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Musja Kazhdan

Oral History Interview with Musja Kazhdan (accompanied by translator Misha Kazhdan, grandson of Alexander and Musja Kazhdan), undertaken by Alice-Mary Talbot at the home of Misha Kazhdan on April 18, 2010. Musja Kazhdan was the wife of Alexander Kazhdan, Senior Research Associate of Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks (1979–1997) and editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991) (1983–1991).

AMT: This is Alice-Mary Talbot on April 18, 2010. I am interviewing Musja Kazhdan, the widow of Alexander Kazhdan, at the home of her grandson, Misha Kazhdan. And Misha Kazhdan is going to translate for us. So, Musja, I’d like to begin by telling you how pleased I am that you have come to the United States for this visit and given us the opportunity to do this interview for the Oral History Archive at Dumbarton Oaks. It’s really a wonderful opportunity for us to find out more about the life of you and Alexander at Dumbarton Oaks. So why don’t I begin by asking you: what was your first contact with an American Byzantinist that you first really heard about Dumbarton Oaks?

MishaK: My father met – Dima [Dimitri (David) Kazhdan] met with [Ihor] Ševčenko in Boston, and they had agreed with Constable that Sanya [Alexander Kazhdan] could come to Dumbarton Oaks as a fellow for one year.

AMT: But wait, we were going to start at the beginning – with Ševčenko and Nancy in 1966.

MK: In the sixties, Ševčenko and Natasha [Nancy Patterson Ševčenko] were in Moscow, and after the Bolshoi Theater, Alexander had invited them and brought them to the house. At that point, Ševčenko asked Sanya if he would be interested in coming to work in Dumbarton Oaks – to America, to Dumbarton Oaks – and Sanya said, “No way. I work in Moscow. I am not leaving.”

AMT: All right. So then, tell me what happened next with Dima’s leaving for the United States, when he went to Harvard.

MishaK: Dima, in 1975, went to Harvard. And then in 1977 he began to push Alexander to go to the United States, but at this time – he couldn’t even think about it, and also because it was only a one-year fellowship, Alexander said, “No, on this condition I will not go,” and then Ševčenko said, “It can be several years.”

AMT: Okay, but you need to back up a little bit and tell why you changed your mind about coming to the United States.

MK: We changed our minds, because I was immediately уволенa [laid off] from my work where I worked for 28 years, and Alexander was told that he never would see his son – he will not permit it, even for a week, to leave Russia and his son never will be permitted to enter Russia. And then he decided –

AMT: And you told me that, although he was invited to speak at the Athens Congress [1976], that then he was –

MK: Yeah, yeah it was the Congress of Athens and he had the main report.

AMT: Oh, that, a principal, no, a main paper, they’re called. Yes.

MK: But he was not permitted to go. And even he was not permitted to go to some conference in a Russian town.

AMT: So obviously it was very, very difficult.

MK: Yeah.

AMT: So then, you – tell me, how were you in contact with Giles Constable? What was your method of communication?

MK: We were in contact with Giles when we were in Vienna – Giles came to Vienna, especially to have an interview with Alexander.

AMT: But this is after you left.

MK: Yeah. Before, never. First time was –

AMT: In Vienna.

MK: In Vienna. I was with him to go especially to Vienna.

AMT: But you had, when you left, you told the Russian authorities that you were going to Israel. Is that right?

MK: In Israel. But we sent everything – what was needed, all books which were permitted – we sent to the United States. But it was officially that we were going to meet up, to live with our son in Israel.

AMT: Israel. Because the first that I knew about your coming, because this was 1978, I think, and I was working part-time at Dumbarton Oaks, and I noticed in the mail room there were these piles of brown paper packages that got – every week there would be more of these piles of packages. And I said, “What is this?”

MK: We were not permitted to take one book that had some, even, sign, a note – plus, minus, nothing. So it was a group of young people, who were connected –

AMT: – who did all the erasing. And then I remember Alexander telling me that he would go to different post offices in Moscow so that he didn’t mail a great big box but just a few books in each package.

MK: Well, but also the problem was that Alexander said he can’t leave Russia without his –

AMT: Cards.

MK: Cards. Without, he can’t. But nobody would permit. So, Rex Rexheuser – you don’t know – a man from Germany; at this time, he, his wife, and two children spent a year in Russia. And they were very close to us – friends. And we helped them a lot in Russia. So, all precious things – and all these they took through embassy.

AMT: You’re doing very well in English! So you met Giles in Vienna, having said you were going to Israel. And then what happened?

MK: Then we went to Paris, and that was extremely complicated at that time, because we had no money. Sanya was lecturing in Paris, France.

AMT: In French?

MK: No. [Laughs]

AMT: In English?

MK: He asked: would it be good to lecture in bad French or in bad English? They said, “Of course, bad English.” [Laughter] So he had to prepare. But at this time we had no place to live. So we were living – one month or a month and a half – in Cité Universitaire.

AMT: Mhm, which is a student area.

MK: Right, because also it was very complicated: we were living in one floor and his mother in the attic, and stairs was outside. And we had to bring her food, because she couldn’t go down the stairs. But what was interesting: this agency for Jewish people also was in Paris, but it was very few Jewish emigrants so big as to United States. So the captain of this agency liked very much to speak with us and he said, “I can’t understand why your Constable always sends us notice or letters,” that “we can take good care of you. And they will pay you so much as, in France, [Russian; translator: “as a – not as janitor but as yard workers”]. But we didn’t believe, because we know some of you get sixteen thousand, and for us it was such a huge sum, you know, that we just told him, “You don’t understand.” So we waited three and a half months, because – before we could get a visa. But what was very interesting: before we left, Hélène Ahrweiler invited us for a dinner – and Paul Lemerle – and they had a whole list of what Alexander had to tell Constable – how to –

AMT: – how to negotiate. How to negotiate. So you had advisors.

MK: Because a lot, they say, is – doesn’t work well. So when we went, Sanya and I, to explain to Giles, but Giles said, “They make their rules in France, and we live in the United States, in our law.”

AMT: So you came in 1979.

MK: 1978, no maybe nine.

AMT: The reason I remember is because the first time I met you was Carnival, Mardi Gras, the day before Ash Wednesday – so we can look it up on a calendar and find out exactly – and Dumbarton Oaks was having a costume party, a Carnival party, with the Fellows. Everyone got dressed up in costumes, and Constable told me that you were arriving that day and he was going to bring you to the party and that I should meet you and help to welcome you and I often thought of what a strange way to be introduced to Dumbarton Oaks – with all of the Fellows in costume. So, it’s very vivid in my mind.

MK: But very soon, very soon, Alexander went to Judy Siggins and asked: would you pay his pension? Because he is not young, and he had to know. And they said, “No, you will have no pension. You are a Fellow.”

AMT: And Fellows don’t get pensions.

MK: No. And then Alexander went to Giles and said, “You know, I can’t work on this condition.” And then Giles said, “Okay, then we will [Russian; translator: “make him part of the staff”]. But then you had to pay for an apartment and a little bit higher –

AMT: So that’s when he was made the Senior Research Associate. He was given that title.

MK: Yeah. So this was a great shock.

AMT: I can understand that. And I know that when you first arrived you lived in several different apartments.

MK: Yeah. Well it was – full of cockroaches, and I was so unhappy.

AMT: This was the one on Wisconsin.

MK: On Wisconsin. I was sitting; could not talk to anyone, not – impossible to call anyone without the language. And the janitor: he, every day, came to my apartment because I had a lot of Cuban cigars.

AMT: Why?

MK: We brought them from Russia. And I gave him every day –

AMT: Oh, you gave him the cigars [laughs]. Okay. So he was your friend.

MK: And I was glad to see someone. But then Giles tells that I can go for the lunch in Dumbarton Oaks and this was easier.

AMT: And how did you start learning English? I mean, you knew some English.

MK: Well, because in Russia I had read a lot of –

AMT: You had read English, yeah. But to speak it –

MK: And I went – within a month, I was in some – it was some school, and they were teaching English to immigrants, but it was, for me, very strange, because every day he’d ask, “Are you happy today?” and I’d say, “No.” [Laughter] And it was really a waste when he asked me, “How are you today?”

AMT: He hoped you would be better.

MK: And I’d say, “No.”

AMT: And I remember that Alexander would watch television to help with his English, right?

MK: Every day at six o’clock, it was a wonderful – for him, not for me – a wonderful one-hour lesson, one woman about religion.

AMT: It was called Sunrise Semester, I think. It was a university course.

MK: Very good, very good.

AMT: Yeah, it was very, very high quality.

MK: Every day he was listening to this, and I remember that after maybe seven times, Tony Cutler, whose home we were, you know – He said, “You know, Alexander, your English is good but very amusing.” Because it was from books.

AMT: Yes. I had the same reaction, because I was always amazed that – well, both of you read a great deal of fiction. I was amazed at how much fiction you read. But some of it would be nineteenth century. And so Alexander would try out some new words that he had learned, which were a little old-fashioned. It was amusing. Let’s see. So, we started talking about some of the problems that you faced – the financial issues, the language issues. When did you get to move to your – the house on S Street?

MK: The house?

AMT: On S Street.

MK: First we had a small but really good apartment and there was an old – I don’t remember.

AMT: I think it was what’s called the West Cottage, on the end of the Fellows Building.

MK: Yeah. Before, it was some Catholic –

AMT: Father Dvornik. It was Father Dvornik’s, Francis Dvornik’s apartment.

MK: And so when we lived, Giles said we can use – it was wonderful. It was two bedrooms, small dining rooms, and really nice, you know, like, [Russian; translator: “office”].

AMT: And a big kitchen.

MK: Really big, really good kitchen.

AMT: Wonderful kitchen. Yes, yes I know that.

MK: Wonderful. But it was so dirty that I had to work from morning to night –

AMT: – to clean it, so – Because that was the first place where I went to dinner. You invited me to dinner. I think that Nikos Oikonomides, maybe, was the other guest. There were just four of us, I think. And I didn’t know the Russian system of, you know, eating as soon as you arrived and I was a few minutes late and I was very embarrassed when I realized that I was, you know, I had held – I was never late again, I think, to one of your dinners. So then you went to Wisconsin Avenue with the cockroaches, but then you came back to S Street, to your really cute – I loved your little house.

MK: No, no, we were there before. The garden head, who was living in this part of the house, when he left his work – Then Giles said, “If you want, we can – you can move here.”

AMT: That was a very cute little house.

MK: I adored this. And then we were on very good relations with Don Smith, and he gave us a key for the gardens and we could go. And our neighbor at this time was Judy.

AMT: Judy Siggins.

MK: Whose former husband –

AMT: Yes. So tell me what you can remember about when Alexander first came to Dumbarton Oaks.

MK: What was hard for him?

AMT: Yes.

MK: For Sania, the most hard was language. Very hard. Then, you know, oh, he was happy in direction – that he could do what he wanted.

AMT: He was free.

MK: It was not this pressure, that he had to only write something about economic, and so – But what was really strange for him: he missed, very much, his students, not to say friends and neighbors. But also for him it was very strange that many a new Fellow came for half a year or so to Dumbarton – and you know they were not interested to have something of knowledge from Alexander.

AMT: They didn’t come to visit him and talk.

MK: No, everyone thought they knew, themselves, what to do. For him it was strange, because in Russia it was especially in Medieval history and in the Byzantine School –

AMT: But at the research institute, I think a lot of the Fellows just came; they, as we say, did their own thing.

MK: Yeah. Even in France they had, I think, school, because it was Lemerle and then it was Medieval history, you know –

AMT: But gradually he did meet – Mike McCormick was there.

MK: Mike and you. You and Mike became the most close to us.

AMT: Well, because we were both there when you came.

MK: Ševčenko, with Ševčenko we all were there.

AMT: But he wasn’t living in Dumbarton Oaks.

MK: No, he just came often, and he was always living with us and for me extremely helpful was – maybe you remember Mary Lou Masey? She spoke well Russian, and she was very nice and even now I have two cookbooks from her: one for fish and one for meat – that she said, “It’s the best.” And I always use them.

AMT: Now what we all have noticed, of course, is that when Alexander came to the United States he did very much change the direction of his research and started, for example, reading saints’ lives, things which he had not been able to do in Russia.

MK: He was gradually very interested in cultural history. And so he began to work in this direction. He was also very close with Ann Epstein.

AMT: Yes, and they did a book together.

MK: Yes. One with Giles.

AMT: The first.

MK: The first. When this one ended, there was a really nice Englishman –

AMT: – Simon Franklin –

MK: – that’s the one with the Russian wife.

AMT: And he actually translated, I think, a lot of Alexander’s articles. Yes, those were all very important articles.

MK: And about the dictionary [Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium]: I don’t think that he had the idea or inspiration before.

AMT: Because this seems to be – I had understood that it was something he had actually thought about doing in Russia. But, Giles had an oral history and he said that he thought it was something which started here in this country, so you’re not sure?

MK: No, I never heard in Russia about the possibility, because it was so impossible

AMT: It was impossible. But there was an international congress – I don’t remember the date, now; maybe in the fifties, the 1950s – at which I think it was Paul Lemerle, who said what we need is this sort of book. And I think that, you know, Alexander heard that, but it was impossible for him to do it until he came to Dumbarton Oaks.

MK: It was really hard work not only because it was complicated, but because it was really strenuous. He was very demanding.

AMT: I know that very, very well and he –

MK: And some of them –

AMT: – got unhappy, were very unhappy, yes, because if he didn’t like something he rewrote it or said he didn’t like it, and it caused tensions.

MK: You know, speaking about this dictionary – and when we came, one woman from New York. She was really close to Maia. You remember, I hope, Maia.

AMT: Yes, of course.

MK: And she gave Alexander a book about Russia, and she asked him to review. But when Sanya sent it, she said, “No, in United States –”

AMT: – you can’t write a review like that.

MK: Therefore, it was complicated. But you know the person – but I don’t remember their name – he for several months came to Dumbarton and stayed in our house for maybe two-three days.

AMT: Was he American?

MK: Yeah, yeah. A really nice couple. And they still write me. They moved from that to –

AMT: Oh, I know who you mean: Charles Brand.

MK: Yeah.

AMT: Charles Brand and Mary. Yes, they moved to Boulder, Colorado.

MK: They were so nice. When he not yet retired but was not more in Dumbarton when they came to Washington they always invited me to some restaurant.

AMT: Yes, they were a lovely, lovely couple. And Charles wrote a lot for the dictionary.

MK: Mary.

AMT: Mary, yes.

MK: They had a beautiful garden.

AMT: So they moved out to be with their son – I think it’s a son – in Colorado.

MK: I almost went.

AMT: I know that the gardens meant a lot to you and Alexander. Tell me about your walks, not just in the gardens but the way he used to do these wonderful walks on Saturday mornings.

MK: For me it was extremely confusing, when children – you know, Misha always spent summer with us – two, sometimes two, sometimes one. And they had this religious education, and they came with these ritual strings. And I felt so ashamed because I never had seen this in Russia, and then some boy asked them not to go to the pool like this.

AMT: [to Misha] It was you?

MishaK: Me and my older brother.

AMT: But I remember you used to go mushrooming, picking mushrooms.

MK: Yeah, in Dumbarton every year there was one huge mushroom.

AMT: And you used to pick – quinces?

MK: I picked Chinese apples; I made jam. I made it from quince. And I made it from dogwood, it was only one special kind of dogwood.

AMT: And you used, what did you use that for? For vodka?

MK: They’re wonderful. In Russia, it’s the name of this, but not such a tree; it was kizil. And everyone said that could be dogwood only in the U.S.A.

AMT: But I also remember that you made vodka, different kinds of flavored vodka.

MK: Yeah, it was – even now, I do –

AMT: But sometimes with things from the garden.

MK: – of lemon peels.

AMT: But weren’t there some berries?

MK: No. At first, I was amazed at all this beauty. But it was very lonely. I felt like I was in some harem, you know, with this pool, with this beauty. But my sultan always worked! [Laughter]

AMT: Oh, that’s an interesting image, yes.

MK: And there was one, who was not like this. It was one very nice English man; even he only came for part-time, and he lived on Wisconsin in this building and had, one day, open door.

MishaK: Open house?

AMT: Open house?

MK: Open house, yeah, open house. And then – I think he was from England –

AMT: Tony Bryer?

MK: I think so. Yeah. Very strange, very nice. He had a beautiful wife; she died.

AMT: Yes, that’s Bryer.

MK: And first we came to his house from France.

AMT: Oh. When you were waiting to go to the United States.

MK: It was complicated, but his brother was in foreign office and he had an exit.

AMT: A visa for you?

MK: Yeah. And they had a beautiful house with beautiful furniture, but it was so cold. And also they put some water – hot water bottles – in our beds. And one morning Alexander said, “You will go down – and I said, “What happens?” “You will come, you will see.” So I came down. He was in his [Russian; translator: “robe”], his whole big robe. And he was like this – nightcap. Like, you know, Dickens, I don’t know.

AMT: Yeah, he is a character.

MK: But in Dumbarton Oaks, we came and he told me, you know, that Mrs. Bliss and Mr. Bliss were buried in the garden, and he told me, that Mrs. Bliss – she was a beauty – was buried in sitting position; it was so strange. Why? Because, he said, she took to some Indian religion before she died.

AMT: Well that’s a new story.

MK: I was amazed, but he was so serious, and then I was working with Cutler and I said, “Tony, it’s so strange that Mrs. Bliss was buried sitting.” And he said, “Who said such nonsense?”

AMT: Now tell me about some of the other people that I know you and Alexander were close to, like Spiros Vryonis.

MK: Oh yeah, yeah.

AMT: Because he visited quite frequently while you were here.

MK: I like very much Vryonis. He was wonderful. And also – what’s his name – who’s from Athens, and he died.

AMT: Nikos Oikonomides.

MK: Nikos Oikonomides. And – maybe you know this story, I don’t know – it was a very strange woman from Greece.

AMT: Oh, I know, yeah. She was – she’s mentally ill.

MK: Very strange. And she came and brought me very good, nice sweets. And then Alexander said, you know, that she asked about a consultation. “But I don’t have time. So do you mind if I invite her for dinner.” And you know this.

AMT: No. So, what happened?

MK: So, she came, she spoke with Alexander, and then I looked: Alexander was furious. And she told, first of all, that Nikos was communist – was and now he is a communist – and Spiros, she was his lover, and she wrote his dissertation. And Sanya said, “Such nonsense! I never in my life – how you could write for Spiros? And I don’t want to see you ever in my house!

AMT: Yeah, I know about this woman, because she caused some problems later.

MK: And Sanya told me, “Never open the door –”

AMT: – to her.

MK: But I was really confused. She was drunk.

AMT: Well let’s close on a happier note about – because this is one of my nicest memories – is the wonderful dinner parties that you gave. They were just extraordinary. The food was so good; the conversation was so good. We just – everyone loved going to your house for dinner.

MK: And once I asked Tony: “Tony, why, when Fellows do something, you know, come together, they always invite you and never Sanya? And he said, “Because they are so glad to see me and not to see him. Because they are afraid.”

AMT: A number of them were scared, yes.

MK: Some, true.

AMT: But he always respected the young people, the students, who would stand up to him, who would argue with him. And if they were strong enough to say, “I don’t agree with you,” or “I have a different position,” you know, he liked that and then he would get engaged with them, I think.

MK: But he never wanted to drink or eat during the day in Dumbarton Oaks or – but I was inviting guests, both as in Russia and now in Israel. I have an open house.

AMT: Oh. That’s –

MK: And always people come and stay with us. And even in Israel.

AMT: It’s a great, great tradition. And you did make many, many friends here and in Moscow?

MK: We were very close with Paul Hollingsworth.

AMT: Yes. And he was so helpful after Alexander died with getting the famous cards shipped to Russia.

MK: Even in Russia, Paul met with several friends – he knew all my relatives. And he went to Ivangorod, to my niece, and he went to my cousin. But when he was expelled, everyone was scared.

AMT: I can believe it. Well, I think he’s very happy now to have a new post.

MK: I don’t like his wife; I don’t know why. But he’s really nice and very educated.

AMT: Yes. He’s a wonderful person. Well can you think of anything else that you’d like to talk about that I haven’t asked you?

MK: No. I have a very good memory about, you know – And Alexander was on very good terms with Giles and after Giles, it was who?

AMT: Robert Thomson. And then Angeliki.

MK: And then I remember it was, I think, Christmas and maybe the first year we were here, and Giles invited us to his house. And there was his mother and I wished for advice – it was not advice, but I took it like advice. She told me she lived in Boston, and when her grandson, John, came to visit her she always told him, “I give you money, but you invite me to some café or restaurant and behave like a gentleman.” And I did the same with Misha – Misha can tell you – I took his little ones and when they came, I said, “Misha, I pay but you –”

AMT: – take me out to dinner. I think that’s a very, very nice thing for a grandmother to do.

MK: Mrs. Dagron told me that when her granddaughter came to stay for Saturday, she put the table like for the most important event, and she made – plate and fork and everything – and she told her, “We are ladies, and we have to behave like ladies.”

AMT: So, she taught them good manners. Well, Musja, it’s been a great pleasure to have this conversation with you and we will transcribe it at Dumbarton Oaks, but maybe not until next summer, because we need an intern. But at some point we’ll send you a copy to read, so if you want to correct anything then you can do that.