On the day of my departure from the socialized farm in the Crimea at which I had been staying, I arose at dawn and went out into the street, where my friend, Leah Botnik, was already up feeding the pigs.
“You are an early bird”, I said, greeting her.
Leah smiled. “I am an early bird? Look,” she said, pointing to a woman who was passing at a distance, “there is a woman who doesn’t sleep at all. Always in a hurry, forever rushing somewhere….”
“Good morning, teacher”, Leah shouted after her.
The teacher turned around, smiled, waved her hand and walked on.
“Just look at her. Take a good look at that bundle of bones. She is a shed (devil), a dynamo….”
The woman whom Leah thus greeted was Bluma Rosenblatt, popularly known as the “teacher”. One of the early arrivals in the Crimea, the teacher came from a small Ukrainian village. The colonists who came from the same village remember her as the “lean dressmaker”.
FIRE IN HER BLACK EYES
A shy, insignificant-looking woman of about thirty-five, in spite of her consumptive, dried-up face and body, one could not say that Bluma was ugly. Her black eyes, set deeply in her protruding forehead, radiated with an inspiring enthusiasm. Also, her personality captivated me. I could listen to her for hours relating the story of her “Semiletka”â€”Seven Year Schoolâ€”or about the struggles of the early Jewish settlers. To my regret, she was reticent when our conversation touched upon her own life. I learned her story from Leah Botnik and the colonists.
There is nothing extraordinary in Bluma’s biography, although to some it may even seem romantic. In Soviet-Yiddish literature, Bluma’s kind are known as “shturm feigleâ€”Stormy Petrelsâ€”their bones are dispersed through the Ukrainian fields, where the struggle for Jewish emancipation raged fiercest.
Bluma was twenty years old when the Bolsheviks seized power. Before the revolution, her life in the village was like the life of any other poor Jewish girl. Since the age of ten she had been forced to eke out a miserable existence as an apprentice to a village dressmaker. Bluma hated her life.
Then followed the hectic and dark days of the Russian civil war. Bluma was drafted to do political work. She was thrown about from front to front until her health broke down. Given a leave of absence, she went to Kharkov, the capital of the Ukraine, where a group of Jewish teachers were then hastily organizing the “Jewish Pedagogical Institute”. While the pogrom instigator, Petlura, was advancing on Kharkov, when bombs were bursting over the city, Bluma was forging her pedagogical career.
Upon reaching the Crimea, she at once set out to organize a school for the colonists’ children. It was a difficult task. She applied to the colonists for help. “Comrades”, she pleaded with them, “after all, the future belongs to the growing generation. The education of your children comes before tractors, yes, even before bread.” In vain!
“First we must get enough bread to eat, then tractors to work with and after that we can think of a school”, the colonists replied laconically to her passionate plea.
FOUGHT LIKE A LION
In spite of all these obstacles, Bluma went on with her work. She fought for the school like a lion. She applied for help to the Crimean Soviet, ran to various Government institutions, banged on the tables at committee meetings until finally her efforts were crowned with success. Thus, through Bluma’s efforts, the colonists’ children acquired a school long before their fathers acquired tractors, even long before they were assured of their daily bread.
Today the school, located at Simferopol, the administrative center of Crimea, and a short distance from the colonies, is growing and developing as the socialized farms grow and prosper. Of course, general subjects are being taught in this school. The main subjects, however, are the Yiddish language, Jewish history and the history of the Russian Revolution. The school is now entirely under the patronage of the Government. It is what they call a “national school”. There are many such schools throughout Russia, for the Bolsheviks believe that the national culture of the people inhabiting the Soviet Union should not only be perpetuated, but even encouraged and emphasized. Culture, according to the Soviet Government, should be “national in form and proletarian in content”.
THE COLONISTS’ CHILDREN
I arrived at Simferopol during the celebration of the fifteenth anniversary of the October Revolution. Officially, the school was closed. The children, however, were kept in the city and entertained daily with games, lectures, films and plays.
The play I saw was called “We Grow With October”. It was acted in Yiddish, although there was nothing specifically Jewish about it. I have seen many plays presented for American children in American schools, and in the sense of an American children’s play, “We Grow With October” wasn’t even a play. The audience did not sit motionless watching the actors perform, but the whole juvenile gathering, even though unconsciously, took part in the play.
Even Bluma was one of the actors. She began her part by refusing to allow the play to begin. The actors pleaded with her: “Comrade Bluma, the children are here to see the play and not to listen to your stubborn arguments”. But Bluma was adamant.
WHY BLUMA IS UNSOCIAL
“What do I care about children!” she cried.
The young audience laughed. Before they knew it they were already acting. They began to shout and whistle until Bluma disappeared behind the curtain.
“Do you want to know why Comrade Bluma is so unsocial?” asked the actors.
“Yes!” cried the audience. The curtain went up. Bluma was shown in her youthful days.
The play depicted several aspects of Bluma’s supposed life: her childhood, the attitude of her father and mother towards her, and the effectiveness of the Pioneer Troop (Soviet Children’s Organization) to which she belonged, and that of the troop leader.
The second scene was a trial. Bluma’s father, mother and the leader of the pioneers were being tried for bringing up an unsocial member of society. The prosecutor and defense lawyer stated their cases. The audience was asked to judge. And the young judges were not slow in responding. They shouted their answers at once.
When the performance was over, the children proceeded to discuss the play in the corridor. It was the first chance I had to observe closely the colonists’ children. To be sure, they were like children the world over. Only, they were clothed much more poorly; some of them even wore rags. Their cheeks, however, were flushed; their faces animated.
WHAT THE KIDS THINK
“I think that Comrade Bluma herself is to blame”, one boy argued.
“And I think that her father and mother are to blame”, another one shouted.
“I know, I know,” interposed a third one; “the Pioneer leader is to blame. Why didn’t he take proper care of her?”
When I was leaving, the play was still being heatedly discussed.
“Just think”, Bluma said to me, “these are children of former luftmenschen.” She pointed to the debating youngsters: “Their fathers remember the curse of czarist pogroms and persecutions, but these kids will know nothing about it. They are trained to be free people.”