Shortly before noon on a sunlit weekday morning, elderly men and women begin shuffling into the basement of a Brooklyn synagogue, some with the aid of home attendants. Many of the women wear attention-grabbing print tops, large necklaces and, in a few cases, sunglasses. The men opt for their best leather shoes and a suit, a few embellished with red-and-gold medals for heroism on the Eastern front during World War II.
They have come to the Flatbush Jewish Center for a monthly Russian-language coffee house for Holocaust survivors. Successive waves of emigration from the former Soviet Union from the 1970s through the 1990s have swelled Brooklyn’s Russian-speaking community to about 330,000, according to HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. The coffee house began four years ago and is so popular that this Passover model Seder meeting on March 24 is restricted to widows and widowers.
Now in their 70s and 80s, these survivors began their lives among large Jewish communities sprinkled across Eastern Europe. Most were children when, with their parents, they were herded into ghettoes, transported to concentration camps, or evacuated to the freezing isolation of Siberia. Returning as adults to Soviet towns and cities, often without most of their relatives, they endured further decades of persecution for being Jewish. They prayed in secret and marked festivals at their peril. Only since arriving in America have they been able to practice Judaism freely.
“There were 22 synagogues in Mukachevo before the war,” says Samuel Gelb, who was born in the then Czechoslovakian city, now part of Ukraine. “After the war there were none.”
Gelb, 84, is sitting at a table, leaning on a multicolored fiberglass cane and speaking in his native Russian to a visitor. He wears a brown felt hat, a camelhair coat and a bright red tie. In his hand is the key to a synagogue on Avenue M. When he arrived in New York in 1990, he says, he went to synagogue daily, often so early that he waited in the rain or snow for someone to arrive and unlock the door. After three years, the synagogue gave him his own key.
“I’m the only one who has the key,” he says, “though I only go on Saturdays now because of my health.”
Gelb spent most of the war in Mukachevo, which was then under Hungarian rule. In 1944, he was sent to a ghetto, then to Auschwitz, and finally to Mauthausen Concentration Camp. In the spring of 1945, he was among about 20 people who were led into an Austrian forest by a Nazi officer on horseback and ordered to dig a large hole. When the officer returned five hours later, he machine-gunned the group. Then, he returned again and again with more prisoners. Gelb survived by pretending to be dead and later climbing out of the pit.
By war’s end, he had lost his mother, father, grandparents, a brother and a sister. Only one brother and sister remained. He returned to Mukachevo and became the boss of a flour mill. In 1953, he was fired for being Jewish, he says, and then reinstated soon after. “We were scared to celebrate festivals like Passover,” Gelb says. “We always lived in fear.”
As Gelb is talking, about 80 survivors take their seats at one of 10 large, round tables stocked with matzo, hardboiled eggs and grape juice. The monthly meetings are organized by Selfhelp, the Source for Independent Living, a non-profit agency started by German émigrés in the 1930s to help Jewish refugees. Now, Selfhelp caters to a largely elderly audience from all backgrounds, with various programs such as this one specifically targeting Russian-speaking Holocaust survivors.
At this meeting, some in attendance are siblings; others are friends. Most are so eager to chat that when a Selfhelp representative gives a short speech, they talk over him.
Only during the meal of roast chicken and vegetables do the voices drop to a murmur. When they rise again, about half an hour later, a middle-aged man, dressed in black, walks to a keyboard at the front of the room. He plays Russian music, mainly from the 1930s and 1940s, and Passover songs. Couples walk out from their tables and begin dancing —men with women, women with women. In a hall just outside the room, over the sounds of “Hava Nagila” and “Dayenu,” survivor Marya Klaz recounts her story.
Klaz, now 78, was 8 years old when she was herded into the Balta ghetto, near Odessa, with her mother. Barefoot and hungry, they drank from a barn trough until local Ukrainians put dead cats in the water. Her mother traded a shawl for a tiny amount of kerosene, which they used to treat the lice that plagued them. “It was terrible,” she says. “We were cold, hungry, afraid.” Every so often, Nazis entered the ghetto looking for girls to take away, and two never returned.
For four years, Klaz lived that way with her mother. When the war ended, she fell into a deep depression. “It was an endless dream that our loved ones would come back,” she says. “But 12 of my family didn’t make it.”
Gradually, life returned to normal. Klaz became a schoolteacher. But difficulties constantly arose for her as a Soviet Jew. When she applied for a passport and told an official her name was “Malka”— a Hebrew name — the official told her, “There’s no such name,” and renamed her “Marya.” Her father, who fought for the Red Army, sent money to someone in another city one month before Passover each year to ensure he had matzo for the family’s secret Seder. “It was very dangerous,” Klaz says.
For those evacuated during the war, life was no easier. At 16, according to survivor Rakhil Khabut, she, her mother and her 14-year-old brother were evacuated from Uman, Ukraine, ahead of the Nazi invasion. They were packed, 100 to a wagon, onto a train bound for Chelyabinsk, about 1,500 miles away in Siberia. By the time they arrived, three boys were dead.
In Chelyabinsk, the diminutive Khabut says, she worked 12-hour shifts in a factory, day and night. In winter, the temperature dropped to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The factory had no heat. Water froze in the pipes. She and her mother shared a room with 50 women. Khabut’s grandfather was a rabbi and her mother was very religious. So, for Passover, they collected potato peels, dried them, and ate them as if they were matzo.
After the war, the family moved to Kharkov, Ukraine. “Religion was banned,” Khabut says. “There were no synagogues.” When the family wanted to eat kosher meat, they called an underground shokhet, who slaughtered a chicken at their home. On Yom Kippur, they prayed in a private home. Khabut fasted secretly, fearing that she would be fired if her work colleagues found out. By 1978, when she received permission to leave Ukraine, her mother was dead.
Khabut’s mother is still very much on her mind as the music inside the hall ends about 2:30 p.m. and the home attendants arrive to pick up their clients and help them up the basement steps. As she turns to leave, Khabut remembers one last thing.
“It’s very painful that mother wasn’t able to make it to America and see what she could have done today,” she says. “In Kharkov, she never had the opportunity to go to a synagogue. There is joy that I can have all these things. But there is sorrow, too.”
Contact Paul Berger at firstname.lastname@example.org