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 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….]