Jewish veterans of the Russian army remember

In N.J., where they live now, their victory in World War II is unknown

May 09, 2002|By Adam Lisberg | Adam Lisberg,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

BERGEN COUNTY, N.J. - They fought for a nation that no longer exists, a nation that turned its back on their sacrifices. As young men, they paid a horrible price to save their country and their people; as old men, they fled that country carrying suitcases and memories.

Had they stayed in Russia they would at least have Victory Day - May 9, the day the Russians celebrate to mark the end of World War II in Europe - when old men parade through the streets in their uniforms, chests puffed with pride and festooned with medals. But they are Jews, who faced decades of discrimination after the war, and when they got a chance to leave the collapsing Soviet Union, they took it.

Now they live in Bergen County, where V-E Day is a footnote and Memorial Day is an occasion for one-day sales.

They live in a country that has no memories of invasion, famine and siege. Their sacrifices are unknown, their victory forgotten.

Except in one Teaneck synagogue.

Today, about two dozen Jewish veterans of the Red Army will gather at Congregation Beth Sholom - just as they have for the last eight years - for one more Victory Day celebration of honor and pride.

They will wear their medals; children will give them flowers and sing songs of remembrance. They will speak, in rich Russian accents, about how they saved the Soviet Union and defeated the Nazis in the Great Patriotic War. They will be cheered by other, younger, Soviet M-imigrM-is, who owe their lives to the veterans.

"It is a nice day, the happiest day in our lives," Bella Gonikman explains in halting English. "Because if Germany was in victory, everybody would be killed."

Ribbons arranged

Her husband, Vladimir, who fought from Stalingrad to Berlin and rose to become a colonel in the Soviet army, has already arranged his ribbons on the suit he plans to wear on Victory Day. He received many important medals in the Great Patriotic War, but he will wear only one on that day, one he received from a U.S. general when the Americans and Russians fought together.

"This is the American medal," the 82-year-old veteran says, carefully displaying it in his wrinkled palm. "American. The Legion of Merit."

The Victory Day celebration came about thanks to Maria Gertsenshteyn, who came to the United States in 1991. She has carefully compiled lists of the Jewish veterans of the Soviet army in World War II who now live in the Teaneck area. She organizes the choir, the poems, the flowers, the wine, the dancing. She does it because she was a child when the war started, and she still remembers the German planes.

"I remember the bombs falling when I was 7 years old. I remember that all my life," she says. "I remember. Because of this, I celebrate the victory."

Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, dragging the nation into a war so ruinous that historians can only guess that 27 million died from bombs and bullets, starvation and disease, before Adolf Hitler was defeated in 1945.

When the Germans laid siege to Leningrad for 900 days, a third of the city's 3 million residents perished; when the Red Army finally drove them back, 300,000 Soviet soldiers were killed in two weeks of fighting.

The survivors don't talk about the statistics. They talk about leaving their families, begging for food, watching people die all around them.

"I heard the sound of the bullets jumping from the stones," said Rita Blank, who was 5 when her refugee convoy was fired on by German planes. "I remember everything that happened."

A few years ago, she tried to preserve what she could of the veterans' memories. She sat them down in front of tape recorders and asked them to talk about the war - where they served, what battles they saw, what honors they won. She compiled summaries of their stories, translated them into English, and presented them to Beth Sholom for safekeeping.

`For the future'

"They were proud because they fought against the Nazis, against the fascists. They fought for their lives, for the future," she says. "Victory Day, for my generation, was always the greatest holiday."

The Jewish soldiers' sacrifices didn't matter after the war, though, when - like Jews throughout the Soviet Union - they found themselves unable to get jobs, unable to worship freely. When the Soviet empire crumbled, many of them took refuge in Israel; others came to America, leaving behind a lifetime's possessions to start new lives as senior citizens.

Iosef Beregovsky, who left Ukraine for America in 1998 with his family, still has the faded brown notice his mother received when he was taken prisoner in fighting near Budapest, Hungary. It said her soldier son was believed dead, and would be given a funeral with honors.

`I have to remember'

He still has the German dog tag he was forced to wear in the POW camp - neatly perforated, so if he died, one half could stay with his body and the other half could be attached to his paperwork. And he still has the medals he will wear on Victory Day, full of hammers and sickles and CCCPs.

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