after she developed ringworm and had to stay behind in Europe.

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  4. i love reading Letters from Rifka we are reading it in school and still but almost done. it is one of the best, greatest books i have ever read in my whole entire life this is like the most famous book out of all and the most part that makes it more interesting is that the whole thing is true wow i luv this book

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