In 1953, a 42-year-old man named Fedir (Theodore) Odrach emigrated to Canada. Settling into a working-class Ukrainian neighbourhood in Toronto, he found work in a printing shop. At night, Odrach walked home to his wife and two daughters and started writing -- short stories, novels, plays and essays written in Ukrainian, on a typewriter with a Cyrillic alphabet keyboard. The demand for such foreign-language fiction in Canada being non-existent, Odrach looked elsewhere and, in 1959, found a publisher in Argentina. But he lived in obscurity and earned no recognition for his talent.
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 Toronto Islands and sit for hours, alone and silent, just staring at the water. He also spent many hours in the foreign-language section of the Toronto Reference Library. Although he knew members of the Ukrainian community, he remained aloof from it.
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 Canada. The original family name was Sholomitsky, but it was of no consequence; all his relatives, she was told, had perished in the war.
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, the Montreal writer who reviewed Manguel's book for The Globe and Mail, echoes these sentiments. "When you read Odrach, you realize immediately that you're in the presence of a front-line eyewitness to some of the more casual brutalities of the 20th century. His fictional world feels like the everyday world must have felt for ordinary people living through extraordinary times, as captured by a rigorous investigative reporter of a kind that world would have ruthlessly silenced just as it sought to first shut up, then defame, Solzhenitsyn."
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 city of Pinsk -- now in Belarus -- with her husband and teenage daughter to research locations that would help with her translations. On her last day there, by chance, her driver asked about the family's name. When she explained that it was originally Sholomitsky, he started knocking on doors in the little villages around the city. Eventually, he stumbled upon an octogenarian who claimed to be her father's cousin. He immediately phoned his son in Pinsk, who in turn started rounding up other relatives.
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 Winnipeg. Another had a photograph of her father taken when he was 19.
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 Vilnius; they did not bother to tell his parents, who lost contact with him for years. Later, he enrolled at what is now Vilnius University, earning a degree in ancient history and philosophy. With the Soviet occupation of Lithuania in 1939, he returned to Pinsk and worked as a schoolteacher and editor of an underground, anti-Communist newspaper.
These activities made Sholomitsky a wanted man. The publishing operation was mobile, run from the forests and marshes outside Pinsk. Denounced by the Soviets, he changed his name -- Odrach is the name of a region near Pinsk -- changed his nationality, bought false papers, went into hiding and, fearful of the consequences to his family if found, finally fled, escaping through the Carpathian Mountains into Czechoslovakia. There, he married and divorced and eventually moved to Germany, where he married again. Once in Canada, he told people his family had died for fear that disclosure of the truth would endanger them.
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 Pinsk, the town was roughly 80-per-cent Jewish, and Sholomitsky could just as easily be a Jewish as a Belarussian name. Erma Odrach has written to her newfound relatives to ask for a family tree.
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."