Krichinsky family recall days that inspired the film 'Avalon'

October 04, 1990|By Sujata Banerjeeand Stephanie Shapiro | Sujata Banerjeeand Stephanie Shapiro,Evening Sun Staff

THE HOUSE was a three-story brownstone on Jackson Place overflowing with Krichinskys: Mollie tap-dancing down the hall, Phyllis leaping from washing machine to sink, Rona dangling on her father's knee, other brothers, sisters and cousins making mischief. With three families under one roof, plenty of music, cards, coffee and Schnapps abounded.

Always there were stories. When the children pleaded, "Tell us another Bubbameinsa" -- an old story -- the parents gladly obliged. The children's recollections of these stories became the VTC foundation for Barry Levinson's film "Avalon." Levinson's grandfather, Sam Krichinsky, and Sam's brothers and sisters -- Gabriel, Hyman, Morris, William, Bertha and Mindel -- all came to Baltimore from Kiev in the first quarter of this century. "Avalon," which opens tomorrow at area theaters, is the story of this extended Jewish family that lived together, set up a prosperous wallpapering business and became part of the American dream.

Just as their parents once held family-circle meetings, six Krichinsky daughters, who are Levinson's cousins, and their offspring met recently to share family memories. As usual, it was noisy.

"This is typical of a Krichinsky setting," says Mollie Fischel, Morris' daughter. "A lot of people, everyone voicing their opinion, laughing, crying. Eight people in a room and four conversations going."

"We can talk to everyone at the same time, it has been like this for years," says Irwin Tamres, a college student and Gabriel's grandson. "When we were little, Miles [a cousin] and I used to just sit and watch."

In "Avalon," the Krichinsky men control the plot. But their daughters say it wasn't exactly that way.

"The women did all the organizing. We just let the men think they were ruling," says Mollie. "The thing about Krichinskys is the spouses do whatever they want, say whatever they want."

Libby Platt, Gabriel's daughter, remembers her grandmother Malka, whose sons brought her from the old country, as a religious and forceful woman who insisted on fasting for Yom Kippur through her 80s.

"For every religious holiday, we would be in shul and the women sat upstairs, separate from the men. Every year, my grandmother would get sick at 7 p.m. [during prayers] and the four sons would have to carry her home," Libby says.

Goldie Krichinsky, Gabriel's wife, had so much authority she was nick-named "the Judge." "Everyone was entitled to an opinion, but hers was last," her daughter Rona Perman remembers. During World War II, Gabriel was able to buy a car, a very scarce commodity. Nevertheless, Goldie made him return it to the dealer because it was black, a color she detested.

Phyllis Press, Hyman's daughter, also remembers how Goldie did not care for ironing. Goldie used to wash her four daughters' clothes, hang them to dry and then stuff them together in a closet until they were bunched into an impossible knot. If a child needed a blouse, she was sent out to buy one.

In their parents' eyes, "the children were perfect," Rona says. When Rona came home with a poor grade, her mother Goldie demanded, "What kind of teachers do they have there?"

"Gabriel was the nicest, sweetest dad," Rona says. "When he'd yell at me, he would be smiling with his eyes."

"We got the best they could give us," agrees Mollie. "The only thing I didn't get as a little girl was a bicycle. They were afraid I would fall off."

The kids learned English at school, and tried in vain to Americanize their immigrant parents.

"We spoke Yiddish in the house, although we children preferred to speak English," says Mollie. "We used to tell our parents, 'You're an American now, speak English!'"

Still, the children honored their parents.

On Saturdays, all the brothers sang Hebrew songs together. In the 1920s, they performed together as a band. "Gabriel loved to dance, we thought he was wonderful, like Rudolf Valentino," Rona says.

"He taught us how to cover our school books in wallpaper. . . . Gabriel trained us. I could paint and scaffold. Everything in this house I can fix because I was taught to do everything. We were very liberated."

Gabriel had five daughters, and Rona thinks he longed for a son.

"Every time my father was expecting a child, he'd paint the house for a bris [a religious circumcision ceremony]. He never got a son. But in the movie, Barry Levinson gave him one. He

must be smiling now!" she jokes.

The brothers ate well, enjoying traditional dishes such as cooked chicken feet, kishka [a sausagelike delicacy] and gefilte fish. Morris took to the kitchen himself -- "My father took breast of chicken and cooked it like gefilte fish," Mollie remembers.

In the '50s, the Krichinsky family moved to the suburb of Forest Park, which was vastly different from the city.

"When we moved to Tioga Parkway, I did miss the fun. [In the city] you could sit on a stoop and 10 people would come down and sit next to you," Rona says. "We missed the old house with three floors and little kids."

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