Book of Life Stories

My Life – Raya Mayo

Presented at the South Australian Multicultural & Ethnic Affairs Commission forum dinner celebrating the Achievements of the Jewish Community in South Australia, 17 June 2001.

It is an honour and pleasure to speak tonight and I thank the organisers for choosing me. Permit me to start with some facts about my life.

My name is Raya Mayo, my maiden name is Vyshovsky and I was born in Kharkhov in eastern Ukraine. I am 44, married to Rob Mayo, with 5 children, a medical practitioner, and graduated from Flinders University in 1983. My working career includes 8 years of hospital work, 3 years of neuroscience research, 7 years as an Australian Army Medical Officer for the recruiting unit, a gp with a special interest in psychological health. Presently I am having great fun and an enormous professional reward working as a country locum in remote special needs areas and small aboriginal communities.

Next month is a significant one in my life as a migrant. In five weeks I will be celebrating the 22nd anniversary of my life in this god blessed country, after 22 years of a very different life under a very different regime.

My maternal grandmother had a lovely Jewish name, Rahel. She was killed by Nazis when my mother was six. No wonder my mother wanted to call me, her only child, Rahel. That was not to be so. My mother did not dare to give me the Jewish name that she wanted. She carefully chose a common Ukrainian name that shared the first letters of her mother’s name: Raya instead of Rahel. Such antisemitism had become a part of my life well before I was born.

One of many paradoxes of Soviet existence consisted of the definition of a Soviet Citizen. A Soviet Citizen according to the definition was an atheist, so in my childhood I did not hear or see a praying Jew. My grandparents were declared to be atheists. My parents were atheists and so was I. Despite the supposition that we were atheists we were noted to be Jews by nationality. We were not Ukrainians even though at least 5 generations had been born in the Ukraine. We were not Russians even though eastern Ukraine had been part of Russia for many decades. We were Jews stripped of our religion and beliefs. Our religious Jewish pride was substituted by a persecution complex. University positions, job opportunities were severely limited to people like me, of Jewish nationality.

In the summer of 1978, aged 21, I applied to leave The Soviet Union for Israel with my parents Vladimir and Maya. This was indeed an act of rebellion and defiance. I look back now and remember individuals who contributed to this transformation of a submissive and a compliant Jew to one who was prepared to take a risk. In my school days I worked hard and got good marks. The school headmistress used to start regular school assemblies with a spiel that was repetitive and familiar to me. “Those studious Jews who get the best of our free education suck us dry and then leave to the Promised Land”. Very few of us could even dream about leaving but I think she certainly planted an idea in my head, and led me to apply to leave later.

We left The Soviet Union on Israeli visas. Little did I realise to what extent we carried with us the baggage of Soviet propaganda and antisemitism. We did not go to Israel. My intentions were to run away as far from Europe as possible, to hide away in Australia. If I stayed low, I thought, said little and did good I might get less antisemitic bashing than what I had received in my home country.

My Australian life has become a life of celebration of how wrong I was, a life of untangling my confusions, ridding my delusions and shaking off the persecution complex.

One of my biggest struggles in earlier days was one of identity.
It would go like this:
Polite Australian: “How are you? What’s your name?”
Indoctrinated Me: “Raya”.
Polite Australian: “What sort of name is that?”
Indoctrinated Me: “Russian”
PA: “Are you Russian?”
IM: “I am not Russian, I am Jewish”
PA: “Were you born in Israel?”
IM: “I was born in Ukraine\”
PA: “Oh you must be Ukrainian\”
IM: “I am a Russian Jew born in the Ukraine”
After many months of this repetitive dialogue my vigilance had subsided and I slipped:
PA: “Are you Russian?”
IM: “Yes” I said.

I looked around for lightning to strike me. No lightning happened, but what did happen was that for the first time I called myself Russian and indeed I was Russian even though never was I Russian in Russia for other Russians.

My vigilance must have been slipping down rapidly. After 6 years of being in Australia I married Rob, a Gentile. I married into a wonderful family of Mayos, a family of warmth, incredible wisdom and support. Rob encouraged me to enhance my Jewishness and participated himself in most aspects of Jewish life. As the years went by I studied Judaism, learned to say prayers and experienced a rebirth of my Jewish self. From being a ridiculed and persecuted Jew I became an emancipated Jew.

However, the hate that I experienced as a child was not so easily resolved; not until the following chain of events:

In early 1991 I received a call from Mr Jack Hines asking me whether I would be available as a medical officer to assist the DPP in accompanying Ukrainian witnesses from their village in the Ukraine to a war crimes trial here in Adelaide. Some months later I found myself in a tiny remote village in western Ukraine interviewing, examining and counselling mostly elderly, illiterate Ukrainian peasants. The majority had never seen an airplane, had never heard of Australia. However 2 to 3 days passed and we were all aboard a QANTAS plane flying to Adelaide. A few drinks were served and their memories and stories poured forth. I was interpreting and all of us including the QANTAS cabin staff were crying. Those were stories of simple Ukrainian peasants watching their Jewish neighbours being marched to the pits and the cry of desperation that rose from the walking column to the skies and deafened all things around. The memories of the hunts for the Jews who escaped the initial slaughter, memories of melting snow that coloured the local creek red, the memories of their fruitless attempts to hide or warn their Jewish neighbours and the price that they and others paid for it. We listened to the stories of Ukrainian peasants who have been haunted by images of their slaughtered Jewish neighbours, who for years have been waking up at night hearing the Jewish cries, who despite all their fears agreed to fly to this land in search of justice.

This opportunity to work with Ukrainian witnesses allowed me to re-evaluate my own Ukrainian experiences and to find another dimension to my Ukrainian ex-neighbours and I do thank this good country for this opportunity.

After my first 22 years being spent in Russia and the next 22 years in this wonderful land of Australia I am looking forward with great excitement and anticipation to the challenges of the next 22 years.

“May the road be free for the journey,
May it lead where it promised it would”.

Comments are closed.