Russian Speaking Volunteers Help Survivors from the FSU

Like many things in the world, life happens by chance, but with purpose. Igor Litvak, a HIAS Immigration & Citizenship caseworker recently recalled such an experience at the volunteer driven workshop he attended to assist Russian speaking Holocaust survivors. They were filing for restitution for the suffering they endured during WWII.

One of Igor’s clients entered the room with stacks of precious documents carefully folded, stained and well-worn with age. In glancing at the papers, he was astonished that the woman sitting in front of him, who he had never met before, had actually lived within steps of where he had lived in Moscow. If he had not come to this workshop, their paths may not have crossed.

Her story was like his family’s. They were forced to flee during the War, far away to the Ural Mountains by train which took many weeks. Food was rationed, many starved and quite often the cold was unbearable because of limited access to heat and medical care. As he listened to her story and others like hers, he could not help but think how so many lives had instantly changed not only because of the War, but doubly because they were Jews.

Stories like these also meant a lot to a group of eight young Russian-speaking volunteers who gave of their Sunday on March 26th to do something meaningful for others. It opened doorways to emotion, to pain, to memories of their grandparents and to the many who perished. It reminded them of those who had survived and were burdened with the scars of losing loved ones, of having their properties confiscated and of having little opportunity to make their stories known to the world.

For Larissa, a volunteer and granddaughter of a Rabbi in Belarus who perished during the Holocaust, it was a way to honor his life and a portal to learn more about themselves and their families in the process. “Being Jewish and providing this service to Jews makes it very special. It brings us back to our roots,” said Larissa, who came to the workshop with her husband, Eugene, and his sister, Yana, and her fiancé, Matt. “We came together to know more about who we are and what our families collectively experienced. We came so we would not forget.”

Igor told how he usually asks the survivors he assists a similar question, “If you got this money, how would you spend it?”
The 3 answers he commonly receives are:

  •  “I would give it to my grandchildren”
  •  “I would donate it to my synagogue or a Jewish cause. Coming to this country helped me learn about my Jewish heritage.”
  •  “I would travel and feel what it is like to be free.”