My Story: Part 1

By | June 14, 2018 | 3 Comments

Rose and Aaron Stolinsky

I’ve been shooting my mouth off on this website for years, so I thought that you, my readers, might be interested in who I am ‒ and how I became me. To do this requires us to begin with my parents.

My mother, Rose Meblin Stolinsky, was born in Orsha, a small city on the Dnieper River in what is now Belarus, but was then in the Russian Empire, ruled by Czar Nicholas II. At that time, Orsha had a large Jewish population. In the unrest following Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, Russia was wracked by pogroms. The word “pogrom” means “riot” in Russian, but it came to mean an anti-Semitic riot, often tacitly approved by the government, in which Jewish shops and homes were burned and Jews were killed.

My mother’s most salient memory of childhood was hiding for three days with her parents and older brothers in the home of a friendly Christian woman. The woman put icons in the window to show the mob that it was not a Jewish home. My mother’s memory of the event included gratitude for the brave Christian woman. But one of her older brothers recalled that the pogrom began in the churchyard. All his life he was uncomfortable at the sound of church bells.

What we learn from life’s events depends as much on us as on the events.

The pogrom convinced my mother’s family to immigrate to America. They arrived at Ellis Island with little money but a large work ethic and a huge desire to become Americans. I do not know what they were carrying when they arrived, but I do know what they were not carrying ‒ czarist flags. In this they did not resemble current would-be immigrants crowding our southern border, carrying flags of Honduras and other nations. Real seekers of asylum do not wave the flags of their oppressors. They wave the flag of their new homeland.

Ellis Island, c. 1900

After a brief time on the Lower East Side of New York, my mother’s family moved to Grand Forks, North Dakota. After working for others, my four uncles bought an old building downtown and opened a men’s clothing store. They sold work clothes, with an occasional suit for Sunday wear. They did well enough to open a second store.

They had never finished high school or taken a single business course. But they bought houses for their families and sent their children to college. They saw foreign accents and lack of education as obstacles to overcome, not as excuses for failure.

My mother was the first in her family to attend college. She graduated from the University of North Dakota with an M.A. in education (go Fighting Sioux!). She taught high school in small North Dakota towns. At 4’11” she was not physically intimidating. But she learned to appoint the biggest boy as class monitor, and order was usually maintained. If it was not, she pulled out a black notebook and began writing. The students never knew she wrote gibberish and threw the notebook away after the school term was over. They assumed it would go to the principal and shut up.

My father, Aaron Stolinsky, was born in the part of Poland ruled by the czar. Growing up, he saw notices for jobs or places at the university, all ending “Kromye Yivraev” ‒ “except Jews.” Unwilling to live under such a system, he resolved to come to America. He took a job as a cashier in a cafeteria, while taking classes at Columbia.

His education was interrupted ‒ some might say continued ‒ by service as a private in the infantry in World War I. He got close enough to the front to hear artillery, but then the Armistice was signed. As dad said, “When the Kaiser heard I was over there, he gave up.” I still have his dog tag. It lists his name, his number, and USA.

My father’s eldest brother remained in Poland. He also got a number. It was tattooed on his arm by the Nazis. Sometimes you must make a choice ‒ have a number on your dog tag, or a number on your arm. That was my first lesson that freedom isn’t free.

Despite quotas against Jews, my father was admitted to medical school at the University of North Dakota, where he met my mother. He had too few suitcases for his belongings, so the rest was wrapped in newspapers and tied with string. My mother was looking for qualities other than wealth in a husband.

My father interned in Saint John’s Hospital in Fargo. The Catholic sisters treated him with kindness. Friday evening supper was fish, as required of Catholics at the time. My father liked fish, but the sisters insisted in cooking him a chicken. “If you don’t believe in it, you shouldn’t have to do it,” they declared. My father was struck by the difference between European and American Christians. Americans kept the religion but lost the bigotry.

My parents set up practice in Lisbon, a town of 2000 people. They accumulated enough money for postgraduate study in Vienna, which was a center of medical research. My father’s studies at the General Hospital went well, but my mother’s studies at the University of Vienna were interrupted by the growing Nazi movement.

She vividly recalled a Jewish student being kicked down the stairs by thugs with swastika armbands. The young Jew tried to reach the gate, where police waited on foot, in cars, and on horseback. The police were forbidden to enter the campus by a medieval charter.

So when American thugs shouted, “Pigs off the campus!” she never failed to remind me that universities can be hotbeds of anti-democratic ideology, and that police maintain order ‒ without which freedom is impossible. Both of these lessons are all too relevant today.

My mother became pregnant, and a caesarian was required. In those days only one such operation could be done, so my father knew this would be his only child. He trusted the people at Saint John’s, so that’s where I was born. My mother recalled with fondness late night conversations with Sister Emily during her convalescence. My mother was also struck by the difference between European and American Christians.

My father’s office was in the front part of the house, and my mother assisted, so I was exposed to medicine at an early age. Broken bones, pregnancy and childbirth, infectious diseases, farm-machinery injuries ‒ my father took care of them all, sometimes going out in snowstorms.

My mother recalled a man whose arm was mangled in a threshing machine. She assisted my father in doing an amputation, while the family stood around singing hymns in the flickering candlelight. I recall being sent outside, as men in suits gathered on our front steps. A first-grade classmate of mine had been run over and killed, and my father had to pronounce him dead and sign the certificate. We attended the funeral. For years I associated the color purple with death.

One evening an old friend of my father came to visit. The man had been active in the socialist movement in Russia. As he discussed the communist takeover ‒ in effect, a military putsch ‒ he suddenly burst into tears and said, “They stole our revolution!” This was my first lesson that “fundamentally transforming” a country isn’t necessarily a good thing, and “change” isn’t necessarily for the better.

Being a doctor’s son had advantages, no doubt, but it had disadvantages as well. I was acquainted with sadness and tragedy at too young an age. And I recall feeling jealous that my father was busy with patients when I wanted his attention. But all in all, I look back on my childhood with gratitude.

Nevertheless, 15 years of small-town practice was enough for my father, so we moved to San Francisco, where I grew up ‒ insofar as I have grown up.

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