p e r s o n a l h i s t o r y l e o n b e l l
Editor’s note: Leon Bell, a Soviet-trained nuclear physicist who later became a world-class plant physiologist with an expertise in photosynthesis, was born in Texas in 1918, and moved with his family to Moscow in 1931. His life reflects the tragedy of the Soviet Union and the situation of an American-born Jew in Stalin’s Russia. In his unpublished autobiography the author gives an inside view of what it was like to live in constant fear and poverty in a totalitarian state.
In 1938, during the Stalin purges and troika trials, Leon Bell’s father was arrested, declared an enemy of the people, and sent to a Gulag in Kazakhstan. This excerpt tells of the years leading up to that event.
Why he writes an autobiography, and how the family leaves for Russia.
Today is December 23, 1987. I am now sixty-nine years old. You can twist that figure around anyway you wish to, but you will always get sixty-nine—there is no escape. In a year’s time (if I am still alive) I will be seventy, and that is real old age. Time is running out, and if I expect to write about my life, as daughter Natasha has asked me to, it’s time to begin.
Of course, I have my doubts whether it is worthwhile writing. I can’t write a memoir as usually understood—a narrative of the life of a person of fame or one who had experienced a particularly interesting life. I am not famous and, strictly speaking, there were no extraordinary events in my life
Then why write? First of all, as I have mentioned, Natasha has asked me to, and wife Ira has supported the idea. Secondly, in my opinion just about anyone’s life can be interesting as a mirror, albeit a small one, of the times in which the person lived.
I am a person of the twentieth century, a stormy and at times, maddening, century. Possibly, in the future some people would like to know how ordinary, not widely known people lived in those times.
There is one more circumstance that justifies my effort. I spent most of my life differing in a certain respect from the people surrounding me. Of course, everyone is a special case, but my distinction is a rather specific one, although in a rational world it would not entail any substantial consequences. In reality, though, my “distinctiveness“ did evoke consequences, usually of a negative nature (from my viewpoint) that seemed (to me) to be absolutely incommensurate with the cause, and this circumstance may serve to give better insight into a peculiarity of the century, at least in some countries.
When I was young I thought that, fundamentally, all people are the same irrespective of their ethnicity or nationality. As the historian Gumilev, son of the poets Akhmatova and Gumilev, put it, “Some people believe that a black is the same as a muzhik but with a black skin.” The Russian philologist and historian Academician Dmitri Likhach concedes that there can be shifts in the character spectra of various ethnic groups but believes that the shifts are not large.
In my later years it became clear to me that the shifts may indeed be noticeable and are conditioned to a large extent by the family upbringing. At any rate, this is true with respect to me, and therefore it makes sense to start with a description of my family.
Not being of blue-blooded descent, I never showed any interest in my family tree, unfortunately, and thus my knowledge does not go farther than my grandparents.
My father’s family was a rather unusual one. The Belkovskys did not live in a shetl, the isolated settlements Jews were forced to live in in the Ukraine and other Eastern European countries. According to my mother, the family lived in a village called Anapol, and this privilege was accorded them because someone in the family had been a “Nikolayevsky soldat” (Nicholas I soldier), which meant serving twenty-five years in the army. I have a photograph of the whole family taken in 1910, just a year or two before part of the family moved to the neighboring town of Radomysl and my father and his brothers decided to emigrate to America.
As a little boy I heard the name “Radomysl” mentioned occasionally in conversations between my parents and our relatives. The name conjured up in my mind the image of a small town of muddy roads, dilapidated houses, sagging fences and destitute of trees or shrubbery. In 1984, I participated in a scientific conference in Kiev, and on a day off Ira, my wife, and I took the bus to Radomysl, which is a two-hour ride from Kiev (about 84 kilometers).
What we saw was a quiet town of sturdy houses with gardens, paved roads, and much greenery. The only picturesque landmark we saw was a church that had probably been standing when my folks lived there. There are three cemeteries: Russian (Orthodox), Polish (Catholic) and Jewish. The Jewish cemetery was neglected; many of the tombstones were broken, but many were put together. In this part of the country the Germans were there as early as August 1941. The inscription on one tombstone informed us that we were standing at the grave of the first resident of Radomysl murdered by the German fascists.
Another feature of the Belkovsky family that I find quite unusual was their secularism. I have a photograph of my grandfather, my father’s father, taken in Radomysl in April 1910. He could be taken to be a prosperous merchant (kupets) posing in a three-piece suit with a (golden?) watch chain fixed to his vest. His neatly trimmed beard and moustache intensify this impression of a well-to-do bourgeois. On the reverse side of the photograph is an inscription in Russian written in a beautiful handwriting and addressed to his youngest son Mikhel (my uncle Mitchell).
I find it remarkable how these Jewish people, living in a village and then a small town in the Ukraine (not Russia!), mastered the Russian language. As far as I know, they spoke Yiddish among themselves. My mother told us, her children, that my father studied first in a kheder (elementary Jewish school), then in a regular school, possibly in Russian. He graduated from high school in Radomysl as an extern. After graduation he attempted to enter the Kiev University, department of law, but because of the admission quota for Jews, was not accepted. He returned to Radomysl. where he worked for a well-known lawyer. He also gave lessons (in what, I don’t remember) and wrote articles for the liberal newspaper Kievskaya Mysl (Kiev thought) . Being associated with the newspaper was sufficient to attract the attention of the secret police.
During the revolution of 1905, the paper sent him a draft of a liberal constitution, which he read from the steps of the city duma (mayoralty), from where he led a large demonstration. The next day he was arrested.
My father once told me how he was treated by the tsarist police and the Soviet secret police. The gendarme who interrogated my father spoke to him in the formal you – vy, analogous to the German Sie. The Soviet investigator (sledovatl) was rude, threatening, and addressed him with the familiar ty, the English thou or German du.
Despite the politeness of the tsarist official, my father (according to my mother’s version) was exiled to a very small settlement where, evidently, he spent a short period of time.
In 1910 he emigrated to the United States, the second of his many brothers to go. The first was my uncle Wolf. In descending order of age the brothers were Nathan (my father), Abe, Wolf, Sol, Morris, and Mitchell. The sisters were Luba and Eve. All eventually made it to Houston. Why Houston? This is the story my cousin Helen, Uncle Wolf’s daughter, told me.
Uncle Wolf had a ticket to Australia, where he hoped to settle. In Galveston, all passengers were asked to leave the ship – a rat had been sighted and the ship was to be fumigated. The passengers were put on the suburban train commuting between Galveston and Houston, where they were spend the night and return the next day to re-board the ship. Uncle Wolf was not only a bad sailor – he easily got seasick – but also was nauseated when traveling in a train or car, except when driving. In Houston, the prospect of the train trip and long sea voyage was too much. The result: nearly a dozen Belkovskys flocked to Houston from the town of Radomysl, in the Ukraine, a subject of the Russian Empire. At present, the fifth generation is popping up.
All I can say about this story is, to use the Russian saying, “za shto kupil, za to i prodayu”: or, literally, “I am selling for the same price I bought the goods,” meaning, “I am merely saying what I heard.”
My father, the next to come, could not be invited by Uncle Wolf, so he went to Philadelphia, where he had a cousin. My father told me that the immigration officer who processed his papers deemed the name Belkovsky too long and difficult to pronounce and proposed that it be shortened to Bell. From Philadelphia my father went to Galveston, where he got a good job at the Jewish Immigrants Information Bureau. When the war broke out in 1914, immigration virtually ceased, and my father moved to Houston with my mother and infant sister, Bertha.
My mother, Genia Friedman, was born in 1892 in the small town of Talnoye, about 175 kilometers south of Kiev, near the city of Uman. Talnoye, like Radomysl, lies in the region south and west of Kiev with a large Jewish population. Names like Zhitomir, Vinnitsa, Berdichev, Zhmerinka, Shepetovka, etc., were noted for their large Jewish population. Berdichev and Zhmerinka were (are?) the subject of Jewish jokes, not necessarily ill-disposed.
When my mother was twelve, in 1903-04, her family moved to Radomysl, for what reason and under what circumstances, I do not know. My father, who also lived in Radomysl at that time, was twenty-five. Genia was the eldest of four daughters, the others being Bertha (Brucha), May, and Rive. Their father, Benzion, was a melamed, a teacher of elementary Hebrew and, almost by definition, a poor man. However, my mother told us, the family never really suffered from privation.
My grandfather was truly an unworldly man. I saw him and Grandmother for the first and only time at the beginning of 1932, when the three of us, Mama, my brother, Davie, and I visited Kiev. He almost never spoke and seemed constantly to be consorting with God. I wonder what he thought, being surrounded by his unholy children and their children.
Grandmother, whose maiden name was Rapoport, was a rather lively person. Besides Yiddish, she seems to have known some Russian. Aunt Maya and her husband, Uncle Grisha, along with Yiddish spoke Russian fluently and also knew Ukrainian.
At the beginning of 1913, my paternal grandfather was murdered by thieves, and my father returned to Radomsyl for a short time. There he met my mother, proposed to her, and arranged for her journey to America. According to the archives, she arrived on the ship Chemnitz in Galveston on August 8, 1913. In less than a month’s time, my parents were married. Bertha was born July 21, 1914, in Galveston, a little more than a week before the outbreak of the war. It seemed strange to me as a kid that Davie and I and almost all our cousins were Houstonians, whereas Bertha came from some other place.
At the beginning of 1914, Uncle Wolf returned to the old country to bring over the rest of the family: Mother Hinda, fifty-two years old; sister Eve, sixteen; and Mitchell, fourteen.
Most dramatic of all was the voyage of Aunt Bertha. She was invited by my parents who were then living in Galveston. However, her ship never made it to Galveston. This is what cousin Lee copied out of the book Galveston, Ellis Island of the West, by Bernard Karinbach:
The Philadelphia immigration office, as also was true in the case of my father, who landed in Philadelphia, recorded more detailed information than did the New York or Galveston offices. Thus, it was possible to learn that Aunt Bertha was then seventeen years old, worked as a milliner, and had $1 to declare.
The two sisters who were left behind, Maya and Riva, were not so fortunate as my mother or Aunt Bertha. They lived through the war, and then the terrible civil war, where the Bolsheviks, Poles, and Ukrainian nationalists alternately wielded power until the more resolute Bolsheviks finally took over. After a brief respite in the 1920s, because of the New Economic Policy (NEP), the policy of collectivization of agriculture led to various food problems, and, indeed, in some parts of, the Ukraine, to famine.
For another few years before World War II, living in Russia became more or less bearable, but the war put a firm end to that. Aunt Maya and her son Lusik were able to flee Kiev before the Germans entered the city. Riva and her two children, for some reason, did not make it. The three of them ended in Babi Yar.
I don’t know the fate of her husband. he may have been shot in one of Stalin’s camps; I never asked Aunt Maya about him. Lusik was killed in 1942, at the front at age eighteen. The war didn’t spare even the children of those of our family who remained in the old country.
In 1983, I was finally permitted by the Soviet authorities to visit my daughter Natasha and her boys in London. Natasha invited me to see “The Fiddler on the Roof” in the Apollo theater. I recall the scene where the Jews, ousted from their homes, are discussing where they should go. Leaving home for a strange destination, without money, knowledge of the language, or a familiar environment, must be a traumatic experience, whatever the other circumstances. Unfortunately, I never asked my parents to tell me about their immigration experience. However, my Uncle Sol left a diary which I think gives a good idea of what immigration meant for some in the days when there were no unemployment benefits, no Supplementary Social Income, Medicaid. The diary was written in Russian and, I should note, in a good, literate Russian. It always impresses me how these Jewish young people living in a Ukrainian hamlet learned the language so well.
The diary finishes here. Probably, the bustle of American life into which he had been drawn dampened my uncle’s enthusiasm for writing.
It seems my two uncles, Sol and Wolf, had ideas about becoming farmers or going into forestry; but these plans were not realized. Quite soon, Uncle Sol went into the grocery business and Wolf eventually into the insurance business.
Uncle Sol was happy to be in a “land with trees.” His father had worked in forestry. Could it not be that forestry was a traditional occupation of the Belkovskys? There can be no doubt that they had lived in Poland, all the more because the Ukraine once belonged to the Polish-Lithuanian union. I would speculate that my ancestors arrived in Poland about the year 1500, when Jews were being expelled from western European countries and Poland was regarded as a safe country for Jews.
By the time I was born, in 1918, it did not seem to really matter how or when my ancestors settled in the Ukraine, or how they had acquired their name. The reality was that quite a few young men in their twenties and thirties living in Houston with the name of Bell spoke English with an accent. Baby Bells were now on the rise. These first-generation Americans are now very old. Several have died. Their children, the famous “baby boomers,” have children (and in one case, even grandchildren) who have never heard Yiddish spoken or heard the word “Radomysl”, and cared less.
In those years my father had a small novelty shop and bookstand. Davie and I liked to meet him at the corner of our block when he came home for lunch. Besides, we were hoping to earn some money to buy our favorite candies. called “silver tops.” (Now they are called “Hershey’s kisses.”) For a penny we would get two candies, one for Davie and one for me. To earn the penny, all we had to do was to brush off the dust from Daddy’s shoes. This took about ten seconds, so we were paid quite well. (At that rate, assuming an eight-hour workday and five-day work week, we would have earned over $10,500 a year, not bad at all in those times.)
In 1926, my family moved to a new house at the corner of Albany Street and Tuam Avenue. The house was much more convenient than our old one; there were four rooms (but one bathroom) a large kitchen and kitchenette. There was a gas stove in the kitchen, but in the winter we still heated the children’s room with a wood stove (with the traditional boiling chainik on it). A couple of myrtle trees with beautiful pink flowers grew in the front yard along with a few rose bushes which my mother cared for. In the back yard there was a fig-tree which actually bore fruit from which mama made jam. There was also a garage, really a barn. which at one time my parents rented to a black man for fifty cents; I never learned if that was for a week or a month. In the back yard I appropriated a small plot of land for a garden. Radishes were the only plants that yielded anything of significance.
We lived in this house for more than five years, and it was here I spent my conscious American childhood. There were several boys in our neighborhood of my age and with whom I became good friends. Next to our house was a new apartment house in which Bobby Brown lived. Douglas Carter lived across the street and Edward Gliot at a corner house a block away. Eddie had a nice lawn large enough for us kids to gather in the evening to tell horror stories or wrestle. Eddie’s left arm was paralyzed (from infantile paralysis) but that did not stop him from wrestling with us as equals. When grappling with him, the main job was to keep clear of his two deadly holds: scissors and strangling hold. He had very strong legs and a strong right arm, which, when linked with his lame arm, could be deadly.
Another kid by the name of Victor lived a few blocks away from our neighborhood, but he would come from time to time to wrestle on Eddie’s lawn. He had a paralyzed leg, and that put other kids at a disadvantage: when he was in an upright position we tried not to push him to make him fall. On the ground he was as good as any of us.
There were some other boys of my age whom we played with but were not such close friends. We played a lot: “Americans and Germans” (the war hadn’t finished so long ago); “Americans and Indian” (these games involved difficulties in determining who would be the Americans, which everyone wanted to be); baseball; hockey on roller skates with a tin can as the puck (resulting in an intolerable, for the adults, amount of noise).
Our school, as was the junior high and high school Bertha would attend, was only for whites. Segregation in those years was complete in Houston: in the streetcars a small board fastened to the wall with “for whites” written on one side and “for colored” written on the other side warned that blacks were to sit only on the back seats; a sign at the large Heinke and Pilot grocery store let it be known that blacks and dogs were not allowed in the store; a water fountain near the store was only for whites. At the baseball stadium, blacks sat in the bleachers, the very name of which is humiliating. There was no roof over the stand, which was located in the worst place to observe the game, far out in right field. Making people sit several hours under a broiling Houston sun even then (I’ll explain in a few lines what I mean by “even then”) seemed to me to be senselessly cruel.
Our house was in the middle between a neighborhood of middle and upper middle-class homes and a district in which Negroes lived, which whites called “nigger town.” Sometimes, by myself or with a friend, I would ride by bike to the bayou, a rather exotic river where alligators were alleged to live. To get there I had to pass through the Negro ghetto. I was always a little afraid that rocks would be thrown at me, but that never happened. The houses in the ghetto were old wooden houses, and poverty was evident in everything.
How did I react to this racial discrimination? In our leftist family chauvinism and racism were absolutely foreign. Nevertheless, I can’t boast that I felt the full depth of the injustice. Moreover, I have to admit that I did not worry about the crime being committed before my eyes. I was a child living in conditions that seemed to me to be the order of things. I didn’t know any other life. Like other children, I believed the Earth was the Universe, and that what was going on today had been going on from time immemorial. And this despite the fact that my father was doing what he could to help persecuted Negroes.
I saw fewer cases of anti-Semitism. maybe because there were no other Jews in our neighborhood. In one case, a boy from some other neighborhood whom I did not let ride my bicycle began calling “Jew-baby, Jew-baby.” I was terribly surprised – I didn’t really know the kid, and when or where did he learn I was Jewish? Another incident occurred during a visit of the Bell family to Aunt Bertha and Uncle Sol’s home. The son of a neighbor was angered by something – I can’t imagine what could have provoked the youth – and began yelling, “Go back where you came from.” At school I don’t remember any ugly incidents like these.
At Fannin School, before the lessons we said the Lord’s prayer in the King James version. I knew the beginning words of the prayer and also those where we asked to “Give us this day our daily bread.” After the prayer, we saluted the flag and all together pledged “allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands. . .” I don’t know if my parents were aware of these activities, but I am quite sure they would not have worried. After all, nobody was forcing me to say the prayers nor would anyone force the children to read the commandments.
I left junior high school when I was in the “low seventh” grade, i.e. after about one and a half years in the school. Oddly, I do not remember much about the lessons there. I can’t even recall what mathematics we were studying or anything about the science lessons, if there were any. The lesson I most vividly recall was the few times we were instructed in “music appreciation”. We were introduced to Grieg’s “Peer Gynt,” for example, by listening to “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” We were taught songs, including spirituals. As usual, musical lessons, like those of physical culture and vocational training, were regarded as less important than math, science, language, history. What a sad delusion. After all, not all children have the opportunity to take music lessons at home. I for one didn’t have the chance, and school could partly have offset this disadvantage.
After school, there were always games to be played outside.
The two most popular team games were football and baseball. The latter was my favorite for several reasons. It was a “clean” game with a great variety of situations, a game in which brute force was not a prerequisite, an important factor for a little guy like me. One could enjoy the game with a softball, a bat and a vacant field. There were a number of other factors that made baseball particularly popular. Houston had a new stadium – Buffalo Stadium – which could hold 6000 fans, not bad for a city of 350,000. It had a good baseball team, one of the best in the Texan League. The Houston Buffalos were a farm team for the Saint Louis Cardinals which won the championship of the National League in 1928, 1930 and 1931.
I still remember the names of some of the players who made it to the Cardinals and thus to the major league: Carey Selph who played at second base, Mickey (?) Medwick in center field, pitchers Wild Bill Hallahan, Dizzy Dean, Big Joe Lindsey.
It goes without saying that the batting averages were carefully studied in the Sunday newspaper. Generally, only the names of those batting over .300 were scanned. If the name of a popular player could not be found in this range, I would go down to .290 or even .280 – but no lower.
Lying on a shelf in my New York apartment there is a baseball that is almost seventy years old (I am writing this in August, 1999). The ball was presented and signed by a shortstop of the Houston Buffalos, George Binder. George was courting a girl in our neighborhood, so we kids got to know him. He didn’t play long for the Houston team, but long enough for us to solicit the ball.
How this ball did not get lost during the multifarious events in my life and that of my family seems to me to be almost a miracle. The tenacity of my mother who held on to the ball, as well as Davie’s and my stamp album, the Ku Klux Klan proclamation sent to my father in the 1920’s ( which I keep as a relic), and some other items, is amazing.
Even in Russia I had a chance to play a little baseball. And on returning to the U.S., sixty years later, the only sport I watch on TV (along with tennis) is baseball.
A couple of events aroused another interest – in physics and, ultimately, in nuclear physics, which in those days was considered to be “pure science” with no possible practical applications. My sister Bertha took me to a students’ science exhibition at Rice Institute. I particularly remember being impressed by watching a tricolored disk turning white when vigorously rotated. An even greater impression was made by a large photograph covering two pages of the Houston Chronicle and depicting a Van de Graaff electrostatic electron accelerator. There was something special, even romantic in this beautiful machine and in the idea of splitting the atom. I think it was from this day I became fascinated by what later be called nuclear physics.
A couple of years later, while already living in the Soviet Union, after reading some popular science literature, I was completely captivated by the possibility of releasing the enormous amounts of energy contained in matter, and of unraveling the structure of the atom. I was hooked and lucky to be so – from childhood on I knew what I wanted to be: a physicist, or rather, a nuclear physicist; and also what I had to do: study at the university
In October 1929 the famous (or infamous) stock market crash on Wall Street occurred. I remember the enormous headlines on the front pages of the newspapers but not much more. Externally, at least as far as I could see, nothing much changed in Houston. I never saw or heard of breadlines or demonstrations of unemployed such as those shown in the papers or documentary films.
In my family, however, something did occur: my father gave up his novelty and newspaper store and went to work in an insurance company of a certain Mr. Fried. I can’t say when that change took place; my parents followed the policy of keeping us children (at least Davie and me, I can’t say for Bertha) unaware of their financial troubles. I think that is a very sensible and compassionate course: involving the children will not help solving the problems but will certainly make their lives less cheerful. I deeply believe that the childhood of a person should be as cloudless and serene as possible. Their time for worries will come. In my opinion, the “they-should-know” advocates are essentially children killjoys.
My parents kept their troubles to themselves, but I could feel that they were very worried. This, however, did not deter them from continuing their public activity. My father, for instance, gave a lecture advertised in a leaflet as follows:
The Soviet Union had embarked on its first Five Year Plan and was boasting of big achievements in industrialization of the country, and of the impending transformation from an agrarian to an industrial-agrarian country, which indeed happened in just a few years. The Soviet Union also declared it was building a more just, classless society, where there would be no exploitation of man by man. Each member of that society was expected to work according to his ability, and to be rewarded accordingly. This socialist society was supposed to be the first step toward communism.
This idealistic goal caught the imagination of many people in the U.S.S.R. – the propaganda machine was operating at full speed – and also abroad, where the depression was raging. Consequently, quite a few people from the West visited for long periods of time or emigrated to the U.S.S.R. to “help build socialism.” My parents were among them. What induced my parents to make such a consequential decision – moving to the Soviet Union – I don’t know. Economic and financial problems may have played a large role. But ideology must also have been a significant factor.
It has been said that people have to believe in something sublime, they need a faith. (For myself I can say that I need none). I think my parents believed that Soviet Russia was moving toward a benign society in which there would be no poverty, class strife, religious persecution (?!), racism, ethnic discrimination, etc. Belief in an utopia of this type was equivalent to adhering to a faith. But faiths are delusive; I like the definition given by the critic and author (whose name in our family always provoked derisive comments) H.L. Mencken: “Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable.”
I find it difficult to understand how grown-ups, and in particular, socialists like my father, can embrace utopias. I find it even more difficult to understand how my father did not pay attention to the ominous signals that were coming out of the Soviet Union, and there certainly were enough of them. A continuous chain of “trials” began as early as 1928, when Stalin felt that he had enough power to have things go his way. In August 1930, for example, a group of bacteriologists were accused of being responsible for the loss of horses. A month later, forty-eight workers of the food industry were shot.
The famous Prompartiya (Industrial Party) trial took place at the end of 1930. Information about this scandalous trial – if not the others – must certainly have appeared in American newspapers and been known to my parents. Stalin’s relentless attack on the intelligentsia continued. In February 1931, a group of well-known historians were arrested, one of them being Likhachev, who, years later, became an academician and, after the death of Andrei Sakharov, the doyen of the most honest part of the Russian intelligentsia. In March 1931, a few months before my father left for the Soviet Union, a political trial of a group of Mensheviks took place.
These gruesome trials occurred contemporaneously with Stalin’s collectivization campaign, which disrupted agricultural production in the country and was the cause of famine in parts of the country. It has been asserted that millions died of hunger.
With an unattractive physiognomy like this, it is hard to imagine that anyone on their own accord would want to emigrate to such a country.
I never discussed with my parents what induced them to make such a critical decision as emigrating to the Soviet Union. I thought they might have regarded my question as a reproach, something I had no intentions of doing. And I was young when I was separated from my fatherland; the question did not interest me – life in school and at the university did not leave space for such thoughts.
I can think of two, not necessarily mutually exclusive, answers to the question:
1) all reports of a negative nature pertaining to the Soviet Union were brushed aside as bourgeois propaganda or plain slander;
2) the wish to believe that there was some place on the Earth that held promise of a better future for humanity and that place was the U.S.S.R.
In a word: blinders and faith, the usual curse of the human race.
In May 1931, my father left for New York, where he boarded the steamship Isle de France and ultimately reached Moscow. In Moscow, he apparently made the acquaintance of some Soviet citizens who sincerely believed and convinced him that despite all the difficulties the country was experiencing, most of them would be overcome in a couple of years. One such acquaintance was a man named Kubanin, about whom I shall write later.
When I learned that my father was expecting the family in Moscow, I revolted. I didn’t want to go to a country whose language I didn’t speak, whose standard of living, I knew, was way below that of the U.S., whose climate was harsh, where they didn’t play baseball or football or have any good boxers. Most important, I didn’t want to leave my friends or relatives. As a way of protesting, I didn’t answer the letters my father wrote.
It could be that the intuition of a thirteen-year-old boy was sharper than the insight of a despondent fifty-two-year-old man, who, as it can be asserted in retrospect, was unable to assess correctly the gravity of the decision he (and his wife) had made.
I very much didn’t want to go. I remember riding on my bike in a cool October evening and repeating to myself, “I’m still in America, I’m still in America”.
However, it wasn’t for me to have any say in the matter.
The Bells have moved to Russia. Leon is now in ninth grade, in a Moscow school. These are the years 1934-38, the years of the Terror, the Great Purge, famine, and bitter hardship.
I think it was in the ninth grade that we were studying Chernishevsky’s novel WHAT IS TO BE DONE? (Shto delat’). One of the characters, Rakhmetiev, was a proponent of the theory of Judicious Egoism. This Rakhmetiev was supposed to be an acceptable character according to Soviet standards, and therefore it seemed clear that his theory should accordingly be rated. So, we were somewhat surprised when Appolonovich, the teacher, asked the class whether the Judicious Egoism theory was a correct one or not. After a pause, one of our most active participants in the literature discussions, Fira Mittelman, volunteered to answer. Hers was a simple and logical answer: What is bad if I do things that are good for me and do not harm others? The answer turned out to be wrong. We were told that such conditions or circumstances might arise that one would have to sacrifice personal interests for a more common cause. The class was quiet for a time to let that sink in; but then we understood that, essentially, we had been taught this all the time. Weren’t the shock workers (udarniki) sacrificing themselves for the common cause? Hadn’t Comrade Stalin said that work was a matter of honor, valor and heroism? Heroism implies self-sacrifice, that is, behavior which is not conducive to the personal needs or interests of a person.
Such indoctrination (not always explicit) was an organic part of the Soviet educational system. It undoubtedly played an important role when my generation was called up to fight Germany.
I would like to note that personally I do not consider the call for self-sacrifice inferior in any way to that for rugged individualism, which in modern times has largely degenerated into the egoistic pursuit of money.
Talking about the war, I should mention that as far back as the mid-Thirties, we had lessons in civil defense. We were instructed about the various types of poison gases (of which I particularly remember mustard gas and phosgene), shown how to put on a gas mask, extinguish incendiary bombs, and so on. When the war did come, not much of that knowledge was of practical importance, but it was useful in the sense that we were prepared for the worst. Hitler did not use poison gas, and one of the reasons for that was that he would have gotten more than he had given. Even before the war, Churchill had warned Hitler about chemical warfare.
By now I had joined the Young Communist League (Komsomol). There were special political classes for members, which meant practically all students. The second Five-Year Plan was now (1935) in full swing. We were told that, since the first Plan had been fulfilled so brilliantly, and the basic industry – heavy industry – had been successfully created, the second Plan would focus on light industry. This information was greeted with great enthusiasm since it was virtually impossible to buy decent–or any–clothes, furniture, kitchen utensils, and the like.
At one of the political classes, a senior student shocked everyone by asking when, concretely, would it be possible to buy a pair of pants? That was an unexpected and, clearly, an impudent question: we were expected to ask “correct” questions. This was obviously not one. In those years one could sometimes get away with such things.
But not always. My friend; Sanya Murinson told me in 1934 (or 1935, the year ration cards for bread were abolished) about a student who had been expelled from his college for not agreeing with a teacher who declared that Stalin was a philosopher. This occurred at an early stage of turning Stalin into a “coryphaeus”* of science as he later was to be called.
I remember how difficult it was for me to believe that the student had actually been expelled for such an “offense”. But very soon, I would learn not to be surprised. Anyone with any sense of self-preservation would now certainly not raise the pants problem in public.
All in all, there seemed to be a discrepancy between what we were being taught, and what, in reality, was being contemplated; but, so far, I had no concrete proof. It would come in a few years, though.
I mentioned that the lessons were conducted in a strictly academic manner, which I, personally, appreciated. I knew there would be strong competition, and therefore I would have to have solid knowledge, in order to get into the university. I was determined to become a nuclear physicist. Wonderful things were happening in nuclear physics during 1932-1934. Cockcroft and Walton had built a machine that could be used to bombard the atomic nucleus; Chadwick had identified the neutron; and later, Rutherford and his colleague discovered the deuton: all this in a single laboratory, the Cavendish, in Cambridge, England, headed by Rutherford. At about the same time, the positron was discovered by Anderson in California; and a little later, artificial radioactivity by the Joliot-Curies in France.
I think it was my Tekstilshchiki friend Zhenya Popov who gave me a popular book on nuclear physics. With a Russian-English dictionary, I began translating parts of the book, and was fascinated by the prospects of extracting large amounts of energy from insignificant amounts of matter. There was the usual calculation of how many carloads of oil would be necessary to supply the same amount of energy that was contained in one gram of matter. Thus, at the age of fourteen or fifteen, I was saved from the trouble encountered by so many young people of solving the problem, “Who am I going to be?”
I should mention here that for a short time one of the teachers of mathematics at the Anglo-American school was a mathematics graduate of Cambridge University, David Guest. David was also a student of philosophy and a strong believer in Marxism. I still have his little book, Dialectical Materialism. As was common in those times (1933-1934), believing in Marxism was equivalent to believing in Stalin, at least in the Soviet Union. And David was also a militant believer, a trait that didn’t fit well with his outward appearance and gentle nature.
Naturally it was David I would turn to with questions about physics. But he wasn’t very keen about nuclear physics, so when one day in 1934, he brought over a group of English friends to Tekstilshchiki (where he also lived), he pointed out a young man who, he said, had just recently graduated from Cambridge University and was a physicist. This happened to be David Shoenberg, who became a lifelong friend of mine.
Fortunately, the mathematics and physics lessons at school were given by qualified teachers and the subject matter was sufficiently solid; in fact I think it was too difficult for most of the students. Our math teacher was the most respected. He was a great pedant, which isn’t bad for mathematics, and would dictate our lessons, so that when we completed our course, we were in possession of a hand-written textbook. He was especially good at teaching trigonometry, making use of the trigonometric circle, so that many of the relationships could be visualized and not have only to be memorized.
In the meantime, important events were happening in the outer world that we were well aware of. After the great 17th Party congress, in December 1934, the death of Kirov was announced. As usual no details were given of how it had occurred except we were told that a treacherous enemy of the people had shot him. Listening to the radio tell of how his body was brought to Moscow and the burial ceremony took place, we were all saddened beyond belief. We were made to believe that enemies of the Soviet people were trying to kill the best Soviet leaders, and particularly those most beloved by the people and the party. Only more than twenty years later did we learn how much Stalin “loved” Kirov. It was revealed, then, that Stalin had almost been toppled as head of the party, and that Kirov would have taken his place.
People have debated what would have happened to the country if Kirov had been at the top. Some say there would not have been the Terror of 1937-38, and, consequently, not the terrible economic, military and psychological setbacks that followed. Others contend that a Bolshevik is a Bolshevik, and the grip on the country would have been an iron one as before; and cited Kirov’s activities in Azerbaijan, where he was sent by the party to help establish Soviet power there.
In 1935, the Ethiopians were resisting Italian aggression, and the Soviet papers were full of righteous indignation. And so were we. The fascists (as the Nazis were called in the Soviet Union) were doing terrible things in Germany, and we were taught to hate them, also. On the other hand, at home, things seemed to be picking up. In 1935, Khrushchev was made secretary of the Moscow party organization. And he did an incredible thing – he introduced New Year trees. These were not yet Christmas trees, which would be related to religion, but they gave one a feeling that besides the heroic work that we were constantly reminded of, there could be some fun in life. About at the same time, jazz was being reintroduced. All this, and the fact that ration cards had been abolished, induced Stalin to announce that “zhit’ stalo luche, zhit’ stalo veseley” (life has become better and more joyful). Very few of us in the city realized, or so it seemed to me, how awful the conditions were in the villages and how horribly the peasants were being exploited.
Another event that distracted our attention from anything at home that might cause our dissatisfaction was the civil war in Spain. Just as in Ethiopia and Germany, it was the fascists who were the aggressors. And we were wishing for victory by the Republicans and were thrilled to know that people of many different nationalities were fighting on the Republican side. And although there were rumors that Soviet military men were in Spain (this was a secret and was never publicly admitted), we knew that German and Italian pilots were participating in the war. Despite all the enthusiasm and our profound confidence in the ultimate victory (as epitomized by the slogan “No passaran”), the war was lost:
Franco’s four columns plus a fifth column in the city itself were able to capture Madrid and win the war.
We were so used to believing that the cause of the Soviet people or of anyone we sympathized with was always victorious, we were thoroughly perplexed by the loss of the war in Spain.
I don’t know if there was any direct connection between the loss of the Spanish Civil War and the famous 1937 “February-March Plenum” of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, but the fact is that it occurred at the time it did: after a defeat. I vividly remember the threatening tone of Pravda. It turned out, we were told, that saboteurs and spies were undermining Soviet power, and vigilance should be he word of the day. There seemed to be some incongruence here, since just a year or two before we had been told that the basis of socialism had been built, and we were now living in a classless society. However, there was one point that we had overlooked: Comrade Stalin had discovered a very important law. He found that, the closer the country got to socialism, the greater was the resistance of its enemies. A mathematician could express it thus: on asymptotic approach to socialism, its enemies’ resistance grows infinitely.
According to another “law” we had been taught (was it Maxim Gorky who enunciated it?), “if the enemy doesn’t surrender, he is to be annihilated.”
So we had a set of propositions to substantiate what became the Great Purge. Many people who had been its leaders were declared its enemies and summarily executed, after trials that had nothing to do with justice. Although arrests of prominent people had been going on all the time, it was the quality and quantity of those victimized that made it hard to grasp the real meaning of the events.
Marshal of the Soviet Union Tukhachevsky, whom the media had portrayed earlier as a military genius, was now denounced as a German spy. Old revolutionaries who had risked their lives for their cause (Bukharin, Kamenev, Rudzutak and many others) were accused of espionage. Karl Radek, who right up to his arrest had written talented articles directed against Italian atrocities in Abyssinia, and who was naturally regarded as a hundred percent Soviet patriot, was also “exposed”. All these alleged metamorphoses of prominent Soviet political and public figures seemed so incredible that it was hard to decide what to believe. For an eighteen-year-old youth living in an authoritarian country, in which virtually all information accessible to its citizens was that which the government saw fit to release, it was not easy to appraise the plausibility of the accusations. What I could do was to tell myself that this was a fight among the big brass and it was their tsuris. But it was not only their worry, and therein lies one of the greatest tragedies of history.
I should have remembered a couple of Russian sayings that would have cautioned me against such a delusion. The first is: “When the masters fall out, it is the people who suffer.”
The second saying is more pertinent, in fact so much so that it became a sort of dictum for the NKVD, as I was to learn during the arrest of my father: “Lyes rubyat, shchepki letyat,” or, literally: “When you chop wood, chips fly.”
From the middle of 1936 to approximately the middle of 1937, it was mainly the big shots who were “tried” and executed. Then in September 1937, Stalin and his heir apparent at that time, Zhdahov, who were vacationing together must have been getting bored, and decided more flying chips would liven things up. At this point, Yagoda, the head of the NKVD, was responsible for political and military trials. Evidently Stalin thought he was incapable of really mass repressions, and in September 1937, when I and my classmates had, just three months earlier, finished our last year at school, Yagoda was removed (and eventually executed, of course) and replaced by a little fellow by the name of Yezhov. It was this man who really made the chips fly.
While I was in school (and Yezhov was still in the waiting room), I was not aware of any large-scale arrests of the parents of my peers. Only many years later, at one of the get-togethers of our class, in the late Seventies, was it revealed that the fathers (and in may cases the mothers) of about half of the class had been arrested.
Father is arrested.
The arrests were now going on at full speed, the fathers of my friends were “taken,” and I thought that it was because they were important people and my father was not. Unfortunately, I was mistaken.
On March 14, 1938, a day we (now Davie and I) observe each year, a man by the name of Valyaev came to our house with a very pitiful-looking sample of humanity and the deputy director of the institute, who soon went away with my father. The NKVD man said that he would now make a search of our two rooms. My sister and I were the only ones home at that time, and we assisted him, hoping to get through with the matter as soon as possible. Since many of the books, which mainly interested him, were in English, we had to explain what they were about. The lieutenant’s labor was finally rewarded, and I am sure he felt that he had done a good piece of work: he found a book by Leon Trotsky in English. Why my father kept that book knowing Stalin’s fierce hatred, hatred beyond human comprehension, of Trotsky is beyond me.
After the search was over, with the bewildered little man still in attendance, we were told that our father was arrested. Then they both left. The little man is called in Russian a “ponyatoy.” The only equivalent I could find in English is witness. In Russian the usual word for witness is “svidetel.” A ponyatoy is a special type of witness: his job is to witness the arrest of a person. Usually janitors or yard-keepers are invited to fulfill this patriotic duty. In some way I found out where the little man lived. I was naive enough to believe that he in some way could influence the course of events! What an insane thought!
But at that time I was ready to try anything, and so I visited the “witness” at his home. I think the very choice of the witness says a great deal. He was living in a barn-like house, in a large room containing many families separated from each other by curtains. The whole family was there when I arrived the next day: the man, his wife, and a little baby several months old. I had seen many communal apartments – in fact, it seems to me that at that time most people lived in them – but this was something special. It was a family flop-house, something that is hard to imagine. Obviously, the man had been promised that something would be done for him, but he was so servile that he could be expected to do anything he was told to do, in particular, to keep his mouth shut. I think that it was easy for him, since he seemed to be in a state when the brain is virtually nonfunctional.
I tried to explain to him that my father couldn’t be guilty of any crime, but then, foolish though I was at the time, realized that talking to him was useless, and left with a feeling of complete disgust at the life some people were living.
Someone, I can’t remember who, said that my father was being held in a jail in Tsaritsyno, a little town farther out from Moscow. At that time it was the center (capital) of the district to which Tekstilshchiki belonged. So I headed to the chief of the NKVD in Tsaritsyno. Now my father and I had had had business with this chief a few years ago: I had not applied in time for my passport, and was warned accordingly by the NKVD, who supervised such matters. My father therefore took me to the head of the NKVD of our district to beg for “absolution.” They got involved in a friendly conversation. It crossed my mind that the two men had much in common. They had both believed in the humane mission of communism, and one of them had risked his life for its cause, whereas the other had also done whatever was in his power to ensure the emergence of what he believed would be a more just society.
But all this had occurred a few years ago. The man who now confronted me had changed immensely. He looked haggard and had the expression of a doomed man. And doomed he almost certainly was. The old cadres were being removed (which meant, arrested) by the younger ones bent on making a career. Little did the latter realize that they were also doomed men. Only when the appetites of Stalin, Yezhov, and then Beria, and their acolytes, had been more or less satisfied did this system of layer-by-layer liquidation of the personnel of the NKVD itself slow down.
When I explained my predicament to the NKVD chief, he looked at me with sad eyes and said that there was nothing he could do, and I should see the inspector who was responsible for the case, Valyaev. He told me how to find him, and thanking him for his “help,” I left for Valyaev’s office.
This turned out to be a small room with files and papers scattered on a desk. After asking me to take a seat, the inspector asked what I wanted. I wanted one thing. I wanted my father to be set free. I had come to explain that my father was an honest man and could not be guilty of any crime, political or not.
The lieutenant’s response was curt: “razberutsa.” This characteristic Russian word means, “They’ll look into that and decide what’s right and what’s wrong.” But I wasn’t to be put off so easily. I wanted him to understand that my father was not guilty. I said, “You know that my father is not guilty.”
I was then nineteen years old, had lived in the Soviet Union for over six years, but obviously still understood very little of some of the most important aspects of Soviet life. I should have known (or maybe at that time many others also did not know) that Valyaev could in no way free my father. That a process had been triggered that was irreversible. The presumption of innocence was not recognized in the Soviet Union, as the main prosecutor of the big political trials had declared explicitly. If a man had been arrested, that meant there was a reason, and the reason was that he was guilty.
Thus, if I had told the man who had made the arrest that he knew his victim was not guilty, I would virtually have accused him of committing a crime. When I told Valyaev that he knew my father was not guilty, he looked at me for a very long time without saying a word and seemed to be thinking something over. After leaving him, I realized what that was: “Should I take this kid also? That will increase the number of arrests, and no one can say that I haven’t been doing my job diligently. After all, in many cases, people of his age have been taken.”
Maybe his plan had been fulfilled, or even over fulfilled: in any event, I was permitted to go home. I remember the day. It was March 19, 1938, a sunny and warm day. The snow was melting, little rivulets of the water were trickling down the hill on which Catherine the Second’s unfinished castle stood. The story goes that the castle was being built for Catherine by her favorite, Prince Potemkin, but on viewing it from afar during its construction, she announced that she did not like its looks, and construction was terminated. Since the end of the eighteenth century, the outer walls surround plots of land with wild flowers, grass, and even small trees.
Walking down the hill, trying to avoid the streams, I repeated to myself several times the self-pitying sentiment: “Look, I’m only nineteen, and Spring is here and everything could be so nice. Why does this have to happen? Now why does it have to happen?”
Self-pity or not, things had to be done. The first was to find out where Daddy was being held. I couldn’t learn whether he was being held in Tsaritsyno. At any rate, I was unable to pass to him a food parcel. I was told, again, by “someone” that he might be in the infamous Matrosskaya Tishina jail. There was a long line of women trying to find out if their fathers or husbands were incarcerated. Nothing came of that for me. My next destination was the Ministry of Justice, on Pushkin Street. I still don’t know what, if any, connection this institution had with the NKVD; possibly none, but at the time it seemed to me that there should be some relationship between the arrest of a man and an institution empowered with upholding justice. How little many of us understood what was going on! We couldn’t bring ourselves to realize that lawlessness was rampant in the country. There had to be some hope, some rationality. So here I was, a young boy amid a crowd of women in a reception office of the Ministry of Justice of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, in April 1938. The man who received us was very rude and about as good an instigator of anti-Semitism as one could imagine. His very typical, but not Russian features must have helped deflect the hate and frustration of these people from the government to a person who happened to be a Jew.
I don’t remember how, but in some way I was informed that Daddy was now being detained in the famous Butyrskaya jail, or “Butyrka.” Parcels were accepted and I brought a few, although I don’t know if they reached my father (I never asked him afterward).
*(1. The leader of a Greek chorus. 2. A leader or spokesperson)
ŠLeon Bell 2005