[My father died at the end of January 1986, just after his 84th birthday. When he learned he was dying, he began to write a memoir of his early years. He didn’t get as far as he had hoped before he felt too weak to continue. So what I am offering here is all there is. Since English was not his native language, I’ve cleaned up his manuscript a bit. But not too much. I did try to preserve his locutions, to give you the flavor of his speech.
I have no idea who will have the patience to stay for long with a dying man wishing to preserve what he can of himself and his family on paper before he goes and at the same time trying to relive his youth one last time. If you think we should quit — because you came to read me, not him — let me know in the comment section below. However, until I hear from any of you that I’m just humoring myself, I’m going to keep on typing till I get to where he stopped…. A visit with my father wasn’t always 100% interesting. But one usually came away with something to remember in the end.]
BY MICHAEL RAGINSKY
[Continued from previous post….]
August 5th, 1984.
This is an eyewitness story of twentieth century events, as seen by me and into which I was born in the year of 1902.
I was never really sure if the date or year of my birth was truly January 18th, 1902, because I never saw my birth certificate. Nor was I ever told by my parents when I was born. There were never family celebrations of anyone’s birthdays — neither of my parents nor sisters nor brother. It always was a deep secret about each one’s age! Why? I never knew. Of course in those days a birth certificate could have been gotten from Tsarist officials with a good bribe, for any date and year — which at times came in handy if it was for a boy, in order to escape compulsory military service. In any event, in my later years I reconstructed everyone’s ages by events; whether I arrived at the correct ages or slightly incorrect is not very important!
I placed my birthplace in the City of Ekaterinoslav in Ukraine (at the present time called Dnepropetrovsk) in the year 1902, on the 5th day of January (old Russian calendar) or on 18th of January by the present day calendar. Ukraine today is one of so-called “independent” Soviet Republics. The three large cities are Kiev, Odessa and Dnepropetrovsk. In these cities are very large Jewish populations and still larger populations of anti-semitic Ukrainians.
My recollections of early years are not very clear. I remember playing by the house where we lived in a large sand pit, shoveling sand with my little wooden spade and building little houses. I remember wearing a cast-off little dress with pockets (probably from my sisters) which were always full of fine sand. But that’s all I remember, except that besides Father and Mother I also had a brother and two sisters. One of the sisters (Bronia) would play with me. Even later I never knew what my Father did for a living at that period, although Mother would occasionally reminisce of that time and mention Father worked for a lawyer.
When I was two years of age, Russia was embroiled in a very disastrous war with Japan, which Russia lost! In 1905, the first Russian Revolution also broke out and was murderously crushed by Tsarist Cossacks. As usual, “pogroms” against the Jews started all over Russia! Someone had to pay for the Russian defeat, and most convenient victim had to be the Jew! The police organized bands of hoods, armed them and aided them to go after the Jews. These bands of hoods were called “Black Hundreds” and specialized in torturing and murdering whole families of Jews! Evidently we were very lucky to escape the fate of other unfortunate families, as Father was able to bribe someone for foreign passport and took the family out of Russia and to Germany! By then, I was about three years old, and the next few things I remember are while in Berlin.
August 6th, 1984.
In Berlin we lived in a apartment on the second floor. The floor was shiny yellow, probably well waxed parquet, but with very little furniture, practically bare rooms. I know now that at that time the ages of my sisters were: Bertha 13, Bronia 11. My brother Monia was 9. Father was approximately 33 and mother 31. I was the youngest.
I did not know then, nor ever heard later, what Father did in Germany for a living to support such a large family. But I do know now that Father was a very brilliant man; he admired everything German and became fluent in German — speaking, reading and writing all self learned. He was also fluent in Russian, reading, and grammatically and correctly speaking and writing, and knew a lot of Jewish, speaking, reading and writing it.
His admiration for everything German carried over to wearing a mustache “a la Kaiser Wilhelm,” then German emperor. It was an enormous mustache. He was proud of it and always had the pointed ends turned upwards. He was great music lover and his secret desire was to be a concert violinist. He learned to play the violin himself and of course, not much good came out from his efforts, because simply without time to practice and good teacher, it is very difficult to accomplish good results, even with talent.
He was of medium height, medium weight, and other than the famous “mustache” was always cleanly shaved. No beards, sideburns or hair anywhere else, except on the head — but in summertime the head was also cleanly shaved for coolness, in style of German Generals!
Like I said, I did not know what Father did for a living in Germany, but later I heard that Father made good connections with German industrial manufacturers for representation and credits in the new part of Russia: Baku. The manufacturers advised Father to go to Baku because it still was at that time a sleeping oil giant; the area was developing and riches awaited anyone willing to work hard. So after the 1905 Russian Revolution was crushed by the Tsar, we would all return to Russia and go directly to Baku. At that time there were only very few Jewish families there, and all of them either in professions or in businesses.
Father and Mother married early in life: he was twenty and she was eighteen or so. By the time I was born, there had already been four children in the family before my birth. Only three survived. One died either in infancy or as a young boy. Except that it happened, there was never any talk about the dead brother. If he had lived, he would have been 6 or 7 years of age. As it happened, I was born as a replacement for a lost son! Large families were very important in those days; they were insurance for parents against old age, and especially important were sons!
August 7th, 1984.
And so, coming back to my recollections of life in Germany, I vividly remember my new sandals made of yellow leather, which I treasured very much and when not wearing them would leave them in the corner and constantly from time to time go to inspect them, to see if they are still there! I loved to smell the leather, and often polished them. I just loved my little sandals!
Then I remember playing in the street with a shiny yellow wheel which I was rolling with a little rod up and down a clean and very wide sidewalk by the house. Down below our apartment was a little market where Mother used to shop. At times she would take me along. The owner of the store was a big, fat German man in a white smock or apron. And as he knew me from coming with Mother and playing with my wheel on the street, sometimes when Mother was too busy to go herself downstairs to the store, she would give me the money and a big copper pitcher with a tight cover and send me down to the store to buy milk. I would run and ask the owner in German: “Eine canne milch, bitte.” I remember this little speech even now! The owner would smile and pour milk into my pitcher and I would proudly run upstairs to Mother and deliver the milk. I saw very little of my sisters and brother. Either they were at school or I was asleep when they were around.
The rest of our time in Germany did not leave any lasting impressions in my mind. Also I don’t remember when and how we returned to Russia. All that I remember is that in Baku we were in apartment, also practically unfurnished; we were sleeping on the floor covered with bed sheets and I would wake up very often because of the heat. The heat was terrific. It must have been summertime! We lived in this apartment till I was about five years old. Little by little the apartment got furnished with most necessary furnishings. There was a hall gallery that had a large table which was used for many purposes, but mainly as a dining table; and there were rooms for sleeping, and after a while there was a maid to help Mother with family chores.
I remember that maid very well! One morning after everyone left — sisters and brother to school, Father to business and Mother to markets — I remained in the care of the maid alone at the table. She was giving me my breakfast and the food was still on the table: bread, butter, cheese, milk and, in a metal can, Holland cocoa! The maid was a very nice young Russian peasant woman from some Russian village who came to work to Baku for better wages. She had a boy friend: Russian soldier. That boy friend was visiting her often and at times was taking her out for a few hours in the evenings. (The maid lived with us.) On that morning, she attempted to educate me and to explain how babies came. She said that a man had a “special instrument” that helped to bring babies. She never explained what the “instrument” was and left it to my own imagination! I liked the maid very much; she used to play with me and tell me fantastic fairy tales. One day, to my great sorrow, she left — never to come back. Apparently the “special instrument” of the soldier had something to do with it!
[To be continued….]