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Interview with Zinaida Lapitsky





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Use of this oral history is governed by U.S. and international copyright laws. Please contact the Upper Midwest Jewish Archives for permission to publish.


Interview with Zinaida Lapitsky
Interviewed by Linda Schloff

With Olga Lifson as translator
Interviewed on November 25 , 1991
at the Saint Paul home of Ms. Lapitsky

[Ms. Lapitsky speaks Russian throughout the interview. The text
appearing after her initials, in the third person, is the translator's
version of her words. The bracketed material has been added by the
transcriber, who is fluent in Russian, and represents either a more
accurate translation or additional details left out by the translator.]

LS: We are getting started now, and the first thing I guess I'll ask
you about is your background, some information about your parents.
What was the name of your mother?

ZL: Berta.
LS: And what was her last name?
ZL: Lapitsky.
LS: Maiden name?
ZL: Ryskin.
LS: And where was she born?
ZL: She was born in Belorussia, in a small shtetl near Orsha.
LS: And what year was she born?
ZL: 1898.


LS: Was this a traditional shtetl?

ZL: It was a typical Jewish shtetl, with the Belorussians living on

the outskirts and the Jews in narrow streets around the synagogue,

and before the revolution it was exclusively like a Jewish


LS: Did you visit it or is that what your mother told you?

ZL: She used to visit it when she was a child, in summer. This was a
place where they grew a lot of apples and people used to go there for
the summer. This was the area where the first Russian Agricultural
Academy was founded by the local philanthropist Duke Dundykov.
Later on she learned that this was a very ancient noble Russian
family that was involved in philanthropy for many generations and
luckily they were not tainted by any anti-Semitism, and they were
promoting education, including Jewish education and gymnasiums.

LS: What did your mother attend?

ZL: She was the oldest of ten children. She only went to school for

three years to this pro-gymnasium, and when she was only eleven,

she was sent to St. Petersburg to earn some money.

LS: Did she live with relatives there?

ZL: In those days there were very strong landsmanshaft, and so she
lived with very distant relatives, and later on the woman with whom
she lived became her sister-in-law.

LS: Let's get to your father. Where was he born and when?

ZL: This was another shtetl near Orsha called Romanovo. He was
born a year earlier, in 1897. He became an orphan when he was only
two years old. He was the youngest child in that family, but when he
was twelve years old, he was also sent to St. Petersburg to earn
some money.


LS: You know, I have one question. They were sent to St. Petersburg
before the revolution, is that right? I guest I thought that St.
Petersburg was closed to Jews?

ZL: Not for craftsmen. The mother was learning the craft of hat

making with a French woman, and the father became a helper in a

watch-shop that was run by his elder brother.

LS: Did they continue to live in St. Petersburg through the


ZL: Yes. There is one: little interesting detail. Her mother's father

visited America for a brief time in 1914 because he had his older

brothers living here by then. He was a very quiet man interested in

gardening, and everything was too fast and too noisy here, and

nobody was speaking Russian to him. So he didn't spend very long

here and went back.

LS: Tell me about yourself. When did your parents get married first

of all?

ZL: Her parents got married after the revolution. During the Civil
War, her father was with the cavalry of Semyon Budyonny and the
mother was following him as a nurse with the same regiment, and
they were already married by then. Zinaida was born during the Civil
War, and her mother had to come back to St. Petersburg because she
was already pregnant, and she was born December 28, 1921.

LS: Were there other children born in the family?

ZL: One brother, Anatoly, with whom she emigrated together. He
was born in 1930.

LS: And then, what did your mother and father do when things
settled down?

ZL: Her father was a rather enterprising man, and he believed all the
promises about private enterprise during the NEP [New Economic
Policy] period. So he started like a craftsmen's team, they called it
artel, and she doesn't remember a lot about it, she was a little girl


then, but it had something to do with felt, either for hats or boots,

something like that. Her mother was already a very experienced

craftswoman in her field and she opened a little shop making hats.·

Well, they paid dearly for all this enterprise. In 1927 all this was

confiscated and closed down and they were expelled from Leningrad

and had to live in far outskirts. Her mother had a lot of younger

brothers and sisters, and they were helping out and supporting them,

and it was a very hard time until 1930, when this law of

expropriation and banishment was abandoned and they were given

passports finally and they could return to Leningrad. Her brother,

who was born in 1930, didn't know anything about it until only seven

years ago because all this was dark past history that you didn't even

talk about.

LS: Tell me about your schooling now. Once you got back to

Leningrad, I suppose your schooling began?

ZL: The school that she started attending in Leningrad was rather

peculiar and interesting. Originally, it was a Jewish school, but by
then it was no longer a Jewish school. It was originally founded by
Baron Ginsburg and it was founded on the premises of an orphanage.

LS: It would teach you a trade? Is that it?

ZL: It was a very good school in terms that it had brilliant teachers
and the director [principal] was Kiselgov [spelling?] who was a great
educator. The children who initially were taught in this school were
those who were saved from famine in Belorussia and Ukraine and
were brought there to study. They did take some crafts, but it was
optional. Basically, they were getting very good education. Those of
these children who were initially taught at this school and who
eventually survived the Leningrad blockade during World War II, most
of them eventually got university degrees and became very educated
people. She never graduated from that particular school, but she
knows that at least one of the graduates of this school became a
very prominent economist in Estonia--Bronstein.

LS: Did the school still have sort of a Jewish flavor, even after the


ZL: If she remembers correctly, it was even until 1937 that there

were some Hebrew [Yiddish?] classes apart from general education.

LS: When did you leave the school?

ZL: After fifth grade, when the family moved to a different district

of the city, it became impossible to attend that school; she had to

attend a local school, and that one was already a completely

different story--it was [Model] School No.1 that was formed on the

basis of a former gymnasium, and it was a completely different


LS: Did you graduate from that school?

ZL: She eventually graduated in 1940, even though by then the school
was moved to a new building.

LS: Then what did you do?

ZL: After that she entered Second Medical Institute in Leningrad.

LS: What did you wish to become?.

ZL: She was always very single-minded. When she was only five
years old, she said that she would be a doctor, and when she was
seventeen, she said that she would be a psychiatrist. That's why she
went to Second Medical Institute, which was founded by Bekhterev, a
great psychiatrist in Russia, and she studied there with Professor ·

LS: And the war interrupted your studies obviously?

ZL: The war interrupted her studies, and she was sent to dig
trenches for the army for the defense of Leningrad and over there
she became ill with tuberculosis, and that is the reason why she was
evacuated and didn't return to Leningrad.

LS: OK, before we go any further, I just want to go back a little bit
to your parents and when you were growing up. Was this still a
traditional Jewish household?


ZL: Her family was very assimilated because the parents were very
young when they left their families and moved to Leningrad, and they
didn't keep up these traditions. Her grandmother--her mother's
mother--was very observant and kept Kosher all her life, till she

LS: Did she live with you?

ZL: She lived with another daughter before the war, and after the

war she lived with them. She really had a lot of influence on her


LS: What language did your parents speak at home, Yiddish or


ZL: Russian.

LS: Did they get together with the family for any Jewish holidays?

ZL: Her grandmother got them all together for Jewish holidays,
especially Passover, Hanukkah.

LS: Was there any problems that you had when you were going to

school because of you being Jewish?

ZL: No, never in school. [In Leningrad] In the circles that she lived,
until World War II, anti-Semitism was hardly felt.

LS: What did your parents feel as Stalin was tightening his control
over the economy? Did they still have some hopes that the
revolution would turn out a new breed of people?

ZL: After the revolution [before the revolution and at the beginning
of the revolution--no such things as social-democratic movements
were possible after the revolution--Ell, her mother was really quite
swept away by a lot of these liberal social-democratic movements
and joined one of the circles, like a lot of Jewish young people did.
The father was always rather skeptical about all that. It was only
in 1956 [that's the year when Khruschev denounced Stalin and the


past of the party--translator's remark] that they learned that their

mother had been a Communist Party member but drifted away after

Lenin's death in 1924 and no longer paid her dues and kind of forgot

about it. They never used to talk about it in the family; they never

talked about Stalin or anything like that. But it was by their tone of

voice and hints when they were talking about the situation in the

country that she and her brother understood that they were not very

fond of Stalin.

LS: What about your experiences in Komsomol? Were you an active


ZL: There was really a big difference between her and her brother.
He was born much later, he did not experience this period when they
were expelled from Leningrad, and that's why he was a much more
traditional Soviet man, going along the prescribed lines. She still
remembered her early childhood, and this had a very big impact on
her whole outlook. She barely became a pioneer [this is an
organization for young children--translator's remark], but later,
when she was already a teenager, when you are supposed to become a
member of the Komsomol, she really didn't feel like it and she never
became a member--she was never comfortable in these circles--she
always remembered this period when they were ostracized because
her parents were nepmen. [from NEP]

LS: Where were you evacuated?

ZL: She was initially evacuated to an area near Yaroslavl, but later
it was under bombing, and she was shipped farther east to the Kama,
to the Tatarian Republic, and this was the town that much later
began to grow very much because Renault built this huge truck plant

LS: Where were your mother and grandmother? Were they still in

ZL: They joined her in Yaroslavl and then moved together to
Naberezhnye Chelny in Tataria. They worked in different places, but
they were already joined together and the mother came there with


the younger brother. Zinaida worked there as a nurse, and her mother
worked in a different place.

LS: Were you ill very long with T.B.?

ZL: The last flair up was after she worked already as a doctor, and

that was in 1946, but after that she never had any relapses.

LS: Did you lose any of your relatives during the siege of Leningrad?

ZL: Mostly the men, all the uncles in the family. Their father was

probably able to survive only because the family was evacuated, he

didn't have any dependents, and he was in the barracks and was

provided the rations.

LS: Was he in the army?

ZL: It was not in the army, but the people who worked in the

industry were also kept on the barracks regimen, so they were like

in the army and they were provided ration coupons. He managed to

get out of Leningrad in 1942 and joined the family, because at the

time when they left, it was in such a rush, they didn't even have any

belongings with them, so he managed to bring them some clothes.

[End Tape 1 Side 1]

[Tape 1 Side 2]

ZL: Even though it seems that the father was very lucky, but still
when he joined them in Tataria, it took them half a year to bring him
back to more or less normal state because he was in a state of
dystrophy when he came there.

LS: Was he too old to be sent to the front?

ZL: Yes, he was too old for that.

LS: Just one thing. What had he been doing once you came back to
Leningrad? What sort of jobs did he have?


ZL: It was a tool building shop in one of the industrial enterprises,

and he eventually became head of this tool making workshop.

LS: And did your mother continue with her hat-making?

ZL: She no longer worked in her own little shop, but she was still

connected with this business in a state enterprise and she was

something like quality control [goods manager].

LS: Did you go back to school when you came back to Leningrad?

ZL: Even during the war she soon learned that the medical school
from Voronezh [Voronezh University] was evacuated and was located
nearby. So she went there, took some tests that were required and
tried to continue her education in the biology department thinking
that this was at least something close to medicine. In 1944 she
moved to Kazan to attend Kazan Medical School and she completed
the third year of medical school there. When her father was recalled
back to Leningrad--you couldn't just go if you wanted, you had to
have official summons--when he had moved to Leningrad, she finally
managed to join the family and completed her medical studies by
1946 in the Second Medical School in Leningrad.

LS: And then, where did you work?

ZL: For two years after graduation she worked as a district general
practitioner in the polar area, in Karelo-Finnish Republic--that's
north of Leningrad toward the Finnish border. It was like 1003
kilometers from Leningrad.

LS: Really? What sort of public health problems do they have up
there? Do they get run over by reindeer?

ZL: All the reindeer were slaughtered during the war. A couple
times she had a chance to ride dog sleds, but that was even farther
north. This was a very meager area, and for three years the army of
General Rokossovsky was stationed there, and by the time she came
there, they had already slaughtered not only all the reindeer, but
even the moose in the woods and all the fish in the lakes and rivers.


So they had decimated the area pretty much. She herself was a

little bit better off because the family could send her some food

packages from Leningrad by train, but the local population had

suffered a lot from dystrophy.

LS: When you say dystrophy, are you talking about severe hunger?

ZL: Malnutrition.

LS: Malnutrition, yes. What did the population consist of? Were

these basically subsistent farmers?

ZL: It was an industrial township and officially the population was

working on logging, felling trees, and unofficially, they had uranium

and other kinds of mines there that were never openly recognized.

LS: Were there any medical problems due to the uranium mining?

ZL: In 1947-48 everything was so secretive that even if anything

had happened there, they would have never known.

LS: Wouldn't people have come to you with leukemia or incidents or


ZL: No, if there were such problems, they must have been treated
somewhere else. She never saw these patients. She had a different
problem on her hands. When she came there, she had to open a V.D.
clinic because there was a lot of syphilis.

LS: What else do you want to tell us about the time you spent up
there? ·

ZL: It was a kind of a very interesting hotchpotch of people there
because after people had been checked, those who had been in prison
camps during the war and were exiled for a while, eventually by then
all these checks were completed, and they were all shipped to the
northern regions--they were not allowed to return to where they
used to live before. It was such a mixture of people who were just
by bad luck in prison camps, prisoners of war, and people who

1 0

collaborated with the Germans, and prostitutes, and burgomasters,


LS: Who is the burgomasters?

OL: Burgomasters were in the occupied territories, they had like a

local mayor, working with the Germans ...

ZL: It was mostly in the Ukraine. So all kinds of people were sent to
the north there, and they were working on logging and in the mines.
There was also a German officers' prisoner-of-war camp not far

LS: Did it sort of made you wonder about what the Soviet Union was

turning into, when you saw the unlucky people who were sent there?

ZL: She started thinking about these things much earlier. Already in
1934, by force of circumstances in her own family, she had already
started thinking about many of these things. Also; after Kirov was
assassinated in Leningrad and all these trials started. In 1937, in
the school that she was attending, there were among her classmates
a lot of children whose parents were rather prominent officials, and
every day there was somebody missing in the class or they were all
tearful and they realized that another parent had been arrested and
so on. So it was all happening in front of her eyes. Luckily, the
teachers in this school were [very decent people] rather quiet about
all these things and they didn't talk about "enemies of the people" in
front of the whole assembly or something like that. Things were
happening at home, but at least they were not aggravated at school.

LS: What about the other people who were working with you? Were
there other professional people working with you in this northern

ZL: Yes, there were others. There was a doctor who was working
[assigned to the railroad station] ori the railway and became her very
good friend. She was a very interesting person, she was writing
poetry and was very intelligent ahd accomplished.

1 1

LS: Was there also a K.G.B. officer there who made sure that you

hewed to the straight and narrow part of the party line?

ZL: K.G.B. was always next door, and all life was arranged in such a
way that you couldn't really avoid contact with them. At some point
they even approached her and offered her a job in this German
prisoner-of-war camp because she was noted for being very honest
and never abusing her privileges and distributing the rationing
coupons fairly and so on. She refused to go there, and even though
there was another doctor who immediately agreed to go because it
was kind of a lucrative position as the Germans were doing a lot of
handicrafts and respecting doctors much more than the local
population and giving gifts to doctors. It was not like she refused to
go there and there was nobody to send there, but still since she
didn't go along with what the K.G.B. wanted, immediately they
started nit-picking at her and she was no longer in favor.

She was rather lucky that it didn't really grow into more
serious persecutions, probably because she had very good
relationships with her superiors [who were very decent people]. The
local party chief was a very simple peasant type from Vologda but a
very shrewd and witty man who was rather ironic about all the party
line pronouncements, and he knew that she was doing her job well
and he supported her and helped her with food supplies for the people
who suffered from malnutrition, and was shielding her and
protecting her from the K.G.B.

LS: How long did you stay in that position?

ZL: She worked there for two and a half years, and since the climate
there is very harsh, her T.B. flared up again and she had to leave.

LS: Were you in a sanatorium?

ZL: Yes, she spent some time in sanatoriums and then she started
working in a mental hospital in Leningrad.

LS: Did you still want to become a psychiatrist?

ZL: Yes, that's what she was doing there.


LS: So when you were in the mental hospital, was this an equivalent

of a residency?

ZL: When she was in her last years in medical school, this was

already becoming quite evident that anti-Semitism was playing a

very important role. She was a very good student. She was working

in student specialty club in psychiatry doing some research, and

obviously having very good grades, she was qualified to go into

residency in psychiatry, but that didn't work out. She was not

selected, and it was quite obvious that being Jewish was a very

strong factor against it, and that's why she had to go to work as a

general practitioner in the north.

When she came back to Leningrad, the professor who was in
charge of this program in psychiatry was very willing to take her,
but again, his hands were tied and he couldn't do it, and the only
option that he could offer her was to go into this free residency
program for a year, that wasn't even paid--she was working for free
just to get a foot in the door, to be able to work in psychiatry in the

She stayed in this mental hospital and worked there for thirtyfour
years as a psychiatrist. It just wasn't the way that normally
takes the route through residency with an academic training toward
doing research. It was after a few years of working as a
practitioner there that she was allowed to take a more clinically,
practically oriented two year course and get certified as a

LS: And so basically your parents supported you during this time?

ZL: Yes, her parents supported her the whole year.

LS: That's very interesting. You are the first physician that I've
interviewed. Before we go any further with your work life, you told
me that your grandmother had been a great influence on you and I
wanted to find out more about what you meant.

ZL: Her grandmother was a rather unusual person, and since the
family was such a large one and there were a lot of sisters, they all
eventually moved to different parts of the country and they all
intermarried with quite unusual partners. One aunt was married to a

1 3

Mordvin, and another to a Tatar, and another moved to Uzbekistan and

married an Uzbek. There was a big mixture of people in the family.

And the grandmother, despite her very strict Jewish religious
background, was very tolerant of all that. She was very tolerant of
all the marriages and all the children who came from these
marriages and always tried to instill in them respect towards
Jewish religion, even though she never imposed anything on them.
All these sons-in-law from all these different nationalities were
educated people and respected her very much. (The only exception
being the Mordvin son-in-law who had been a professor but became
an alcoholic and finally drank himself to death.) But all the others
were quite respective of her.

For instance, the cousins who were only half-Jewish saw it as
a sign of trust and respect when the grandmother allowed them to
wash her Kosher dishes. Everybody knew that on Friday grandmother
was observing Sabbath and it was a privilege to be allowed to blow
out the candle and to switch on the lights, to do little things for her
that were in line with her observances.

Since she was practically cut off from all the Jewish life, she
eventually started forgetting her Yiddish and her Russian wasn't so
good, and she was speaking this kind of a mixture of two languages,
but somehow it wasn't a matter of jokes or disdain in the family,
but it was a matter of grandmother trying to preserve something
[important]. The grandmother was kind of a magnet for everybody
and when she was already quite old, she didn't go to the synagogue
any longer, but nearby there was a minyan that was assembling, and
when she would go there, they always had a competition who would
go and meet her and bring her back home, and she was always a big
influence on everybody. Who would be the first to find a challah for
her for Sabbath.

LS: And where did one find challah for Sabbath?

ZL: Well, some of the bakeries made challahs, and you had to run
around to find one, and they were very popular not only among Jews.

LS: Did you see that the way she lived her life that you would want
to carry out any of these traditions? What did it mean to you?


ZL: The grandmother lived to be very old, and after she died, first

her mother, who didn't survive her by long... [End Tape 1 Side 2]

[Tape 2 Side 1]

ZL: ... after the grandmother died, her daughters tried to preserve at

least some of the traditions, like it used to be the grandmother who

gathered the whole family for Passover, and nqw it was one of the

daughters, and they would bake hamantaschen for Purim and they

would try to do some of the things--even though they were not

religious, but to preserve some of the family traditions.

LS: [looking at photographs] I see, this is the grandmother... Are

these some of her children?

ZL: No, these are grandchildren. That's me.

LS: Oh, I see. That's a wonderful picture. Did your grandmother ever
teach you any prayers or take you to synagogue?

ZL: No.

LS: Did she take any of the grandchildren?

ZL: No, never. They would just take her to the synagogue and then
meet her and bring her back home.

LS: Were you ever curious about the synagogue?

ZL: She only remembers once when she was a little kid and when
they were exiled, after their property was taken away, there was
some kind of a two-story building and she was in it, and there was
this prayer service going on; and it was kind of frightening,
especially since the women were all upstairs, separated. It was so
unusual and so different from anything else. But that is the only
memory that she has.

LS: She never taught you morning prayers or anything like that?


ZL: That was something punishable in those day. It wasn't
something you would want to do to your children because it was

LS: Did you learn any Yiddish from her?
ZL: No.
LS: Did you marry?
ZL: No, she was never married.
LS: How many physicians worked in this psychiatric institute?
ZL: It was a huge hospital, with 2,500 patients [beds], and 30

different departments.
LS: Where did you live?
ZL: She lived in the downtown area, in a big communal apartment,

where she had a room, and had to take a tram and later on [when they
built the lines, a suburban] electric train to go to work.
LS: Did you live near your mother?
ZL She lived together with her.

LS: How many people were living in the apartment?
ZL: Before and immediately after the war, it was really packed--it
was probably about twenty-five people. It was only after 1965 that
people started getting apartments and some of them moved out, and
there was probably no more than twelve people.

LS: How many were there in the room?
ZL: They were rather lucky; they had two rooms in this apartment
for their family. Initially, it was five people, because the
grandmother lived with them, and then when she died, it was four.

1 6

LS: Who were your friends at work?

ZL: It was mostly doctors of different specialties, not only

psychiatrists. One of her very good friends was an internist.

LS: Were they all of different nationalities?

ZL: Yes, but lately mostly Jewish, the last few years.

LS: What about the time of the doctors' plot?

ZL: It was just about three days ago that she was remembering that
period. There were a lot of people who were suffering at that time
just because they looked like they were Jewish, even if they were
not. Some people did not want to be treated by these people because
the whole atmosphere was so hostile and they were suspecting that
these doctors wouldn't be trustworthy.

That's why she says that she was probably lucky in her
profession because when she was younger, she didn't look like she
was Jewish, just like her father didn't. So she didn't really have
such bad experiences with patients and with colleagues, but a lot of
other people were in really bad situations. At the time when the
doctors' plot was developing in 1952, she was working in the
military department of this hospital. The chief of this department
was Frida Greenstein [such a typical Jewish name--translator's
remark]. And among the doctors who were in the doctors' plot, who
were arrested and who were prosecuted, was one of her distant
relatives, Professor Greenstein, a neurologist.

That day, when there were articles in the papers about the
doctors' plot and her relative's name was also mentioned, the nurses
[who worshipped her] came in the morning and said, "Well, Dr.
Greenstein, maybe we shouldn't distribute the papers to the
patients?" She said, "Yes, we will." "Maybe you won't make rounds
today?" "Yes, I will." So they went to make rounds, and the patients
split into two groups: one group of patients who were trying to
defend her personally--not Jews in general, but she was just a .
wonderful doctor, she was an exception--and the other half of the
patients were adamantly against all Jewish doctors, and they
wanted to be discharged, they didn't want her to treat them, they
didn't want to have anything to do with her. And finally there was


even a fight between the patients. There used to be fights among
patients, and she was always very brave in trying to break up these
fights, even though she was a very short, plump middle aged woman,
but she was very brave, and here also she just flung herself between
these men who were fighting, and she finished the rounds as if
nothing had happened. It was a great example for all of them, and
they believe and she [Zinaida] understood herself that this was right,
that you have to go through these difficult situations and not to

LS: Are you saying then that the doctors' plot taught you some

important moral lessons but you weren't really frightened for


ZL: It was a trying time for her too because it was very intimately
affecting all her colleagues and her friends and other Jewish
doctors. There was one day when all Jews who were in charge of the
departments were removed from their positions.

Again, she says that she was lucky with her superiors and in
this case, [the head physician of the hospital] it was a Russian
doctor, also of peasant stock, who was ordered to act and he sent to
the district party committee the list of people whom he allegedly
removed from office, but he actually removed only one doctor whom
he didn't like and said, "We'll wait with the others. The Yezhov show
trial only lasted three months. This may be even shorter. So we'll

Of course, this whole situation brought to the surface all the
hidden animosities, and all the hidden anti-Semites all of a sudden
became very bold and started filing complaints, all sort of slander,
and even in the train that they took to go to work, they now were
occupying different cars, they wouldn't even ride in the same car
with the Jewish doctors. They were all in a group together.

When a month after Stalin died, it was on April 4 that it was
announced that this plot was a fiction and that the people were
released from prison, this again was a point when opinions split and
where people exposed themselves for what they really were.

One of their oldest doctors met them at the railway station
and started kissing them and congratulating them and saying that
she just heard over the radio that it was all finished, and they didn't
even believe her--they thought maybe she misheard or


misunderstood something. Well, there was one doctor who was of

Polish ancestry and of a very well-known and educated family,

where there were many generations of professors, and during the

doctors' plot he was very attentive to their old [Jewish] professor,

trying to help him and picking him up in his car and bringing him to

work, even though they used to argue a lot about their professional

disagreements. And he was trying to make up for this very

unpleasant situation in every possible way, and then, when the plot

was over, he came to this Jewish professor, "OK, now, Samuel, we

can start arguing again."

LS: Did this whole experience make you feel as though you could only
trust Jews?

ZL: To some extent, yes. It was really a breaking point for a lot of

relationships, but it also showed that a lot of people simply cannot

understand this. She had a very good friend who is Russian, a very

fine doctor, who could understand all the mental quirks of all her

patients very well, but when it was going about anti-Semitism and

about all this persecution, she simply couldn't get it. It was

something far away and alien to her. Her husband, who was also

Russian, seemed to understand it better because he was a son of an

"enemy of the people," his father was persecuted for different

reasons, but he could understand it better, but people who never
went through anything like that, very often simply couldn't


LS: Was there any feeling among the Jews that this whole thing
wasn't going to work out for Jews, we've got to get out?

ZL: Of course, there was a feeling that it was very hard for the Jews
in the Soviet Union, there was no prospect of being realized
[fulfilled] in science or in medicine or in any of the fields, that it
would be probably even worse for their children, but at that time, in
1952, there was no talk about leaving--there was simply no
possibility, no channels, no talk about it--"and later on, there were a
lot of high positions from which Jews had been removed and all
kinds of scumheads appeared-"-people who were opportunists, who
wouldn't have been in these positions, who only occupied these
positions because the more talented Jews were removed.


LS: I think I'll go back to your professional life a little bit. We have

read in America that often time psychiatric institutions had been

used to house people who had incorrect political philosophies. Was

that something that happened at your institute and what was your

reaction if you knew about it?

ZL: Yes, of course, she knew about it, and in order to understand this
whole situation, we have to come back a little bit to what they were
taught. For instance, they were always taught that a normal, healthy
person would never attempt a suicide, that a person has to .be sick to
try to avoid the responsibilities of Soviet life in general. And they
were also taught that man always had an instinct of selfpreservation.
So if he does something of such a non-conformist
nature that can be destructive for him, he must be mentally
unbalanced, at best, or mentally sick, at worst.

It was always very risky for her as a doctor--she herself was
always rather non-conformist; she wasn't declaring it very openly,
but inside she was a non-conformist--and when she was witnessing
something similar in a patient, she was always very much afraid
that if she became very much intrigued or interested or sympathetic
towards this non-conformism, that she may overlook some very
dangerous trends in his [patient's] mental state that may eventually
lead this person to a very dangerous punishment from the

Just as an example, when she was working in the military
section of this hospital, they had a young patient from a middleclass
family, relatively educated, who was refusing to take the
military oath. And he was analyzing this oath point by point and was
quite logical about it. Why should I follow all orders of all superiors
without questioning? Why should I take the oath that I will always
act in the order of superiority? What if there are extraordinary
circumstances and I have to take bold measures? It all looked very
logical on the surface, but if you take it in the context of the
seventies, when it was happening, it was so self-destructive, it was
so dangerous what he was doing. There were four commissions that
examined this young man and the choice was they had to make a
decision whether to pronounce him mentally ill or say that he is
sane, and then he would be court-marshalled. A decision was passed
to pronounce him mentally ill. It so happened that several years


later he came back to the hospital with blooming schizophrenia.

This kind of mentality was very typical for a lot of doctors. It was

at different stages that different people were... [End Tape 2 Side 1]

[Tape 2 Side 2]

LS: ... there were enormous moral dilemmas for the physicians. Do
you ever feel now that some of the people who came before you were
logical and valid and not at all mentally ill?

ZL: She started thinking about it many years ago, and when the
dissident movement started developing, she remembers she had a
very good friend who was working in Moscow and she was in the
circle to which Pavel Litvinov belonged--and he was a rather
prominent dissident--and she was a little bit older and she knew
many more things that Zinaida did not at that time. When she was
telling her about situations like she described here, she looked at
her with great sadness and she said, "You have to get rid of the
Soviet mentality, you have to think it over, you don't understand a
lot of things." And so she started thinking.

They didn't really have any prominent dissidents in her
hospital--they were treated in more specialized institutions, not in
an ordinary hospital like theirs; but she had seen a group of people in
her hospital, people who turned toward religion, and they were all
paraded at doctors' conferences and analyzed and they were all told
that they were all quirks and that they were all crazy because they
were turning their lives toward religion. She talked to these
patients and she examined them, and she remembers very well her
grandmother taught her to respect all kinds of religions, and these
people who were Christian, she saw that they were very sincere and
honest--they were not crazy people. They were very thoughtful
people [people of active intellect], they were very deep and it doesn't
mean that they were crazy.

I had a lot of arguments and disagreements because of that
[not in the Russian version] and I came to the conclusion that you
have to understand what valve opened and let the people find an
outlet for their discontent in religion or in other areas, but it
doesn't mean that they went crazy.


LS: Did you just end up releasing them and saying, "There is nothing

wrong with these people?"

ZL: She was, of course, not the only one who was thinking and
critical there--there were other doctors--so some of these people
were managed to be saved from this brand of schizophrenia that goes
on your record and is very difficult to get rid of--but of course, it
was going on all over the country, and people who were a little out
of the ordinary and who were not fitting into the mold, it was very
easy to brand them with mental diagnosis.

LS: Does it ever disturb you now that some of the diagnoses you

made and some of the treatments .. ?

ZL: She was worried by that for the last probably fifteen years. She
thought that it would be easier and she moved to the adolescent
department, and she thought that it would be easier to work with
them, but it wasn't really, and she came to the conclusion that the
whole society was sick, that they were all sick [that their children
were sick, and there was no way to treat this illness].

LS: Jumping ahead, because I have a feeling that we can spend hours
because your background is so interesting, but I was interested in
some of your personal life too. Did you make a conscious decision
not to get married or was it something that happened because of war
losses and just the way things turned out?

ZL: To begin with, she didn't get married because her boyfriend got
killed during the war, and for years she was grieving, and that was
the main reason. She can't say that she lived like a nun--she had
friends and she had boyfriends, but she also decided that since she
had T.B., she should not have children because it's not healthy. So
that was a conscious decision not to start a family.

LS: What sort of birth control measures did you use?

ZL: Abortions were the common method.


LS: One of the things that we want to know about is the sorts of

things you did with your friends.

ZL: She must tell you that it is maybe easier to speak openly now

basing the reminiscences on her professional experience and

analyzing all that because it's so long past, but generally she is a

rather introverted person, so it's not very easy for her to form

friendships. One of her friends was her friend since second grade.

They were life-long. friends. Another friend dates back to her

student years. And some colleagues with whom she developed very

strong ties due to common interests.

Another part of life was always connected with her interest
in art and she loved the Hermitage very much and she even took some
courses in impressionism and post-impressionism there and formed
some friendships over there. They used to read a lot. They always
exchanged opinions [when they got together]. Usually on the way to
work in this electric train--twelve minutes one way and twelve
minutes back--there were usually discussions about what they read
and what they saw. They used to go to the theater together, to
concerts at the Philharmonic. They used to talk about family
problems and such, and she was mostly on the listening side. She
remember she only had one friend who had a talent for asking, "How
are things with you?" so that she wouldn't just say "OK" but start
talking about it.

LS: Did you have any other female friends who were not married?

ZL: Only one was not married.

LS: Who did you take your vacations with?

ZL: Either with her boyfriend or with one of her female friends.
They usually went to the Crimea. It's very beautiful there, and they
used to hike in the mountains. They only dipped in the sea early in
the morning and they didn't spend much time on the beach, so they
used to hike around.

LS: What nationality was your boyfriend?


ZL: One was Polish and another one Russian. They were very
interesting people and luckily they were not anti-Semitic at all.

LS: Did you ever think about marrying either of them?
ZL: One of them was a rather heavy drinker, and he eventually
married and she remained quite friendly with him and his wife, but
she always thought that it was very risky to live with a heavy
drinker. The other man was married, and even though he was
prepared to get divorced, something was lacking there and she was
afraid of being alone together.

LS: Did your family still continue to get together?

ZL: Yes. The last time she remembers they got together, that was
before her aunt died, in 1989.
LS: How often did you see your family?
ZL: Her brother lived very close by and they got together very often

and spoke on the phone several times a day. Her aunts were very
active, but they were getting along in years and she always felt that
she had to help them a little bit, so she practically saw them every

LS: Did you have an apartment for yourself after a while?
ZL: Since 1974 she lived on her own.
LS: And when did your mother die?
ZL: In 1970.
LS: And when did your father pass away?
ZL: Four years ago.
LS: Did life change for your again during the 1967 war?
ZL: Internally, yes.


LS: How so?

ZL: It may sound funny, but she felt that she was Jewish.
LS: Did you not feel that you were Jewish before?
ZL: Well, of course, she knew that she was Jewish [biologically],

that that's her blood and that's why she had to suffer ...

LS: That's the word that always comes out in everyone of the


ZL: That was the words of a very prominent Russian poet, Jewish

poet, Boris Slutsky, who said that we are persecuted not for our

faith but for our blood. But after the 1967 war she says that this

was probably the first time when she started feeling pride in being


LS: Was that at all common?

ZL: This was a time when there was a split in the Jewish circles.
Some people thought that it's too bad and it would only provoke more
anti-Semitism and they should not emphasize these victories. The
other part felt that it's OK even if they suffer, it's good that now
there is a country there that can show what Jews are worth.

LS: Who was the first person you knew who applied to emigrate?

ZL: The first person was one of the young doctors who worked with
her [one of her colleagues]. His father was a professor, and he didn't
want to use his name to achieve in his profession, and being Jewish,
it was very difficult to make a good career. His mother was coming
from a family of a rabbi and [although] she couldn't teach him
Hebrew, she started teaching the grandchildren. The whole
atmosphere in the family was such that when it first became even
remotely possible to emigrate, he said, ,;1 am going to leave, and I am
going to live in Israel." And that's what he eventually did and he is
now living in Israel.


LS: And who was the first member of your family to go?
ZL: One of her cousins was the first to leave.
LS: In what year?
ZL: In 1974. She herself and her father supported this cousin very

much in her desire to emigrate. She always used to say, "If I were

younger, I would have left also."
LS: You used to say that? And when did you finally decide to go?
Why did you decide to move?

ZL: Her brother was a very talented engineer and he was working in
the space program. It was a very interesting field and very
challenging, and at the same time very secretive in the Soviet Union.
So they felt that they couldn't compromise his career by emigrating.
They were stalling, even though they thought that it would have been
good to emigrate, but they didn't do it for the sake of the brother.

LS: Did he retire?
ZL: Yes, but the time he was able to retire, his son said, "OK, now
it's enough; I've waited long years for you to get through with your

job. Now you can retire, but I don't want to live here any more. I am
taking my children and I am emigrating."
LS:· So again, it was the younger generation?
ZL: Yes, and of course, the cousin Agnes who was very supportive of

this idea.
LS: Was she the one who came first?
ZL: Yes, she lives in St. Paul.
LS: What is her last name?
ZL: Agnes Pilko [?].


LS: And what year did she come?
ZL: 1974.
LS: And when did your nep~ew come with his family?
ZL: Two years ago.
LS: And your brother?
ZL: After his son left with his family, the brother had reconsidered

a lot of things and realized that even though he had a good job, it
would have been much better if he did the same in a different world
and under different circumstances, and now that he is already
getting older, he should live with his son and his family and in a free

· country. So they left together November 22, a year ago.
LS: Did you spend time in Rome?
ZL: No, they came right here.
LS: Was it your nephew who found this apartment?
ZL: He did everything possible for them and even more.
LS: Who lives here?
ZL: She lives here alone.
LS: And where does your brother live?
ZL: He lives in another high-rise on Montreal.
LS: And does he have a wife?
ZL: Yes, of course.
LS: Has Jewish Family Service helped you?

ZL: Yes.


LS: What have they done?

ZL: She thinks they did everything possible and they are helping
them to take English classes. She never studied English before ...

[End Tape 2 Side 2]

[Tape 3 Side 1]

LS: Where are you taking English classes?

ZL: For four months they were attending classes at the International
Institute, and on Sundays there were classes at the JCC that lnna
Braginsky was conducting. Now they have classes at the JCC every
day, and now she is even in an advanced group, second semester.

LS: Were you given an American host family to help you out?

ZL: When they lived in Sibley Manor, there was a host family
[volunteer] that was visiting her brother's apartment, and she used
to go there too, but she was very sensitive to mispronouncing things
in English and thought that it wasn't right, and she stopped visiting

LS: Are you getting one-to-one help from any Americans? ,

ZL: No.

LS: Do you think that would be helpful to you?

ZL: It's probably because of her professional training that she is a
maximalist--she feels that she cannot communicate properly with ,a
person, while she says "hello" in the elevator or "how are you"
downstairs, but it's not the level of familiarity with the language
that allows her to communicate with people on a more extensive


LS: Have you made friends with other Russian immigrants here since
you cannot communicate with Americans?

ZL: Yes. There are a few people of about the same age and similar

situations, and even though they come from different backgrounds,

there are common interests and problems.

LS: Where do you see them?

ZL: There are some immigrant families in this building, and they

have nice contacts, but the people that she is most friendly with

live in the high-rise along Mississippi River Road. It's not far away

here, and they go for walks.

LS: Do you ever go to any of the synagogues here?

ZL: She does go to the synagogue. She cannot say that she all of a
sudden became very observant or very religious, but on the other
hand, she cannot say that she is a very convinced atheist either. She
believes in some kind of an absolute initial power.

LS: When you come to the synagogue, do you have any feeling of

belonging there?

ZL: Yes, especially when they are singing.

LS: Because this is something that is totally foreign to you ...

ZL: Yes, but still, when she visited a Russian Orthodox church or a

Catholic church, it was something spectacular but it didn't provoke
any feeling of belonging, but here it does.

LS: Have you visited those churches here or in the Soviet Union?

ZL: Back in Russia, and it was more but of curiosity and professional
interest,to understand what the patients are experiencing.

LS: Is there something you really wish that the Jewish community
would be providing for Russian immigrants?


ZL: Everything she sees she likes, and the only thing that came to

mind, she thought that maybe somehow her experience as a

psychoanalyst [?? no such thing in the Soviet Union--psychiatrist]

might be useful to some people who recently came to this country

and for whom it's difficult to adapt. It is difficult even for younger

people, but for older people it is especially traumatic, but at the

same time she heard that since everybody lives so close by, people

probably wouldn't want to open up their innermost to somebody who

lives in the community.

LS: It sounds like a very interesting proposal if you get it in the

right ears.

ZL: Well, there were some instances when people would come to her

apartment and talk to her and pour out, but this is not exactly what

she has in mind. This is home and this is something that she could

do professionally and help people if they needed it. She talked to

Agnes and her husband, but they haven't worked out a channel yet,

but she thinks that it might be something useful.

LS: I could speak to Shelley Rottenberg... Did you have any

preconceptions about America that were rudely shattered when you


ZL: She was not building any imaginary castles, she didn't expect too
much; so everything she saw here was much better than she dared to

LS: What did you think about the American Jews? Did you have any
feelings about the American Jews you see around you?

ZL: She was simply amazed with [she has a lot of admiration for] the
people she met at JCC. Shelley is fantastic [an extremely intelligent
woman], such a nice person. Felicia and other women there are so
friendly, it's a pity that her language capacity does not allow her to
communicate with them better.

LS: Is that the most difficult barrier for you?

ZL: Yes, for her, but not for everybody.


LS: For other people, what are the most difficult problems?

ZL: Probably that people cannot find a way of implanting

themselves, finding their niche here.

LS: Is this because they come here a little too old to find work?

ZL: Yes, mostly men.

LS: I've interviewed over ten people now, and some of the people
who came here after they retired, talk about America as home, and it
surprises me that they've been here a decade or fifteen years at the
very most and have been able to implant themselves, as you say ...

ZL: Again, there are different attitudes and different people. There
are people like herself who came here and they are happy with
everything they see and they are very grateful for everything they
get, and there are others who have this kind of Soviet mentality that
they are entitled to this and that and that.

LS: Why is that a Soviet mentality?

ZL: It's the product of the brain-washing that people go through
because the propaganda was always that the Soviet Union provides
them with free education, free medical care, free this and that, and
even though it no longer [unclear] because there are no medicines
available, no things, it's an illusion that they are provided, but this
is the mentality that this is what they are supposed to get. [People
there do not realize that they are constantly robbed and
shortchanged of whatever little they are entitled to. The propaganda
always said, "You get medical care for free, you are given
prescription drugs free of charge, you don't have to pay for
hospitalization and so on." And although it has long become purely
symbolic because drugs are not available, hospitals are in a state of
terrible disrepair, the mentality is still there, people still believe
that they are entitled to all kinds of free things.]

LS: And so they feel that they ought to get the same in America?


ZL: Yes. People don't realize that they didn't even get what they

were expected and supposed to get back there, that they were

basically robbed of these rights and privileges that they were

supposed to get, and if they were a little bit better than others, it

was an exception rather than a rule.

LS: I am going to have to listen to this interview because, as you

say, you are a very introspective person, and it's been a really rich

interview, but I've got to think about it. I may want to come back.

did have one question that occurred to me. You said that you had one

friend who was active in Moscow in dissident circles. Did you ever

become active?

ZL: She didn't really have any real dissidents close by, but since life
started changing and she started understanding more and these
things and she left the hospital because she believed that everything
was going down the drain there, it was no longer the same as it was
in 1949 when she started there, and she went to a clinic that
belonged for the Literary Foundation. Among the patients there were
some young poets who were not accepted, who were rebelling and
drinking, and who had a lot of emotional problems. There were
people among those patients that were very close to being

LS: What year did you leave the clinic and what do you mean by

things going down the drain?

ZL: It was in 1984. Eventually there was a group of psychiatrists
who, she believed, were abusing their professional position. The
situation with medicines was deteriorating. The situation with food
supply was deteriorating in the country and in the hospital there
were absolutely blatant demands on patients' relatives who had
access to any kind of food supplies to use against their position to
better their own situation at the expense of the patients. Nurses
[and physicians] started stealing medicines and selling them on the
black market.

And she simply couldn't stand it any more. When she first
started working there, the head doctor gave them three main
covenants, so to say: never take anything from patients or from the
relatives; be always honest in your work, don't bend your principles


[for personal gain]; and when you have some discussion in the

commission, say everything you want to say right now, not behind

[people's] backs tomorrow.

LS: This will be my final question. In America, there is a lot of talk
about the glass curtain when it comes to women rising in
professions, and I have to ask you a two-part question: was it
possible for a woman to ri~e very high in psychiatric and medical
circles, and was this changed if you were Jewish?

ZL: Well, in the Soviet Union, the Jews always felt that there was a
ceiling beyond which they would never be allowed to rise no matter
how talented. For a woman generally, there was always a lot of
graft and a lot of connections played a big role in any kind of an
advancement, but in many situations, she believes, women were so
burdened by family chores, problems, children, and so on, that these
were like shackles, they didn't let them go even as far as the system
allowed them to go.

LS: That is usually the story... I want to thank you very much. This

has been as fascinating interview.

[ZL: If you would be interested in some information about this
Jewish school, there is a way of maybe getting this material. The
children of her friends collected some of this material, and now they
are in Israel, and she thinks that they probably must have it.

LS: Are you talking about the school that was started by Baron

ZL: Yes.]