A simple hello vs. Hitler’s jaw

by Olaf Koens at 03/06/2010 19:02

All young people who meet 91-year-old Yelena Rzhevskaya want to ask her about the day she held Hitler’s jaw. But she’d be happier if they just said “hello”.
Back when I was living in Ukraine, it took me around 10 days to master the exact pronunciation of the Russian “zdravstvuite”. So when I finally got the hang of it I said it to everybody I met: the neighbours, the concierge, the grumpy girl in the supermarket, bus drivers and especially the street cleaners. It got to the point where people became scared of me, and when I first moved to Moscow I started keeping my mouth shut. No hellos and no surprises.

And that’s just the thing that Yelena Rzhevskaya doesn’t like about Moscow any more. People stopped being polite, she says.
For Yelena, even a casual “hello” on the stairway in the building would do. She remembers what Moscow was like before – a friendlier place. “Moscow in my early childhood was amazing,” she explains. “Tsvetnoi Boulvard was the most wonderful place in the world, especially in summer. There would be dancing bears, magicians popped up from behind trees and you could even see Chinese women who had the smallest feet in the world.”

The good memories ended abruptly in 1937. Her father, like so many others, was booted out of the Communist Party and lost his position in society before he even realised what happened. When he called his friends to see if anybody could help him find a job, he found out that the third friend on his list had been arrested and sent away.

“Fear was all around,” Yelena remembers. “When I once forgot my keys I had to ring the doorbell. Only after three or four rings did my mother open. Father in the meantime had packed his belongings, put on his best suit and kissed my mother goodbye, knowing he would never see her again.”

After she survived the 1930s, Yelena’s life became bizarrely intertwined with Hitler’s jaw. As a wartime translator she found herself in Berlin with a group of men who, rather by chance, found his buried remains. While Soviet soldiers were celebrating victory, Yelena crossed Berlin with a little red box that contained the Führer’s jaw and teeth. She was on a frantic search to locate a dentist who could identify the remains and confirm Hitler’s death. And when you look out of the window of Yelena’s apartment on Leningradsky Prospekt you can still see the red and orange flags that commemorate this very fact 65 years ago.

She’s tired of it all, though, she says. Every May come the dozens of journalists who are trying to get a hold of the translator who carried a jaw in a box, and later became a well-known writer.

“All those young people are still interested in that story about his jaw,” she sighs. “I’ve told it so many times, yet people still wonder about it.”
Veterans get flowers, compliments and handshakes on Victory Day, and the rest of the year many of them face being evicted from their apartments and have to stand in line at supermarkets where they can barely afford their purchases. This is not lost on Yelena.

“I don’t leave the house much more any longer,” she tells me. “But when I do, it would be nice if people said ‘hello’ once in a while.”
And not just in May. 

Olaf Koens is a freelance journalist based in Moscow.

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