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?]

 

 

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FROM MY FATHER (Part Six)

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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 it up a bit. But not too much. I did try to preserve his locutions, to give you the flavor of his speech. 

This is the last installment of the typescript. Readers who may have just now stumbled upon these memories of his can find my transcription of the earlier pages in the previous five posts of this blog. I wish there had been more to offer. But after the August 12th, 1984 entry below, he put away what he had written and never came back to it.  Perhaps my mother discouraged him. (“Who will want to read it?”) Perhaps he felt too tired and weak to continue what would have been a considerable undertaking. I will never know….]

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BY MICHAEL RAGINSKY

By then [1909], we had a new helper for Mother: a nice young Russian peasant girl who came to work for the family a couple of years before. Father had an addition built to our living quarters: a kitchen with many cabinets and room for the Russian girl to sleep there. Our own living quarters were expanding as the family was growing up; there was a piano in the house now, although no one could play it, but just in case Monia needed an accompanist to play his pieces with a piano.

I did not start yet on my music lessons. The Russian girl liked me very much and devoted much time to me. She would put me to bed and before I would fall asleep she would tell all kinds of wonderful fairy tales. I loved all her stories and she was telling them very masterfully. Later, I read Anderson’s Fairy Tales, and most of the stories she told me she was repeating word for word. Most likely she had the book and was reading the stories before she was telling them to me, although sometimes I would ask her to tell me again some story that she told me long time ago and which I liked very much; she would remember everything and the story sounded the same like I heard it the first time.

August 12th, 1984

She was not making much money, I guess, but she always was buying me candy and presents, and even once she dressed me up in long pants, which I was very proud to wear because up till then I was always wearing short pants, like all the little boys were wearing. Then she dressed up herself in her best velvet Sunday dress, and both of us went to a photographer to take a photograph together. It must have been very expensive for her; most likely all of her wages for the month went on this memorable outing. I still remember the photograph: she was standing tall and very erect, holding my hand, and I was standing very close to her, coming up to her waistline. Her name was Masha, or Mashenka. I never knew her last name; everyone in the family called her Masha.

She was always there to help me in every way. When there were guests, or the family stayed up late in the living room where our sleeping couch was, she would put me up in her own bed in the kitchen, and when my couch was available would carry me still sleeping in her arms to the couch and tuck me in for the night. When she told me the stories before I fell asleep, she was holding my hand. She was a plain-looking Russian girl, with typical Slav features, but to me she was the most beautiful person in the world! When I started to take music lessons on the cello in the music school, the cello was bigger than I in size, and Masha always walked with me to the school, carrying my cello, and waited there till I finished with my lesson, and again walked back home with me again carrying my cello for me. The school was not too far, about 15 minutes walk from our home. Masha stayed with us until I was about 10 years of age. Then, saving up some money for her marriage, she went back to her village to marry someone arranged by her priest and parents.

When Masha left, Mother needed another girl to help out. I never knew how did Mother find the girls to come to work for us until, after Masha was gone, Mother took me along one day to go and find another girl. We went to the center of town, where there was a large park. In that park there was an area specially reserved for women who wanted to find a job as houseworkers. There I saw very many women of all ages sitting on the ground and chatting among themselves until a prospective employer would appear. Then they all would spruce up and sit neatly and quietly. Mother would look the younger ones over, would talk to some, ask questions, and finally — when decided on one –would tell her all about the job, salary and other details that the job entailed. If the girl agreed to accept the job, she would give Mother her passport. (Everyone in Russia had to have a passport, which had to be registered with police in each city or town where the person was to reside or work.) Mother in turn would give her our address and ask her to come with her belongings next morning. Then, the ritual would be to take the girl to public bath house, and after her bath to dress her in everything fresh and clean and then bring her home to start work!

And so, coming back to the time when I was 7 years of age, my real preparation for entering Gymnasium started, as well as my entrance into music school to study cello. The cello was not my idea of the instrument, but Father’s. He heard a cellist play a solo piece in Odessa and was enchanted with the idea of having another son play the cello, which had such a lovely sound, like human voice!  And this is how the cello became my instrument.

I was not very enchanted with the idea. The instrument was very big, bigger than I was in height, and it was very difficult for me to carry it around. It did not have beautiful case like my brother had for his violin. I always had to find an empty corner where to keep the cello, and it was not always easy!

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[Although those are the last words of the typescript, my father also drafted a list, before he began, of the topics he initially intended to cover in his account of his first nineteen years. There are twenty-seven topics in his list, of which the typescript addresses only the first five. The list also stops short of what he promised in the Introduction — the story of his adventures in getting himself out of newly Sovietized Russia and on the way to, as he put it, “U.S.A.”  I did hear two of those “adventures” at the dinner table when I was growing up. So I will try your patience next time with a “Postscript” of sorts, in which I tidy up these matters and also set down my thoughts as I typed my way through what you’ve just been reading….]

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 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…]

FROM MY FATHER (Part Two)

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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. However, until I hear from any of you that I’m just humoring myself, I’m going to keep on typing till I get to where he stopped…. A visit with my father wasn’t always 100% interesting. But one usually came away with something to remember in the end.]

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BY MICHAEL RAGINSKY

[Continued from previous post….]

August 5th, 1984.

This is an eyewitness story of twentieth century events, as seen by me and into which I was born in the year of 1902.

I was never really sure if the date or year of my birth was truly January 18th, 1902, because I never saw my birth certificate. Nor was I ever told by my parents when I was born.  There were never family celebrations of anyone’s birthdays — neither of my parents nor sisters nor brother.  It always was a deep secret about each one’s age!  Why?  I never knew.  Of course in those days a birth certificate could have been gotten from Tsarist officials with a good bribe, for any date and year — which at times came in handy if it was for a boy, in order to escape compulsory military service. In any event, in my later years I reconstructed everyone’s ages by events; whether I arrived at the correct ages or slightly incorrect is not very important!

I placed my birthplace in the City of Ekaterinoslav in Ukraine (at the present time called Dnepropetrovsk) in the year 1902, on the 5th day of January (old Russian calendar) or on 18th of January by the present day calendar.  Ukraine today is one of so-called “independent” Soviet Republics.  The three large cities are Kiev, Odessa and Dnepropetrovsk.  In these cities are very large Jewish populations and still larger populations of anti-semitic Ukrainians.

My recollections of early years are not very clear. I remember playing by the house where we lived in a large sand pit, shoveling sand with my little wooden spade and building little houses.  I remember wearing a cast-off little dress with pockets (probably from my sisters) which were always full of fine sand. But that’s all I remember, except that besides Father and Mother I also had a brother and two sisters.  One of the sisters (Bronia) would play with me.  Even later I never knew what my Father did for a living at that period, although Mother would occasionally reminisce of that time and mention Father worked for a lawyer.

When I was two years of age, Russia was embroiled in a very disastrous war with Japan, which Russia lost!  In 1905, the first Russian Revolution also broke out and was murderously crushed by Tsarist Cossacks. As usual, “pogroms” against the Jews started all over Russia!  Someone had to pay for the Russian defeat, and most convenient victim had to be the Jew! The police organized bands of hoods, armed them and aided them to go after the Jews. These bands of hoods were called “Black Hundreds” and specialized in torturing and murdering whole families of Jews!  Evidently we were very lucky to escape the fate of other unfortunate families, as Father was able to bribe someone for foreign passport and took the family out of Russia and to Germany!  By then, I was about three years old, and the next few things I remember are while in Berlin.

August 6th, 1984.

In Berlin we lived in a apartment on the second floor. The floor was shiny yellow, probably well waxed parquet, but with very little furniture, practically bare rooms.  I know now that at that time the ages of my sisters were: Bertha 13, Bronia 11. My brother Monia was 9. Father was approximately 33 and mother 31. I was the youngest.

I did not know then, nor ever heard later, what Father did in Germany for a living to support such a large family. But I do know now that Father was a very brilliant man; he admired everything German and became fluent in German — speaking, reading and writing all self learned. He was also fluent in Russian, reading, and grammatically and correctly speaking and writing, and knew a lot of Jewish, speaking, reading and writing it.

His admiration for everything German carried over to wearing a mustache “a la Kaiser Wilhelm,” then German emperor. It was an enormous mustache. He was proud of it and always had the pointed ends turned upwards. He was great music lover and his secret desire was to be a concert violinist. He learned to play the violin himself and of course, not much good came out from his efforts, because simply without time to practice and good teacher, it is very difficult to accomplish good results, even with talent.

He was of medium height, medium weight, and other than the famous “mustache” was always cleanly shaved.  No beards, sideburns or hair anywhere else, except on the head — but in summertime the head was also cleanly shaved for coolness, in style of German Generals!

Like I said, I did not know what Father did for a living in Germany, but later I heard that Father made good connections with German industrial manufacturers for representation and credits in the new part of Russia: Baku. The manufacturers advised Father to go to Baku because it still was at that time a sleeping oil giant; the area was developing and riches awaited anyone willing to work hard. So after the 1905 Russian Revolution was crushed by the Tsar, we would all return to Russia and go directly to Baku. At that time there were only very few Jewish families there, and all of them either in professions or in businesses.

Father and Mother married early in life: he was twenty and she was eighteen or so.  By the time I was born, there had already been four children in the family before my birth. Only three survived. One died either in infancy or as a young boy. Except that it happened, there was never any talk about the dead brother.  If he had lived, he would have been 6 or 7 years of age.  As it happened, I was born as a replacement for a lost son!  Large families were very important in those days; they were insurance for parents against old age, and especially important were sons!

August 7th, 1984.

And so, coming back to my recollections of life in Germany, I vividly remember my new sandals made of yellow leather, which I treasured very much and when not wearing them would leave them in the corner and constantly from time to time go to inspect them, to see if they are still there!  I loved to smell the leather, and often polished them. I just loved my little sandals!

Then I remember playing in the street with a shiny yellow wheel which I was rolling with a little rod up and down a clean and very wide sidewalk by the house. Down below our apartment was a little market where Mother used to shop. At times she would take me along. The owner of the store was a big, fat German man in a white smock or apron. And as he knew me from coming with Mother and playing with my wheel on the street, sometimes when Mother was too busy to go herself downstairs to the store, she would give me the money and a big copper pitcher with a tight cover and send me down to the store to buy milk. I would run and ask the owner in German: “Eine canne milch, bitte.”  I remember this little speech even now! The owner would smile and pour milk into my pitcher and I would proudly run upstairs to Mother and deliver the milk. I saw very little of my sisters and brother. Either they were at school or I was asleep when they were around.

The rest of our time in Germany did not leave any lasting impressions in my mind.  Also I don’t remember when and how we returned to Russia. All that I remember is that in Baku we were in apartment, also practically unfurnished; we were sleeping on the floor covered with bed sheets and I would wake up very often because of the heat. The heat was terrific. It must have been summertime! We lived in this apartment till I was about five years old. Little by little the apartment got furnished with most necessary furnishings. There was a hall gallery that had a large table which was used for many purposes, but mainly as a dining table; and there were rooms for sleeping, and after a while there was a maid to help Mother with family chores.

I remember that maid very well! One morning after everyone left — sisters and brother to school, Father to business and Mother to markets — I remained in the care of the maid alone at the table. She was giving me my breakfast and the food was still on the table: bread, butter, cheese, milk and, in a metal can, Holland cocoa! The maid was a very nice young Russian peasant woman from some Russian village who came to work to Baku for better wages. She had a boy friend: Russian soldier. That boy friend was visiting her often and at times was taking her out for a few hours in the evenings. (The maid lived with us.) On that morning, she attempted to educate me and to explain how babies came. She said that a man had a “special instrument” that helped to bring babies. She never explained what the “instrument” was and left it to my own imagination! I liked the maid very much; she used to play with me and tell me fantastic fairy tales.  One day, to my great sorrow, she left — never to come back.  Apparently the “special instrument” of the soldier had something to do with it!

[To be continued….]

FROM MY FATHER (Part One)

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[My father died in Palm Springs, California, at the end of January 1986, just after his 84th birthday. He’d known for at least a year and a half he was dying. He had a serious cardiac condition his doctors thought would be hazardous to try to correct with surgery. So when they told him he might expect only another year or so to live, he sat down at his Royal typewriter and over the course of nine days in August 1984 began with two fingers on the keyboard to tap out a memoir of his earliest years. But while he was still telling about his life as a little boy, he must have felt too weak to continue.

He wrote in English, although his native language was Russian and he had learned English without formal lessons, just by living in New York. But he loved to talk and to read, so it’s surprisingly good English for someone who disembarked at nineteen knowing not a word.  His spelling is excellent. He remembers more often than not to include the articles “a,” “an” and “the.” However, his punctuation could use improvement, and his paragraphing is non-existent. And because he wasn’t really a writer, he sometimes repeats himself. I’ve therefore cleaned up his typescript a bit to try to make it more readable, while also preserving some of the Russian-language verb usage and locutions that make it sound as if you were with him, not me.

I have no idea what anyone else will think of this experiment in transcribing my father.  Although he gets off to a strong start in his Introduction (see below), and apparently had grand plans for what he was going to recount, much of what he actually managed to write may be boring to anyone who didn’t know him  — now only me and my two sons, who both already have photocopies of the original document he left. It’s true he does inadvertently give us bits of early twentieth century sociology as he goes along, a kind of child’s eye view of what life was like for Jews in Tsarist Russia. But I wonder who will have the patience to stay for long with a dying old man wishing to preserve what he can of himself and his family on paper before he goes and also trying to relive his youth one last time. 

Bill thinks I’m making a mistake in giving my dead and sometimes long-winded immigrant father a six-post platform on an internet he could never have imagined while he was alive.  If you agree and think we should quit — because you came to this blog to read my sort of posts, not his — 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 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 1984

Introduction

As I stood on the deck of “Marmara” on a glorious, sunny afternoon in October 1922, watching the ship slowly moving away from the pier in Batoum and probably looking for the last time in my life on the Russian land fast receding from my view as I began my voyage into the uncertain future — a stream of thoughts and dreams kept flashing through my mind!

The Black Sea was green, clear and transparent, calm and beautiful. The octopuses, playfully grabbing each other in the warm afternoon sun, swam close to the great ship, totally mindless of the dangers of the turning sharp blades of the motors. And I thought, looking at them, it’s just like myself: starting a journey into a strange world — without knowing anyone or knowing exactly how or where I will land — in order to call the new place my new home and my new life!  But one thought drove me on: to get out as fast as I could.  I felt like adding all my strength to the ship to push it faster and faster away from the land where I was born and grew up.

It never entered my mind how I was to accomplish all this.  I was going without any money, without any valid foreign admittance visas, without a thought what will become of me if I should fall ill or be destitute in a strange country, without friends, relatives, language. I was banking on my youth, my strength and my driving ambition just to get out of Russia and, if very lucky, to make it to U.S.A.

And then, suddenly breaking up my thoughts and dreams as the ship was already sailing into the open sea from the harbor — the sounds of staccato machine gun shooting from a small naval coast guard boat rapidly approaching “Marmara” and ordering it to stop for inspection!  My heart sank and I thought, God! what’s wrong now? I hope all my Russian exit papers are in order…

In a few minutes, three armed men dressed in familiar black leather jackets of the dreaded secret police CHEKA, the predecessors of no less dreaded present KGB, were aboard our ship!  This was the beginning of our journey!!!!!!

But I must start my story from the beginning, and will return later to my adventures on the trip from Russia to U.S.A.

[To be continued….]