6.12.1913  -  12.12.2002

Books of N.M.Amosov

Recollections. Aunt Katya

After Mama, Aunt Katya was the main figure for me among the Amosoffs.

She had had only three years of schooling — she had not been allowed to go any further — but she became very fond of reading, like Mama. She didn't marry and worked in the house. I don't know what would have happened to her, but she suddenly caught TB. At that time, TB in a village was a death sentence. Katya decided to live on her own so she ran way to the Crimea, closer to the warm Black Sea, and worked as a hired hand in the fruit orchards. The climate was good for her, and her health improved soon. Moreover, her stars were lucky and she met a certain Maria Vasilievna (I don't remember her last name) who worked as a linen-keeper at the Kiev Institute for Young Noblewomen. She had a house in the town of Stary Krym and used to come there every summer. She liked Katya from the outset, and in the winter, my aunt moved to Kiev and began to work at the same institute as a maid.

I don't know who in Kiev influenced this village girl but she, like Mama, took exams for four years of gymnasium as a correspondence student and entered the same school for midwives. She began when Mama was completing the course. She once told me that to earn some money, she had worked as a night nurse and written some poetry and had it published under a pen-name. I'm not going to exaggerate, but I have no doubts that this was true, for my aunt was completely honest. She graduated cum laude and was very proud of her diploma that gave her the right "to perform obstetric operations, using medical instruments."

It was in St. Petersburg that she first met her future husband: he was a sailor. Their love was tragically interrupted: he was arrested, court-martialed and sentenced to death. He appealed for a lighter sentence; the decision came when he was already dressed in a shroud, with his eyes covered: he was about to face a firing squad. He was condemned to hard labour instead but the shock had been so great that when he was freed after the Revolution, he suffered from some psychiatric disorders. He died in the 1920s, leaving a little son.

After the Revolution, Aunt Katya worked in a district hospital some fifty kilometres from Cherepovets; she was in charge of the obstetrics and gynecology department. She was also active in social work and often addressed various meetings, fighting for the rights of women and children. As far as money was concerned, she was as scrupulous as Mama. "But I was richer than your mother," she used to say jokingly. "I had two pairs of panties, and she had only one." At the end of the 1920's, her condition was aggravated and she began spitting blood anew. Naturally, this scared her, so she went back to the Crimea where Maria Vasilievna lived. Aunt Katya worked as a midwife there and quickly gained the recognition and love of the local women. Before World War II, when our village was about to disappear under water, she was joined by Aunt Anna, the widow of Uncle Sasha. Thus, her house became a gathering place for the Amosoffs for many years.

Aunt Katya's son Boris was the apple of her eye. I remember him when he was seven: he was tow-haired, with regular features. They say he grew up to be a good and clever man. My aunt tried to never mention him in our conversations.

Boris finished high school the year the war broke out. He was dreaming of science and literature — I knew this from my cousins, Uncle Sasha's daughters, for whom Aunt Katya was like a mother. He was mobilized in the fall of 1941; the Crimea was occupied by the Nazis, and there were no news about him until after the liberation.

Partisans were hiding in the nearby forests. The hospital in which Aunt Katya worked was practically closed down: there were few medics left. Aunt Katya handled the deliveries and attended to those who asked for medical help. At the same time — and this is most important — she supplied the partisans with bandages and medicines. She was finally arrested by the Gestapo but was saved by the local women: one of them, an interpreter whom Aunt Katya had assisted when she was in labour, briefed the "witnesses" and made the case so complicated that my aunt was released.

The final days before the liberation were a real nightmare: the Nazis and Tartar nationalists committed horrible atrocities, killing suspects and innocent people alike and setting the houses of civilians on fire.

When the peninsula was liberated, Aunt Katya learned that her son had been killed soon after mobilization.

All contacts with my relatives ceased in 1938 when Olkhovoye was flooded. Frankly, I have never been very particular about kinship. In 1948, my wife and I went to Yalta in the Crimea for the first time in our lives: the Black Sea, palms, fruits — everything was fascinating... In June of that year, I had defended my candidate's thesis; I was thirty-four and the surgeon general of Bryansk Region. I operated on the esophagus. What more could I expect from life? Before returning home, I decided to locate Aunt Katya — I knew she was living in Stary Krym. I even knew the name of the street: Kladbishchenskaya. (A sad name, by the way, meaning the road that leads to the graveyard.) I was lucky and found her quickly: I just asked a woman at the bus stop and she gave me the address.

Aunt Katya's house was squat Tartar hut with tiny windows and an earthen floor. A fruit orchard. A dog. Poverty, to say the least.

My aunt had changed beyond recognition. She burst into tears: something that had not been typical of her in the past. She had been tall and straight: but the woman I saw was bent and looked quite small. The nose — the big nose of the Amosoffs — had become even bigger and hooked. Her hair was completely gray. With her lived one of Uncle Sasha's daughters, also Katya. We were the same age.

They told us how they had left Olkhovoye, survived the war, who of the relatives was still alive and where they lived. In fact, it was the younger Katya who did the talking: Aunt Katya talked very little.

In the morning, while seeing us off to the bus stop, my cousin almost whispered to me in the ear that Aunt Katya had become very religious.

I could hardly imagine this. My aunt had always been an atheist (the only Amosoff who had gone to church was my grandmother).

The younger Katya also told me about herself: when she came to Stary Krym, she began working as a practical nurse. Since she was unmarried, she stayed with my aunt. In summertime, Aunt Katya's numerous nephews and nieces came to her. She received them all, providing board and lodging.

We also came to visit her in 1951. I had a car by then. This time we had a better look at the house: there were two rooms, a vestibule, a terrace, and a kitchen beneath an apricot tree. The orchard was cosy and quiet.

There were many guests and all of us slept in the orchard. We used to drive to Koktebel which has now become a fashionable spot: very few people knew about it then, and the beach was practically deserted. Afterwards we made extensive trips along the southern shore of the Crimea and came back. Lunch was usually served on the terrace. There were never fewer than ten of us at the table.

During that stay, Aunt Katya and I grew much closer. Today, it is difficult to write about her without being sentimental.

She was reticent, calm, businesslike, and laconic. She was always busy around the house — it was not an easy task to cook for that crowd! She had a goat, two cats (even more sometimes), and a dog. "Our animals," she called them with respect.

Yes, it was true: she had turned to God after she learned of her son's death. She received various elders of the church and engaged in endless theological disputes with them... We weren't eye-witnesses to those visits; that's just what my cousin told me; my aunt felt too shy or ashamed to meet those people in the presence of her guests. At the same time, Aunt Katya measured everyone, believer or not, by the same yardstick: by the moral uprightness of the lives they led and by their good works.

She hated empty talk, never gossiped about or condemned other people, close relatives and strangers alike. "All people are born good; those who are bad or evil are unhappy. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. And don't be judgemental, because no one is insured against evil," — that was her creed.

Labour, continuous, routine labour was her second nature: she looked after the house, the orchard and the vegetable garden, cooked for relatives and fed her animals. Good works, as my cousin put it, also loomed large on the horizon of mu aunt's life: she found time to help old and disabled people. She would give away everything she had to those in need: food or money. (She rarely had any money, for she gave away everything to the last penny.) The main objects of her concern were old women and invalids. Some of them cheated her or gossiped about their neighbours. Aunt Katya knew this but was never disillusioned by people and continued her good works. Her life style or modus vivendi: extreme moderation in diet. She never ate meat but gave it to those under her wardship, so to say. Even the meat that my cousin bought. Her diet consisted chiefly of vegetables and bread. Her clothes were simple and limited in number. She had been wearing a light summer coat made of sackcloth for twenty years! The younger Katya told me once that it was useless to sew anything for her aunt: she would give it away immediately.

I was particularly interested in her ideas about religion. We discussed this subject several times, but not too often. Her thoughts were almost entirely dominated by the Holy Scriptures, by the lives of the saints and miracle workers. Her knowledge in the field of the natural sciences, which she had acquired in her younger year, became obsolete with time. It was useless to argue with her. I said once in jest:

"Aunt Katya, how can you believe in such nonsense as hell as it is described? Sinners in frying pans, cauldrons of boiling tar..."

"My dear little one,"— she used to call me her "little one" —"all this is nothing but propaganda for simple, uneducated people. I think Heaven is the continuation of life after death. What it is like, nobody knows. Besides, it is not important. Hell means destruction. Once you're dead, you don't exist. Isn't that enough? People are afraid of complete, total death."

These are her actual words: "Complete, total death" (annihilation, in modern jargon).

Aunt Katya died tragically: she scalded herself while boiling water for a bath. She was taken to the hospital but nothing could be done: the burns were very extensive. The agony lasted several days, but she behaved courageously, fighting the pain. I did not attend her funeral.

Thus I have preserved the memory of two holy women in my life: Mama and Aunt Katya. I don't know which of them was the better person. Both of them are heaven's noblest gift to me.