‘He Wasn’t Afraid Of Anything’


Leonid Bereslavskiy asks every day, “Where’s Papa?” Yulia Bereslavskiy gets “kind of jealous when I see other kids talking with their fathers.”

Riva Bereslavskiy, their grandmother, just cries.

Leonid, 5, and Yulia, 9, are brother and sister. They immigrated to Brooklyn 51/2 years ago from Latvia with their father, Vitaly, a single father whose wife died while giving birth to Leonid a few months before.

An engineer in Riga, Vitaly, like thousands of immigrants before him, studied English and took some computer courses here to prepare for a new career.

Six weeks ago, his children became orphans.

On Jan. 19, his fellow-immigrant brother Leonid accompanied his wife to a doctor’s appointment. Vitaly, still unemployed, agreed to watch his brother’s laundromat, a tiny booth Leonid owned in the basement of a public housing project in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, for a few hours.

Vitaly, 50, was killed that day, police say, by a teenager from the neighborhood who walked into the laundromat, armed with a revolver, and demanded money. Vitaly put up a struggle and was shot to death.

Deshon Ellis, a 15-year-old gang member accused of taking $2 during the robbery, was arrested last month and charged with second-degree murder.

Vitaly was buried in Mount Judah Cemetery in Ridgewood, Queens.

“He was very nice, very caring,” Yulia says. “He wasn’t afraid of anything.”

Leonid remembers his brother as someone who “loved children,” who sacrificed his hoped-for career here in order to care for Leonid and Yulia, who would spend hours on the subway or bus to bring medicine to a sick member of the family.

Jewish community activists paint a portrait of a doting father. “He was very concerned about his children, about the care of his children,” says Faye Levine, director of social services at the Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst, who has known the family since they settled here.

The killing shocked Bensonhurst, a working-class neighborhood full of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who struggle with their own adjustment to a new country, Levine says.

“The tragedy of the mother dying … and the father being a single parent … and his coming with an infant … the combination of the circumstances really makes the family stand out in terms of what they had to cope with,” she says, leaving their latest loss unspoken.

Yulia, unusually poised for a fourth-grader, talks stoically about her father’s death. “I’m doing fine,” she says.

Leonid, in kindergarten at PS 200, “asks questions — ‘Where is Papa? When is he coming?’ “ she says. He is more withdrawn. “He really doesn’t understand.”

Leonid Bereslavskiy says his niece and nephew are “very nervous.”

Yulia is the family interpreter. She is speaking in the living room of her grandparents, Simon and Riva Bereslavskiy, at the southern edge of Bensonhurst. The children have lived with their grandparents since Vitaly was killed.

The small, one-bedroom apartment is crowded with unpacked boxes and children’s toys brought over from their now-vacated apartment a few blocks away. At night, Riva and Yulia share a bed. Leonid sleeps on a cot in the bedroom, Simon on a couch in the living room.

“It’s very, very hard,” Riva, 71, says in Russian through her tears.

She and her husband, retired pensioneers when they came here with Vitaly in 1992, are seeking legal guardianship of their grandchildren, with whom they play outside every day after school.

“We need a lawyer,” Simon, 74, says in Yiddish. A veteran of the Red Army, he lost one relative in the Holocaust — a brother, Leonid, for whom Simon’s remaining son, and grandson, are named.

The couple’s only income is a small monthly SSI check, says the JCH’s Levine. The JCH, a UJA-Federation agency, assisted the Bereslavskiys’ initial settlement here and handled the recent funeral arrangements, paid for by “a major benefactor,” Levine says. The JCH is also helping the family look for a larger apartment.

The Metropolitan New York Coordinating Council on Jewish Poverty provided furniture, clothing and supplementary food money when Vitaly and his family arrived in New York, and the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services offered psychological counseling. Both are UJA-Federation agencies.

The Bereslavskiys leaned on each other instead of turning to formal grief counseling since the shooting, says Levine, who adds, “They’re in shock.”

Riva says her son Leonid, Vitaly’s brother, has the heaviest burden — guilt that Vitaly died in his place in the laundromat. “He feels very bad,” she says.

The family’s plight has been covered in the city’s Russian-language newspapers. “Every newspaper,” Yulia adds.

Does the public intrusion into their private grief bother them? “It’s not every day,” she says. “It’s not so bad.”

Neighbors have given the Bereslavskiys some financial support — they also have limited means. A bank account in the name of Leonid and Yulia Bereslavskiy has been established at Astoria Federal Savings, 1672 Sheepshead Bay Road, Brooklyn, NY 11235.

The account has raised “not too much” so far, Simon says — “about $1,000.”

Yulia says most of her schoolmates know what happened to her father. “Everyone who knows asks what happened. They’re very nice.”

She wants to take drawing lessons, money permitting. Her brother wants piano lessons.

Next week, the Bereslavskiys will observe Purim together, at home. “Just a meal,” Riva says. Next month, a Passover seder. Just the immediate family. “By us, it’s still sad,” she says.

They don’t regret their decision to leave their homeland, says Simon. “It wasn’t good there for the Jews. Here it is good for the Jews. Here it isn’t fascist.”

Ironically, he adds, “I feel safer here.”

“Leonid, are you happy here?” Yulia asks her brother, playing in a corner of the dark living room. “Or do you want to go back to Latvia?”

Leonid shakes his head. He doesn’t want to go back.

“I’m happy,” he says.

Yulia agrees. “I’m happy here,” she says.