The Unloved Grandson in Beloved Kiev


Alex Gordon


      At school in Kiev I had absolutely no ability to write compositions in Russian with their introduction, main part, and conclusion. I got a “C” on my school-leaving certificate in Russian literature because of an unsuccessful composition I wrote on my final exam. This was not an entirely understandable development, since I learned to read early and read quite a lot. I had the curious quality of remembering long texts by heart, not only poetry but also prose, as well as articles by philosophers, psychologists, and critics of the Soviet system. At the sight of the task of writing an

composition, however, I was completely dumbfounded. However, if the Soviets had not carried out a “cosmopolitan” pogrom against the Jews in 1949, I might have learned to write compositions.       

      This skinny woman with old-fashioned hair – a braid twisted around her head – knew eight languages, but admitted to knowing only two – Russian and Ukrainian. Although Russian was not her native language, it was her favorite. She loved Kiev and, although she knew it was the capital of Ukraine, she considered it a Russian city. She concealed her knowledge of all the other languages because they did not suit the heroic Soviet reality in which she lived. Greek and Latin were vestiges of autocracy. Yiddish and Hebrew were abettors of Jewish nationalism. French and German were associated with the regressive bourgeoisie. Nevertheless, during the most serious discussions and frank conversations, my grandmother Anna (Hannah) Lvovna Gordon spoke to her children, my father and his brother, in French. She forgot the capitalist essence of that language and led the conversation in French to say what she thought – without fear of being understood by outsiders. 

      In her unpublished book, Notes of a Teacher, my grandmother wrote: “I remember myself from the age of five. I remember the patriarchal order of an orthodox Jewish family. According to the established tradition, I was taught Jewish and Hebrew earlier than Russian. At the age of seven or eight, I had already mastered many of the “secrets” of the Hebrew language and was studying the Pentateuch under the guidance of the learned rabbi, who taught several other girls my age in his cheder. I learned Russian by accident, unnoticed by my older sisters”.

      In 1903, the year the grandmother finished her eighth year in gymnasium, she joined the revolutionary movement: “All our thoughts, all our dreams were focused on the coming revolution. With our physical selves we were in gymnasium, and our minds were in flight, dreaming of revolution.” And it seemed that this revolution happened: on October 17, 1905 the famous Tsarist manifesto was published, but the day after this hopeful event the following happened: “And another day later – a Jewish pogrom. And now this terrible picture stands before my eyes. The wild howl of the drunken Black Hundred (The Black Hundred was a reactionary, monarchist and ultra-nationalist movement in Russia in the early 20th century. The Black Hundreds were also noted for extremism and incitement to Jewish pogroms – A. G.) the beating of Jews and intellectuals, the looting of stores by the drunken horde and fires, fires. […] Almost all Jewish stores were looted and set on fire. […] The year 1906 and the years that followed, the years of violent reaction. The Black Hundreds became the masters of the situation. I had to hide for some time in the village with acquaintances.”

      My grandmother, a gold medalist in gymnasium who graduated with honors, was only allowed to pursue her favorite profession – school teaching – under the Soviet rule: “Before the October Revolution, pedagogical activity was limited to private lessons, since under Tsarism we Jews had no right to teach in a public school. Only after the October Revolution did my teaching work really begin, first at the Commercial School, then at the 4th Soviet Labor School in the city of Zaporozhye, where I was a teacher until 1923, and from 1923 to 1931 I was the director”. Raised by the Soviets from the bottom, my grandmother brought up her sons in a spirit of loyalty to communism. She herself could not be a Bolshevik, for in her youth she had been tainted by membership in the Menshevik Party. She did not conceal her biography and taught her children to be honest and frank with their motherland and the Communist Party, at least in Russian language.

     My grandmother was a teacher of Russian language, history, Russian literature, and mathematics, and at various times worked as an inspector-methodologist, a head of the school’s educational department, and even a school director, without being a member of the Communist Party. She was a school teacher by vocation, by conviction. She was a profound pedagogical thinker, a virtuoso teacher and a brilliant educator. Grandma’s most important thing was composition writing. She wrote methodical articles on the subject and spoke at conferences. Her successes in teaching schoolchildren to write composition were widely known and recognized: “I worked a lot on the methodology of composition writing. The Institute for Advanced Studies of Teachers was interested in my experiences with free compositions, and I was asked to speak about it at a citywide teachers’ conference.” Immediately after the end of World War II, she was offered a position in Kharkov as deputy director of science at the Institute for Advanced Studies of Teachers with an excellent salary. She refused – her existence was school, her life was teaching children.

      Grandmother was a very strict woman with regal posture, a lady of rudeness and boorishness, she spoke softly, but there was complete silence in the classroom. No one dared to interfere with the smooth flow of Grandma’s lessons. All her life she had carefully prepared for lessons, and all her lessons were always interesting to children. She achieved excellent discipline, not by shouting, not by threatening, not by punishing – that never happened – but by her ability to teach meaningful and engaging lessons. She wrote: “When I entered the classroom, it would get so quiet that you seemed to hear a fly, and the silence continued until the end of the lesson. And after the bell at recess, no one was in a hurry to jump out from behind their desks, and there wasn’t the kind of noise you sometimes hear in classrooms after the bell at recess.” Her grandson, my cousin, went to her school. He wasn’t at all helped by his kinship with his grandmother. On the contrary, she demanded twice as much from him. The pupils adored her, respected and feared her, though they knew that she did not punish. Seeing how demanding she was of herself, they naturally accepted her demanding attitude toward them and were afraid of disappointing her. She was constantly learning, re-doing her lessons, improving and working on herself with incredible tenacity. For her, there was no finished and finalized teaching material. Every year she modified the content of her lessons. She did not accept a once-and-for-all model lesson and a perfect presentation of the subject. In a country where everything breathed dogmatism, Grandmother doubted and feared pedagogical cliches.

      Grandmother cared about the students’ psychological state. She held psychologically challenging conversations with them privately, so that other students knew nothing of their peers’ problems. She protected her students’ dignity. Grandmother valued the students’ time as her own. She never held them up in class, believing that their time belonged to them, that they should rest at recess, and that after class they should go straight home to rest and prepare for the new school day. The children did everything they could to please Grandma. They felt in her an unprecedented and unheard-of approach to children. She saw a student as a person and respected everyone and called everyone, even the smallest ones, “you” instead of “thou”, used for addressing to a young person. (In Russian, as in French, there is a second person singular form corresponding to the familiar address: “tu” instead of “vous”, meaning that Grandma preferred to address her children respectfully). She respected the individual in a society where disrespect for the individual was the law. In a non-democratic country, she practiced a democratic approach to her students. She treated them as individuals, not as obligated robots who agreed with everything. Her book, which remains unknown, could have been a great resource for young parents and beginning teachers.

      Grandma never laughed, never cried, never hugged, never kissed. She was an amazingly serious person, was in constant search, did not always recognize the right answers in pedagogy, but accepted the Soviet government as the pinnacle of human achievement. How did she reconcile the incompatible? She went so deeply, on a “microscopic” level, into the problems of teaching that the ideological superstructure remained a background, a decoration, a formality, not the essence of the process.

     In ancient Greek rhetoric, the concept of aposiopesis, “figure of silence”, was formed: the interruption of speech and the abandonment of a topic due to excitement, disgust, bashfulness.  My grandmother was silent about the existence of anti-Semitism under Soviet rule. In 1906 my grandmother entered the Higher Women’s Polytechnic Courses in St. Petersburg, but was denied a residency permit. “When I returned to the premises of the courses, I sat down to work in the drawing room. Everything inside me was bubbling. It turned out that we Jews were inferior, second-class people, that we could be insulted at every turn, and we had to keep quiet. I could not reconcile myself to this.” She was reconciled to the Jewish pogrom carried out by her Soviet authorities, a pogrom whose victims were her son, my father, and her daughter-in-law, my uncle’s wife. I do not know how she explained the fact that her youngest son, my father, whom she had brought up as a builder of communism, was accused by the Soviets of worshipping the West and of serving in foreign intelligence services, of cosmopolitanism and bourgeois deviation in 1949. My grandmother was shaken by the trouble her son was in. When he went to Moscow to search for the truth, she told my mother, “Don’t be thin, so that they don’t think that Yasha is guilty of something.” The 1953 case of the “poison doctors,” “murderers in white coats,” most of whom were Jews, left the wife-doctor of my uncle without a job. My grandmother did not believe that her son was an anti-patriot and her daughter-in-law a poisoner, but anti-Semitism in her presence was not to be discussed or condemned.

      After my father was ostracized and left Kiev, my grandmother moved to Kharkov to live with his eldest son and his family. After parting with my grandmother, I lost all hope of learning to write school compositions. As a result, I was brought up so badly that it was impossible to talk about me out loud at all, except in French. My actions were treason to the motherland, to the principles of internationalism, to socialism, in short, to everything that was so dear to my grandmother. My reading samizdat by heart, my criticism of the Soviet government, my infatuation with Zionism, were things that were monstrous and incomprehensible to my grandmother, foreign to her heart. And since I also got a “C” in her favorite Russian literature, I was just persona non grata to her. I must pass on my grandmother’s criticism in the language in which she addressed it to me – in French, because she considered me unworthy of addressing me in Russian “Soviet socialist” language: “Tu es un traître! Tu es un traître au socialisme! Tu sers la bourgeoisie! Tu t’es engagé avec les éléments bourgeois juifs! La langue juive, que j’ai fuie comme la peste, vous l’apprenez sans relâche. Tu es imprégné de l’histoire du peuple juif, où tout était tragique jusqu’à ce que nous arrivions au socialisme. Tu es une honte pour notre famille et notre pays! Tu es un enfant terrible!” (“You are a traitor! You betray socialism! You serve the bourgeoisie! You have become involved with Jewish bourgeois elements! The Jewish language, from which I fled like the plague, you learn without rest. You are steeped in the history of the Jewish people, where everything was tragic until we came to socialism. You are a disgrace to our family and our country! You are a terrible child!”)

      My grandmother did not live to see me renounce the citizenship of a country that no longer exists. I am sure that my anti-Soviet behavior would not have surprised her. There could have been no intimacy between us, for a person who did not know Russian literature and was immersed in reading hostile literature was an alien to her. Grandmother, however, could not imagine that the USSR might cease to exist.

      In January 2008, excerpts from Grandma’s book appeared in the Windows, supplement of the Israeli newspaper Vesti (News) in Russian. The last thing my grandmother expected was that excerpts from her unpublished book would appear in the Zionist press and that only in Israel would her word be heard. Under socialism, she wrote in her desk, addressing the manuscripts to her sons. But only under Zionism did the most unfortunate of her four grandchildren, the most alien to her and so distant from everything dear to her, utter her last word in the land in which her native and unloved language, Hebrew, became the native and beloved language of my children, her great-grandchildren.


Alex Gordon is a native of Kiev (Soviet Ukraine, USSR) and graduate of the Kiev State University and Haifa Technion (Doctor of Science, 1984).
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