Book of Life Stories

What it is like to be a Jew in Russia

Documenting Jewish Adelaide for the Adelaide Jewish Museum

Irina Sverdlov

They don’t know about religion in Russia, not because they don’t want to, but because they have never been educated in this area. In the big cities like Moscow, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Almata, there probably would have been a synagogue. Most of the time, synagogues were closed after the 2nd World War and have never been reopened. To be a Jew is like a prisoner in your country. You’ve been born in Russia, the Ukraine, or Belarus, in the former Soviet Union, but in your birth certificate or passport, it always states Nationality, “Jew”. Everyone knows about the fact that you are Jewish. When you enroll your child in school you fill in the form, and where it states Nationality, you are required to fill in “Jew”. In the classroom books, it would be filled in Nationality, “Jew”. Each child knows who is sitting next to him. They are not interested if you practice as a Jew or not. You are defined as a Russian, a Ukrainian or a Jew. For them Jewish is nationality and religion in the same space.

My family did celebrate Jewish holidays. I was born into a religious family, which was very unusual. My grandmother was born in a Rabbi’s family and we got some religious instruction. My father’s mother was from a very religious Jewish family where there were 12 children. She passed away two years ago at the age of 92. She always, I remember, kept Yom Kippur; she never ate on the day of the fast. At Pesach, she always somehow received matzo from different towns that sent it to her, and we all shared a few pieces of matzo with her.

It was so difficult if you were Jewish and you would like to have higher education in the Ukraine. The universities could only accept 5% Jews. Not more. Some universities can’t accept any. You can’t be a doctor or a dentist. Some professions, like architecture, were extremely difficult to get in to.

Before the 2nd World War it was an easier life for Jews because there were a lot of synagogues and people had access to education, but afterwards it was completely closed. It was taboo for this religion. I know of one synagogue in Moscow, one in St. Petersburg, one in Georgia, Kazakhstan and one or two in Lithuania, in the Baltic country, but not in my town. My hometown of Kharkov (in the Ukraine) is a huge town and there was no synagogue at all. At all! The population is 1.5 million, of which 30% of the population was Jewish, and yet there was not one synagogue. The Government doesn’t want to know about it, doesn’t want to see them. If you are a Jew you can’t be a Director; no high position in the ladder is open to you. You could be Deputy, but never Director. There are also a lot of Jews who don’t want to keep any contact with their religion or nationality. They would pay large sums of money to change their identity. Or they would find a partner who is not Jewish and would have kids so that the next generation would start to be non-Jewish. Or, to improve your position you could try for an opportunity to become a member of the communist party. But this was also difficult for Jews. It was better to hide the fact that you were Jewish to have a better life.

There was no challah (special bread for religious ceremonies) available. Where would it come from? Who knows about it? 95% of Jews don’t know about it at all. They have never been in a Jewish school, they don’t have any Jewish books. My parents who are in their 70s have never been in a synagogue before. They have never even seen one. My Grandmother keeps the religion and told us all the information. I?ve got this grandmother who knows, but not everyone has a grandparent who knows about their heritage and who can explain its requirements. Most of the old people who had knowledge about the religion were killed during the 2nd World War. For instance, my grandmother from my fathers side who was one of 12 children, after the war only three survived from this huge family and from my grandmother who taught me the Jewish rules, there were four of them, and only two survived. She survived because at the last moment she rushed to be with her husband. Her brother survived because he was in the army. The others were killed. Have you heard of Babiy Yar? In Kharkov there was the same situation, where hundreds of Jews were killed. We have a book and there is a list in it of all the Jews who were killed there, included in it is my grandfather.
These days, a lot of people are interested in their religion. Kharkov once had one of the largest synagogues in Europe, but it was turned into a volleyball stadium. In 1991 the synagogue was reopened, but there was absolutely nothing inside, just a beautiful huge building. A Rabbi from America came over to organize everything. A lot of Jews who haven’t left yet, or who don’t want to leave, are starting to go back to their roots. A lot of people now in Russia are interested in religion, and start to keep it, and start to learn Hebrew. Why do so many go back? It was always taken from people, and if you take something away, they want it back. Now, everyone is interested. Now they have got challah, they have a bakery belonging to the synagogue and they have matzo sent from Israel to the Jewish community in Kharkov.
In our family, Rosh Hashanah was a big festival. We all got together; we had a fantastic dinner; we talked about family history and about relatives we haven’t seen. We ate Russian-style Jewish food, lot of salads, including beetroot and egg. We ate a lot of chicken liver and chopped herring. It was our favourite food. I remember much more about Pesach, but Rosh Hashanah I remember we usually ate lot of cakes and biscuits that grandma baked. She put a lot of sweets on the table; it was more like a sweet party than anything else. Honey, jams, cakes with plum and sultanas. Everything was sweet – to signify a sweet New Year.
I don’t remember lighting candles for Shabbat, although grandma told me about it. We had a magnificent family candelabrum that was passed from generation to generation. It was solid silver standing on granite and was so heavy. My grandparents couldn’t take it with them when they were forced to leave because they didn?t have time to take it. They were lucky to have just survived. They left their full house and rushed off, as it was their last opportunity to leave. They lost absolutely everything. Nothing survived. And when they came back to their apartment in 1945 it was absolutely empty, no silver, no antiques, nothing at all. A few empty rooms, but in one room, only the piano survived. They regard themselves as lucky because they survived. I never saw any candelabras in the Russian shops. I don’t think that they could ever have replaced it.
Some people ask me whether we kept kosher in Russia. Did you eat Kosher, they ask. To ask such a question means that people don’t understand the history. Some never ate meat at all because it was too expensive. Sometimes there wasn’t even meat in the shops, only on the Black Market. There were periods when the shops were empty; there was nothing at all. We had special coupons for each family for sugar, butter and soap, but the shops were empty. You could buy whatever you liked on the Black Market, even caviar if you had the money.
My parents were both Engineers. In Russia this is a low position. Even though they had a higher education, their salaries were low. It was difficult for them. However, because we all lived together and put all our salaries together, yes, we could live. We lived with my grandmother who got a pension, my mother and father, my husband, two kids and myself. We lived together in one apartment. This way, we didn’t each have to pay for rent, telephone and other expenses. We paid one bill. We lived in my parent’s apartment because when we married, there was no opportunity to buy a place. Their apartment was magnificent, with three bedrooms, a living area and an eating area, but only one toilet.
The situation in Russia started to get worse and worse, and it was getting dangerous for everyone. It started to get a little bit easer for Jews, but in general it was still very dangerous. It was the start of the mafia in the country. Government companies suddenly became private companies, and directors became owners. People were killing each other because of this. We have our education, but other than that, we wondered what more could we offer our kids when they grow up. I was in a good position. I was deputy in a large school although my salary was not good. I therefore had two jobs to make end meet. My husband was a design engineer. He had a good position but his salary was low. We couldn’t offer our kids the future that we wanted to because we saw what was happening around us. It was like a third war and we decided, enough!
It took us two years to plan our emigration to Australia. We could go without problems to Israel, Canada or Australia. We chose not to go to Israel because I have got three men and worried about the Army. We could chose between Canada and Australia, but for Canada we needed to pay a huge bond and we couldn’t afford it. There were particular rules about emigration. We were allowed to take 100 dollars for each person. That’s it. You can’t take any more. We were allowed 20kg of luggage. That’s it. This was in 1992. Now they give permission to take your money, or to transfer money, but in 1992, they checked our passports, they stamped in that you had bought your money, $100 per person only. We had $400 for our new life in Australia and one small suitcase each. There were other special rules of what you could take, such as one wedding ring per person.
When we left the country, we left everything behind. We arrived in this country with $400, no English, no job and two young kids. We knew no one here because it was an independent immigration. We were going for a new life with nothing, but we believed that we could do it. And I think we are very brave. I think we did a fantastic job for the 11 years that we have been here.

Story recorded by Roslyn Sugarman, 4 September 2003.

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