06 Jun Babinsky. School (1952 – 1963). 2: Father of All Nations died. Joining the Pioneers
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The Father of All Nations has Died.
On March 6, 1953, Rakhil, normally irritated after work, rushed into the house, her mouth taut with news fighting to escape. In her wet galoshes, she skipped around the table, clapped and chanted “Der tateh iz geshtorben! Der tateh iz geshtorben! (Dad has died! Dad has died!)”
Polina let out a passionate “a danken Gott (thank God)” followed by a conspiratorial mouth-locking in my direction. Avram arrived, eyes happy. They waved away my questions whose Daddy had died and why it was good.
Polina splurged—five eggs was nothing to sneeze at—on a small sponge cake. Normally, she baked it on my birthday. For the first time everybody displayed high spirits. But the radio played sad music.
The scene in school the next morning was anything but celebratory. My classmates sobbed and wiped their noses with their sleeves. Everybody wore a black band on their left arm. My mood, animated by the sponge cake, sunk.
Maria Illarionovna, dry-eyed, put her hand around my shoulder, “Don’t you know that Comrade Stalin died?” I said that somebody’s Daddy had died but I didn’t know whose. I did not connect the honorific Father of All Nations with the tateh in Rakhil’s chant.
“You have to wear a crepe band for three school days,” Maria Illarionovna said. At the afternoon assembly, the principal, red-eyed, roared that the mottos “Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin will live forever” and “Lenin is more alive than the living” from now on also applied to Stalin.
Polina all but ignored my crepe-band sob story. She had no black fabric, she said. It did not occur to me that she always had black fabric to mend Avram’s oversleeves.
Rakhil said that the stores did not have any black fabric either. My classmates looked askance at my conspicuously non-mourning arm. A spontaneous giggler, I sometimes forgot the admonition not to smile for three days. When I did, one boy ran to Maria Illarionovna with a scandalized “Babinskaya is smiling!”
(After Stalin’s subsequent fall from grace, we learned that Maria Illarionovna came from an aristocratic family, spoke French fluently, and before the revolution had attended the boarding school for girls of noble birth housed in our school building. Her siblings perished in the Gulag; she had lived in constant terror, afraid to marry and invite disaster on her children.)
The next Sunday, my great-aunt Khanah, Polina’s sister, showed up with an enormous chunk of halvah, bigger than on other Sundays, and two baguettes instead of one. Polina chided her for wasting money. Khanah replied that she would give her last kopeck for the occasion she had thought she would not live to see.
First Home Appliances. Joining the Pioneers.
In 1954, a neighbor in our building bought a fifteen-by-twenty brown box with a four-by-six screen and an attached magnifying lens – a television set. Its name, KVN, stood for the initials of the designers: Kenigson, Varshavsky, and Nikolayevsky. On Sundays, the children from the entire development flocked there to watch a movie. Rumor had it that Stalin himself watched KVN. For some time, television owners had to register their purchase; the government needed to be aware who had access to the new medium.
It took several minutes for the television to warm up. Then the introductory hazy, quivering rectangulars gave way to hazy black-and-white images and scratchy sound. The distilled water, or glycerin, inside the lens swayed in response to any movement. But the audience hardly breathed, much less moved.
A television cost more than a monthly salary (as a joke said, it represented the main dish on a Soviet holiday table). To complicate things, another technological miracle, the refrigerator, burst onto the scene at the same time. Which to choose? At our dinner table, adults endlessly pondered that dilemma. My preference for the television was considered because Rakhil didn’t like me to hobnob with children of unapproved families. In the end, the miracle that kept food fresh year-round won over the one that entertained.
The refrigerator – “North” or “ZIS”, I can’t recall the brand – arrived in a pickup borrowed at Avram’s plant.
Two plant workers carried it into the apartment gingerly. The five-inch-tall freezer did not fully substitute the avoska hanging out of the window in the winter or the tub filled with cold water in the summer.
Undeniably though, the refrigerator proved progress and achievement, and it was helpful too.
In third grade, the Pioneer Leaders (every school had two on staff, a senior and a junior) took over some classes to prepare us for the ranks of Lenin’s grandchildren, the Pioneers. Had Stalin been alive we would have simultaneously become his children.
Preparations began with lectures about role models, Pavlik Morozov being the most celebrated. Polina thought it unconscionable to see a moral compass in a boy who had informed on his father during the collectivization campaign for hiding some grain.
Alarmed by that standard, she grilled me relentlessly. “Do you really admire the boy who betrayed his father?” “Would you do what he did?” I focused on Pioneer membership too much to pay attention to an abstract topic.
To be worthy of the Pioneer name, the Leaders advised us to stand up promptly when teachers entered the classroom and not to run in the hallway. We memorized the oath, rehearsed saying it in one voice, and learned to knot the red neck scarf and to salute properly by aligning the crook of the elbow with the tip of the nose.
At the celebration after the ceremony, everybody showed off their talents: played the piano or accordion, sang, danced folk dances, and performed acrobatics. I had no talent, so Maria Illarionovna let me open the event with a recital of The Internationale, the communist anthem.
All of the children except me had a shiny silk red neck scarf. I had a cotton one. I resented Rakhil’s choice, Polina’s die rejte shmata (the red rag) comment, and Avram’s preoccupied nod at my oath rehearsal.
But the anthem caught Polina’s notice: “We’ll demolish the world of oppression completely then we’ll build our own new world in its place.” “Vus heist man volgert (what do you mean demolish)?” She asked in disbelief. “One must first salvage what’s usable. Or how will you know how to build?”
The ending of the anthem “Who was a nothing will become an everything“ disturbed her. “Remember that ven a dienst vert a balabuste ken kein tukhles nicht sein (when a servant replaces an overseer, no good will come out of it).” She concluded with “Let’s suppose all this happens – und vus veiter? Trakht, mein kind (and then what? Think, my child)” followed by the mouth-locking sign.
The ceremony went without a hitch. Members of Komsomol knotted our red neck scarves and attached pins to our pinafores or lapels.
The pins fit a red star, hammer-and-sickle, red flame, and the slogan “always ready!” (The pin had to be replaced almost every year because the fastener fell off.) We saluted aligning elbows and noses perfectly.
I delivered The Internationale, enunciating every word, like Polina instructed. My head high, I announced to her that I became a true Lenin’s granddaughter. She looked bewildered, “Why Lenin’s? A danken Gott (thank God), you had two wonderful grandfathers.”
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