HOW I GOT TO BE BORN IN AMERICA

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[This piece first appeared under another title in the Spring 2010 issue of Persimmontree, an online magazine of the arts by women over sixty.  The editors called it “A Story.”  It is a story, about another story.  But whatever the title, it’s what’s at the end that counts.]

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I was fifteen when I learned how my parents had managed to get out of Russia. I found out only because Mr. Mirsky had come to dinner. My mother and father did not usually discuss the past. While I was still a little girl, I did sometimes ask my father why he had left, but I never thought to ask how. I was sure that if you were a grownup and decided to go somewhere, there was no problem about it. You just went.

My father always answered that he had left because of Stalin’s mustache. The mustache scratched when Stalin kissed him.

“Why was Stalin kissing you?” I would demand.

“Because he was my uncle.”

“But Daddy, he wasn’t your uncle!”

“Of course he was my uncle,” my father would laugh. “In Russia, he’s everybody’s uncle. That’s why they call him ‘Uncle Joe.’”

Well, even I knew that was nonsense. Stalin never kissed my father.

Then came the war—the Second World War—and the Soviet Union became our ally. It was suddenly okay to have a Russian last name (although people were still always asking you to spell it). I even stopped wishing my parents had named me Joan or Barbara, and focused on getting the teachers at P.S. 99 to pronounce my first name correctly.

My father met Mr. Mirsky at the Marshall Chess Club about a year after the war. There must already have been early rumblings in the papers of the Cold War to come, but it wasn’t called that yet. In any event I didn’t read newspapers much. By then, I had plenty of homework from Hunter High and spent all my leftover time being hopelessly in love with Leonard Bernstein.

Mr. Mirsky had emigrated from Russia earlier than my father and mother, while the Czar was still on the throne and it was easy to leave, but had gone to England, not America. (He had even flown in the Royal Air Force during World War I.) Afterwards he had married a rich Argentinian and now lived with her in Buenos Aires most of the time. He was temporarily in New York, at a small residential hotel (confided my mother), so as to make sure that his daughter, who was at Vassar, met the “right” sort of young man. He was trim, rather good-looking for an older gentleman, and had a charming English accent with a faint underlay of Russian and beautiful manners. He always kissed my mother’s hand when he arrived for one of the occasional Sunday dinners to which my father invited him, and he always brought a fifth of Haig & Haig Pinch, which he emptied mainly by himself during the course of the afternoon, after my father had had his habitual single shot and my mother her habitual single sip.

Although I was several years younger than Mr. Mirsky’s daughter, I was consumed with envy of her. Rich mother, distinguished father, Vassar, and her choice of an appropriate husband delivered on a silver platter! I therefore lingered at the table after these dinners, so as to gather every crumb of information that might fall from Mr. Mirsky’s lips about this fortunate young woman. My father was less interested in Mr. Mirsky’s problems with his daughter’s romantic life. His usual discretion and courtesy dissolved by good food and Scotch, he had a dismaying postprandial tendency to reminisce. Always hoping he would be quick about it so we could get back to Mr. Mirsky’s daughter—who after several of her father’s dinners at our house had somehow managed to become entangled with a Life photographer of whom both her parents disapproved—I would stay fixed in my chair (the alternative being greasy pans in the kitchen sink). And so, on one occasion, I heard the following story:

In 1921 my father was nineteen years old and in the third year of the engineering program at the Institute of Technology in Baku. Baku was then still part of “White” Russia. (Mr. Mirsky confirmed this with a nod.) In many of his classes, there was a slightly older, very serious student with round spectacles who never chatted with anyone and was not part of any social group my father knew of. But because they were enrolled in so many of the same lectures, they began to greet each other when they met in the halls, and once in a while they lent each other their notes when one or the other had to be absent from class. Then the Red Army completed its long southward march from Moscow and reached Baku. The solitary bespectacled student disappeared from school.

One day, two policemen rapped at the door of the apartment where my father’s family lived. He was to come at once to the Central Police Station. What had he done wrong? He told his frightened parents not to expect him back. However, after he was dragged to the station and roughly pushed into an office set off from the main room, who did he see behind the large desk in front of the windows? His missing classmate!

“Have a seat,” said the bespectacled fellow, in a not unpleasant voice. “Would you like a cigarette? A coffee?”

Such courtesy! And what’s more, an apology of sorts: The police should not have manhandled him. They were new recruits. Not yet trained. A weary sigh from Mr. Spectacles. What could he do with such peasants? “Please, have a seat,” he urged again. (My father was still standing.) “It is not, of course, a criminal matter.”

Two small cups of bitter black coffee appeared. Bottoms up together! And with the coffee, a modest confession. All the time the two of them had been attending lectures at the Institute together, Mr. Spectacles had secretly been head of the local Bolshevik party cell. With the arrival of the Red Army, there was no longer need for secrets. As my father could see, he was the new Chief of Police.

(How old could he be, my father wondered. Twenty-two? Twenty-three?)

But then, enough with pleasantries! Time for business. Bringing his empty cup down on the desk with a loud clap, the young Chief of Police briskly explained that he had ordered my father brought to him because he was the only student from the Institute he knew by name. Since he was now very busy with his new responsibilities, he had no more time to go to class and would therefore appreciate it if my father could fill him in on a regular basis with what was going on there so he could sit for the exams at the end of the academic year.

“’Appreciate it!’” said my father to Mr. Mirsky. “As if I had a choice!”

And so for the rest of the academic year, my nineteen-year-old father came daily to the Central Police Station after school, trying not to see what was taking place in the main room as he passed through it. He sat nervously on the extra chair in the inner office, where he read aloud his notes of that day’s lectures while his former classmate nodded thoughtfully behind the big desk and, as my father put it, signed orders for execution by firing squad. The small cup of bitter coffee he was offered each time didn’t help.

After a while, he couldn’t stand it any more. It wasn’t just the mandatory sessions in the police station. Life under this new regime was becoming hopeless. He didn’t want to live in fear that the next time the police rapped on the door it would be a “criminal matter.” He didn’t want his family to have to share their apartment, their kitchen, their bathroom with three other families they didn’t know. He didn’t want meals to consist primarily of sandy bread and moldy potatoes, brought back from the countryside by his two sisters on their bicycles. Once he managed to scrape together enough money to buy his mother a pound of butter on the black market for her birthday. He saw the butter, paid for the butter. But what got wrapped up for him to take home was a pound block of ice that melted on the kitchen table as his mother unwrapped it. He had to leave.

Mr. Mirsky shook his head. “1921? Too late. You needed papers for that. No more getting on the train and taking off for Paris or London.”

“Well,” said my father, “I was young. And I was stifling. There was no harm in trying. But not Europe,” he added. “I was thinking America.”

And should he bring his older brother with him? Then there was my mother, just seventeen, whom he had met a few months before. He asked if she wanted to come to America, too. She had to go ask her mother. “If you can get out, get out!” her mother told her. “There’s nothing for you here now.”

With what must have been considerable courage, my father came with three sets of the necessary papers, filled out except for the all-important signature, to his former fellow student, the new Chief of Police—who by now seemed also to be functioning as the de facto head of the provisional government in Baku—and told a brazen lie.

He, his brother, and his half-sister would all very much like to study in Germany during the next semester, he said. There were some important courses there, not being offered at the Institute or the University in Baku, which they felt were necessary to their education. Would it be possible for their departure to be authorized for this limited purpose?

The Chief of Police peered over his spectacles at my father, then looked away. He did not ask anything about these very important courses, or where they were being offered, or if my father or his brother or his so-called half-sister with the different last name spoke German, or when they all planned to return. Instead, after a moment he picked up his pen and quickly signed all three sets of papers.

“Did he know you were lying and not coming back?” I asked.

“Of course he knew,” said Mr. Mirsky.

“Then why did he do it?”

“One good turn deserves another?” suggested my father. “He later rose very high, you know. Very high.” He looked meaningfully at Mr. Mirsky.

“So?” said Mr. Mirsky, leaning forward. “Who was he?”

“You can’t guess?”

Mr. Mirsky shook his head no.

“Lavrenti Beria,” said my father softly.

Mr. Mirsky examined his glass for some time. “That’s quite a story,” he said, finally.

After he left, my father came to find me in my room. “Don’t tell that story to anyone else,” he said. “I shouldn’t have let you hear it.”

“Why not?” I demanded. “Isn’t it true?”

“Of course it’s true,” said my father. “That’s why you mustn’t spread it around.”

“But it’s such a good story,” I protested. “It could even be in Reader’s Digest.”

My father sighed. “Do you know who Beria is?” he asked.

Did I know? What did he think? That I was stupid? Lavrenti Beria was Stalin’s executioner. Head of NKVD, the Soviet secret police agency that later became the KGB. He was responsible for millions and millions of deaths of innocent people. He was a bad bad man. Just looking at his face in the newsreels, you could tell he was evil. That’s what made it a story, for heaven’s sake.

“You never know what they’ll think,” my father said.

“What who will think? Who is ’they’?” He was so exasperating.  “You’re not in Russia anymore, Daddy. This isn’t the Soviet Union. You’re an American citizen.”

Our voices brought my mother out of the kitchen. I could see her pale, worried face next to his. Two anxious people standing in the doorway of my room who did not want to hear from me about freedom of speech, or this being a free country, or any of the other things I had learned in Civics. Although they had managed to escape from a place where fear had darkened their lives and were now in a nice three-and-a-half room apartment with good light in Queens, they were both forever alert to gossamer threats of danger everywhere.

“Be on the safe side,” said my father. “Don’t tell.”

They were my parents.

I promised not to tell.

The brother who was supposed to come with my father to America decided at the last minute to remain behind. My mother and father never saw their families again. But they eventually moved from New York to Los Angeles, and later to Palm Springs, where they lived long and relatively tranquil lives under the California sun. By contrast, my mother’s brother and my father’s brother and two sisters in Baku all died before them—one banished to Siberia and an unknown fate during the Kirov purges (for which Lavrenti Beria was responsible), the others succumbing to various diseases after shortened lives of constricted deprivation.

I became a lawyer after college, eventually married, and had two sons—each of whom now has a little daughter and son of his own. That makes seven of us, all American born, who could be said to owe our existence to Lavrenti Beria. He doesn’t get full credit, of course. However, one could make an argument that but for him, we would not exist. Which excuses nothing about his life, except that it’s interesting to think about. On the other hand, it’s highly improbable that our seven lives were foreseeable in the Central Police Station of Baku in 1921, when Beria set pen to paper on the basis of my father’s dubious explanation of his need to take leave of the better Soviet world then in birth. So if I put my professional glasses on, proximate cause just doesn’t figure into it and none of us owes Beria a thing.

What happened to Mr. Mirsky? The problem of the Life photographer soon resolved itself without his intercession; the young man was sent overseas to cover some unsavory part of the world where trouble was brewing. Several years later, when I myself was in college (although not Vassar), I learned from my mother that the daughter eventually met the scion of a publishing company (a choice apparently “right” enough for her parents) and had a very grand wedding. Her father then returned to Argentina and the rich wife and was never heard from again.

Stalin died early in 1953. Lavrenti Beria was soon afterwards either shot in his own house in June 1953 (according to his son) or executed by firing squad in December 1953 after a trial without defense counsel (according to official accounts), whereupon he began gradually to fade from popular memory. That would seem to release me now, finally and definitively, from the promise I reluctantly made my father not to tell the story I had just heard him tell Mr. Mirsky.

But after all these years it’s not, as Mr. Mirsky observed, “quite a story” any more. Not when the name in the punchline no longer inspires fear and trembling in anyone. In fact, it seems to have become quite another story—about a time when I was young and my father was alive, sitting at the dining room table, his eyes shining with pleasure as he told us what had happened when he was young, and life exciting, and the unknown future still ahead.

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SECOND POSTSCRIPT

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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.

[In addition to twenty-two pages of memoir, my father also left behind notes about what had become of his parents, sisters and brother after his departure on the “Marmara” from what he always continued to call “Russia.”  His information was derived entirely from letters; there were no international phone calls. It is therefore sparse. But if you want something about how it was for them all after 1922, when the memoir ends — here it is, to the extent that we can now ever know it. The end of their stories.]

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FROM MICHAEL RAGINSKY  

August 1984

Died:

  • Father, at age 64. Diabetes. Died in a coma in a hospital. Got very ill on April 16, 1936. By then had bad eyesight and poor hearing.
  • Mother, at age 77 or 78. Was ill and bedridden. Died in bed at either Bertha’s or Bronia’s home on May 26th, 1949.
  • Monia, was in bad shape but still alive in 1946. Do not know when he died.
  • Mulia, Bronia’s first husband. Died at age 55, on December 14th, 1945. Bronia was then 51.
  • Foma, Bertha’s first and only husband and Yulia’s father. Died in early 1973.
  • Bertha, at age 82, after two months of illness at home, on July 22nd, 1974 . (Had diabetes and hypertension.) Funeral was July 23rd, 1974.
  • Bronia, at age 81, after severe heart attack on July 17, 1975 and suffering for three days, during which she did not eat or drink. Died at 12:30 p.m on July 20th, 1975.  Funeral  was July 22nd, 1975, at 5 p.m.

Other events and dates from Russian letters:

  • Bertha and Yulia [mother and daughter] lived in the same room on Ulitza Basina 35, 3rd floor (formerly Balachanskaya) since the time Monia and I left Baku in 1922, and then with Foma [Bertha’s husband] — until they got separate apartment in 1962. Forty years in misery and horror with enemy neighbors. Foma and Bertha married in 1915, when Bertha was 21 and Foma 25 or 26. They divorced after twenty-two years of marriage in 1937. Foma had left for a younger woman. (After Father died.) Yulia was then 21.
  • Bronia and Mulia [wife and husband] got an apartment in a new building in 1935, with bath, phone, gas, etc. — a luxury at the time. Lived at same address till Bronia died, and now Yulia is living there with Volodia [her husband]. Baku-370010, Az.S.S .R. Ultiza Solntzeva 24; block 12. Apt. 116.
  • In 1940, on June 1st, Yulia married Volodia [Vladimir] Kalinin. Yulia was then 24 and Volodia was 26; after marriage, they went to live with Bertha [Yulia’s mother] in her room on Ulitza Basina 35; all three lived there till 1962, when all moved to a separate apartment.
  • Bertha never re-married because, Mother wrote me, she was very choosy. Or, who knows why?
  • Bronia, after Mulia’s death, desperately wanted to leave Russia and begged to come to live with Myra and me [in America]…which was impossible to do at that time. Besides, in 1946 at age of 52, without English, what could she do in America with her outdated dentistry? [Bronia had become a dentist.] She thought she could move mountains….  Not being able to go to America, she married, in November 1946, an old patient of hers: Piotr Michailovich Kasitski, engineer, age 50. Bronia was then 51 or 52. She had known him already for 15 or 17 years. He had a job in Moscow, and they lived there for a while: Tovarisheskii Pereulokl 26, kwartira 7. But in less than a year, Bronia was dissatisfied with her marriage and she returned to Baku, where she continued to ask for help to emigrate to America. At age of 53 or 54, since nothing came of coming to America, she apparently divorced her husband and in 1952 married for third time a man by name Semion. I forgot his last name. This marriage also was not what Bronia wanted. I do not know whose fault it was. But it lasted for 11 years. In 1963 Semion died, of cancer of stomach, in hospital, in terrible pain. Funeral September 23rd, 1963. On April 1st, 1968, Bronia went out on pension at age of 73. She only lived on pension seven years. Went on pension too late, considering her heart condition and hypertension. Never wanted to quit working. Died at home from massive heart attack.
  • Now, from all of our Russian family, the only ones left are myself and Yulia…..

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RIP

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 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 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…]