The Little Shocks: The Sink Cabinet

I intend this to be a series of posts about the particular culture shocks Soviet immigrants faced in the US, and today’s is inspired by the scandal going around our house about the cleaning lady misplacing Papa’s denture case.

When my sister Inna was about 18 months old, she fell, fully clothed and headfirst, into a partially full tub. She had been reaching for a toy in the water and lost her balance. It was winter and she was wearing a sweater, pants and a fluffy diaper. The hysterics she was reduced to were some of her most legendary, and for the next year she refused to take a bath in the tub. So Mama resorted to scrubbing her down in the bathroom sink.

Inna was always a very grabby baby — she liked to grab anything within reach, which was especially troubling on the bus when she was in a backpack and Mama couldn’t keep an eye on her as she grabbed strange peoples’ hair.

A couple of weeks after Inna’s renouncement of the tub, Mama was washing her in the sink. Inna was standing there impatiently, and she happened to grab at the mirror set into the wall. Mama got a terrible scare for a moment as she saw the mirror apparently fall onto Inna. Once the baby was hastily snatched out of the way, Mama saw that there was a handy cabinet behind the mirror that had been there the entire time. So Mama did the only thing she could think of; she called her mother.

"Mama, did you know there’s a cabinet behind our bathroom mirror?"

"Really? Hold on, let me go see. Hey, I’ve got one too!"

This discovery was made over a year after immigration, and in a second apartment to boot.

Yom Kippur, 1992

After the first five years in America with no one around Mama and Papa but the old, the Soviet Union collapsed and suddenly there was an enormous wave of immigration. Suddenly the playground was full of young mothers for Mama to talk to, Papa got a “gang” of friends his own age, and there were little children everywhere.

Now, among the many overwhelming parts of immigration was the sudden religious freedom. Many of these people had never heard Hebrew spoken, never been inside a synagogue, never even seen a menorah. The grandparents were a little more wise; before the war their own families had spoken Yiddish, grandfathers knew how to pray in shul, and grandmothers still knew the old blessings and superstitions.

Within walking distance of the park that the Russian-Jewish community was based around, and essentially directly in the middle of the immigrant neighborhood, is a beautiful Russian-speaking synagogue built by a American Jewish millionaire in memory of his mother. My own family used to go there for holidays when we lived in the neighborhood, though I don’t remember much about the services. I know that they have stained glass pictures of the Twelve Tribes and a pond with carp, and that it always smelled like Red Moscow, which actually smells exactly like Chanel No. 5, being a knock-off of that perfume that Russian grandmothers love.

Yom Kippur is unquestionably the most important holiday on the Jewish calendar. Even I, lax Jew as I am, spend the day as a sabbath, using little to no electricity (which includes the telephone and the car) or writing utensils, dong no work, and on years when my health permits, I fast the 25 hours. I can’t say that the new wave of immigrants was particularly focused on reclaiming their Jewish identity (they did have an entire secular life to build as well, from the ground up and out of nothing at all), but Yom Kippur was special enough to merit a trip to the synagogue. Maybe some went because they felt it was absolutely necessary, some came at the urging (and possible threats from) their parents, and I can assume that some came out of sheer curiosity.

On Yom Kippur of 1991 or 1992 (Mama can’t remember the approximate date), that local synagogue was suddenly flooded with people there for the service. This was no small building, but there were so many people there that they spilled out into the street. It was probably the first time that many of the people there had even seen a synagogue service, and this was the most important one of the year. So many people were there, in fact, that the police showed up — to direct traffic so that everyone could stay. Unfortunately, the new immigrants saw police and had the same reaction they would have had in the USSR; they were attending a religious ceremony, for Jews no less, and they were about to be arrested. They almost trampled each other in the rush to get away. They had no idea that the police were actually there to help facilitate their worship, and were not likely to believe it either. The people who had been here in the US longer, like Mama, lost their voices yelling for people not to panic. It was a near-tragedy, and probably a miracle that no one was badly hurt.

All those people showing up to finally practice their religion openly, and yet still fearing that they would be persecuted for it…

Battling Bobrik, Part 2: The Poetry Scare

I think we all have an incident from our childhoods when we Got Caught Doing Something Wrong and then spent the next few days (or weeks, or longer depending on what you did) expecting doom to befall us. The sheer terror you can feel as a child is overwhelming, especially when you can’t quite comprehend the exact extent of your wrongs beyond the worst possible scenario. In grade school I accidentally let slip a family secret to a classmate and cowered in terror for ages waiting for it to come back to me. Now that I’m grown I know that the secret was nothing particularly horrible and could reasonably ride the same situation out, even if I did feel embarrassed for having told it (honestly I’d tell you the secret now, but it needs a ton of context, and this story is not about me.)

The problem with growing up in the Soviet Union was, the worst possible scenario you could come up with was a lot worse, and a lot more likely.

There were always books and songs and information that was “forbidden” in the USSR. The list changed constantly with The Times (not that anyone had ever even seen that list), and sometimes a book that had been forbidden before was suddenly reprinted. Or vice versa; a book you still had that had been printed ten years before suddenly became forbidden. (Books printed during the late fifties and early sixties, during Kruschev’s “thaw”, were especially susceptible to this.) Since The Times were relatively more relaxed than when under Stalin, people were more reluctant to part with their books. Among Jews, the “People of the Book”, it was even more unlikely that reading material would be purged. So Mama, as a normal Jewish child, was given free reign to read anything in the Jewish households she visited. In one of them, she found a poem.

This is where Bobrik comes in. At this time, Bobrik had already been asshole enough to Mama, but he hadn’t singled her out personally just yet. During one of his classes, instead of writing notes, Bobrik found Mama transcribing, from memory, that poem she had read. It didn’t have anything anti-Soviet in it. It was about a Jew who went about his day, and mentioned that he was a Holocaust survivor. Mama liked it and had read it many times, mostly because it was so hard to find anything written about Jews at all. She has a memory that is as close to eidetic as I have ever met, and she was simply making herself a copy of that poem when she had a free moment.

Bobrik held Mama after class. He interrogated her over and over about where she had read that poem, and who had given her the material. She hadn’t realized that the poem was so dangerous and perhaps it wasn’t, but Bobrik certainly wanted her to think so. All through the interrogation Mama refused to say anything about where the poem had come from. If she had been a few years older she would have known to say that she had found it abandoned in a telephone box, which was the standard  answer to where one had obtained questionable material. She could have also asked how Bobrik knew it was forbidden, but she was twelve and frightened. Bobrik didn’t get anything out of Mama except a personal problem with her.

The state of terror Mama was in was so fierce that at some point, she found herself sitting on a bench a few blocks from school with her coat around her shoulders and no memory of how she had gotten there. Ira had waited for Mama to go home with her, and having seen the state Mama was in, had grabbed Mama’s coat and chased her down as she left the school in a daze. Mama came back to with Ira shaking her. 

Mama hadn’t noticed what was happening because her mind had been swimming with what she may have just brought upon herself, her family, and anyone else who claimed a close relation to her. Her mother could lose her job, which could get her arrested as a “parasite” and Mama sent to an orphanage. Ira’s father, Uncle Lyova, whose library held the magazine, might also be implicated and have the same or worse done do him. If they were reported, the KGB could decide Mama and her mother were a risk and have them exiled to Siberia. All these things were theoretically quite possible.

(Even the memory of this is so bad that Mama had to get up to pace as she tells me this.)

Ira was panicked; she had to get to art school, but she couldn’t leave Mama alone in the state she was in, so she did the smartest thing she could think of: she took Mama by the hand and led her to the nearby home of another Jewish classmate, where the father was a lawyer. Ira left Mama on their doorstep, and when the father answered the door, he got one look at Mama’s face and said “come in, I’ll give you some tea with  Valerian.”

(Valerian is an herb thought by Russians to have calming effects. It is better known in America as Catnip.)

Uncle Tasya listened to Mama’s tale, and then he said, pensively, “Of course he’ll never be able to prove it was forbidden. But then again, when have they ever needed proof?” Eventually, when Mama was calmed down sufficiently, Uncle Tasya told her to go to school the next morning, pretend that the incident had never occurred, and that it would probably blow over. He was right. The day’s events were never mentioned again — either Bobrik figured out that the poem wasn’t necessarily forbidden, or his devious little mind preferred to leave Mama in a state of fear of the sudden and unknown, or some combination thereof, we’ll never know.

But he sure hated Mama after that.

Battling Bobrik, Part 1

When Mama was about twelve, she got a new history teacher named Mr. Bobrik (I know the temptation is strong to pronounce that name as “Bob-Rick”, but the “o” is pronounced more like the o in “forward”). Mr. Bobrik and Mama took an immediate and severe dislike towards each other. Now I won’t pretend Mama was an angel-child; these were the years when she had a pronounced attitude problem. She talked back, she was condescending, and she was pissed off. Much of her attitude came from having recently lost almost all her friends to immigration, which left her severely depressed and angry as well. It took the kindness of a different teacher entirely to bring Mama out of it.

But Bobrik was an asshole. Like, a Grade-A shiny for display put-him-in-the-dictionary-under-the-definition-of asshole. He was an asshole, an anti-Semite, a sadist and a Stalinist. I mentioned in another entry that Mama had been told "Don’t start with Stalinists" by a teacher of hers. This was because in schools at the time, every student carried around a gradebook that teachers wrote in and parents were meant to check, and Mama’s other teacher (the kind one) would read the comments and lecture her about getting into stupid fights with the other teachers. He was the one who informed Mama Bobrik was a Stalinist, which made Mama wonder who Stalin was, but I’ve already written an entry about that.

Bobrik was Belorussian, and extremely sensitive about the fact that his Russian was accented and…well actually he couldn’t really speak Russian well. He made up for it by employing sesquipedalian loquaciousness, or in other words, extremely long, fancy, and scientific-sounding words that many of the students didn’t understand and that he used either incorrectly or with very odd phrasing. Mama hit his shit-list most likely because she, as a linguist, happened to keep lists of interesting words and phrases. (One list, which she rather elegantly arranged by rhyme and number of syllables, was of insulting names she had heard teachers use on students. Many years later I managed to fit that list quite nicely into the tune of “Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy”. I might post it one of these days…) Mama isn’t sure that he actually ever saw her list of his phrases, but he probably noticed when she’d suddenly smile in the middle of a lecture and write something down.

So every time Bobrik would enter the classroom, the first thing he would do was point at Mama and say, “you, stand.” That was a fairly common punishment in Russian school at the time, but not for every single class. Mama says he was using it preventatively so she couldn’t write.

Bobrik had no shortage of enemies, and was a target for pranks of all kinds. For example, he liked to sit on the windowsill in his dark suit, so someone would usually chalk it beforehand. Probably the most impressive of pranks was the one where a few boys rigged his chair to ring every time he sat down. But you know what? He didn’t even have the sense to look under the seat and see the batteries and bell, so I think he kind of deserved that one.

My favorite story, however, was something Mama and her friend Ira (pronounced EEE-ruh, short for Irena) did. Ira was a talented artist who went to evening art school, and she was constantly being recruited to decorate the school, draw up posters, and the like. This annoyed Ira greatly, because she was busy enough as it was, and she was never exactly asked politely.

Now the name “Bobrik” literally means, “little beaver”. Remember that. Ira was recruited sometime in the sixth grade to make a poster that criticized male students with long hair (that shaggy Beatles look that was popular in the sixties and seventies). Mama came over to Ira’s house one evening to see the poster almost finished. She got one look at it and said, “Ira, they’re going to kill you.”

Ira said, “Shut up and write the text.” Mama figured they had nothing to lose and did so.

The next morning, Ira put up her poster. On it were depicted several anthropomorphized monkey-boys with shaggy hair who were chased by a beaver carrying scissors. Above it was a screed on the subject written in the best example of “Bobrik-ese.”

Everything was fine for the first few periods, when the older students got a look at that poster and kept it to themselves. But later on, the younger kids caught on, and the words “Bobrik’s on the poster!!!” were being echoed through the halls.

The next morning Mama and Ira were summoned to the office of one of the vice-principals. Ira was caught red-handed obviously, but the vice-principal also put together the fact that Ira and Mama were best friends, and she attributed the text correctly (not that there was a huge pool of suspects capable of imitating another person’s speech pattern so well to begin with). Mama and Ira escaped punishment (aside from a bit of “that was not a nice thing to do”) because the vice principal was trying so hard to hold back her laughter that the poor woman was literally choking in front of them.

Bobrik never mentioned the poster incident. By this time he hated Mama as much as he possibly could. That hatred was probably most stoked by The Poetry Scare.

"My Kids Are Busy"

When my family came to the US, it was “between waves” of immigration. To this day no one knows why they were let out when so few people were, but as it is, they arrived on American soil in 1985. The previous wave had been in 1978-79, and the next would not come until the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991.

The family moved immediately into the Russian-Jewish part of the city, which was the usual destination for new immigrants. However, they were different from the immigrants around them in several ways. As the last wave of immigrants had had seven years’ head-start on my folks, the younger people like my parents had all moved to the suburbs and bought houses, as the market was more affordable back then. The old city neighborhood, centered around a park (which almost every one of my earliest memories take place in), was full of old people, the parents of those who had moved away.

At the time of arrival in the U.S., Mama was super pregnant. Like, so pregnant she shouldn’t have been allowed to fly except she lied about how many months along she was to the doctor who checked her before she left Italy (the halfway point for immigrants). My parents celebrated their first anniversary on the floor of their new, unfurnished (save for a mattress from off the street) apartment nine days after they touched ground, and two months later they had my older sister.

Landlords at the time did not want to rent to anyone with children. They had gotten used to their older residents, who were neat, quiet, and paid on time (with government assured money). Papa only got that particular apartment because he didn’t bring Mama along with him to look at it. So while Papa worked a full day (the Jewish Family Service found him a job within the first few weeks), Mama would be at home with the baby, herself 25 and surrounded by old people.

Something that also very much set Mama and Papa apart from other immigrants was their proficiency with English, Mama especially. So the older people would come to her all the time with questions about their mail, requests for her to make calls, asking for translations, etc. When Mama asked why they didn’t have their own children help them, they said, “My children are busy!” Which Mama had the good manners not to reply to, though aside from having her own older family members to take care of, she had a very rambunctious baby that almost literally never slept.

One of the unfortunate inevitabilities of living around older adults is that quite often, the paramedics are called in. For this, Mama was invaluable. Russian is an overwhelmingly difficult language to master for a non-native, and the EMTs (as well as the occasional policemen) welcomed a translator as a gift from the heavens. Before long, any time someone in the general area got sick, a team of paramedics would go to that apartment or that area of the park and one would run to Mama and say, “I’ll watch the baby, please go help.” There were in fact preparations being made for a basic course in Russian (“Where does it hurt?” “What is your name?” etc.) for police and paramedics that Mama would teach, but the budget fell through. So Mama continued being the unofficial translator for the local emergency services.

Although there was this one time when, after one of her calls to duty, Mama got a phone call from a woman asking if Mama had been the one to call the paramedics for her mother-in-law. Mama said no, she could call Sofya upstairs and thank her for calling them, but the lady on the phone responded furiously that she should “never call them again, because now I have to drag her home from the hospital!” Mama, speechless, simply hung up the phone.

How To Get Screwed Out of a College Education Despite Really Really Trying

In in my parents’ passports, which they received at age 16 like everyone else in the USSR, under “Nationality”, “Jew” was written. It was a simple classification that went along with their identification, places of birth and blood types. It was also a one-way ticket out of the good life.

Although it depended on The Times. For example, after the war there were so few people left that The State could afford to let the few Jews remaining have careers. That’s how Baba got into University. Unfortunately by the time she graduated (University was about five years long, which means when you got to America, employers got to pick and choose whether you had an equivalent BA or an MA), there weren’t many job opportunities for Jews again.

Colleges didn’t want Jews. I guess because The State didn’t want Jews. But let me tell you that the Jews wanted college. I don’t think that I’ve ever actually met a Soviet Jew who didn’t somehow made it into higher education. But there is always a story behind how they got in.

Some Universities seemed to have unofficial “one Jew per year” policies. So a lot of people went wherever there was an opening, like Mama’s friend Ira who went out all the way to The Urals for dentistry. Some people went to Siberia, especially those that wanted to get into medical school. Papa has several old friends from college who made it into their University by the sheer dumb luck of it being a “cholera epidemic year”, when Odessa got quarantined and their school had to choose from the far-fewer-than-usual applicants they had before them.

My entire life I’ve been told that if Papa had had his way, he would have become a medical doctor or at least a veterinarian. He told me himself recently that he actually wanted to become a physicist. But that route was closed firmly against the Jews at the time. Papa’s gold medal (which meant he didn’t even have to take all the entrance exams for college, if he aced the ones he did take) didn’t mean squat when it was pinned to a Jew. He got into Food Industry Engineering through his father’s connections. In Russia, he designed machines for packaging cottage cheese. In America, he’s responsible for the machine that puts rivets into any plane you fly on. Which is how Russia screwed itself out of that development, along with the movie industry and Google, among the myriad other things Jewish brains have been put to in the free world.

Mama was set on entering Vilnius University from the age of four, ever since her own mother took her on a tour of it, her own Alma Mater, and said that she had studied there. (Mama took me through it when I was 18, it is amazing.) She wanted to enter the English department of the University, and to do so she was top of the class in English in her specialized English school the entire time she attended, and she learned Lithuanian fluently in one year to pass the entrance exam. (There was an option of taking the exam in Russian, but that significantly lowered chances of getting in.) At that time, the University was so devoid of Jewish people that most had given up, and no one else even tried to get in that year. Mama applied through sheer audacity, and was most likely accepted (to the surprise of all) on the premise that one tiny Jew couldn’t do much harm.

(The harm she was engaged in at the time was not done within the University, but that’s another several stories.)

Still, after taking the four exams and acing all, Mama was put in front of the entry board (not unlike the incident when she was six) and heard one professors say begrudgingly to another that “the English teacher that examined her specifically asked for this one to be admitted.”

Mama graduated second in her class (she would have been first but she had less Comsamol points than the other girl) and if she had been a gentile she would have been entitled to stay at the University on the Phd track. As it was the best that could be done for her was to honor her request to be kept in the city while she was assigned to work as a preschool teacher. (Mama was really trained as a translator and linguist, and if she had had her way, she’d be working with codes and code-breaking right now.)

The most egregious act of Jew sabotage I know of was committed against Mama’s classmate “Nachum”. This kid was so smart that the first day of school, his classmates came home and told told their parents that “Nachum will be a professor”. He had a snowball’s chance in hell of that, but he gave it a try.

The standard procedure for applying to colleges in the Soviet Union was to take entrance exams in August for one school and one school only. If you failed, you had to wait a year to try again while you worked or were conscripted into the army. There was one exception. Moscow University was the top school and the jewel of the Soviet collegiate system. The competition was so stiff and the entrance exams so difficult that they were given in July so that the many failed applicants could still apply to other schools.

Nachum, somehow ignoring his own microscopic chances of getting into anywhere near Moscow University, decided to try his luck. He was, in all fairness, brilliant (and he had a gold medal as well). When he came in for the exams for math and physics, he was questioned not for the standard fifteen minutes, but for an hour, with the proctors trying to catch him in a mistake. They gave him a B despite all the correct answers which meant his gold medal privileges were waved and he had to take two more exams. He was rejected from the school due to the mistakes he made on his essay. Against standard procedure, he appealed and asked to see his graded essay, and it was shown to him. On it they had added mistakes such as inappropriate commas in ink that was a different color than the one he had used to write the essay. Nachum returned to Vilnius in a storm and possibly having heard the rumors, the math and physics department of the Vilnius University took him in without questions.

Nachum is now a physics professor who has worked on three continents in the most prestigious universities.

Officially, there was never any discrimination against Jews in the USSR. (Say it with me, Avatar fans: There is no war in Ba Sing Se.) That discrimination that didn’t officially exist resulted in Russia’s loss of a great many great minds.

The Birth of a Papa

Today is Papa’s birthday! He was born in 1950, to the great surprise of his own family and everyone who knew them.

When Baba Liza was around 37, she found herself pregnant. This was considered a shockingly old age to have a child at, especially when one had been married for years and already had one child and no others since then. Uncle Philya was 14 when Papa was born. Baba Liza was so embarrassed about being in her condition at her age that she never told Philya she was pregnant (by then her figure was full enough to hide the baby bump), and he found out when he came home one day and was told that he had a younger brother. (Actually Papa’s not in the house right now so I’m not entirely sure his father knew about him until he was born either.)

Philya, who was always a mellow soul, rolled with the news, expressed delight and went to go buy his mother some grapes.

Papa was actually a preemie, a 7-monther. He should have been born in October, but came early. In the Soviet Union, standard procedure at the time was to keep all new mothers and babies in the hospital for at least a week, regardless of their condition (can you imagine the rate of staph infection?). Papa was tiny, but natal medicine was very primitive at the time, and eventually Baba Liza checked out AMA and took Papa home. At home everyone was afraid to pick him up except for Philya, who carried him around on a pillow. Papa was named Boris after a deceased relative whose name was Boruch (which is Papa’s Hebrew name, meaning “blessing”). “Boris”, which is usually thought of as an extremely Russian name by the English-speaking world, had in fact become an almost exclusively Jewish name by then. (As had Gregory, which we suppose was some sort of twisting of “Hersch” into “Grisha”.)

Being born early affected Papa’s early life. He was a weak and sickly child who once had such a bad case of whooping cough that his father treated by taking a week off to bring Papa, age 3, to the Black Sea every day to breathe the sea air. (To this day Papa goes to the beach regularly to breathe sea air. When my sister had eczema as a baby Papa brought home seawater for her to bathe in, and when I was sick as a child he would take me to the pier to breathe the air as well. It’s one of the family cure-alls.) When school started, Papa was somehow too young for it, and he had terrible trouble in the first few grades. In a Jewish family, this was a disaster of unholy proportions, for a boy not to study well. Papa’s father consulted a friend who was a professor and the friend said that “if he can’t learn in first grade, he never will”. (Which goes to show you how much professors know.)

Somewhere in elementary school something clicked and Papa started getting good grades. He graduated first in his class with a gold medal (that means a perfect GPA) and had won a city-wide chemistry competition.

I’m not sure at what point Papa went from a weak little child who loved learning swear words to a hot-tempered young man with a penchant for boxing and using those swear words freely, and very good looks that made him extremely popular with girls. In his photos there’s an odd gap between a big-eared goofy 11-year-old (who looks like me) and a strong, romantically handsome 17-year-old (who looks like my sister.) Papa took very strongly after his mother, who was considered a great beauty, and in Russia, a boy that looks like his mother is considered very lucky to begin with.

I still see a little boy in Papa all the time, especially when he’s teasing me or Mama. He has a huge laugh and uses it often. To me he’s a big cuddly teddy bear and occasionally a protective grizzly. My sister once brought a pack of boys home to study, and as they passed Papa sitting at the dining-room table eating and reading, Inna had to say, “don’t worry, he’s harmless” to get them past the simple sight of him. He’s a very classically intimidating father, all bearded and dark.

The Trolley Bus

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Papa had his streetcars, but Mama had the trolley. The trolley system crisscrossed the entire city of Vilnius, and Mama spent much of her life on one bus or another. She went to a school that was across the city from her home, and it was a forty-minute ride on a rainy day, six schooldays a week. (It rained every day. “Lithuania” literally means “The Rainy Country”.) For the first year or two, Baba would take Mama on the trolley to the school, and then she would stick around until her own classes began. But as Mama got older, her schedule and Baba’s diverged enough that Mama had to be trusted to ride the trolley by herself. So she started going alone at age 9.

Though some of Mama’s friends had been riding the trolley alone since age 7, Baba still worried about letting Mama go alone. She was not worried about other people hurting Mama (even the Soviet Union had that innocent age before stranger danger set in), but she was absolutely terrified of Mama being hit by a car. So she sat down and drew up a route for Mama to and from trolley stops that never crossed the road. Mama listened carefully, then quietly took the quicker route that required her to cross the road. Until Mama was in her twenties, before she left the house, Baba would say, “And please remember to be careful crossing the road!” Baba always wondered why Mama was so patient with her about it, and the phrase became the common “goodbye” in the house.

(As an aside — thirty years later my older sister got her driver’s license, and it so happened that Mama got several night classes to teach, so she couldn’t drive me to gymnastics practice. My sister cheerfully drove me, but she was first given the extravagance of a cell phone, and we had to call Mama right when we left the house and the second we arrived. The thought of both her children in a death machine had Mama white-knuckling the whole ten-minute drive, twice a week for months. So you see how the fears of a mother continue on in my family.)

Since the trolley was so widely used among the population, Mama got to observe quite a few episodes of human comedy. There was the etiquette problem she had to deal with that seemingly had no answer: if she had a seat and an older man came onto the trolley, every Jew and Russian on the trolley would hiss at Mama to give up her seat, because age was everything. Meanwhile all the Lithuanians and Poles would be hissing for her to stay put because “no man wanted to feel that old!” to have a young girl give them a seat.

Then there was the time when Mama was in Junior High and the trolley was very very crowded. Standing room only. Some strange hand reached out of the mass of people and stuck it up Mama’s uniform skirt (which was very short — not for reasons of fashion, but because there was a cloth shortage as well as a shortage of everything except Communist Ideals). Mama, not knowing what else to do, picked up her school briefcase, which was stuffed with textbooks and weighed somewhere between 10-15 lbs, and dropped it on the hand. The hand retreated back into the crowd, hopefully with several broken fingers.

Another time, Mama watched a man who was bringing home eggs. Very occasionally there were boxes for eggs, but usually you would bring a net bag and carry the eggs in a bag and had to go home with them that way, praying the whole way that they wouldn’t break. The man in this situation was carrying his egg-bag behind his back, and a woman behind him found herself on the receiving end of a couple of broken eggs. She was so incensed that she screamed, “WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU? DECENT PEOPLE CARRY THEIR EGGS IN FRONT OF THEM!”

(It is at this point that I must mention that in Russian “eggs”, like in many many parts of the world, are a euphemism for testicles. The entire trolley that witnessed this scene laughed itself sick.)

Mama also liked a scene with a little girl who was riding with her father. She was about four, and her father was being a very good daddy, telling her not to sit there and not to do this, and not to touch that, until she got thoroughly tired of it and said, in full voice, “Don’t do this, don’t do that. And how many times has Mama told you not to pee in the sink?” Said sink-pee-er grabbed the girl and hastily exited the trolley at the next stop. I wonder if he ever rode that route again?

Edit: Mama was just looking at this picture that I chose, which I searched for just hoping to find the closest match to the trolley she used to ride. She and Baba had me enlarge it, it turns out that pictured here by sheer coincidence is the house Mama and Baba lived in for several years!

School Days

(Mama’s caption to this google streetview shot I pulled: “My God, it looks even worse!”)

There were several options for schooling in Vilnius. There were district schools, an art school,  and then there were “city schools” which specialized in certain subjects. All of the schools were taught in a specific language depending on the school’s population, such as Russian, Lithuanian, or Polish so for Mama the natural option was to go to a Russian School. In Vilnius there were two Russian school that were also considered sort of unofficially Jewish. About a third of the students and a third of the teachers were Jewish. One school specialized in Mathematics, and the other, which Mama attended, specialized in English. Unlike the other schools in the area, where English was taught twice a week, in this school there were English lessons every day.

English had only come in as the new fashionable language after the war — before then the foreign language most commonly taught was German. Also after the war, there were so few people around that Jewish people had more of a chance at making careers than they would in later times. The principal of Mama’s school was a Jewish man who had quite a high level of esteem. He was a decorated war hero, and he was also a man in a school, which was very rare and therefore somewhat revered. He was a decent man by all accounts, and instead of avoiding hiring other Jews as was the general unstated protocol, he had a private policy that, when a Jew vacated a position in the school, he would hire another Jew to replace them. The principal unfortunately died in his fifties of stomach cancer and was replaced by a very unpleasant woman. At that time immigration also began, stripping the school of much of its Jewish staff and student body. Before then however, life at the school was very “hamish”, as Mama puts it, very homey. The school had not only more than the usual Jewish teachers and students, but also a Jewish custodian, librarian, doctor and nurse.

One of the teachers that worked at the school was my own grandmother, Mama’s mother. Baba taught English there for 20 years (enough that she is now receiving a pension from the Lithuanian government!), and so admitting Mama to the school was pretty much a given. However, all children applying to city schools had to go through a cursory examination to make sure they met a certain standard of intelligence. When Mama was six, she was brought before a panel of teachers, a doctor and a nurse for evaluation.

Mama was a strange child. She was extremely well-developed in her cognitive skills, but made up for it by being very behind in physical development. When at age one she was speaking in complete sentences and carrying on conversations, she couldn’t as much as climb a couch, and she fell, stumbled, tripped and got stuck in things constantly. Her overall motor skills were impaired until puberty and caused her a lot of embarrassment before then. But since this panel was examining Mama’s intelligence level, she had a very easy time getting into the school.

Mama stood there in her good dress and a huge round bow and was asked if she knew her letters. Well, Mama was surprised at the question, because she could read since she was four, when she had read every publication in the house including several medical journals. (Which led to her explaining to her astonished grandmother the several ways of how an OBGYN could tell that a woman was carrying twins without an ultrasound.) So Mama said of course she knew her letters. Then a teacher asked, without much hope (and rather condescendingly), if she could maybe read a little?

Little Mama: “Of course.”

The Teacher: “Alright, can you read that?”

She pointed to a huge banner hung behind her.

Little Mama: “По ленинскому пути – к коммунизму!

Which means, roughly, “Onwards on Lenin’s Road - to Communism!” And as soon as she had read it the teachers said alright alright she could read, that was enough. Then they showed her a picture and asked her to describe it.

Little Mama: “It’s a rabbit eating the bark off a young tree.”

The Doctor: “Is that good or bad?”

Mama thought for a moment.

Little Mama: “I suppose it’s good for the rabbit but bad for the tree.”

At this, Mama was pronounced a philosopher and admitted.

When my grandmother was on the panel one year, the same test was administered to a little boy.

A Teacher: “Describe this picture.”

The Little Boy: “There’s a boy and there’s a goose. The goose is about to bite the little boy in the ass.”

He (and his twin brother, there were two of them!) was in fact admitted to the school despite or perhaps because of this answer.

The Disappearing Stalin

When Stalin died in 1953, his very existence became a curiosity. His death affected my own family in different ways. My maternal grandmother, Baba Anya, who was in Lithuania, where most people did not believe a word about the so-called "Doctor’s Plot" and were not terrorizing the Jews, was slightly upset for about two days. She had been told about his death while she lay sick with a fever, and didn’t quite get the immediate relief so many others did. She had lived her whole life under Stalin’s rule. He was hateful, but he had been a certainty. The known devil, as it were, and who knew what could be coming next? By about a month later, when the charges in the Doctor’s Plot were dropped, she says she became “more aggressively happy that he was dead” each day going forward.

As far as Papa’s family goes, well, they had been hearing rumors of the planned mass deportation of Jews to Siberia. The link above mentions that there is some debate over the validity of the idea that Stalin had already set plans into motion for this deportation. I cannot say either way. What I can say is that my family members got their news from what appeared to be eyewitnesses to the building of incredibly flimsy barracks, assembling of trains, and digging of ditches to throw those who died on the journey into. My late paternal grandmother, Baba Liza, used to say that Papa wouldn’t have survived the journey. He was three years old and in fragile health. Some say it’s no accident that Stalin keeled over around Purim time.

(My favorite story about reacting to Stalin’s death actually happened to a friend of Baba Anya’s. Vera was a woman who spent her life traveling from horrific snarl to horrific snarl. But at the time she had been taken in by a woman who was an actively practicing Evangelical Christian. This woman woke Vera in the middle of the night and said, “Vera, wake up and pray for thanksgiving. On zdokh.” That last part meant “he’s dead”, but the word she used for “dead” was not meant for use when speaking about humans. It is a word exclusively used for an animal’s death. If Stalin had been anything but an animal, she would have said, “On umer.” I’m fairly certain zdokh was the correct term here.)

By Mama’s time (which coincided with the assent of Kruschev), Stalin had all but been erased. Kruschev had stated that the Doctor’s Plot was fabricated, and he called Stalin a “byaka”, which is best translated as “icky”. Mama grew up with no idea who Stalin was. She knew his name and that he’d had something to do with the government, but that was it. His name was gone from the history books, and no one ever spoke about him. He disappeared completely. Stalingrad became Volgograd and the thousands of statues and portraits and busts of him were destroyed in the middle of the night.

But information leaked through. Sometimes you would come across an old book (maybe even an old version of a book you already thought you knew) that mentioned Stalin. Sometimes he came up in stories from your parents’ past. When Mama was having trouble with a teacher who hated her (and the hate was mutual), another teacher of hers warned, “Don’t start with Stalinists.”

In the 1970s, a small reformation of Stalin’s character began. Several lines about him were inserted back into history books and said something like, “This man played a significant role in Soviet History. Some mistakes were made.”