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.
There were no secrets to be kept in a communal apartment. Everybody knew almost everything about each other: when and what you had for dinner, what colour your nightgown was, whom you may have argued with in your family, when and if you took a shower, or even if you had an upset stomach.
I felt constantly exposed by the pressure, not only from our communal living, but also from my mother, who made demands on the little privacy I managed to carve out.
“Nellie, what are you doing in the bathroom? You don’t wash yourself for half an hour. Get out fast!” I heard her voice say just as soon as I had locked myself in there.
I tried to escape from our apartment as much as I could.
When I was little, my grandmother was still working. I had a nanny, a very kind, soft-spoken and round-faced Ukrainian woman named Masha. I was very fond of Masha. She liked to go to the church on the corner of a busy intersection a couple of blocks below our house and she took me with her. The church looked to me like a living painting that I’d seen somewhere, with its golden domes and heavy oak doors and window shutters. It also reminded me of the handmade China figurines on the shelves in our room, just much larger.
While Masha was praying, I enjoyed watching other people’s faces, enveloped in that mystical air, many openly crying, but still looking peaceful and relaxed. This aura of peacefulness enhanced by the smell of incense was a welcoming respite from the constant tension at home. One day when Masha and I tried to go to her church, it was gone. I was stunned, but, Masha, heartbroken and in tears, wasn’t surprised. She explained that the church had apparently been demolished overnight.
“I was so fortunate to have it for a long time, but we all knew that our government would take it down sooner or later,” she told me sobbing, though she refused to answer my questions as to why. Soon, a new high-rise was built in place of the church, but the old structure stayed in my memory, adding to the many unanswered questions I accumulated in my pre-school years.
I had never been in a synagogue under the Soviets for a very good reason — there was no functioning synagogue in Kiev. I knew from my grandmother that the one synagogue known to the older Jewish population had been shut down a long time ago. When I was in my first year of junior college and felt the urge to pray and talk to G-d, I went to the one functioning church in Kiev, St. Vladimir’s Cathedral. My school was located close by. Sometimes I just stopped by to look at the famous paintings by Victor Vasnetsov that decorate the cathedral. Only after I had learned more about Jews and anti-Semitism, I realised that this church wasn’t the proper place for us to worship.
When I turned five my nanny left and I was allowed to play in our yard, a space enclosed between two buildings, one brick wall, and the remains of a bombed out building.
The ruins were my favourite place to play hide-and-seek with my friends: Nina, the girl who lived in my building, and Alec and Osya, two boys who lived in the front building facing our yard. We were all in the same age group. I liked Alec a lot, and our attraction was mutual. He was blond with blue eyes and very feminine. We liked singing and dancing together. By the time I turned six, I had already imagined Alec being my future husband. Besides jumping and playing in the ruins, we were trying to build our own hut. I guess we all wanted some place we could claim as our own. For months we collected construction material: bricks, pieces of wood, discarded boxes. After we had finally put all those pieces together and covered our hut with a large scrap of metal for the roof, we began to plan our housewarming party. It never materialised; the superintendent spotted our hut and ordered us to dismantle it immediately because it was a fire hazard. We were devastated, but soon found another place to hide.
By the late fifties, almost every backyard was equipped with a bomb shelter, the landmark of the Cold War. All of us lived in fear of the eminent bombing from America for a number of years, but exploring bomb shelters still became our favourite pastime. Intense fear coursed through me while descending the metal ladder that brought my friends and me inside the shelter. After our group had become accustomed to the dark, mouldy air, and had found rooms with beds, tables, and chairs, we were evicted by a group of teenagers. They came one day with bottles of wine, cigarettes and pocketknives and ordered us to get out. There was no way we could win that competition.
The only place that I liked in our apartment was our balcony. While there, I often thought that I could touch the wall of the building across from us if only my arms were just a bit longer. It had a partial view of a large backyard with grass and trees. Even during the winter I tried to sneak out to the balcony to look at the snow covered trees.
The balcony was the place where I first learned about being a Jew. “Jew” wasn’t a common word in Kiev. The most popular slur was zhid (meaning yid), for a man and zhidovka for a woman, usually further defined by more humiliating words: ugly zhid, thieving zhid, sly zhid, and, the most widely used, dirty zhid. I was too young to be concerned with what I had heard around me. I did not know yet that my future would be determined by being born Jewish, nor did I understand the meaning of the racial slurs that saturated the language I was exposed to in public places.
The discovery of my identity happened when I was around five or six years old. That day I was playing on my balcony when a group of kids called me by my name.
“Hey, Nellie, do you know who you are?” I didn’t even know their names, but I recognised them. After all, the backyard where they played was my favourite place to look beyond the wall that faced our apartment. I felt that they wanted to tease me and moved to go inside, but then decided not to, to show them that I wasn’t scared.
“What do you want? I am a girl. Of course I know who I am!”
“You are a Jew. Zhidovka, this is who you are,” they yelled back. Something in the way they said it just hit me. I felt like a butterfly caught and stabbed with a sharp pin. I ran inside and confronted my father.
“Papa, Papa, tell me the truth. I need to know. Am I Jewish? Am I a zhid?”
My father exchanged a worried look with my grandma, coughed, and wiped his forehead with a handkerchief. Before he finally spoke. I already knew the answer. “Yes, child, you are a Jew. Who told you about it?”
“Kids from that backyard.” I pointed to the balcony. “They also called me zhidovka.”
“This is a bad word, a slur. Only hateful people use it. But please, never argue with them! Just walk away. Promise me, leave as soon as you hear it,” pleaded my father.
“What does it mean to be Jewish? Why should it be a secret?”
“It means that you belong to a special kind of people,” my father explained.
“We are good people, aren’t we?” I desperately needed a confirmation. My head was on fire from this discovery.
“Yes, we are good people. Unfortunately, not everybody sees it that way.”
“I won’t let anybody make fun of me because I am Jewish,” I responded with newly acquired conviction.
While my dad, along with my grandma, was trying to convince me to be cautious about my Jewishness, I kept thinking that what I had just learned only confirmed how I felt before. Something about me was different. Now I knew the truth. No matter what my parents had requested, I decided on the spot never to be ashamed of who I was. I thought that if they didn’t like my parents and me just because we were Jews, they were simply mean, silly kids.
I didn’t know back then how many people hated us Jews without reason. I only gradually learned how profound and hurtful human prejudice could be. I had plenty of years ahead of me to find out how to live in our anti-semitic society.
Nellie Barg grew up in post-World War II Ukraine and became a speech pathologist. In 1989, she and her daughter fled Kiev. She worked for twenty years as a speech therapist for NYC Public Schools. Her essay, ‘On Freedom in America: Three Decades of New Years,’ appeared in Matador Magazine in December 2014 and her essay ‘Surviving Chernobyl’ was published in The Missing Slate in 2015. She is currently working on her memoir.