S: Individual Lives, Common Story
BC: Oh, rotten war, what have you done? ~ Okudzhava
FC: Individual Lives, Common Story
1: Individual Lives, Common Story...
3: This book was published with the support of the Brandeis-Genesis Institute for Russian Jewry. The Brandeis-Genesis Institute is an initiative that prepares Russian-speaking students from around the world to become effective community leaders fortified by Jewish knowledge, a systematic understanding of Russian Jewry, and a commitment to the future of the Jewish people. The institute was launched in 2009 with a generous support from the Genesis Philanthropy Group. The Genesis Philanthropy Group (GPG) was established in 2007 with the mission to develop and enhance a sense of Jewish identity among Russian-speaking Jews worldwide, with particular emphasis on the Former Soviet Union, North America and Israel where up to three million Russian Jews reside. Since its inception, the foundation has made over 100 grants to organizations such as Brandeis University, Taglit-Birthright Israel, Moishe House, Hillel Russia, Yad Vashem, Cojeco, Moscow State University, the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, St. Petersburg State University and others. For more information www.gpg.org
4: This scrapbook is a product of creativity and dedication of six fellows of the Brandeis-Genesis Institute for Russian Jewry (BGI) of Brandeis University: Dina Kapengut '14, Julia Rabkin '11, Avraham (Eli) Tukachinsky '11, Karina Gaft '14, Lena Vaynberg '13 and Eleazar Jacobs '13. From October 2010 to May 2011 these students spent time at the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center (Roslindale, MA) doing volunteer work with the Russian-speaking elderly residents, collecting their life stories for the Oral History project. The residents painted the picture of the Soviet epoch by sharing the tales of love and death, of human tragedy in the war, of difficulties they had to overcome, of the brotherhood and sisterhood at the frontlines, of Anti-Semitism in the USSR and of great friendships that literally saved lives during the war. What became obvious from these stories is that World War II (the Great Patriotic War or simply "the war" in Russian) interweaves the stories of five strangers into one: a story of a generation of people, whose lives were scorched by the war in one way or another. This scrapbook attempts to preserve the memories of people who witnessed the war, survived it, lived through the ups and downs of the Soviet regime and have come to the United States in their later years for a new chapter in their life. The project's participants would like to thank Lisa Mankita Fay (BGI) for organizational support, Prof. Irina Dubinina (Russian language program, Brandeis University) for directing the project, and the Center's residents for the life stories they have shared with us.
6: PERSONAL REFLECTIONS As undergraduate fellows of the Brandeis Genesis Institute for Russian Jewry, we hold a commitment to the preservation and continuation of the Russian Jewish culture. One of the best ways to understand a culture is through its history, and history is best understood through the experiences and accounts of those individuals who have lived through it themselves. We are the generation that is fortunate enough to hear witness accounts of life in the Soviet Union from former Soviet Jews themselves. So what better way is there for us to learn about our Russian Jewish culture than to hear about it from individuals who spent most of their lives in the Soviet Union. Under the guidance of Professor Irina Dubinina, six undergraduate fellows, myself included, have volunteered at the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center located in Roslindale, Massachusetts between October 2010 and May 2011. We interacted with the Russian-speaking residents of the Center, helping them with their daily routines, keeping them company and listening to their life narratives. These residents are former Soviet citizens who have brought their invaluable memories and knowledge with them to the United States. Early in the project each of the fellows paired up with an elderly resident and visited this person on a regular basis, usually on weekends, over the course of two semesters. We spent the bulk of our time in one-on-one conversations with our partner-residents, recording what they were telling us about their lives, from accounts of their childhood, youth and adulthood to their values and beliefs. What we gained from these sessions has been a source of introspection both for us and our partner-residents. Some of the elderly had the stories of their youth ready to be told, others had not talked about certain moments or whole periods of their lives for many years. These stories have begun to emerge through our weekly sessions. The HRC residents found themselves reminiscing about moments in their lives that they thought nobody would ever care to ask about, moments that perhaps they themselves thought they would never have to recall again. We have given them the understanding that they are among the precious few primary sources about life in the Soviet Union left in the world; that their lives, as average as they may be, were nevertheless unique witness accounts of history. We asked them to dig into their past and reveal to us, college undergraduates with whom they had no personal affiliation, their life stories.
7: And by doing so, we challenged ourselves as well. When the project was first proposed, I personally thought that the trips to a senior rehabilitation center would be somewhat boring. I expected to hear stories yearning for the return of youthful vigor, stories about mundane professions these individuals had in the former Soviet Union, about the “good old days” (which every adult naturally believes was the best of times), or even stories about dishes they cooked in the "old country" and how they were never able to discover an adequate substitute for this type of cooking in the United States. We were also worried that we would not receive much substance from the seniors. We expected them to be somewhat closed off and disinterested in talking to us because, after all, we were mere strangers to them. In addition, we anticipated possible problems with communication. None of us was educated in the Russian language and, as a result, some of us were concerned that our language skills might not be up to par for this project. We were afraid that our language deficiencies could prevent us from asking the proper follow-up questions, understanding the true significance of some of the stories, being able to effectively express our own feelings or opinions to them, or even from being able to accurately transcribe and translate all of our conversations into English in the later stages of the project. We could not have been more wrong about the substance of the conversations. What we got from our partner-residents were stories that could have been taken straight out of a Steven Spielberg movie. There were five individual stories, but they were all connected by the destructive effect World War II had on the lives of these people. We heard stories of the Great Patriotic War (as WWII is called in Russian), which shattered their dreams and brought suffering and death to their loved ones. There was a story of an escape from a POW camp, a story of a husband or a groom killed at the front, a story of difficult love that grew out of tragic circumstances caused by the war, and stories of life-saving friendships and anti-Semitism in the Nazi occupied Ukraine and in post-war Soviet Union. We found ourselves being engaged in our partner-residents' narratives in the same way a child listens eagerly to stories of his own grandparents.
8: The fact that I had heard similar stories about my own grandparents and great-grandparents added to my personal experience with the project. My mother’s grandfather was killed in World War II, and my paternal grandfather had bullet scars on his body (which he showed to my siblings when they were young) from the very war these people were telling me about. When some of our partner-residents shared stories of how they celebrated Jewish holidays in the USSR, these were not just random foreign rituals and traditions to me. These were experiences that I and my fellow students can personally relate to because our parents have told us about them and because some of us had these experiences as well. As the frequency of our trips increased, we developed relationships with our interviewees who stopped being random strangers to us; they became friends with whom we had shared a history and now a part of the present. We did encounter some of the challenges we expected in addition to some unforeseen difficulties. It was difficult sometimes to collect a story. Our interviewees are very old (some are in their 90s) and their memories are often far from perfect. We had varying levels of memory preservation within our group of interviewees: some were able to recollect vividly every minute detail whereas others experienced difficulty recounting their stories. For example, Olga (who was interviewed by Eli Tukachinsky) was a great story-teller and seemed to have mostly intact memories. As Eli’s project partner, I sometimes sat in on his sessions with Olga. She would look forward to every time we visited her and would try to fit as many details into our session as possible. Many times, we lost track of time and ended up staying at the Center far longer than we expected because we were so enthralled by her narrative. In Olga’s case, there was a clear reason for this. Many years ago, someone had approached Olga regarding her wartime accounts and had offered to publish them. It never happened, and Olga was hurt. She was convinced she would die any day because of her old age (she is in her 90s) and that time was running out for her, so she was in a rush to convey her story to us. She has no children who would preserve her story, so she entrusted us with this task. This was in contrast to the person I interviewed, Moisey. He had great difficulty recalling many of his memories. When asked questions, he would often give two-word answers and avoid elaborating further. Moreover, he approached our sessions with a degree of skepticism that was absent in Olga. He is an avid poet, but he would only share his poetry with me orally because he had a fear that if he gave me a copy of his work, I would publish it under my own name and get the credit.
9: There were also gender differences influencing the interviews. Women tended to be more open whereas men, like Moisey, were less willing to talk about feelings and gave simple factual answers regarding “who, what, when, where” without details. Therefore, as much as I wanted to get the perfect story, it wasn’t what Moisey was willing or capable of sharing with me. Still, what I heard from him is invaluable. This project also gave us an opportunity to test and evaluate our language skills. We speak Russian well enough to be able to understand the stories, but some important details escaped us due to the lexical and grammatical gaps in our language. Professor Dubinina edited the Russian transcriptions and helped us in cases when we were missing critical information due to our language deficiencies. Furthermore, we were largely unaware of the bigger historical and social context these life stories took place in. For instance, because we grew up in the American education system, we had never focused on the Great Patriotic War with the same level of detail as they do in Russian schools. Therefore, the project offered us a series of mini-lessons on Soviet history that we hadn’t anticipated at its onset. To sum up, this was a great learning experience for all of us. We had language practice, history sessions, and general life lessons. We have garnered a greater admiration for what it means to be a Russian/Soviet Jew and have learned the importance of preserving the past in order to better our own future, and the futures of those yet to come. I personally have learned how unique each and every one of us truly is. It is easy to forget and cast aside the history and experiences that shaped the lives of our parents and grandparents. By undergoing this community project, we learned to understand the nuances and circumstances of our shared past, to not take for granted the freedoms which we have today, and to appreciate the travails and challenges that our predecessors overcame. It is our obligation to make sure that the stories of those before us do not get lost. We would therefore like to thank Professor Dubinina and other members of the Brandeis Genesis Institute for Russian Jewry who have helped us with this project. And most importantly, we would like to give thanks to our elderly friends at the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center who have shared their stories with us! Eleazar Jacobs, BGI fellow
11: Moisey Baranisky
12: Moisey was born in Kiev, Ukraine. He says that this was a wonderful and very green city, which suffered much destruction during the war and was restored after. Moisey lived on Kreshatik Street (a very prestigious area of Kiev). He talks about his native city with love in his voice, describing the city's streets and buildings. The building his family lived in belonged to some countess before the revolution. The front of the house looked out onto Kreshatik Street. The building had four stories. On the 2nd floor of the building, there was a hair salon on one side, and nice apartments on the other side. There was a livable basement as well, that was the location of a brothel. “I remember before the revolution, there was a small orphanage next to it, upon which there hung a sign saying ‘No Jews or Poor People Allowed”, he recalls with a smile. The access-way into the building was very pretty and had a hand-made iron-cast gate. Later, after the revolution, the building became the property of the Artists’ Union, but Moisey's family didn’t have to move. They were allowed to stay there because Moisey’s aunt was a member of this Union. | Early Life
13: As a child, Moisey was fascinated by the process of inventing. He loved to experiment with objects and made his first invention when he was just 6 years old. It was a boat that could move on both water and land. Moisey’s work was shown at the Kiev Exhibition of Children’s Creative Works. Then Moisey took on magnets and energy: "A friend and I wanted to invent a magnet." He smiles and makes a side note: “You know, when you don’t know much about a subject, then it’s easy to invent whatever you want.”
14: Jewish Life | Moisey recalls that his parents celebrated all Jewish holidays. He says that the residents of his apartment building belonged to different cultural traditions and that everybody would celebrate all of the holidays together. For example, Moisey's family would buy decorated Easter eggs and kulichi (Easter bread) from their neighbors. The family would go to Moisey's uncle's house for the High Jewish holidays because his uncle was a Rabbi. At his house they celebrated Jewish holidays in accordance with all traditions. Moisey smiles as he remembers that Passover was his favorite holiday. Later, he married a Jewish woman whose family was also religious, but in their own family life they kept with only the most basic of Jewish traditions.
15: Chagall "Exodus"
16: Work Life | Moisey has two degrees: one from the Leningrad Military School (specializing in tanks) and the other from the Leningrad Polytechnic Institute (a very prestigious university in the USSR). “I had a pretty good job,” says Moisey humbly, "I even had my own car". He was the head constructor and then the director of the Technical Department at the Ministry of Transportation. He was in charge of developing car diagnostic tools and maintenance requirements. In addition to his man job, Moisey continued working on his inventions and created many interesting things. He explains that in the USSR there were two ways to register an invention: inventor’s certificates and patents. Unfortunately, patents were not given out liberally. Moisey has only one patented invention, but more than forty inventor’s certificates. He managed to bring 40 of these certificates (which had been published in the USSR) to America when he emigrated.
17: Moisey has also been awarded medals for his inventions. At the time of the Soviet Union, there were yearly general-purpose trade shows hosted at the Exhibition of National Economic Achievements in Moscow. Moisey received a gold medal, a silver medal, and five bronze medals at these highly prestigious trade shows. | Awards and medals for Moisey's inventions
18: Love Life & War | “My wife’s name was Betty. She was from a very religious Jewish family”, explains Moisey with a twinkle in his eye. "Her parents lived in Kiev in a Jewish neighborhood of Podol. Her father was a handy man: he made all of the harnessing for horses and was a phenomenal glasscutter - he made windows for home and for display. He was a very hard-working man". Betty had a legal degree and after college came to work to the place where Moisey was already working. “You see, our love story is not simple”, explains Moisey. Betty's first love was Moisey's brother; she married him right before the war broke out. Her husband, Moisey's brother, was drafted, fought heroically at the front, rising to the ranks of a platoon leader. He was a tank commander and died when his tank was hit by the Nazi artillery, having burned to death. At the start of the war, Moisey was an engineer and was not drafted. Instead, he fought the Nazis at "the labor front", as it was called in the Soviet Union. His job was to work on improving the existing and developing new artillery weapons. He and his family were evacuated by the Soviet government to the East . Betty evacuated with Moisey's family as its member.
19: When her husband was killed, Betty stayed with Moisey’s family. Moisey and Betty became great friends, and Moisey supported her for a very long time after his brother’s death. "And then we had a daughter together," says Moisey as if still ashamed for their love. The couple registered their marriage only in 1956. There was no large or formal wedding, but Moisey and Betty celebrated their marriage with a close circle of family and friends. Betty’s parents were never opposed to her second marriage, as they knew Moisey’s family well. The parents named their daughter Elena. When Elena’s husband decided to emigrate to America (for religious freedom as well as better life opportunities), Elena followed him and soon arranged for the emigration of the now widowed Moisey.
20: Creative Life Continues | It is interesting that Moisey started writing poetry well into his older years in immigration. He has a collection of poems, which he keeps in his room. Some of them are about the war. An excerpt below describes the horrors of the siege of Leningrad and is called "In Memory of Little Sonia": | The picture is so common: A mother dragging a corpse on an old sleigh That may be her son or daughter, Wrapped in a white sheet
21: Other poems are about love and are dedicated to his late wife: I barely knew you and still I was enchanted by you. I saw you - and goosebumps ran down my skin You disappeared - and I am no longer myself.
23: Mindel Shpack
24: “It’s not easy to talk about it”, says Mindel Shpak when reminiscing about her first love—her first husband Chaim Zilberstein. Mindel met Chaim in 1935 when she was twenty years old. While she cannot remember the specifics about how they first met, she does remember that “it was love!" "He was the father of my child,” - summarizes Mindel her life with Chaim. When they decided to get married, parents on both sides were very happy.
25: Chaim and Mindel | Chagall "Birthday"
26: Chaim and Mindel
27: Chaim was very educated, like the rest of his family. Before the war he graduated from a military school and wanted to continue his studies in the military academy, but life took a turn for the worst. Chaim was killed at the front, leaving Mindel their only son, two letters from the front, and a lifetime of memories of their married life.
28: After the war, Mindel worked as the head accountant in Moscow. One day in 1949 Mindel was working at her desk as usual. Her friend noticed that some military man, a visitor to the office for whatever reason, cannot take his eyes off of Mindel. Mindel, not knowing anything about this man, went over to him to ask him how she could help him. It turned out that his name was Efim and before the war, he attended the same club as her. He said he saw her reading poems on the club's stage, and this image of her stuck in his memory. Mindel felt embarassed by Efim's visit and kicked him out of her office so that she could return to her work.
29: Efim, however, was quick to return again and again, hoping to explain himself to her. He told Mindel that his wife died from tuberculosis during the war, leaving him with their two daughters. Moreover, he knew that Mindel’s husband had been killed at the front, leaving her with a son. Efim mustered up the courage to propose to Mindel that they “join their lives together.” She replied sarcastically, not taking this man entirely seriously.
30: Mindel, Efim, their son and daughters
31: Efim continued to write letters to her and visit her at work consistently, but she was still not interested in marriage. Once, Efim brought his two girls with him, as it turns out to assist him in his pursuit for Mindel’s affection and acceptance. The girls grabbed Mindel’s hands and begged, “Please, please, please, be our Mommy!” Mindel did not have the heart to turn them down and finally agreed to marry Efim. Mindel’s son, Vladimir, called Efim “papa,” while Efim's two girls called Mindel “mama.” Mindel recalls that the family got along splendidly, as everyone had close relationships with each other from the start.
32: Efim was an aeronautical engineer. Mindel says that he was an amazing person, but "of course not like her first love." After the war, Efim joined the Communist Party, but when immigration to America became a viable option, they unanimously agreed to leave the Soviet Union. Six months before their trip to America, Mindel started taking English language courses. Her language abilities allowed her to assimilate into the American culture more smoothly than it happens usually. Efim also felt very satisfied and comfortable with American way of life. | Mindel and Efim (USA)
33: All of Mindel’s relatives now live in America or in Canada. Mindel and Efim's daughters both have children, and those children have kids as well, making her a great-grandmother. She has three great-grandchildren named Regina, Svetlana, and Maria. Mindel says that her son Vladimir reminds her of her first love, Chaim, in his physique and his character. Vladimir, like his father, values education and has a PhD in engineering.
34: Mindel 2011
35: Mindel and Efim shared an apartment on Washington Street in Boston, which they both loved. However, a couple ears ago Efim passed away because of his old age. Mindel fell and broke her hip two years ago. After the surgery, the doctor told her that living alone has become a dangerous option for. So she moved to the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center in Roslindale, MA. Soon she will be celebrating thirty years in America with her friends at the Center. | “I don’t regret anything!” says Mindel. “This is life Efim and I lived a long life together. No one lives forever. There is nothing anybody can do about this...."
37: Sofia Shaindala Elyashevich
38: Sofia was born in 1914 in Donetsk, Ukraine, a city located on the Kalmius River, and lived in this Ukrainian city for the first twenty-seven years of her life. Her mother died when she was only four years old, leading her farther to remarry. His new wife turned out to be an evil force in Sofia's life. Her brothers both had to move out of the house, leaving her the only child in the family. She bitterly observes that she never knew a real mother’s tenderness and love, as her new mother proved to be far from compassionate. Her stepmother forced her to do all the dirty household work when her father was at work; upon his arrival, she would lie to him about Sofia, never giving her the chance to interact with her father. Sofia concludes that her horrid stepmother took away her entire childhood. | Life Before the War
40: When Sofia turned fourteen, her father forged her age on the official documents so that she would be able to work (sixteen was the earliest age for official employment in the USSR). So Sofia had to balance school and work. Following high school, Sofia worked as a cashier before she studied accounting. She worked as an accountant for the remainder of her life in the Soviet Union.
41: Sofia Shaindala Elyashevich
42: When the war began, she was twenty-seven years old, and her two brothers were forty and thirty-two. Both brothers signed up to fight the Nazis in the Red Army voluntarily, feeling a strong sense of patriotism and loyalty toward their country. With the beginning of the war, Sofia had to evacuate out of Donetsk, her hometown, escaping the advancing Nazis.
43: Sofia Shaindala Elyashevich
44: Personal Life and the Great Patriotic War | Sofia recalls: “The war did not leave room for any form of personal or love life” She had plans to marry a man she met a few years before the start of the war. He worked by day and attended evening classes at a university by night, working towards an engineering degree. They planned to marry after his graduation, but in June 1941 the war broke out right before his graduating exams. He was thirty. First Sofia got the news of her oldest brother killed at the front; then came the news of the other brother's death. She was hoping that the war would at least give her back her lover. He came to visit her once when he had a short leave from the fighting army. This was the last time Sofia saw her betrothed. He was killed at the front.
45: Sofia says that this man was the only positive force in her life, providing care and understanding in the face of all her hardships. She loved him greatly. His death left a large gap in her heart for the years to follow. There were other men in her life... She really tried to find "a person for her soul," but nothing led to any serious or meaningful relationship. Sofia confesses that if she had met somebody who'd find a place in her heart, she would consider marriage despite the mourning of her husband-to-be who was killed at the front. Unfortunately, that never happened. Then after years of romantic misfortune, there came a point in her life when she no longer thought of marriage or children. She never married...
46: Sofia says that she never had her own apartment, always sharing her living space with somebody else (her father's family, then other relatives in Ukraine). This made it even more difficult to build a personal life for herself. Life pushed her to building a relationship with her job, rather than having a serious relationship with a man.
47: Chagall "Around Her"
48: After the War | Following the war, Sofia worked in Lvov, western Ukraine, at a geological institute as an accountant. Eventually, she rose to the position of the head accountant. At the age of sixty-seven Sofia Elyashevich decided to emigrate to the United States, having lived the majority of her life in the Soviet Union. She fondly remembers all the great friends she made throughout her life who stayed in Ukraine (mostly in Lvov). While she believes that life in America is wonderful, the friends she made at home hold a very special place in her heart. She misses the friendships she's had in the Soviet Union.
49: At this point, Sofia has no relatives left in Ukraine; and her two nephews are her only family. One lives in Israel, the other moved from Ukraine to Moscow. | Sofia Elyashevich 2011
50: Relationship with Judaism | Sofia recalls that her family didn't follow Jewish traditions all that much; however, some holidays were celebrated. She has a memory of fasting during Yom Kippur and celebrating Passover with her family. Both her brothers attended a Jewish school, and after they left their father's new family to live with other relatives, they held on to certain traditions (such as fasting for Yom Kippur, for example). Sofia recalls that the religious Jews, however, had to meet secretly for Shabbat and hid their religiousness. Sofia also preferred to not advertise the fact that she was Jewish: "people didn't talk about it out loud back then". She says she had blond hair, which made others to mistake her for a Russian, and she comments: "it was easier that way.” Sofia barely observed any Jewish holidays, nor did she adhere to Jewish traditions at this point in her life. She lived in fear of losing her job as the head accountant as a result of her Jewishness; her boss would bring up the matter consistently.
51: Chagall "Moses and the Burning Bush" | In Boston, Sofia goes to a synagogue every Saturday. Moreover, following her immigration to the United States, she visited Israel in 1991. Touring this Jewish country proved to be a meaningful and very satisfying experience for Sofia. She felt a great deal of pride and joy in the country that overcame and continues to overcome tremendous obstacles to its very existence. Sofia exclaims: “Israel is and always will be, even though it will face hardships.” One could make a parallel with Sofia's life: it was hard, as Sofia puts it herself, but she learned to overcome difficulties and go on. She is sometimes amazed at herself for managing to persevere despite all the difficulties. She comments: "I never had anybody to count on for help; I had to do everything myself in this life".
53: Aleksandra Fedotova
54: Aleksandra Fedotova was born in 1923 in Moscow. She was the last of eight children in her family of four brothers and three sisters. Her father had left his native village on the outskirts of Moscow at the age of 13 in order to study in the city. At first he worked on construction sites, but after a few years he was admitted to a technical college from which he soon graduated. It was he, this self-made man, who inspired Aleksandra’s life-long love for learning and reading. Throughout her youth, Aleksandra collected books and amassed a library of 1,500 volumes most of which she would later bring to the U.S. | Childhood and Youth
55: Aleksandra Fedotova | Aleksandra's father in the czar's army
56: The War | At the outbreak of the Second World War (Great Patriotic War for USSR ) in 1941, Aleksandra had just finished school, having turned 18. She was not able to apply to universities because she was evacuated to city of Ufa in Bashkiria and because the universities were not admitting students that year. Displacement was not the only obstacle to Aleksandra’s education. Her father had died before the start of the war, her mother was seriously ill, and two of her brothers were drafted to fight at the front. The third brother who before the war lived in Leningrad was evacuated with the factory where he worked to Bashkiria. Aleksandra had to support herself and her mother so she got a job as an administrator at a blood donation clinic. At the same time Aleksandra started attending nursing classes. She completed the year-long nursing class in just six months and was sent to the famous Burdenko military hospital for an internship. During the internship, her nursing qualities were noticed by the hospital doctors who saw in the young girl a promising surgical nurse. | Aleksandra's brother who died at the front
57: The war demanded that parts of this well-equipped hospital be converted to fit a mobile platform so that it could follow the movements of the Soviet troops to battles. There, the reasoning went, where the casualties were the heaviest, the hospital would be most useful. The hospital’s equipment was moved to train cars, and sent to the front. Aleksandra remembers that the medical train was very well equipped; it had everything necessary to perform surgeries and provide primary medical care of the wounds. In this moving hospital Aleksandra worked as a surgical nurse. The first stop of the hospital train that Aleksandra mentions was in Tula where at that time there was heavy fighting. The main German forces were attempting to reach the Moscow-Volga railroad and the city of Moscow. Soon after the hospital’s arrival the Soviet forces began to fall back and the hospital followed the retreat. | Aleksandra (far right), with her sister, brother, sister-in law and mother
58: The hospital train made its second stop in the city of Naro-Fominsk where a stationary evacuation hospital was opened and some of the personnel stayed until the end of the war. The city had been almost completely destroyed by German bombing, but the city hospital had miraculously survived. The blooming canopies of the near-by trees had served as camouflage keeping it from the German aerial bombardment. The staff of the mobile hospital began to use the building for its needs.
59: Aleksandra recalls that there were a lot of young surgeons who were sent to the front line hospitals for an accelerated residency. Surgeons were always in the highest demand; there was never enough of them to keep up with all the surgeries needed. Another one of Aleksandra’s recollections is that there was a constant shortage of blood. In addition to treating the wounded, doctors and nurses often became blood donors for their patients. Alexander herself donated 6 liters (1.5 gallons) of blood throughout the war. Eventually, the course of the war has changed. The Soviet forces started advancing westward and liberating the Soviet territories occupied by the Nazis. Aleksandra recalls that everyone was in high patriotic spirits despite the astronomical number of casualties and the difficult work.
60: Even during wartime, the passion for life and the desire for human warmth do not fade. While the hospital was in Naro-Fominsk, its main surgeon was replaced by a younger man who came from the Military Medical Academy. At 19, Aleksandra married the mobile hospital’s chief surgeon, a forty-year-old widower. Because of the war, Naro-Fominsk did not have an operational government registry of civic acts (where people would normally be married), so the couple’s marriage was registered in the hospital’s records. The surgeon had to propose to Aleksandra several times before she accepted. The nurse was shy around the mature surgeon many years her senior who had the rank of a Major, but eventually she agreed. The couple never had romantic dates in the moonlight; they met and dated in a tough working atmosphere created by the war. | Personal Life During the War
61: The couple did not think that a lavish wedding was appropriate for wartime, so instead they gathered with their closest friends and celebrated with potatoes and makeshift rye bread cupcakes. Aleksandra wore a blue military uniform instead of bridal whites and refused to dance, as did the rest of the guests, out of respect for the wounded soldiers, lying in beds in the next room. Also, everybody was exhausted from not sleeping for several days in a row (everybody worked despite a terrible lack of sleep), and the next group of wounded soldiers was already waiting to be treated. | Aleksandra (photo taken after the war)
62: After the war, most of the hospital personnel returned to their homes. Aleksandra and her husband moved back to Moscow, where she was able to continue her education. Since her childhood, Aleksandra wanted to either teach or heal. She was always a good student, finishing school with honors. During the war, she was a nurse; now that the war was over, she decided to change her profession. Aleksandra completed a three-year English language course to become an interpreter, after which she was admitted to the prestigious Lenin Pedagogical Institute. She then worked with foreign students who had come to the USSR from European socialist countries to study Russian. | Post- War Years
63: Aleksandra was easily able to find work as a teacher because the government was opening many specialized orphanages to accommodate the large number of children left parentless by the war. She first worked in an orphanage, but soon transferred to school #249 which became Aleksandra’s home for 33 years. Here she worked first as a teacher and then became the principal. | Aleksandra in front of the Lenin State Pedagogical Institute | Aleksandra as school principal
64: Second Marriage and Emigration | Aleksandra with Efim | Zinovij, Aleksandra's second husband
65: Aleksandra spent 18 years with her first husband, Afanasiy Fedotov, but the couple grew apart as they struggled with their inability to have children. She met her second husband, Zinovij Berger, at the orphanage where they both taught history. Aleksandra and Zinovij lived together for 50 years. Aleksandra was 37 when she gave birth to their only son, Efim. | Aleksandra Fedotova
66: Aleksandra Fedotova 2011 | Aleksandra at Zinovij's birthday | Aleksandra with her husband and son (USA)
67: Efim graduated from high school and received his degree in communications from a prestigious university in Moscow, Russia. His best friend moved to the United States and in 1991 convinced Efim to follow him. In the US, Efim quickly found work as a programmer and married a girl whom he had known in his school in Moscow. Soon after Aleksandra became a grandmother: Efim and his wife had a boy whom they named Kirill. In 1996, Aleksandra and her husband emigrated from Russia to join their son in America. Unfortunately, Zinovij died soon after the move, and Aleksandra was left alone. Today she is proud of her son and grandson who visit her frequently, but still feels lonely often. As a medical professional and at teacher, she is used to being involved in people’s lives, and she just doesn’t have the same level of involvement at the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center where she now lives. She entertains herself by reading and translating, activities she enjoys greatly.
69: Olga Vilgerman
70: In early June 1941, the unforgettable first attack of the Nazis came hard at the heals of Olga’s return journey home from Ashgabad, Turkmenistan to Korosten, Ukraine. She arrived in Korosten to meet her parents, but by that time, Nazis were already bombing the city. The railroad station was destroyed and there were dead bodies lying about in the streets. Olga worked as physician’s assistant in one of the Kiev hospitals before the war. Upon arrival, she had to register at the military enlistment office. As a medical professional, she had the right to evacuate her family members. She registered her parents and two sisters (whose husbands were by that time drafted into the army) for evacuation, but was not planning to accompany them. She wanted to stay behind and help fight the Nazis. However, if Olga remained in this zone of destruction, her mother replied that she would stay behind as well. In order to convince her mother to leave the city, Olga decided to ask for a transfer to Samarkand, Uzbekistan where her husband was. Her request was approved and she and her family evacuated the city with thousands of others in baggage cars.
71: Olga with her friends before the war
72: Olga’s husband was drafted into the army in Samarkand, and Olga rushed to see him. She remembers her husband with great love. She cherishes every moment of her 3 joyful years of marriage. In addition to his accomplishment as a self-taught musician, his incredible kindness and patience served him well as a teacher. An unfortunate turn of events caused Olga to miss his departure to the front by one day, only to find his violin abandoned in Ashgabat. She threw this last remnant of him out the window in her frustration, which would soon turn to remorse when she learned of his death at the front lines in Iran . | Lost Husband | Olga's Brother, a war veteran | Chagall "Violinist"
73: Olga registered in the enlistment office in Samarkand and was appointed as a physician’s assistant in an evacuation hospital. Olga explains that Uzbekistan was far from the front lines, so the country commonly served as a destination for wounded soldiers needing treatment. She worked in this hospital about 2 weeks while her military division was being formed. Then, she was sent to the front. | Olga with her husband before the war
74: At the Front | Olga’s life at the front was tragic. Her memory keeps some disparate details of the days and months at the front line, in a POW camp, and on the occupied territories. Most of her stories are recorded here verbatim. These stories are like light flashes, illuminating in her memory some factual details and emotions she’s experienced during the war: I was at the front line, hauling injured soldiers from the battlefield to the field hospital. I did not spend a lot of time at the front; I didn’t even have a gun (and haven’t learned how to use it). We ended up being completely surrounded by the Nazi troops; there was a whole army that was surrounded. I realized that since I am Jewish and have an identifiably Jewish last name, the Nazis will torture me if I am captured. (Olga was aware of the atrocities the Germans committed against the captured Jews and Soviets). I wanted a peaceful death, so I ran into a dugout shelter; I had already prepared 2 syringes with narcotics there. I didn’t think about my family, there were no thoughts in my mind at all, just to die peacefully. All of a sudden, a Nazi ran into the dugout, yelling "Russ, Russ!" in thick German accent, stripping me of my boots and throwing me out of the dugout into the crowd of my fellow war prisoners.
75: Amidst the chaos and impending doom, Olga fell into hysterics. She grabbed the holster of an armed medical officer she knew as Dr. Timofey, hoping to end her life by a gunshot. “Shoot me!” she cried, to which Dr. Timofey forcefully shook her to her senses: “Don’t lose your head!” All of a sudden, a lieutenant heard her cries and made his way to her and Dr. Timofey. He approached her and without hesitation stripped her of her ranking marks (she was a medical lieutenant) and threw away her identification documents. Olga recalls: “I was at a loss at that moment, I should have thought about getting rid of the documents, but I didn’t... He did!” The lieutenant’s quick action saved Olga’s life. | Olga and her colleagues after the war
76: Without any identification, Olga assumed a new, non-Jewish last name: "In my class at school there was a boy with the last name Vasyuk. So I took his last name and became Olga Vasyuk .” She disguised herself by taking the dirty coat of a fallen soldier lying next to her; her military haircut further obscured her identity. Olga remembers that there were a lot of wounded soldiers all around. If only they were treated, they could have lived, but the Nazis shot everybody who couldn’t get up and walk. Ahead of Olga’s cold bare feet stretched the long and arduous road to the concentration camp (in Eletsk). Olga describes this journey with the Germans “constantly beating us with sticks.” On one bridge, for instance, the Nazis formed a corridor and ritualized the crossing with blows to the soldiers’ heads and backs as they passed.
77: At the POW camp | From this point on, Olga’s stories are filled with fear and sadness. The fear of being discovered has become a constant; in order to survive, Olga played the role of a non-Jew the best she could. Several times she was in a situation close to death, but every time she managed to escape and avoid the catastrophe. She has witnessed unforgettable generosity of some people and unspeakable betrayal of others. She was also witness to the indescribable tortures to which Nazis subjected Soviet POWs. There’s a sense of some compassion toward those who have collaborated with the Nazis in some of her stories. Yiddish is similar to German. I was afraid that they will notice that I understand German. I pretended that I did not understand a word I had to act, to be resourceful... And the Germans never guessed who I really was. In the camp, I saw propaganda leaflets calling Soviet POWs to fight against Stalin’s regime. There were a lot of traitors. People didn’t want to, couldn’t tolerate the tortures (they were terribly tortured and abused) and, as a result, would switch sides and become collaborators.
78: Escape | This is a story of a great friendship between two women, each of which was ready to sacrifice her life for the survival of the other. I had a friend on the front. She was like a mother to me. We went through a lot together. At the front I was bringing the wounded to her field hospital; she was a surgeon there. She helped me so much! She played a big part in my life if it wasn’t for her, I would never have lived through it all. She was a wonderful woman She is dead now...Her name was Natalya Nikolaevna (Natasha). Natasha and another PA were also taken to this POW camp. Somehow, Natasha found out that I was there and came to save me. She already had an identification card allowing her to leave the camp and go home. Nina and she came to my barrack. It was Sunday, and all the Nazis left their stations to drink and entertain themselves in the city. Only a Ukrainian polizei remained at the station. Maybe, he gave in. after all, the POWs were terribly abused and tortured, and maybe he became a Nazi collaborator. I don’t know if he was a traitor or not. Natasha and Nina were trying to convince him that I also should have the permission to leave the camp, that we are all from the same city and even lived in the same building and we need to travel home together. They called him “Pan”. The polizei asked me if I spoke Ukrainian. I answered him in Ukrainian. He was so excited to hear his native language So just one word in Ukrainian saved me. He let me go. Thanks to Natasha, Olga had escaped the fate of many Soviet POWs in the camps. However, this was only the beginning of Olga’s long and arduous road to liberation. | Escape from the POW Camp
79: The three women had to find refuge under a curfew, after which they would be forced back to the camps. The journey home was made all the more difficult for them by the bombardments that left houses and cities in ruins. Nina left to care for her five-year-old child, but Natasha remained with Olga. Some people let us in and allowed to stay the night. I was still dressed in a uniform, I needed to get rid of it (the Germans were patrolling the streets and I didn’t want to attract their attention). There was a 12-year-old girl in the house. I exchanged clothes with her. I was so lucky! There are no kinder, better people in the world than Natasha. She was prepared to die with me I didn’t want to be the cause of Natasha’s demise; I tried to convince her to leave me alone. I told her: “You must leave! I will die sooner or later. If you are with me, you’ll die as well. I am a Yid, a Jew, they are killing Jews! I’ll end up dead today or tomorrow, no choice.” But Natasha refused to leave me, so I had to run away from her. I decided to continue wandering by myself. I felt sorry for Natasha; why should she die with me?! I found her many years later...
80: Wanderings: in the forest | Olga continued her journey to Kiev alone. This was a long journey across the occupied territory, through destroyed and sacked towns and villages. At any moment Olga could be arrested by a German patrol or be betrayed by the local inhabitants who’d recognize her as Jewish. I had to do something, go somewhere. I went into the forest. There, I saw a family: a young man, a woman with a baby carriage (she probably just had the baby) and another woman (probably a mother). I was so stupid! I think I made a terrible mistake these people were probably killed. We walked for a long time; we needed to make stop somewhere. So we walked into a village and walked up to two houses. I went into one of the houses and they entered the other. Then a woman from this other house comes running to the house where I stayed and asks me: “They are probably Yids! Do you know them?” I said that I met them in the forest and don’t know anything. And I quickly left the house; I was afraid that they will think that I am also a Yid (even though I had documented permission to leave the camp). I don’t know what they did to those people Probably they turned them over to the Nazis.
81: Without food or water, she searched for home and work. Once she approached a private clinic to ask for employment. She explained that she was making her way to Kiev, and was in need of some food and money. The doctor was seemingly harmless and even helpful. He allowed her to take a shower and wash her clothes, ordered a clean dress for her and invited her to dinner, where she found out the true character of this doctor. I sat down at the table and saw that the tablecloth was a newspaper with the big title “The Government of Yids and Bolsheviks”. Everybody is eating, the newspaper is just lying there, and the doctor is telling me about the Yids: “I killed them, I cut their throats.” He never guessed who I was; he just looked in my document and didn’t ask many questions. Then he offered me vodka, but I never in my life drank vodka, and I was afraid to drink it now – I might say something that will betray my identity. He suspected something: “Why are you not drinking, Olga? Maybe you are no Olga? Maybe you are Sarah 4?” I thought: “This is the end!” But I was very resourceful and I quickly found a way out: “Thank you for all the food you are giving me. And this vodka costs a lot of money; I don’t want you to waste your money on me!" It all turned out to be OK in the end. I said that I needed to continue my journey to Kiev, and he advised me to make stops at private clinics and ask for help and food. I walked away from his clinic, being afraid to turn my head – what if he shoots me in the back? | Wanderings: a run in with an anti-Semite
82: Wanderings: hunger So I wandered around forests, hungry, tired, and alone until I ended up in Poltava5. There I saw an inn which was run by some woman who didn’t take money, she just felt sorry for displaced people. There was only one room for everybody: one corner is for women, the other – for men. There was a male doctor staying at the inn. I suspected he was in the same situation as I was (a doctor who was captured and released, and now had nowhere else to go). He said that he was a gynecologist and performed examinations for girls and women that were sent to Germany.6 I didn’t tell him about myself, and he didn’t talk much about his story. I couldn’t trust him entirely – after all, I have no idea what he may be thinking. But I did tell him that I was in a POW camp and now making my way home to Kiev, that I am very hungry and looking for some work. He mentioned that there was a farm not far away and that they were looking for laborers. The most important thing was that there was food!
83: Olga Vilgerman
84: Wanderings: working at a farm | Olga paints a picture of constant hunger and exhaustion from hard physical labor. She couldn’t show a sign of weakness: Nazis took away people who were too weak and couldn’t work. At the same time, she had to be careful—at any moment the Ukrainian laborers could suspect her Jewish identity. The smallest detail in speech or behavior could evoke a Jewish stereotype, and she could be turned over to the Nazis. I went to the farm. I could work at the farm’s first aid post, but there were no medicine to treat people with and I could be accused of helping the partisans if I were to give a sick leave to any of the workers. It thought it would be safer to do hard physical work. How did they feed us? Just one bowl of unsalted water called “soup” and 50 grams of bread twice or three times a day (I don’t remember now exactly). And we were expected to not eat and work hard. There was one girl there—she was not very smart. She didn’t understand that one had to constantly lie and pretend. There, she was sitting down and trying to warm her hands by sticking them inside a jacket. So the local laborers immediately noticed: “Look at her! The way she is freezing. She must be a Yid! We need to go to the military command and turn her in.” So they went A Nazi came and took the girl away. That’s it Except for it wasn’t so easy. It’s not like they would just shoot her--they’d torture her first. I don’t know whether she was Jewish or not.It was up to me whether I would survive or die! Up to me, myself! And so I labored even though I was starving. I had to show that I was strong Once I was order to guard harvested wheat at night, but because I was tired and hungry, I fell asleep. So the manager came and hit me in the stomach with his boot. This also happened.
85: As the occupation of Ukraine continued, Olga had to hide, pretend, and lie about her identity for 3 long years. It becomes clear from her stories how afraid she had been to expose her true thoughts and feelings. She couldn’t trust a single soul. Suffering from the constant need to suppress her identity, Olga decided to finally confide in a woman she had befriended. [My friend and I] decided to receive 100 grams of bread for both us (this way there was more bread than 50 grams for each of us). I was so tired of hiding all the time, I told her everything. Why did I open up to her? I don’t know I am from Korosten, and she lived there, too, with her husband. She knew my sister—everybody knew her because she was so beautiful. She was famous in the city. I look a little bit like my sister. I never told anybody about myself with the exception of this one woman. It’s just that I was so sick and tired of hiding all the time.
86: Liberation | Even after the liberation of Ukraine, Olga’s fear didn’t go away. The Soviet government was treating everybody who was captured by the Nazis as potential traitors, and this was punishable under the Soviet law. Olga would have to prove that she didn’t surrender willfully. She was exhausted and penniless; she didn’t have any documents or warm clothes, but thanks to kindheartedness of random people, she escaped Ukraine to meet her relatives in Kuybyshev7. The Red Army liberated us and I went to the army military office, but I was afraid to tell them anything. They could accuse me of being a traitor (I was a POW) or send me to the front to fight. I was in a terrible shape: emaciated and infected with lice. I couldn’t fight in this condition. I decided to leave and look for my relatives. I came to the train station almost barefoot in bitter cold. I managed to coax a free ride from the young male ticket-master and was able to travel in the baggage compartment.
87: I recalled that my mother’s sister had been evacuated to the Totskaya settlement in Kuybyshev region. It was easier to try to get there, then to Samarkand. So I got to Totskaya and started knocking on every door asking if anybody knew about the whereabouts of the Melamed family. It was very cold, I didn’t have much clothing. Some woman gave me a scarf to cover my head and gloves And finally I found my aunt. I was in a terrible shape: I had to take off my clothes outside of the apartment, take a bath and change all the clothes. I was covered with lice that caused a skin infection. I was itching all over. Then I became sick with malaria I was sick a lot My aunt told me that everybody was alive in Samarkand: my father, mother and sisters. She even said that my husband was alive. He was already killed, but she just didn’t want to break my heart.
88: After the War After the war, Olga found Natasha who saved her life. I looked for her in all the cities. I remembered how she said to me: “I won’t leave you!” And she was Russian! There was a young pioneer’s organization called ‘Trackers’ who helped people find their relatives and loved ones after the war. I wrote to them. It took many years, but one day I got a letter for Natasha’s former neighbor. She had Natasha’s current address. That day was a holiday for me! I wrote to Natasha: “This is the happiest day of my life that I found you!” Natasha lived in Samarkand, and my brother lived in Tashkent. I came to visit him and then visited Natasha. We were like blood relatives; we were very close and maintained correspondence for a long time. | Olga was awarded the Medal of Honor in dedication to the 65th anniversary of the Victory in the Great Patriotic War 1941-1945 in 2010
89: Olga finishes her story with tears in her eyes. I knew how to lie. I don’t like to lie and pretend, but such was the time. In order to survive, I had to lie. Only I could live through something like this – I was always very resourceful. There were five children in my family, and now I am the only surviving member. Everybody has gone; only my brother’s wife is still living in Israel in a similar facility. It’s impossible to explain, to tell everything I cry when I talk about it, when I remember how hard it was... | Olga Vilgerman now
90: List of Sources used in the album (excluding personal photos) http://croatia.org/crown/content_images/novak_vladimir/part2/annette_czupylo_pysanky2.jpg http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_UG0E_cr_ymg/dGpSxNCctGs/s1600/Chagall+-+Exodus+M467.jpg http://perm.psu.ru/school136/1945/myvictory/thenzura.gif http://crazy.werd.ru/uploads/posts/2007-05-23/1179930824_sovpolpost_00104.jpg http://img1.liveinternet.ru/images/foto/b/3/533/2483533/f_17294959.jpg http://i.allday.ru/uploads/posts/2009-02/1234500787_st_003.jpg http://www.npstoik.ru/museum/room_memorial/museum_1002/vipusk41.htm http://www.lonelyplanet.com/maps/europe/ukraine/map_of_ukraine.jpg http://spaightwoodgalleries.com/Media/Chagall/Chagall_ExBurning.jpg http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_kUAFiGLlfiY/TNlTYonTKYI/AAAAAAAAHUA/6144/s1600/barbwire.jpg