My Life As A Child During The Russian Revolution
May 11, 2012 | 11:08 AM
By Regina Pachter
I was born in 1915 in Ekaterinoslav, Russia. My father didn’t want to fight for the Russian army. He didn’t believe in its five-year plan. He said those five-year plans had been going on for 100 years and they never accomplished anything. He considered having an ear cut off so he wouldn’t have to join the Russian army. Mother wouldn’t allow it. He said if he had a finger cut off, he wouldn’t have to fight. Still she said no. He later found that because he had a college degree and interest in a rubber factory, he could be one of three volunteers to go to the United States to learn how factories were operating. He was thrilled. So, when I was six weeks old, my father left for the United States. He went with his two best friends. They had money and a passion to learn how factories operate – so they went as gentlemen.
After my father left we moved from our apartment to my grandfather’s home. He was in the lumber business and he owned a large estate where much of my family lived. The main home was a large two-story with a huge dining room table where everyone would get together for meals. My mother and I had quarters on the first floor. An aunt and uncle lived upstairs with their children. They had a piano. An uncle and his wife lived in an apartment built on the rear of the home. Behind the main home was another home that housed two of my aunts and their families. One aunt was a pediatrician and the other was an obstetrician. The janitress was housed next to them. She lived there with her husband and 13 children. Across the courtyard from the main home was another house where my father’s brother lived with his wife and four boys. There was another home on the estate that housed several doctors. The entrance of the estate was guarded by a large iron gate.
When I began to walk and talk and think, I couldn’t imagine why I didn’t have anybody to call “Daddy.” My mother explained the whole thing to me when I was two years old. She told me my father left, but they would be husband and wife when he came back.
My mother was studying to be a dentist. They had a Jewish quota at the dental school in Ekaterinoslav. Even with her very high grades, my mother couldn’t get in – she was so angry about the quota. My grandfather told her “Sarah, don’t worry, I’ve got plenty of money and you’re going to go to Kharkiv – the finest dental school in Russia.”
We later found that my father was on a boat that sank. He was killed along with the other two men he was traveling with. People used to come over crying and holding my mother. She didn’t tell me at first so I didn’t know what they were talking about. I later found out that I was not going to have a father. He was not going to come back because he was killed.
Then we received a letter from my father! It said “I am in California with your brother.” My grandfather used to say that it wasn’t right. Some man must have gotten ahold of my father’s papers and was trying to pose as him. He said not to believe it and to not go to America if he told us to. We eventually found out that he was not an imposter and my father was indeed alive. I still have the letter.
My father was not happy with the way his family in California was living. He knew that some of his cousins had come through Missouri, but he had no idea where. My father placed an ad with his address in the Forward, a Jewish newspaper still around today. He eventually received a letter from his cousin, Ben Cohn, who had seen his advertisement. The letter told him to come to Kansas City. So off my father went.
All the while we were living in Russia under the Bolshevik regime during the Russian Revolution. Things were okay with the Bolsheviks when we didn’t have a pogrom. During a pogrom they would come into our home to confiscate our household items.
My father’s brother was in the flour mill business and was jailed frequently for being the owner of a mill. Jewish people could not be in business for themselves under the Bolsheviks. Professionals were mobilized by the Russian army, and by being a dentist, my mother had influence and could get him out of jail. The first time she didn’t know the man in charge. The second time she did and said she would never go again. The man was one of the log rollers who had worked for my grandfather. She said he was dirty and just awful. He said “Oh, you’re Mr. Wohlawelsky’s daughter.” She told him she was. She told him that her brother-in-law hadn’t done anything wrong. He had just let people work at his flour mill. He said “I know, but if he comes back here again I’m not going to let him out.” My mother later told my uncle “I got you out this time, but I won’t do it again. You have to stay out of business until everything settles.”
When the Bolsheviks would come into our home, we were to be prepared to give them our belongings. They were especially interested in the linens. We had armoires — the bottom part had linens and the top had clothing. My mother would have to give her linens to these terrible men.
My aunt (who would eventually survive the Holocaust) was three years younger than my mother. I just adored her. She was sitting at the window during one of the pogroms and one of the Bolsheviks began to make a play for her — so I kicked him. The Bolshevik took me by my neck and held his sabre to me. My aunt ran over and said “You can do anything to me, please don’t hurt her.” The man in charge of the raid told him to put me down and go about his business. When he put me down — I kicked him again. I’ll never forget his face.
We had a big open market across the street from our home. The Bolsheviks would go to the market and talk about having a pogrom on such and such a day. My grandmother wanted to know when they would happen, so she sent my cousins to eavesdrop. Every time they came back from the market with nothing — but the pogroms would still come. I used to tell my grandmother to let me go to the market. I would let her know when the next pogrom would come. I was four years old. One day she said “I’m going to send Regina today.”
At the market, I would pretend I was looking for something and would get in between the Bolsheviks so I could hear them. For a little while we were free of pogroms. My grandmother was thrilled. They thought it was a good idea to send me.
Then one day a terrible thing happened. I told them we were going to have a pogrom and to keep the iron gate closed. The janitress with 13 children wanted to get some bread at the store down at the corner. My grandmother went to her and said “Don’t open the gates. Regina said they’re here.” The janitress said they weren’t and that it would be fine. When she opened the gate the Bolsheviks shot and killed her. I saw it with my own eyes. I couldn’t believe it. I was devastated.
We had her funeral. They put her in a box and left it open so everyone could see. When she was coming through the gate in the box, I begged my mother to pick me up to see her. She did and when I saw her she looked like she was asleep. I kept hollering her name. All the other people were quiet. My mother told me “She isn’t going to wake up. She’s gone.” That was my first introduction to death.
Another time the Bolsheviks came into the back apartment where my uncle and his wife lived. I remember hearing fighting and screaming coming from the back room. It was awful. When the family found them, they were embracing and had both been stabbed to death.
Another time there was a pogrom to take the children. My grandfather, who was very clever, had built a fake door in the home. When you opened the door it just looked like a closet. He put a lot of clothing in it to cover another door behind it. Behind that door were steps where someone could hide. We children piled on to the steps. We were supposed to be very quiet — not even supposed to breathe – so they couldn’t detect us. They opened every door but never found us. They finally left.
Things would get quiet again. Then we would have an uprising. Then the war was over.
After the war, my father sent papers for us to come to the United States. Shortly before we were supposed to leave, I went to a birthday party. We were getting ready to leave for the party and one of governesses who took care of me had forgotten the present. When she went back in for the present, a great big Russian wolfhound came by. I climbed on top of this big wolfhound and I fell off of him. I was all dirty.
We were scheduled to leave for America but I had caught the mange from the wolfhound. I was covered in blisters. My two aunts doctored me — they had to shave my hair. My hair came in kind of shabby and we finally left.
As a dentist, my mother was mobilized by the Russian army and was not allowed to leave the country. We went to Riga to stay with the sister of my father’s cousin’s wife – Mrs. Mnookin – who would serve as our liaison. She was to set us up with my father’s nephew who was a Russian ambassador to Turkey. He was supposed to help us get on a small boat that would take us past the line so we could get on the large boat going to America. Instead of helping us get on, he reported my mother as a dentist. It turned out he was in love with her and wanted her to stay — so he double-crossed my mother and my father. We couldn’t get on the boat and had to go back to Ekaterinoslav. It was such a painful thing to have to do. Everyone was so upset with that man.
Soon after, we started out to Riga to again try to make the trip to the United States. There were two boats that went out every day – one at 5 a.m. and the other 8 a.m. The boat we took the first time was at 8 a.m. The night before we were supposed to leave, we again stayed with Mrs. Mnookin. That evening the Bolsheviks checked the homes near the water to see if anyone was trying to steal out of Russia. They must have heard that my mother was trying to get out. I’ll never forget – Mrs. Mnookin had long draperies in her home. She put us on stools — I was on one and my mother was on another. The Bolsheviks came through with their sabres and brushed just past us. They didn’t find us. We left on the 5 a.m. boat the next morning.
From Riga we took the small boat to meet the Lituania to take us to the United States. We came through New York City and arrived at Ellis Island on September 1, 1921. My hair was all shabby — it looked terrible — but I didn’t care. I was going to KC, MO. I was going to have a father.
We were at Ellis Island, but not where most people went through. We had to wait for someone with papers to get us off the boat. Someone had to be responsible for us as immigrants. We were the last two on the boat and the captain of the boat said if our family did not show up with the papers, we would have to go back, and back to Siberia at that. Oh Siberia! I had already heard from my caretakers how terrible it was. My mother said “I’m gonna faint.” Just then our family, The Liptons, came running with the papers. They were so upset because they had got caught in traffic.
The Liptons picked us up and took us to their home for the weekend. They were my mother’s cousins and both teachers. We then took a train from New York to Kansas City because I had to start school. We arrived in Kansas City on September 5, 1921 – Labor Day. Harry and Anna Strauss met us in a car at Union Station. Jake and Selma Lipsky had a party and invited the whole family over to meet Emanuel’s wife and daughter for the first time. I enrolled and began at Irving School on September 6, 1921.