On May 15, 2014, Rabbi Brian Fink and several Engage volunteers hosted a luncheon at the JCC for a distinguished group of 40 Russian WWII veterans from the Jewish Community House (JCH) in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Despite fighting in the Soviet army, they were discriminated against because of their religion. In fact, 80% of all Russian Jews who served were killed or badly wounded during the war.
From June 1941 to July 1943, they were driven from their homes like cattle and forced to hide in closets, basements, and wherever they could find shelter, even in the woods. However, most held onto their optimism because they knew they had to live in order to honor those who perished.
- “I fought in Stalingrad with the partisans. Everything was taken from us–food, medicine, education, youth, money. We had to steal food to stay alive. After the war, we came back to find our homes occupied by strangers.”
- “I still have nightmares about the murder of innocents. The Nazis came into our town, rounded up innocent people and shot them. When I looked into a grave, I saw my relatives with bullets in their heads. I don’t think I will ever forget that day.”
The stories of two female survivors, Zhanna and Riva, were particularly compelling:
- Zhanna, who was born in Odessa, spent years in a ghetto. Her father was drafted the second day of the war in June 1941, when she was only 10 years old. Her brother, who fought with the partisans, was killed at age 15. After the war, Zhanna reunited with her family. To their dismay, when they returned to their homes, the buildings were occupied by former neighbors unwilling to return their property. She returned to school and graduated with honors, but told us that Jews were not allowed to attend universities. Later on, when she immigrated to the US, she had to pay 750 rubles, and Soviet government revoked her passport and citizenship. Now in her twilight years, she is still a spirited lady, devoting her time to make younger generations aware of the Nazi atrocities.
- Riva was a “hidden” child in an area occupied by the Nazis, who went to Leningrad in 1941 with her nanny and her brother. Surrounded by the enemy and separated from their parents, they had to stay hidden in the forest for three cold and hungry years. The partisans couldn’t help them because it would have compromised their position. After the war, her village was burned down and a surviving relative took her to another place. She was smuggled out of Russia under someone’s coat since she had no identification papers. Eventually she reconnected with her parents, but her brother had died at the hands of the Nazi murderers. Riva missed two years of school but when she returned she graduated with honors. Although she went on to medical school and became a gynecologist, she could not further her career because she was a Jew.
Zhanna and Riva met at the JCH and have become good friends. They are both grateful to the people who saved their lives. Zhanna said that special thanks should go to Savelry Kaplinsky, who collaborates with her in the Holocaust survivor efforts.
During the luncheon, I was also shown a Memory Book produced by the survivors that tells each of their stories. All in attendance agreed that the JCH is their spiritual home. However, no amount of solidarity can erase the horrors of war. The luncheon concluded with all vowing to stay in touch with their JCC hosts, and one survivor proudly stating, “God bless America. Please tell our story.”