MINSK, Belarus (Jul. 28)
Vanda Skuratovich is rambling on about her favorite subject: her unyielding devotion to Catholicism.
She refers to Mother Mary as her savior and she dwells on the importance of baptism.
All of this seems normal enough until the 76-year-old Belarussian proudly unveils a poster-size family photograph of 64 Jews.
“This is my family,” says Skuratovich, gazing at the photo with her glassy blue eyes.
The smiling faces are descendants of four Jews whom Skuratovich rescued during the vicious Nazi occupation of Belarus in 1941.
Her heroics earned her a Righteous Gentile designation from Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in the early 1990s.
Last year, her Jewish “family” flew her to New York so they could personally thank her for the gift of life. “Those four Jews became so dear to us that I feel Jewish, but in reality I’m a strong practicing Catholic,” she says.
Her story is moving indeed. But here in a crammed Minsk apartment filled with Soviet-era furniture, Skuratovich is hardly the lone hero.
She’s one of 12 Righteous Gentiles in this dreary Belarussian capital who convene twice a month in each other’s homes for dinner and socializing, courtesy of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
The club, known as Warm Homes, serves as a small yet symbolic expression of gratitude to elderly folks like Skuratovich who performed good deeds 60 years ago.
In addition to a traditional Belarussian menu — roasted chicken, boiled potatoes, herring, open-faced sandwiches topped with egg, cheese and garlic, two cakes and the obligatory vodka — the JDC also provides the group with medical care throughout the year.
Such gifts are highly valued in this poverty-stricken nation, where most pensioners rarely receive more than $150 per month.
They also partake in various JDC community activities for the elderly — like Jewish-themed excursions around Belarus, and a creative intelligentsia club featuring guest lectures.
They celebrate Jewish holidays with local Jews, and many of them cook traditional Jewish foods for Easter, like stuffed pike and tzimmes.
More than 1 million Jews lived in Belarus before the war, and cities like Minsk, Gomel and Pinsk were vibrant Jewish centers with populations that were more than half Jewish.
In the late 1920s, the Soviet regime began suppressing religious activity, and in 1941 the Nazis occupied Belarus and murdered most of its Jews. Today there are only 28,000 registered Jews, although Jewish communities here insist the actual number nears 80,000.
Today, 27 of the 400 Righteous Gentiles of Belarus reside in Minsk. Those who are too old or ill to attend the events receive meals delivered to their homes.
“We’re thankful for those who help us with food and for our organization. And I say our organization because we also belong to this community center. Maybe it was late but we finally feel sincere attitudes and good care,” says Roisa Sermashko, 72, who sheltered two of her Jewish classmates from 1941 to 1943.
In 1941, Skuratovich was home with her parents in Minsk when four Jews — a father, mother, and two children — knocked on her door. Skuratovich recognized the family as one that had owned a nearby shop before the war.
Without hesitation, Skuratovich and her family removed a section of the wood floor and dug a pit below, where the four hid for 18 months. The pit was covered again by panels and a sofa so suspicion would not be aroused.
One night, the Skuratovich family hosted a party to intentionally silence any rumors. “The Jews were under the floor waiting all night for the party to end,” she says nonchalantly.
As a precaution, the Skuratovichs fabricated Polish names for the Jews. Daughter Hava was Basya and son Srul became Leo, a name he still uses today. In the pit, Basya knitted socks, and at night the father came out to cook.
In 1959, Leo and Hava landed in Canada and wrote to Skuratovich. They have remained friends ever since.
“After the war, some neighbors called our family a ghetto,” says Skuratovich, who stands about 4-feet-5-inches tall.
The Minsk Ghetto was an enclosed area of the city where 100,000 Jews lived in close quarters. They left the enclosure during the day and toiled in forced labor throughout the city before returning at night.
No more than 3,000 Ghetto residents survived the war.
Some Jews, especially children, managed to escape from their working stations and desperately fled to the homes of their Belarussian friends.
If the Germans discovered either fleeing Jews or the Belarussians who harbored them, the result was almost always death.
“Those people who survived the ghetto survived only with help of Belarussian citizens,” says Maya Isakovna, now 64, who with 40 other youths survived the Minsk Ghetto when they were hidden by a Belarussian in a village south of Minsk.
Unlike citizens in the neighboring Baltic nations, where locals willingly collaborated with Nazis, Belarussians acted with more decency.
Many hid Jews in their homes, while others prepared false documents permitting Jews to move freely within Minsk.
“You have to understand they were our friends, colleagues and we never underlined that they had different nationalities. So when they were starving and needed a hand, no one thought about danger. We just had to help people close to us,” said Svetlana Lookyanovich, 78, a Righteous Gentile who married a Jewish man after the war.
“What do you do when a person comes out of a fire? You cannot just say no,” says Dr. Zoya Servoa, a feisty 73-year-old with wide eyes whose family saved 10 Jews.
This group of Righteous Gentiles went completely unrecognized during communism, when religious activity barely breathed.
In fact, many hid their heroics from friends in fear that their stories would reach authorities, and they’d be labeled as religious sympathizers and given lower-paid jobs.
In 1989, with communism on the verge of collapse, such fears were extinguished.
That prompted Isakovna to embark on a personal pledge to honor Righteous Gentiles.
She is largely responsible for locating most Righteous Gentiles in Belarus and has worked diligently to obtain approval by Yad Vashem, a process that requires substantial evidence. She also erected a monument to Righteous Gentiles in Porechie, where she was saved.
On this scorching summer day, Isakovna grabs a glass of Belarussian sangria to toast her friends: “We are united like a big family. If someone is sick, we always pay visits. These people have saved Jews and they risked a lot. I would like to drink for the bravery and strength of these people.”
Even in today’s independent Belarus, these Righteous Gentiles have been ignored by their own government.
“Only Israel canonized us as heroes. No one else thinks of us as heroes,” Servoa says.