Life as a Jewish child in post-WWII Kiev
By Nellie Barg
People should never try to put labels on others, especially children. An artist needs to use a multitude of colours and images to create a painting, and isn’t every human being much more complex and layered than the most sophisticated painting? We all look, think, see, smell, talk and act differently. I believe that nothing could diminish the sense of self-worth in children more than being labelled by their race or identity. Nevertheless, human prejudice is deeply rooted in society, which in order to dominate and control builds artificial cells that aren’t always visible but are firmly imprinted into the fabric of life. In post-second World War Soviet Union, the worst crimes were attributed to Hitler and his army, while the unofficial, but well-known and encouraged, policy by the Communist government that I lived under marginalised and discriminated against Jews and used them as scapegoats.
I was about nine or ten years old when I learned about Birobidzhan in a geography lesson. It is a Jewish autonomous region in the Far East, which was referred to as “Stalin’s forgotten Zion.” Yiddish was the territory’s official language for a time. I tried to convince my parents to move to Birobidzhan. My father patiently explained to me that Birobidzhan wasn’t a suitable place to live. It had a very severe climate, the living conditions were unbearable, and Jewish culture was suppressed. Gradually, by eavesdropping on my parents’ conversations, conducted mostly in Yiddish, about Eretz (Israel), I learned about the one and only part of the world where Jewish people had actually built their own state.
When I turned thirteen, I was already desperately looking at how I could have a different, freer life. In my dreams I imagined being Reisel/Rosa Spivak, the character from Wandering Stars by Sholem Aleichem, who ran away from Russia, became a performer, and, after years of wandering, reunited with Leibel, the love of her life, in America. In my mind I created new scenes and dialogue for me (Reisel) and my beloved (no name yet). Sometimes my play took place in America, among the skyscrapers of New York that I’d seen in pictures. In a different scenario, my lover and I were soldiers in the Israeli Army. I would save him after he was wounded in battle, and we would be bonded forever. And so even in my early teens I was preparing myself for a long struggle to reach the land of my dreams.
I was born in Kiev, Ukraine three years after the end of the World War II. My family occupied a one bedroom apartment on Gorky Street in the central part of the city. Khreshchatyk, the main street of Kiev, was a few blocks away. Gorky Street was divided in the middle by a narrow mile of square, lined on both sides by tall chestnut trees with benches between them. On the hilly top of the street sat a larger park named after Taras Shevchenko, the famous Ukrainian poet. A huge monument to him stood in the middle of the park, surrounded by lawns covered with flowers. Park Shevchenko was a nice place for walking, but my parents took me there mostly for its playground.
In the 1950s, Kiev was still recovering from the war. The ruins of bombed out buildings could still be seen and finding a decent apartment was a very difficult task. Up until the late 1980s, it was common for three or more families to share an apartment.
For as long as I could remember, my mother was trying to accomplish a so-called “exchange” of apartments, a common activity in the former Soviet Union. Under the Soviets nobody owned real estate. In order to improve their living conditions, people were allowed to exchange their apartments with the local government’s permission.
My family, which included my mother, Fanya; my father, Israel (Izya); my granny from my mother’s side, Sonya; and me, the only child, lived in two rooms that never saw daylight. We shared a kitchen, bathroom, toilet and narrow hallway with two other families.
With everyone sharing communal areas, there was no privacy. I despised our bathroom and toilet; someone was always waiting to use it and they weren’t clean. Neighbours were supposed to take turns cleaning the facilities, but with mistrust deeply ingrained in everybody’s mind, most residents declined to do things that served the collective.
The world I grew up in during the 1950s was deprived of basic conveniences, ones that are taken for granted in the West. I did not get my hands on my first shampoo and deodorant until I was a teenager, around twelve or thirteen years old. Tampons and diapers never appeared on the Soviet market. The two toiletries available were soap and tooth powder. I was about five when we first got hot water, produced by a huge gas cistern installed in the kitchen. We used matches to ignite the flame. The cistern heated the water slowly and the noise from the burning gas was horrendous. My father tried to establish a schedule for using the cistern with all the neighbours, to help minimise the all-day noise, but it never worked out. I gradually learned that to keep my body as clean as I wanted I had to take a shower every day. This idea didn’t go over well with the rest of my family and neighbours who considered my frequent washing excessive and unnecessary. It became a part of a constant war with my mother.
I obtained a razor as soon as I turned twelve and noticed I had body hair. I had also discovered that using a mix of rubbing alcohol and lemon juice reduced the skin irritation caused by shaving and gave the body a nice scent. I was learning how to take care of myself despite the odds.
My first childhood memory is related to my mother giving me a bath in a tub filled with hot, sudsy water. I think if I closed my eyes, I would still be able to feel the warmth and pleasantness of the hot water, but at the same time, during those soothing baths, I had a fear that, at any moment, one of our neighbours would open the kitchen door and catch sight of my naked body.
We had two neighbours. Two elderly sisters, Fenya and Sonya, who occupied one room. Both had limited vision, loved to gossip and constantly quarrelled with each other. I loved to mimic their speech to my parents and found a very receptive audience. My mother was involved in an on-going war with the second family we shared our house with. The head of this family was Mrs. Marusya, a middle-aged Ukrainian housewife with heavy features and a stocky figure. Despite being quite heavy-set, Mrs. Marusya was capable of walking around as a quietly as a cat. We knew she was snooping on us. She reported to our building superintendent about all “suspicious” activities and people, including my uncle Arkady when he was released from prison and looked for shelter in his mother’s apartment.
Mrs. Marusya’s husband, a disabled ex-officer, was a quiet, humble man who never argued with his wife. I remember liking him a lot. He seemed to be the only person in this very confrontational and difficult arrangement who tried to maintain some sort of peace and balance.