The Death of Their Leader Leaves Uncertainty for Turkmenistan Jews

Few knew how ill Lyuba Garbuzova was — that’s just how the leader of Turkmenistan’s tiny and oppressed Jewish minority wanted it.

Garbuzova died July 25 of heart failure during surgery to remove a cancerous tumor. She was 46.

“She was much loved and respected. She put 100 percent into her work,” said close friend Artur Sarkesan by telephone from the Turkmenistan capital of Ashgabat. “Perhaps if she had thought less about others and more about her health, this wouldn’t have happened.”

Much of the success of the Turkmenistan’s Jewish community, limited though it may have been in a totalitarian regime where Judaism was effectively banned and there is no synagogue or rabbi, was due to Garbuzova’s affable personality and a pragmatism in her relationship with the repressive secret police.

That allowed Garbuzova to secure some space in which the community could operate without fear of reprisal. As the cornerstone of the Jewish community, she tried to take care of its poorest and neediest with just the intermittent charity sent by friends and concerned Jews abroad.

Without her skills and contacts, the community’s already difficult future seems even more tremulous.

“I just can’t believe it,” said Yulia Tatarkovskaya, who worked with Garbuzova in the Caspian Sea city of Turkmenbashi. “I don’t know what this means for the future of the community, but it is certainly bad. Lyuba was the linchpin that held it together.”

The Jewish center’s offices were closed in her absence but have reopened. A new director will be chosen within the next 10 to 15 days, according to community sources.

Although Garbuzova had been ill for some time, she kept her health woes a secret in an effort to continue her work. Thus her sudden death in Moscow, where she had come to seek treatment, came as a shock.

“Before the surgery she was full of optimism,” Oksana Gulden, a worker at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee offices in nearby Tashkent, Uzbekistan, told JTA by e-mail. “Just a month ago she entered my office with questions about St. Petersburg — her daughter entered the university there and they wanted to know about the prices, level of life, the weather.”

Gulden added that “of course, she was happy and proud of her daughter.”

Though Garbuzova worked long hours, she accepted only $100 a month for her work, and thus could not afford the operation she needed once her health situation became perilous. To raise the money, she sublet her apartment in Ashgabat for several months, but by then it appeared to be too late.

At a time when Jewish activists in the region enjoy greater security than at any time in recent history, Garbuzova operated more effectively away from the limelight in a country where mercurial dictator Saparmurat Niyazov had, before he died in late 2006, effectively banned Jewish organizations.

After Niyazov signed a law in November 2003 barring unregistered religious groups from operating in the country, life became increasingly difficult for the approximately 1,200 Jews in Turkmenistan.

Islam and Orthodox Christianity became the only religions eligible for registration. Without a synagogue, Jewish cultural center or access to outside Jewish aid organizations, local Jews became effectively sealed off from the outside world.

That didn’t stop Garbuzova. She repeatedly jeopardized her own safety, dedicating her life to the welfare of the Jewish community after its leader, Iosif Schlochinsky, was forced to flee the country for Israel in 2002.

Although not a native of Turkmenistan, Garbuzova became the de facto leader of the country’s Jews. The many young people who milled around her office often referred to the energetic Garbuzova as “mom.”

With non-ethnic Turkmen mostly excluded from positions of affluence or even sustenance, Garbuzova worked diligently for her community’s Jews to make aliyah.

“I have one simple target: Send people to live in Israel,” she told JTA during a meeting in her offices in Ashgabat earlier this year, an office that served as synagogue and Sunday school.

Nothing seemed to deter Garbuzova, not even her arrest last year in Uzbekistan while smuggling aid money across the border for a prominent Jewish relief organization. She served some time under house arrest in Tashkent but was acquitted on all charges.

Besides delivering monthly food aid packages to elderly and infirm Jews in all but one of the nation’s cities, Garbuzova hand delivered the demographic data on which aid quotas were determined to community donors outside the country. It was a task considered too dangerous to conduct via e-mail, even though she was among the fewer than 1 percent of the country’s citizens with home Internet access.

Garbuzova was buried with her family in her native city of Cherkasy, Ukraine. She is survived by three daughters and two grandchildren.

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