My father, Solomon Abramovich Lisagor, was arrested in May 1936, a month after I had been born. My mother, Nina Lvovna Sher, was arrested in October 1937. She was in hiding all the time after my father’s arrest. To avoid being arrested, she never in one place for over two nights, because she knew that in this case the children were taken away from their parents forever. Every night my mother expected a ring or a knock at the door. This was probably the reason why she was suffering from insomnia during her whole life afterwards.
Our co-op apartment in Gogolevsky Boulevard was confiscated after my father’s arrest, as well as all his belongings (including socks and cufflinks). In 1956, after political rehabilitation, my mother received the equivalent of 3000 rubles (less than $50) compensation for the ‘lost property’. My mother was working in Norilsk at that time and the compensation made up roughly the amount of her monthly earnings.
After my father’s arrest, my nanny Duniasha and I were living in my grandparents’ seven-meter room in a communal apartment in Skariatinsky Alley, by Nikitskie Vorota. There was a chest with my nanny’s belongings, a small couch, a wardrobe and a table. The sleeping arrangements were as follows: my nanny slept on the chest, I slept on the couch and my grandparents would sleep on the old mattresses on the floor. There were 12 rooms in the flat with a long corridor, a large kitchen and a toilet. In the kitchen there were two sinks, four gas-stoves and a few tables.
My grandparents, Lev Naumovich and Rahil Naumovna, who were my mother’s parents, came from Nizhniy Novgorod where my mother was born. My grandfather used to work as a bookbinder in a private workshop in Nizhniy Novgorod and later, in Moscow, he worked as a cashier in a factory. He was an Orthodox Jew who prayed a few times a day, sometimes for a long time.
My grandparents tried to keep to themselves in the fear of what might be the consequences of anyone finding out that their daughter was in a GULAG camp. I had no friends or acquaintances. Of all the books my grandmother would read to me, I can only remember Brothers Grimm tales. Of all the toys - a big teddy bear. I could spend hours sitting in silence, thinking. That was my favourite pastime.
I saw the photos of my young parents much later in life, and there were very few of them. My grandmother never told me anything about my mother and father, lest I let it slip. Whenever I asked ‘Where’s Mom? Where’s Dad?’ she would give the same answer: ‘away on business’.
At that time, everyone knew what it meant. My mother told me that father had understood everything long before the mass arrests started. He was a ‘Western man’, who could speak foreign languages. He would have been arrested in any case, he was too much of a free-thinker. Indeed, he had been arrested earlier, in 1935, but quickly released. My mother was sure that he was doomed: he had never been cautious enough while discussing his views with colleagues and friends.
My parents got married in 1924, when my mother was 18 and my father was 26. Father had arrived in Russia from Latvian Riga a few years before that.
Solomon Lisagor studied architecture in Moscow at MPI - MICE- MECI. MPI (Moscow Polytechnic Institute) was renamed into MICE (Moscow Institute of Civil Engineers) and then further into MECI (Moscow Engineering and Construction Institute), all being part of Engineering and Construction faculty of MHST (Moscow Higher School of Technology).
Lisagor graduated from MECI. Constructivism was the prevailing style from the 20s to mid-30s not only in architecture but also in visual arts and printing industry. Soon, student Lisagor became a constructivist, it was seen in his first course papers. Soon after graduating he joined one of the leaders of constructivism architecture, Moisei Ginzburg, and his group.
At first, my mother and father rented a room in Sretenka Street. This room was frequented by foreigners, the specialists who visited Moscow. One of them was the famous Le Corbusier. Mother told me that there used to be two specializations: architect in construction industry and architect in visual arts, which my father had (mastered).
A few years later the Workers’ Housing Construction Cooperative built an experimental housing estate in Gogolevsky Boulevard and called it ‘Show House’. The estate included three buildings: one communal and two residential blocks (one with Type A ‘horizontal cell’ apartments and the other with Type F ‘double-height’ apartments.
Solomon Lisagor was on the team which designed the latter.
He also designed the built-in furniture for the block. Lisagor was given an apartment in this block after he had paid a substantial amount of money for it.
This housing estate is still wrongly named ‘a house-commune’. According to Moisei Ginzburg, it was a ‘transitional type’ house which made allowances for the ‘petty-bourgeois mentality’ by means of small kitchen units, private toilets and shower cabins in its living cells.
‘House-communes’ were a real embodiment of the ‘communal lifestyle’. Moisei Ginzburg was their fierce critic saying that, unlike transitional type houses, a house-commune was ‘…an assembly line which carries regulated life and resembles a Prussian military barrack’.
Together with his colleagues, and individually, Solomon Lisagor designed, residential, civic, office and other buildings. His design projects were used for buildings in Ekaterinburg, Saratov, Ufa, the Crimea and Moscow.
A few years after his arrest, Lisagor was completely forgotten; his name would be erased from the transcripts stored in the archives and the magazines with his articles would be confiscated from the libraries. As if he had never existed.
Solomon Lisagor died in prison at the beginning of 1938.
Only 45 years after he had vanished, was my father remembered again. S. Lisagor’s name was first mentioned at the exhibition ‘Moscow – Paris’ in 1981. Two of the blueprints for the Palace of the Soviets design project were exhibited there developed in cooperation with M. Ginzburg and G. Gassenpflug in 1931–1932). Both my mother and I attended the exhibition.
My father’s two sisters lived in Moscow with their families. They were so terrified after his arrest that they cut all the ties with my mother and destroyed all the photographs. My mother’s brother, Mikhail Lvovich Sher, also lived in Moscow. He was arrested on the same charges as my father. Their mutual friend had reported them to the authorities. Years later, when my uncle was living in Norilsk after being released from prison, the person who had denounced him was also released from prison and ended up in Dudinka (a Yenisei port 110 km away from Norilsk). He wrote a letter to my uncle saying that he was dying and asking my uncle to come and see him. Uncle neither replied nor went there.
My father’s parents died in the Riga ghetto in 1941. They had had seven children. Four of them, two sons and two daughters, moved to the USSR before the war. The three daughters, who had stayed in Riga, also died in ghetto. My grandfather on the father’s side worked in a company which traded in timber. He used to know Simon Dubnow, the author of books on Jewish history and on the history of Russian Jews. Some evidence points to them being in the Riga ghetto together.
There used to be many Lisagors in Riga. Some of them had fled Riga before Nazi troops occupied it, the others stayed and were destined to die. Those who had escaped would return home afterwards.
I met four Lisagor families in Riga in 1956: my father’s male and female cousins. I was twenty years old at the time, I was young and silly, so we lost touch.
Moscow was bombed at the beginning of the war. The air-raid siren usually sounded in the evenings. My grandmother and I would be hiding in the communal air raid shelter in the basement of a big house in our yard. The basement had served as a workshop for making envelopes. There were piles of envelopes on the tables and a strong smell of glue all over the place. This smell used to linger in my nose for many years afterwards.
My grandfather believed in God, so he stayed at home and went to bed on principle. In October 1941 his factory was evacuated from Moscow and we tagged along. I remember grandfather sitting on the suitcase at the station and starting to cry: he didn’t want to leave Moscow. He said it would be impossible to come back. However, when my grandmother said: ‘What if something happens to the child…’, he stood up and went on.
We arrived in Koptevka village in Kuybyshev region. It was a godforsaken place. We shared a house with a family whose child was dying of tuberculosis just over the wall from us. All our food was bread and tomatoes. My grandparents used to sell our belongings in order to get something else.