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JPA Community Voices

Let's Learn from Russian-speaking Jewish Senior Citizens

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By Gennady F - 3/17/2021

My grandparents didn't talk much about the war. Both of my grandmothers were evacuated on the last ships out of Odessa. My grandfathers were conscripted to the Red Army and found themselves on the front lines. If you are my age and the grandchild of Russian-speaking Jews it likely means your grandparents traveled a similar path, and they were the lucky ones, the ones who survived.

In the years before his passing my grandfather talked a little more about his experiences. He talked about German planes dropping bombs on his position. As he explained it on several occasions, “if the planes drop the bombs while flying right over you, you would be safe because the bombs would continue to glide forward. However, if the planes were dropping bombs before they flew over you, then you were in trouble and had to take cover as best you could.”

My wife's grandfather who passed away several years ago shared some of his own experiences. I recall one of them. His battalion was marching West towards Germany. Somewhere in the forest they got tired and decided to rest. He sat on a log next to his friends. A few moments later he realized that the log was moist and soft. When he looked closer, he realized that he was sitting not on a log but on a corpse.

These are war stories. There are millions of them, and they define a generation of people, how they think, how they look at the world, and how they react. If you've never experienced war then, like me, you can never understand them fully. People like my grandparents survived not just Nazis; they survived Stalin, purges, pogroms, famines, communism, and state-guided antisemitism. No one comes away from experiences like these without a unique perspective about life. These things, you can't learn from reading a book, and if you're lucky enough you never get to learn them first-hand.

Many people like my grandparents immigrated to the U.S with their families. They settled in Brooklyn or Queens, in Russian-speaking neighborhoods where they shop in Russian food stores, read Russian language newspapers, and watch Russian TV channels from Russia, Ukraine, Israel and the U.S. You won't find them reading the New York Times, or watching Fox News, for the obvious reason that they don't understand English well enough.

To the younger crowd educated in Western institutions, people from my grandparents' generation might seem naïve and a bit gullible about understanding current events. After all, news from Russian media sources is not the most objective, and sometimes approaches the level of credibility you would find on conspiracy sites such as Infowars. So, it's not a big surprise that Russian-speaking senior citizens are prone to believing in political conspiracy theories and stories that would be considered politically incorrect at best, by polite society.

I've noticed recently that some younger Russian-speaking Jewish writers have used the perceived ignorance of our older generation as fodder for criticism, for mockery, and for showcasing their own supposed political sophistication in some of their writing. Instead of soaking up as much wisdom as possible from the people who gave us so much, these writers create unflattering portrayals of a generation in its final years, a generation to which we should forever be grateful. And so, my ask to the writers of my generation is to think long and hard of how you want to portray your grandparents to your audience, because the people reading your articles might not know so much about war, the pogroms, the hardships. Not like your grandparents did.

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