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Rena's Memories

Part 4 (School)

"In communism the future is known. It's the past that keeps changing." (Popular Soviet era joke)

Click on images to enlarge.


One of the things I remember is that for a year or so, when I was around seven, my father found a women who would take a group of kids walking. We didn’t start school till we were eight so I must have been about six and a half. (I started school a year early). We would walk around – there were three or four of us – and she would only speak French to us. So at that time I learned a little French. My father was very upset that I was growing up not knowing more than one language – because he did.  He spoke French like a native. He could go from Russian to French without any difficulty.

My parents enrolled me in school early because I already knew how to read and write and I was bored sitting at home. My first school was a Ukrainian school. My father wanted me to go to a Russian school because the Russian language was the language of the whole country and it was more important to know that grammatically. Because I was young I wasn’t accepted in a Russian school, but the Ukrainian school was willing to accept me.

I don't remember this first school much. I remember the location (two trolley stops into the city) and the appearance of the building (like an old school anyplace in the world). Since I already knew how to read I helped with the slower students.


Later I was changed to a different school. If I went back I would know exactly which street I would have to take to go toward that school but I don’t remember the location as well as the first. I would know exactly where the first school was even though the building might not be standing. I have a very good visual memory of it. 


The new school was a long walk away and there were no school buses. I didn’t know what a school bus was till we moved to Matawan, New Jersey. On the way to school there was a grocery store and if there was a line outside I got on it. Soviet citizens did that automatically before knowing what was available for purchase. 


This must have been around 1939 and food was scarce. Due to the pact between Stalin and Hitler (Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact), the plentiful Ukrainian harvest was being sent to Germany. If you saw a line you got on even if you didn’t even know what was being sold. And then you would ask, “What are they giving?” – as though they were giving it way.  That was the expression,  “What are they giving?” And the next person might say, “I don’t know. I saw a line and I got on.”  


I was just a kid of eight years. I didn’t carry money, but soon my mother would pass on her way to her work, and she would replace me so I could go to school. Hopefully she would be able to buy whatever it was before she had to leave the line. This was a way of life at that time.  We had lean years and better years.

ASO 41 school certificate s1.jpeg

A school award Rena received in 1941 "for excellent achievements in learning and exemplary behavior".

In the new school I started my third year. We now had separate subjects with different teachers. The incident I remember best happened in history class at the beginning of the school year. 


Paper was scarce and new textbooks were rare. Everything went into trying to build arms instead of trying to improve the living conditions of people. We were given the old history textbook, a very nice textbook with illustrations. Then the teacher gave us a black pencil and she also gave us paper and glue and we had to paper over different portraits, like [Felix] Dzerzhinsky and [Pavel] Postyshev.


I was a very fast reader so I could read and see who they were. And the book would say “these are the heroes of the revolution”… “they accomplished so much doing wonderful things for the people”… “they were helping to improve our lives”.  And the teacher said they were proven to be traitors.  


So we had to paste them over because they were the ones who Stalin had exterminated. He exterminated the people who put him in power.  And Trotsky was one of them, of course – well by the time I got around Trotsky’s been out for a long time, but all these other people were recent. They were people from just a year or two before. One year they were heroes and the next year they had to be pasted over because we still had to use the same text book. But they didn’t want the children to see the photographs and the write-ups of these people.

The books available [to students] were mostly the one's glorifying communism. One of the communist "classics" which is still read today (1986) is Pavlik Morozov. Here is what I can remember. The Morozov's were rich peasants. Pavlik's father was going to do something that conflicted with the governments orders. Pavlik told on his father and the father was arrested. Then Pavlik is killed by his uncle. Pavlik is a Soviet hero. Children must tell on the family. Communism comes first.


Official portrait of Pavlik Morozov. He existed but the story was mostly fabricated. Click here for more info

Photo is public domain.

Rena's father wanted Rena to learn French (and was very critical of her attempts).  Like most of the gentry in the Rssian Empire, Rena's father spoke French fluently. Like others of his class, he and his brothers were raised by a French governess. I'm not able to ask my grandfather about his education, but the passage below gave me some insights. It is from an oral history of the famous historian,Nicholas Russianovsky. He grew up in a Russian community in Harbin (and went to an American school) before emigrating to the US as a fourteen year old.

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Professor of Russian and European intellectual history, University of California, Berkeley, 1957-1997 : oral history transcript / 1998 Click here for source

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