[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. On the other hand, until I hear from any of you that I’m just humoring myself, I’m going to keep on typing until 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….]
In a very few years after us, there was a flood of new people who came to Baku for better life, and of course among them Jewish families. Baku was growing tremendously, as more and more new oil wells were established and new factories produced all sorts of goods. After we came, there opened more Gymnasiums, more trade schools, theaters, concert halls, and even a new music school.
One day, Monia heard about that school from one of his classmates and told Father that he would like very much to start studying the violin. That’s all Father had to hear; it was music to his ears. If not himself, then his joy and pride, the oldest son, will become a great violinist! Father promptly enrolled Monia to the music school and, as luck would have it, the Director of the school, who was a very fine violinist and teacher by the name Samson R. Krongold, took Monia as his student. Later on, Mr. Krongold became very friendly with Father and he and his family used to come often to visit us at home. Monia was talented and was progressing very rapidly on his violin. Father was beaming with pleasure and did not know what to do for Monia! On his next buying trip to Germany, he brought Monia a present: a nice violin and bow in a beautiful violin case; the top of the case had a fancy plaque with his name engraved in silver. It was a beautiful gift.
My sisters were enrolled in a private school which was started and run by a former government girls’ Gymnasium schoolteacher by the name of Tutova; her girl students were called Tutovskayas, which meant that they were from Tutovskaya School. And while the school was not accredited by the Government and the diploma was not accepted as eligible to enter University or other officially recognized institutions of learning, the school had very fine teachers, at times even the same teachers who taught at Gymnasiums. It was also a fine preparatory school if any of the students cared to go for examination for admittance to official Gymnasiums or University. But apparently my sisters did not have any ambitions in that direction and so they were contented to remain in the private school and get their diplomas from that school.
Neither of my sisters had any interest in music and neither one took music lessons. They were direct opposites to each other. The older one, Bertha, was a great reader of books, but her choice was mostly love stories and romantic novels because classic Russian literature was studied in schools and in reading and writing assignments to be done at home for school. The younger sister, Bronia, from early age was very active and a great help to Mother and Father. She liked me very much and was spending time playing with me. She also at early age began teaching young girls dancing at our home, to make a little money for herself. She went with Father once to Germany on a buying trip to help him out with business chores. She was a busy girl!
The girls had their own room in one of the rooms of our store, where we lived, that originally were built simply as warehouses to keep merchandise stored in carton boxes. Their room was very clean and well furnished with two beds, wardrobes, writing desks and chairs, bookcases, and other things that girls needed for comfort. My brother Monia and I lived with parents in the back of the store. We both slept on one wide couch and used the dining table for all our homework for school. I do not know how well he did at school, as he was so much older than me. Apparently, he always earned passing grades, as he was progressing satisfactorily from class to next class. He was not much of a reader of books. Even some books that were required by his school to be read at home he always asked me to read, and then to tell him all about them. He preferred to use his time to practice his violin.
Monia had a way about him to ingratiate himself to anyone he liked and as a result he was liked by Father very much, by Grandfather also, and by some of his classmates who came from wealthy or important families. Because he was a good violinist, he was paired with a fine young girl pianist at the music school to play sonatas for violin and piano. The girl was very pretty and liked Monia very much, and was inviting him to come to their house to play music together. Her name was Virginia Akopova and she came from a wealthy Armenian family. I envied my brother, but at that time I still was too young to enroll in music school and did not play any instrument.
At our home there were only two publications that parents subscribed to: the daily newspaper and a magazine called Awakening. The magazine had very beautiful illustrations, and the chief virtue and attraction for subscribing to it was a bonus of complete works of many Russian classical writers. You chose the author and his works were sent free with the subscription. The girls chose Leo Tolstoy and every week when the magazine arrived by mail, there was one volume of complete works of Tolstoy. The book was of hardcover size but without a hard cover — just a cover from thicker paper. Also the book’s pages were not cut and it was a chore to cut them, first on top and then the sides. So no one really read much of Tolstoy. I attempted to read War and Peace, but since it started out right on the first page in French, language that I did not know, I gave it up.
At the end, we had a full collection of Tolstoy books that stood in the bookcase until after the Red Revolution, when the shortages of toilet paper became very acute. And that is where Tolstoy’s books came in very handy. A book was hanging on the wall in the bathroom water cabinet and was used for both cultural purpose (reading) and more practical uses. Luckily the book pages were rather soft!
The newspaper consisted of just four pages. The front pages were about Tsar’s doings, and where new oil wells were gushing like huge fountains, and who was becoming fast a rich person overnight! There were many local Armenians and Azerbaijanians who became very rich: Mailoffs (Armenians), Taglieffs (Azerbaijanians) and many others. No Jews were permitted to participate in oil development unless they were very wealthy foreigners, like Rothschilds, or Jews that have converted to Christianity. Of these there were quite a few.
The Mailoff brothers built a beautiful theatre where practically all operas and operettas were performed all year around by traveling companies, but the orchestra was local and so were conductors, who mostly moved to Baku for permanent position and residence. One was Choroshanky, who was a fine cellist and opera conductor. After the revolution, he also moved to America and settled in New York for a while. The other theatre was built by Taglieff, the Azerbaijanian millionaire. In this theatre were performed various plays — dramatic and comedies — all performed by traveling companies. The theatre operated all year. Saturday and Sunday afternoons were set aside in both theaters for performances at very reduced rates for all students. The theaters were always packed with students on these days and many, including myself, were standing in the rear throughout the performance for lack of room in the seat areas. I attended many of the operas and plays and always enjoyed the performances!
The boulevard by the Caspian Sea was very beautiful, with wide strolling areas in both directions. In the evenings there was an orchestra playing in the restaurant by the sea. But on lovely sunny afternoons on weekends and after school, very many students were promenading in pairs or groups. The boulevard was the place where boys met girls, and vice versa. Since the schools were strictly either for boys only or girls only, there were very little other opportunities to meet opposite sexes. But here there were romances, crushes, and much gossip! There were some very popular boys and very popular girls! And everyone was mixing freely here regardless of race, nationality or religion. Baku was populated by many Armenians, Georgians, Azerbaijanians, (tatars and moslems), but not too many Russians. The Russians were mostly officials, police, and workers in oil fields and factories. Jews were mostly tradesmen and professionals. My best friends during the school years were therefore mostly Armenians and Georgians, and very few Jewish boys.
[To be continued….]