They had the outdoor part of the cafe to themselves. NYC summer heat and humidity had chased everyone else away. Michael laughed at his friend on the other side of the metal table as the latter leaned back in his chair, eyes wide. “I’m not contagious,” he said, and took a sip of his smoothie.
“Jordan, seriously, it’s okay. The radiation levels are a lot lower today. We each had our own dosimeter; it’s like a Geiger Counter but measures in sieverts.”
“Yeah?” He sucked on the straw that was stuck in his frappuccino.
“The readings are expressed as micro- or millisieverts. For example, a single dose of radiation, fatal within weeks, is 10,000 mSv, or millisieverts. In 1986 Chernobyl workers received doses as high as 6,000 mSv and died within a month. The residents of Chernobyl within the Exclusion Zone received 350 mSv. Compare that to a CT Scan – 15 – and a chest x-ray is 0.10.” As his friend didn’t seem reassured, he continued, “We got readings of 80 mSv at the Palace of Culture, and 70 mSv at Middle School Number 3. Outside we didn’t wear any disposable hazmat suits, but when we went into closed rooms, we did, and face masks too.”
The straw gurgled. Jordan wiped his mouth with the back of a hand. “But you told me you got special permission from the Ukrainian government and the Liquidator Committee, that you had a team of some kind, to look for some old Hasidic tombs?”
Michael shrugged. “I was kind of obsessed with Chernobyl. You know Chernobyl was a Jewish town, dating back to the 12th century. There were periodic pogroms and murders but for some reason, this student of the Baal Shem Tov – Rabbi Menachim Twersky – decided to settle there out of all Eastern Europe and founded a dynasty in the 1600s. These rabbis were known as powerful men who could do things, work miracles…”
“I think of them as these orthodox guys with long hair hanging in front of their ears.”
“We’re talking the Baal Shem Tov, Jordy! His personal students.These guys sang and danced and could make golems! They made life out of clay, they could do all kinds of strange things – legends say. They were also brilliant and studied a lot. The Kabbalah, and mysticism, and the secret Name of God.”
“So, you went to find their tombs?”
“The Jewish inhabitants were nearly wiped out during the Holocaust but a few survived. After the war, Jewish life tried to return to Chernobyl but the Russians made it really hard. In 1970, the Soviets smashed down the 17th century burial crypts of the five tzaddikim and paved them over, built two new schools.” Michael paused. He could smell the place – the rust and rot and acrid swirls of air. His heart raced as he remembered searching the ruins with Vadim. An image of sandy-haired Vadim leaped into his mind – tall, muscular, good-humored, ageless. They’d been given permission to search for the tombs because the Ukrainian and Russian governments were promulgating that Jewish “conspirators” had blown up the nuclear reactor. But why would they do that and destroy their own people, their own important holy places? he’d asked the five young men and women from the Ukrainian government who accompanied them. Vadim offered a different take.
“So did you find them? The tombs?”
Michael slouched, a fog of depression settling over his heart. “Kind of,” he answered. Vadim had handled the Ukrainian propagandists with ease; he shut them up at once. My grandfather was one of the collaborators who killed the Jews here during the war, he told them. I want to make things right. “This guy who helped me. He had maps and ground-penetrating radar. He found the burial sites. He used a sledge-hammer on the concrete and wanted me to help, but I was afraid; I didn’t want to end up in a Ukrainian jail. He was trying to do the right thing, you know? He believed the dead rabbis had protected the place, and that’s why… well, I didn’t agree with him because that seemed like another crazy conspiracy theory blaming Jews. But… something happened to him…”
“Like, he was found dead in the remains of the reactor hall, naked on his back, his skin burned.” The vision in his mind of those open blue eyes, veiled by cloudy yellow, made him gag.
“Maybe one of the other Ukrainians killed him?” Jordan seemed concerned now as he observed his long-time friend’s demeanor.
“No, don’t think so.” Michael hung his head and tried to hold it back but the memory surged, a nightmare memory that made him doubt everything. “He just disappeared. He broke through the cement of the school’s lobby and shouted he found something, and he just fucking blinked out in front of our eyes.”