Interviewer: Svetlana Kovalchuk
Date of interview: August 2002
My maternal grandfather, Zalman Beskin, died in 1938. I don't know when he was born, but he died in Vitebsk . I was three months old then. His wife, my grandmother Musya [Beskina], died in 1953 and she had been the head of the family since her husband died. Grandfather's brother Beskin, whose first name I forgot, was a merchant and lived in Kiev before the revolution . When his store was nationalized, about ten wagons were needed to take away all the goods from his shop. He had been a rich man and the Soviet authorities exiled him and his family to Yakutia [Northern Siberia] in 1924.
When I studied in Moscow, I saw Grandfather's nephew a couple of times, the son of this merchant. He was the deputy minister of trade of Yakutia! What his first name was, I, honestly, don't know. But the surname was Beskin! I think, that the Beskins live in Yakutia nowadays as well. My father Isaac Markovich Kopelovich , Jewish name Mordukh Idel Motl Kopelovich, was born in 1901 in Dvinsk [today Daugavpils in Latvia, 230 km east of Riga], and my mother Tsimlya Zalmanovna Beskina was also born in 1901, but in Vitebsk. They were a handsome couple. They got married in 1922 and had a chuppah. But he was a Trotskyist at that time. He was a Trotskyist until 1928, and when Trotsky  was defeated, expelled from the Communist Party [December, 1927] and exiled from Moscow, that was it. Later my father was Iosif Stalin's ideological follower. And my mother told him, 'Stop fiddling about with your Communist Party, I'm expecting another baby, who we are supposed to feed, by the way!' My brother earned something too by reselling things. He was born in 1924 and called Lev or Lyova. In 1928 my sister Sonya was born, Sofia.
My father's education was 'super-highest' - four classes. And Mum had completed eight classes - she wanted to study very much, but her father was very poor. Her uncle was very rich, but he wouldn't give the money for her education. I know only this fact: she wanted to study very much.
My father was a soldier in the Red Army  since 1919. There were four brothers, who had found themselves in Vitebsk [today Belarus] - Leib, or in the Russian way Lyova, then Khaikl, the eldest, then brother Girsh [Grigoriy], Uncle Grisha, and my father Isaac - the youngest. Uncle Grisha was the one who loved to sing Jewish songs. Whenever I hear singing now, I think of him.
Later, the border was drawn between Russia and Latvia . The brothers served in the army at the time and then they found themselves wives. So, these four Red Army soldiers remained abroad, that is out of Latvia.
When Daddy fought in the Civil War  he was a rather experienced soldier, so he asked his commander to visit Moscow for one day, as he was serving nearby. The commander allowed him to. He arrived at his uncle's home, and his uncle shook out the contents of his rucksack and put in a crate of vodka instead. Father came to his unit, reported to the commander that Soldier Kopelovich had arrived and heard: 'Hey, why don't you take off your rucksack first!'- 'I can't, it's too heavy! Help me!' So they took off the sack and it was full of vodka! Father was not given a gram, but at once was promoted to the rank of sergeant major. And by the end of the war he was a sergeant major.
Here in Dvinsk, there were seven relatives left, all 'Zionists' and 'super Communists.' The first to be executed in Latvia in 1935 was my aunt Sofia Kopelovich; she was a Communist. But the most interesting things happened later. In 1937, people in the USSR were permitted to make telephone calls to Daugavpils [before 1920 Dvinsk], Latvia. They didn't correspond with each other by mail, it was impossible . So they decided to call. Father was busy at work, so he didn't call. In the morning they went to see their friends who did call - and they found out that all of them were arrested. Therefore the brothers refrained from calling. They decided that the following day they would go to the post office and call their mother. But the following day those who called were in prison. And my father Isaac was a Communist, a commander, so he couldn't compromise himself like that. There was no communication between Dvinsk and Vitebsk. It probably existed before 1928-1930, but later the Stalin regime was very strict  and arrested those who tried to get in touch with their relatives. I vaguely know my Dvinsk relatives.
Daddy was an odd-job man, a baker mostly. The Communist Party directed him to be a shop manager. And he kept this position until 1941.
As soon as the war began  he was immediately sent to the front, but before he left he took all his relatives and put them all in a railway car and sent them to the Urals. As I was told - I was small then - we reached the Urals, and then headed for Dzhambul, in Kazakhstan. Mother's brother, Ierukhim Beskin, we called him Uncle Ira, was then working in Moscow as the director of a printing house, and we wrote to him and learnt who was where.
We arrived back in Vitebsk in 1944, and I started going to school. Father was still in the army, and we arrived right after Vitebsk had been liberated. The city was completely destroyed! They say Smolensk was destroyed, but in Vitebsk 95 percent of the buildings lay in ruins. I remember only the mess. I remember one bridge across which we were walking, there was a bridge to the brick plant that the Fascists wanted to blow up, and one soldier received the rank of Hero of the Soviet Union  for preventing that.
We were given a room in a barrack. And before Father returned in 1945, we lived there. Mum worked at the brick factory as an unskilled worker. We boys ran about, as I remember, played lapta [a ball game]. We were very good friends, I can hardly believe now that it is possible to live in such an amicable way. You ask if we lived poorly? That's not the right word! My grandmother used to give me 'a cake' in evacuation. And what this cake was? - a small slice of bread cut into tiny cubes. That was called a cake. Certainly, for the toilet - be it in winter or summer - you had to go outside. Before I left for Moscow to study, it was nothing for me to run to the toilet outside of the house barefoot in winter. No detrimental consequences whatsoever.
In 1945, my father was discharged from the army, returned home, and was given three German POWs, Fascists, to help him cut the wood and build two frameworks of houses and cement a deep cellar. Then the Germans were taken away, and he finished the work by himself.
After the war, he was just as strong an ideologist as before, but when I turned thirteen in 1951, he, the big Communist atheist, gathered ten Jews and carried out a bar mitzvah as if he was a fully ordained rabbi. Father retired at the age of 60 - in 1961. He still worked a little bit at different jobs. But at 69 years of age he died of cancer.
Father didn't want to return to Dvinsk after the war, because his mother and father had died there, and all our relatives had perished in the war. He told me that they were very religious.
My brother Lyova finished eight classes of the Jewish school in Vitebsk, and then they closed the school. We all knew Yiddish well, wrote and spoke the language. In our home, we only spoke Yiddish with our grandmother. And with others we could speak Russian, sometimes inserting Belarusian words. With Daddy and Mum I spoke Russian. When they wanted to hide something from me, they spoke Yiddish. And when they realized that I understood everything, they started to mix Yiddish, Russian, and Belarusian words. But both they and I knew that wasn't working.
Uncle Ierukhim Beskin, my mother's brother, left with a large group of friends for Moscow in 1925-1926. This was a group of 20 men - all of them became porters in Moscow, having had not much of an education. And gradually, step by step, they made their way into the world. Some of them returned to Vitebsk, some were killed during the war.
Uncle Ira fell deeply in love with a beautiful woman. The parents of the two parties were against their marriage. Galina Evgrafovna came from an old noble Russian family. They loved each other and registered their union. Grandma used to joke, 'My son cannot eat pork, but he cannot resist cold boiled pork!' Which was her way of referring to her daughter-in-law. But then Galina became very close with my grandmother. They had two kids. They agreed that if there would be a boy - circumcision, if a girl - christening. There was a boy, and later there was a girl. The boy was duly circumcised, the girl christened. The boy's name was Leonid, we called him Lerik. He eventually graduated from a legal college in 1952, but he could not work: in his passport Leonid's nationality was Russian , but his surname - Beskin - was specifically Jewish. Leonid's nationality, which he got from his mother, didn't make his life easier.
Eventually, at the end of his life he became the manager of the singer Iosif Kobzon [people's actor of the USSR, officially recognized singer]. He was engaged in theatrical business, was a manager, and came to Riga several times with various troupes. When Leonid Beskin died, Kobzon took on the funeral expenses. Leonid is buried at the non-Jewish Novodevichye cemetery, the most prestigious one in Moscow. It's right in the center of Moscow.
Galina and Uncle Ira are buried there, too. He was not a Communist; in fact, he became a rich man. His daughter Svetlana is in Damascus, they [she and her husband] received jobs at the conservatory there.
My eldest aunt is Anya Bessmertnova [nee Beskina]; her husband died under the wheels of a tram in Moscow. That's what I was told, but trams do not gain such speeds in Moscow to run over a man. He was a jeweler, so it's a dark and suspicious affair. They lived in Vitebsk and owned a big house there before the war.
Grandmother lived in Vitebsk with her younger daughter Tsilya Shagalova [nee Beskina (1900-1989)]. Granny was very religious. Father used to bake matzot, basically for her.
She cooked only kosher meals. She ate only dairy products. Uncle Ira used to say, 'Nobody has the right to help her. I am the only son - me!' Besides, after the war, he gave every one of his relatives 10,000 Rubles each to start building their own houses. And to his last day he supported his mum. Uncle Ira came to visit very often, together with his wife, sometimes in his own car. Aunt Galina Evgrafovna didn't like to offend anybody, so she visited all the relatives and ate everything she was given, although she knew that she would have to take purgatives later. She used to say, 'Well, why would I offend anybody?! But my diet, my fine figure!' They loved each other, those two.
I remember coming to see my grandmother and she would give me a Ruble: 'Go buy yourself some berries.' I went and I bought wild strawberries, which I could eat right in the market place, or, if it were other berries, I had to wash them first. Everyone loved her very much. At 89 she broke a leg while descending the porch. That was in 1952. And in Vitebsk there were very professional doctors then. The persecution of Jews had already begun and prominent experts from Moscow escaped to Vitebsk, and worked in the Medical Institute . They performed an operation, put her leg in plaster and said, 'With God's mercy she will be able to sit.' She sat, then she rose, then she walked on crutches and with a stick. After that, her case was described in many medical books, because it's a wonderful fact that she could get absolutely well at that age. When my cousin, who is now in Germany, studied there, she was told about this case by her professors. Then she said, 'It's my granny!' Grandmother died at the age of 89.
The school I went to was a kind of an elite school. Our Physics teacher was the first person to be awarded the Order of Lenin  in Belarus. Our Russian teacher was in the circle of Vladimir Mayakovsky . My friend, Nikolay Tishechkin, became a people's actor of Belarus. I wasn't the only Jew in our class. There were no national issues whatsoever. Everyone was a member of the Komsomol , or a pioneer . We visited factories and we had all sorts of interesting field trips. Our life was very nice.
I graduated from the Moscow Polygraphic Institute. I was admitted the first year when Jews were accepted, in 1955. The supervisor of our school treated Jews very well, and she told me, 'Don't you think, that you are not going to be admitted because you are a Jew!' She was Russian or Latvian, I think.
I became a student of the mechanical faculty, specializing in mechanics and design of polygraphic machines. The food at our faculty was disgusting and because we were students of arts and humanitarian sciences, they fed us miserably. And suddenly, there came an announcement - that we were to go on strike! Nobody went to eat for two days. At that time the so-called Hungarian events  were happening. Instantly, all sorts of big shots descended on our school. And they immediately rectified the situation.
Sometimes we went skiing. Once we wandered into the residence of Khrushchev . They showed us to the exit rather quickly.
At school, every night we had dancing parties, especially on Saturdays. There was a separate campus, two kilometers from any residential area. I lived in a small room - there were only 18 of us living together - all nationalities. When you look at the picture of us, it is remarkable to see every ethnic type.
My uncle's wife, Galina Evgrafovna, personally taught me good manners and all the rules of decent behavior. She introduced me to Moscow's high society and taught me many things, including the right way to hold a spoon or a fork. You know, I was from a small town!
Uncle Ira was the director of a large printing house of the Moscow Theatrical Society. All posters, all tickets - were made there. As a student, I attended all the performances. Thanks to him, I saw a lot of theater plays. I went to the first Viennese ballet on ice, various festivals.
We graduated in 1960. After graduation, we had reunions every five years. On 5th May - the Publisher's Day. We continued meeting until Latvia became independent. Everybody used to come - even some foreigners, who studied with us. During these 30 years we were gathering every five years.
After graduation we had a 'free distribution'  - that means everybody was to look for a job independently. My brother Lyova worked here in Riga, and he was the head of a foundry shop. He had trouble with the Latvian language, which he didn't speak and needed to communicate with the workers in Russian.
I worked in the sixth printing house for half a year, that's where Sergey Eisenstein , the famous film-director, worked. They insisted on speaking only Latvian to me. So my brother sent me to the electric lamps factory, and asked his acquaintances there to hire me. It was a large production plant. So I went to the main engineer and he said, 'OK, start tomorrow.' I came the following day, though the first department - department of the KGB  - didn't want to accept me because I was a Jew and the factory was paramilitary. I began to work, and I worked there until my very retirement. I held all kinds of posts at the factory. I have achieved the rank of designer of the first category, there's nothing above it. I worked as deputy chief mechanic, the chief of design bureau, and my last assignment was the director of a shop.
Where can you find a Jewish wife? In the regional Komsomol Committee! I was an educated Communist. I finished the University of Marxism-Leninism as a Komsomol member, then took a philosophical training course. I was the secretary of the Komsomol organization of our workshop.
Once there was a session in the office of the third secretary of the Kirovsky district Komsomol Committee. I was the chief of the Komsomol lecturers' group, and my future wife also held some post. It was the time when various youth contests were fashionable. And there was one contest held right then at the factory 'Bolshevichk?'. And there comes my future wife, a young girl, and asks for two tickets. I didn't even now what kind of tickets they were. She bought two tickets and left, and I liked her.
And I told Valya, the member of the Komsomol Committee, 'Valya, I also need two tickets.' And she said, 'Abram, what, are you crazy? You never liked such performances.' - 'But I want to see one now.' 'Well, here you are.'
So I came there with my comrade. She came with a friend, too. And I invited her to dance although I wasn't an expert dancer. And she was a little bit offended because my friend was a real lady's man.
We didn't start dating for a long time. We saw each other about ten times, half a year. She was the first Jewish girl who I liked very much. And that's it. I didn't even know from the start that she was Jewish. And when I found that out, oy - she is Jewish! - OK, it's high time for me to get married! And I have never regretted it. We registered our marriage in 1965.
I was already a Communist, my wife was a Communist, so there was no chuppah, no Jewish wedding. Then it was impossible . Instantly, the authorities would have known about it. In 1966 our daughter was born. We couldn't afford a second child - she studied and we thought it would be too hard - nobody helped us financially. Debts, furniture on credit, apartment by installments - that was our life.
We lived in a rented apartment. It was possible to rent and then buy an apartment, so we wrote five applications to different co-operatives. Once I was in a collective farm  on an assignment. I came home on leave - and my wife wasn't there. And I was dressed in a felt jersey, just from the collective farm in the country. The neighbors told me she was at a party. I found her and she jumped up, delighted and happy. And I was standing there in dirty boots, you know, right from the village. And she exclaimed: 'I have paid for the apartment!' I said, 'No problem, honey, it's only 30 Rubles.' 'No, I mean the first installment for the apartment in the co- operative society! I had to borrow from this and that!'
And we received the apartment very fast. Then it was necessary to pay back the debts, and it turned out to be a prolonged procedure. It took us about 15 years to pay it all back. And we had to buy books too, and to settle our other bills. We began to travel a little when our daughter turned six. And then we started traveling more and more often. We never built or bought a summerhouse. However, we used summer residences provided by the state from time to time.
My wife's name is Anna [nee Maisel], she finished a Physics college here, and then worked at a prison school in Valmiera [a town 106 km north east of Riga]. Later she worked in another school as a teacher, and deputy director. She studied at post-graduate courses in Moscow. They didn't take her at university - as a Jewish person. But she found a job in the Institute of Improvement of Teachers' Qualifications. Later there was a vacancy of a scientific employee in the institute at the Ministry of Education. Soon she became the chief of the department of labor training in the Institute of Pedagogy of the Ministry of Education. It was considered a prestigious post. Then she was invited to read lectures. Now my spouse is the Dean of the faculty of Pedagogy and Psychology of the Latvian University.
When in 1991 the so-called freedom period began , my spouse Anna and Bregman Losev were the founders of Jewish schools. Anna created the first methodological instructions, first programs, and Losev analyzed the Jewish national questions. And they created the first Jewish school. Now, unfortunately, the schools have changed. Now the questions of money prevail, and then these questions were not so important. There was one goal: to create a Jewish school, so that Jewish children could learn about Jewish culture, Jewish life, and in general the basics of their national culture.
My daughter's name is Nelli, Muller after her marriage. She graduated from the university in the department of Physics, with an honors diploma. She was not offered a job in the university due to a simple reason - the position was meant for a relative of one of the bosses. And she entered the post-graduate courses in the Polytechnical Institute in Riga. When she was about to defend her thesis, Latvia became independent and all those changes started happening. And she left for America with her husband. She is a mathematician and works in a large travel company. And she carries out all mathematical processing for the company - absolutely all of it. She married a Jew, which is natural. It is a question of tradition and education. Both the Kopelovich and Muller families originated from Daugavpils. My daughter, granddaughter, and grandson are all Jewish, and the boy is circumcised.
I was a secular man. But, whenever I was on holiday with my wife, or I was traveling alone, I always found time for visiting a synagogue. Not because I was a believer, I just felt drawn to it. Besides, I liked to enter mosques and Christian churches.
But on 18-19th August, 1991, during the coup attempt against Gorbachev , we were on Baikal Lake [in Siberia], and we were very scared. There was no connection home to Riga, and besides they were showing all sorts of terrible stuff on TV, so we were very worried. It was in 1991, and we were in a place from where people can't be exiled any farther. It was funny! It was a Soviet tradition for television to show all sorts of cultural programs like the ballet 'Swan Lake,' Beethoven symphonies when some big Communist leaders died, like Brezhnev , Andropov, or Chernenko. And in these few days, we had too much culture and not enough news.
Up to the end of my life I will remember that I am a Jew. And I knew that I would marry only a Jewish girl. On Saturdays I started to attend synagogue. But of course, I don't observe all the subtleties of religion. First of all, it's a very long way to the synagogue if you go on foot. It's a great deal of walking. And you cannot ride on Saturdays. It's a serious infringement. And, secondly, my wife often comes late on Friday. If I'm at home, I light the candles. She sometimes works on Saturdays too, she cannot refuse. Well, how can one observe traditions in this situation? It is not allowed to put on the light, to do this, to do that. We cannot observe, even if we wanted to. The only thing we do, we don't eat bread at Pesach. When I worked, I didn't care what people said, I brought matzot and ate it. And my wife says it isn't very convenient, but still she abstains from eating bread. I keep the customs within reasonable limits - I would always put on a cap when I light the Friday night candles.
My sister didn't leave for Israel while Mum was alive. But when our mother died, my sister left. And then she died in Israel not long afterwards. We have a lot of relatives in Israel. The Zeltsers from Grodno [town in Belarus]: Sofia Zeltser, and her husband Alexander Zeltser. Their children are Musya, a doctor in Netanya, and Arkady, who is now working for a doctor's degree at the Jerusalem university. My brother Lyova left for Israel in 1992. My brother's son is now a doctor in Netanya.
My cousin Nina, Uncle Lyova's daughter, lives in Vitebsk. We regularly visit Vitebsk; our parents' graves are there. Two years ago we attended the festival 'Slavonic Fair' [an annual music festival called Slavyanskiy Bazar in Russian] there. I understand and speak Yiddish, too.
I need to say some words about my dear friend Alexander Germanovich Losev [1923 -1997], or as we called him, Sasha. I have a picture with him in it. I knew him since July 1961. I came to Riga after graduating from the institute in Moscow, and he was a friend of my brother Lev Kopelovich. Losev came to Riga after having completed training in the studio of Solomon Mikhoels  in Moscow. He and my brother were sent to Latvia by Mikhoels to create the Jewish theater right after the war. Unfortunately, it was not the time for founding theaters. Life was very hard.
My brother went to work in the foundry; Alexander Germanovich finished the pedagogical institute and started to teach at an evening school. Then he got married, lived on Dzirnavu Street in one room in a shared apartment . Financially he lived very poorly. He was always engaged in issues of literature. His hobby is the history of interrelation between Russian and Latvian languages, Rainis [real name: Janis Plieksans (1865-1929): poet, playwright, translator and politician, considered the most distinguished Latvian writer of all time], Pushkin  and so on.
He finished post-graduate courses by correspondence, obtaining the degree of a candidate of sciences  and worked in the Institute of Pedagogical Studies at the Ministry of Education. In the beginning he was just a scientific employee, but he finished in the rank of a scientific secretary. He wrote a lot of articles and books. He was always interested in Jewish issues, Jewish literature. At the same time he had many Russian and Latvian friends. He had been granted a three-room apartment, where in one of the rooms was his study, full of scientific materials, books, and magazines. He was very cheerful, and liked to tell Jewish jokes very much. It was a sheer pleasure to sit and talk to him. He felt very young and we loved him very much. We lived very near each other, he frequently came to see us and called on the telephone.
When he died, there was a big funeral ceremony. All the Jewish community came, as well as the Orthodox Christian community, that's how well loved he was. He died in 1997, and he is buried at the Jewish cemetery.