In 1953, a 42-year-old man
named Fedir (Theodore) Odrach
Eleven years later, only
53, Odrach suffered a stroke and died. Remembering
him now, his younger daughter Erma recalls a largely solitary man whom she
feared. His only hobby was fishing, but in the summer he would often take the
ferry to the
About his past Erma knew
very little -- except that he was Ukrainian, that he had been a teacher, and
that he had somehow survived the Second World War and made his way to
Despite the distance from her father, he used to tell her mother that it was Erma who would one day tend to his literary affairs. This proved prophetic; some 20 years ago, she started to translate his short stories into English, and sent them out to literary journals. Eventually, a collection, Whistle Stop and Other Stories, was published. In recent years, other stories have been published in Mobius, Paumanok Review, Wilmington Blues and elsewhere. Erma Odrach has now completed a translation of an 80,000-word novel, Wave of Terror, and has begun work on another, tentatively titled On the Road.
How good a writer was Theodore Odrach? Good enough last year to have a story (The Night Before Christmas) included in editor Alberto Manguel’s Penguin Book of Christmas Stories. He’s in with some pretty heady company -- Graham Greene, John Cheever, Vladimir Nabokov and Alice Munro.
“Odrach has a very precise style,” says Manguel. “He’s not interested in expanding the event. He has almost a journalistic eye for the story he wants to tell. I felt he was in the same league as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, though that tempers, perhaps, my opinion of Solzhenitsyn. But he gives you a very good sense of a political situation and knows what part of a story should be told.”
T. F. Rigelhof,
As a writer, Rigelhof says, “Odrach -- again like Solzhenitsyn -- was forced to keep his stories hidden from the world for many years, until they could come out in an intense burst of creativity. The long gestation and the quick composition gives his words unforced urgency. The thing that sets him apart from his contemporaries is the range of his sympathies and, specifically, his unromantic approach to the sensual lives of girls and women. His debt to Chekhov is obvious in his ability to capture the internal drama of his characters with psychological concision.”
According to Erma, Academy Chicago Publishers is now considering whether to publish Wave of Terror. But that’s not the end of the Odrach story.
Last fall, Erma went to the
Within three hours, the
family that all been supposedly obliterated in the war turned out to have 30 or
40 surviving members. They treated her like the proverbial long-lost relative,
laying on a groaning board of food that they probably could not afford. There
was no doubt they were family. One had an Odrach book
that had been published more than four decades earlier in
Erma Odrach was overwhelmed. “Actually, I was half in shock,” she says. “For a while I thought it was a conspiracy, but it made no sense.”
What particularly made no sense was that, while she spoke to them in Ukrainian, they did not understand her -- they spoke in some Belarussian dialect. Eventually, amid all the hugging and toasts, Erma finally figured it out: Her father was not, in fact, Ukrainian. His entire postwar identity had been a carefully constructed charade.
Slowly, in the jumbled
conversation, pieces of her father’s real story emerged. Fedir Sholomitsky had been a
difficult child and at 9, apparently guilty of some petty theft, been sent by
the Polish authorities who then controlled the region to a reform school in
These activities made Sholomitsky a wanted man. The publishing operation was
mobile, run from the forests and marshes outside
Still, many questions
remain. Where did Sholomitsky spend the war years,
and how did he survive? When did he learn Ukrainian? What religion was he? When
he lived in
In the meantime, she’s sitting on a potentially valuable literary archive -- a remarkable legacy that, four decades after the writer’s death, the world is only starting to discover.
“Altogether far too many of those who found safety here were reduced to silence by the weight of their experiences and the indifference of Canadians to their stories,” says Rigelhof.
“I hope some major publisher dares to redress this by giving us Odrach and letting us read what he wrote while he lived so anonymously among us.”