The Village Teacher and Other Stories

Written by Erma Odrach (trans.) Theodore Odrach
Review by Mandy Jenkinson

Theodore Odrach (1912-1964) was born in Belarus but at age nine was arrested for a petty crime and sent to a reform school in Lithuania. Released at 18, he entered Vilnius University and studied philosophy and ancient history. With the Soviet invasion of 1939 he returned to Belarus, was appointed headmaster of a village school in the territory newly annexed from Poland, and tasked with transforming the school into a Soviet one. He soon fell under suspicion and was imprisoned on trumped up charges. He managed to escape and ultimately made his way to Canada.

His books were banned in the Soviet Union. The 22 stories in this collection are set in Eastern Europe during the tumultuous years of WWII, with its chaotic advances and retreats, the population caught between the Germans coming from the west and the Russians coming from the east, not to mention the Americans, Poles, Ukrainians and partisans all in their turn passing through. The stories are varied, full of empathy and understanding for all those involved in conflict.

Some of the stories are brutal indeed. “The Death Pits” deals with the NKVD HQ in a small town, a place of interrogation, torture and execution. In “Benny’s Story,” we see how cruelty and ruthlessness are not limited to the “bad guys”. In contrast, “The Pomeranian” is a tender tale of an elderly woman and her drunken lodger, two lonely people who never manage to connect. Occasionally a supernatural element creeps in. In “Crane Dance” a little boy sees an apparition just before losing his mother. The style in all the stories is spare and unadorned, and in total they are a sensitive, psychologically acute and realistic exploration of the times. Cataclysmic events are placed alongside everyday ones to great effect, and each and every one speaks to the reader.