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:
- Ukraine 1905
- School, Barsuk
- Music lessons
- 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?]