by Albert ParryFrom his unpublished Autobiography © 2006
The city of Rostov, in the land of the Don Cossacks, lies near the Azov sea, on the borderline of Asia. I was born there in 1901 and lived in Rostov until the Summer of 1920. In my childhood it was a city of 150,000 inhabitants. By the time I left, this population had increased twofold. Our city was at the crossroads of much traffic and activity, primarily as an outlet for the wheat and wool of the Eastern Ukraine and the Northern Caucasus, but also as a transit point for North Caucasian oil on its way to the industrial regions of Central Russia and Poland. Fish from the Azov Sea and the Don was brought to Rostov to be sorted and smoked or iced for the long journey to all points of the Empire. Turkish and Caucasian tobaccos were sent to Rostov to be rolled into cigarettes in the three or four local factories that became among the largest in Russia...
I always pictured my city as a river city; I always surveyed her from the river shore, my head raised and cocked in love and wonder. In my time, if a traveler came to Rostov by steamer from the North or the South, he could see the city at her decorative best. She made a pretty scene dominating the Don and the flat steppes beyond. The domes of the two cathedrals, the Old one and the New one, led to the smaller churches and other buildings in what I liked to imagine as a disheveled procession. Brick and frame houses asthmatically climbed upon the hills rising to the west, but the solid warehouses of the piers served as a belt to the city¡¯s torso and stuck to the level ground below in utter comfort. Immediately above the warehouses, and surrounded by a mˇ§ºlˇ§¦e of houses, a brief line of boulevards zigzagged, as if attacked by these huts and houses and trying to escape. Then, up the slips and the so called ¡ˇăprospects,¡ˇŔ or wide avenues ascending from the port, the traveler would come to Stary Bazaar and Novy Bazaar, clustering respectively around the Old and New cathedrals.
There were other Bazaars in the city, but these two were the most important. They consisted of row after row of stone arcades and frame stores and stalls where every imaginable article was shouted forth and bargained over. Cossacks as well as Ukrainian and Armenian peasants had a part of each bazaar for their wagons of hay, poultry, vegetables, and earthenware. Fisherwomen and all manner of hucksters sat or stood next to their baskets and cried their wares in rhymes and folksayings.
Blind beggars from Central Russia played ancient songs on zithers. Tricksters invited peasants and city lads to try their luck in guessing the cards the sharp men had in their nervous palms or on their folding tables. Tatar peddlers with old clothes on their shoulders walked in the crowds; in their sleepy phlegma they were somnambulists looking for customers. The part of the bazaar where all this trading and playing activity was going on was relatively free from permanent buildings. It was called tolchëk or tolkˇ§²chka, meaning Jostle-Fair.
On Czar¡¯s Days, the bazaar plaza before the Old cathedral would be cleared. After a solemn church service there would be saber-flashing, brass band clashing, a breath-taking parade of the local garrison of soldiers and Cossacks. It was a great occasion, not to be missed by us boys, and by many adults as well. The city liked parades, fires, demonstrations, sensational murders. She was a young, naive, enthusiastic, cruel city. She was called the Russian Chicago for her wheat trade no more than for her rapid growth and independent blare. The city grew too fast, the crowds of adventurous souls poured in too bewilderingly for the Cossacks and other authorities to hold Rostov in their hand with any degree of thoroughness.
As a boy I heard the grim and merry remarks that all over Russia, Rostov was known as the city of thieves. Our newspapers were full of ¡ˇăcriminal chronicle¡ˇŔ: murders, confidence games (these were known under the corrupted French word affair¡¯i), robberies, thefts, arrests and trials. Many times, on the streets and in the bazaars I would see a crowd suddenly close upon a man and maul him mercilessly. These beatings were called samosˇ§²di, or ¡ˇăself-trials.¡ˇŔ
The climate of our region was, in the language of our geography book, ¡ˇăstrictly continental.¡ˇŔ We had very hot summers and very cold winters. Unprotected by any hills or mountains from the North, we received the brunt of the icy winds and snowstorms of Northeastern Russia. But the winters started late, sometimes not till the end of November, to the childlike wonder of travelers coming from Moscow-way. The springs were wild and sleety with cyclonic bursts; there were dramatic reports, in our newspapers, of the Don and Azov fishermen carried out, on ice-floes, far into the sea and their doom amid the howling wind. The summers brought yellowish Nanking-cloth suits on father and other grown-ups, also white canvas blouses for us children. There were sultry days of brassy sun, but also cool evenings on the balconies facing the Don River, with the soft glow of charcoal in the samovar, with the ripe cherries crushed by your spoon against the bottom and sides of your glass of scalding tea.
The summer, likely as not, also brought an epidemic of cholera. There was something the matter with the waterworks in our city. The adults cursed the city administration, but at the same time, with peculiar pride, cited reports of international savants to the effect that Rostov was the world¡¯s third city in cholera statistics of 1900-1914. The two cities ahead of ours were, if memory serves me right, Bombay and Shanghai.
At the height of the epidemic, as many as three hundred people a day would die in Rostov. They were mostly poor people of the suburban shanties and itinerant stevedores of the wharves. All over the city there were placards warning the populace not to drink raw water or eat raw fruits and vegetables. Everything had to be cooked. Cooked tepid water was disgusting to a parched throat. My present American fondness for iced water I trace back to that lukewarm discomfort of my childhood and youth.
Garlic rubbed against bread-crust until the crust shone its brightest was also considered an excellent preventive of cholera. Children in Rostov loved this prophylactic, especially when this mirror-like delicacy was sprinkled with fine table-salt. We ate miles of such crust. From this angle, cholera-time was fun.
During the summer, on moonlit nights, we could hear songs and laughter, accordions and balalaikas, from the numerous small pleasure craft on the river. In daytime, shrill police whistles announced drownings. Sometimes, the rescued or the dead were carried from the shore up our street. Perhaps because of the constant sight of such victims, mother forbade our learning to swim or even going into the shallow parts of the river. We did not seem to suffer from her injunction, and seldom defied it, but years later, when one of my two elder brothers committed suicide, he did it by plunging into the very same Don.
If a traveler proceeded into Rostov not from this Don River, but rather from the big, noisy and stinking railroad station, his way would be along Sadovaya, or Garden Street, the main artery of the city, past the modern office buildings, massive schools, imposing banks and shops and movie houses, or ¡ˇăillusions¡ˇŔ as these theaters were called in old Russia. The street stretched the whole length of the city and was the chief panorama to be shown to a visitor. All the trolley-car lines of Rostov, built by a Belgian company, trundled to Garden Street. The first few automobiles could be seen here in the 1900¡¯s and 1910¡¯s. The street was named after the city garden, but the garden itself was desolate on weekdays with its dusty, consumptive trees and unswept alleys. On Sundays, crowds of workers and their families paraded or sat in the garden, resting, flirting, and eating roasted sunflower seeds.
On certain afternoon and evening hours Garden Street was the scene of a promenade. Officers, students, clerks, and their girls walked in pairs back and forth in two streams flowing past each other in opposite directions. Gossip was exchanged and romance born. Later, the streams would thin out, prostitutes would emerge and join them, and furtive men, singly and in pairs, would follow and shop for their pleasure.
The best part of the city garden was cut off and rented to the Salesmen¡¯s Club, which soon had no salesmen among its members, for the original salesmen had become merchants in their own right and barred ¡ˇălow class¡ˇŔ people from the club and their part of the garden. Jews were not encouraged to apply for membership here. But at the other end of the long street there was the Commercial Club, of more opulent and liberal character. Doctors and lawyers were its members, many of them Jews, also merchants of more modern ideas. Both clubs had the best symphonic orchestras they could command from the North. On quiet summer nights the soft wind would bring snatches of classical music to the old large sleigh marooned on the hill just back of our house. My brother Isaak and I slept in that sleigh on warm nights. The window of my sister Luba¡¯s room was alive with the reading lamp late into the night; the curtain would escape into the open flap like a sail to the beat of Bach waves. The sleigh, too, rode these waves, and thus we would fall asleep.
Community Chairman Speaks on Jewish Life in Rostov (March 9,2006) In 2005, the Jewish community of Rostov was recognized as one of the most dynamically developing communities in Russia.
The Choral Synagogue dates from the 1870's and is currently under repair, serving a Jewish Community of 10,000. The old cemetery, currently under restoration, is the site of the graves of many illustrious rabbis.
Rostov-on-Don Research Group If your ancestors came from Rostov-on-Don, you are invited to join our active Rostov Shtetl Research Group. Please contact David Hoffman at RostovCousins@aol.com for more information. Our group is in touch with an archival researcher who can work in the Rostov and Tagonog Archives, particularly with Metrical (Vital) Records.
If your ancestors came from Rostov-on-Don, you are invited to join our active Rostov Shtetl Research Group. Please contact David Hoffman at RostovCousins@aol.com for more information. Our group is in touch with an archival researcher who can work in the Rostov and Tagonog Archives, particularly with Metrical (Vital) Records.