PRINCE: My name is “Sister” Prince and I am interviewing Hyman Flaks on April 29, 1986 in his office in St. Louis for the Oral History Project of the St. Louis Center for Holocaust Studies. Mr. Flaks is the Executive Director of Vaad…
FLAKS: Vaad Hoeir.
PRINCE: Vaad Hoeir, thank you. Hyman, would you begin by telling what that is?
FLAKS: The Vaad Hoeir, literally translated, is the “Council of the City.” Of course, that is the Orthodox Jewish community, and is a representative group representing the Orthodox congregations and the Orthodox educational institutions. It’s a democratic organization which is governed by representatives of the constituent congregations who elect a Board of Directors and officers. And they then in turn – this is a lay organization – and they engage a Chief Rabbi who is the highest religious authority – Jewish religious authority, the, what we call halakhic authority. And he decides on all matters, all religious jurisprudence and Jewish customs and tradition and all the religious issues that just about compound the whole cycle of Jewish life.
PRINCE: Thank you. Hyman, it’s a beautiful, warm, bright sunny day here and I’m going to ask you to go way back and begin with where you were born and when you were born.
FLAKS: Interestingly enough, the way that my parents were telling me, I was born on a bright, sunny day. It was on a Saturday morning. I was born in 1915, January 16, in a small town in what was at that time Russia, on the banks of the Dvina River. It was about – in mileage it was about 40 miles from Riga, which was the major city at that time. Riga is situated in…
PRINCE: In Latvia.
FLAKS: In Latvia, that’s right. But at that time it wasn’t Latvia, it was Russia, and this was 1915. It was already the first year of the war between Germany and Russia and the Germans were pushing into Russia and the front developed along the Dvina River. So, the Russian authorities evacuated us, the family – the whole family – grandfather and aunts and my family – parents. I was the first child and I was one year old at that time. And we started our trek into Russia and we were in Russia as refugees traveling from one town to another through the Ukraine until we finally came back to a major city, which was Vitebsk. Of course those years of travel – my first year I don’t remember. The trials and tribulations – some of them – I do remember vividly, though I was a very small child. And sometimes one wonders whether this is just because you heard a lot of stories about it and your imagination sort of catches up with it, or this is really your own impressions.
Now, this was the time in Russia, it was very turbulent, of course, a time of the war and then the revolution because we got back to Vitebsk – it was 1919 and that was after the revolution already. And through the Ukraine our trek took us all the way down south to cities like Kharkov and Kremenchug, which is – of course you know to the Americans don’t mean much, but they were important trade centers, industrial centers in Russia. And while there was no aerial bombardment, nevertheless there was a lot of turmoil. And at the time of – shortly preceding the revolution and during the revolutionary years, there were various groups that grabbed power and there was – well I’ll say this in Russian – there was a Batjka Makhno who was a Ukrainian chief of a clan.
PRINCE: Chief of what?
FLAKS: A clan, a clan – Cossacks. And they were fighting others. They were fighting, of course, the revolutionaries. Then there was the Denikin. He was an admiral and he had his group that was fighting. And of course there were the regular Russian Army that was fighting the Red Army, which was at that time already in formation. So, we spent many, many a night in basements and in cellars. And in Russia at that time we didn’t have modern refrigeration, so we had like ice cellars. It was like halfway underground and then like a little mound, and you just walked in there and that was where they kept ice.
PRINCE: Like a cold house.
FLAKS: A cold house, that’s right. And in those little structures we were hiding. Now, of course, the Jews…
PRINCE: Your mother and your father and you and your grandparents?
FLAKS: My mother and my father and I. I – no, I only had – well, I had a grandfather and grandmother and we sort of lost each other. Then we reunited – that was on my mother’s side was a grandfather and grandmother. They were from Lithuania, so they went on another trek and we came from what at that time was – well, Lithuania was also a part of Russia but what was then later Latvia – we came from that part of the country. Well, it was adjoining – see, actually those are called the Baltic States. There are three little countries, Lavia – Lithuania on the south, Latvia in the middle, and Estonia in the north. Now, Latvia and Lithuania, just by way of background, their language is common. It’s called the Baltic-Slavic group of languages. Estonia, which is part of that tri-country area, has an entirely different language. Estonian – they belong to the Hungro-Finnish group of languages and they are kings to the Finnish language. So it’s – I mean, totally different – totally different. Now in Lithuania somebody who speaks Latvian would understand and vice versa. Estonian is different.
Anyway, so they went – another way we got rejoined in Russia – somehow in some miraculous way – the grandfather on my father’s side was with us and two aunts. They were unmarried and we were – let’s see – we were in – in the Ukraine and a couple of incidents really. And I, as a child, I was a sickly child, all kind of childhood diseases. There was no immunization of course in those days. Half of the time I was sick, I could never go to school, could never went to – I, I never went to school until actually fourth grade – in the middle of fourth grade. My mother used to teach me. She was an educated woman and in those days if somebody finished what we used to call gymnasium, which is equivalent, more than high school on American standards. So, she taught me.
And I remember vividly at one time when the Cossacks of one of the Cossack groups was supposed to come into town and they just came in and with the sabers they were just cuttin’ heads off of people, just like that. I mean, it was shattering, it was a shattering experience, especially men. Women they didn’t bother so much. If anything, they’d rape them but they would not kill them, and what a choice. And…
PRINCE: And you saw all this as a child?
FLAKS: Well, as a child, as a child, some of those things I did see and I remember one time, I remember that we – there was like a opening made in the floor and all the men went down the cellar and we covered it with a rug. Not I, but my mother, my aunts, they covered it with a rug and put the table on top of it. And for three days they were there in the cellar, hiding, because if they would find a man, they would kill him.
PRINCE: Let me ask you something. Were you hiding because you were Jews…
FLAKS: Yes, yes…
PRINCE: …or because (OVERTALK) let me just finish for the sake of the tape – or because all these different groups were fighting – but everybody wanted to kill the Jews?
FLAKS: Well, the thing is this. It was one of those things. You see, they – fighting each other, they would fight in a fight, but if they would catch a Jew, they would just kill him. I mean, Hitler killed Jews just because they were Jews.
PRINCE: Right. Well that’s why I asked…was it just…
FLAKS: Yes, yes, because many, especially in the Ukraine, many of the Ukrainians were very antisemitic. And, of course, it was not my recollection because I wasn’t there, but history tells us that many of the Ukrainians – as a matter of fact, this fellow who was just deported from the United States to Israel, Demjanuck, is a Ukrainian and many of the Ukrainians were very antisemitic.
FLAKS: Very vicious. I mean, they, they just did the work before even the Nazis marched in to some of the small communities because they knew the Jews personally, they knew who they are, they knew who they were and dealt with them, so it was easy if they caught them.
PRINCE: Now, when you say you went from place to place in Russia, how did you do that? Did you go by foot?
FLAKS: Well, frankly, I don’t remember by foot, but I understand they would go by foot some of the smaller distances, but otherwise there were horse and buggy, horse and wagon.
PRINCE: Someone else’s or did you…?
FLAKS: No, no, it wasn’t ours, it wasn’t ours. I mean, whatever possessions we had – they were in wicker baskets, you know, and that’s what you went with. The situation was so that, you know, you just lived from day to day, from day to day. You never knew what’s going to happen tomorrow. Of course, nobody knows what’s going to happen tomorrow.
PRINCE: But we think we have an idea.
FLAKS: We think we have an idea that tomorrow is going to be like today, maybe a little bit better. Well, whatever it is, you know, normal. But to say that those days were normal – and then, of course, half of the time we didn’t have enough to eat because of the – but that was the general situation that you didn’t have enough to eat.
PRINCE: Tell me about your father.
FLAKS: My father was a – he was a working man. My grandfather was a bookkeeper – on my father’s side. On the mother’s side, my grandfather was a rabbi. On my – my father – he was a – well, in Russian they call it a Prikashchick. That’s a – how should I say – uh, he had knowledge in two areas. One is that he was, he was not himself in the lumber business but he knew the lumber trade. So he worked for a company where he would go out to appraise certain areas in the forest and then the company would buy it. And he would be in charge of cuttin’ the trees, getting the branches off and then getting them to the river and then they would float down the river in rafts to wherever they went to.
PRINCE: To centers.
FLAKS: Centers, that’s right, to the lumber mills. The other area that he knew was…he was a specialist in determining grades of flax. Now, I don’t know – my name is Flaks – maybe – but it wasn’t because of my father because my father’s name was already Flaks, the grandfather’s name was Flaks, so maybe it had to do something with flax. (LAUGHTER; OVERTALK) Now, that area grew a lot of flax for which, you know, they weave linen clothes. Now, it requires knowledge to know again how to appraise once it’s harvested because they grow like stick – no, not sticks, like rods, you know. And then they break and then the fiber remains. And then when you get all the fiber and tie them in such bunches and then you look at it and you determine what grade it is, depending on the length of it and whatever it is. But he was always working for somebody else.
PRINCE: But, here he was in unusual circumstances. What kind of a man was he? Do you remember as a child?
FLAKS: Well, I’ll tell you, he always somehow managed to find work someplace, and, you know, somebody that wants to work, well, if it’s not in your area, so you adapt yourself. You do something else. Now, he was working in the Ukraine. There was a terrible incident happened to him and because of that, that created a problem and that was the following. He was robbed – because he was going, like from town to town, you know, on assignments to do his work in this area. In the Kremenchug area, he was robbed. And he was going by horse and wagon. He was going by horse and wagon. And you know they tell the story about robbers in the woods, you know? That’s exactly what happened. They hit him and to the end of his days he had a mark on his forehead because they found him bleeding. He almost bled to death. And they robbed him. Now, they took all his documents away with them, took all the documents from him. Now that was a terrible thing because, you see, in 1919-1920, when Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia formed the self-determination, became independent countries…
PRINCE: Under Soviet…
FLAKS: No, no, no, no, no – that was part of the peace treaty and part of the end of the war, World War I…
PRINCE: That they became independent…
FLAKS: That they were given their independence and these countries became totally independent countries with their own democratic structure, with a parliament and with a president, with a army and with the commerce and with agriculture and everything else.
PRINCE: They had it for such a short life, didn’t they?
FLAKS: A very short life. (OVERTALK) Yes, they had an embassy in Washington D.C.
PRINCE: So, okay, they’re independent…
FLAKS: Now you see when they became – when they took away his papers, so what they said – at that time, you see, there was a decree that all those that could prove that they are from there could return back home. Now, my grandfather and my…
PRINCE: Before they had been taken over?
FLAKS: Right, right.
PRINCE: Before the country had been…
FLAKS: No, no, that was in 19 – see, the country was taken over by Russia in 1940…’41.
PRINCE: But if you lived in a certain place before that, you could return home?
FLAKS: That’s right. You could prove that you are from there, that’s your native place of – where you lived.
FLAKS: Native place of residence. So, what happened was that he lost his documents and couldn’t prove it. So, my grandfather and my aunts, they went back to Latvia. They went back to Riga. My father couldn’t prove it, so we got stuck in Russia. So, we got stuck in Russia and we lived in Russia until 1928.
PRINCE: Now, at first you were just kind of moving around and escaping a lot, it sounded like. But eventually, did you settle?
FLAKS: Oh yes, we settled in 19 – 1920, we settled in Vitebsk.
PRINCE: And you stayed there?
FLAKS: We stayed there, we lived there ’til about – let’s see – we lived there ’til 1925. Vitebsk was a large city. As a matter of fact, I don’t know whether this is historically, you know. I doubt whether I can consider it as a privilege, but I saw Lenin and I saw Trotsky and I saw this whole hierarchy. On one occasion there was a big celebration and I happened to see them. So, I don’t know. I don’t consider it a – such a tremendous privilege, but anyway, whatever it is, that’s among the things that I did see in my lifetime. (LAUGHTER) Generally, you know, when I look back – I don’t know whether this belongs on this part of the tape.
PRINCE: It’s all right.
FLAKS: But, generally, when I think – I’m 71 years old – and when I think of the years that – the years of life that I lived, what happened and what was going on, I believe that in the past, maybe, I don’t know whether in a thousand years things – that so many things would have happened.
PRINCE: I know, I know. Driving out here today, I thought, “I’m going to ask him to go back and to recreate, you know what things were like so long ago.”
FLAKS: Now, that’s, that’s – Vitebsk was a large community. As I said, it was an industrial city, but of course as modern as Russia was in those days. Anyway, we lived there and then we went – somehow my father felt that going to a small community, a smaller community, we’d have a better chance.
So we went to a small town and the area – how should I describe the area. There is a city, P’skov, which is historically a very old city in Russia in that area, in the P’skov area. Now, that was a little bit closer to the west but it was Russia, it was Russia. Vitebsk was White Russia, so we were in the Ukraine, we were in White Russia, and then our last few years in Russia was in Russia itself and we lived in a small town. And in a small town life was much quieter and it was better because, you know, in the city everything – I mean food things, produce, has to be brought in from the country. That’s where it grew.
PRINCE: So you had enough to eat?
FLAKS: So we had enough to eat, that’s right. Really, that we did not…there we did not suffer any hunger or any deprivation. And that’s where I started school first.
PRINCE: And you were 10 – 11?
FLAKS: Yes, yes.
PRINCE: 11 years old?
FLAKS: Yes – well, 11, 12, about that age. Now, then we – I mean, we knew that grandfather and my aunts were in Riga and we were corresponding with them. Sometimes letters would go through, sometimes letters wouldn’t go through, but we were corresponding with them. So, it’s very interesting – how does one get out of Russia? In the early days, a lot of them ran across the border. I mean there were people who were facilitators, you know. You paid them off and you went across the border. You ran to Poland. That was in this area. The common border…you ran to Poland. Poland was already sort of, again, an independent country, westernized, and from there on you made your way to Latvian border. From Russia – to Latvian border, also some people went across. Now, we weren’t that brave, I mean, my father wasn’t that brave, you know, to do it. Maybe he didn’t have the money to pay off.
So, the – but how does one get out of Russia? You see, according to the Russian, their ideology, it’s paradise. Now, why would one want to leave? We have such a good, sweet life, why does one want to leave? Now, how would they justify to their own population that they would let somebody out? Why is he going? Now, if he wants to go, he must be crazy. That’s why they do put them in insane asylums, those guys that declare all of a sudden that they want to leave Russia, they put them in insane asylums. So, they say, “He went crazy, he wants to go.”
Now, how can you go out? Yes, they are very great humanitarians. Now, they will allow the reunification of families. You see, if part of the family is here, part of the family is – here, that’s how this whole process of the Russian Jews that left now was on the basis of being reunited with somebody.
PRINCE: That’s their excuse.
FLAKS: That is, you see, that they can justify their rationale for letting somebody out. Now, somebody goes to Israel, he’s a traitor, he betrays his country. Now some of the Russians that they let out, their own Russians, they give them only a visa to Israel and then an article will appear in the newspaper that this and this traitor left for Israel. Where else would he go? But this modus operandi was already in existence in those days. They would allow the reunification of families. So, we received an official – in Russian they call it a visov. That means an affidavit, an invitation, sort of difficult to translate literally exactly. This was a means to call out, a call that the grandfather – that means my father’s father is old and sick and he wants to be reunited with his son.
PRINCE: And he had put this through the authorities?
FLAKS: And this went through the authorities. And we got an official permit to leave Russia with a red passport.
PRINCE: Do you remember the day that you found that out?
FLAKS: Yeah – well, I came from school and they said that a letter came that…we can go.
PRINCE: Were they excited?
FLAKS: Well, of course we were excited. Everybody was very excited and we left. Well, of course, my mother couldn’t go. At that time I had already a sister and that was born in Russia.
PRINCE: What was her name?
FLAKS: Her name was Miriam. She and my mother perished in, in the Holocaust.
FLAKS: In – where? In Rumboli, that’s outside of Riga.
PRINCE: What was your Hebrew name? I meant to ask you…
PRINCE: So your mother and Miriam stayed there?
FLAKS: They, well, they stayed – no, no. They stayed when I came to America.
PRINCE: Oh, I thought you meant…(OVERTALK)
FLAKS: No, no, no, no, no. (OVERTALK) Now, wait a minute. Oh yeah, they stayed in Russia, excuse me. They stayed in Russia. They stayed in Russia and within the year we were able to get them out.
PRINCE: Excuse me, why did they have to stay?
FLAKS: Because the visov, the affidavit, was only for me and for my father. Why was this? Again, the rationale was that men they would want to retain more than women.
FLAKS: So, to get us out first. Now when we got out – so, we got out and within a year they came. Now…
PRINCE: I would like to stop you and go back a little bit, and ask you what some of those years were like. I think the tape is – no, I’m sorry. Tell me about your religious life.
FLAKS: Well, we were always religiously observant, even in Russia.
PRINCE: And were you Orthodox, Hasidic?
FLAKS: Yes, well, not belonging to any particular Hasidic group, though my grandfather was of the Lubavitch group. I mean, even within the order of prayer, a number of groups have different groupings of prayers that they say, though most of them are the same but in a little bit different order. So, my grandfather was of the Lubavitch, belonged to the Lubavitch group. But, I really did not grow up in that particular atomosphere. We were just religiously observant.
FLAKS: Orthodox, right. Well, in those days we did not have any Reform or Conservative. People were either observant or not observant.
PRINCE: I see, and to degrees, I would imagine.
FLAKS: Uh, pardon me?
PRINCE: And to different degrees.
FLAKS: You did not. You see, one did not have to call himself of a different persuasion, a name, not to observe.
PRINCE: I’m glad I asked the question so that you could give the answer, but everybody still did it to different degrees?
FLAKS: Well, to degrees – look, religious observance is something which is very personal and you know it’s a matter of commitment and sometimes circumstances force you to do certain things. You still, even if you – under circumstances you deviate, you don’t look for a rationale to justify your deviation. Let’s put it this way.
PRINCE: Could you describe your observance – what it was for you – for your family to be observant and then how life changed and made you…
(End of Tape 1, Side 1)
FLAKS: See, when I spoke about deviation, I would not say deviation, I would rather call it infractions, not deviations.
FLAKS: Because a deviation is already a justified action. Once you know you did something and it’s all right, so you know that you did something wrong. Next time you will not do it. That’s an infraction, I would call it.
FLAKS: A deviation means that, well, I already found a rationale for it and it’s okay for me to do it.
PRINCE: An excuse.
FLAKS: That’s right. Now, what does it mean to be religiously observant as far as I’m concerned? As far as I’m concerned, to be religiously (OVERTALK)…is what I mean, that’s right, what we did was we kept the Sabbath. We did not write, we did not cook, we did not ride on the Sabbath. Now, for instance, if you have to do, like for instance if we had to save our lives and we had to run away from some place, I mean, nobody ask any questions to save your life, you are allowed to transgress on that particular instance. Now, we kept kosher. We didn’t get any meat; we ate vegetables. We ate fruit; we ate dairy products. We ate potatoes. Many a day that was the only food we could have. Not that everybody else had roast turkey or roast beef. It wasn’t generally available, but you know, under certain circumstances you make do. I mean, if you have your commitment, you have your belief…you stay with it.
PRINCE: Describe the Sabbath.
FLAKS: Pardon me?
PRINCE: Describe the Sabbath in your family.
FLAKS: Oh, the Sabbath with the family was usually the same traditional Sabbath whatever we could keep, as we do now, as we do here. I mean, we had a Friday night meal, we had the prayers and we had the Sabbath meal. In the morning, if there was a synagogue, we went to synagogue. Everybody prayed for themselves. And then we had a Sabbath meal and whatever other things, without doing any work that’s not permissable until the end of the Sabbath.
PRINCE: Where did you have your Bar Mitzvah?
FLAKS: I had my Bar Mitzvah in Russia. I had a, I had – that’s why, you see, that’s why we went to that small town because we felt that in a small town our life will be easier, Jewishly and other ways. And it was.
PRINCE: Do you recall any incidents of personal antisemitism where you were personally involved?
FLAKS: Well, yes, when I started, especially when I – well, look, you play in a yard full of Jews and non-Jews, there are some frictions, you know, for no good reason at all, you know. I was beaten up several times in my childhood. In school, for instance, I started school and there were certain teachers that wouldn’t look favorably at you, you know. But, we managed somehow to survive. We have a long history of endurance.
PRINCE: Tell me, you started school at 11 or 12.
FLAKS: That’s right.
PRINCE: And what language did you speak at home?
FLAKS: At home we spoke Yiddish and Russian.
PRINCE: Yiddish and Russian.
PRINCE: And so at school you spoke…
FLAKS: Russian, of course.
FLAKS: I speak fluently Russian now.
PRINCE: Let’s see; wait a minute, you told me you speak…English, of course, Russian, German, Yiddish, Hebrew, and Latvian.
FLAKS: Latvian, that’s right. I also took Latin.
PRINCE: And Latin. (LAUGHTER)
FLAKS: Latin helped me a lot.
PRINCE: Yes, I’m sure. All right, you had a late start in school but it sounds like you…
FLAKS: I caught up with it.
PRINCE: You caught up with it.
FLAKS: Yes, I caught up with it. (OVERTALK)
PRINCE: Do you remember your first day?
FLAKS: Well, I’ll tell you, right now it may seem significant. Then it really didn’t.
PRINCE: Did you dress…
FLAKS: No, no, no. Dress was regular dress just like everybody else.
PRINCE: Well, I don’t know what anybody else wore in Russia then. You have to tell me.
FLAKS: Well, look – boys wore pants and they wore a jacket, a sweater, a…
PRINCE: I didn’t know if you wore a caftan or…
FLAKS: No, no, no, no, no, no, no. We did not wear any caftans.
PRINCE: Okay. What do you feel was important about life at that time that I may not have asked, that you’d like to talk about?
FLAKS: Well, well I’ll tell you. I was always – the kid who used to get excited about things, knew things, you know, things like that. It has nothing to do with, with, you know, persecution or anything else. But, for instance – the first time, for instance, they brought the radio into town. I mean, it was the first time. That’s why I say that we saw so many firsts.
PRINCE: Yes, yes.
FLAKS: Or the first time I saw an airplane, the first time, I mean…
PRINCE: When was that?
FLAKS: Well, it was, it was – probably I must have been five, six years old. You see, even to this day when I see a big 747 get up, I get very excited and what bothers me…
PRINCE: I do too, though. (LAUGHTER)
FLAKS: I mean, it’s such a tremendous thing, I mean, there must be some kind of a Godly power that picks it up and then, then makes it fly like a bird. And what bothers me that my own children and grandchildren, they don’t have this excitement, the same sense of excitement, you know. Thank God we live in a country of plenty and now I think that some of the problems we have are just because we’ve got too much plenty. Now, where do you go for thrills? When we used to get a new pair of shoes, it was a tremendous thrill. When we used get a new pair of pants, it was a tremendous thrill. Now they get a car and they say, “Oh, so what.”
PRINCE: You’ve hit on something very basic.
FLAKS: “So what?” Now, for instance, here the Jews have a country after 2000 years. To me, this was one of the most exciting things in the world. I mean, for 2000 years Jews lived and couldn’t say that they have a country. And I’m the one who can say, “Yes,” and in my days. Then it happened in the days of my children. It happened in days – I have two children living there, so they probably have the excitement of that. But, in general I think children today grow up without this sense of anticipation and the sense of excitement – something extraordinary, something big.
PRINCE: It’s like it doesn’t have to be a band playing for it to be a good day.
FLAKS: That’s right, that’s true. The best things in life are free. All you have to do is look around, look around.
PRINCE: You have to know it, though.
FLAKS: Oh yes, you have to know it – that’s a blessing.
PRINCE: All right.
FLAKS: It went back to me. (LAUGHTER)
PRINCE: That’s okay because this is what I want, it’s wonderful, and somehow I’ve left you standing and listening to a radio and I have that in my mind. (LAUGHTER BY BOTH) And that’s what I would like to know about.
Well, back to the part where you did see Lenin and you really didn’t know who you were…
FLAKS: Oh yes, yes, that was a tremendous excitement to me.
PRINCE: Tell me about it.
FLAKS: Oh, certainly. It was, it was one of the early celebrations of the…
PRINCE: I really meant – my question was because you were young.
FLAKS: Very young.
PRINCE: So – but you felt that…
FLAKS: Oh, definitely, definitely, because everything – I mean the whole thing was – you see, it was the anniversary of the revolution.
PRINCE: Like a year?
FLAKS: Two years, three years, something like that, you see, and this was before they started to eliminate – when the rivalry started. There were still about – the set was there, the original set was there and…
PRINCE: And the set was Lenin and Trotsky?
FLAKS: Lenin and Trotsky and Budjony and Zinoviev and Kaganovitch and Menshikov and – it was the whole – Bucharin and all the big shots who were really the revolutionaries and who created the revolution.
PRINCE: So where was this?
FLAKS: Now, you see the thing is this, that that whole revolution, that whole revolution, what is said about the revolution, what really is said about the revolution is that the revolution didn’t accomplish anything.
PRINCE: Lenin said that?
FLAKS: No, I’m saying it.
PRINCE: Oh, you’re saying it.
FLAKS: I’m saying that. I mean, Lenin is gone. I can observe it better than Lenin because he isn’t here.
PRINCE: (LAUGHTER) He’s gone.
FLAKS: He’s gone, you see. Now they have somebody in the Kremlin there, by the Kremlin and I saw that figure there. It’s a mummy. Who knows, by now it could be a doll after so many years; I don’t think that they penetrated into the art of embalming and preserving like the Pharaohs did – I mean the old Egyptians. So, the whole revolution is just a fizzle because it didn’t create a better world. The whole revolution was to create a better world.
PRINCE: But they think so, don’t they?
FLAKS: Well, I’ll tell you, only those that live in the Kremlin there and the commissars, the very top guys. Gorbachov probably thinks so because, you know, he’s on top. But not the random pile. You know, I have a really simple question. Again, this has nothing to do with the subject matter that we started about. You see, we feel that this is – well, we feel that this is a very good country of ours, a wonderful country. And, however, if somebody wants to leave, wants to go – he wants to go to South America, he wants to go to Africa, he wants to to go to Israel, he wants to go to Russia. When you come to the – he wants to go to Canada. When you come to the border, when you come to the immigration officials, when you leave there isn’t even anybody and there is somebody else saying, “Bye, have a good time.” If life is so good in Russia, why don’t they – why are they afraid to let the people out? They are afraid to let the people out because they’ll never come back. Is that what the revolution was about? To create a tremendous jail?
PRINCE: But you’re thinking like we’re thinking and we don’t think alike, so…
FLAKS: I should let you talk to my aunt who was born in Riga and married a fellow from Vienna and was in Vienna when the Nazis took it over and then ran away from there.
PRINCE: Is she in St. Louis?
FLAKS: She happens to be ’til Sunday in St. Louis.
PRINCE: She lives in St. Louis?
FLAKS: No, she lives in Europe. And then the Russians sent her to Karaganda. That’s in Siberia. She was there for six years, building roads, working mines.
PRINCE: Excuse me, but I want to take you back to when you saw Lenin. Would you describe it for me? Was it exciting?
FLAKS: Well, it was – excitement was in the air because it was the day of the anniversary of the revolution and mobs of people were in the streets and everybody was going to the big parade. And I was a little kid who tried to crawl to the front, you know, because I couldn’t look over the big guys standing in front of me. So I crawled out to the back and then the – there was a parade and he rode by in an automobile. Trotsky was on a horse. Budjony was on a horse. He was the head of the cavalry, the Russian cavalry, the red commissar, and that’s it. He had a little beard, you know.
PRINCE: Well, I think that’s something pretty historical.
FLAKS: Yes, historical it was, definitely.
PRINCE: How about prewar political parties? Jewish organizations…
PRINCE: In Russia. Were your parents involved in anything?
FLAKS: No, no, no.
PRINCE: All right, let us move on, and you’re back in Latvia.
FLAKS: Yeah, we’re back in Latvia.
PRINCE: And how about your mother and your sister and…
FLAKS: Yes, that’s right, they are back in Latvia. We came back to Riga. And then we had a normal life until 19…until I left.
PRINCE: What’s a normal life?
FLAKS: A normal life is – we lived in the country where we could breath, we could eat, we could sleep, we could enjoy the surrounding nature. In the summer we could go to the beaches. We enjoyed the magnificent opera and ballet and maybe a dozen theatres. There was a Jewish theatre, there was a Russian – I’m talking about language – and a German. You see, Latvia was a trilingual country, so everybody spoke three languages. We had an open press up to a point. You see, up to a point.
In 1934, the head of the – by the way, he was educated in America – he was the head of the Agrarian party. He graduated in Agronomy, University of Nebraska in Lincoln, and he dissolved the Parliament and he became the dictator, but he was a benevolent dictator. It was a benevolent dictatorship. I was in the army, in the Latvian army two times. The first time I was called in. Everybody had to go at age 21. I had to drop out of college, of my university 18 months, and then I was mobilized when the war broke out.
PRINCE: And how was it being Jewish in the Latvian army?
FLAKS: You know, I’ll tell you. It’s a very interesting question. And I don’t know how interesting the answer is, but…
FLAKS: I’ll tell you, just like many things, you know, while you are in it and at it, it’s one way – you look at it one way. When you are out of it, it’s in the past, it somehow becomes a little bit glorified or – well, I would say glorified, but you know you look at it in a different perspective. Now, I can’t say really one bad thing about my stint in the army. The only thing, because I was Jewish, I couldn’t go any higher in rank than – I should have had my pictures as a soldier, since I am a nice looking soldier…
PRINCE: Oh, I’d love to see them.
FLAKS: Anyway, you – I would say it’s the same like in any army and I really mean it. You see, if you go in with a grudge and if you go in with an attitude that, “Oh, they’re going to kill me, they are going to make my life miserable,” you’ll be miserable.
PRINCE: You pick up on every slight.
FLAKS: But, if you – if you have an attitude, “Well, look, I’m in it, I’ll make the best out of it, I’ll try to get along with everybody,” it’s not so bad. And in general, I don’t know, I always feel that an army experience is not bad – is not bad. It makes a better individual out of you; it makes you a more disciplined individual. Of course, you know, unfortunately we had this Vietnam experience that made wrecks out of people. But I think they are more at fault than the system. They just let themselves go.
Now, my son, the oldest son was in the army three years. He was one full year in Vietnam. Thank God, it didn’t make a wreck out of him. It didn’t make him mentally deficient; it didn’t put any kind of syndromes in him. He didn’t come back claiming that the whole world owes him something for it. He only serves his country. That’s a duty. In a way you’re repaying your country for whatever the country does for you, let’s you live as a free individual in this country. You see, if you have to be a soldier for the tsar, I would say that was bad news. Why? Because as soon as you’d be out, you’d be again persecuted like you were before.
PRINCE: And they just took you in and kept you for years, I believe.
FLAKS: They kept you for years, that’s right. One time 25 years, then it was four years. But, the country did not consider you an individual that they, they, you know – that you were in it serving the country, that after you are out, you know, you’re an individual like everybody else.
PRINCE: So what rank did you attain? Private?
FLAKS: P.F.C., yes.
PRINCE: And what were your duties?
FLAKS: What were my duties? I was in artillery.
PRINCE: So you learned to shoot.
FLAKS: So, for a while I was a gunner and – of course, you know, learning to shoot is not really the right word because if you have a rifle and you shoot, you learn to shoot with a, with a field artillery piece. There are many functions that bring about a shooting.
PRINCE: Okay, what’s the right word?
FLAKS: You just performed a function for – now my job, for instance, was to look into a – well, like a little periscope and align it to some point that I was directed. That’s all. And then somebody pulled the string and somebody turned it up, you know, whatever it is. So it’s a…
PRINCE: Everybody had their function.
FLAKS: It’s a team, it’s a team, that’s right.
PRINCE: Did you like it?
FLAKS: Oh, well, it wasn’t a question of liking. I didn’t dislike it. I had to do it. I did it; that’s all.
PRINCE: How was the food in the army?
FLAKS: I kept kosher, so my food was – my food was all right. I served in the same community. My – our regiment was in Riga, so I was fortunate I could stay there, so…
PRINCE: So you could eat at home.
FLAKS: I could eat at home whenever I got off and I – otherwise I took some food along. At the beginning, during basic training, food was brought to me.
PRINCE: I want to ask you about your mother.
FLAKS: Okay. She was a wonderful woman, of course, like a mother should be. Highly intelligent and, as I said, she graduated gymnasium in 1910.
PRINCE: What was her name?
FLAKS: Her name was Anna. And she was a housewife, never had any jobs, but she taught me a lot of things.
PRINCE: What did she teach you?
FLAKS: Well, she taught me like when I did not go to school, up to four and one-half grades. That’s a lot of teaching.
PRINCE: And that you could catch up so easily.
FLAKS: That’s right.
PRINCE: So she was a teacher.
FLAKS: Oh yes, definitely, for me definitely.
PRINCE: Then she must have been – I don’t know the word for it, but if you moved around and she –
FLAKS: It wasn’t easy.
PRINCE: She kept things together.
FLAKS: She sure did.
PRINCE: She must have had something on the table…
FLAKS: Always, always, always, always, always…
PRINCE: And you smiled when I asked you about her, so you (LAUGHTER BY BOTH) – it comes from within…
FLAKS: Yes, yes.
PRINCE: The love and the care were there.
FLAKS: Yes, definitely so, no question about it, no question about it.
PRINCE: So she was many things.
FLAKS: Yes, she definitely was, she definitely was.
PRINCE: Where were you when the war broke out? In Riga, but…
FLAKS: Which one, the Second War?
FLAKS: Oh, the Second War – yes, the Second War. Well, see, let’s go a little bit back.
PRINCE: Please do.
FLAKS: Up to the war. I went to…I finished grade school and then I finished high school. And those were very happy years, really.
PRINCE: It was a good time for Jews in Latvia.
FLAKS: It was a good time for everybody. It was really a good time for everybody. It was a – you see, the Latvians are a very educated people. Russia had a tremendous number of illiterates. That’s history, I mean, everybody knows – before, I mean, during the tsar’s time. Literacy was only for the privileged class. The Latvians had a – maybe four percent of illiteracy, 96% literate. They preserved their culture. They preserved their way of life. Riga itself was a cosmopolitan city because it was a port always.
PRINCE: A port?
FLAKS: A port city, yes. And they – sure, it was on the Baltic Sea.
PRINCE: For the sake of the tape, we’re looking at some maps.
FLAKS: Here, I’ll show you where Riga is.
PRINCE: I looked at it yesterday but…
FLAKS: Over here, here.
PRINCE: But it seems to be more in the center.
FLAKS: No, no, no, no, no – Riga is right here. See, right here is Riga.
PRINCE: No, your finger is covering it, it’s right there and it was right in the center the other day.
FLAKS: Pardon me?
PRINCE: It’s right in the center, I thought, of Latvia.
FLAKS: No, no, no, no, no, no – it’s – excuse me. This is the, this is Riga Bay.
PRINCE: Yes, the Gulf of Riga.
PRINCE: They called it the Gulf of Riga on the map.
FLAKS: Well, no, it’s not a gulf…
PRINCE: Oh, okay.
FLAKS: …it’s the Bay of Riga, and Riga is right here at the bottom of it. You see, it’s right here – is that a menorah supposed to be?
PRINCE: Yes, and that…
FLAKS: It’s right here where this end of the menorah is – Latvia, right here.
PRINCE: I was looking for – oh, here, the menorah, a functioning synagogue.
FLAKS: Yeah – right there.
PRINCE: Oh here, here’s a better map.
FLAKS: Okay, right here at the bottom.
PRINCE: Okay, right there.
FLAKS: And right here was…
PRINCE: And see, it does say Gulf of Riga.
FLAKS: All right, they call it gulf, but we used to call it the bay, all right. Here, see, this is Estonia and this is Lithuania. Latvia consisted of three provinces, Livonia, Latgalia, and Courland. And Lithuania was right here. Now, this was – this was on the Baltic Sea. This was a big port open all winter. This was frozen a lot of times in the winter. It was cold.
PRINCE: Okay, thank you.
FLAKS: So, anyway, because of that and we, we used to, like for instance, movies used to come to Riga within…just as long as it would take them to cross the Atlantic, American movies.
PRINCE: What did you see?
FLAKS: What did we see? We saw, for instance, the first talkie within two weeks after they were showing them in America.
PRINCE: You’re kidding!
FLAKS: Of course. Well, I want you to know that I heard Marion Anderson in Riga, and I heard Paul Robeson in Riga and Laurence Tibbet was in Riga.
PRINCE: You got the best.
FLAKS: Well, that was one of the stops for all the major stars all over. Oh, definitely. We had a beautiful opera house and very, very nice theatres. So that’s why I say life was good. Life was good for everybody.
PRINCE: So how old are you now, you’re 20…
FLAKS: I’m 71.
PRINCE: No, no, not now – then. (LAUGHTER)
FLAKS: Oh, at that time?
PRINCE: You’ve put me in the past.
FLAKS: Oh, I’m sorry. I was – at that particular time I was – that was the years between like 14, 15, 15 I would say, and 20 – let’s see, I finished high school at 18. I finished high school at 18. In…
PRINCE: But you came back in ’28, so…
FLAKS: I came in ’28, yes.
PRINCE: So you were…
FLAKS: I was 13.
PRINCE: You were 13 and you had already had your Bar Mitzvah.
FLAKS: That’s right.
PRINCE: And you came back and so…
FLAKS: It was like half a year after my Bar Mitzvah we came.
PRINCE: So, from the age of 13…
FLAKS: ’Til 25 when I came to America.
PRINCE: To 25…
FLAKS: Yeah. But last years were already not, not – I mean there was a lot of tension. Life was still okay, was plenty of everything.
PRINCE: Did Jews only go with Jews or was there a mixture?
FLAKS: I’ll tell you, I’ll tell you – it’s not only Jews with Jews. I always – these are my observations. You see, the religious – you see, for instance, we have in Latvia – we had a strong Catholic community, we had a strong Russian Orthodox community. The strongest was the Protestant because that was the predominant part of Latvians. That was the German influence. That was yet from the Hanseatic days and…
PRINCE: From the what?
FLAKS: Hanseatic days, the Hansa – that was the trade agreement along the Baltic coast, you know, where the merchants.
FLAKS: H –