Posts tagged Esther Hautzig

“The Big Red Schoolhouse” (Part II)

The following part of a chapter is from Irving R. Levine’s book titled “Main Street USSR” published in 1959.  I believe some of the better books to read about the former Soviet Union are the ones written during the Cold War period.  Either first person accounts like what I quoted earlier from Esther Hautzig’s book “The Endless Steppe” or this other old book by Levine that I just found off the Internet. Read yesterday’s blog to find out more about this man who lived 86 fruitful years as a news journalist.  Levine took great attention to detail which was one of his more favorable skills.  However, as he reported facts as he saw them back in the 1950s in Russian school systems, he could just as well have been writing about what I have observed in the Kazakh system of education today.  See what you think:

“Admission to institutions of higher education is supposed to be strictly on the basis of merit. At the end of each school year entrance examinations are held at institutes (where a single specialty is taught) and at universities (which have a number of faculties). Those who receive the highest marks on these competitive examinations are supposed to be admitted. Some weight is given to a student’s school record, and points are given also for military service or for practical work. Young people are now encouraged by Communist authorities to go to work for two years upon graduation from compulsory seven-to-ten years of schooling, particularly at a Siberian or Central Asian construction site. A fair student with two years of work behind him on a new state farm in Siberia is likely to be admitted to an institute ahead of a youngster fresh out of school with very good marks.

There are enough cases of admission by bribery documented in the Soviet press to indicate that this is not an infrequent occurrence. Usually the guilty persons are named. On one occasion the youth newspaper,  Komsomolskaya Pravda, published an anonymous letter from a second- year student at an agricultural institute at Samarkand. “I’ve become a student,” he wrote, “only because my mother managed to scrape together 5000 rubles ($500) which she brought to the entrance board. I was against it from the outset. I don’t like agriculture. The way I was admitted was disgusting, and I am ashamed of myself. But anytime I bring it up my mother won’t listen. I don’t know what to do. Some of those who know how I entered the institute say that I am a lucky person to be studying and not to give my mother grief. When you have received a higher education, they say, you will like your specialty. I am not giving you my name. I don’t know a way out.”

When the newspaper sent a reporter to the agricultural institute, students claimed to know many cases of fellow students who gained admittance by bribes rather than by good marks. They saw nothing unusual in these cases and refused to betray their colleagues’ names.

A page-a-day calendar that adorns many Soviet desks took note of the fact that nepotism is sometimes involved in admission to schools. A car- toon shows a grotesquely fat young man talking to a girl:

“Galitchka” he says to her, “congratulate me. I’ve just been admitted to the Institute for Physical Culture.”

“But do you have the necessary qualifications?”

“Tremendous qualifications! My uncle is the Dean of Admissions.”

Five is the highest mark in Soviet schools. Five is excellent, four is good, three is satisfactory, two is poor, and one is very bad. Marks are entered periodically by the teacher in a small copybook retained by each pupil, rather than on a report card. These report books are taken home at least once a week to be signed by a parent who is supposed to take note of the child’s progress. Homework assignments are entered in the notebook so that the parent has a way of checking on whether the child is really doing the work assigned. If the teacher wants to see a parent to discuss a disciplinary problem, this request is written in the report book where the parent can see it when signing.

By Soviet standards teachers are well paid. A beginning salary of a sixth-grade teacher is 800 rubles ($80) per month. Academic work commands great respect. Among the most distinguished men in Russia are the members of the Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R., founded In 1725. It comes directly under the supervision of the Kremlin’s Council of Ministers in organizational charts. The Academy, consisting of the nation’s most outstanding men of science, supervises every branch of the nation’s scientific life. Its various branches deal with everything from finding new vaccines to building sputniks.

It was the sputniks that alerted the attention of the outside world to Soviet science and education. Respectful attention had been paid to the Soviet claim that more than 70,000 engineers were being graduated each year. This is compared to the U.S. annual crop of 30,000 engineers. But it could rightly be argued that many Soviet engineers were really less highly skilled technicians who do not deserve the status of engineer by American standards. Furthermore, a highly developed industrialized economy like America’s does not need as great an increment of scientific skill each year.

However, there is no arguing with the fact that the Soviet educational system produced scientists and engineers capable of launching a sputnik before the U.S.A. did, and then following It with sputniks of enormously greater size.

Delegations of American educators college presidents, professors, school administrators, teachers flocked to Russia to see what could be learned from the Soviet system. Many carried away words of praise. It was at this very juncture that devastating criticism, of the Soviet educational system was heard from no less an authority than NIkita Khrushchev. With the concurrence of his Party Presidium, Khrushchev issued a lengthy memorandum, in September 1958, recommending sweeping changes. The changes were to be brought about over a period of some years in each Soviet Republic by action of the Republics’ legislatures and Party organizations. The final shape of the Khrushchev plan would vary from area to area.

Khrushchev’s criticisms, however, applied to the entire country’s educational setup. Parental influence rather than ability, he said, was being widely used to get youngsters admitted to college. Most objectionable to Khrushchev, though, was that the Soviet educational system was preparing pupils for higher education rather than for life. Or to state it more specifically: Soviet schools were turning out graduates well qualified for higher education but not immediately qualified to take a job at a lathe or milling machine.

Unlike the educational system in most American cities, all Soviet pupils in the first ten years of school take the same courses. In the United States it is customary, by the eighth or ninth grades, to split up those students who intend to go to college (and give them college preparatory courses) and those who will go right to work (and give them commercial or trade courses) . Khrushchev, in typical Russian fashion, sought to swing the pendulum violently further than the American system and prepare everyone for work. After a transition period (during which some ten-year schools would be retained in order to maintain a flow of qualified students to colleges) , all schools would become seven- or eight-year schools. After decades of struggling to make ten years of schooling nationwide, Khrushchev was turning the clock back.

Under the Khrushchev system, during this abbreviated span of schooling a specified time would be spent each week at technical training. In the city this would be in factories; in the country the training would be in the fields. Opportunities for higher education would be available for those who have the energy and determination to go to night school to take correspondence courses.

The Khrushchev plan had been preceded by months of debate some of it in the pages of the press between the educators (who believe that an educated man can be taught any job in time) and the man-power experts (who need hands to run machines now in order to meet ambitious industrial targets set for them). The man-power advocates won. It was natural that they would with Khrushchev. Having worked from boyhood and achieved his position without significant formal education (and then only of a practical nature), Khrushchev had small patience for theoretical knowledge. Yet, by the revolutionary revision of the educational system, the perpetuation of the very class that made the sputniks possible is jeopardized.

The anti-intellectual nature of Khrushchev’s motivation was indicated in his memorandum. He complained that a “lordly-scornful, wrong attitude toward physical labor is to be found in some families.” Khrushchev complained that at Moscow colleges “children of workers and collective farmers comprise only 30 to 40 per cent of the student body. The rest are children of office employees, of the intelligentsia.”

In typical Soviet fashion, the first step was to be a slogan. Said Khrushchev: “The most important thing here is to issue a slogan and make this slogan sacred for all children entering school, that all children must pre- pare for useful work, for participation in building the Communist society.”

It is one thing, though, to issue a slogan and another to make it work.”

(to be continued)

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“Why we LOVE the U.S.” (Part IV)

My husband and I love our native land the U.S. of A. The saying “Distance makes the heart grow fonder” is every bit true the longer we live in Astana, Kazakhstan.  I have enjoyed reading a young girl’s account of surviving the steppes of Siberia.  When one lives through a winter in Astana, Kazakhstan you get a taste of what Siberian winters must be like.  I have no doubt that the conditions that deportees and others who were punished for made up crimes in the 1930s and 1940s experienced the rawness of it.  Fortunately we have heat and warm clothes, and food.  Although it is more expensive to ship things to the capital of Kazakhstan.

I’ve been using quotes from a book by Esther Hautzig, titled “The Endless Steppe.” Esther’s father plays an important part in her life throughout the book and I’m to the part where he has left to fight in the Front.  Imagine leaving Siberia to be closer to sure death in war.  Because he knew German they had wanted him but before they wanted him to be a spy in Siberia among his own people, the shreds who were left.  Here is the conversation with his family after he returned from being held by the NVKD.

p. 121 “They wanted me to be a spy…They wanted me to spy on all the Polish people in the village and report on their activities.”  What activities?” I asked. ‘What do you think we do besides try to keep body and soul together? Our activities? Are you mad?”

“You said that, Samuel?” Mother asked, horrified.

“I said that.  I told them that our activities are to feed our families, to keep warm, to keep from being caught in the storms outside.  I talked that way, Raya.  Me. I could hardly believe my own ears, that I had the courage to talk this way to secret police.  I still can’t believe that they didn’t shoot me, that I am here…”

We waited for him to continue. At last he said:  “I also cried.  Like a baby.  For the first time in years.  It was after all the threats–deportation, God knows what.  It was when they were bribing me.  Food.  A better house.  Cigerettes.  I put my head down on the table and and I begged them to stop.  No, I told them, I would not spy on my friends.  I told them they could shoot me…”

I put my arms around Father.  I was proud, very proud of my father.  And I was still very frightened for him.  Would they come back for Tata?”

Accidentally I read the last page of the book written by Esther Hautzig. (Since my 5th grade teacher Miss Nygaard told me to NEVER read the end, I never do) Esther’s father does return from the Front and they do leave Siberia and eventually they went to the U.S. Perhaps that is a whole other book that has not been written.  I hope you have enjoyed the snippets of this book I’ve quoted.  Once I’m finished with “The Endless Steppe,” I’ll send it to my 12 year old nephew, who LOVES to read books.  I can’t imagine him going through what this little 12 year old Esther went through in Siberia.  That’s why we LOVE the U.S., for now, we are protected from the evils that visited the former Soviet Union.  For now.

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“Why we LOVE the U.S.” (Part III)

I love my home country of U.S.A. because we have been granted many privileges and yet responsibility comes with those benefits as well. I am so glad I was not born in the former Soviet Union or did not grow up during a different era such as the 1930s and 1940s. No amount of airbrushing the true picture of the punishments visited upon innocent people will make me quiet on this topic. The number of deaths were in the MILLIONS , those who were exterminated as despicable people simply because they wanted to own their own land and house, no matter how small a patch they had.

As Americans, we still have the concept of “American Dream” where one can work as hard as you want and you will eventually be rewarded.  My great grandparents came from the Old Country following that dream. It may have taken them 5-6 weeks by ship over the Atlantic but they at least had hope of starting a new life.

Conversely, I’m reading Esther Hautzig true account of being snatched up with her parents and grandmother from Poland to be sent to Siberia in 1939. To read about another’s prolonged misery is humbling for me as an American.  Many people could have written the same story Esther wrote in 1968 in her book titled “The Endless Steppe: A Girl in Exile.”  She and her family were accused, by the Soviet government, as being capitalists, they owned too much.  Back in the 1930s and 1940s many Russians, Ukrainians, Germans, Estonians, Latvians, etc. were killed, sent to their premature deaths in Siberia and also in Kazakhstan.  (a whole ‘nother topic)

That is why the boxcar at ALZHIR just outside of Astana (look at yesterday’s blog) shows how confining it really was.  Imagine how many people were crammed into these cattle cars to take them to a frightening future.  Esther’s words give a hint to the painful confusion these ALZHIR women from all over the former Soviet Union suffered once they were separated from their children. (their husbands had already been taken away from them as “Enemies of the People.”)

p. 27 “I stayed below to take a look at our traveling companions, our fellow capitalists.  Possibly I imagined that by studying them I would uncover the secret of our own villainy, bring some sanity, however harsh, to this insanity.  What I saw only added to my bewilderment; peering out from behind one of my braids, I saw nothing more villainous than peasants – women in shawls, men in cotton jackets and trousers that resembled riding breeches.  I saw Polish peasants, not a rich capitalist among them; yanked from their land, they had toted their belongings in sacks, in shawls, in cardboard boxes.  I saw reflected in their stricken faces our mutual shock.  Later we learned of reports that more than a million Poles had been deported as “class enemies.”

As Esther’s family (mother, father and grandmother among the 40 in one boxcar) rode the six weeks from Poland to Siberia, Esther wrote this over 25 years later:

p. 33 “…freedom was an abstraction; food was real and I became ravenous.”

p. 36 “Going to the toilet and changing one’s clothes – rotating the few unlaundered clothes one had – were major undertakings.  The thought of a bath, a hair wash, and fresh clothes became an obsession.”

p. 37 “We had been traveling six weeks by my father’s count when the train stopped.  We were used to long waits and no one thought anything of it.  The train would move again; it always had.  I heard some commotion, and for some reason I thought that perhaps we had developed engine trouble, which would only prolong the journey.”

p. 38 “we had reached our destination. We were now in Rubtsovsk in the Altai Territory of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic of the great and mighty Soviet Union.  There were no cheers in that car.  Forty people gathered their belongings together, silently, in a near frenzy, as if there were some danger that the door would close again and leave them behind in that car.”

I am showing the names of those who died at ALZHIR, some went by the name of Miller, Freiberg or Freeman.  If you can figure out the Cyrillic, these listed names meant a human life that was extinguished. I’m glad they are memorialized in Kazakhstan.  I wonder if there is such a place in Siberia?

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“Why we LOVE the U.S.” Part II

My husband and I love the U.S. of A. for patently usual reasons. We both have lived in other countries so we have something to compare America to.  Of course, I believe all people should love their motherland, it is a good and proper thing to do.  If one doesn’t love their own country, to me, it is like not loving your own parents.  It was appropriate to have a gathering at the American embassy in Astana on July Fourth to celebrate our uniquely annual event each summer.  The ambassador, embassy staff, assorted guests and Peace Corps volunteers were in attendance. I would hope they all love our country as much as my husband and I do.

Regrettably there are Americans who think it is in vogue to dishonor our country and its flag. They do NOT love America, yet that is their citizenship.  Where else would they rather live? By hating their own country so, they are belittling the ultimate sacrifices made by others we so can enjoy our freedoms.  Many of these America-deprecating people are found in academia. They go “ho-hum” to Fourth of July events. They may take a break from their usual ivory tower activities or at the very worst continue to write untruths that they eventually feed to unsuspecting and vulnerable young Americans and foreign students who fill their classroom chairs.

Yes, it is no surprise to me that there are many unpatriotic professors who do not tear up when they hear the National anthem.  They don’t even put their hand to their heart or pretend to mouth the words.  I am wondering if they have even read the time-honored Declaration of Independence?  It makes for a worthy annual read, which I should do now.

But first, I appreciate President Ronald Reagan’s words: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.  We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream.  It must be fought for, protected and handed on for them to do the same.”  For many people in the former Soviet Union, freedom was not protected and many children suffered as a result.

I’m in the middle of reading a short book entitled “The Endless Steppe: A Girl in Exile “by Esther Hautzig. It starts out with Esther as a happy nine-year old girl in Poland but WWII interrupts her idyllic world.  She and her parents are transplanted in Siberia. This book was published in 1969, so the author knows just how awful the former Soviet Union was to their own people and those of neighboring countries such as Poland especially before WWII broke out.

The women in ALZHIR (concentration camp close to Astana, Kazakhstan) who survived their fabricated sentences also know how to survive as Esther Hautzig portrays in her book.  Back in the 1930s, one could be accused of mixing with the wrong crowd as “enemies of the people” simply by owning more than someone else.  Ownership and privilege came with a cost back in the former Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s. ALZHIR is a museum that shows the misery of the thousands of women from different countries in the Soviet Union who were sent there.

Perhaps that is why we love the U.S. because we know of the hardships of others during the Soviet Union, box cars full of people without freedom. Here are photos of names of women who lost their independence and who fought a different kind of battle of survival.

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