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UJA Honors Kazakh Jewish Industrialist


Kazakhstan-bashing comic Sacha Baron Cohen would have been persona non grata at UJA-Federation of New York Russian Division’s March 25 gala honoring industrialist and philanthropist Alexander Machkevitch. A principal shareholder in Kazakhstan-based Eurasian National Resources Corporation, president of the Euro-Asian Industrial Association and chairman of the board of directors of Euro-Asian Bank, Machkevitch was lauded for his philanthropic outreach and nurturing of Jewish life in Kazakhstan. President of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress — which unites Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union with those in other countries such as Bulgaria, Slovenia, Mongolia, Singapore, Japan, India, Australia and New Zealand —Machkevitch distributes Israeli matzos each year to all the EAJC communities in which he supports Jewish religious life. He has helped build Jewish community centers throughout Russia and Ukraine, has built several synagogues named Beit Rachel in memory of his late mother and has aided in refurbishing the synagogue in Istanbul damaged last year by a terrorist attack.

Born in 1954 in Kyrgyzstan to which his parents — his father from Lithuania, his mother from Belarus — fled in 1941, he rose to become dean at the Kyrgyz Pedagogical Institute and authored 40 academic works. But during the beginning of perestroika, he made a career change to the business sector and the rest is financial and philanthropic history. He praised UJA-Federation for everything it has done to help Soviet Jewry, adding: “The only way we can win is together. If God gave me something, it is because he chose me as an instrument.” Among the 300 guests were Kazakhstan’s permanent representative to the United Nations Byrganym Aitimova; its ambassador Kullikhan Saudbayev; Pinchas Goldschmidt, chief rabbi of Moscow; and Yeshaya Cohen, chief rabbi of Kazakhstan. They must have kvelled!

When I later asked Machkevitch for his reaction to Baron Cohen’s film, “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, he flicked his hand as though blowing away an annoying gnat and said simply “grotesque.” When I asked about his parent’s roots, he said his father was born near Vilna, his mother came from Vitebsk. “That’s Chagall’s shtetl!” I exclaimed. When we met the next evening at another event, my conversation with Machkevitch was in litvishn Yiddish — Lithuanian Yiddish.

U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, the gala’s keynote speaker, trumpeted the Russian community’s American Horatio Alger trajectory as he acknowledged last year’s honoree, billionaire Tamir Sapir, born in Tbilisi, Georgia, and now a Manhattan-based real estate mogul, who was accompanied by statuesque Elena Panomareva and their lovely little blond daughter Zita. In an aside, Schumer confided to the UJA crowd gathered at Cipriani Wall Street, perhaps joshing just a bit: “I’ve been on his boat. It has a helicopter, and it has a submarine…” Recalling his work with the early Russian arrivals, Schumer said: “I’ve been very active in helping the Russians settle in Brighton Beach. I was an assemblyman at the time, and when elderly tenants passed on and [the landlords] sought Jews to fill those vacant apartments, we got the leaders of synagogues, UJA, NYANA and HIAS to give out leaflets asking the newly arrived immigrants from the former Soviet Union: ‘Do you want to live in a Jewish neighborhood?’ At first the community struggled…. [Seems] everyone began as a cab driver. Now, Brighton Beach, also known as ‘Odessa-by-the-Sea,’ is one of the most thriving, prosperous communities in America…. Now [these people] are generous [in turn] and make the road for others easier….They remember who helped them.”

Of the evening’s second honoree, Gene Rachmansky, chair of UJA-Federation’s Russian Young Leadership Division, Schumer said, “I gave him his math award when he was in the 8th grade and [to] his wife Anna [I gave] a math award when she was in the sixth grade.” Rachmansky, whose parents emigrated from Odessa to Israel (where he was born in 1972), arrived with his family in Brooklyn in 1979. A cum laude graduate from NYU in 1994 with a B.A. in international politics and a J.D. from Fordham University School of Law (he received the Fordham Law School Prize), he is now a principal in BDS Advisors, LLC, a firm specializing in financial and commodity derivatives. Rachmansky, whose family belongs to Chabad-Lubavitch of Battery Park City, praised UJA’s role in the revitalization of the Russian Jewish community’s “giving back” and not forgetting those who need help.

John Ruskay, executive vice-president and CEO of UJA-Federation of New York, noted: “Most [Russian émigrés] established new lives in Israel and changed Israel. The several thousand who came to New York changed our community.” Then, as though passing on a symbolic torch to Rachmansky, Ruskay added: “The Jewish future in New York is now in your [generation’s] hands.” Participants that evening included: Rabbi Arthur Schneier, senior rabbi at Park East Synagogue; Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman, Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; New York State Assemblyman Alec Brook-Krasny; and Rita Katselnik, chair of the UJA Russian division. As I mingled with the beautifully gowned women and black-tie guests, I thought back to 1975-76 when I co-chaired a National Council of Jewish Women’s committee on “New [Soviet] Immigrants.” The pressing mandate then was to create a total support system that included such basics as food, clothing, housing and furniture. Who could have imagined such a dinner, such bounce-back philanthropy?


“The Holocaust is not a Jewish issue,” New York City Council member John Liu told me following the April 12 Yom Hashoah observance held at his headquarters, at which Flushing community survivors Hanna Slome, Frank Sygal and Rose Kfar Rose were honored. Sygal, who was a 17-year-old in Poland, survived the war thanks to a false baptismal certificate in the name of his employer’s son — also named Frank. Rose survived with false papers her father bought in 1942 that enabled her to live as a Christian girl in a small village until liberated by the Russians in 1945. Slome was part of a 1939 Kindertransport to England thanks to Nicholas Winton, a 30-year-old British clerk visiting Prague who managed to save 669 children on eight trains from Prague to London. (The film, “Nicholas Winton: The Power of Good,” was shown on April 22 at Queensborough Community College’s Holocaust Center. Slome later revealed: “For over 50 years, most of these children did not know to whom they owed their lives.”)

“While we recognize the suffering of those who fell victim to hatred and genocide during the Holocaust,” said Liu, “we are also reminded of the importance of bringing people together today through mutual understanding and dialogue so we can prevent future hate crimes and acts of bigoted violence.” Assembly member Ellen Young stated: “It is important for us to remember the horrific events of the Holocaust to ensure that they never happen again.” Cynthia Zalisky, executive director of the Queens Jewish Community Council, stated: “In this day and age when intolerance and religious expression have raised their ugly heads once again in the world, the lessons of the Holocaust are especially relevant.” Referring to the oft-used “never again” declaration, Rabbi Bob Kaplan, director of Cause-N.Y., a division of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater New York, affirmed: “Never again will racism, antisemitism or hatred such as what is now happening in Darfur, be tolerated… without protest and action.” Arthur Flug, executive director of the Holocaust Resource Center & Archives at Queensborough Community College, stated: “At a time when demagogues are calling into question the very existence of the Holocaust, we are most grateful for the efforts of Councilman John Liu in supporting Holocaust education and bringing it into our schools and community organizations.”

“A Hasidic master once said, ‘Remembrance is the key to redemption.’” Rabbi Albert Thaler of Flushing’s Temple Gates of Prayer had said at the Liu-sponsored commemoration. A few days later, at the April 16 Yom Hashoah evening he hosted at his temple, the event’s centerpiece was the film “Sugihara: A Conspiracy of Kindness,” probably the best of several made about Sempo Sugihara, the courageous Japanese consul in Kovno (now Kaunas), Lithuania, who in 1940, against his government’s orders, issued 2,139 visas which saved 6,000 Jewish refugees — including my mother and me (visa # 1882). Thanks to superb archival film, with commentary by Rabbi Marvin Tokayer, plus “talking head” testimonials, the film chronicles Sugihara’s life as the son of a mother with Samurai credentials and a father whom he defied by not going to medical school, opting instead to become a diplomat. The film offers surprising insights into the Japanese leadership’s exaggerated perception of the “international” role of the Jews and their value to Japan, plus the history-changing impact of American financier Jacob Schiff, whose help enabled the Japanese to defeat Russia in 1905. Thanks to Sugihara there are now approximately 50,000 descendants of the 6,000 he saved.

My brief address that evening focused on my 1987 interview with his wife, Yukiko Sugihara, and the 1994 trip to Japan to honor Sugihara at the Hill of Humanity memorial built in the mountains near his hometown of Yoatsu. Among the “Sugihara survivors” I mentioned at the commemoration was my childhood friend Leo Melamed (ne Leybl Melamdovitch) who was born in Bialystok. Melamed, chairman emeritus of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, launched the currency futures market and created the International Monetary Market, which in 1992, Nobel laureate economist Merton Miller designated as “the most significant innovation in the past two decades.” Sugihara survivor Melamed, among his many other achievements, created Globex, the world’s first electronic futures trading system and became its founding chairman. Amazing what a child of Bundist Yiddish teachers could achieve in America!

Thanks to Sugihara, the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring-Forward’s late education director Yosl/Joseph Mlotek was able to enrich and transform Yiddish life and education in America. Another survivor is literary critic and professor emeritus of Russian literature at Yale University Victor Erlich, son of Polish Bund leader Henryk Erlich, who in May 1942 committed suicide in Stalin’s jail. He, his mother Zofia Dubnow Erlich, his wife Iza, my mother and I were together on the final civilian crossing of the Japanese NYK liner Heian Maru before Pearl Harbor, a crossing he describes in his autobiography “Child of a Turbulent Century,” (Northwestern University Press), which was recently reviewed in the Forward by Sir Martin Gilbert.

Rabbi Thaler also cited Hiram (or Harry) Bingham, a U.S. State Department maverick in Marseilles in 1939 who, defying his bosses in Washington, granted over 2,500 U.S. visas to Jewish and other refugees including artists Marc Chagall and Max Ernst and the family of Thomas Mann. He worked with the French underground to smuggle Jews out of France into Franco’s Spain or across the Mediterranean and even contributed to their expenses out of his own pocket. In 1941, Washington lost patience with him and sent him to Argentina, where he continued to annoy his superiors by reporting on the movements of Nazi war criminals. Thaler noted that Bingham’s father was the archeologist who unearthed the Inca city of Machu Picchu, Peru, and on whom the fictional character of Indiana Jones was based. My husband Joseph was especially pleased to learn that it was Secretary of State Colin Powell, from his old Bronx neighborhood, who gave a posthumous award for “constructive dissent” to Hiram Bingham IV — an honor the U.S. government resisted for more than 50 years. Colin Powell grew up at 952 Kelly Street; my husband lived a block away at 952 Tiffany Street, a neighborhood he still recalls as “a Bronx shtetl.” Little was known of Bingham’s activities until his son found some of his letters after he died nearly penniless in 1988. He has since been honored by the United Nations, Israel, and by the U.S. Postal Service with a 39-cent stamp.


While checking my 1976 files for the specific dates of the NCJW committee meetings re the new Russian immigrants, I found the following September 3, 1976, letter from its then executive director Marjorie Merlin Cohen: “My father…was a Bundist leader of such extraordinary devotion that someone once said to him at a meeting: fraynd merlin, ir zaynt geborn gevorn an alter bundist — Friend Merlin, you were born an old Bundist — We were the last Socialist, Yiddishist, Bundist outpost for European leaders who were visiting the South and virtually all of them, including [Henryk] Erlich and [Victor] Alter [the latter executed by Stalin] spent at least a week at our house before venturing further. I particularly remember… when Erlich kissed my hand in farewell at the Terminal Station in Atlanta. And speaking of the Terminal Station, the arrangement always was that daddy and the visitor, if they were unknown to each other, would carry the FORWARD in their hands, which in Atlanta made them instantly identifiable.”


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