In the Russian Gymnasia

From the time I was five until I was seven, I was sent to Hebrew school where I felt very much at home, and knew each child and his family intimately. We studied reading, writing and grammar, and concentrated especially on the Bible. When I was seven, my oldest brother Isak, who had an important position in Troitsk, Siberia and was planning my education, advised Mama to transfer me to a Russian government primary school.

And so my studies in the Hebrew school were terminated, and I entered Russian school. Alexei Zhukovsky, the teacher, had a sensitive face and a gracious manner. We children adored him. The students were all peasant boys. Girls were not deemed by their parents to be eligible for an education; they were needed at home to look after the many younger children and help their mothers in the house. After I was accepted, my friend, Roza, and her older brother, Shlomka, also entered the school, where we were the only three Jewish students.

During recess we would all crowd into a small ante-room to eat our lunch, and that was the time when I could observe the strange ways of the peasant boys. Their lunch invariably consisted of flat round pumpernickel bread, split in the center and filled with cooked lima beans. The bread was dark and the beans were white, and the contrast made it look appetizing. They ate with gusto. Their stomachs full, they would play pranks on one another. One of the favorite ones was to lift a louse from their own hair and transfer it to the head of the nearest unsuspecting boy. They found this very funny and would roar with mirth. When I told this to Mama, she made me come home for lunch whenever the weather permitted and instructed me to stay as far away as I could from those boys. When she washed my hair each week, she combed it with a fine comb and inspected it carefully.

I soon acquired a new friend — a bright towheaded peasant lad whose name was Vanka. In the subzero weather of the winter, we would trudge together from school, knee-deep in snow. One day, during a heavy snowstorm, he invited me to stop over to warm up at his home which was not far from school. I was grateful for the invitation, as I was exhausted and nearly frozen. I had never been inside a peasant cottage and did not know what to expect.

All the members of his large family were at home, since there was no field work to be done during the winter. The house had only one large room with a low ceiling and an earthen floor. One wall of the room was lined with two tiers of wide wooden sleeping shelves covered with straw. The top of the oven, the warmest spot in the house, was reserved for the elderly grandparents, who were resting there. Vanka’s parents, his younger brothers and sisters, and his oldest brother with his young wife, who was nursing a baby at her breast, were all in the room. It was the custom among peasants for the oldest son to bring his young bride into his parents’ house where she became a member, or rather a chattel, of his family. She was expected to bear many children (future field hands), do her share of heavy work in the fields and in the house, and be respectful and obedient first to her mother-in-law, and then to her husband. If she was stubborn, strong-willed or lazy, and shirked her duties, she would be soundly beaten.

When it was time to eat, the mother opened the oven door and, with a long-handled wooden shovel, extracted the potatoes which had been baking. She piled them up in a huge wooden trough and placed it on the bare table. A large loaf of pumpernickel bread and raw onions in a wooden bowl completed the meal. No cutlery or plates were used; only one large knife was placed beside the bread. Members of the family took their seats on the benches, crossed themselves, reached for the food, and ate with their hands. They invited me to eat with them, but I refused politely. I was taught from early childhood that their food was treif (non-kosher) and that it was forbidden to me to even touch it.

One day in my second year at school, my teacher gave me a message for Mama that he was coming to see her on an important matter. The family became very much alarmed. He came after school on the very next day, was received very cordially, and seated at the head of the table.

“I don’t know whether you realize,” he said after the pleasantries had been exchanged, “that Malka has a very fine voice and has been singing solo ever since she entered school. The purpose of my visit is to ask you to permit her to join the church choir where I serve as choirmaster. She might even become the soloist someday.”

There was dead silence around the table. Mama became pale as death. But after a few moments she regained her composure and managed to say to him very politely, “Gospodin Zhukovsky, I am truly honored by your high opinion of Malka’s voice. But I must make it clear to you that in all matters of Malka’s education, I must consult my eldest son who works in Troitsk, Siberia; he is the one who is planning her education and saving money to eventually send her to gymnasia in Pinsk. I will write to him and let you know as soon as I hear from him.”

He shook hands courteously, and left. When Mama was sure that he was out of hearing, she grabbed her head in her hands and wailed , “Oy, vey, iz mir. (Oh, woe is me). They want to take my child away from me! When she is in the church choir the priest will be sure to get hold of her and have her baptized, and she will be lost to us. Oh, what shall I do? What shall I do?”

The next day a letter was dispatched to Isak, stating the problem and asking for his advice. An answer was received two weeks later, and Zhukovsky was invited to our house. They made elaborate preparations; the table was covered with a festive tablecloth, the polished samovar was steaming, and Bobbe’s famous strudel, butter buns, an assortment of jams and jellies, and a decanter of homemade wishniak (cherry brandy) were set out.

As my teacher sampled the brandy, drank the tea, and ate the strudel, the buns and the jelly, Mama, holding the letter in her hand, addressed him, “Gospodin Zhukovsky, when I brought Malka to you she was seven years old and did not know one word of Russian. Now, after only two years, you have succeeded in teaching her to speak freely, and to read and write Russian, for which I am greatly indebted to you. My son thinks that it is now time to begin preparing her for entrance examinations into gymnasia in Pinsk. It means that Malka will be going to Pinsk soon; so, you see, there seems to be no point in her joining the church choir at this time. I am sorry not to be able to accept your very kind offer, but this is my son’s decision, and I must abide by it.”

Mama set about to find a tutor and found Sonya Gurevitch, the daughter of a prominent family in Lubeshov. She was told that Sonya had studied at the University of Kiev and was temporarily at home to earn enough money by giving private lessons to continue her studies. To me she seemed to have an air of a big city self-assured, sophisticated university student; she was the only person in all of Lubeshov to ride a bicycle, and the only young woman to smoke cigarettes. She was a very demanding teacher who concentrated hard during our daily one-hour sessions, and assigned a heavy load of work for me to do each day. As a result I was making rapid progress.

In June of 1912, Mama and I went to Pinsk to make arrangements for my entrance into Kazionnaya Gymnasia (Imperial School for Girls). I passed the examinations and was accepted into the second class. I lived with my uncle and aunt, and shared a room with two cousins who also studied at the gymnasia.

The course of study was nine years. Graduates of the complete course were eligible to enter the university without taking any examinations. It was a very prestigious and expensive institution; the tuition was 360 rubles a year and there were other expenses — room and board uniforms, books, papers and all incidentals.

There were two other gymnasias in Pinsk, where the tuition was less expensive, but they were private Jewish schools without rights — that is, graduates of these schools who wished to enter a university were required to take comprehensive examinations for admission. There was also a religious issue involved. In the Jewish schools, the week began on Sunday and ended on Friday, so they could observe the Sabbath. In the Kazionnaya Gymnasia the week began on Monday and ended on Saturday. This meant that the Jewish students were obliged to break the Sabbath by participating in all activities of the day, including writing. For this reason the Orthodox parents sent their daughters to one of the two Jewish gymnasias. Being modern and progressive, Isak disregarded the sin of writing on the Sabbath and considered only the quality of my education.

The discipline in our gymnasia was very strict. We were required to appear in full uniform not only at school but in the streets and all public places, as well. The uniforms consisted of brown wool dresses with long sleeves and high necks, and black wool pinafores. Dainty white linen collars edged in lace and bow ties of moire ribbon gave the final touch to our outfits. Each class was distinguished by a tie of a different color. On special occasions, such as school balls, dances, concerts and the theater, we wore white eyelet embroidered pinafores. Our hair was braided and wound around our heads. For headgear we wore little black felt hats with the silver emblem of our school. These uniforms were custom-made during our school vacation, and were to last for several years, and we had to take very good care of them. I would remove mine as soon as I got home from school and hang it up so it would be ready for the next morning. Once a week I would spread it on the dining room table and brush it thoroughly with a solution of vinegar and water.

When the teachers entered we would all rise, and when they left we would rise again. When we met them in the corridors we would curtsy. We curtsied when we were called to the blackboard and again when we were dismissed to go back to our seats. We venerated our teachers and thought of them as exalted persons, almost superhuman. Our principal, a lady of regal bearing, was the widow of a famous general. It was rumored that she was appointed by the Czar himself. We curtsied deeply before her.

Each class had a klassnaya dama who sat at a table in the corner of the room and was in charge of all the paper work, relieving the teachers of detail. However, we felt that her main duty was to keep a watchful eye on us, our behavior, our speech, our manners, our dress.

My first year at gymnasia was a critical one. I was only ten and one-half years old and this was the first time I had been away from Mama, my grandparents, my friends and my shtetl. I had entered directly into the second class where the girls stood around in groups during intermission inviting one another to their homes to do homework or extending invitations to birthday parties. I stood on the sidelines hoping desperately that someone would invite me, too, but no one ever did. I was obsessed with the ambition to transform myself into a gymnasistka (gymnasia student) and to become “just like them.” Then perhaps they would accept me. It was an impossible task, and I suffered many heartaches in the process.

Here I was —a little Yiddish-speaking girl from the shtetl Lubeshov, population 1,500 Jewish souls — plunged into an unfamiliar world amid daughters of high echelon Russian government officials and of wealthy Jewish merchants and professionals . I was afraid to say anything or do anything for fear I would be discovered to be a provincial “nobody” and laughed at. I observed the other girls closely, especially the most outstanding, the most attractive and the most sophisticated, and tried to cultivate their ways, their speech, their gestures and the way they handled themselves generally. Each day when I returned from school I would stand in front of a mirror and practice endlessly, in the hope of transforming myself completely and in the shortest possible time.

Next came the matter of changing my name. I felt that my Jewish name “Malka” sounded strange among the Russian names: Natasha, Irina, Anastasia, Kyra, Tatyana, etc. I decided to change my name to “Manya” and to obliterate every vestige of my small-town upbringing.

On Mama’s first visit to see me in Pinsk, she wore a bulky woolen shawl, the kind worn by all women in Lubeshov in the winter. As we walked along Great Kiev Street, whom should we meet but a group of girls from class. It seemed to me that they inspected Mama from head to foot, noticed the heavy shawl, and walked away whispering. I was infuriated with her. I wished she had never come. “Mama;’ I burst out, tearfully, “if you ever want to visit me again you must buy a hat and a coat —no one in Pinsk wears shawls. I don’t want my classmates to make fun of us. I am the only small-town girl in my class, and I have enough problems without this” and I pointed to her shawl. Mama stopped abruptly, and a look of bewilderment and pain came into her eyes.

Once a week we had religious instruction. The Russian girls went to a classroom to be instructed by a Greek Orthodox priest, and we Jewish girls went to a classroom to be instructed in the Holy Scriptures by a scholarly and kindly Hebrew teacher. I was the first one asked to read and translate a passage from the Bible. I read the passage and naturally translated it into Yiddish, as I had always done in Hebrew School in Lubeshov. Hysterical laughter burst out … I stood there shaken, confused and blushing, not knowing what I had done wrong.

“Here we translate into Russian,” the teacher said with a kindly smile, trying to put me at ease. I proceeded to do it, but it was hard for me to conceive how the Holy Bible in Hebrew could be translated into anything but Yiddish. I learned as I went along that the language used in the big city was Russian, and that Yiddish was unacceptable.

How well I remember our first dental checkup. The girls came out from the examining room, one by one. They approached the klassnaya dama at her table and when she asked, “How many?” they replied, “one’,’ “two” or “three” as the case might be, and she recorded it in her book. When my turn came, the dentist looked into my mouth and pronounced, “None.”

“None —not even one?” I thought, panic-stricken. “I am done for! I am the only girl who has none. What a disgrace!” I walked out of the room, my thoughts racing in my brain. “What am I to tell the klassnaya dama?” As I approached her table, my hear beat violently and my legs quaked.

“How many?” she asked.

“Three,” I blurted out, and made a hasty retreat before I could be found out. “Now I am as good as any of them!” I thought, triumphantly, as I caught my breath.

At 12 o’clock each day we would go into a special room carrying our lunches (they always consisted of two slices of buttered bread), which we brought from home. The attendant would serve hot tea for which we paid her two kopeks per glass. The klassnaya dama always accompanied us. I was keenly aware that I was under observation and was in deadly fear that she would lecture me in front of all the girls. That dreaded moment finally arrived — she approached me and said, “Prozanskaya, when you hold your glass, you must extend your little finger — so —’,’ she demonstrated daintily. “And another thing — you must break your slice of bread in half before eating it; that is less awkward. Well brought-up young ladies must try to look dainty at all times.”

This was not the end. She continued with her criticism. “I watched you eat-— you must chew your food with your mouth closed. It is bad manners to chew with your mouth open.” I felt completely sunk. It became clear to me now that although I had gone to endless pains to imitate my classmates in all ways, I had overlooked studying their table manners, since to me eating was a natural occurrence and did not need to be studied or imitated. I vowed that I would watch my classmates more carefully.

My most humiliating experience was yet to come. My father had been forced to emigrate to America for a variety of reasons which I did not understand since I was only an infant when he left. In our community, people in better circumstances did not usually emigrate — only the underprivileged, the poverty-stricken laborers and artisans who had no opportunity where they were living, and young men who wanted to escape conscription into the Czar’s army went to America in hopes of bettering their lot. Therefore, I resolved never to reveal to any of my classmates where my father was. Whenever I had been asked, I was ready with an answer: “My home is in Lubeshov, and my father is a merchant.” I was keenly aware that I was probably the only one in the entire gymnasia whose father had been forced to go to America. Fathers who had emigrated to America could not possibly maintain their daughters in gymnasia, I reasoned. I remembered hearing the wives tell how their husbands struggled to put aside money from their meager wages to bring them and their children to America.

One day during intermission, as I was standing in front of the blackboard with a group of my co-students, one girl turned to me with a mischievous look in her eyes and declared loudly for all to hear, “I know something about you! Your father is in America!”

This was a crushing blow. I stood before them, trembling, and blushing. At that instant I wished the earth would open up and swallow me. Fortunately, the bell rang. They all dispersed to their places, and I dragged myself to my seat. My disgrace was now complete. “Not only am I of low class, but I lied to them about my father. They will never accept me and I will never have a chance to find a friend, even among the humblest of my classmates,” This experience haunted me and caused me to have nightmare for years.

As the time for the school’s Christmas vacation neared, I began to make plans for going home. My uncle advised me to take the train for one station only, and from there I would go by horse and sled a distance of 75 viorst (about 50 miles). I wrote to Mama and received an immediate reply that Hatzkel the balagoleh (cart driver) would meet me at the station with warm coverings, and added an admonition that I was not to fall asleep, even for one moment, in the subzero weather because if I did I might God forbid! freeze to death.

Hatzkel was waiting for me when I stepped out on the platform. He was a burly man. A balagoleh needed sheer physical strength and stamina for his work, and was more akin to a Russian peasant than to a Jew. He was illiterate, deprived of even a meager Jewish religious education —in fact, he never learned enough Hebrew to be able to join the congregation in prayer. Hatzkel spoke Yiddish, but no Russian —only the primitive language of the Russian peasant. He was dressed in a kojuch (sheepskin coat), tightly girdled around his waist with a rope. The collar of his kojuch was raised over his head and tied with a scarf; his felt cap was pulled down to his eyebrows, and on his feet he wore heavy valenki (felt boots). I noticed that his eyebrows, mustache and beard were encrusted with tiny icicles.

“Your Mama told me to tell you not to fall asleep, even for a minute, so stay awake, maidele (little girl)” he admonished me. As we started out, he began to question me. “Are you coming from Pinsk, or from further away?”

“From Pinsk” I told him.
“What were you doing there?”
“I attend Russian gymnasia,” I replied.

“A Russian school?” he said, incredulously. “I thought the government does not allow Jewish children in Russian schools.”

“That is true of Jewish boys; it is very difficult for them, but they do allow Jewish girls into girls’ schools if their marks are high, Reb Hatzkel.” He must have felt flattered (he grinned from ear to ear), since no one ever thought of addressing him as Reb Hatzkel.”

“How expensive is it to keep you there?” he asked, and answered himself. “Well, your zeide (grandfather) is a millionaire.”

“It is my brother who is paying for my education^’ I corrected him, “not my zeide. My brother lives in Troitsk, Siberia.”

“Oy!” exclaimed Hatzkel. “In Siberia! You mean he is one of those who are against the Czar — a convict on hard labor?”

“Oh, no, Reb Hatzkel” I said indignantly, “my brother has a very high position with the Trans-Siberian Railway; he sends money to my mother for my education.”

Hatzkel whipped his horses and said no more.

I sank into thoughts about my life at gymnasia for the past five months and what I would say about it to Mama and Bobbe when I got home. How could I tell them how miserably homesick I had been — how I would lie face down on my cot and cry my eyes out when I came home from school, and the feeling I had in the pit of my stomach?

“Even at my uncle’s home my two roommates seem to think they are so grown up, just because they are two years older than I, and are always whispering about boys and giggling. Once when they were whispering with Aunt Rachel I tried to come near what they were saying, I heard the word ‘menstruation,’ and they shooed me away. This is how it is all the time. They think I am only a little girl. The trouble is that I have no one to confide in, and I feel heartsick most of the time. What can I say to them?” I agonized. “If I as much as hint about it to them.” they will not allow me to go back to school. They might even write to Isak about it. That would mean the end of my education! No” I decided, “this is unthinkable! I must not say one word about it to them.”

Having come to a decision, I felt as if a heavy burden fell from my shoulders, and my spirits rose. I began to recite poems by my beloved poet, Alexander Pushkin, in a loud, ringing voice, so that Hatzkel should hear me. After some time, he turned around and said, “I don’t understand one word of it, but how can you remember whole books by heart? Is this what they teach you in the Russian school? How about singing? Do they teach you to sing also?”

“Oh, yes” I told him cheerfully, “I was even accepted into the choir at gymnasia.”

“Go on and sing some ordinary songs — something that I know.”

I obliged, singing to him the rest of the way home, and he joined in singing the folk songs which were familiar to him. The horses trotted at a fast pace, the powdery snow flew under their hooves in a white shower, and the sled glided smoothly over the snow-covered road. I felt exuberant after the crisis, and my heart was light. So the night passed.

“Look! We’re almost home,” exclaimed Hatzkel, as he whipped the horses. I uncovered my face. Above us the pale, pale stars still showed in the sky, and in the east there was a glimmer of light. Straight ahead of us lay my hometown, which I had always thought of as the center of the universe. Now I saw clusters of pathetic little gray houses huddled under the predawn sky. The rooftops, the roads, the narrow streets were buried under a heavy blanket of snow; even the snow appeared gray and depressing. A straight column of smoke rose from every chimney into the still, icy air, reminding me that it was early Friday morning, and the Jewish housewives were already at work preparing for the Shabbas.

Manya Prozanskaya Lackow1989 [This excerpt is culled from a 700-page manuscript]

Manya Prozanskaya Lacknow : An Inspiration to us All

Manya Prozanskaya Lackow was 70-years old when she began her career as a writer. She and her husband had just returned from a year in Israel, and Manya found herself with time on her hands. “My husband encouraged me to start writing,” says Manya. “He hired an elderly secretary for me. She came to the house two mornings a week for 15 years. We became fast friends.”

Manya began her project by translating a childhood diary, which she started in 1915 at the age of 13. “For over 50 years, I had this little diary hidden in my underwear drawer. I always thought about it. Finally I took it out and got to work.”

The memoirs provide a detailed account of life in the shtetl from the turn of the century through World War I. Amazingly, Manya did little research. “I read only one book” she says, “on the history of the First World War. What I found was that the history book confirmed what I remembered.” Besides the diary, rewrites (sometimes as many as 16) helped Manya recall events long forgotten.

The actual writing process was oral. Manya’s handwriting was increasingly shaky, and her vision poor. “I composed in my head and dictated my thoughts to my secretary. Then I rewrote and she retyped, over and over.”

As various chapters were completed, Manya mailed them out to family members, including grown grandchildren. Says her daughter Charlotte Prozan, “She is an inspiration to all of us. Even with physical limitations, she was able to be so productive and creative.” Another daughter and fan is sociologist Pauline Bart, whose work has also appeared in LILITH’s pages.