[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 follow along with a dying man trying to preserve what he can of himself and his family on paper before he goes, and at the same time reliving his youth one last time. If you think we should quit — because you came to read me, not him — just let me know in the comment section below. On the other hand, we’ve got only one more post from him after this one. So perhaps you can hang in there. A visit with my father wasn’t always 100% interesting. But you always came away with something in the end.]
BY MICHAEL RAGINSKY
My father was naturally very busy with his business, but outside of his love for music he had other hobby; he loved photography and loved to take pictures himself, and also to go to professional photographer to take pictures of our family together and separately. Unfortunately, I do not have many of the interesting pictures that were taken in our growing years. Father also loved to read detective stories, mostly American, Nick Carter, Pinkerton — but also English: Sherlock Holmes. And he loved good food and his beer! Very often he would send me out to the corner store to get him a couple of bottles of “Giguly” beer. The beer drinking was part of his admiration of everything German. He was not a drunkard, but he wanted his beer with his meals.
Mother was very sentimental and loved poetry. She had a book of poetry by a young Russian poet by the name Semyon Nadson; that poet died very early, at twenty-five. His poems were full of pain and suffering about his Mother, who died when Nadson was a few years old. Of course, he also wrote about other things, but every one of his poems had pain and suffering. I read some of them and never liked that book. Mother was also very good at arithmetic and was very helpful with my arithmetic problems when I could not solve them for myself. I was always wondering how easy it was for Mother to do my problems in such a short time. I thought she was a genius!
My pre-school years were spent mostly playing with my cousins or a few boys of my age who lived in the building. One boy who lived with his Grandfather shocked me and started my education about anti-semitism, about which I knew nothing before. The boy’s Grandfather had a store next to Father’s store. He was a framer who would frame any picture or photo with a fine frame. He had many frames in his store, gilded, colored, etc., and he had a cutting machine in the back of his store. There I used to sit and play with Volodia, his grandson. The Grandfather’s name was Golikoff, and he had a married son who was Father of that boy, Volodia. The son got killed in the Russian-Japanese war and left a young widow with the little boy. The Grandfather lived then in some other Russian city and was also a widower. So he took the young widow and her son with him to Baku, where he established himself in the store next to ours. Volodia was about the same age as I was, and we were getting along fine. But there is no doubt that the Grandfather and/or his Mother were anti-semitic, and that is where anti-semitism fell on very receptive ears of Volodia.
One day as we were talking about bandits and killings, he blurted out if someone had killed me, nothing would happen to him because I was a Jew. I was shocked and speechless. No doubt, either his Father or Grandfather were part of the “Black Hundred” gang that were murdering defenseless Jewish families, and this hatred was being carried over through generations to come! I never played with Volodia anymore. It is interesting that later he found his true vocation, where he could do his killings in life by becoming a member of the dreaded CHEKA, Red secret police and predecessor of KGB, during the Red Revolution. He was by then only in his teens, but he became an accomplished executioner of many, many victims of the Reds!
I had another playmate at that time; this was a Jewish boy by the name Solomon Shtechin. He also was about my age, and he also lived with his Grandfather, who was a tailor. Without his Mother and Father, who perished in the “pogroms” in Russia, and without good supervision, he fell in with a gang of bad boys and ended up losing his life, when as a joke his pals threw him into a water well in the courtyard. The well was very deep, and people used to have to go to the well with pails to fetch some drinking water. So, in that well little Solomon ended his young life, and naturally, nothing ever happened to the young Russian hoodlums that did it! How right was Volodia!
At this time, I would like to describe how and when this gold mine of Azerbaijan and Baku fell into hands of Russia and Russian Tsar! Azerbaijan was really a backward and undeveloped country, but all neighbors had an eye on Azerbaijan because of all the natural riches. In 18th century, it was a part of Persia, now known as Iran. Iran was mainly interested to keep Azerbaijanians Moslem and dependent on Persia. Georgia and Armenia, who were also neighbors to Azerbaijan, had a different problem. They were Christian. Neighboring Turkey was Moslem, and Turkey was interested in taking over these two small countries. In fact, Armenia was already under Turkish rule, and the rule was murderous, as many millions of Armenians were butchered by Turks. But Turkey was also interested in getting hold of Azerbaijan, with all its rich natural resources.
The Georgians needed protection from Turks and appealed for protection to Russian Tsar. The Tsar was only too glad to oblige, because Russian Empire was expanding, and two or three more provinces were very interesting additions to the Empire. And so at the beginning of 19th century, Russia went to war with both Persia (Iran) and Turkey. In 1828 the war with Persia was over, with Russian victory, and the peace was signed: Azerbaijan was split in half — Persia kept the northern part and Russia got the southern part, with Baku the capital of Russian Azerbaijan.The war with Turkey also ended a few years before, with Russian victory, and Armenia was also split in half — one part went to Russia and the other remained in Turkey. The majority of Armenians went over to Russian part of Armenia and many others went to the new gold mine, Baku in Azerbaijan.
Until 1870s, very little activity and production is recorded in Russian part of Azerbaijan. But when the industrial countries of Europe needed oil and Baku and surrounding area proved to be a bountiful production center and the oil was of high quality, many French, German, Swedes, English and others, like Nobels and Rothschilds, poured into Baku to get a share in the riches of gas and oil and other industries. By the beginning of the 20th century, all these oil people had very large holdings and Baku became a place where millions could be made with very little capital. Labor was cheap too, as many Russian workers came from all over the Russian Empire to work there. Of the population in Azerbaijan when our family arrived in Baku around 1905, about 70% were Azerbaijanians, 14% Russians (including all officials and police and military), 12% Armenians. Baku was growing fast!
And pretty soon my personal life was going to change fast too. Goodbye, carefree existence of a little boy. It was time to get ready to prepare to go to school. The year was 1909, and I was seven years of age!
[To be concluded….]