23 Jun Babinsky, Gnoyensky (1904 – 2004). 1: Berdichev; Kiev; Stalin’s Purges
My father, Avram Babinsky, born in Berdichev, and my mother, Rakhil Gnoyenskaya, born in Belaya Tserkov, met in 1934 in Kiev and married ten years later. At the time of their birth, these towns were part of the Pale of Settlement.
Had not the wartime separation trumped my mother’s reluctance, they might not have married each other or at all: she believed her worthy match had not been born yet; he was a one-woman man, and my mother happened to be that woman.
Berdichev, Kiev: Avram’s Childhood and Youth.
Avram’s mother, my bábushka Khaya, named him, her first-born, after her great-grandfather who had lived to be one-hundred-and-three.
The family was so poor that, at times, it depended on Avram’s paternal uncles for daily sustenance. Blacksmiths, they had an easier time surviving than Avram’s father, my dédushka Borukh, a typesetter and a sickly man.
Like all Jewish shtetl boys, Avram started cheder at four. The streets of Berdichev covered, depending on the season, with ankle-deep dust, mud or puddles, or with glassy ice were impassable for a child, let alone one who did not have shoes. Avram’s turn for an older cousin’s pair came when he was seven. At first, he felt such discomfort in them, that he continued to walk barefoot until the snow fell.
Tall and wiry as an adult, Avram was undersized as a child, so to save himself a trip, the belfer carried him to cheder stacked on top of a hardier boy, Nukhim. Avram clutched his bottom mate’s neck all the way to class. The choker and chokee remained lifelong friends.
At thirteen, Avram finished cheder. The year was 1917 – World War I and the civil war and the pogroms and the Bolshevik Revolution and a baby-brother. A life of ink-inhaling and chain-smoking turned Borukh, still a young man, into an invalid. Avram had to help him at the printing press.
The Jewish publisher did not exactly thrive in the tumult that forced his readers and workers to emigrate or hide in their cellars or move to large cities. Avram did not shine as a typesetter. He was not technically inclined or handy, neither did he like the dull and stinky job. But he kept at it for several years until, in the middle of his evening rabfak program, his Russian already as fluent as his Yiddish, he tried bookkeeping, where finally he got to work with numbers.
The road to higher education was open for children of laborers and peasants, the privileged class. Most of them bolted to large cities. Avram hesitated to leave the family without his income: he felt responsible for his siblings to whom he referred as kinder for the rest of his life. But eventually, the tide delivered him to Kiev where Nukhim (now Naum) put him up. Nukhim was already married, the father of a baby-girl, and the head of a student communist cell.
Avram majored in math at the university and worked as a bookkeeper at night, but he missed Berdichev. He recognized landsleit instantly by name or by face everywhere.
Nukhim helped him secure a large room in a fourteen-room communal apartment with indoor plumbing.
The drone of fourteen primus and the kerosene smells they emitted gave the kitchen the feel of a railroad station.
Nukhim urged him to embrace the Party, the Jewish people’s lodestar, but Avram demurred. He shied away from political activism and anything that might divert attention from his parents and kinder.
Kiev. Avram: 1930s – 1941.
In his fourth year of study, Avram, to Nukhim’s disapproval, dropped out of school in favor of full-time work to support the family.
(Two years later, on the morning after a passionate Stalin-exalting speech at the graduation, Nukhim was arrested, expelled from the Party, and sent off to a camp in Vorkuta, north of the Arctic Circle, to serve ten years of hard labor with no right to correspondence.
His wife Roza, though also expelled from the Party, saved herself and their daughter from immediate exile by signing a condemnation of her husband published in Pravda (Nukhim told the jailer who showed him the clipping that his Roza could not have written it.)
She refused Avram’s help: associating with her would get him arrested, or worse. In a few years her Kiev propiska was terminated which triggered loss of work; she settled near the camp where Nukhim was serving his sentence.
The cheder friends met again twenty-five years later, compliments of mass exoneration during Khrushchev’s Thaw. Nukhim declined the invitation to re-join the Party. Roza accepted. She registered at the communist cell of the building where they were awarded an apartment. She said she felt empty without the Party which made her husband chuckle. This man never lost his sense of humor.)
Quick-thinking, hardworking, and analytical, Avram found himself in demand, in spite of his low-key disposition. In the early 1930s he filled out a voluminous application for a job with an above-average title and salary. He received the lowest officer rank of junior lieutenant and a revolver. The rank was a formality; Avram was considered a civilian and wore a uniform without epaulettes.
He realized too late that the MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs) was not a place for a decent person, even in a finance department detached from the deeds of that KGB-like organization. But resignations were not allowed unless an employee was arrested or executed.
Three of his fourteen communal neighbors were taken during the night, never to return; one of them an old half-blind proofreader of a local newspaper. The other neighbors acted as if nothing happened but avoided talking to the affected families or, just in case, to each other. Unbeknownst even to his father, Avram and his mother, my bábushka Khaya, snuck into the proofreader’s room in the dark of night to bathe the traitor’s wife dying of cancer and feed her some borscht.