It’s all in a name: Tale of an orphan’s rescue from Chechnya

David Naumkin and Olga Elshanskaya, the Jewish Agency for Israel employee who took the 20-year-old from a Chechen orphanage to a Moscow asylum to work with him. (Anna Rudnitskaya)

David Naumkin and Olga Elshanskaya, the Jewish Agency for Israel employee who took the 20-year-old from a Chechen orphanage to a Moscow asylum to work with him. (Anna Rudnitskaya)

MOSCOW (JTA) — In a room at a Jewish asylum in Moscow, the boy sits on the lower part of a bunk bed looking down at the floor. Headphones on his ears, he pays no notice to a visitor.

Except for his name, David Naumkin, there is no evidence that he is Jewish — no documents, no Jewish relatives. But it is thanks to his name that he was rescued from a Chechnya orphanage about a month ago at the age of 20. 

Naumkin’s story is typical for Chechnyans born 20 years ago: Unknown men killed his father. His mother died in a bombing when he was 9; he witnessed her death. Until then he spoke Russian. After that he didn’t speak a word for months. When he resumed talking, he spoke Chechen. 

Now Naumkin is in Moscow and speaks Russian — sometimes. For the most part he won’t speak. Psychologists who come to see him in the asylum say he is trying to come to terms with his new life. 

The story of his rescue goes back about six months ago, when the Israeli Embassy in Moscow received a letter from the director of an orphanage in the Chechen capital of Grozny about a Jewish boy living there who could no longer stay because he was over 18. But he was unable to live on his own.

The embassy asked whether there were any documents proving the boy’s Jewishness. Without them, nothing could be done.

That could have been the end of the story, but a woman working in the embassy who knew about the letter talked about the boy to her friend Olga Elshanskaya, 22, who worked at the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Sympathizing with Naumkin’s plight, Elshanskaya shared the information with her office colleague responsible for aliyah, figuring that if the boy was Jewish, he may have had relatives in Israel. Elshanskaya asked the Israeli Embassy to look for the boy’s relatives, but the embassy said it needed proof the boy was Jewish.

So Elshanskaya went to Rabbi Israel Barenbaum, head of the Moscow rabbinical court, whom she knew was experienced in proving people’s Jewish roots. Barenbaum looked at the copies of Naumkin’s documents and said they were useless because all of them had been issued recently.

Desperate, Elshanskaya searched online for the boy’s name and discovered that she was not the first person who had tried to help Naumkin.

Several years earlier, the Jewish Agency had been informed about Naumkin and his cousin Emma and had tried to get them out of the orphanage. The Jewish Agency checked to see if the children were eligible for the Law of Return, but their documents were unsatisfactory. 

Later, according to an article in Israel’s daily Maariv in 2007, the Jewish Agency representative in the Caucasus, Lev Shchegolev, petitioned the Chechen government to let the children leave the country to spend two months in a summer camp in Israel. The request was not approved.

Elshanskaya refused to give up.

She asked the director of a Jewish asylum in Moscow whether she could take the boy, and for the first time heard a positive answer. So Elshanskaya bought a ticket to Grozny and went to fetch him.

First, however, she wanted to speak with him on the phone. Naumkin wasn’t very talkative.

“Do you like it where you are now?” Elshanskaya asked.

“No,” Naumkin replied.

“Do you want me to take you out of there?” she asked.

“Yes,” came the reply.

Elshanskaya first saw Naumkin in person about a month ago. She said he appeared downtrodden and neglected, and didn’t look 20 — maybe 14 or 15. Elshanskaya couldn’t say whether he looked Jewish, Russian or Chechen. He just looked unhappy.

They spent a night in the orphanage, and Elshanskaya noticed that Naumkin did not take off or change his clothes at night. In the morning they left for the airport.

At  the Moscow asylum, the staff gave Naumkin a welcome dinner and showed him to his room. Then the director told Elshanskaya, “Now tell me the whole truth.” She wanted to know how Elshanskaya knew he was Jewish. Elshanskaya said she had no proof.

Naumkin’s cousin, Emma, who had been adopted by a family in Chechnya and says she’s happy, said their grandmother used to tell them they were Jews. In the Moscow orphanage they asked Naumkin whether he was circumcised, and according to what tradition, Jewish or Muslim.

“Muslim,” he said.

Emma, whom Elshanskaya spoke with on the phone, said their grandmother was against circumcision in the Muslim tradition and insisted on the Jewish one. She had even quarreled about it with her son, Naumkin’s father.

Naumkin himself doesn’t know who he is. Asked if he is Jewish, Naumkin now says he doesn’t know. In the meantime, he wears a kipah and keeps Shabbat.

He also torments Elshanskaya, who comes to see him nearly every day, with the constant refrain “I want to go home.”

“Where’s your home, David?” she asks. “Do you want to go back to Chechnya?”

He shakes his head and doesn’t answer. He doesn’t know who he is or where home is.

With Elshanskaya’s help, he has learned to eat with a fork and knife, to cross the street and to tell the time on his watch. He can’t read or write, but he attends school.

His future is murky. Lawyers say there is a small chance of getting him an apartment on the outskirts of Moscow. (According to Russian law, adults released from an orphanage are given an apartment by the state.) He’ll need time to adjust to an independent life.

“Come on, David, talk to us,” Elshanskaya says, bending to catch his eye. Maybe one time out of 10 she manages. Then he smiles.

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