The Medals Of Mettle


Mira, a sergeant in the Red Army during World War II, moved from unit to unit, treating wounded soldiers. Yakov served as a captain, stationed by the navy in several places. Emanuel, an officer, was stationed at the front.

If they were still in the former Soviet Union, they would take part in a national celebration last week of Victory in Europe Day, a holiday commemorating the end of what was called in the USSR “The Great Patriotic.”

Instead, they all live in Brooklyn now, émigrés from their various now-independent homelands, and they sang and cried together last week in Bensonhurst.

In the Metropolitan Jewish Adult Day Health Center, near the border of Borough Park, the group of aging veterans — most are in their mid-80s – pinned their service medals on their jackets and schmoozed, in Russian, about the not-so-good old days.

American vets were welcome at the event, but the neighborhood demographics are top-heavy in senior citizens from the FSU.

The ceremony included a moment of silence for fallen comrades, in addition to the celebration of the veterans’ survival.

Each one received a red carnation, as they would back home.
“It was very emotional. They were very happy they are able to tell stories,” says Elana Tsibulevskiy, assistant director of therapeutic recreation at the center. “They all talked about where they served.”

Like many Soviet émigrés, all the former soldiers packed their medals when they moved here. “They’re very proud” of the military honors, Tsibulevskiy says. “Every one was earned.”

In early May, the medals always come out.

In their homelands, flags fly at half-mast, parades are held, and cemeteries are visited.

During the years of communism, these commemorations drew large crowds in the former Soviet Union and its Iron Bloc satellites, including the former East Germany, below.

“This is a very special day,” Tsibulevskiy says. “It’s the biggest holiday of the year. It’s the most important date for people who came from Russia.”