S: 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: 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.
5: 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.
6: 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.
7: 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
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