These are the memoirs of Charles Bogin, written in 1974.
article is copyrighted by Charles Bogin
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MY EARLY YEARS
These notes on my early years were
written at the suggestion and
encouragement of my granddaughters
Naomi Becher and Sarah Rubin
in memory of my parents
David and Chasha Bogin
and of my sister Nahama
and my brothers Meer and Isaak,
Martyrs of the German Nazis
THE BOGIN FAMILY – PARENTS
My father and mother – David and Chasha Bogin – were moderately good-looking, healthy people, a little above average height, of respectable appearance and behaviour. Jewish Russia in their day was a very static society economically, with very few opportunities, and my parents’ aim in life, like that of most people in their circumstances, was to maintain their position in it as is, without any expectation of improving it further. As per a famous phrase, they had to run fast to stay in their place. Thus, they normally neither aspired nor hoped to rise in wealth or social station and acted accordingly. They had none of the psychological complexes of many American people today. They treated their “superiors” respectfully, but really regarded them almost as being of a different species, beyond comparison or envy. On the other hand, they did not look down on the poorer, less successful people, having plenty of examples of such among otherwise very worthy people, some of them among their own relatives. A slight degree of contempt was traditionally held for people in certain manual occupations especially shoemakers, primarily because they were poorly educated, while the greatest respect was held for scholarly people, i.e. those educated in the Jewish religious subjects. As a matter of fact, one of the greatest ambitions of my parents was that one or more of their children should become a rabbi or religious scholar.
This situation and attitude toward life is strikingly different from that in the U.S., where economic opportunities are much greater and where the rich and successful are very highly regarded and just as highly envied. And where the unsuccessful ones are held in almost equally great contempt; also where even the successful suffer from various complexes, caused by their knowledge that the ladder of success reaches into infinity and that there are always people who succeeded in getting up higher than they.
My father and mother were both of even-tempered character and disposition. I don’t remember either of them ever raising their voice in anger or heated argument in business, in synagogue or at home. While I remember having been spanked at least twice and probably a few times more, it was not done in anger, but as a supposedly deserved punishment, and I don’t remember ever having been slapped or pushed in anger by my parents. It is probably true that my brothers and I were quite well-behaved children as we had good examples to follow in our parents, and we were not pampered or spoiled unduly. We thus did not supply any frequent reasons for loss of self-control by our parents. At the same time, this self-control was probably characteristic of most Russian Jews and ‘was related to their history and circumstances. When people have been living for hundreds of years as a minority in unfriendly countries, and at times among very unfriendly neighbors, they are very likely to learn that self-control is a very useful characteristic.
My father never laughed aloud, but only smiled quietly at any humorous situation or on hearing a humorous story. (I act the same way). Whether this was characteristic of most people in his class, or was peculiar to him, or the Bogins in general, I do not know. In this connection, it might be worth nothing that the prevalence of humor in social life among the Jews in the Minsk section of Russia was probably not more than one tenth of that prevalent in the America that I found when I came here. I am under the impression that whatever humor was developed in Jewish literature in the last two generations, such as the Shalom Aleichem stories, etc., as developed in the Ukraine part of Russia, where life was somewhat easier, or at least the normal weather was milder than in the Minsk region.
My parents were both very religious and were very strict in observing the numerous detailed laws and prescriptions which govern the life and behaviour of a fully orthodox Jew. Along this line, the Jews of Russia and Poland became somewhat divided in the I8th century into two slightly different fractions. Those in the northern parts such as Minsk, stuck to what one may call a “dry” religion. They adhered strictly to the religion as expressed by the Bible, the Talmud the numerous commentaries of the latter, but refused to modify or expand this religion by any new theological or philosophical ideas. Some of the Jews in southern Poland and the Carpathian Mountains on the other hand, began to embellish the traditional religion with new poetic and mystical ideas, such as the idea of a joyful religion, the belief in miracles, the use of ecstatic dances and songs in the ritual praying. This is the origin of the Hassidic movement. My father, being a Northerner, naturally belonged to the strictly “dry” faction, as were the great majority of the Jews in Minsk. However, I have observed that he showed considerable emotion when reciting the particular prayers on the High Holidays which dealt with the general and personal troubles which Jews encountered so often in their history and individual lives.
Altogether, while my father was fully religious in obeying all the prescribed religious laws, he was not inclined to follow the religious spirit much further philosophically or emotionally, primarily because he was essentially a practical, pragmatic man.
The situation was a little different in the case of my mother. In the orthodox Jewish religion, women are not obligated to participate in the lengthy services and recitals of prayers although they are permitted to do this. My mother, however, had a considerable education along religious lines, and had an appreciable personal approach to the Jewish religion. She not only said the proper prayers daily, but knew a good deal of the Bible and some of the other religious books, and often read some of them in her spare time.
My father was born in Minsk, but my mother came from small town quite a distance away. Their marriage was arranged by the two sets of parents through a professional marriage broker, as was very customary in those days. This system may seem quit barbaric in modern times but it was indispensable in the case of the widely scattered Jewish people, where there were many small communities with only half a dozen Jewish families in them, and where most of the children there had to marry out of their town. Anyway, in the particular case of the Bogin family, the result of this arrangement was completely successful as my father and mother got along extremely well. In the Jewish tradition it was improper for man and wife to show much affection for each other in public, but at least I have never observed even the slightest indication of disagreement or friction between my father and mother, and what better record is there.
I last saw my parents in 1911, when I came home for a six month visit, and at that time everything was going quite well with them. The infants had grown up into nice, sturdy sensible little boys, and my parents looked forward to a happy future. Three years later, however, World War I broke out, and this was followed by the Revolution and the Civil war, and everything was in shambles. My father’s business was expropriated by the Communists and he was left without any income whatsoever. In 1919 he wrote to me, asking me to send him $500 with which he wanted to start a tiny store again. I was out of work at that time, with two children, and not a cent to my name, but fortunately, my father-in-law, Josef Tepper, who was a highly idealistic and generous man (and of whom you can be justly proud) offered to lend me the money out of his very meager savings and I sent this to my parents. This new tiny business, however, was eventually also confiscated, and my parents carried on a poor existence with some help from the children in Russia and some monthly aid from me. But life was hard for everybody at that time in Russia and misery does not feel quite as bad when it is shared by others. (Misery loves company) .
My mother passed away in the early l930s surrounded by five or six of her children. She was probably little over 65 years old. My father was in Minsk in 1941 when the Germans invaded Russia, and before they reached Minsk, he was evacuated to Turkestan in Central Asia after a 3000 mile trip, partly on foot and in a rickety old wagon. He was fortunate to have been found there by my brother Joseph and family, also evacuees, and he lived with them for about two years, when he died from heart failure while taking a walk. He was 82 years old, and had seen a lot of trouble in his last thirty years. But he was not the only one.
My parents hardly ever paid any visits to the homes of other Jewish people in Minsk, in the same way, except for some out-of-town relations, nobody ever paid any social visits to us. This was at least partly due to the fact that all of our parents’ time was so fully taken up with their normal occupations as to leave them almost absolutely no time for socializing. They only had 3-4 hours of free time a week – between the official noon dinner on Saturday and the afternoon prayers – and part of this time was usually spent by father in examining us – the school boys – on our progress in our school. My parents were probably also somewhat satiated with dealing with people in their work all week and were glad to have a few hours to themselves. Just the same, I have been wondering whether this low degree of “socialization” was shared equally by the other Jewish merchants in Minsk, or whether it was extra strong in the Bogin family. In other words, whether the Bogins have a pronounced “loner” tendency. I am inclined to be a “loner” myself, and some of my children and grandchildren show a leaning in this direction too. Who knows?
Both of my parents were not very talkative, partly because of the above probable “loner” angle in their characters, partly also because they had so little to talk about, Their society is so static and so well behaved that there were hardly any subjects for gossip. Neither were there many subjects for discussion or argument. The day-to-day lives of my parents and their acquaintances was governed in great detail by the numerous laws, traditions and customs worked out through the centuries, and this left little room for disagreement or questioning. There were ready answers and decisions for any inquiry or question. There were no inquiring Dostoevsky-types among the fully orthodox Jews. Similarly, the contemporary economic and political questions and ideas did not interest the small Jewish merchants much because those were so completely away from their control. They were entirely in the hands of the “little green men from Mars” – the Tsar and government in Moscow and St Petersburg, and my father and his friends did not know enough about them to discuss them.
My parents never went to the theatre or took any other measures to be entertained. The theatre, of course, was Russian one, and usually dealt with the standard romantic subject of passionate love, intense jealousy, sweet forgiveness, revenge, etc. – all subjects which were completely meaningless to anybody brought up thoroughly in the Jewish religion and the traditional Jewish culture. In addition, my parents probably had no need for entertainment. They had no leisure time to fill up. Their work in the store was not unpleasant, as the relations between my parents and their normal customers were usually quite friendly. In a similar way, their experience at home was fairly pleasant; the older children behaved well, and there were always babies and infants around to add some interest and spice to life. Entertainments, like vodka and fights, were for the goyim; a Jew could live without it.
The only music readily available 75-80 years ago to people in my parent’s station was singing in the synagogue and the two large synagogues in our shul-hoff had such facilities. One had a good cantor; the other one had a cantor with a large male choir. But my father would have none of them. He regarded singing in synagogue almost sacrilegious. He felt that when one prays, he talks to God face to face, and he should not defile the act with all sorts of trills and exterior sound. There is a good deal to this feeling, at that.
My parents never read any novels or similar books. There was practically no Jewish or Hebrew literature yet in my childhood days, and I am not sure that my parents knew enough of literary Russian to read Russian books freely. Still more, as I mentioned in connection with the theatre above, the non-Jewish literature was of very minor interest to a person brought up in the entirely different spirit of Jewish culture and history.
I mentioned several times before that both my father and mother worked very long hours – as much as 14 hours a day. The work, however, was ordinarily not very hard physically or very strenuous mentally or emotionally. (I worked in the store between the ages of l3½ to 16, and remember a good deal of the operation of the store.) My father was therefore not especially tired at the end of the day. He was totally free from the feeling of complete exhaustion experienced by many American professional and business people on coming home from work and which can only be assuaged by one, or preferably two, cocktails.
My father worked and walked at a moderate speed, appreciably slower than the super-energetic nervous pace maintained by many Americans (including yours truly). This was not a personal characteristic, but was the general practice of the great majority of the Jewish middle-age people, and extended to their whole mode of life. Due to this slower pace of life, my father was free from “nerves” and did not show any irritation or impatience whatsoever in dealing with people.
In connection with the fact that I have been, and still am, greatly inclined to worry about future troubles, real or imaginary, it is worth noting that my father always appeared to me totally free from any worries whatsoever. This, in spite of the fact that the income from the store he managed had to take care of as many as twenty people, and that his business was not always prosperous. Moral: There is something to be said for a placid life.
My father and mother were both “brainy” people. Whether they were intelligent depends on the definition of intelligence. They had very little knowledge of Western civilization or history, but then even a very intelligent American probably has no knowledge whatsoever of the 2000 years of post-biblical history of the Jews or their civilization, or of similar histories of China or Persia. So it is tit for tat there. As far as the intellectual inquiry, tendencies of my parents, my father was probably on the low side in this. His mind was of practical, pragmatic nature and the influence of his orthodox religion with its ready answer to all questions also helped to suppress any inquiry tendencies. My mother, on the other hand, had a definite inquiring mind, although she was much too busy with every-day affairs to exercise it often.
There is a very curious relation along this line in the Bogin family. The eleven children in my parent’s family are clearly divisible into two groups, i.e. the odd-numbered ones, such as the first, third, etc. and the even-numbered ones – the second, fourth, etc. The first take after our mother in many respects, in body build, in being of a more feminine character, etc. and they were all of a somewhat scholarly, intellectual nature. The ones in the second group had harder features and took more after our father – they were often more practical, business-like nature and were less inclined to speculation and inquiry.
My father was not a meek, extra-humble man. He was happy and proud to be a Jew, even if he appreciated that this meant that he might have to bend his knee on this account occasionally. He believed that it was God’s will and there would be an end to this at sometime in the future. He had no inferiority complexes whatsoever on this account – or for any other reasons. One gets such complexes if he wishes or subconsciously dreams of being like other people of a “higher” status. My father certainly never wished he was a “goy” and he had no active desire to rise socially. His position in life suited him well and his wishes dealt only with improvements and corrections of minor problems.
The attitude of my parents toward their children can probably best be described by the well-known story of the Jewish mother of a large brood of children who said, “I would not take a million dollars for any one of them, and I would not pay one red cent for one additional one.” Our parents certainly loved us, took care to bring us up to be honest, well behaving people, and worried about us when we were sick, as I remember very clearly from several sharp examples. At the same time they did not baby us, hardly ever petted us, and made no effort to amuse us or to surprise us with gifts. With about 7 or 8 children and babies in the family (this was the number when I was 8 years old), and my parents being busy with the normal work for fourteen hours a day, there was little time left to them to do much babying of the children. (The children were taken care of by a nurse-maid.) The children therefore graduated into full members of the family at a relatively early age, and were expected to take care of themselves psychologically.
On the behaviour of us children toward our parents and our feelings about them, I can reliably state that our behaviour was pretty close to perfect. After the age of five or six, we never whined or made the slightest fuss about any decision or order. I don’t remember anyone of us ever having been punished for disobeying an order. I think we automatically assumed that “father knows best”, and acted accordingly. As for our feelings toward our parents, I naturally can only speak for myself, but I am reasonably sure that the feelings of my brothers and sisters were very similar to mine. As follows: I loved my mother very much and was proud or her, both when I was a boy and a young fellow at home, and later on after I went away to America. I was happy when she smiled at me or was glad to be next to her. My feelings about my father were somewhat different. I did not have the slightest feeling of animosity toward him and admired him for his manly appearance and strength and respected him for his adult wisdom and knowledge, but I did not quite feel the elementary, bodily love accorded to my mother. But I think this is the common story of most boys.
I had no feeling of jealousy toward any of my brothers and sisters at any time. I remember knowing that my parents paid special loving attention to my oldest brother, the first born, as is often the condition in many Jewish families. I did not resent this, however, as I thought that this was proper, natural thing, since there are a number of examples in the Bible where the first-born son is treated in a special way. He is like an heir-prince to a king, And in our case, I actually thought all my life of my brother, Abba, as a sort of an assistant to our father.
Apart from the above, during all my young years, I was an extremely loyal member of the Bogin family, and all my small childhood worries were connected with any possible harm to the family as a whole, or to some members of it. I had hardly any thoughts about myself as an individual, nor did I have any personal ambitions or desires for the future until I was about thirteen or fourteen years old.
It is of some interest to note, as a curious angle, that the above “Bogin family” in my consciousness did not include my grandparents. We lived in the same house, ate at the same table every Saturday and holiday, but I always had the feeling that they were slightly unfriendly to the rest of us and that I had better be careful in my dealings with them. And my feelings were probably not all wrong. They were probably not at all happy to be thrown into crowded, messy house full of babies and infants and imperfect boys in their old age. By now, as I am an old man myself, I am beginning to sympathize with them and am willing to accept them into our family. Better late than never.
To summarize this section: the parent – children relations in our family could have hardly been better while the children were young. And when we, the children, grew up and wanted to strike out in ways not fully approved of, by our parents, such as my desire to go to America, the decisions were made in a very amiable way after nothing but friendly discussion. As said before, a placid life has its advantages.
THE BOGIN FAMILY – BROTHERS AND SISTERS
My parents had eleven children, and I will note down little information about then:
1. Abba (born 1885). The first one. He was a nice, semi-elegant young man when I saw him in 1911, when he was about 26. One of the things I most remember about him is that he was very attentive to both father and mother, especially the latter. He then had a position in some export office or private bank in Minsk and was among the young intelligentsia of the town. After the Revolution, he worked all his life in some government bank or banks in Moscow. He had one daughter, Shifra, who became a member of the Russian Academy of Science, a most prestigious governmental organization and who has written at least one book in Russian on a subject connected with the immigration to the U.S. around 1860s. Frieda wrote her a letter c/o the Academy of Sciences when she discovered the book in a library, but did not receive any answer. We heard indirectly however that she did get this letter but did not care to or want to answer it. She possibly considered it unsafe to correspond with American relations. She has two children and grandchildren.
2. Mordecai. This brother was a partner in a small woollen store in Minsk for a few years before the First World War, and eventually worked for the Soviet government. He had two children. I do not know anything further about him.
In this connection, it should be appreciated that my correspondence with my family in Russia was interrupted by the two World Wars and by the Cold War between Russia and the U.S.A. We could not write to each other for barely more than 10 - 15 years out of the sixty year period since 1914, and even this correspondence had to be done in a manner not to arouse any suspicion by the censors in Russia.
3, Xaikel (Ezekiel) – Charles – That is me.
4. Jacob. (B. in Minsk 18 May 1891; To N.Y. 1906;( d.1 Sept 1975, Sydney, Australia). This brother came to New York in 1906 together with me and our cousin Morris. He worked in some factories and sold newspapers on the streets for about two years. He finally found a job in a cigar and newspaper store in Times Square. He married a relation of the owner of the store and immigrated to Sydney, Australia where his wife had some very close relations. We lost contact with each other. I do remember some letters around 1943. A few years ago, we discovered his address among my papers and Frieda wrote to his son Sam, and a very fine correspondence has been established with him and Anne. Jacob has three children and a number of grandchildren. He had a mild stroke about a year ago, but seems to be getting along quite well.
5. Nachama – the sister after whom Naomi was named. This first girl in our family fell when a tiny baby, and when she was about three years old, it was discovered that the fall had apparently injured one of her legs or hip seriously. The local doctors were not able to correct her trouble, and our father took her to see some prominent specialist in Königsberg, Germany. He spent over a year there with her, keeping her company and taking care of her. She was not completely cured, however, and while able to move around freely, she was lame all her life. Either because of her real nature or possibly because of her special experience and condition, she was an extremely sweet and kind person, much beloved by everybody in the family and being very nice to everybody in return. Our parents gave her a special education and sent her to the Gymnasium, a sort of combination high school – Junior college for girls of the nobility and richer families in the district. Possibly this was to prepare her for work in an office or similar job requiring greater knowledge of the non-Jewish world than that needed by the rest of the children. I do not know how she got along. The letters between 1914 and 1941 that I received carried little information on account of strict censorship by the Soviet government. I found out after the Second World War that the Germans, on their coming to Minsk, collected about 50,000 Jews who had not succeeded in escaping further East and machine-gunned them all on a plaza or field, and that my sister and my two youngest brothers – Isaak and Meier – were among them. I still hope that one of these days some of the mountains in Southern Germany will become volcanic and will cover Germany with a cover of red-hot lava, but I hope against hope.
6. Feigel ( Fanny). She was a nice girl – worked in our parents’ store for a few years – got married. She had one child. Her husband was killed in World War II. She and our sister Chaya had the terrible experience of being stranded in Leningrad through the three-year siege of that city by the Germans in World War II. More than one-third of the people in the besieged city died from starvation, cold and as fighting casualties, and the Jews in the city lived under the additional knowledge that if the city eventually fell, irrespective of whatever the fate of the rest of the people, they – the Jews – were certain to be executed like the Jews in the rest of conquered Russia. My sisters survived the siege, but what their condition was after that I do not know.
7. Chaya. I do not know much about her, except for what I wrote in the paragraph above. She never married – I do remember that when she was about 6-7 years, and my brother Mordecai became ill with a mild chronic lung trouble, she volunteered to take care of him and for a number of months provided him with the proper attention. Chaya is the only one of my sisters still alive at the present time. She is about 75 years old.
8. Samuel. This brother was still a small boy when I left home, and I know hardly anything about him. I am under the impression that he became a professional officer in the Soviet Army and survived the Second World War. He is not alive now.
9. Joseph. (b. 1900 on Purim in Minsk, d. 6 Sept 1980 in Vilnius) He is my only contact with what is left of my family in Russia. He married and worked in a Soviet bank in Kovno, Lithuania until 1941. He and his family managed to escape east when the Germans invaded Russia, eventually got to Turkestan in Asiatic Russia, located our father there end took care of him until he died. Joseph eventually got back to Kovno after the war and wrote me about what happened to all the rest of our family. We corresponded for a while, but as the Cold War between Russia and U.S.A. became extra strong, he wrote to me intimating that in view of his position in a government bank, it would be safer for him not be correspond any more with me. Accordingly we both stopped writing. We did get news of him thru the Kaplans (his wife’s family who lived in Montreal and eventually moved to Israel). About two years ago, we heard from him again, and we exchanged several letters. He is retired now, but is still apprehensive about being too friendly with the bloated capitalist brother America.
He had two sons. The older one, Monia, was sent by his parents in 1938 to Montreal where Joseph’s wife had a brother. This was done because of the fear of a war between Russia and Germany which was especially feared by the people in Kovno which was right on the border between the two countries. However, when World War II started in l939 with the invasion of Poland, Germany and Russia acted in concert in that invasion and people thought that the danger of a Russian-German war had been averted, and Monia wished to return home. So he went back and when the Russian war eventually broke out, he was drafted and lost in the war. My brother Joseph has a second boy, who is now, from what we understand, a very good electronic engineer, highly regarded by the Russian government.
10 and 11. Isaak and Meier. I don’t know anything about these boys except that they look very cute and nice on the picture I have of them as young boys. Still more, that they were among the 6 million victims of the Holocaust. I hope that my children will not forget that the people killed then were not just numbers in the statistics, but that some of them were their own close relatives and very fine people as well.
PERSONAL HISTORY Age 5 to 12/13 years
At about the age of 5 or 6, I entered the world of learning in the form of a “cheder”. There was no governmental general system of education in Russia at that time. There were enough elementary governmental schools to take care of small proportion (possibly about 10%) of the population, and these were geared to teach children of some of the peasants and workingmen. There was also a system of high quality schools for the children of the nobility and wealthy peop1e, but they accepted only a “norma” of about 10% of Jewish children. Furthermore, the Orthodox Jews did not want to send their children to either of these school systems, as they considered it of the utmost importance that their children, especially the boys, should get a thorough foundation in the Jewish religion and the Bible. They, therefore, sent their boys through the “cheder” system of education.
This consisted of a number of very small private schools, free from any supervision or guidance, and operated and taught by elderly Jews in their own homes. Each school had as many pupils as the teacher could get, usually about eight or ten. The arrangements between individual parents and the teacher chosen was entirely their own private business. Each teacher taught what could be called one “grade”, and at the end of a term, usually one year, the pupils transferred to another teacher. The latter was in no way associated or connected with the first teacher, and was again chosen separately by the parents. The first grade pupils of one teacher might thus find themselves scattered among four or five different second grade teachers, never to meet again.
In the “first grade”, the pupils were taught the Hebrew alphabet and this was followed by a study of the first book of the Bible (Genesis). Since the Bible is written in Hebrew while the language spoken by the pupils was Yiddish, which is a Germanic dialect that has no connection with Hebrew, the teaching in the lower grades consisted of translating the Bible text word by word and sentence by sentence, and repeating this process endlessly. This naturally was hard work, both for the teacher and for the pupils, and success was achieved by a great deal of slapping, whipping, and even a certain amount of spanking. I got the full share of this treatment, since I was among the star pupils, and the teacher, expected more from me. The teachers were all middle-aged, or old men who had absolutely no training of any kind as teachers and whose only experience in this art was that which they had received as pupils themselves decades earlier. I went through five teachers myself, and with the exception of one very old, gray-headed man, they were all irritated, embittered men who got whatever results they did by the aid of hollering and punishing the pupils continually.
The teaching was restricted completely to the literal text of the Bible. There was hardly any diversion to make the pupils understand the real significance of the material taught. It was as if the Bible was used as a text-book for the study of the Hebrew language. Along the same line, the study did not involve even a trace of other worthy subjects such as any thing about Jewish history or something about the more important laws and practices of the Jewish religion – apart from that given in the Bible itself.
The teacher and the pupils all sat around one table. The pupils followed the teacher word by word, and woe to the one who had to blow his nose. This teaching system probably went back a number of centuries and is possibly similar to one used in teaching Latin in Catholic Schools centuries back.
We attended the cheder about five hours a day, with about one hour’s intermission for lunch at noon, and about 5-10 minute’s recess periods about every hour or so. The pupils spent this recess period in the yard of the teacher’s house, just doing nothing but resting from the tension and the noise of the school period. We did not play any games or run around the yard, partly because as Russian-Jewish children of that time, we knew hardly any games, partly because the yard was normally paved with cobblestones and was not fit for playing.
I attended five cheder schools of this kind until about the age of twelve, and went through all of the Bible up to the section of the prophet Isaiah successfully. I actually continued my study to the very end of the Bible, but I remember clearly that all I got out of the Prophet section was a mass of meaningless words and images. The prophecies are written in a highly complicated, poetic style, and even an intelligent adult has considerable difficulty to understand them. I was only about ten years old at the time. But I did my duty and learned them word after word.
When I got through with the Bible, I spent about two years studying the Talmud. This is a collection of law books, developing and discussing the various Jewish laws – religious, criminal, and civil – and citing various authorities and precedents. This study can be quite dull for a boy of ten or eleven, but the study is made doubly difficult by the fact that the Talmud is written not in regular Hebrew, with which I was pretty well acquainted by then, but in a similar yet different language – Aramaic – which was used by the Jews in Babylon who originally compiled the Talmud.
Although the cheder system was not of very high efficiency and cultural usefulness, it was possibly not much worse than the system used in the aristocratic “public” schools in England in the same period, where the large portion of the time was spent in teaching the Latin and Greek languages and the ancient classics.
Some more about education: When I reached the age of ten or eleven, my father engaged a young man (probably a college student) to come to our house in the evening two or three times a weeks. He taught me and my brother, Jacob, Russian grammar and literature, mathematics and similar worldly subjects. This was kept up for about three years, and I even learned a good deal of German and a smattering of French. A little later, my father also supplied us with a second young teacher to teach us modern Hebrew, and by the time I was around 14 years old, I could speak Hebrew quite fluently. Why my father got us this Hebrew teacher, I don’t know, as I already knew enough Hebrew for all practical needs from my cheder studies.
A few other questions: The teacher of Russian apparently started on us with some semi-advanced subjects, such as the Russian grammar, as we apparently already knew how to read and write Russian. I am wondering where we had learned that. A similar question in my mind is where my two older brothers got the non-Jewish part of their education, since I can’t recall any private teachers coming to our house to teach them.
Another question along the same line is what education was given to my sisters, since they did not go to cheder, this being restricted to boys. They had no private tutors, at least up to the age of ten or eleven, at which time I left home to go to America.
This brings my educational history up to about the age of twelve or thirteen. My parents had hoped that I would continue my study of the Talmud in a Jewish Yeshiva and eventually become a rabbi or a Jewish religious scholar. This was the general hope of many or even most middle-class Jewish parents in Russia. My parents had had such hopes in the case of my oldest brother, Abba, but at the age of 13 or 14, he failed them and began to work in our store. Now, at the age of thirteen, it was my turn to disappoint my parents. A also gave up the idea of any further religious study and began to work in the store. My brother had in the mean time accepted a job in some kind of an office. I was too young and much too shy to do any actual selling in the store, but I helped with the packing and unpacking of goods and tried to make myself generally useful. I never became indispensable, however.
Now for a brief description of my “social” behaviour during the period above – up to my thirteenth year. The picture here is almost 100% opposite of that of Tom Sawyer’s in Mark Twain’s stories. I never even got sufficiently well acquainted with any of my co-students in the cheders to visit any of them in their homes, and I don’t remember ever meeting any of them on the street and stopping to talk to them. I don’t know if my “loner” nature is one of the reasons for this and whether the other boys were closer to each other socially. One important reason for this lack of friendliness was the fact that in the school sessions proper, the time was spent l00% in the teaching-learning activity, and not a minute was lost in any other way. We, the pupils were under tension all the time, following the loud voice of the teacher, repeating his words and making sure that we don’t get punished for inattention or mistakes. We were free only about 15-20 minutes a day in the recess periods and had hardly any time to establish thorough personal relations among ourselves there. A second reason was that none of us ever played any games, and the yards where we spent our recess periods were totally unfit for playing or loafing. Similarly, we had never read any stories, and our cheder education did not include anything on the world around us such as history, geography, etc. We thus had very little to converse about. We lacked much of the normal foundation for association between children.
In all this period – up to my thirteenth year – my only companions were my brother Jacob and my cousin, Morris, both about l to 2 years younger than I. Even here, however, we spent only little time together in this earlier period. It was only a little later, when we all got interested in worldly subjects, such as Zionism, etc that we developed some concrete common interests and began to spend a good deal of time together. Similarly, while my two older brothers were only about 2-4 years older than I, I have no recollection whatsoever of associating with them in any way or even talking to them; this in spite of the fact that we slept in the same room and I had my meals in their company. We apparently were all busy with our own individual little affairs, and as we played no games of any kind, there was little connection between these individual interests.
Ages 12/13 to 16
As I came into my thirteenth year, I was fairly well educated as regards Jewish subjects for a boy of my age. I was quite religious in the same sense as my father, i.e., I was very strict in observing all the common Jewish laws, such as those regarding the prayers, the dietary laws, the ones regarding the observance of the Sabbath, etc. I had not the slightest doubt about the fundamental principles and ideas underlying the Jewish religion. I also had a fair knowledge of Jewish history as given in the Bible and in the semi-official books covering the period of the Second Temple – the period between the return of the Jews from Babylon and the final conquest of the Jewish state by the Romans. I also had a slight knowledge of the persecution of the Jews during the Crusades and of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and of the Inquisition there by the Catholic Church. I similarly knew of the existence of anti-semitism in general and of the special laws in Russia restricting greatly the activities of Jews. I myself never felt any anti-Semitic effect in my childhood since I never came in contact with non-Jews except for the Russian housemaid we employed in our house. But I was fully conscious of the fact that the non-Jewish boys in town were quite likely to be antagonistic to a Jewish kid, and I avoided the non-Jewish sections of our city in my usual walks.
On general, non-Jewish subjects, however, I was quite ignorant, possibly to a degree unimaginable in the case of an intelligent American boy of thirteen years. I hardly ever saw a newspaper, had only a faint idea of the geography and history of the principal countries of the world. I doubt whether I had read more than two or three books, and I knew absolutely nothing of any of the sciences.
It should be understood that this “medieval” cultural state was not peculiar to me or the Bogin family, but was typical of practically all boys in the Jewish community at the time. At about my twelfth birthday, however, the life in Jewish Russia began to undergo some revolutionary changes which wiped out the old traditions and brought the Jewish people from the lifestyle of the 15th century into the 20th one in a very few years. These changes were produced by two new revolutionary ideas – Zionism and Socialism. The force and power of the social movements generated by these ideas pulled me into the mainstream, as it did to a large number of the younger Jews in Russia, and changed rapidly from a placid, obedient child into a devoted member of the new revolutionary world.
Now for a little digression into the origins of Zionism: The Jews have lived as a scattered, persecuted minority in Western Europe and Western Asia for close to 2000 years. They had always dreamt about going back to their old home in Palestine. This was almost completely impossible until very recently. During most of the above period, Europe was badly broken up into a number of small kingdoms and principalities which were continually at war with each other. The immigration of a large mass of Jews from there would have been very difficult. Palestine itself was held most of this time by fairly strong powers – the Romans, the Mohammedans, the Crusaders, the Turks – who would strongly oppose the formation of a Jewish state there. The Jews, therefore, put all their hopes for liberation on a “religious” solution of their problems in the form of a mythical person called a Messiah. This person was to be a special messenger from Heaven, endowed with superhuman powers, who would appear on earth and whose principal function would be that of bringing the Jews from all over the world to Palestine and reestablishing the old Jewish state there. This work was to be done with the help of many miracles and supernatural acts. Once this Messiah appeared, everybody in the world would recognize him as a heavenly agent and would follow his orders. This idea of a Messiah is only hinted at in a few of the prophesies in the Bible, but under the vicious persecutions which the Jews had to withstand in the last 2000 years, this idea of the Messiah gradually developed into one of the most important every-day beliefs of all Jews.
This condition held up to the beginning of the 19th Century. At that time, the Jews of France and Germany were relieved of the age-old restrictions and persecutions by the French Revolution and the following Napoleonic Wars. They became full citizens of their countries. Their economic conditions and social status also greatly improved and as a result of this, they gradually reduced their contacts with the Orthodox Jewish religion and adopted much of the culture of the gentile world around them. Some of the anti-semitic feelings of these gentiles remained, however, and toward the end of the 19th century, this antisemitism began to grow in power, as manifested in some regulations of the Bismark government in Germany and, most strikingly, in the famous Dreyfus affair in France. The Western European Jews began to feel their Jewishness more strongly as a result of this. They also became more conscious and sympathetic to the conditions of the Jews of Eastern Europe – in Russia, Poland, Rumania, etc, who still suffered greatly from persecutions and restrictions by the governments there.
Around 1894, one of these Western European Jews, Dr. Theodore Herzl, a prominent newspaper man from Vienna and Paris, published a pamphlet proposing the idea of establishing a Jewish home-state in Palestine, and started the so-called ‘Zionist’ movement to promote this. This idea, which would have been totally visionary and impractical in former years, was moderately sensible at this time. This was the era of colonialism and domination of the world by the European countries, especially by England. All of Western Asia was practically at the disposal of these powers. Dr. Herzl put his hopes to a considerable extent on a favorable attitude from, and cooperation by these powers. At first he found them quite sympathetic to his plans. This was the start of the Zionist movement. It gained an appreciable number of supporters among the Jews in Western Europe and awoke considerable enthusiasm among the younger and the semi-Westernized Jews in Russia and Poland. It is of interest to note, however, that this movement did not gain and great acceptance among the older, truly orthodox Jews since they believed strongly that the solution of the Jewish problems would come from some miraculous acts of a Heaven-sent Messiah. They could not visualize Dr. Herzl, with his non-Jewish cultural background and his gentile wife as a Messiah. Many of these more traditional orthodox Jews even regarded the Zionist movement as sacrilegious and opposed it vigorously for this reason.
As mentioned above, this Zionist movement did appeal strongly to many of the younger Jews, and accordingly, my two older brothers joined the Zionist quite early. My oldest brother, Abba, even served as a delegate from Minsk to one of its international congresses. I, too, joined the movement soon after my thirteenth birthday, and I remember being sufficiently devoted to it to donate to it my total precious savings of thirteen rubles which represented the accumulation of about five years savings of “pennies” and “nickels”. Of course, at my young age, my membership did not involve any special fruitful activities, and consisted mainly in studying the organizational literature and hoping for its success. In some respect, it was a new messianic hope, but this was my ideological status.
Now for a few words on the burst of the socialistic movements in Jewish Russia, a few years after the above start of the Zionist movement. Russia had some socialistic groups as early as 1870. One of the grandfathers of modern socialism and communism, Bakunin, was a Russian. The movement, however, was limited very largely to very small groups of intellectuals until about 1903, as repressive powers of the government and the general passivity of the lower classes kept it from growing. In 1902 however, Russia engaged in a war with Japan. The results went so strongly against Russia that the Russian people as a whole, including the middle classes and even some of the upper classes, began to clamor loudly for radical reforms in the government. This generated some very impressive demonstrations in the larger cities and even some revolutionary acts in the Navy.
At first, these were suppressed by the government with the usual vigor. But this time the suppression produced still greater revolutionary activities by the dissatisfied elements. The struggle eventually led to a general strike over the whole country and finally resulted in a partial, temporary capitulation of the government, which established a low-power parliament as a compromise.
These revolutionary events first brought socialist ideas and socialist movement into the Russian consciousness, and they found a very fruitful ground among the young elements in Russia in general and especially so among the younger Jews, who had some extra Jewish reasons for being unhappy with the government and the old social system as a whole.
Many of these Jewish young men who became active in the new revolutionary causes simply joined the general revolutionary organizations, but there were also two specific Jewish organizations. The larger one, which was affiliated with the Russian Social Democratic party, was called the “Bund”, and consisted to a considerable extent of Jewish workingmen and artisans. It was antagonistic to the Zionist movement as it had hoped that the overthrow of the anti-semitic Czarist government would automatically solve, or at least radically reduce, the intensity of the Jewish problem. The other group, the Labor Zionists, was made up of people with a much greater Jewish consciousness who had added some socialistic tendencies to their Zionist ideology. Thus, they strongly favored much greater respect for physical work among Jews and strongly advocated a gradual change in the prevailing occupations of Jews from that of middle-men and businessmen to that of farmers and production people. This group thus resembles the Israeli kibbutz people in their basic philosophy, and is probably one of the ancestors of the present kibbutz movements. I who was primarily a Zionist at that time, and who had been strongly conscious of the common anti-semitic claims that the Jews “are essentially parasitic middle-men”, was readily attracted to the Labor-Zionist ideas. I decided to become farmer in Palestine or a worker-artisan in Russia or America, rather than to follow my father’s wishes and train myself in the family store. (I retained these ideas through the major part of my life, and went to college to become a chemist with considerable reluctance. Once I did become a chemist, I similarly never made any effort to get to too high a status.) In connection with this decision, I started a vigorous athletic program of strengthening myself physically. I obtained some metal dumbbells and other athletic equipment and kept up a large program of exercises to prepare myself for a tough life to come. I kept this up for several years and developed into a very strong man for one of my build and size. This came in very useful after I moved to America and had to make my living in the first few years by work which demanded considerable strength and endurance.
To go back again to the non-personal angle of this “history”, the Zionist movement had been weakened very greatly in the years after my entry into the Labor-Zionist group. The original plans of Dr. Herzl were predicated to a considerable extent on the hope of benevolent help from the European powers, especially England. This idea appeared very promising for a while, but eventually it foundered on the strong opposition of the Turkish government. The British government then offered to help the Zionist movement by substituting Uganda in Africa for Palestine as the desired home for the Jews. This, however, was totally unsatisfactory to the great majority of Zionist and Jews in general and the failure of Dr. Herzl’s ideas reduced the total appeal of the Zionist movement very greatly.
In a similar way, the power of the general Russian revolutionary movement fell off very greatly after 1905. The government capitulated after the general strike in the late summer of that year and promised to establish a parliamentary system in the country. This parliament which was created was almost totally powerless, however, and the management of the country was left entirely in the old hands of the court and nobility. All the revolutionary activities and turmoil and excitement thus resulted in hardly any change in Russia as a whole. They did have a large effect on the life of the Jews in it however. They reduced greatly the hold of the Jewish religion and traditions on the people, especially the younger ones, and opened up a wide contact with the outside world. The frequent demonstrations and riots, especially the anti-Jewish riots instigated by the government, and the general excitements in the country, destroyed the old, placid life and created a live interest among the Jews in the current news. Several Jewish and Hebrew newspapers began to appear, and even the older members of my conservative family began to read them.
On the economic front, too, the revolutionary spirit reduced the resistance to change. The Jewish stores now closed at 5-6 o’clock in the evening instead of 10-11 o’clock, thus allowing people there much more leisure time. In my own life, too, I became much more interested in the outside world. I joined the local library, read the Russian classics, and some books on history and geography. I was especially impressed by semi-popular books on science, which opened an entirely new world to me. I even went to the theatre several times, but did not follow this too far, primarily for lack of money, but also because I found books much more interesting. I became acquainted with a small number of young men who had approximately the same trend of ideas as I, such as those on the various angles of Labor Zionism, and we spent a good deal of time discussing these subjects.
In this connection, our normal way of meeting each other is of some interest as being so different from the practices in this country, and I will describe them below: The Jewish young people in the city interested in political subjects, which in my days corresponded to a great majority of all the Jewish young people, would normally congregate on a few streets in the business district early in the evening and promenade back and forth for as long as 3-4 hours. They would meet their friends and party associates there, enter into all sorts of discussions on practical and more abstruse subjects, break off and meet other people, etc. By unconscious agreement, certain sections of these streets were “allotted” to the various political parties and groups, such as the Social Democrats, the Social Revolutionists, the Labor-Zionist group, etc. Their members usually did most of their promenading in their particular sections. In this way, a person knew where he could meet his friends and where he could get into a heated discussion or argument with adversaries. In the summer months the city streets were replaced by certain sections of the large city park not far away. This whole system provided us with good, healthy, physical exercise together with pleasant social relations and intellectual diversions and a certain degree of learning and education. All was at no expense whatsoever, except for the cost of a little shoe leather. I actually have continued a modification of the system myself to this day, except that nowadays. I usually do both the talking and the listening all by myself. If nothing else, this avoids heated arguments.
Before I finish this section, I would like to mention that the repressive actions of the Russian government in 1903-05 mentioned before was accompanied by some wide-spread anti-Jewish riots organized by the government. Not only was the Jewish youth well represented among the revolutionary elements, but the government made a strong effort to divert the dissatisfied feelings of the general population onto the Jews, as was done many times in many places in the past. In a somewhat different occurrence, in our town of Minsk itself, we had the experience of the Governor calling out a company of soldiers against a fully peaceful demonstration celebrating the declaration of the creation of a parliament, mentioned before. The soldiers fired into the crowd and killed close to a hundred people, most of then Jewish young people. This act was avenged several months later by a Russian student-revolutionist who shot the Governor to death in his own office, but this did not bring any of the hundred back to life.
One day, late in the fall of 1905, I was approached by one of the leaders of my Labor Zionist group, who asked me whether I would volunteer to pick up a small package of illegal literature in the railroad-express office which was sent to our group. I agreed to do this. I went to that office and presented the proper paper, was given the package and immediately arrested. The package had been wrapped and tied very poorly and it opened slightly in shipment and exposed its contents, that of illegal semi-revolutionary proclamations. I was interrogated in the Police Office, but was not treated roughly. I answered the police’s questions by stating that a well-dressed man in the railroad station nearby offered me a 25 kopek piece to get the package for him while he was attending to other matters in the railroad station. After the interrogation, I was transferred to the prison and I remained there for six months while the local prosecutor’s office investigated my case. At the end of the six months, I was freed with the statement that the government decided not to prosecute this case. At the time, I assumed that I was treated so leniently because the proclamations in that package were only of a mildly revolutionary character since our Zionist-Labor group was not an extremely revolutionary group and because of my youth; also because the Czarist government was somewhat compromising, semi-liberal course at that time. But as I thought of this affair recently, after a lifetime of observing how such affairs are often handled in the “political” world, it occurred to me that it is quite possible that a certain amount of money was passed on to the people in the prosecutor’s office and this might have been the real reason for the leniency accorded me. If so, I am very sorry that it is too late for me to thank my father fully for his help.
My life in prison was not very harsh, although toward the end, with the spring in the air, I naturally was getting anxious to be free. I was not allowed any visitors, even members of my immediate family, since visitors were not allowed to prisoners in the preliminary investigatory stages. But apart from this, we, the political prisoners, were treated very mildly. The prison consisted of a large, three-story building, the top story of which was occupied by the normal criminal prisoners while the second story was used for the political ones. During my period of incarceration, there were about a hundred political prisoners there, all in the investigatory stage. Our quarters consisted of a long corridor with doors opening into 14 or 18 large cells, each cell holding a number of prisoners, up to 16, I believe. The cell had two large sleeping platforms among two main walls and these had sleeping sacks or mattresses on them. I don’t recall if the cells had any other furniture in them — chairs or tables, or what eating facilities we had, or what illumination there was for the evening, or what washing facilities. I do remember, however, that we did have considerable liberty. The doors of the individual cells were open all day, and the prisoners were perfectly free to mix. We had all sorts of discussions and meeting. The members of the various revolutionary groups would set up lectures and discussion meetings with those of the other groups. I am under the impression that the prisoners were even allowed to transfer from one cell to another one, if he preferred to change his associates. We did not eat the prison food supplied to the regular criminal prisoners, at least not for the main meal, as the latter was provided for us by a special committee of liberal society ladies in the city. I often had much more luxurious food in the prison than I had at home.
We were allowed a daily exercise period of several hours in the large prison yard where we mixed with the criminal prisoners and had a chance to learn about a world normally somewhat closed to us – professional thieves, horse thieves, etc. We wore our own clothes as we were all officially still in the investigatory stage. We had an elected board of leaders to take care of any disputes between prisoners or any other similar affairs, and a head man to handle any affairs involving the prison management. This top man during the period of my incarceration was a former important official of a railroad passing through our town, and the warden treated him with considerable respect and deference. The majority of the political prisoners were also socially substantially above prison guards and we were all treated by the guards accordingly. Altogether, the prison life which I encountered was quite human and mild, probably because the government was in the still compromising attitude at the time and did not care to be too harsh, possibly because a large number of the political prisoners came from the middle classes and had influential connections in the governmental circles. Also possibly because the Russian government, being very inefficient and not very progressive technically, had not as yet developed the large variety of cruel and vicious instruments and practices available in more up-to-date places, such as the communist and fascist dictatorships of these days.
As far as my personal life in the prison, I was sufficiently idealistic in those younger days to consider sacrifice and even a moderate degree of martyrdom one of the things a revolutionary has to expect and take calmly. I had no real fear when first arrested, and by the time I found that the police did not treat me viciously, my main concern was that of the effect of my arrest on my parents. When I reached the prison, I was accepted by the rest of the political prisoners in a semi-protective, friendly manner and made to feel at home. I was regarded as somewhat of a curiosity because of my age, as I was only sixteen years old and not very forward or aggressive even for my age, while the youngest one of the other prisoners was at least 25 years old.
One of the more important prisoners in my cell was Kolia Tepper, a revolutionary theoretician and orator of very high reputation in the Jewish socialist circles and, like myself, originally a Zionist. He paid considerable attention to me, partly because of my youth. His wife, Agnes, was also a prisoner in the same prison, and while she never met me because she was lodged in a different part of the prison, she knew about me from her husband and took some interest in me. These Tepper people were a little later liberated from prison by a socialist group through the use of some forged documents and they eventually moved to New York. I met them there and became very close to them and the rest of the Tepper family and in 1914 I married a younger sister of Kolia, Clara. She was a little of a revolutionary heroine herself, since she was imprisoned for revolutionary activities at least two times. In case of imprisonment, two is a lot more than two times one, since it shows that the person is not scared off too easily, and the punishment if convicted is usually also more severe. So my imprisonment was not just a passing event in my life, but had some important and happy long-term side effects.
There were no Zionist-Labor people in the prison when I was there. All the people I associated with were straight socialists of one kind or another. As a result of my conversation and discussions with them, I gradually lost my Zionist ideas and became an almost straight socialist. While I came in as a Zionist with socialistic trimmings, I came out as a socialist with only minor Zionist decorations. The fact that Dr. Herzl’s original plans and hopes had almost completely collapsed was a major factor in my change, since now the only hope for the Jews appeared to lie in a more just society as a whole rather than in a removal of the Jews to a home and society of their own. I remained considerably of a socialist, even as an inactive one, most of my life, although as I got older I changed over gradually from socialism to pessimism and by now I am a 95% pessimist with hardly a streak of optimism in my consciousness. Age brings wisdom and also despair.
By the time I got out of prison, the revolution was practically thing of the past, as the government gave in an inch but succeeded in retaining all the rest of its powers. As a result of this, there developed a flood-like immigration of the Jewish young people and of many of the older ones to America, the land of greater personal opportunity and much greater freedom than that available in Russia. And for me personally there was not much to do in Minsk. With my socialistic ideas, I could hardly fit in with my parents’ hope of my entering the store with the view of eventually taking it over when they got old. Besides, I was too shy by nature to offer the possibility of my ever becoming a good salesman and a reasonably successful business man.
I therefore decided to go with the flood and immigrate to America. My younger brother, Jacob, and my cousin, Morris, felt the same way as I, and proposed to go with me. Our parents opposed our plans, since in those days emigration to America meant parting forever, but they appreciated the reasons for our decisions and gave their consent after a moderate amount of friendly discussion. And so, in the summer of 1906 we three left for the United States to starve, struggle and to succeed in a moderate way, some more and some less. In view of what happened in Russia in the subsequent years, our decision turned out to be a very wise one, a very fortunate one for us three, and a somewhat helpful one for my father and mother.
I went back to Minsk for a short visit to see my people after three years in the United States, but after that the First World War, the Russian Revolution and the subsequent Cold War made visits to Russia very difficult. I never saw my parents and the rest of my family again. Age brings wisdom; it also brings deep regrets. If only the wisdom came a lot earlier.
THE FAMILY STORE
The Bogin family operated a moderate size dry-goods store on the main square in Minsk, Russia * when I was a boy. In those days – 75 or 80 years ago – there were no ready-to-wear clothes in Russia, and dry-goods stores were very important as they were the standard way of procuring clothes. One bought the desired cloth and took it to a tailor or dressmaker for proper treatment. The Bogin store was originally founded by my grandfather, but by the time I reached the age of 6 or 7, my father and mother were the regular managers and the chief salespeople of the establishment. Grandpa was already a fairly old, white-haired man, although he still spent most of his days in the store and helped with the selling in busy times. In the earlier days, he also traveled with my father to Lodz and Warsaw several times a year to help with the purchase of stock as he naturally had valuable experience in this important part of the business. The store was not very large – about the size of the Becher’s living-room-dining room combined (35x15 ft ?) but it did a fairly large volume of business, as in those days the customers did not expect any luxurious accommodations and were even willing to spend a bit of time on the balcony outside waiting their turn in their favorite stores.
The store catered to middle-class people primarily, as compared with the fancier stores on a street about a quarter of a mile away which were patronized by the local nobility and the higher government officials, or a group of stores in the other direction from the city square, which served mainly the poorer people – workmen and peasantry. About 60% of the space of the store was occupied by woolen goods for men’s clothes and ladies’ coats. This was managed by my father, with my grandfather and a brother of my father’s (the father of Morris Bogin and the grandfather of Abba Bogin). The other 40% of the store was used for the sale of ladies goods – cottons, satin, silks and thin woolens for dresses. This part was managed by my mother with two young ladies as helper-salespersons. The store depended to a considerable extent on steady customers, and the business was carried on mainly on a cash basis. It did not involve more than a trace of haggling or dickering as in many of the lower-standard places. The “mark-up” on goods was in general very moderate and the profit per unit sale was not large, but the store was reasonably busy most of the time and was thus able to provide a decent, though not luxurious, living for our three families: 1) grandpa and grandma; 2) my father’s family with as many as eleven children at the end; 3) Uncle Abba with five children.
The store was open from 8 o’clock in the morning until about 10 o’clock in the evening, and my father, who also took care of the bookkeeping and correspondence in addition to selling and managing, was busy with his work almost all the time. He did take time out for meals and for the afternoon and evening prayers.
My mother would stay home later in the morning attending to the children and to household affairs. While we had two servants at home, a cook and a housemaid, there were about 5 or 6 children at home by the time I was 6 years old, and there was plenty enough for mother to attend to. She spent much of the evening mending and patching, and altogether, both my father and mother were completely occupied from about seven in the morning till almost midnight.
Minsk was the capital of the province of the same name in western Russia It had a population of about 40-50 thousand (my own estimate) and was essentially a trading center and a governmental administrative city – no special industries. Jewish people were a large part of its population. I have been told that by now it has been heavily industrialized and has a population of about one million.
LIFE STYLE: HOME, FOOD, SOCIAL RELATIONS, ETC.
Up to my twelfth year, our family, including grandparents, lived in a small three-tenant apartment house on the very edge of the Minsk business district – a block and a half from our store, two blocks from the Cathedral of the Russian church arid the Governor’ a Palace, and across the street from the Jewish shul-hoff with its two main city synagogues and more than half-a-dozen small ones. Also, a quarter of a block from a very, vary tiny hole-in-the-wall candy store which had its full share of meaning to me at the time. Our apartment, on the second floor, consisted of four or five moderate-sized rooms ml a large-sized kitchen. One room served as bedroom and a bit of a sitting room for my grandparents. It apparently served as a real parlor initially, as it contained some parlor-type furniture such as soft, upholstered chairs and a sofa, hut it was converted into a bedroom as our family increased in number. A second large room served as a bedroom for my father and mother and the very young children. A third room was occupied by the four older boys, including me. It had two beds and, I believe, a study table and some chairs. The dining room had a large, expandable table, and on official dinners, such as on Saturdays and holidays, we had as many as 12 to 14 people around it. Since mother spent much of her time in the store, and it was completely out of the question for grandmother to take care of the house by herself at her age, we had two servants – a Jewish woman to do the cooking, and a Russian girl to take care of the younger children and help with the housework. I do not remember whether those servants had a room for themselves or slept in the kitchen – most probably the latter.
The principal part of the kitchen was the stove or oven. This was a large brick structure of about the shape and size of a grand piano, and about a foot or two higher. It had a large, flat hearth inside, and an iron door, about 20 by 15 inches, in the front. It was heated by wood logs placed on the hearth inside. This was a standard Russian household oven which was built into the house and served not only for the cooking and baking, but also as the principal source of heat for the house in the winter time. The house also had an additional, small vertical, parlor-type stove, white tile, in the dining room for additional heat in real cold weather.
The nature of the oven above will be readily seen to be such as to make it usable primarily for the cooking of such dishes as soups and roasts but hardly of any use for frying or for such rapid-cocking dishes as pancakes or scrambled eggs. Our meals were therefore generally much simpler than those available to us in this country now and usually consisted of soups and boiled beef or chicken with some roasts for holiday dinners. Also since the oven could not normally be heated up in time for breakfast, it was impossible to prepare any kind of porridge for the morning meal. It is my impression that the latter usually consisted of buttered bread or rolls and tea from the always present samovar.
Refrigeration and even plain ice-boxes did not exist in Russia in my childhood, seventy-five years ago. This complicated somewhat the use of milk and butter. We had a large ice cellar in the yard of our apartment house which would be loaded with blocks of river ice during the winter. This ice-cellar provided the tenants of the apartment house with cold-storage facility. However, it was considered improper for the tenants to visit this cellar for trivial purposes so as not to exhaust the ice before the end of the summer. We acted accordingly, and did not visit it more often than two or three times a day.
Our use of milk and butter and cheese was also greatly restricted by important dietary laws in Orthodox Judaism prohibiting the eating of dairy products within six hours after the eating of meat or chicken. This restricted the choice of food for the various meals considerably.
Our usual main daily meal consisted of a plate of soup, some boiled meat and some hot tea. The bread naturally was never buttered for this meal, as the use of butter together with meat was considered an almost unspeakable sin. No dessert or cake was served as part of weekday meal. As a matter of fact, a meat meal would have been considered a rare holiday treat for the great majority of the people in Russia – the workmen and peasants – in those days.
Our family did not all eat the main daily meal at one time. The children ate it as a group at noon, while the adults ate it one or two at a time as the work in the store allowed them to get away. The soup pot was therefore kept hot in the oven for a long time until everybody had their meal.
Tue Saturday and holiday meals were for more luxurious and took on the spirit of a semi-religious ritual. They always consisted of a fish followed by soup and by a roast or baked chicken. On the Saturday meal, the meat was accompanied by a “kugel”. This course was followed by a dessert of stewed fruit (compote) and by tea and some honey-cake (lekach). There was also some sacramental wine served before the meal and a small drink of vodka between the fish course and the soup. These meals were very definitely of a religious significance – celebrating the day of rest, the Sabbath or the particular holiday, and were accompanied by special prayers and some songs, especially on Pesach. These meals, of course, were eaten by the whole household together, including the cook and the older infants, and often included one or two complete strangers, since it was customary for any reasonably prosperous Jew to bring home from the synagogue one or two out-of-town strangers who might be in town over the Sabbath or holiday.
A few words about the fruits and vegetables available in our section of Russia in my childhood years: The use of canned vegetables and fruits had just about begun in the U.S. in these years but had not reached Russia as yet. Similarly the use of refrigerated railroad cars to transport fruits and vegetables from the warmer regions of the country to the colder ones was still in the future. We were therefore dependent on locally grown products. It should be appreciated that Minsk is pretty far north – about 400 miles north of Montreal or Minneapolis – and is much colder than any place in the United States. In accordance with this, our principal fruits were apples and pears. I did not see a banana or a pineapple until I came to America. Grapes and oranges ware imported from Crimea but were quite expensive in Minsk and were given in our house only to sick children. Wild berries were abundant, however, due to the close contact of our small city with the surrounding forested country, and gooseberries – a berry hardly known in America – was consumed by our people in enormous quantities.
As for vegetables, tomatoes were totally unknown to us and neither was lettuce. Cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and asparagus were hot house plants and were also totally unknown in our circles. I am not even sure whether we had green peas and green beans, although we did have dried peas and beans. Carrots were a semi-expensive vegetable and were used mainly in a sweetened dessert called “tzimis” in Yiddish. Our main vegetables were potatoes and cabbage. This last was used not only in the raw form and in cabbage soup but it was a most important staple in the form of sour-kraut all winter. In our family, and similarly in many others, we would put up two or three large barrels of this stuff in the fall (this was done by a professional team who would go from house to house to attend to this work) and we would eat same of it at least once a day all winter. Nobody knew anything about vitamins in those days, but actually sour-kraut is very rich in vitamin C, and was undoubtedly of great help in maintaining us in good health.
Cucumbers were very abundant and cheap in Russia and were consumed by us in large quantities, both raw and in the form of home-made pickles. I don’t think we grew water-melons in our part of the country, but some would be brought in from southern Russia. They were naturally somewhat expensive end were used only as a special treat. I don’t think we had any of the smaller melons, such as cantaloupe.
Minsk is also too far north to grow wheat satisfactorily, at least when using the strains of wheat available 80 years ago. The principal cereal grown in the region was rye. Our standard bread therefore was the so called rye bread, which is, to the best of my knowledge really made from a mixture of rye and wheat. Real wheat bread of white color was used by us only on the Sabbath and holidays.
The Minsk region is too far north for corn, I did not sea this cereal until I came to America.
Altogether, we did not have the large variety of food available in this country at the present time, but be did not know about them and did not miss them.
Our apartment had running cold water but none of hot water. I doubt whether any houses it Minsk, outside of the Governor’s Mansion and the houses of the extra-rich, had running hot water, since the heat in all ordinary houses was supplied intermittently by logs of wood and is not suitable for producing a continual stream of hot water. The houses near the outskirts of the city did not even have running cold water, as the water pipes did not reach too far from the city center. This absence of hot water naturally complicated the dish washing operations, especially Since Orthodox Jews do not use soap in washing dishes for fair that it might have been made from a mixture of fats containing some lard. But this dishwashing difficulty had been before the Jewish housekeeper for hundreds of years and they probably knew how to get around it.
The same holds also for the problem of bathing. The adults used a community bath house, one similar to a Turkish bath. What we did for the children, I do not know. By the time I was a bout ten years old, I used to go in the summer time, to some pool-type bathing facilities connected with the river. How I kept clear in the winter time, I do not know. I was probably in a 50-50 condition – half not clean, half dirty. But keeping extra, extra clean is really a new thing in this world anyway. The bathtub has only been developed since about 1840 and I have read that it took a great deal of persuasion to get Queen Victoria of England to take the chance of getting into one.
An important article in the house was a very large samovar, kept in hot condition most of the day. Hot, weak tea was the standard drink with all meals and snacks, and was especially welcome in the cold winter months.
Our apartment did not front on the street, but opened into a fairly large yard, surrounded by the brick walls of other buildings which also served for two other apartments and some sort of office used by a commercial organization. This yard was paved with cobblestones and did not have a single blade of grass or a single soft, smooth place. My brothers and I played in it to some extent after we grew up to about the age of 9 or 10. It was no playground for small children, and hardly one even for us. This brings up the subject of children’s play facilities in our family. We had no purchased toys or playing equipment of any kind in our house. I am not sure that any was being sold in Minsk, except possibly in some stores patronized exclusively by the nobility and the extra rich. I doubt whether we even had a rubber ball or a real doll. My brother Jacob and I normally played a very simple sort of an aiming game in the yard using two small sticks, and this is the only game I recall. After I reached the age of seven, my principal way of spending my leisure hours was to walk in the business streets around our house. Fortunately I did not have too much leisure time, as I spent a good deal of my time in school. How I spent my leisure time in the earlier years, I do not know, and as I write this, I am wondering how the other young children in our family spent their time in the early years. There were no baby carriages or strollers in our town, except possibly among the very rich people. The children under the age of five could not be allowed to spend any time in the yard, as the pavement there was much too rough and hard, and there was nothing for them to play with there anyway. We had a combination housemaid-nurse but there were usually two or three babies and infants at home, and the maid could hardly take so many children outdoors for an airing and a walk without some sort of a vehicle. It would appear therefore that the small children spent all their time inside the house, and since they had no toys of any kind, it is hard to figure out what they played with there. But in spite of this, they all grew up to be healthy, energetic, intelligent teenagers and adults and were, to my knowledge, without any definite, undesirable mental complexes. Maybe an extra-happy and interesting childhood spoils a person for the tougher, duller life ahead. Spare the rod and spoil the child. Eh, what?