The Triumph of Socialism
by Ralph A. Raimi
What do you say to a neighbor lady when you have to be polite,
and you know she is only being polite in asking, and you wish it would
end? In 1930 I was six years old, and the neighbor lady was Mrs. Jaruga,
whose son George (called Zdisziu at home) was in my first grade class in
school. I was standing next to my father, who had just rung up a sale on
the cash register; Mrs. Jaruga, with her package under her arm, was ready
to leave. We lived behind the store, on the 5200 block of Chene Street in
the Polish district of Detroit. It was about 5:30, my mother was out back
preparing dinner, and I was out front watching my father, as I often did
when school was over for the day.
Chene Street was all stores, with the proprietors living behind
or upstairs. Next door to us was Zukowski's "Kziegarnia Ludowa" ("Peo-
ple's Bookstore"), selling not only books and magazines, but folding tele-
scopes, ice-cream sodas, baseballs, dog-collars and chessboards. Jaruga's
music store was the next one after Zukowski. I was often in both, for
both families had children like me. Zukowski had animals, too: cats, a
parrot, a dog, and sometimes rabbits or white mice. Jaruga had better
than that: he had music. He would go about his work singing songs of
Schubert, or playing a phonograph record for a customer.
In our neighbors' stores nobody paid much attention to me, but
my standing at the register beside my father in our own dry goods store
seemed to demand Mrs. Jaruga's attention, perhaps "My, how you're grow-
ing." She looked at me, I waited, and then she said, leaning a little in
my direction, "And how is George doing in school?"
Well, what can you say to a neighbor lady? "Fine," I told her,
"Just fine." Maybe I mumbled something more, but she was no longer
listening. She smiled at me and at my father and left the store.
Probably she hadn't heard anything I said; but I had heard, and it
"You know," I then said to my father, "Zdisziu is really the
worst boy in the class. Miss Kunen always has to make him stand behind
the piano." My father's reaction surprised me: He laughed and laughed.
Then he opened the register and gave me a nickel, the shining disc of
This was the traditional symbol, and you could spend it too. At
school we were graded 1,2,3,4,or 5 (equivalent to the A,B,C,D,E of today),
and for years I had seen how at each marking period my father would
ceremoniously count the "1"s on my brother's report card and give him that
many nickels. By 1930 I suppose he was already giving them to me, though
I was only beginning to be graded. He gave them for other notable
academic achievements, like being 'double-promoted', that is, advanced by
a whole, rather than a half, grade at the end of a semester. This had
happened to my brother more than once.
The nickel I got for lying to Mrs. Jaruga was a novelty. A
shock, in fact. My explanation to my father, that the Jaruga boy was
really not doing fine in school had been intended as a straightforward
explanation, not a display of some virtue of my own, something to be proud
of. I knew of course that my lie had not been a serious one, for I had
seen people, including my parents, doing that sort of thing all the time.
I wasn't afraid of punishment or shame, only misunderstanding. Let the
record be clear: Zdisziu Jaruga was not doing fine in school, and my
father deserved to know it.
Reaping such praise made me think quite deeply about the whole
affair. At dinner that evening my father repeated the story for my mother
and brother: what Mrs. Jaruga had said, what I had said, and with what
gravity, what diplomacy! Knowing what I do now of my mother's character,
I doubt that she was as charmed with my performance as my father. Nor, in
the end, was I.
Sure, I recognized diplomacy in my own behavior even as I
recognized it all about me, and I had as just an appreciation of its
necessity as my father or mother. But for my father to tousle my hair,
and say, "I tell you, the boy will grow up to be President!", and to laugh
and laugh, meant that there was much he did not understand about me. What
to me seemed normal behavior had come as a surprise to him; this must have
been the first time I saw that my father was not omniscient.
That he should have been literally omniscient I naturally had
not expected. If I went out to Zukowski's and he looked for me at
Jaruga's or Schwartz's, that only meant that he didn't know where I was.
No harm in that; he had no way to know, and I was no infant to imagine
otherwise. The shock of the Jaruga incident was that it had taken an
explicit statement from me before he could credit me with following an
elementary rule of behavior that he himself, indeed, had been teaching me
all my life.
Other examples come to mind now, though perhaps they didn't
then. Words. "The kid must have swallowed a dictionary," people used to
say of me. Perhaps so, and if I had uncorked a lecture on medieval
metaphysics and thereby surprised my father I might have accepted his
praise with pleasure, and no surprise at his surprise. This would have
been out of the blue, like being with Solly Schwartz instead of Walter
Zukowski; who could know? But metaphysics wasn't needed; sometimes a
simple phrase like 'foreclose the mortgage,' which I heard about me every
day, especially in my father's presence, would astonish the company, my
father included. He should not have been surprised at this, nor my uncles
and cousins, yet they were. Plainly the world did not understand me.
I suppose I hadn't much business, at age six, discussing
mortgages. I hadn't much business discussing anything with adults,
actually, except relative to the necessities of daily family life. Just
the same, if Uncle Zalman had a mortgage and talked about it, how maybe if
he went into partnership it should be divided thus and so, was that any
different from a speculation on rain or snow tomorrow? Or the chances the
Detroit Tigers would get a new first baseman?
Yet if I mentioned baseball or rain to my father, little notice
was taken, while if I asked some technical question about interest rates
or the clearing of checks at the bank, he would look at me with amazement.
This was distressing. How much more might there be -- and not only about
me -- that my father failed to see, though it was before his eyes?
I didn't get nickels for everything. As the Depression deep-
ened they were harder to come by, though my father bravely continued to
distribute them at report card time. I was an expensive embarrassment, I
suppose, in that I got so many "one"s. I no longer recall exactly, but I
believe the nickels got rationed more severely in the 30s than they had
been in my older brother's time. The principle, however, remained
Nor was I skeptical of my father's authority to assign praise
and blame. That he was not omniscient did not cause my world to come
tumbling down. I wasn't the sort to declare revolution, either. Nothing
in my childhood, in fact, has ever given me any reason to believe in the
Oedipus Complex, although I did note the frequent fights between my father
and my older brother. As with my father's ignorance concerning my
understanding of diplomacy (or mortgages), these scenes were also obser-
vations to be filed somewhere in my consciousness, and thought upon.
I did not always think coolly, or at leisure. There was one
time, not too many months away from the Jaruga episode, when I sat at
dinner watching a bitter exchange of words between my father and brother,
and then burst into tears. It might be that several minutes had elapsed
between the words and the tears, because my mother, in comforting me,
genuinely didn't know why I was crying, and asked -- what's the matter?
My father, too.
"Some day I'll grow up and get as old as Abraham," I said,
through my tears, "And then you'll holler at me too."
This story too was repeated around the family, though not
exactly in praise of my understanding. Well, maybe it was. That sons
would fight with fathers was perhaps regarded as axiomatic, once the son
grew old enough. I believed it when I observed my twelve-year-old brother
Abraham that time, but it was not long before I resolved otherwise for
myself. I hated the sight and sound of discord, of which there was plenty
in the streets, and the homes of my neighbors and relatives. In fact,
never once during my childhood and youth did it become necessary for me to
battle my father, though our philosophies were continually and
With the passing of the years, and with an increasingly objective
appreciation of my father's mentality, I discovered another dimension
to the story of Mrs. Jaruga and the nickel. Even a wise child needs time
to learn: I thought many times about that day, and each increment of
experience brought me a rounder view of it, as if a painter were applying
his colors before my eyes, little by little, glaze upon glaze increasing
in depth, upon what had been a simple, one-dimensional cartoon. The
lesson of my father's non-omniscience was not the only one to be drawn; it
was only the most obvious, the outline, the part most easily grasped by a
six-year-old. It left questions. My father was also astonished, for
example, and (as nearly as I could see) equally proud of me, when I spoke
of mortgages, survival of the fittest, or surplus value (phrases I heard
all around), but these utterances earned me no nickels; why?
It wasn't the simple diplomacy of my answer to Mrs. Jaruga that
won the prize, either, for I had been as diplomatic with any number of
relatives and friends of the family, now that I think of it. I endured
the cheek-pinching of Mr. Flinker, the paper and twine salesman, with his
tedious questioning, "How're you doing with the girlies, eh?" "Fine,
fine," I would say to him, quite as meaninglessly as to Mrs. Jaruga, and
my father would beam (while my mother glowered at Flinker); but no
Another part of the answer, I have come to believe, was that
Anya Jaruga was a special kind of audience for my diplomacy. A neigh-
bor? Sure. A friend? Maybe. But above all, she was a customer.
Flinker was not a customer, nor was my uncle Zalman, but Mrs. Jaruga was.
The first rule of retailing is, "The customer is always right."
This phrase may no longer be current in these days of great
impersonal shopping malls, but in 1930, and as the years darkened towards
1933, it grew ever more poignant. Diplomacy might be a virtue among
friends and relatives, but quarrels too were sometimes inevitable. With
customers a quarrel was never in order. The feature of the Jaruga
incident that my 6-year-old mind had not grasped, then, was that I had
been standing there as an agent of the proprietor. My nickel had not been
an academic nickel for excellence in school; it was rather a commercial
nickel, straight out of the cash register, for services rendered.
It was not only that my father had not understood me, had not
appreciated how easily courtesy and innocent dissembling came to me in the
proper context (customer or not), but that I had not understood him. At
age 6, with the Depression yet to come, and with no experience of the
harsh Polish ghetto my father had come from, the shops and pushcarts where
gentlemen with whips and dogs were deferred to by Jews who had lived on
the knife's edge for centuries, I thought the customer was only another
human being. Mrs. Jaruga was to me only my classmate's mother, but in
truth -- to my father -- she was only the most recent in a long line,
stretching through Cossacks and Hussars back to Centurians, and indeed
This is not to say that my father saw no difference between
Detroit's Chene Street and his stetl of Nasielsk in Poland, that he had
left only seven years before. He knew Mrs. Jaruga to be a friend and
neighbor, just as he knew the policeman on our corner was no Cossack and
no enemy. The dangers Detroit posed to a small shopkeeper were certainly
not of the same order as those he had escaped in fleeing Europe. But if I
today can remember the Depression, the unemployed endlessly playing cards
in Perrien Park and sleeping on the benches, all of this fifty years back,
how should my father not remember his own childhood, so much more recent
then to him than Chene Street is now to me?
"Yes, Panie, certainly. You are perfectly correct, an intelligent
choice; I shall be forever grateful, Gracious Sir." Ay, if this had
been Poland and not America, my father would still have given me the
nickel, but he would not have laughed.
-------- -------- --------
My mother assimilated more easily to American attitudes; the
residue of fear was less marked in her. She had come to this country in
1921, two years earlier than her husband, who was then still a prisoner of
war in some remote Russian village, waiting for the armies of Trotzky and
Pilsudski to agree on Poland's eastern boundaries. That war, between a
newly recreated Poland and the Sovietized Russian empire, is little remem-
bered today, and the boundary it achieved has long since been erased by
the achievements of much greater wars; but obscure wars have their victims
My mother escaped it, at least in part, coming to America. My
father not only gave battle for Pilsudski, but later came under Communist
influence as a prisoner. More than a year he spent, somewhere near
Yaroslavl in the north, with a ration of black bread each morning and an
unlimited opportunity to join his captors in the study of Marxism. They
lectured him incessantly.
Certain lessons were obvious and attractive. In this new world
were found no more Excellencies and Gracious Sirs: all were comrades
together. God too was dead, the Jesus of the Orthodox as well as the
Jehovah of the Jews. There would be no more pogroms, and Jews and
Gentiles would be brothers under Lenin's banner. Nor would there be rich
Indeed, my father already had as much to eat as the Russian
soldiers who guarded him, which is to say, next to nothing. But this was
the fault of the Old Régime and of capitalist oppression. Once the war
was ended and the swords beaten into ploughshares, what a world of plenty
there would be! All the parasites of the past would now be engaged in
productive labor, the Grand Dukes and ladies and their liveried servants
baking bread and building houses, the priests and altar boys, the makers
of jewelry, the tax collectors, the swarms of rubber-stamping officials in
uniform, the speculators in grain, the retail merchants...
The retail merchants? Of course. To buy at one price and sell
at another, what is that but theft? When the productive capacity of
mankind is turned loose, when the tools of production are at last in the
hands of the people (my father was taught), an abundance of food and
houses and music and science will come pouring forth as the world has
never seen. From each according to his ability, without prejudice or
restriction; and to each according to his need, without strife, and in the
security that once only privilege enjoyed.
Actually, the Russian prison camp was not the first place my
father had heard socialist theory, for even in the Nasielsk ghetto there
had been Jews who eschewed religion as their sole intellectual guide,
turning rather to secular prophets. Marx himself may have been
incomprehensible, but Das Kapital stood (unread) on the shelf as proudly
as any Talmud, while such lesser sages as Maxim Gorki and H.G. Wells, who
could be read, provided the daily fare of political debate. It did not
require much Russian indoctrination to persuade my father that capitalism
was as his captors described it, and that Lenin had the cure.
The war ended, my father came to join his wife and son in
America, to beget two more sons (myself the first of these), and to open a
business. Open a business? A retail dry-goods store, to buy at one price
and sell at another? Well, there was nothing else he could do. Could he
have gone to college, he might have been a lawyer, doctor, engineer or
teacher, something honorable. Were he content to leave his family in
ignorance and squalor, he might have gone to work in a steel mill, blue-
collared and drunk every Saturday night. But it was too late for college,
and the workingman's existence was simply not what a Jew could live,
however much he celebrated the proletariat in his political gatherings.
One mark of a wicked world is that it requires wickedness of its
inhabitants. Maybe a saint can exist here and there, but in Detroit, with
a wife and two sons -- no. "Comes the Revolution," as the saying went, he
would no longer have to exploit his neighbors' credulity, cater falsely to
their whims, display his wares with specious attractiveness, hiding the
defects under a seam somewhere, and take their money on paydays. But the
Revolution was not yet, not in Detroit, not for him.
My father's philosophy was not simple; it had at least two
strands, compounded as it was of Marxist simplifications and his own
Tolstoyan asceticism. In his whole life he could not bring himself to
believe that studying the contentment of a customer was in fact a service.
Put baldly, as he would have put it, it sounded like fraud. Put it
another way, as I have done in arguing with him, and he failed to
I might say, "But look, your customer has no place to buy
curtains if you do not exist. You go to New York and see what the manu-
facturers are making. You stand here in the store day after day and ob-
serve what people like to put in their houses, and what they don't like
and therefore don't buy. If not for you, what would he do? Drive to New
York and go up and down the wholesalers? There isn't room for him there.
For a thousand customers you make one trip and save the other 999, and you
cause exactly what they want to be brought here to Chene Street, and you
hang them on racks so they can see, so that in a very few minutes, on
their way from work or from lunch, any one of them can pick out what will
bring him pleasure every time he sees it on his window."
"He is right, this customer," I would say, "He is the only
definition there is for the word 'right'. Your job is to find out what he
wants and get it to him. If you make a mistake, the goods will rot on the
shelves and lose you money. If you guess, or anticipate his taste, better
than Pupko on Ferry Street, he will pay you more than Pupko. He doesn't
have to pay you; there is no bandit or soldier standing with a gun to his
head. You are entitled to what he pays you just as if you were Jascha
Heifetz asking him to buy a concert ticket, or a cab driver taking him to
the station. You play well, or you drive reliably, because it is his
taste; are you cheating him when you do your best to please him?"
It was hard to see, when I was younger, why my father remained
unconvinced, but I now see there was something more than Marx behind his
objection, something my idyll of the happy customer didn't even touch.
Fundamentally, he believed that nobody really needs curtains, or a ride to
the station. People don't need things. They should eat hard bread and
simple meat; what do they want with satin bedspreads for wedding presents?
The salesman who persuades them to buy that bedspread is at bottom as
wicked as a burglar who takes the same dollars from their cookie-jar.
In the ideal world of the future, we will all produce for need
only, not specious attractiveness, and men will not be tempted to fill
their houses and bellies with frippery. The profit motive is not merely
the corruptor of the seller, and the creator of rich and poor, and the
source of envy and bondage and war; it is also the corruptor of the buyer.
The retailer participates twice in evil: as a non-producer he is living
off the labor of others, and as an advertiser and salesman he is leading
others into temptation and waste.
This blend of Marx and Tolstoy was never expressed to me
succinctly in words, let alone those I have employed here, but it was
never absent from his consciousness, and poisoned his daily life from
beginning to end, though not so much at the beginning, when he had not yet
had much success. He began American life, upon his very arrival in
Detroit, as a salesman in his brother's appliance store; he needed to eat,
after all. It was my mother who persuaded him to open a store of his own.
Before that store, opened in the year of my own birth, had a chance to
prosper significantly there came the Depression. Thus, for the first
fifteen years of his business career my father did not have to be much
troubled by questions of morality; he, at least, was hardly living off the
backs of the poor, and he, at least, had no substance to waste on vain
things. If the world insisted that the Customer, that Mrs. Jaruga, was
right, so let it be; and children must learn to live in the real world.
My mother was the driving force behind the business, but the
customs of the time needed a man at the helm. Banks didn't loan money to
women in 1924, and wholesalers didn't extend credit, and if a customer
asked to talk to the boss and was referred to a woman he would feel
himself mocked. She would gladly have opened the business herself and
left my father to a more moral occupation, but the world would not have it
so. It took the two of them, and for more than fifty years the two of
them worked there every day.
My mother's background was not much different from my father's.
Her father was a tailor while my father's father was a dealer in grain and
somewhat richer, but my parents had both been born in Nasielsk and they
both learned socialist theory in the secular atmosphere of the German
occupation of their town during the First World War. Still, my mother never
came to believe in the intrinsic evil of the retail trade. Perhaps it was because
she lacked the advantage of my father's prison-camp education, or maybe it
somehow grew out of the difference between her father's trade and his, but
I doubt it. More to the point, though maybe not a sufficient reason, was
that she was of a less speculative turn of mind and simply enjoyed what
she called "good things." She would praise her father, the tailor, for
his ability to distinguish a fine piece of material from an inferior one,
just by looking at it from across the room. When, a moment later, he
would come over and finger it and purse his lips in recognition of its
value, nod his head and say, "Good, good," my mother would be proud.
But more than in "good things," my mother took pleasure in a job
well done, whatever its intrinsic value or its philosophic justification
might be. The store was neat and clean, swept every morning with a brown
sweeping compound that came in small steel drums. The store was closed
every night with long runners of cotton sheeting stretched over every
counter to keep the dust off the displays. The house dresses were lined
up on hangers at this side, underwear on a counter on that side, gloves,
shirts, men's pants, silk stockings, sheets, pillowcases, curtains --
everything in its place, clean, counted, and showing to its best
If someone had come to my father in 1930, asking "Why do you
keep this place so clean? Why is each kind of goods in its own place?
Why are the nicest bedspreads displayed out front?" -- his answer would
surely have been, "To sell." There was on our corner another small dry
goods store, Wolf's, which was as dark and disorganized as ours was bright
and logical. Wolf was poor; he didn't sell. My father, explaining, would
have drawn the contrast vividly, as indeed he must have done to me (though
I didn't ask), since I still remember the difference.
If my mother had been asked the same question, and given time to
think about it, and instructed to find a philosophically acceptable
answer, she would probably have said the same thing; but that was not by
instinct. A fast, impulsive answer would have come out quite different.
She was not given to saying these things, but her first thought would have
"Clean, orderly? Why not? Should my store be dirty while my
house is clean? I don't like disorderly places." Then, later, she would
have thought of the customers. And, later still, of their potential to
pay. Yet somehow she was better at it than he was; I believe this was
because she never thought buying at one price and selling at another was
thievery, as my father had. She believed in business.
In 1930 my mother was thirty years old, in other words, young.
Probably she would not yet have been able to recognize these differences
between herself and her lifetime partner. She approved my behavior with
Mrs. Jaruga, as who would not? -- but she would not have given me the
nickel. Nickels are for lessons learned, not for natural behavior,
My mother observed in me the same instinct for order that she
knew in herself. She often said that I should have become a surgeon,
because I was (as she thought) not the sort to let sentiment or squeam-
ishness get in the way of the technical demands of the job to be done.
But this is only to say that she respected the competence she thought she
saw in me; she actually knew very little about surgeons, and her formal
education had not prepared her to understand that poets require quite as
much of that cold quality as surgeons, and that the retailer and the
engineer, as professionals, are no different.
All of them -- poet, surgeon, merchant, engineer -- please the
customer if they are any good, and by behavior more or less artificial, if
the standards of the San Francisco flower people of the 1960s are taken to
define 'natural.' The poet and surgeon are conscious of what they are
doing. Perhaps the customer himself is not uppermost in their minds, but
at least the craft is. Wordsworth defined poetry as emotion recollected
in tranquility: -- recollected meaning written, or crafted -- but it was
not just any passion that deserved to be forged into poetry: someone must
be interested by it. Part of the coldness of the poet resides in his
delineation of emotion from the outside, as it were, but a second part
resides in his estimate of what an audience is in fact likely to want to
read, both as to subject and style. Readers, clients, patients, public --
is there any real difference?
Our dry goods store on Chene Street was like every other
profession, trade, calling or vocation. My mother and father both had a
good sense of order, and they both knew their neighbors' tastes, styles,
prejudices and incomes. They made use of this knowledge, and their own
natural abilities, to please their customers, to provide them with
dresses, gloves or sewing threads, and then to get paid for it, even as
Samuel Johnson sold his books. (Johnson is reputed to have said, "Sir,
nobody but a blockhead has ever written, but for money.")
But while my mother could take innocent pleasure in exercising
her talents so, and spend the money she thus earned in good conscience,
and on good things when possible, my father was heir to a thousand
inhibitions, shared with the countless generations of landless aliens who
had gone before him, all taught to cringe before the higher values of
aristocracy, or scholarship, or -- more recently -- of literature and
science. In some degree it was because he had had the education of a boy,
and not a girl, in his native Nasielsk, where in the cheder, the religious
school of his childhood, he had been taught that there was only one
truly worthy calling, scholarship.
My cousin Morris Kane, who grew up with my father in Nasielsk,
and was almost his age, had also come to Detroit about the same time as my
father, and had a business of his own, as did practically all our
relatives. He was often in our house, and I particularly liked to hear
him sing. He sang in Yiddish, English, Hebrew, Russian, Polish; from the
traditional Hebrew songs of the Passover Seder to the Russian songs of the
Revolution and the victory of the proletariat. He believed in the one no
more than in the other, but his singing could make you cry.
In his later years he would argue with my father about their
childhood life in Nasielsk, which my father tended to idealize,
remembering it as comforting, secure, gemeinlich. Morris thought no such
thing, and remembered too clearly the day-long school, cramped and
stifling both physically and intellectually, like everything else about
his childhood. He once said to me, "Imagine, Ralph, a town where every
little boy must, absolutely must, grow up to be a Rabbi. Without
exception. And if he doesn't, he is made ashamed for the rest of his
Though everyone must, not everyone can. For each success, then,
there were a thousand who went through life unworthy: apologetic or
defiant, but never unconscious of their failure. (Their children, God
willing, would have to do better.) Morris Kane recognized that conscious-
ness in himself while my father denied it; but it was there.
Add to this the socialist economic doctrine that pronounced my
father's work parasitic even by secular, materialist standards, and the
Tolstoyan instinct that told him the "goods" he dealt with every day were
unnecessary from beginning to end, and the outcome is plain: to my
father, the pleasing of the customer was fraud. Necessary in an evil
world, perhaps something to be laughed about when talking to brothers and
cousins (themselves also dropouts from Nasielsker virtue), certainly not
illegal or forbidden by God, surely necessary to teach one's children if
they were not to suffer from poverty or the contempt of their companions
-- but at bottom it was a swindle. It was business, where the ordinary morality,
the morality of the family and of the cheder, is suspended. With my
answer to Mrs. Jaruga I showed, it seemed to him, that I had somehow
learned a lesson he had hesitated to teach. What a relief; give the boy a
nickel and make sure he doesn't forget.
1930 was only the beginning; there was a Depression yet to come,
and a war to dwarf the two my parents had already seen; but in the end,
from the closing of the banks to those awful years when it seemed that
from one week to another no customer came in to buy, the store survived
For a few years my father sporadically kept a sort of diary, in
a large bound ledger book whose pages had many blue and red lines intended
to demarcate accounting entries. He did not keep his accounts there, but
used it to write out little stories he heard, practicing his English, it
seemed, and to record family events. The earlier entries were more
cheerful than the later, and it was a disheartened man who finally stopped
writing in it, long before using all the pages:
January 8, 1930
A Bum Joke
A bum came in to ask for a job, and the manager said, "How do I
know you won't steal something?" The bum said, "Well, my last job was in
a Turkish Bath, and I didn't take even one." Decemb. 3, 1930 "We came here
for a change and a rest. The waiter got the change and the hotel got the
Feb 19, 1931 Hardly any customers today.
Mar. 21, 1931 Zysele spent today a whole day downtown and didn't buy a
single thing. Punishment, shame. ['Zysele' was my mother's name, in
April 12, 1932 Not much doing.
Aug. 10, 1932 Nobody came in this morning.
Together, from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., my mother and father
waited on trade, swept the floor and sidewalk, washed the windows,
arranged the displays, kept accounts, paid the taxes, and brought up three
children. Their parents died. The brothers and sisters and cousins and
nephews and nieces that had stayed behind in Nasielsk, or in Warsaw or
Mlawa or Wieskowa -- all murdered when the Nazis came. But the business
went on, and with the end of the war prosperity returned. The store became
stores, "dry goods" was replaced by a specialty line of curtains and
draperies, branches grew in the shopping malls, managers appeared, and
accountants and lawyers and buyers; but my mother and father still went to
work six days a week, and sometimes seven.
-------- -------- -------- --------
Thirty-six years in the life of any human being is so enormous
that one can hardly be said to be the same person at both ends of that
span. Rip Van Winkle slept only twenty years, and Odysseus himself
voyaged for only ten. Still, the professor who attended the International
Congress of Mathematicians at Moscow in 1966, accompanied by his father
and mother, was (as the world reckons) the same as the boy who had once
gone to first grade with Zdzisiu Jaruga. The Congress was to run two
weeks, my parents wanted to see Russia, here was their chance.
I signed my father on as a member of the American Mathematical
Society for 1966, so that we were all three able to take the Society's
chartered airplane to and from the Congress, and to occupy the hotel rooms
set aside for Congress participants. Bringing wives (or husbands) and
children was common, and provided for in the registration procedures, but
I must have been the only participant who brought his parents. It was
only for convenience, anyway, for they could have taken a different air-
plane or a different hotel; Moscow had ordinary tourists, too.
This way, though, we enjoyed the atmosphere of the group, ate
together in the great dining room of the Leningradskaya Hotel, and went
sightseeing together some of the time as well. We were pleased to find,
on the first day of the Congress, that in the main lobby of the Moscow
University the Russians had provided a free guide service, with students
at the university who spoke foreign languages as the guides. At the table
marked ENGLISH my parents and I signed up one Igor Korsakov, whose English
was particularly fluent because he had gone for many years to a special
school that used English as the language of all instruction. In the
University he was specializing in East Indian languages, which he would
later use professionally, but English was the language he was especially
anxious to use, exactly because he wanted to meet Americans. It was as
much a benefit to him as to us, that he should spend his days with us.
With my parents, would be more accurate. I spent most of the days
at the mathematical meetings, and having coffee or beer with colleagues,
some of them Europeans or Asians I had earlier known only through
their writings. And when I returned to the hotel for dinner, which I took
with my parents, Igor had gone home for the day. Still, over the two week
period we did all get to know each other pretty well, and even I managed
to spend one full day with Igor, when he took us by local railroad train
out to Zagorsk, a town near Moscow, to which the Orthodox from all over
Russia make pilgrimage. There is a Saint Dimitri embalmed there, and a
line of pilgrims day and night to see him, chanting Gospodinpomilui
Gospodinpomilui without intermission.
Despite its being a pilgrimage center, and the site of a
monastery and the only approved Russian Orthodox seminary, Zagorsk was a
fairly primitive village. We walked the streets to find lunch, which
without Igor would have been impossible, since there was no hotel or
restaurant set up for foreign tourists. The streets were of dirt, with
ditches at the sides for drainage. The houses had woodpiles outside, and
through the windows we could see the great ceramic stoves they used for
heat, and near which they slept in winter. My father said it could have
been lifted from his own experience of 1922: "Forty, fifty years," he
said, "And nothing has changed here. Nothing." There was even a drunk
lying in the gutter, literally, in the very gutter at the edge of the
footpath, but when I prepared to take a picture of him, selecting an angle
that would also show the street and the houses, Igor stopped me. "No,
please, that isn't nice," he said, and so I put away the camera.
Lunch itself Igor found in a house one would never know to be a
restaurant; it was just a house. Inside, it had a large room set with
four tables, one of them already occupied by Russians. Igor ordered for
us and insisted on paying for us, and so we had no idea what it cost.
Even more mysterious, Igor did not sit with us, or eat lunch at all; he
said he didn't need it. After introducing us to the owners and getting us
seated, he sat out front and read a book while we ate. As if he were a
chauffeur in uniform, I thought at the time. Was the University paying
him for his time with us, so that he considered himself an employee and
not entitled to presume on the acquaintance? We never found that out.
The lunch was simple to a fault. The toilet, too; I didn't visit it
myself, but my mother did, and returned immediately, making a gesture of
despair by way of explanation. I believe she spent the afternoon in some
discomfort, until we reached the railroad station on our way back to
Moscow. Or the hotel, for all I know; I have seen some Russian railroad
station toilets that made me curl my toes inside my shoes.
While we were with Igor we asked about everything we could think
of, but learned next to nothing about himself. We argued politics,
socialist realism, Daniel and Sinyavsky (two authors who had recently been
jailed for publishing novels abroad without official permission), Trotsky,
the recent developments in China (that turned out to be the start of The
Cultural Revolution), the Vietnam war. We gave him all the reading
material we had brought with us: some novels, magazines, and a nearly
complete copy of a Sunday New York Times I had fortunately taken with me
from the airplane.
These were all treasures. Moscow bookstores leaned heavily to
Jack London and Charles Dickens in their stocks of English language
literature, as I discovered when I went to replenish my own supply after
the first week or so. My copy of Norman Mailer's Advertisements for
Myself interested Igor greatly. What a pity I hadn't brought some really
forbidden literature, Lolita for example, or Dr. Zhivago, both of which
were prohibited at that time, and for many years afterwards too. Alas, I
hadn't realized we would meet any Igors, or that our chartered airplane
would bring us past Soviet customs inspection without search.
Igor was in his early twenties and, he said, a Komsomol member.
He argued dutifully along Communist Party lines in all our discussions.
Sinyavsky, he said, wrote scabrous literature that did not deserve
printing. Trotsky had been plotting against Lenin. The Soviet Union was
not in Vietnam like America, nor in Tibet like China; why did we fear them
Yet despite his defense of Soviet policy and history, I later
had reason to believe Igor's heart was not in it. He was very grateful to
us for more than can be described here, and on his last visit to our hotel
room he wordlessly gave me as a present a small 19th Century wooden icon,
a real beauty. When I wanted to thank him, he put his finger to his lips
("Shhh!") and pointed to the ceiling light fixture, where a microphone
might be hidden. It was the only reference he ever made to such things.
Four or five years later, after my brief correspondence with
Igor had dried up, a new Russian emigré (his name was Victor Tupitsyn)
wrote to me from Italy for advice and help, saying he had been given my
name and address by Igor Korsakov by word of mouth, nothing written, on
the Moscow railroad platform just as he was boarding the train for Vienna.
It had not been a very accurate rendition, either, and it was remarkable
that the letter ever got to me.
As it happened, I was able to help Tupitsyn, who was something
of a mathematician, and when he came to America and visited me he told me
more about Igor. Tupitsyn had lost his job in consequence of having
helped put on a forbidden outdoor modern art exhibition on a Moscow vacant
lot. The police bulldozed the show into a hole in the ground, and
arrested the perpetrators; so Victor applied for emigration, even though
he was not a Jew. Of course the Soviet authorities had to call him a Jew,
since it was put about for local consumption that only Jews leave the
Soviet Union; but once in Vienna he was separated out from the real Jews
and permitted to apply to go to whatever country would have him. He is
now a professor at an American college.
Igor had not been, it turned out, a close friend of Tupitsyn's,
but did live on the fringes of the modern-art circles of Moscow because of
his interest in icons. He lived a sort of Bohemian existence in Moscow,
in his parents' apartment because he had no independent permission to live
in Moscow and get a legal apartment of his own. However, he actually
spent a large part of his time traveling in the Russian hinterland
collecting icons from peasants and whomever else he could find. As Victor
explained it, Igor had the common touch, he knew the language of the
peasantry and could gain their confidence, reassure them that they would
not get in trouble by selling him their family icons, things they were not
perhaps supposed to have, and certainly not to sell. But Igor, he said,
would never leave Moscow. "What, and leave his icons behind?" He was
writing monographs on the icons, and while he was no friend of the State
he was very Russian.
I treasure the icon he gave to me, and have it hanging in my
dining room. It wasn't until I got back to America that I found that I
had courted trouble by smuggling it out of the country. But 1966 was a
year of detente, and the American Mathematical Society chartered airplane
was immune to search. I was lucky. On my only later trip to the Soviet
Union, crossing over from Finland by bus, I was searched centimeter by
centimeter while dogs were sniffing the bus itself.
Mostly it was my mother who spent hours with Igor in Moscow,
while my father was wandering the streets alone and I was at the
University. My father spoke a little Russian, of course, left over from
his prison camp days, but my mother's Polish, while akin to Russian as
Spanish is, say, to French, was not enough to enable her to do much on
her own. Even the Cyrillic alphabet is intimidating; we had trouble
recognizing our subway stop, though it was advertised in letters a foot
One night my mother came to dinner with the news that Igor was a
Jew. How did she find out? She had been asking him about the Jewish
question, and he had been insisting that there was no such question in the
Soviet Union. Jews were like everyone else. No difference. No such
prejudices here. Anti-Semitism is against the law.
My mother had heard otherwise. Don't Jews have different
passports? No, no different, said Igor. But isn't it written on the
passport that the holder is a Jew? Jewish "nationality", like Armenian or
Ukrainian? She had him there, but there was something about his reply
that made her suspect that he was being overly defensive. Besides, he
seemed extremely - - what? Cosmopolitan, maybe, as Stalin might have put
it. It was something, well, familiar. He had to be a Jew; and when she
pressed him it turned out she was right. Yes, it was so written on his
passport. So that was o.k. Now she was free to like him as much as she
wanted, and to buy him things as if he were her own son.
There was lots of time to talk, at a Leningradskaya dinner,
where the kitchen and waiters made the meal a three hour ordeal. An
orchestra, too. (After a few days I took to buying some tomatoes, sausage,
bread and beer in the groceries nearby and having dinner in my room, about
half the time, anyhow.) Well, my father reported that he had gone to the
Moscow synagogue, where he found some old folk who spoke Yiddish. He
asked them about life there and so on. But the real story was that it
took him two days to be able to do so. The shames, the man who kept the
place clean, ushered strangers to their seats, and was in general charge
of the physical appurtenances, well, the shames was a fink, my father
said, and seemed to have as his principal function the keeping of
tourists away from the locals. As soon as my father, an obvious
foreigner, appeared, the shames ushered him to a front seat, and buzzed
around seeing to his comfort and satisfaction, asking what he needed and
so on, and then tied him up at the end of the service so that the regular
congregation had dispersed by the time my father could turn around. But
my father foxed him; he came back the next day and refused to talk to the
shames at all.
Most tourists don't get to come back a second time. What the
shames is unable to do, Intourist, the Russian travel bureau, does in his
place. An Intourist guide will consume your whole day with lectures,
usually while you are parked on some remote street near a famous church or
museum, and then give you a solid ten minutes inside before the bus or car
wants you back. This was our experience on our short trip to Leningrad
at the end of the International Congress, where we spent many hours eating
and sitting on a bus but took the Hermitage at a run. A Moscow
mathematical congress is better than tourism. During the two weeks we
were there we were pretty free to go around as we liked. At night,
especially, I enjoyed the sight of the crowds in and around the four
railroad stations that occupied the square on which our hotel was
situated. People carrying great bundles, lying on the floors asleep. One
man I saw playing an accordion out front, where several people began an
impromptu dance on the wide sidewalk, was stopped by the police for
reasons not clear to me. The accordion player was angry, and began to
argue with the policeman, but a woman held him back and led him into the
It was full of life. I was told later that there was a reason
for the large bundles. People would come into Moscow from the smaller
towns, often far away, especially to buy food, like apples and tomatoes,
which were unavailable in their own towns. The food distribution system
somehow favored the city, I suppose because one large shipment is easier
to handle than many small ones; and Moscow was the hub of all the rail
services. That was, in fact the point. Rail service "costs" next to
nothing in Russia; it was, like bread, subsidized. Therefore a poor woman
in a small town could come to Moscow by essentially free transportation,
buy as much scarce food as she could carry, sleeping overnight in the
Yaroslavl station if necessary, and then carry it home to sell, earning
ten -- or a hundred, for all I know -- times the unrealistic price of the train
ticket. People did this by the thousands, smoothing out the shortages
generated by the central planners, one supposes.
"Subsidy" is hardly the word for this kind of pricing. There
was nothing in Moscow that was priced in relation to its cost of
production, as near as I could see. Virtuous things, like subway rides
and copies of Pravda, cost next to nothing, while sinful things like
radios cost an arm and a leg, if you could get them at all. Some shops
had nobody in them, and if you looked inside you found they had
essentially nothing to sell. Wherever there was something anyone wanted,
like patterned cotton cloth by the yard, the lines were tremendous, hours
Dry goods! My mother wanted to buy a few of those typically
Russian shirts, baggy, with a embroidered stripe leading up to a high
neck, the kind you always see on folk dancers the cultural exchanges send
to New York. She wanted to have something to bring back to Detroit for
presents. She had been to GOUM, the central Moscow department store,
without success. You could, and did, get a couple of phonograph records
of folk music if you waited long enough, but anything in the way of
clothing was hopeless.
In Russian stores they have what may be called "the three queue
system." This means you stand in one line, to get to see up front what is
on sale, so you can decide what you want. Then you join the second queue,
at the cashier's window. You tell the cashier what you intend to buy, and
at what price, and when you pay you get a receipt which you carry back to
the end of the first queue. If, when you reach the front again, the item
is still there, you turn over the receipt and get your goods.
The system must be convenient for somebody, the clerks perhaps,
but for one who doesn't speak Russian it is plain impossible. In Italy,
where my mother had once traveled, she could point to a thing she wanted
to buy, hand over a bill and be done with it. But here? Even with Igor,
who managed to get her the folk song recordings in a reasonable time, most
of GOUM was impenetrable. But Igor, my mother reported, thought he knew a
shop where such shirts might possibly be more accessible.
As they were walking there -- it was early the next morning --
my mother noticed a long line of people on the sidewalk, a line going
around a corner so that the front could not be seen. What was this? --
she asked. Igor knew. It was the line for the jewelry store on the next
block, he said; people were waiting for it to open, so they could buy
wedding rings. How did he know it was wedding rings, exactly? (There
always seemed to be something missing from Igor's explanations, however
hard he tried. His English was superb, but there was still a gear
slipping in the middle somewhere) Well, he said, a shipment of wedding
rings had just come in, and there were a lot of people who had had to get
married without them who now had the chance to repair their lack. So they
started lining up long before opening time, to make sure.
As they rounded the corner my mother saw the shop they were
lined up for; nobody would ever suspect it sold jewelry. Wolf's, on Chene
Street, looked brighter and livelier. "How did they know the shipment was
coming in?" my mother asked. "Was there an ad in the paper? Was there a
sign on the window?" No, nothing like that, Igor said; people just knew.
The word got around. How Igor himself knew all this was another question,
which my mother hadn't the strength to ask. Every answer produced two new
questions, and in any case they were approaching their goal. "Here it
is," said Igor.
It didn't look like a store, but they went in. The place was
dim and high-ceilinged, with a bit of pre-1917 splendor in the iron
scrollwork on the balconies. What could this place have been, in 1917?
A ballroom? A courtyard? Hard to tell. There were display cases set
about now, dirty, empty, and inconveniently placed. They would have
impeded traffic, had there been any traffic. There seemed to be a woman
in charge, but she was seated with her back to an arrangement of counters
that insulated her from the entrance and the newcomers. She appeared to
be terribly busy over some papers, long beyond the time she must have
become aware of their arrival.
My mother had plenty of time to look around. Someone had even
built a display window facing the street, my mother observed, one she had
overlooked at first because it was absolutely empty, except for some dead
and living flies. Without Igor she would never have known from the street
what the shop had for sale, or even that it was a shop at all, open to
business. Having come inside didn't make it much clearer.
Habits of mind die hard. When my mother saw a store her
professional consciousness shifted into gear. "My goodness," she said,
"What a shame. This is really a fine building, you know. Or it could be.
Attractive. Why..., if I had this place I could..."
She mused, imagining the placement of counters and displays,
the curtains, the lighting, the carpet, the stockroom. And balconies!
"Yes, before I was done," she said, "I bet I could bring in every customer
on the block."
"Why would you want that?" said Igor.
Of all that my mother saw and heard in Moscow that summer,
this was what she remembered best. She laughed when she came to that
part, so hard she could hardly go on with the story.
"`Why would you want that?' he asked me; imagine! What could I
tell him? He doesn't want it, the woman there didn't want it, the
government doesn't want it; so who? He's right, Igor; the boy is right.
Nobody wants customers here. Such a place!"
Did she get any shirts? Well, no. "The woman said they were
out. She told us maybe next Thursday."
"We're leaving Monday," I said.
"She wouldn't have them anyway," said my mother.
-------- -------- -------- --------
Fifteen -- eighteen -- years later, when my mother was old and
feeble -- dying, actually -- when she could hardly walk, and her voice was
trembling, I came to Detroit as often as I could, to visit. Her entertainments
were limited, since she couldn't hear well enough to enjoy most of what
was on television, and she found reading, even in large print, a strain.
I couldn't really even talk to her, because of her hearing, but she could
talk to me, and she enjoyed having me around.
She was not one to dwell on old times, but I would bring them
up, feed her questions. I learned more about Nasielsk in that year or so
than she ever had time to talk about when I was a child. The German
occupation of 1915, her sister who died of tuberculosis, the Chassidim who
from religious zealotry had one night burned down the lending library she
and her high school friends had tried to start with books from Warsaw.
One story after another, disaster upon disaster if you choose to look on
it so, but not to my mother. These were interesting things, things to
remember, life. Coming to America, opening the store, sending the
children to school, to war. What would become of all this when she was
gone, she wondered.
She told me too how grateful she was to me for having given her
the chance to travel. I understood what she meant. She had traveled
from Nasielsk to America, of course, and innumerable times to New York or
Chicago on business, but my father didn't like to travel, or spend money
on anything else, for that matter, and he looked darkly on her traveling,
or spending, without sufficient reason. Business was one such reason, and
visiting the children was the other. If it hadn't been for me he would
never have gone along. They visited me in Paris in 1950 when I was a
student there on a Fulbright scholarship, and later in places like New
Haven, Vancouver and Cambridge, where I spent Sabbatical leaves of
So as we drove around Detroit in those last few months, she
would, under my prodding, remember each such trip, along with the more
ordinary events, the routine list of disasters that make up a life; but
the Moscow trip was the one she kept returning to on her own. Igor, she
wondered, where was he now? Why did he stop writing? Why didn't he come
to America, like Tupitsyn? Why didn't they clean the toilets, even in the
Leningradskaya Hotel, in Russia? As she ruminated she would inevitably
come to the story of the shirts and the empty store, and you couldn't stop
her. She always ended it the same way.
"Imagine!" she would say, "I said, 'Igor, if this was my place,
I could bring in every customer on the street,' and he said `Why would you
want that?'" Then she would laugh, and repeat, "'Why would you want
that?'" It was, in her last year, about the only thing I ever saw her laugh at.
Rochester, New York
October 1, 1989