Baltimore epilogue: a funeral amid the riots

This time a year ago I dreamt that Aunt Berta was in my kitchen in Las Vegas, telling me she was rescinding my invitation to her "jubilee."

"What jubilee are you talking about?" I demanded. "You just had your jubilee last year when you turned 100. But fine, go ahead and disinvite me. See if I show up to your funeral. Or if I do, see if I bring your beloved Lev (my husband)."


My father's aunt just listened meekly as I berated her, and soon wakefulness dawned. What if Berta actually was referring to her funeral? Oh, but she couldn't be dead. Berta doesn't die. Besides, holding on until 100 is understandable, but what's the point of 101? And would she really want to bring people to Baltimore — right into the middle of the riots?

The phone rang. It wasn't yet six o'clock, and it was my mother.


"Eh, Lyusha?"

"Da. Is this about Tota Berta?"

"Someone already told you?"

"No, I just had a dream she was telling me not to come. You think she was letting me off the hook?"

My mother, only ever momentarily impressed by my sporadic ESP, answered, "It's possible. Anyway, your father is in no shape to fly, but I'm going so let me know whether to buy one ticket or two." We hung up.

It was hard to believe Berta was gone. Once someone makes it to 101, you figure that person just isn't going anywhere. Clearly, God has forgotten about them.

The president, for one, did forget about Berta. She never got the presidential letter you're supposed to get when you turn 100. Granted, she didn't vote for Mr. Obama, and another Russian-American — a group known for conservative leanings — might have mused, "For this I lived a hundred years?" But Berta looked forward to that letter. I had assured her it would come to the Section 8 apartment building where she lived, which was situated between Park Heights Avenue and Reisterstown Road.

Park Heights is Orthodox-Jewish terrain, but it's also where, as a kid in the 1980s, Lev used to spot Oprah riding her bicycle in little white gym shorts. Most people forget that Baltimore, not Chicago, is what made Oprah professionally. And anyone living in or around Baltimore in the early '80s remembers that between Oprah and WJZ colleagues Marty Bass, Richard Scher and Bob Turk, it wasn't just the news hour; it was "Oprah and the Jews" hour.


One long block away from Park Heights is Reisterstown Road, where Berta did her shopping at the Giant, about a mile down. She told us how she had picked up a pack of bacon there once to put in her basket (Russian Jews rarely observed Kosher laws), when an Orthodox-Jewish woman took the bacon and put it back. Berta, not knowing a word of English then, just picked it back up and put it in her basket. The woman put it back. A black woman observing this inquired what was going on. As best Berta could surmise, the Orthodox woman pointed to Berta and explained that she was a Soviet émigré and therefore Jewish and therefore couldn't eat bacon. The black woman took the bacon and put it in her own cart and wheeled off.

Berta eventually proceeded to checkout, without bacon. When she finished paying, there was the black woman on the other side of the cash register, holding out the bacon for her. Berta was immensely touched.

More than a year passed. Berta was at the Giant again, when someone called, "Berta!" There was the same lady. "How are you, Berta?"

It was a standard question, but coming from the woman who had shown her such kindness, it dredged up the terrible change to Berta's life in the course of the year. And Berta broke down in tears.

The other woman didn't know what to do — Berta still didn't have enough English to explain. Staff rushed over to see what the trouble was, and found someone who could speak at least Yiddish. Berta began to explain.

You see, on Sept. 13, 1982, the day Grace Kelly drove her car off a cliff, there was another major headline. That day, a DC-10 exploded before takeoff in Malaga, Spain. Fifty people died. Among them was Berta's only child, Irina, and son-in-law, Igor — parents of my 12-year-old cousin, Olga.


Irina and Igor, ages 41 and 44, had gotten only a four-year taste of freedom, and Berta's granddaughter had become an orphan living with my family.

By the end of the story, everyone tending to Berta was in tears and hugging her, including the woman who had saved her bacon.

Berta would go on to forge many friendships in Baltimore over the next three decades and to weather many heartbreaks.

This woman, who survived Stalin's purges (her husband didn't), would also outlive her great-great nephew Michael, who died in a car crash at 17, followed by her great-niece, my sister Inna (another freak car accident).

Why, she would eventually complain, was she being kept around?

I didn't go to the funeral on May 1st, 2015, heeding the dream's warning — or release. Two days later, the city's curfew was lifted. Baltimore and Berta rested.


Julia Gorin is a freelance writer; her email is