Babinsky. Adulthood (1963 – 1967). 5: Mr. Right!

Babinsky. Adulthood (1963 – 1967). 5: Mr. Right!

Moisey and Shifra Shklyanoy. Kiev.

Moisey and Shifra Shklyanoy. Kiev.

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Mr. Right!

Like me, Dima was born and grew up in Kiev. Like me, he had no siblings.

Shifra Zhivotovskaya. Kiev. Abt. 1950.

His mother, Shifra Zhivotovskaya (called Syuta at home) migrated to Kiev in the early 1920s from the shtetl of Stavishche located near the bigger town of Tarashcha and in the vicinity of Belaya Tserkov, my maternal family’s revered shtetl. In Kiev, she studied chemistry at a technikum then worked at a pharmacy until she got married.

Tarashcha Market Place. The times of Pale of Settlement. Postcard.Before the Bolshevik Revolution, Shifra’s father kept a tavern in Stavishche. The peasants who frequented his establishment often paid with chickens, eggs, milk, kerosene. His six children went to gymnasia. In the summer he hired a poor but bright gymnasia boy to tutor them. Much like my great-uncle Leib, that boy worked for food and for a basket with provisions to take home.

Shifra’s mother was born in Boguslav, also near Belaya Tserkov. Her maiden name, Rapoport, pointed to Spain or Portugal or Italy, plus conceivably a dash of Germany, as the potential places where it was adopted in the mid-15th century.

Moisey Shklyanoy.The oldest of eight, Dima’s father, Moisey Shklyanoy, finished cheder in his native shtetl of Rokitnoye then peddled household goods for his father. His ancestors had lived there for generations. Fifty-five years after meeting Dima, I discovered that legally they were residents of the nearby Belaya Tserkov where, according to the Pale of Settlement rules, the Shklyanoy (spelled then as Shklyannoy) family had been originally assigned. (The reference book Jews of Belaya Tserkov, pp. 690-691, lists them without an address:

The Shklyanoys had lost the memory of their connection to Belaya Tserkov but were well off enough to be eligible to vote there. The same goes for Moisey’s maternal grandfather Volko Ochakovsky who had immigrated to the United States and lost  touch with the old country. (The reference book Jews of Belaya Tserkov, p. 470, lists him without an address:

Rokitnoye Market Place. The times of the Pale of Settlement. Postcard.

So, in my case, all roads lead to Belaya Tserkov.

Following the civil war and pogroms of the late 1910s, Moisey fled to Kiev. He held low-paying positions at the grain elevator but, due to shortages and black market, could provide for his wife and son.

Moisey, forty-four when the German army invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Syuta and six-year-old Dima evacuated to Middle Asia. She arrived at the station straight from the hospital where she’d had a bowel obstruction fixed the day before.

Dima began to hang around with a gang of older boys who occupied themselves by throwing stones or animal dung onto healthy-looking young men they considered deserters or draft dodgers. They did not shrink from stealing food at the flea market, either.

Moisey was later drafted. He was wounded but recovered in time to return to Kiev following the city’s liberation and went back to his job at the grain elevator. The pre-war building where the family lived had been bombed out but, holding out a carrot in the form of flour, Moisey had no trouble getting a room assigned. It was narrow and dark, in a six-room apartment on the fourth floor of a centrally located building.

Multiple gas stove in a communal kitchen. Photo courtesy of Communal Living in Russia: A Virtual Museum of Soviet Everyday Life

Multiple gas stoves in a communal kitchen. Photo courtesy of Communal Living in Russia: A Virtual Museum of Soviet Everyday Life

The window looked out on roofs and walls. The farthest from the kitchen, bathroom and lavatory, the room was split into a 130-square-foot main part and a 30-square-foot nook. Originally, when the entire apartment had belonged to one household, the room had been the second bathroom and the nook, a lavatory.

To a barely supervised ten-year-old, the slapdash post-war era was a boon. Dima had plenty of accomplices to help him swipe tools and guns at the flea market and to test unexploded ammunition. With stolen tickets or no tickets he sneaked into the circus and into the movie theaters running flicks looted from Germany.

He had no toys or games but learned how to play chess and, like Moisey, loved domino. When Moisey made a domino set from plywood, they played every Sunday evening.

Domino Set Made by Moisey Shklyanoy. 1947

As a teen, Dima ran errands for the circus Gypsy performers and brought them home after the shows. At the sight of the Gypsies, stereotyped as unrepentant thieves and conmen, the neighbors, to his delight, pulled their laundry from the hallway clotheslines and scooted into their rooms. Syuta spread blankets on the floor for the uninvited men.

Dima assisted in the elopement of a fourteen-year-old girl with her Gypsy admirer. Michail Shklyanoy doing magic trick.The Gypsies taught Dima magic tricks, knife-juggling, target-throwing knives into trees, and balancing a bottle of wine placed on a knife handle on his forehead. All his life he was nostalgic for those years, but he realized it was a miracle he had not turned into a criminal.

The day after Dima’s seventeenth birthday, Moisey died suddenly of a heart attack. Chain smoking and inhaling flour dust contributed to his early death.

Syuta sunk into depression and panic attacks, both inherited, she said, from her father and passed on to Dima. Eventually, she found work at a pharmacy as a gofer for forty rubles a month. She worked until sixty-five (ten years over the retirement age for women) to earn a pension of thirty-two rubles a month.

In the summer, Dima sent her off to rest-houses for back-to-back two-week stays. This gave him a place to entertain, an activity of which the neighbors disapproved.

Dima and I were engaged when he, sick with the flu, asked me to finish his drawing. Each of the five neighbors knocked on the door repeatedly to ask after his health and suggest remedies. While he was dozing I tiptoed to the lavatory. He stood at the door as I walked out. “What have you done?” he whispered dramatically. I committed the crime of turning on the light using the switch on the wall instead of one in Dima’s room. If caught by a neighbor, an ugly scene would be unavoidable.

Light bulbs, one for each room, in the communal lavatory. Each bulb is connected to the meter in the respective room. Photo courtesy of Communal Living in Russia: A Virtual Museum of Soviet Everyday Life

Light bulbs, one for each room, in the communal lavatory. Each bulb is connected to the meter in the respective room. Photo courtesy of Communal Living in Russia: A Virtual Museum of Soviet Everyday Life

When Dima married me, Syuta rented out the nook for a ruble a day to a teenage girl from the country. (The flow out of villages to the cities filled vacancies in heavy industry, construction, and sales. The new urbanites also had priority in admission to educational institutions.

Dormitories provided by large companies alleviated some of the housing shortage but dormitories soon transformed into family housing: couples divided rooms with wardrobes; one-per-floor kitchens were overcrowded.)

Syuta’s boarder worked at a houseware’s store and occasionally set aside pots and dishes for Syuta and for the neighbors too, so that they would not make waves about the illegal rental scheme that resulted in an additional person using the facilities.

We contributed fifteen rubles a month to Syuta’s household. When the minimum pension rose to forty-five rubles in the early 1970s she did not need our help any longer.

Even though an only child of a single parent was not eligible for draft, Dima had to be evaluated by military medics. They diagnosed a heart valve defect and hypertension and marked him permanently unfit for service.

A blat got him enrolled into a mining technikum that he graduated from at nineteen with top honors and a demolition license. His mandatory two-year job assignment brought him to a gravel pit in a small town.

A mining technician, Dima prepared controlled explosions and oversaw dump truck loading and half a dozen laborers, all double his age, alcoholics with criminal records, and, some of them, former Nazi collaborators. A non-athletic Jewish boy who did not tolerate alcohol, he was at their mercy if they decided to jeopardize his monthly targets or to backstab him, figuratively or literally.

He asked them what he could do to make them happy. A loaded truck every week to sell the gravel or trade it for moonshine got him into their good graces.

Upon the completion of the assignment Dima received a formal release and returned to Kiev where he worked as a technical overseer and a foreman on construction sites.

Attempts to enroll into in the Kiev Construction Institute failed. He passed the tests into a six-year correspondence program in Moscow. By the time he graduated he was well-versed in every aspect of construction, from estimates to complex calculations and management.

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