Chicago’s Russian Speaking Community Celebrates & Perseveres
by Aliza Becker, Coordinator, Community Education and Support
On May 9th, many from Chicago’s Former Soviet Union (FSU) community will gather to celebrate Victory Day commemorating the 1945 capitulation of Nazi forces. Eight million soldiers and 20 million civilians from the FSU were killed during the war, more fatalities than any other country. Among the casualties were more than 2.5 million Soviet Jews. There is not a single family in the Chicago area’s Russian-speaking community who wasn’t affected by the war, and this holiday honors their immense sacrifices during WWII.
Victory Day is a time when elders share personal stories about their sacrifices and services in the war, whether through military service or voluntary efforts. Veterans well into their 80s and 90s don their military jackets adorned with medals while family members carry portraits of their veteran relatives.
For Jewish elders, Victory Day is both a source of pride and a reminder of the traumatic emotional scars many experienced during the Holocaust and the war and its aftermath. Many Jews were imprisoned in ghettos and camps and witnessed family members shot, sometimes in mass killings. Some went into hiding within Nazi-occupied territory while others fled from the encroaching Nazis to Middle Asia or Siberia.
The JCFS chaplaincy program develops its services based on this cultural, religious, historical, geographical, and emotional context within the Russian-speaking Jewish community. While working with his Russian-speaking Jewish clients, Rabbi Joseph S. Ozarowski, JCFS Rabbinic Counselor and Chaplaincy Services Manager, found a range of experiences with religious suppression. Maya Gumirov, Survivor Services Director at Holocaust Community Services, CJE Senior Life, explains more: “If survivors told the truth about their Holocaust experiences, they found themselves discriminated against; so many learned to be silent about their histories and hid the truth, even from their families.”
Another JCFS Chaplain, Rabbi Eliezer “Lazer” Hershkovich, works closely with Jews from the FSU and has learned more about their relationship with Judaism. “The people coming and seeking our services may be interested in religion or spirituality or just human connection. In the JCFS chaplaincy program,” he said, “we meet people where they are, and work to understand their stories.”
However, the stories of the Russian-speaking Jews who survived the war were often devastating. Jews experienced state-sanctioned antisemitism in every aspect of their lives. They were bullied by classmates, denied admission to university, rejected from jobs or promotions, imprisoned for trying to leave, and punished for practicing their religion.
Jews from major metropolitan areas like Moscow or St. Petersburg had the harshest experiences; Maya Gumirov relates that “Judaism was practiced in secret. If somebody’s grandparents had a menorah saved from pre-war times they might light it for Hanukkah, in a big cities people knew where they could get freshly baked matzah for Passover but again it was a huge secret and celebration of Passover was done quietly and in very, very minimal ways.”
With the passage of time, and after moving to the U.S., some Russian-speaking Jews in the Chicago area have become observant while many others identify as “cultural” Jews. They celebrate Jewish holidays, register their children in religious school, and sometimes in Jewish day schools. They take pride in learning Hebrew and in traveling to Israel to connect with their Jewish heritage.
“Many in my generation had grandparents in active military service or families who were otherwise directly impacted by the war,” relates Sofia Jouravel, Director of the Russian-speaking Jewish Division of the Jewish United Fund (JUF). “Regardless of your age or whether you were conscripted, we carry a lot of pride about our role in defeating the Nazis in WWII through every generation. In fact, some consider their role in the victory to be their most significant life accomplishment.”
Despite the immense adversity Russian-speaking Jews experienced during the war and aftermath, they continue to take pride in their service and accomplishments from the era. They display the resilience and pride of the Russian-Jewish community, despite the hardships of the past.
Rabbi Hershkovich is continually impressed by the perseverance of the community and amazed at how they don’t give up so easily when things don’t go well. “They are filled with joy. They laugh, they joke, they smile.” he relates. “We have a lot to learn from them.”