Memories Of School and Play
Reb Meyer Wolfson, Bobruisk, c. 1908,
Idel Trager/Jack Frager c. 1917, Ukraine
My mother, Myra FRAKT was born and raised in Bobruisk, Belarus. She and her family didn’t leave for America until she had reached her mid-teens. My father, Jack FRAGER (TRAGER), was born in Podolia, Ukraine. He emigrated in his late teens from Mogilev-Podolski, along with his year-older sister Rachel and her husband Fishel SHVAISBERG. All of them grew up during war, revolution and the earliest Communist years.
Going to school as youngsters in the Russias when WWI and The Revolution were unfolding was something my parents remembered, but would speak of only in limited fashion. Some 25 years ago, the three of us sat down with a tape recorder and touched briefly on their childhood. Like many who had violent memories, they never shared those nor are they hinted at here. But in terms of the "simple" displacement of "normal" life, I had an unexpected glimpse of some experiences that had formed them.
It had been a while since either of them had thought of - or at least spoken about - these subjects, and they had apparently never discussed them with each other. My questions and their mutual prodding and curiosity produced a very suggestive picture. Happily, it also seems that even in those times, kids still played games.
The below transcript is edited somewhat for clarity.
MF: What do you remember about school?
Myra: The first school I went to there was an old man who taught Hebrew. We used to call him The Rebbe. Mind you, these weren’t real rabbis. He was a teacher, a melamed , a Rebbe. Like my Zeder. But this man had his own school. It was a family operation. His oldest daughter taught us Russian. He was for Hebrew and Yiddish.
MF: They taught Yiddish?!
Myra: It was a private Jewish school they called cheder. But they also taught other subjects. His younger daughter taught something. And the youngest son - who I think was going to the university at that time - , when he came home on vacations, he taught Arithmetic. So it was a kind of variety and family enterprise. That was (my) first one.
MF: And the kids were what ages? How many were there?
Myra: They had quite a lot. Well, from what I’ve seen since, perhaps not ‘a lot’, but back then... Maybe between a dozen and a half and two dozen children. We came from all over the city, some I think from quite a distance.
MF: How’d you get there?
MF: Walk? How old were you?
Jack: -- You weren’t ten yet?
Myra: No. But I walked. Myself. I also used to go to the "agora" (?), the marketplace, which wasn’t too close. My mother couldn’t do everything. 
[Note: Myra was probably between 6 and 8.]
MF: You went to that school through your teens?
Myra: No. Then came ‘The Revolution,’ and I can’t recall any schooling.
Jack: In Podolia, also. During the Revolution, we didn’t go to school either -- you couldn’t. Cheder or public.
Myra: Schooling was sporadic. Because of the war, the Revolution, we had so many different intervening nationalities, the military, occupiers. Every time, there was a big change. Schools closed, schools opened.
MF: Did they change the teachers?
Myra: Of course!
Jack: Nah. When Germans, Hungarians, Austrians occupied us in Ukraine - I remember when the Polish came – in the schools they didn’t put in teachers. It’s the city that runs the schools.
MF: Did they shoot the teachers?
Myra: They changed the teachers. To begin with, Jack, you were in a different area, country.
Myra: Anyway, the Revolution was in 1917, and things weren’t established immediately in the same year. When the schools were opened again I went by myself and registered - I was about 9 or 10.
MF: So this was government-run?
Myra: Yes, because that was already a city school, established by the city government.
MF: What did you learn then?
Myra: Actually I remember only one teacher. She taught Yiddish, real Yiddish for our age group – Yiddish literature, Yiddish poems. I remember one yet - it translates: "Even in the swamp’s deep gloom / A lovely rose may bloom." To this day I recite it when someone asks how a decent person could come from an awful family, or whatever.
MF: In the city school?
MF: How big was that class? Were you all the same age?
Myra: Small, but the ages – I don’t remember.
MF: Did you and your friends all stay together through school?
Myra: No. The situation there – it’s hard for anyone to imagine today. It was so – disruptive, discordant. Moving around, all types (coming and going), and "going to America". You always had playmates, but it was hard to keep friends, with everything.
MF: What about at your other schools?
Myra: Look, the....instability there, and my family... we were always, how can I put it – on the threshold of going to America. So they were always taking me out of school, and then, I’d go back till next time. Others lived like that, too.
MF: And in Podolia? Was it the same?
Jack: I don’t really remember the schools, or even the subjects, but the arrangements, I do recall . I went to cheder ,and there was a regular fee. Only a few rubles, and you paid it for the season.
MF: You paid? And everybody went to school?
Jack: Sure we paid.
MF: And everybody went?
Jack: No, not everybody could afford even so little.
MF: But what about the others?
Jack: I remember my rabbi was the kind that, even if the mother couldn’t afford to pay, if he knew she had a boy, he sent us students: "Call so-and-so to send her boy here." And we’d bring them in.
MF: Even when they couldn’t pay?
MF: Till they finished?
Jack: Most of the poor, especially when they came close to around ten years old, didn’t want to go to school. They had various excuses – work, or they couldn’t pay anything anymore. They really couldn’t read or write. They never learned Russian or Ukrainian to make any any better accommodation for improving their lives.
MF: Your rabbi taught Russian in cheder?
Jack: We always had non-Jews in our house , and my mother’s sisters and brothers farmed near villages. So their children -- my cousins -- spoke better Ukrainian than Yiddish. And my father made his living then purchasing supplies for the Cossacks.
MF: What about games? You remember playing any?
Jack: Yes, what games did you play in your town?
Myra: (Pause) Jump rope. And hopscotch.
MF: Hopscotch in Russia?
Jack: Yeah, all over. In Germany, too, I saw it.
Myra: It’s universal. We drew it on the street with a stick, to look like a person, but with boxes and circles. You jumped through (thumping on the table) and you turned around in the head!
MF: That’s like here.
Myra: And we used to play dice...
Myra: ..... no, no – jacks. They made jacks-pieces commercially, from bones. Little half-inch square cubes . We couldn’t afford those, so we used to pick up in the street –the street was mostly sand, you see, no sidewalks or paving – little stones, about a half inch. You put down four and threw the fifth in the air – and grabbed! One! Two! All four if you could!
Jack: Tell me, did you play ‘Catching the Birdie" in your town?
Jack: It was for young girls your age, maybe 9 or 10, or 11. The rich kids brought it back to town from "kanikos" on school vacation. They brought new games, new songs.... Then we "balabotishe" kids picked it up.
MF: "Balabotishe"? 
Jack: Yeah, the "middle class". The poor kids would get it later. And then the rest of us would stop playing or singing whatever it was.
MF: How long did it take to work its way down?
Jack: Our town?  Maybe two weeks.
MF: Two weeks?!
Jack: So, one girl somehow was the Birdie and the others made a circle around her, with their hands clasped to keep her in. Then they danced around and sang in Russian, and suddenly, one set would open their hands and turn out, like a gate. ‘Birdie’ had to see that and run through before they closed up again.
MF: Sounds familiar.
Jack: It wasn’t easy. Even the best ones had to try two or three times before they ‘flew out.’ But this game you had to sing in Russian, not Yiddish. And poor families didn’t know Russian so I don’t remember them playing it.
[The talk turned to other subjects at this point.]
There were a couple of surprises here. One was the freedom of movement - Jewish children walking distances alone -- to and from school, playing, and shopping. Maybe they had no choice. Another was the mix of Jewish with secular education both in cheders and the early Communist schools. A third was the Yiddish-Russian language schism between urban Jewish social levels. In New York City, I’m accustomed to children of urban immigrant families mostly being bilingual.
The constant interruption of school for extended periods, and the mess this made of children’s social lives to say nothing of their education, had never occurred to me before our conversation. It became easy to understand the sometimes fanatical emphasis their generation placed on educating children and grand-children.
Of course, questions occur to me now which I wish I’d recognized and discussed or clarified then. But this tape remains precious information and food for thought in our family.
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