ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia (Apr. 27)
May 9 marks the 60th anniversary of V-Day, the date in 1945 when Nazi Germany capitulated. Nowhere has it been as resolutely commemorated each year as in the former Soviet Union, which lost a staggering 25 million citizens during what is still called the Great Patriotic War.
Of approximately 11,000 World War II veterans still alive in the southern Russian capital of Rostov-on-Don today, 211 are Jewish.
Three of those Jewish soldiers marched in the great Victory Day parade in Moscow’s Red Square on June 24, 1945.
One was 90-year-old Leonid Abelich Klevitsky, a tall, white-haired man of erect bearing who heads the city’s Jewish war veterans association.
“It was the day before my 20th birthday,” he told JTA in an interview conducted during last year’s Victory Day celebration. “I’d been celebrating all night, and almost fell flat on my face in Red Square.”
When Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, Klevitsky was a student in a prestigious military academy. He graduated in time to fight on the Ukrainian front and took part in the bombing of Berlin.
“I never understood my Judaism,” he says of his upbringing. “I had a Marxist-Leninist education in the military academy. And only because I was Jewish, I got a ‘D’ instead of an ‘A’ because I corrected the teacher when he quoted Stalin wrong.”
After a 25-year career in the army, in 1967 Klevitsky retired, and he and his wife moved back to Rostov. He became head of the city’s Jewish war veterans association when it was founded six years ago.
Rostov-on-Don lies just over the border from Ukraine, right in the path of the 1941 Nazi onslaught. Few of the city’s 20,000 Jews fled the advancing German forces. Rostov’s Jews were urbanized, and many had studied in German universities.
Their diplomas didn’t help them. On Aug. 11, 1942, the city’s Jewish men were marched to a ravine outside the city and shot; the women, children and elderly were gassed in trucks, and their bodies buried in the same ravine, called Zmiyovskaya Balka, or the ravine of the snakes. Communists and Red Army soldiers also were killed and buried there, along with their families.
Altogether, some 27,000 bodies lie in the grass-covered ravine, which has become the site of annual memorial ceremonies.
Some of Rostov’s Jews, both men and women, escaped the massacre because they were serving in the Soviet Army.
The biggest day of the year for these veterans is the festive luncheon the city’s Jewish community hosts for them every May. Last year’s event, held May 7 in Rostov’s historic synagogue, drew more than 100 aging veterans, all wearing their medals with pride.
“Everyone who can walk is here today,” Klevitsky said.
One of those who could not attend was his own wife, bedridden for three years.
“I love her so,” he said.
The couple was married 53 years earlier in a civil ceremony. Now that Rostov has a Chabad rabbi, Klevitsky and his wife want to have a Jewish ceremony. But the rabbi told them they’d have to go to the mikvah, or ritual bath, Klevitsky said, adding defiantly, “I won’t go.”
He was in a buoyant mood all afternoon, displaying his veteran’s ID card to anyone who showed the least interest. The feast was a typical Russian affair, with lengthy speeches by the heads of every relevant organization, as well as the requisite appearance by the city’s deputy mayor. The vodka and champagne flowed, toasts were made, and there was cheek-to-cheek dancing to 1940s-era tunes.
But the lavish spread stood in ironic contrast to these honored war veterans’ stark financial situation. Like elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, these men and women who labored all their lives for the Soviet state, expecting to be taken care of in their old age, are now penniless, scraping by on meager pensions, unable to pay for medical care, clothing or food.
According to figures from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which helps elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union through its Hesed welfare agencies, more than half of southern Russia’s 66,000 Jews are older than 50. Twenty-five percent live below the poverty line. At the end of last year’s Victory Day feast, some of those elderly poor were wrapping up cookies and bread rolls to take home to their empty cupboards.
The feast was basically paid for by the dozen local businessmen who make up the board of the city’s Hesed and Chabad organizations.
Ilya Gorensteyn, a local bigwig who made his money in construction, was one of them. “I donated the bottled water, a guy who owns a fish plant gave the fish, the owner of a vodka plant gave the vodka,” he said, pointing down the line of business leaders seated at the head table.
Gorensteyn said he knows of many other newly wealthy Jewish men in Rostov, but “unfortunately, not many of them are willing to give.”