REMEMBERING DECEMBER 7, 1941

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[Americans as old as I am, or older, will all have some personal memory of where they were and what they were doing 73 years ago today. The rest of you may wonder how anyone could remember that far back.

We remember because of the sudden and unforeseen events occurring on that day; they triggered our country’s unprepared entry into World War II — and thereby changed all our lives in so many ways it would be hard to forget them, even if we were still just children playing in the backyard that Sunday afternoon.

Those of you who’ve been following TGOB since last year may recall I first ran this piece on December 7, 2013. If so, think of it as commemorative. I’ll probably continue running it, or something like it, every December 7, as long as I can.]

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HITLER’S LAMPSHADES

It was a day that would live in infamy, the President said.

But I was only ten and a half and didn’t know what infamy was. When the news broke that Sunday, interrupting the regular afternoon radio programs, I was playing behind the garages with Richard Mancini and my best friend Barbara.

Barbara was in my sixth-grade class at Franklin Avenue School and lived just one house away from me. In between was a small wooded lot where a ramshackle one-story structure with a porch leaned sideways on a small patch of clearing in the trees and brush. It belonged to an elderly Japanese couple. You could tell they were Japanese because they were shorter than other grownups and had slanty eyes. But you almost never saw them except when the woman came out the front to sweep the porch or the man came out the back with garbage.

My father had brought us to Hollywood a year and a half before because he had lost his job playing cello in New York and thought he could find work as a studio musician. He hadn’t had much luck. “It’s all connections,” he told my mother. She then told me she might have to become a live-in maid in some rich family’s house if he didn’t find work soon. I would have to share a room with her. I didn’t want to share a room with my mother or go to another school.

I certainly didn’t want to be the maid’s little girl in anybody else’s house, and be meek and humble, and never get to play with Barbara or Richard again. Other kids’ fathers had jobs, I thought. Why did mine have to be different? My mother sighed and put her arm around me. “We’ll see what happens,” she said.

The boxy little bungalow my father had rented for $30 a month was one of a set of four — two in front and two in back — on Los Feliz Boulevard. Ours was in front, with the living room and kitchen facing the street and two small bedrooms and a bathroom facing the bungalow behind it. All the way in the rear was a courtyard with two garages on each side; behind each pair of garages was a wooden platform, angled out over a valley. The platform on our side held an incinerator, a long bench, several clotheslines and a double railing to keep you from falling into the abyss.

Mr. Mancini, the landlord, lived and worked somewhere else but often came to do maintenance at the bungalows on weekends. When he did, he brought his son Richard with him. Richard was twelve, tall and thin, with straight dark hair that fell into his eyes. I liked him very much and had a feeling that he liked me too.

What I usually played with Barbara when Richard wasn’t there was a make-believe story called “Mother and Baby” which featured my Dydee Doll. Almost every little girl had at least one Dydee in those days. It came with a toy baby bottle you could fill with water. Dydee’s mouth had a hole where the water went in when you squeezed the bottle and its belly button had another hole which squirted the water out when you squeezed Dydee’s tummy. The pink flat area between Dydee’s legs had no opening, so it wasn’t exactly like a real baby. But you could pretend.

What Richard always wanted to play with us was “Doctor Delivering Baby.” Barbara and I took turns being Nurse and Patient. Richard was always Doctor, the one who reached up Patient’s dress and pulled Dydee out from between her legs. After helping Patient to lie down, Nurse mainly just watched.

I was very excited by this game, especially when I was Patient. I loved lying down on the bench beside the incinerator, under the clotheslines, pushing the doll up between my legs, tucking it snugly against my panties, and then carefully arranging the skirt of my dress to cover my knees. I sometimes wondered if it wouldn’t be more realistic to take off my panties before lying down, because how could a baby be born through a pair of underpants? But I thought Richard might be shocked at this, so didn’t mention it.

Doctor would pretend to wash his hands, Nurse would pretend to help him slip on his rubber gloves, they would both turn to me, and I could hardly breathe waiting for Doctor to reach up under my dress, grope for the doll and work it down between my legs, the backs of his hands sliding very slowly against the skin of my bare thighs, until it was “born.” He would then wish me much happiness with my new baby and present it to me proudly, to clasp against my flat chest.

So that’s what we were doing the first Sunday afternoon in December 1941. When Richard had finished his Doctor speech, I pulled myself up from the bench and handed the doll over to Barbara. Then I realized I just had to pee. “Wait till I get back,” I called, running to our bungalow.

My mother and father were both in the living room as I flew past them to the toilet; they were listening to the big Stromberg Carlson radio that stood against one wall. When I came out, my mother said, “The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor. It’s probably war.”

“Where’s Pearl Harbor?” I asked. “Is it in America?”

“I’m not sure,” my mother said. “I don’t think so.”

But my father just said, “Ssssh.” I shrugged and ran back out to Richard and Barbara. The word “pearl” made me think of rings.

“We’ve been bombed,” I said importantly. “It may be war.”

Barbara looked up from the bench at the sky. “Bombed where?” she asked. “I don’t see anything.”

Richard had a somewhat better grasp of world events. “War with who?” he asked. “Hitler?”

“Japan, I think.”

“That’s crazy,” he said. “Japan is America’s friend. My dad said so. They’ve even got people in Washington right now talking with Hull about trade or something.”

“Who’s Hull?” asked Barbara.

“Cordell Hull,” said Richard. “Just our Secretary of State, that’s who.”

This was beyond me. “Well, my mother said we were bombed by Japan,” I insisted.

“That doesn’t mean it’s so,” said Richard.

“My mother’s not a liar.”

“Didn’t say she was,” said Richard. “She must have heard wrong. I know for a fact we’re not at war with anyone.” He turned right away from me and towards Barbara on the bench. She still had Dydee under her dress. “As for you, dear lady,” he said in his Doctor voice, “aren’t you in terrible pain yet?” Barbara nodded vigorously and clutched her stomach. “Ow, ow!” she cried. “Help me, Doctor! Please!”

Richard pulled on his pretend rubber gloves without waiting for me to assist. “There, there,” he said to Barbara. “It’s going to be all right.” He waved me to his side. “Nurse! Let’s start getting this baby born right now.”

But after Barbara and Richard went home and I was back in the house, listening to the President telling the country that America was at war, and with Japan, I gave the situation serious thought. I already knew that Hitler hated Jews and that my parents and I were Jews, although I wasn’t sure what made us that.

We weren’t religious. And we didn’t do anything different than other kids’ families. But when we had first come out here and were looking for a place to live, I had seen signs posted in certain neighborhoods we drove through that said, “Jews not welcome here,” and my mother had said that meant us. I had also heard the grownups talking one time, when they didn’t know I was listening, about Hitler making lampshades out of Jewish skin. And then I had read headlines in the newspaper my father brought home every day that shouted in big letters: “Hitler warns U.S.: ‘You’re Next!’”

So I had been very glad we were in Hollywood instead of New York, even if my father was still out of work, because we were farther from Hitler and it would take him longer to reach me.

(Did they peel your skin off after you were dead, or before?)

Now with this news about Japan, I took out my geography book and studied a map of Asia and Alaska. They were really close together, almost touching in one place, and I saw that Japan could get to me that way, moving down through Alaska, Canada, Washington and Oregon to California.

On the other hand, I had never heard that Japan particularly hated Jews, so I supposed it wouldn’t be worse for me than for anyone else if they reached Hollywood. But the safest place to live seemed to be Kansas, because it was equally far from each coast. It would take both Japan and Germany a long time to get there.

Would I have the courage to run away to Kansas by myself if my parents stayed put? Probably not. There was still President Roosevelt, though. My mother said he had saved us from the Depression and from Jew-haters like Father Coughlin on the radio and Westbrook Pegler in the newspaper. Now that America was at war, could he save us again?

A week or so later, the Japanese couple next door disappeared. It seemed to happen overnight. Nobody saw them go. One day there, the next day — boom — gone. My mother said they had been taken to an unknown place to stay, together with other Japanese people. It was for their safety and for ours, she explained.

“Did they get to take their furniture with them?” I asked. The windows of their house were shuttered; you couldn’t look inside. My mother didn’t know. I thought it would be very sad if the old man and woman had to go away without any of their things. And who would take care of everything while they were gone?

“The place is locked,” said my mother. After that, people stopped talking about it, even though the house stayed vacant for as long as we lived next door.

My class at the Franklin Avenue School talked about the Japanese Front during Social Studies period, though. Wake Island, Corregidor, Bataan. The news from there was never good.

Then Richard’s parents decided to send him to parochial boarding school in another state. He came to say goodbye just before New Year’s. “When will you be back?” I asked. “Not for a long time,” he said. “Summer maybe.” His father was waiting in the car, so that was all there was to it. No special look, or promise to write or anything.

Maybe he hadn’t liked me as much as I liked him. Or maybe he had lost interest because I hadn’t known who Cordell Hull was.

Weekends felt empty without Richard to look forward to. For consolation my mother let me bring home a mixed-breed spaniel puppy from a litter in the garage of a lady down the block who was giving them away free. She said the puppy would be company for her when I was in school, so there were at least two reasons to have him.

Unfortunately, whenever he was let out to do his business the puppy went hunting for frogs on the property that used to belong to the Japanese couple. Then he would vomit parts of barely chewed-up raw frog all over the clean kitchen floor. My mother said if the Japanese family had been allowed to stay, they wouldn’t have let him do that. She didn’t call Japanese people “Japs,” the way everyone else was doing. “They weren’t hurting anybody,” she added. “They were nice quiet people.”

“I thought it was for their safety and ours,” I said.

“Well, that’s what they tell you,” said my mother darkly. “But who knows?”

I never had to become the maid’s little girl in someone else’s house and learn to be meek and humble. In July, my parents and I moved back to New York, where my father finally found a regular job. We left the puppy with Barbara, who promised to take good care of him. I wondered how Barbara’s mother would deal with the chewed-up bits of raw frog on her kitchen floor, but my mother said she had enough things on her mind without worrying about that.

My father rented a three-and-a-half room apartment in Kew Gardens for $45 a month, and I entered the seventh grade at P.S. 99 Queens in the fall. Here we followed the European Front during Social Studies period and pinned up little maps cut from The New York Times on a bulletin board. We also made round balls of tinfoil from the packages of cigarettes our parents smoked, because the government was short of tin. It was the class contribution to the War Effort, though no one at school explained the exact use to which these balls were going to be put.

However, my mother read in the paper that C rations were packed in cans made of tin. After that, whenever I sat in the kitchen carefully peeling a thin skin of tinfoil from its tobacco-scented paper backing I felt I was helping feed hungry soldiers.

I sent our new address to Richard’s father in California, but Richard didn’t write. Then I began going to Viola Wolff’s School of the Dance, above a Chinese restaurant on Queens Boulevard. There on Mondays after school I learned to foxtrot, waltz and rhumba with a boy named Robert Goldbaum whose family had escaped from Germany while they still could. (They were lucky, said my parents.)

Robert clearly liked me a lot, since he kept choosing me as his partner. Which meant it was safe to like him a lot too.

Although things still weren’t looking so good for America war-wise, Miss Oshman, my seventh-grade teacher, said she was confident that with the help of Our Boys, President Roosevelt would pull us through. My father was working again, I had met Robert, maybe Miss Oshman was right.

So although I was now three thousand miles closer to Hitler, I stopped thinking about lampshades.

© Nina R. Mishkin 2013

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ARE YOU A JEW?

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Once upon a time, say in September 1978, a little boy moved with his mother, father and older brother from New York City to a small and pretty town on the south shore of Massachusetts called Duxbury.  It was the first place the Pilgrims had come after spending the winter of their arrival in the New World on the Mayflower, the ship with which they had made the voyage.  As soon as the weather warmed up, they sailed across Massachusetts Bay and called the place they landed “Duke’s Borough.”  [I forget which Duke, but you can be sure he was English and Protestant.] John and Priscilla Alden built a house there, now a tourist attraction. The town also has a monument erected to the memory of Miles Standish.

An executive search lady had steered the little boy’s parents to Duxbury because it was equidistant between Boston and Hyannis, on Cape Cod, where she was hoping the little boy’s father would accept a position as CFO for a privately held corporation. According to the little boy’s mother, who tended to be hoity-toity about such things, public schools in Hyannis were unacceptable, and there were no private ones anywhere near, except Catholic parochial schools, which were also unacceptable because the little boy’s parents, and therefore their children, were nominally Jewish.  Also she felt she might die if she couldn’t get to a big city once in a while, preferably one with a reputation for culture and learning, like Boston.

Thus Duxbury it was.  When the little boy’s older brother first heard where they were moving, he asked, “Is there also a Chickenbury and a Turkeybury?”  But he was already beginning to make sardonic comments about many things, even though he was only eleven, so never mind that.  Duxbury was certainly lovely when the family came up one weekend to look at it before making a commitment — all  green trees, and winding roads, and historic New England houses with plaques bearing dates of construction going back as far as, and occasionally even farther than, the late eighteenth century, and steepled white churches of nearly every Protestant denomination dotted here and there on well kept lawns.  There was also one red brick Catholic church, and a yacht club with its own tennis courts and golf course, and a beautiful expanse of golden beach on the Atlantic Ocean reserved for town residents.

They moved in on the first Saturday in September. School began the following Monday. The little boy’s brother was in a higher grade, in a different building, served by a different school bus. So he would be going alone to his new school. In New York, they had walked with friends from their apartment house to their respective schools. The yellow school buses here were new to them. On the first day, the little boy’s mother therefore walked him the half-block down their street to the corner where the lower school bus would pick him up, and waited until he was safely inside.

She was back on the corner at 3:00, when school let out. The  little boy descended the bus steps, happy to see her, and took her hand as they ambled back to the house. “You don’t have to come anymore,” he declared proudly.  “I can do it myself.”  In the kitchen, she poured him a glass of milk to go with the plate of chocolate chip cookies on the table, and sat down opposite to ask how his first day had gone.  Everything was good, he assured her.  Teacher nice, other kids fine. Except for one thing on the bus in the morning. “What thing?” asked his mother. So he told her, which is what he’d been wanting to do all along.

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A big kid had got on at the next stop after his and sat down in the empty seat next to him. A very big kid. [As the lower school to which the bus was going only went through fifth grade, the size of this “big kid” must be considered in relation to the size of the little boy, who was about to enter fourth grade. We’re not talking teenagers here.]

The big kid looked the little boy over. “Never saw you before,” he said. “New?” The little boy nodded.  The big kid asked his name and where he lived.  “What kind of name is that?” he wanted to know. “My name,” said the little boy, bravely.

Then the big kid asked which church the little boy went to. The little boy was next to the window or he would have got up and changed his seat, but he couldn’t do that. So he said he didn’t go to any church.  Not even the Catholic one? The little boy shook his head. No.

Right away the big kid demanded, in a not friendly way, “Are you a jew?”

The little boy had already sensed that “jew” might not be a very good thing to be in this new town. Or at least, not on this bus. On the other hand, he also knew one shouldn’t lie.

So after a moment, he said to the big kid, “Which would you rather be?  A jew… or Hitler?

The big kid had to think about that one.  “A jew, I guess,” he said finally.

“Well then,” said the little boy. “You see?”

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“Was that a good answer?” he asked his mother that afternoon.

“It was a very good answer,” said his mother, getting up and kissing the top of his curly head as she went to pour more milk.

The big kid never bothered the little boy again. The following weekend, his mother and father took him (and his brother) to Fenway Park in Boston to see the New York Yankees play the Boston Red Sox as a present for his ninth birthday.  It was harder for him to decide which team to root for than it had been to decide what to say on the bus.

His mother is still very proud of him.

MY THREE NAZIS

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Their names are Hermann Rosencranz, Karl Munch and Walter Schieber.  Karl’s last name has an umlaut over the u, which changes the pronunciation, but WordPress makes no provision for umlauted u‘s, so you’ll have to remember Munch doesn’t rhyme with lunch.

I call them Nazis because of three small red books I happen to have.  The first one was given to Hermann in Munich on June 30, 1936.  His party membership number is 3483589.

IMG_0879On the frontispiece inside, under a swastika and seal, is the name of the organization that issued the small red book: National Sozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei. [National Socialist German Workers Party.]

IMG_0880 The second small red book was given to Karl on September 4, 1934. His party membership number is 717410.  Karl was born earlier than Hermann and joined the party earlier, too.  You can see that his number is lower. Hermann’s book is dirtier and duller in color, though. He may have perspired more heavily. Or dropped it somewhere. It’s hard to believe that either of them would have been sent into the dirt and sweat of battle. Perhaps they were World War I veterans.  But they were both too old to fight in 1939.

IMG_0878The third small book is Walter’s.  His party number is 557979.  He was born 29 years after Karl, and 21 years after Hermann. The very low number he was given when his book was issued to him on June 30, 1941 may therefore have been one that had been retired after the death of its original owner and was now being put back in service with Walter.

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A brief pause for back story.  How did these three National Socialist Party membership books make their way into one of my bookcases, where they now repose quietly on top of a small paperback copy of Marlene Dietrich’s ABC  which I purchased in New York City for 50 cents in 1961?   I can tell you why I put Hermann, Karl, and Walter with Marlene. It’s because their books are the same size, and — more fancifully — because all four of them spoke the same language.  It also pleases me that the three Nazis were politically poles apart from this German-born woman who bravely entertained American troops at the front wherever and whenever Army regulations permitted.

But I can only surmise how the three red books reached America at the end of World War II.  My second husband was the youngest of three brothers — and too young for either enlistment or the draft. (Probably also too near-sighted.)  But the middle brother was drafted, and then trained as an Army weather man.  He was therefore in Europe, although not on the front lines, after D-Day.  It’s my guess he picked up the three red books, and maybe more than three, as small compact souvenirs to bring home when the war was over.

My former brother-in-law is now 91 and living abroad with his Dutch-born wife in an assisted living facility near her daughter and other family, so I can’t easily ask him if I’ve guessed right.  The first I personally knew of the three red books was when my second husband showed them to me, twenty years after the end of the war.  He had no use for them even then, and left them behind when we eventually parted after our children were grown.

That was in 1987.  I have jettisoned a lot of stuff since then. However, I still hang on to Hermann, Karl and Walter and have sometimes asked myself why.  There are probably two reasons, one less important than the other.  The lesser reason is that I never really learned German, therefore cannot read what Hitler had to say in these little red books, and want to know — before passing the books on to someone else. [Bill thinks they might be worth something, but I’m not so sure of that.  It’s all so long ago now that at least some uneducated young people have never heard of the Holocaust and others who have heard of it deny it ever really existed. So who would want to pay good money for my three Nazis?]

German was supposed to be my second foreign language for earning a doctorate in English, and I did get through the reading exam — a paragraph on the novels of Sir Walter Scott written in German. But only by spraying myself heavily with Arpege beforehand, saving up all the vocabulary I didn’t know (which was a lot), and then summoning the young proctor of the exam, who was permitted to give help with “one or two” words per exam-taker.  Overcome by fragrance, he as good as translated a third of my paragraph for me.  So I’m not really in great shape vocabulary-wise to share Hitler’s message with anyone.

But now there’s this blog, which has at least three German-speaking followers, and the occasional German “visitor” too!   Perhaps one of you — and you know who you are — would be good enough to translate, or summarize, the Fuhrer’s words for us in the comment section below. Feel free to editorialize as well, and as much as you like!

IMG_0881 IMG_0882 IMG_0883However, the more important reason I can’t let go of Hermann, Karl and Walter is that they were three flesh-and-blood human beings, with birthdates, and handwriting, and faces as real as if they’d been photographed yesterday. (Hermann even appears to be slightly smiling.)  And these three men, who probably had wives and children, would have looked at me, if I had been so unlucky as to be a little girl in Europe, and seen only a specimen of vermin to be exterminated as efficiently as possible.

IMG_0886 IMG_0887 Hermann died on March 1, 1943.  It’s pencilled in at the top of the page.  (I do know what “gestorben” means.)  He was 57.  If he hadn’t died during the war but lived on and on, so that I could confront him now, in the flesh instead of in his photograph, he would be 128, which is of course impossible.  I have his photograph, though.  I’m still alive, and he’s just a photograph.  I know it’s ridiculous that this gives me some satisfaction, some sense of vindication. But it does.

Karl is “gestorben” too.  It happened in November 1943.

IMG_0891 IMG_0892 He died at 65.  He would be 136 today.  I have a feeling Karl was more ruthless than Hermann.  He seems more smug in his photograph.  Of course, feelings are subjective. And photographs lie. I know that.  But I hate Karl more than Hermann.

When Bill read the first draft of this post, he stopped at that sentence, the one just before this one. ‘Hate’ is a pretty strong word,” he said. “You mean ‘dislike,’ don’t you?”

No, I don’t mean “dislike.”  It’s senseless, it’s illogical, I wasn’t there, it’s an accident I even know Hermann and Karl and Walter existed. All the same, when I look at their photos there’s real hate in my heart.  Perhaps I should think of them as victims, too. Brainwashed by rhetoric, mesmerized by a charismatic leader.  That doesn’t cut it for me. This isn’t about Germans, or Germany, or the language, or Angela Merkel (whose well cut jackets I quite admire).  It’s not about Bach or Beethoven or Brahms. I’d love to visit today’s Berlin before I die.  But Hermann and Karl and Walter looking out at me from the pages of their small red books,  those three I can’t forgive.  They are the faces of perps — perpetrators of a twentieth-century genocide I may have escaped but which tangled my growing-up years in ways too complex to tease out in the short space of a post.

Walter, the baby of the group — born in 1907 and only 32 when Hitler marched into Poland — does not have “gestorben” written in his book.

IMG_0897 IMG_0898Although photographed in civilian dress, Walter was probably mobilized when Germany went to war.  He was young enough, and also the only one of my three to have received an award: something in “Bronze” on April 1, 1940.

IMG_0899While Walter may not have been classified as “gestorben,” he must have been separated from his red book at some point after March 1943. Beginning in April of that year, there are no more stamps in the book showing he paid his monthly party dues.  And something did happen on April 29, 1943;  not knowing the language, I cannot tell you what.  Again, perhaps a German-speaking follower or reader can explain to us what this cryptic notation inscribed on the inside cover of Walter’s book may mean:

IMG_0896If he survived the war and life after war, Walter would be 107 today.  Remotely possible, although not very likely.  And in truth, what could I possibly say to such an extremely aged man in such a fantasy reality?  I may know what “gestorben” means, but I can’t speak his language. And I’m sure he never learned mine, or not enough to understand me and my feelings.  Especially as I don’t really understand me and my feelings either, when it comes to Hermann, Karl, Walter and the three red books.

Given the date of my birth, I know I was beyond fortunate to have been born where I was born, a whole ocean away from the murderous venom that was flooding Europe during the years of my childhood — the very same years when Hermann, Karl and Walter were dutifully paying their party dues. But my good fortune changes nothing.  I have been on the moving walkway at Yad Vashem, hearing the endless litany of names of little children like me, starved, gassed or slaughtered by other Hermanns, Karls and Walters — names, names, names echoing through a dark and starry universe.  It’s therefore ironic that these three Hitler loyalists should come to rest with me and my hostility as I grow old, that I should be the curator of their last effects.

I began this piece thinking such artifacts might be of general interest. Having written it, I suspect I was wrong. The feelings these three red books incite in me draw so heavily on the past and on my ethnicity (if you can call it that) that they may be incommunicable. If so, it seems only sensible to put Hermann, Karl and Walter back in the bookcase and leave them be.

You can’t win ’em all.  As Hitler (and perhaps Walter) finally learned.

POSTSCRIPT

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Before he began the abruptly truncated memoir I’ve transcribed in the last six posts, my father made a rough outline of what he meant to cover:

  • Forward
  • Childhood
  • Ukraine 1905
  • Germany
  • Baku
  • School, Barsuk
  • Music lessons
  • Gymnasium
  • Moving to apartment [from living quarters behind store]
  • War years
  • Crisis at school
  • Teen age
  • Revolution 1917
  • Awakening as a musician
  • Red Revolution 1917
  • Dangerous times
  • Departure from Baku to Volga (7 of us)
  • Civil war
  • Terrible months
  • On the road to Siberia
  • Tomsk, school and peaceful life again
  • New friends, and new activities
  • Summer, and first winter in Siberia
  • Spring, Fall and last winter in Siberia
  • Defeat of Kolchak and White armies
  • Return to Baku

Since he managed to address only the first five of these topics before giving up, looking at the entire list shows me how little I ever knew of what he intended to narrate, and now will never know.  He did leave a note to his typescript explaining Barsuk was a tutor who came to the house to prepare him for the examinations that would determine whether he could enter a Gymnasium. Although he knew addition, multiplication and division, he would apparently have failed subtraction without extra help.

However, while he was a convivial storyteller in company, I heard nothing at any time of his crisis at school, his awakening as a musician, his experiences of teenage angst, or his take on the 1917 Revolution and the concomitant dangers it presented for a Jewish family living in Baku. I knew the family had left the city for a time during the war, but thought they had gone to Kharkov and then come back to Baku when the danger was past. I see from the list I was wrong. (Perhaps it was my mother who spent some of the war years in Kharkov with her sister.  When I first heard these city names, I was too young to know where they were, and may have mixed everything up.)

I also see from his topic list that by the time the family evacuated to the Volga during the 1917 Revolution, Bertha was already married and a mother, since he says seven people departed, not six. Which makes sense when I think about it. Bertha was ten years older than my father, and her daughter Yulia was born in 1916. But where was Foma, her young husband? Fighting on the side of the Whites?

I heard nothing of the “terrible months,” the trip to Siberia, or the nearly two-year stay in Tomsk.  I just looked up Tomsk to get some sense of its distance from European Russia. It’s far. It was known as the cultural center of Siberia and was equally famous for its wooden architecture, much of which has been preserved. There’s a French language website where you can see early twentieth-century photographs of what it must have looked like when my teen-age father arrived, and a contemporary photograph of a modern Tomsk street in summer which made me want to get on a plane and fly to Siberia right away, at my age — to see what it might have been like to be there at his age.

Discovering these tantalizing hints of what I never knew about my father also makes me sad.  Perhaps there are some families where parents do tell their children about their own lives in a meaningful way. That was not true in my nuclear family of three. Or perhaps part of growing up involves freeing ourselves of our parents so completely we tell ourselves nothing about how they lived their lives can possibly have any bearing on how we’re going to live ours, and it’s only when we’re older that we begin to wish we had asked more questions while there was still timeI

It’s true I did overhear a few of the stories my father told to other people.  But he told them only because they were good stories. Among them were two of the “adventures”  he promised in his Forward but neglected to include in his list:  (1) how he contrived to obtain exit visas from the Soviet Union in 1922, a time when that was almost impossible; and (2) how he gamed the process for getting permits to immigrate to the United States from Constantinople before the 1922 British embargo of the Black Sea shut down all inbound and outbound travel.  You can read about the first of these adventures here.  I put the second one in the mouth of Anna’s father in the “Luck” section of At Roscoe, which is here.  And if you’re interested in what happened to Bertha’s little daughter Yulia, one or two years old during the family’s exodus from Baku to Siberia during the 1917 Revolution, you’ll find all I know of her here.

What do I make of the twenty-two typed pages that do exist?

(1) I am endlessly grateful to my grandfather, who I never knew, for his enterprise and courage. If he had not managed to bribe his family’s way out of pogrom-plagued Ukraine and into Germany in 1905, my father might well have been slaughtered at the age of three and I would never have been born.  [If my mother had had a girl child by another husband, would she have been me? I leave that philosophical question for another day, but my hunch is “no.”]  I also applaud my grandfather for bringing the family back to Russia instead of remaining in Germany, despite his admiration for all things German.  Any child my father might have fathered had he grown up in Berlin — whether “me” or not — would likely have gone into the ovens at Buchenwald or Auschwitz, or else died in a camp like Anne Frank, before ever reaching adulthood.

(2) Less self-referentially, I am struck by the degree to which the lives of my grandparents and their children were shaped by the anti-semitism of the world in which they lived.  Except for one of my father’s aunts, all adult and nearly adult members of the family changed their Hebrew names to Russian ones, evidently to deflect prejudice and enhance their chances of survival. The little boys were too young, but later they changed their names, too — my father first, and then my uncle.  My grandfather shaved off the traditional beard that characterized the adult male Jew, wore a “German”-style mustache, and paid mere lip service to religion, and then only on the high holidays (although my grandmother continued to light candles on Friday nights in the privacy of the home).

Money which might have gone for other things was spent on bribes for fake documents and fake passports. More money went for education. The children had to attend private school, for which there were fees, unless they could qualify — if necessary with paid extra tutoring — for the 10% of places available to Jewish children in the official government Gymnasiums.  The family had to flee pogroms, leaving almost all furniture behind. I was struck by my father’s little-boy recollection of nearly bare apartments and of sleeping on sheets on a bare floor until necessary furniture could be very slowly acquired again.  Even when the family became comfortable once more, my father and his brother — five or six years apart in age — continued to sleep together on a sofa in the living room, after company had left, and do their homework together on the same dining table in the gallery. Only after two years in Baku, was there enough money to build a real kitchen in the living quarters.

Much of the family’s money also went towards my grandfather’s efforts to bring all of his extended family out of Ukraine to  Baku, which was apparently relatively safer for Jews and the reason they moved out of a real apartment into quarters partitioned out of the space behind a store — lowering their living standard, as my father put it.  I say “relatively” safer in light of what he had already learned from a little playmate named Volodia before he was old enough for school:  that if someone were to kill him, there would be no punishment for the murderer because my father was a Jew.  Indeed, another playmate — Solomon, who was Jewish too — was killed by other children in the neighborhood:  for fun they threw him into a deep well, where he drowned.  My father observes no one was ever punished, so that what Volodia had said about getting off scot-free after killing a Jewish child was correct.

(3) Finally, although he may not have been aware of the extent to which it colored his writing, my father was clearly envious and resentful of his older brother Monia, the favored first son.  I have not until now written anything, in this blog or elsewhere, about my paternal uncle — even omitting his existence from accounts of my mother and father, because his story is too complicated to explain in passing.  In fact, I never knew my father had a brother until my twenties, when he showed up in some old photographs and I asked who he was.  That is also when I learned this uncle came to America at the same time as my father and mother, perhaps only at the urging of his parents, who may have felt he would have a better life outside of the Soviet Union.  One of these days I may write about what happened to him once he was here. But it’s difficult. Suffice it for now that he eventually became a burden to my father, resented and then (with guilt) abandoned. I have never decided for myself what should have been done, or what I would have done in similar circumstances.  But my father’s account of their early relationship, and the ambivalence he inadvertently expresses explains a lot…..

[I’m not quite done, although nearly.  There’s a rather sad Second Postscript for next time, if you can still bear with me.  What good is a story without its end?]

 

 

FROM MY FATHER (Part Five)

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From left to right: Menia (my father), Monia (on violin), Bertha (pretending to play the piano), Bronia, Father (my grandfather), Mother (my grandmother). Probably taken in 1909 or 1910.

[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.]

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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….]

FROM MY FATHER (Part Four)

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From left to right: Menia (my father), Monia (on violin), Bertha (pretending to play the piano), Bronia, Father (my grandfather), Mother (my grandmother). Probably taken in 1909 or 1910.

[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.]

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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….]

 

FROM MY FATHER (Part Three)

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From left to right: Menia (my father), Monia (on violin), Bertha (pretending to play the piano), Bronia, Father (my grandfather), Mother (my grandmother). Probably taken in 1909 or 1910.

[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. Until I hear from any of you that I’m just humoring myself, I’m going to keep 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.]

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BY MICHAEL RAGINSKY

[Continued from previous post….]

August 8th, 1984

By this time, I found out I had an Uncle; he was Father’s brother, who also arrived with his family to Baku when we did. His family consisted of his wife, two girls named Sifa and Mania and two boys named Solomon and Boris. The girls were a little older than I, but the boys were younger. Uncle’s name was Isaac, which he promptly changed to Russian name Alexander; his wife’s name was Enaia, which remained same for the rest of her life. They lived close by, and the boys became my playmates.

My father’s name was Nachum-Leib, which he too changed to Nahoum, or in Russian, Naum. Mother’s name was Sima, but Russified her name to Sonia or Sophie. Both of my sisters also changed names, from Beile to Bertha and from Broche to Bronislava. (Beile in Jewish meant “beautiful” and Broche meant “prayer!”) My brother’s name was Moses and in Russian Moisei, and that’s the way it remained till we came to America, when it became Morris. My name was Mendel. Why I got it and what it meant I never knew. All I knew is that I did not like it. I took the Russian Revolution as a good opportunity for me to change the name to Michael. During the first months of Revolution it was comparatively easy to get hold of documents with the new name, and from then on all other papers could be changed to Michael too. But at home I was always called Menia or Menichka, and my brother Monia or Monichka, although the sisters were called by their Russian names.

My father also had a sister called Dunia. She was married to a man by the name Rossinsky. By profession he was a cap and hat maker for men. He could make very fancy, and I thought very beautiful, hats for officers and other officials, and regulation hats with visors for Gymnasium students. He always made hats for me and my brother, but that was later, when Father brought his sister and family also to Baku.

About the same time, Father also brought to Baku his own Father and Mother. He settled them in a room separate from our dwelling but close by. By that time we had moved from our apartment into a huge building in the commercial part of Baku, where Father and Uncle opened their first store together. The building had many stores and also housed a Gymnasium for boys. The stores had entrances from the street and also from the rear, which opened to a huge back area, more like a ball park.

The building was owned by a Azerbaijanian Moslem (tatarim) who hardly could speak Russian. He chose Father as advisor in his dealings with Russian officials as well as to take care of all his official paperwork. Father became his right hand in dealing with Russian officialdom! He used to arrive in a magnificent carriage with three fine horses, surrounded by his cronies. His name was Gadji-Aga Gadjieff, and he was an enormously rich man. But his sense of humor left me flat. Once, I remember, he arrived in the spring to see Father at the store and had to wait a bit as Father was out, so noticing me in the office part of the store, he casually asked in broken Russian what month was it.  I said, “May,” to which all of a sudden he broke out again in broken Russian, “Ya perdnu a ti poimai!”  “May” and “poimai” rhyme in Russian, but the meaning is very stinky. It meant, “I will let out a fart, and you catch it!” I was taken terribly aback, not expecting anything like that from such a V.I.P. person and was speechless! But the V.I.P. burst out laughing, joined by his cronies, for a very long time. Almost till Father got back to the office. Such delicate sense of humor!

My mother also had a brother. I never saw him, but I knew of him because he had a candy factory in Odessa and was sending us from time to time packages and boxes of his candy; they were very fancy, wrapped up in papers with pretty pictures on them. Mother’s Mother was living somewhere in a little village in Ukraine — alone, as Mother’s Father was always traveling all over Russia, but mostly in Siberia, representing book publishers and selling books. I met this Grandfather only once, when he came to visit us in Baku. He was a handsome tall man, with a huge white beard and completely bald head! He liked to drink Vodka. I guess in Siberia it is a must to keep warm!  My Father was very deferential to him, as also to his own Father.  This Grandfather did not stay long with us, but before he left he was very generous with his grandchildren.  I do not know what he gave to sisters, but he gave a lot [of money] to Monia, for him to buy a fine violin and a beautiful photo-camera.  I got nothing! I received Monia’s old camera, which I did not like and did not want! I never did use that camera!  Mother’s Mother, our Grandmother, was later to stay with us for a few years and once in the summer we all went to her village and spent our summer vacation there.  But about all that later.

In our family, no one wore glasses except Father and us two boys. We were nearsighted. All others had fine vision all the time!

Father’s goal was to bring out all of the relatives to Baku from Ukraine, and that required a lot of money, which I imagine was not forthcoming in amounts needed. And so, coming back to the time when we lived nicely in our apartment with a maid — I was about five then — we had to move and lower our living standards. We moved to the building I described where the store was located, on Borgovaia Street II (Commercial Street II), into small quarters next to the store. Later we moved again to live in the back of the store. The store was huge in length and so it was easy to partition it off — in the front for the store part, and in the rear for living. Still later on, another store was opened and Uncle and his family set up living quarters in the other store’s back.

My uncle Alexander, in contrast to my Father, had a great black beard which he always groomed and was very proud of. He did not wear eyeglasses and neither did anyone in his family.  My Grandfather (Father’s Father) was a very religious man; he was also bearded, with a great white beard.  He was most of the time praying in synagogue or at home. He liked my brother very much but did not care much for me!  My GrandMa was a nice little lady and liked me very much; I was visiting her often and she always had cookies and cake for me, something I got very rarely at home. Once, on a Jewish holiday, she even poured me a small glass of vodka with the cake. Vodka for a five year old! Needless to say that I was drunk for the rest of the day! Mother was furious! And that was the end of visits on Jewish holidays to GrandMa.

In our house there was never much religion. Father would go to synagogue on big Jewish Holidays, and also celebrate Passover  with all ritual during meals.  Mother would pray over candles lit on Fridays, and there were no un-kosher meals during Passover and no un-kosher dishes. Also there was no cooking on Saturdays; all the cooking was done Friday and the meal was kept warm till Saturday. But that was all.

My Grandfather and GrandMa lived near us until GrandMa died. I saw her in coffin and cried! After that, GrandPa left Baku and I never saw him again. I think that he left for Ukraine, where he was more at home with other religious friends near the synagogue.

The huge store building where we lived had also in the center a great gate from the street through which students could walk to Gymnasium and carriages could enter the premises. In the summer, an open-air movie house opened inside the open area in the yard, and Father had a key to the private box that belonged to the rich landlord, so I was the first customer for the first show every evening. I loved movies!

August 9th, 1984.

By now I was about six years old. The year was 1908. The two stores did not work out too good, and Father and Uncle decided to combine both stores into one, but both retained the back parts of the stores as living quarters for each. The front of one of the stores was given to Sister Dunia and her husband the hatmaker, and they established a thriving business for themselves. He was an excellent worker and very ambitious; he was at his sewing machine from early in the morning to late at night working, increasing and selling his inventory of caps and hats.

Father and Uncle were working together in the other store, which they stocked with various merchandise all imported from Germany: sewing machines, knitting machines, bicycles, phonographs and records, different kinds of musical instruments, strings, etc. Apparently, they were doing well. They had a system whereby each would take in all the cash that came from sales every other month — six months one partner and the other six months the other partner. Each one, after taking out equal amount of money for living expenses, would put the excess into a fund to pay business expenses and for the merchandise. Father would go about twice a year to Germany on his buying trip, and Uncle would tend the store.  Uncle was a good mechanic (also self learned) and was very good at fixing all sorts of mechanical problems with the merchandise.

By that time, Monia was already going to the Gymnasium, located in our building. The Gymnasiums in Russia were official schools of learning, and the diploma from the Gymnasium was necessary to be admitted to any institution of higher learning, like University or Engineering School.  In Tsarist Russia there was a quota for all Jewish children that could be admitted to any institution of learning except private schools, whose diplomas were not accepted at University or Engineering School. Jewish quota for all officially approved schools was 10%; if the class consisted of forty students, only four Jewish children were admitted. The admittance for everyone was by examinations, but the competition for the few Jewish places was fierce, especially where the Jewish population was large.  In Baku, there were very few Jewish families at that time and even less Jewish children of school age. So for Monia it was comparatively easier to be admitted to the Gymnasium. But when the time came for me to apply, it was a very different story!

[To be continued…]