05 Jun Babinsky. School (1952 – 1963). 3: Joining Komsomol. Grades 5 to 7
Joining Komsomol but Nothing Else.
The acceptance of our class to Komsomol in seventh grade turned into a mindless unavoidable disruption to a day’s schedule that left no memory.
By then, the family canon of never joining any Soviet ideological body or accepting Maliche’s perks, unless necessary for survival, had become the cornerstone of my life. As the saying went: I don’t want your honey, I don’t want your stinger. Absence of Komsomol membership, though theoretically voluntary, would be an obstacle to university acceptance.
The next year, the painting in the school lobby fell victim to Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s cult of personality. The sun-drenched deity gave way to a wall covered with blistered paint and busy spiders. His portraits, busts, and statues vanished from view.
Cities, villages, plants, summer camps, and prizes hastily renamed themselves. An acquaintance’s daughter Stalina changed her name to Stella. Damning Stalin and admiring his victims came into vogue. At the fourth-grade graduation ceremony, our principal proclaimed that we now lived in a free country.
Grade 5 and 6.
Beginning with fifth grade, life got hectic. We now had different teachers for different subjects: algebra, foreign language (German, in my class), Russian, Ukrainian, history, geography, botany, zoology.
Most children were bright and motivated. Every morning, I could not wait to get to school. In recognition of my craving for languages, Rakhil hired an English teacher. We went through the fifth-grade textbook quickly but I confused the two languages in school and refused to continue.
Our gym teacher gathered the girls before class and told us in a low voice (the boys listened in at the door) that we could be excused from gym once a month, three days in a row. The passcode was “I’m not well today.”
After class, the girl nicknamed “moo” for her big chest enlightened the baffled group as to the reason. She was the only one, thus far, to understand what “not well” meant. She warned to expect terrible pain and not to blab our secret to males, including our fathers.
The school district charged our exemplary school with reforming war orphans from a local orphanage. The principal told us to empathize with them and help them study.
The five orphaned boys in our class, all older than us having already repeated at least one grade, smelled of cigarettes, played with penknives and swaggered. They knew words that our sheltered boys pretended to know and egged on our boys to elbow girls in the chest. Unreformed, they were removed after the first quarter.
During the fifth and sixth school years, I stayed at the hospital twice, six months apart, for a total of three months, with Hepatitis A and B (Botkin disease). Both times I was the oldest of six girls in the room.
Ambulance took me there when my skin and the whites of my eyes acquired a dark-yellow hue. The doctors pushed a tube down my throat to bring out some misty orangish substance. They called the procedure probing.
The nurse had to peek into the toilet bowl before flushing it so that any abnormalities would be detected. The kids waiting to use the one-stall bathroom squirmed and held their crotches; the youngest peed in their pants sometimes. The nurse punished them by making them stand in the corner face to the wall.
In the evening we lay on our beds in our slippers to let the orderly’s mop dash around leaving puddles on the floor and gray drops on blankets and nightstands.
Rakhil stood under the hospital window after work, demanding that, queasy or not, I eat the food she sent through. Polina drew a straight line from my symptoms to her younger brother Kutsya’s yellow skin and to the Averbukh’s propensity for nausea (she did not live to see her brother Leib die of the cancer of the liver.)
Appraising my undernourished body Rakhil lamented that I would never thrive but Polina dismissed that assessment, “Zie iz ein nefeshl oder der Kopf tragt zie (she is sickly but her head carries her).”
A strict diet and, to my satisfaction, liberation from gym activities I considered strenuous followed my hospitalization. Fried, spicy and fatty foods and eggs were off-limits. Four volumes of Lermontov consoled me on my sponge-cake-less thirteenth birthday.
Avram got the books through a colleague working at a book store as he had the year before with Pushkin and the following years with Gogol and Turgenev. In gym, I did little besides reading and holding on to the watches for the few classmates that owned them. The teacher insisted I had the ability to excel in gymnastics and outshine others. But I didn’t mind being outshined.
Grade 6 and 7.
At home, my afternoons began with a radio program devoted to the eternal brotherhood of the Soviet Union and China.
I remember the refrain of the song that started and ended the program: “Moscow – Beijing, Moscow – Beijing; forward, forward go our people; for joy of work, for solid peace; long live freedom.” Several disjoined stanzas comprised the song: “A Russian and a Chinese are brothers forever;” “thunder of war does not scare us;” “no bond is stronger than ours;” “new China marches next to the mighty Soviet Union;” “Stalin and Mao are listening to us.”
The program went off the air in the late 1950s when the relationship between the brothers-forever soured.
I pestered Polina to teach me how to cook. She would have rather attended school than do household chores, she said.
But she showed me how to make soup, kotlety, and stew. I failed the baking test after faithfully followed recipes produced duds. And making lapsha remained an unreachable dream. (Lapsha is Russian for flat noodles similar to linguine; figuratively it means a simpleton and the expression “to hang lapsha over one’s ears” means to mislead.) Polina made it infrequently, probably because of shortages of flour, but always for Passover and Yom Kippur that were synonymous, in my mind, to chicken bouillon with lapsha. She mixed flour and water, added a pinch of salt — not for taste but out of habit, she acknowledged — then kneaded the dough for what seemed a long time and flattened it on the kitchen table. She rolled the dough strudel-like and started slicing it into thin ribbons while her eyes were sliding over the stove and refrigerator contemplating her next tasks. Her fingers did not require watching, they moved away from the knife just enough to let another identical ribbon detach from the roll. Minutes before serving, the curly strips took a dive into the boiling soup to become a treat not to be forgotten.
Polina predicted that I would cook, like her machatenista, Avram’s mother, a good cook but no experimentalist.
My imagination proved as unremarkable in sewing and needlepoint. I fell in love with the latter and followed patterns diligently to craft presents for Rakhil on her birthday and March 8, the International Women’s Day.
Avram’s plant erected a new building on the main street of Kurenevka, a five-minute walk to my school. The plant assigned us two rooms in a three-room apartment. We moved when I was in the seventh grade.
Avram and Rakhil slept in the smaller room. The larger room played living room, dining room, and my and Polina’s bedroom. The book shelves built for Avram at the plant and a massive desk bought secondhand made it an office, too. The desk had two sets of drawers, a curved-in middle drawer, and slightly scuffed paw-shaped front legs.
To celebrate the move, Avram and Rakhil splurged on a television set, an advanced design that got away with the water-filled magnifying lens.
A middle-aged economist from Avram’s plant occupied the third room. He took long baths on Saturday afternoons, dyed and styled his wavy hair, poured cologne over it and disappeared until late Sunday. The apartment smelled like a barbershop.
Other than that, we rarely saw him in the common areas. Sometimes, his ex-wife tore in, yelling and slamming doors but, all in all, we had almost a private apartment.
Avram worked up his courage to bribe a phone installer vouched for by a trustworthy source to get a phone line. The man nonchalantly pocketed Avram’s two monthly salaries, assuring us that he lowered his rate out of respect.
Avram and Rakhil immersed themselves in assisting their friends, the exonerated victims of Stalin’s purges—a category called The Repressed—streaming out of internal exile. Those who temporarily needed a roof over their heads stayed at our house; they slept on the floor or on borrowed folding beds.
The grownups stayed up late. Polina served food and washed dishes. Avram paced the room, his hands knotted behind his back. He felt guilty for not getting caught in Stalin’s meat grinder.
Uncomfortable in the spotlight of Rakhil’s fury, the guests muttered that the Party must have had a good reason for crushing their lives. Even that “if I knew that if I died Stalin would come back to life I’d happily offer to die.” They cringed when Rakhil prodded them to share their experiences with me.
Over their objections, she narrated their sagas herself—she ordered me to close my book and sit and listen. She was implacable, “When it happens again and your husband is executed, at least you won’t say there was a good reason for it.”
Just one man, tall and goateed, sizzled about the kidney-crushing beatings he received for refusing to confess to spying or give names of other “spies.” He gloated about crossing paths with his interrogator-turned-inmate and giving him a whack in the gut. He talked about some exiles who had nobody to come home to: their families had been murdered by the Nazis or the Gulag.
The scrap collection drive mandated by the city’s school administration let me escape some of the debates. Our class had a target to fill that would have been realistic had we set up a foundry. Contributing a bent spoon did not help.
While roaming the neighborhood, our boys saw round metal objects in the back of a manufacturing plant. They climbed over the fence and passed the objects, ten kilos apiece, to the girls. Our catch won us the competition with other classes. But the principal took away the award certificate when the plant workers descended on the school to get the objects back. We got reprimanded. The drive died a natural death.