Reflections on Personal History

Mark Segal. Courtesy of Mark Segal

Mark Segal

Witness of the century.

Bitter essence. Oh, this “language” and territory.

The territories are inhabited by people and they speak certain languages, but these territories pass into other hands, and people continue to speak their own languages. Well, the new authorities don’t always like it.

I return to the history of my childhood. Ah, oh, about that language …

It so happened that on one of the Passover days in 1931, G-d gave our family a little boy and they named him Mordechai.

That territory was the country of Romania, and the city was Kishinev.

I do not remember in what language the first happy words were spoken (Dad was an Orthodox Jew), but a year later, when I spoke, they were Russian words.

I spoke Russian, and it became my native language.

I remind you, outside the window was the country of Romania. There were threatening announcements on the poles: “Speak only Romanian.”

Oh, this “language”… Oh, these languages and territories …

Here, one should refer to the causes, roots and history.

So, Kishinev has always been in the territory that was called Bessarabia. From 1812 to 1917 this territory was ruled by tsarist Russia. This was still the border of settlement for Jews within Moldova, the Bessarabian province. And Kishinev is the main city. Pogroms, pogroms.

The whole world knows the Kishihev and many other pogroms were in  early 1900. Then a large number of Jews fled to the United States. This was the first wave. (By the way, there were several of my father’s brothers.) They were mostly very religious Jews.

There were many towns, referred to by Jewish people as shteitalakhs.

In one of them — Rezina — is where my relatives lived: my grandfather and others. I won’t talk about all of them, but I’ll tell you about some of them.

In regards to my mother’s side — in the grandfather’s family there were brothers and sisters.

According to the customs of that time, in a Jewish family, the boys had to get a good education (one of them became a mining engineer in Belgium and then a diplomat in England during the war) and the girls had to prepare to get married.

Remember, this took place during the pre-revolutionary time. And Jewish girls were already fired up with revolutionary ideas.

The author’s mother in Odessa. Courtesy of Mark Segal

Mom went to the common people in the villages to teach them to read and write. She earned some money doing this and boldly moved to Odessa and, imagine, she was accepted (even being Jewish) into the Odessa (picture) Dental Institute, from which she later graduated.

Here’s where the Russian language comes from.

She settled in Kishinev and raised a family. Dad is from the Baltic countries; he also spoke Russian.

But then there was a revolution. There was a territorial division – everyone grabbed whatever they could. It so happened that Moldova and Kishinev turned out to be Romanian.

So, overnight we became Romanians: the Romanian language, the Romanian territory. But Bessarabia stayed the way it always was, with the infamous Jewish pogroms.

For the Jews, for the Jewish language, hatred comes first, regardless of whose territory it is.

But back to “languages” and territories — this was the ‘30s — a territorial and linguistic nationalist war was being played out in Europe. Everyone was to blame, especially the Jews. They were caught and sent to concentration camps, mocked, robbed and killed. Romania also smelled of gunpowder.

I was a school-age boy now. We were guards. It’s like paramilitary pioneers with lines and marches. In the corridor of the school, in order to feel the chemical attack, they spread a strong odorous substance.

In order to give and convey to you an understanding of the experience of my first Romanian class, I will tell you the following:

Oh, this language: After all, you need to speak Romanian, and your friends are Russian-speaking.
We, boys, exchange jokes in Russian and we get punished for it. After all, in Romania canes were used as discipline. The methods of punishment were cruel.

And it was already 1939.

The institutionalized spankings became imprinted for life. I even remember the faces of those who were flogged.

Again, it is 1939. We know this is an approach to the significant year 1940, with territorial claims and secret treaties.

And so, in 1940, the USSR gave an ultimatum to Romania to get out of Moldova and as quickly as possible. Attack, invasion or liberation, as different parties will interpret. In particular, it all happened in front of my eyes.

There are many reasons, and there is a lot of history. After all, this territory belongs to Russia by inheritance and is generally Russian-speaking. Familiar phrase?

So, what is my role in this situation, which was not quite a fairy tale?  I am a direct witness to everything that was happening: I am 9 years old, I know Yiddish, Russian and Romanian. The intersection of Nikolaevskaya and Armyanskaya streets is where I lived. These are two blocks from the central Alexandrovskaya street, not far from the central Pushkin and Gogol intersection and between them the main city square, the triumphal Arch.

Notice all the interesting Russian historical names. Isn’t it a direct proof of to whom these territories belong or to whom they should belong?

Everything is certainly more difficult for historians and politicians to understand. So my role and my location in this whole picture, the spire.

In short, by the will of fate, at that time I was at the epicenter of events. Quite simply, the window of my room overlooked the hottest intersection of Nikolaevskaya and Armyanskaya.

On both sides, trams passed with noise, often with attached open trailers on which people, including me, of course, hung on and clung (like herrings), creaky carts and transport of that time. During good times, the circus “Chapiteau,” with elephants and clowns on high stilts, moved past on the way to their place.

Well, now, by the will of fate, this intersection has become a witness, a threshold.

Second World War (1941 to 1945)
As I said, there was an ultimatum and it was accepted, understood and, as I understand it, a decision was made to avoid unnecessary sacrifices.

Along my street, along my window, especially at night, military equipment of that time and military convoys with guns rushed past. The Romanian army was running away from the great Soviet Union.
Then it became quiet for a few days, but not quite.

Waking up and going out into the street, I saw an unusual picture — columns of demonstrators with unfurled red banners were gathering and lining up on the street, waiting for the great liberators.
And so quickly, quickly this night came.

The Soviets raced down the street tanks, military convoys.

And in one morning, the entire intersection was already filled with “friendly” troops. They were received joyfully, with flowers, bread and salt. I, among the curious, was hanging around them. I remember begging for a souvenir — a Soviet penny.

That was the end of the hugs for the following days. Quiet, rather scary days had come.

Trucks filled with people were rushing along the street. Occasionally, people were grabbed from the street or thrown onto these trucks. It was scary, scary to go out into the street.

The great perestroika of that time began in the Soviet way. Many people know what this means.

Anyone earning “too much,” anyone that has anything, things were taken away from them. Whoever had extra square footage, the house was taken away and nationalized.

In short, as you recall, I had a grandfather and grandmother, they lived in the Rezina shtetl on the right bank of the Dniester. My grandfather had a hardware store, various pieces of iron. The day came when my grandfather, grandmother and other relatives — 13 people in all — were raised from bed at night and sent away to Siberia.  My grandfather died on the way there.

How do we know this? And this is another interesting story. Let’s talk about territories here. History, history, history.

Place and time: 1917, when they divided the territory of Moldova.
It was then that Moldova was divided into two parts, the right-bank Romanian and the left-bank Soviet.

Many families ended up on both sides of the Dniester, including my mother’s younger sister Betya.

Betya, as befits a revolutionary girl, was a very active member of the party. Having graduated from the Kharkov Dental Institute in the union, and probably working very well, she received a Lenin medal, which means she means she was a great worker and a patriot.

Having learned that her native secular authorities “liberated” the right bank part of her homeland, she quickly moved to visit her father not having known that he had already been sent to the gulag. Unable to locate him and being a medal-wearing, determined woman, she raised a fuss, and they finally responded to her — too late, according to their information. He died on the road, en route.

One way or another, a new life began, a new order, a new or old habitual language.

Meanwhile, do not forget, it was the impending 1941 — the biggest porridge was being cooked, a huge black cloud was approaching.

What did the recent events really bring? Judge for yourself, many remember.

First of all, there was the invasion or liberation of their Moldovan territories by the Soviet Union. Let’s say if this would not have happened, we would have remained Romanian Jewish citizens. Soon, the Nazis would have come, and we would have ended up in concentration camps and died there.

What is true is true, the Soviet government helped us to escape, to avoid a direct meeting with the Nazis, and we survived. We became integral parts of the Soviet system and honestly defended this state during the patriotic war.

We honestly worked to build a new, “flourishing” Soviet state. What came out of it, and who got what is another question.

What remained was internal hatred, envy, anger, and irresistible blood-based multilingual antisemitism, regardless of which part of the territory of the Soviet Union it was.

And I, myself, where am I in this picture? A few words, what happened to me, my family?

Since the beginning of the war, our area, i.e. Kishinev, where I lived, was one of the first to be invaded by the Nazis. And we fled, fled as best we could from them, for more than a month on what we could, and what was available. All around us were bombs and days of hunger and losses.

My sister’s 2-year-old child fell ill and died on the way. My father developed gangrene and lost a leg.
Finally, extremely sick, we reached hospitable Kyrgyzstan.

What is true is true: The Asian republics gave those who were fleeing shelter.

In 1944, on the day Kishinev was liberated from the fascist invaders, my dad died of a serious illness and, a few months later, at the beginning of 1945, a special train (a train intended for medical personnel and, thankfully, we had medical personnel in our family) took us back home to Kishinev.

We went to the liberated Kishinev, which was still covered in the mines. On some houses it was written — “checked, no mines.”

All around us were destroyed houses, ruins. But my God, this was our city, our native place! Our territories, our familiar, native languages. We would work! We would restore! And remember, victory!

The first post-war years
And here’s a reminder: Order is order. In particular, it was the Soviet Stalinist Soviet Union.

The daughter of one of our relatives was deported before the war settled in our house. She returned to her homeland from exile, thinking she would be safe since she was very young at the time of her parents’ arrest. But this was not to be; the KGB had a sharp eye, and one night there was a knock on the door. They took her away and drove off in a convoy with criminals back to Siberia.

Good thing they did not try to take us as well!

And then life went on, like everyone else in the Soviet Union. Study, study, work, work.

Yes, territories, languages, favorite places that I managed to visit, relaxed during my holidays.

I remind you: I was near Kishinev, Moldova, the Dniester, the Dniester estuaries.

Well, Odessa and Yalta were also nearby. Kyiv, Pushcha Voditsa — all native places of the territory.

I remember in Yalta a children’s park, a house on chicken legs, and here is a sculpture — three little pigs, all familiar Pushkin and multinational. They speak different languages because Yalta is an all-Union resort.

“Morning paints the walls of the ancient Kremlin with red light.”
“Moscow is mine, Moscow is mine.” Familiar melodies, sound.

Other familiar rhetoric:
“Jewish faces.”
“Beat the Jews, save Russia.”
“Get the Jews out.”

Since then, many have left their native places and native territories, including my family.

My family is now in America, others are scattered all over the world, different territories, multilingual.

But interestingly, adults speak their native languages everywhere, and for many it is Russian. We learned English.

My wife Libby (may she rest in peace), lost all relatives in the war and became an orphan at the age of 6. She and I settled in America and worked in our specialties, found happiness, though it was not easy.

We in America received not only a shelter. We got freedom and all the possibilities. Express ourselves, do not hide our Jewishness and do not pray behind closed curtains.

My wife, an orphan of the war and I, Holocaust survivors, did everything we could to learn English and work. I loved my work — projects of nuclear power plants, then bridges and roads.

Then we also traveled to beautiful states, everywhere meeting a warm welcome and smiles. You won’t find this in Russia. People in all places USA, territories speak the native languages ​​they are used to.

But the “big” war did not end, because there was still a Cold War
About these languages and territories.

International post-war turmoil, the Berlin Wall, the USSR, the country of the “Devil Empire” (as President Reagan said. Then came Gorbachev, warmer communications between the countries, perestroika and, finally, the collapse of the Soviet empire.

But who here, who there, did not share something, did not wind up paying before? Everyone grabbed what they could.

Old problems: They haven’t gone anywhere. Territories, languages, Moldova, Transdnistria is now Ukraine, Donbas, Crimea.

My friend Julia and I visited Kishinev and Kyiv in 2008. Moldova then, like now, was in the right-bank territory. Moldavian and the left bank, the unrecognized Tiraspol Republic, was supported by about 2,000 Russian troops.

We were in Kishinev for almost a week (2008, I remind you), then in Kyiv for a week.

We were unexpectedly lucky. In addition to the natural excitement of visiting our native places, we were greeted with an almost festive atmosphere. The fact is that at that time the Eurovision festival was taking place in Kishinev, in the city they spoke Moldovan Russian.

It happened that in some stores they didn’t want to listen to Russian. They grumbled.

I was greeted very well and the former employees of the new design institute spoke to me — my students from 30 years ago — they still remembered me and were even applying my engineering methods.

Similarly, in Kyiv, Julia had a meeting with graduates of the medical institute she worked — 50 years jubilee.

The city looked festive and friendly, at least as I saw it.

Julia met the grandmothers of the former children that had been her patients. They said that they remember her, they wrote their memoirs and allotted a whole chapter to her.

Also, interesting to note, after the official meeting, several doctor friends went to the Veterans of the Patriotic War Club, where they participated in their choir. The language was Russian, Ukrainian. The environment was more than friendly.

And the smell of spring Kishinev and Kyiv acacia chestnuts and the sounds of songbirds cannot be conveyed!

All of us, thank God, have again returned to our new homeland, America, where we have been speaking for so many years and we communicate in our native Russian.

Time and events are moving fast.

And the struggle for languages and territories is only just flaring up.

And here comes another misfortune! Yes, what a misfortune. Horror!

Year is 2014
Revolution in Kyiv. (Details well known)

Russian attack on Ukraine. Conflict, unresolved disputes about languages and territories. Each party claims rights to them. A terrible picture is being played out.

Russia annexes Crimea.

In Minsk, they seem to agree on the Donbass and language claims. Wasted effort! Turns out it was empty talk.

The events of 2014 suddenly raised Russians’ doubts about Russia’s safety. It turned out that her former comrades-in-arms from the former Soviet Union and territories were now her enemies and “NATO members” — one for all and all for one.

And here the new Ukraine, with a new unfriendly government, is trying with all its might to become a member of NATO.

This is still not enough!

And as you know, what happened happened.

Russia decided to resolve the conflict (as it called it) by force, hoping for the weakness of the then-Ukraine. At the same time, her Crimea and the Soviet Union with the Russian-speaking territories were to be established: Donbass and others. It wasn’t here.

The entire West, led by the United States, came to the defense of Ukraine, supplying weapons, training and volunteers.

But Ukrainians and Russians were fighting and killing each other, former brothers.

The whole world has become, as it were, a large arena of gladiators. Enthusiasm, indignation, goading are heard, come on, come on!

But, pardon me, this is not a circus at all.

This is an outrageous dirty war where hundreds of thousands of people die, millions of people are displaced from their native places and territories. What are their territories? There are only ruins and the stench of conflagrations.

Stop! Stop this performance good people, save every soul that has not yet been killed, crippled!

Grab the warring parties by the gate, agree to “stop!”

March 2023

Clouds and intrigues return to the places of my childhood. (You can hear about it each day.)

The tangle of conflict closes back to the places of the territories of the beginning of my story, a genuine sad story. (Romania, Russia, Bessarabia, Moldova, Kishinev, Ukraine, Transnistria, Donbass, Kyiv, Crimea.)

Remember invasions, liberations, hopes.

Yes, so much for a penny — a souvenir — a gift (remember), millions, billions are now needed in order to destroy each other. We need shells, rockets, bombs, planes, tanks and maybe we need to prepare to clear nuclear garages.

I’m in my 10th decade; thank God, but not feeling well (it’s OK). I’m in a hurry to get to an appointment, urgently to the doctor.

Stop here. The police blocked the road.

It turns out that the president of the United States himself must travel along this road (March 9, 2023).

I would have loved to meet with him, talk, but where is he: He slipped away with an escort of motorcyclists …

Mark Segal of Philadelphia was born in Romanian in a Jewish family. He survived the Holocaust and in 1979 arrived in the United States, where he worked as an engineer. He turns 92 on April 21. English translations for this piece were performed by Segal’s daughters, Nelly and Sophia.


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