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Interview with Berta Sokolovskaya





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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 Berta Sokolovskaya
Interviewed by Linda Schloff with Olga Lifson as translator
Interviewed on August 26, 1991
at the Saint Paul home of Mrs. Sokolovskaya

[Mrs. Sokolovskaya speaks Russian throughout the interview. The
text appearing after her initials is the translator's version of her
words. The bracketed material has been added by the transcriber,
who is fluent in Russian, and represents a more complete translation
of Mrs. Sokolovskaya's words, in cases when some details have been
left out by the translator.]

LS: Why don't you give me your last name, your first name and your

maiden name?
BS: Maiden name is the same--Sokolovskaya--and the first name is

LS: And what was the married name?
BS: She didn't change her name when she married.
LS: Is that common not to change the name?
BS: It's optional, depends on the person. She just liked her father's

name and she kept it.
LS: What was your husband's last name?
BS: Dvorkin.
LS: When were you born?


BS: March 3, 1924.
LS: Where?
BS: Small town of Iletsk in Orel [Oryol] District.
LS: How's that district spelled?
BS: 0-R-E-L. It's in the central part of Russia. But about two or

three . years after she was born, the family moved to the Ukraine.
LS: Had the family lived in Iletsk for very long?
BS: No. Her parents were originally from the Ukraine. Her mother's

sister lived in Iletsk, so they moved there for a period of time, and
she only know that from her mother. And they moved to the city of
Kirovograd. This name was given to the city after Kirov was
assassinated in 1934.

LS: What was it before then?

B S: It used to be Elizavetgrad after Queen Elizabeth, and then it was
Zinovyevsk after Zinovyev became prominent.
LS: This town was in the Ukraine?
BS: Yes. It's in the Ukraine.
LS: Is that where you grew up?
BS: That's where she was when the war broke out.
LS: You were born in 1924.... And you moved back in about 1926?
BS: Approximately, [this is what my parents told me.]
LS: And the war broke out in 1941... How old were you when the

war broke out?
B S: She had just graduated from high school and I was 17.


LS: Tell me about your family, just a little bit, your father's name,
your mother's name?

BS: Her mother's name was Anna. Her last name was Berchanskaya.
Her father's name was Abraam Sokolovsky.

LS: What did he do?

BS: They lived in the same area and knew each other since
childhood. Father didn't get much of education because he was in the
Russian army during World War I and was taken prisoner and spent
seven years as a prisoner of war in Austro-Hungarian Empire, and he
came back to Russia in 1919. And then they got married. He was
working as a custodian of all the materials in the local clinic and

LS: And your mother, did she work?
BS: [unclear] [She worked on and off; she would work for a period of
time and then stay home with the children]
LS: How many children?
BS: Two children.

LS: Who was the other one?

BS: Her older brother, he was born in 1920.

LS: Is he still alive?

BS: Yes, he is alive. He was also serving in the army during World
War II and was participating in the defense of Sevastopol. In 1980
he emigrated and moved to Toronto and is living there now.

LS: Tell me a little bit about your schooling, about your grade school
and your high school. Was that a school taught in the Ukrainian
language or Russian language or Yiddish?


BS: When she first went to school as a child, there was a Ukrainian
and a Russian and a Yiddish school, but she was attending a Russian
school. She went to school in 1931, and the regular school is ten
years, so she graduated exactly the day before the war broke out,
and they had this graduation ball on June 21, and on June 22 the
Germans invaded. She was dreaming of becoming a doctor, and she
already had all the papers put together to send to the Odessa Medical
School. It so happened that the friend with whom she was planning
to send off these papers was late and then they heard on the radio
Molotov was speaking about the war that broke out. And it so
happened that she had not sent my papers off to the medical school
and had her school diploma still in hand. School years were kind of
typical, with the pioneer organization and the Komsomol, and she
loved to dance, and although the family had a relatively modest
income, they were teaching her music, and she was playing the violin
all through high school. Her brother, who was older, had graduated
from school before the war and he was a graduate student at the
Military Medical Academy in Kharkov. They had graduated his class
ahead of time--they probably felt that the war was coming and they
would need more military doctors. So, he was already graduated and
he came to his hometown and was at the graduation ball with her.
He was assigned to a work post in Kishinyov, but because of the war
everything was disrupted, and he was sent to Odessa, and for many
years they lost all contact.

LS: Before we get into the war years, I wanted to ask you: since you
were growing up at a time when there was real hope that a new
soviet man and a new soviet woman could be formed by the society,
were your parents whole-heartedly in favor of all this?

BS: Like most everybody in the Soviet Union, the family was pretty
much brain-washed and believed in everything that they heard and
yet the mother always used this phrase that was kind of a catch
phrase all the time, "Well, it used to be in peace time, this and that ... "
As if now it was like revolution was still going on and things were
still changing. And the mother used to say, "When I was growing up,
we had more of the Jewish traditions, like buying things for the
children for all the Jewish holidays, and so on and so forth. And now
we cannot do this." Things were always subtly compared to what it
used to be.


LS: Did she try to preserve any traditions as far as eating, as far as


BS: Her mother was orphaned at a rather early age and grew up in
the family of an uncle, and she wasn't really very traditional and
didn't keep it up in the family, but her grandfather on my father's
side was quite religious, and she remembers him putting on a talis
every morning and pray, and he was much more observant. All
these traditions were practically irradicated in the society. The
Jewish school didn't stay there for long. A lot of parents stopped
sending their children to this school. Every time the school had some
kind of a party, there would be stones and rocks thrown through the
window. There was a lot of animosity towards it, and the parents
were trying to keep their children away from it. It was School No.
10, and they used to call it "Jewish Shop No. 10" or something like

LS: What language was spoken in your home?

BS: They used to speak Russian, the grandparents spoke Ukrainian,
and her grandfather used to come and talk Yiddish to me, and she
always understood, even though I was answering in Russian, and
even my daughter understands the language pretty well, although I
was never taught to write and to read, and I don't speak it very well,
but I still understand it. [We spoke Russian, my paternal
grandmother spoke Ukrainian, and our parents spoke both Yiddish
and Russian at home. That's why I understand Yiddish pretty well,
although I never had a chance to learn how to speak or write. And
even my oldest daughter Paulina--she was six years old when her
grandmother died--but my father lived much longer--he died four
days after my brother had emigrated in 1980--so, he would speak
Yiddish to me when he came to visit us and I answered him in
Russian, and I think that because of that Paulina understands Yiddish
as well.]

LS: How many grandparents actually were with you in your house?

BS: Her grandfather on her father's side died in April 1941, and her
grandmother, along with her father's sister, was evacuated during


the war and died during the evacuation. Her mother's brother was
an artist--Lev Berchansky--he was a very prominent [ardent]
revolutionary, but immediately after the revolution he went to
America. She remembers her mother. telling her that she asked him,
"Lev, what did you fight for, now that you're leaving?" He said, "This
is not how I expected it to turn out." She is not absolutely sure but it
seems that all of his family and his children are now living in New
York. He even sent passage papers to his sister, but by the time she
got them, there was a war... she cannot remember which one it was-maybe
the war with Japan... [actually that was before the revolution
-translator's note], but they no longer were allowing to use these
passage papers, so she never joined her brother and for years and
years they were even afraid to find out where he was or try to make
any contact. During the purge years of 1936-37, she remembers that
her mother was so afraid that even the existence of an address that
was among the family papers might harm her son who was in this
military medical academy, so she saw her mother take this paper out
and tear it. One of the relatives [one of my mother's sisters] in
Odessa must have kept up contact with him because when they were
visiting them, she said, "Lev is asking why Anna doesn't want to
keep any contact." And he also wrote, "I am finishing such a
wonderful painting now that I would be able to make you all happy."
But they were still afraid to keep up any contact. Her mother's other
brother was also an artist, but he died during the war. Her
grandfather on her mother's side probably in a different time and
age would have become a very good sculptor, but what he was doing
was making [ornamental] plaster ceilings in landowners' mansions
and so on.

LS: So, the Judaism in your house was limited to speaking Yiddish?

BS: During Passover time, my mother was trying to do at least
something, and it wasn't always easy even to get matza; sometimes it
was considered illegal activities.

LS: Did your grandfather ever lead a Seder?

BS: He was saying prayers, but they hardly understood anything.
And of course, a very significant year was 1933 when there was
famine in the Ukraine. She was about nine years old then, and she


remembers everything very well. There were people dying of
starvation lying in the streets. Her father was trying through the
Red Cross and the other medical facilities to get some kind of food,
sometimes a little bit of flour, sometimes beets or something, and she
remembers that her parents were very much like skeletons in trying
to give all the available food to the children. We survived, but even
though it was a very hard time, it's amazing now to think that we
were brought up in such a way as not to think of it as anything tragic
or extraordinary--these were just "temporary difficulties." We didn't
realize at that time that it was artificially fabricated, this famine,
because the harvest was very good.

LS: When you were growing up, was there any anti-Semitism that

you felt in your town, in your school?

BS: She feels that maybe she was just lucky that the friends that she
had were both Jewish and Ukrainian, and she didn't really feel any
particular . incidents of anti-Semitism.

LS: Was there a synagogue open in the town you lived in?

BS: I had never really seen it. If it functioned, it must have been
like a clandestine synagogue. It wasn't obvious.

LS: Where were you evacuated during the war?

BS: They were still hoping to get the news of where the brother was
and they were postponing their departure and they finally left
barely three days before the Germans occupied our town. And it
helped in a way that the brother was in the army, so they got
passage on the train. But she didn't know where they were going.
The train was not moving according to schedule, and they were just
going somewhere. Eventually, the train came to Rostov-on-Don.
[People from surrounding villages would come to the train station
and pick the refugees they wanted to take to live with them. And
we were lucky in that respect. The chairman of a collective farm
liked our family and he took us to his collective farm. They treated
us very well. We worked there and were happy, but after a while
we had to move again ... ] [End Tape 1 Side 1]


[Tape 1 Side 2]

BS: ... this train and kind of selecting the family that they would

house. So they were lucky because the chairman of one of the

collective farms liked their family and took them in.

LS: How many were there?

BS: The three of them: mother, father, and herself. So they lived in
this collective farm and worked there for a while, but that didn't last
very long because this was the area that was later overrun by the
Germans again. So, they had to move farther out east. [Before
coming to Rostov, we also had kind of an adventure. The place
where we got off the train was uninhabited, but a tank brigade was
stationed nearby. So, they let us stay with them, and they were
going to take us to Rostov with them. But then they received orders
not to move but to get ready for battle. Well, we thought we would
perish there. But one young lieutenant...] For a while they stayed
with a tank brigade near Rostov, but they were ordered to move to
the front, so they had to leave; so one young lieutenant took their
few possessions, dropped them in a truck, and took them to the
railway station. And the railway station had just recently been
bombed, but he told to the people at the railway station that this is
the family of a serviceman who is at the front and to help them. So
they put them on a train and they started moving again. That's how
they finally wound up in Rostov. When Rostov was being bombed
and they were orders to black out the windows, they had to leave
again. And again people helped them and put them on the train, and
they were going for a very long time and wound up in a town called
Leninabad, which is in Tajikistan, in Central Asia.

LS: And did you spend the war years there?

BS: No. [The Moscow Meteorological Institute was evacuated to this
city during the war. Before the war, it was a civilian school, but
during the war it was converted to the Red Army Military
Meteorological Academy, and the students and professors were
evacuated with it. Since I had my high school diploma, I was
admitted to study there.] During the war the meteorological institute


was evacuated to this very town of Leninabad and it became a
military meteorological service institute during the war, and since
she had her high school diploma in hand, she was admitted and she
became a student there. After about a year, her father was
mobilized to the army, but by age he was no longer suitable for front
service, but he was working in Komsomolsk-on-Amur, which is in the
far East, on the Pacific coast, and he was in a constriction brigade
there. And her mother stayed with her. In 1943, when things were
already quieter in Moscow, this Meteorological Institute was due to
return back to Moscow, and she as a student was supposed to go with
them. But the mother was not supposed to go with them. So, it took
her a great deal of persistence--and she was surprised as usually she
is not a very pushy person--but here she really used all the
capacities she had to persuade the people to let her mother go with
her, and not to leave her behind alone. So, they moved with this
institute to Moscow.

LS: In '43?

BS: [We were stationed in Moscow on Krasnaya Presnya. The
building occupied by the institute before the war had been
destroyed, and for two months all the students worked on restoring
it--I, for example, was laying parquet floors... In short, we restored
the building. My mother went to work at a school as a custodian and
she also lived there.] The building of the institute had been
destroyed, or damaged badly during the war; so all the students for a
few months were working, and she was laying parquet floors and
doing all kinds of jobs to restore this institute, and her mother found
a job in a school, like a cleaning woman, and the only place she could
find to even put a rollaway bed, or a cot, was in the closet under the
staircase where they kept brooms and buckets, and that was the only
place where she could live.

LS: Where the mother could live? And where did you live?

BS: Since this became a military institute, they were all housed in
barracks, so she was with the institute.

LS: What exactly were you studying?


BS: Weather forecasting, that's what they were studying-


LS: Did you graduate from this institute?

BS: She'll tell you about this later. Since again she was, relatively
speaking, in a privileged position in the army, the rations that they
were getting were a little bit better that for the civilians. So she was
saving pieces of bread and sugar and sharing it with her mother.
And this is where she met her future husband, who had been a
student in Dnepropetrovsk, and when the war broke out, Stalin
ordered not to send students as cannon-fodder to the front, so he
was allowed to come to Moscow, and they kind of spread them out
through the military institutions, and that's how they met there.

LS: And where was he from?

BS: He is from Gomel [from a village in Gomel Region], in Belorussia.

LS: And what's his name again?

BS: Mark Dvorkin. He graduated from this meteorological institute
in June of 1944. She had just finished only two years by then. The
institute was due to be transferred to Leningrad, and she, as a
student, was supposed to go to Leningrad; her husband, who had
already graduated by then--they hadn't been married yet--but he
was supposed to go to work to Minsk; the mother was supposed to
stay in Moscow; the father was in the Far East--it was all scattered
around--so finally this young man decided that they had to get
married and since they got married, he petitioned for her to be
allowed to go with him. So, she didn't go to Leningrad, but she went
with him. In September of 1944 all three of them--she, her
husband, and her mother--came to Minsk.

LS: I have one more question about your choosing your husband.
Was it accidental that he was also Jewish? Did it matter to you?

BS: It seems to just have happened that way. There was another
boyfriend who also happened to be Jewish, but it wasn't something
that she felt was very conscious and purposeful. The family,


especially during the war, was not really thinking of itself as very
nationalistically oriented. Her husband's father died when her
husband was only seven years old, but the mother and a brother
[who had been a member of the partisans, and a sister same age as
Berta, born in 1924] who stayed in Belorussia--only after the war did
he learn that they were herded by the Germans and ordered to dig
their own graves, and they were all shot. And he only found that out
after the war. So, he was left alone; all his family was destroyed
during the war.

LS: Your mother had never told you, you know, it's better to marry a

BS: When the war started, she was only seventeen, and there was no
talk about marriage.

LS: Then, when you went to Minsk, what happened to your

BS: Finally, when they came to Minsk, her husband was working in
the district staff [army headquarters], he was in the army, and she
finally could enter the medical school, which was what she was
dreaming about.

LS: Now, he was in the army and he was working as a meteorologist?
Is this correct?

BS: Yes.

LS: Did he have to be a member of the communist party?
BS: Yes, by all means.
LS: And you were also a member?
BS: No. He was demobilized from the army in 1948 when there

were a lot of people leaving the military [his eyesight was poor all
his life], and he was working in [civilian] weather forecasting all his
life, and he became quite prominent man and occupied high
positions, and since he was coming from the military ranks and was

1 1

in the party, at some point he was sent to Vilnius in this capacity,
and there was no way of saying "No,"--it was like military discipline,
you had to go--but he didn't like it there very much because even
then there was already very strong nationalistic element in
Lithuania, and he got out of there as soon as he could, and he came
back to Minsk. And he worked all his life in weather forecasting.
Her husband felt in his career many times that being Jewish was a
hindrance. There were several occasions when they had trips
abroad, to Sweden and to other countries, and his immediate
supervisor, chief of his department, was always recommending him
to be included into this group, but you never knew at what stage it
was blocked. Maybe it would pass through the Belorussian
authorities and be blocked later on. You never knew where and how
it was blocked, but it never worked out.

LS: You were in medical school during the time of the great Stalin

paranoia, at the end of his life. Did that affect you at all?

BS: When she graduated from medical school, there was only one

stomatological department attached to the hospital, and that's where

she started working ...

LS: A what?

BS: Stomatological--dental. And this was in 1953. She went to work

in children's dentistry. And that's where· she stayed working till the

emigration. In 1953, when this infamous doctors' plot was raging,

they had an emergency meeting in her hospital. They read all these

official announcements and denounced this Jewish doctors' plot and
so on and so forth, and there were only two or three Jewish doctors
in the whole hospital, and all of them felt that it was somehow
affecting them, and even though you know that you have nothing to
do with it, you feel that everybody is suspecting you also to be
involved in something like that, and still she felt that this must be all
an invention, it can't be true, it's some kind of fabrication. It was
simply impossible to imagine that these famous professors who were
so well-known in the country, could have been doing something as
atrocious as they were claiming. [After that they started this recertification
of all doctors. Naturally, as someone just starting her
professional career, I was very nervous. What made it worse was


that this re-certification did not focus on professional skills only. The
most important part of it was checking political awareness.] After
that they started all over this reassessment of every worker, and it
was not on the professional level only; it was mostly checking their
political awareness, and the political awareness was checked in the
most ridiculous way, like you had to remember all the socialist
countries, every leader, every post, every title--all this nonsense.
And if you didn't know some little details, that meant that you are no
longer reliable. She had. to go to one of her friends, whose husband
was a historian [history instructor] and get all this information from
him and drill it into her head, so--God forbid--you should make a
mistake. There weren't really asking about their professional level;
they would ask what they are reading and so on.

LS: Was this aimed mainly at the few Jews who were on the staff?

BS: [It was never done openly. In those days they would never say
it openly. There was a saying then, "They beat you up but you can't
even cry." One would never dare say that it was aimed against Jews
only since there were some Russians as well involved in this alleged
plot.] It was always very hypocritical, and they never openly said
that it was only the Jewish doctors; there were a couple of Russian
names among those people involved in this alleged plot, so here they
were also screening everybody, but it was a mu.ch more lenient
attitude towards the Russian doctors, as opposed to Jewish. Of
course, the main purpose of this whole procedure was to weed out
the Jewish doctors, especially those in administrative and high
positions. [Later that same day, everybody assembled. One of the
members of the evaluation committee was Professor Metlitzky--the
founder of dentistry in Belorussia and one of my former professors
in medical school--and the others were mostly professors and
assistant professors from the clinic where I had started my
professional career. When it was my turn and I entered the room,
Tamara Vasilievna Fokina, one of the assistant professors, smiled at
me and said, "Well, we know Y.QJ!." And they didn't ask me
anything.] She kind of lucked out because when she was so [unclear]
before this commission and trying to get ready, and when she was
called, one of the professors who were her teachers when she was in
medical school, kind of looked kindly at her and said, "Well, we know

1 3

you." And they didn't even ask her a single question. So, all this
nervousness and anticipation was for nothing.

LS: Let me ask you something else, were there a lot of female

BS: The majority of dentists in the Soviet Union are female.
LS: What about rising up to the administrative levels?
BS: [For women in general? But of course.] Often the chief doctors,

the leading doctors in a certain hospital or clinic are women because

the majority of doctors are women in the country.

LS: There is all this talk in this country about a glass ceiling--women
can rise so far and no further--was this not true in the Soviet Union?

BS: It wasn't really so in the Soviet Union, but it's also not the same
kind of a level of a profession in terms of prestige and money.
Doctors in the Soviet Union were also very underpaid. She
remembers there were visiting physicians from Finland and they
were often surprised that there were so many women dentists in the
Soviet Union--in Finland it's mostly men. In many areas [not just in
medicine] there were women who were working in great numbers.

LS: Were those professions generally underpaid professions?

BS: First of all, all doctors, regardless of their specialty, were paid
the same, whether you are a dentist or a surgeon or an internist, and
also the salary levels for doctors were sometimes lower than for the
people sweeping the streets. The doctors in Russia were usually
among the poorest people. Only in recent years they increased a
little bit the salaries of surgeons who worked in hospitals as opposed
to other doctors, but for years and years it was the same.

LS: So it's not just a matter of it being a female profession, because
so often professions that get associated with females are underpaid,
but in the Soviet Union it was... [End Tape 1 Side 2]


[Tape 2 Side 1]

LS: You went to medical school for four years?
BS: Five years.
LS: Did you have any children then?
BS: Yes. Her daughter was born in 1946, and her parents helped out

a lot.
LS: Were your parents living with you?
BS: Yes, her father joined them in 1945. [Looking at photographs]

This is her brother and herself ...

LS: Your father came back, you said, in 1945?

BS: Yes.

LS: What was the year you got married?

BS: In 1944.

LS: Paulina was born in 1946? Did you use any birth control?

BS: It was unsophisticated; it was not a lot of propaganda

[advertising], not a lot of information about birth control, so it was

mostly up to the man. This was a matter that was never spoken
about or studied. It was up to the couple to handle it on their own.

LS: Were there condoms available to men?

BS: Yes.

LS: Was that the general means?

1 5

BS: There might have been some means that other women used, but
she didn't know much about it. Her second daughter was born in

LS: And what is her name?

BS: Faina.

LS: When did your parents die?

BS: Her mother died in 1952 and father died in August 1980, four
days after the brother left for Canada.

LS: How long did your parents live with you?

BS: It must have been till about 1958, because during the war,
Minsk was badly damaged and there was an acute shortage of
housing, and it was only after this meteorological institute [service]
finally built an apartment building for its workers, that they could
finally get an apartment and move away and with great difficulty
save the original apartment for the parents.

LS: But the mother died in '52 and Faina was only two years old.
Tell me what your mother did as far as the household jobs were

BS: The mother was practically doing all the household chores. She
was cooking and cleaning. She [Berta] also did things but since she
was working during the day, her mother was taking care of things.
It was a very closely-knit family and everybody was pitching in.
The housing problem was so complicated, there was no way of
getting a separate apartment, so they had to stay together.

LS: Your mother was raising the little girls, right? Did you always

BS: Mother, of course, was very important help, and she was always
very grateful for her help with the children and even when she was
already sick, she was still trying to help. When in '51 her husband
was sent to Vilnius, one of the reasons she did not go with him was


that mother was sick and she wanted to stay with her, and this was

one of the factors that eventually helped the husband to get

transferred back to Minsk. The mother was sick and the family was

staying in Minsk.

LS: They have to be disputes in the family. Mothers and daughters

love one another, but they also ...

BS: [No, we didn't have any of that.] She loved her granddaughters
very much. There are a lot of traits in her daughter Paulina that
resemble the grandmother very much, and she loved her very much.
[She was a very quiet and well-behaved child.]

LS: Did she tell Paulina what things were like before the revolution?

BS: It was mostly herself who [heard all the stories about the family
from her mother] was telling the children about the family and the
relatives, but of course, the grandmother used this phrase quite
often. In 1980 her daughter emigrated here, to the States--this is
Faina--and even though the uncle had already died by then, but she
knew the names of his children and she was always very curious to
find out where they were and how they lived, but the daughter did
not want to even try to find them because she said they may think
that we want some financial help from them, we have to stand on
our own feet. So, even now, they don't really know if there are any
relatives around, and they haven't started even looking for them.
Her husband died in '67. Paulina had just started her college studies
at that time, and Faina was just taking her graduation exams in high

LS: I guess I want to go back a little bit. What did you do after your
mother died because Faina was only two years old?

BS: Initially they found a woman whom they hired, who was like a
live-in help, who was with them for a year, and then, when the girl
was three years old, they could send her to the nursery. Doctors had
a shorter working day, so she only worked for five hours.

LS: But then you had a great deal more of household work?


BS: Of course, and washing by hand, and cleaning... Her father was

great help. He would stand in lines for food, and he was always

helping her. [As long as he lived, he was helping me. He replaced

my mother for me. Till his last day, he lived the life of our family.

The children would always call him first with the results of their

school exams and things like that, before they would tell us.] He

lived the life of her family, and the children even had to report to

him first about all their exams and everything happening in the


LS: Did your husband help out in household work?

BS: Of course, he did.

LS: What did he do?

BS: His job was usually on the weekends to go the bazaar or to the

vegetable store and to carry the stuff that is the heaviest because

you don't have a car, so you have to carry everything.

LS: Did he help you with cleaning in the house, washing, cleaning?

BS: No, I knew that he had a lot of work to do at work, and I wasn't
trying to work him too much with other things, so what I could do
myself I did. When the first washing machines became available in
the Soviet Union, [he immediately bought one for me using the
money that he had managed to save from his business trips, and he
gave it to me for the International Women's Day] that was his first
gift for her--he saved some money from his business trips and he
made this gift for the International Women's Day. [In the Soviet
Union, International Women's Day was pretty much the equivalent of
Mother's Day in this country.] For a long time, she could still not
trust this machine and kept doing it by hand. [My children still
laugh recalling that.]

LS: What about your children's schooling? Did they have friends
who were Russians, White Russians?

BS: There weren't very many Jews left .in Belorussia after the war, so
in their school there were very few. They were quite different, you

1 8

know. Faina [Paulina] had just one good friend, and she happened to
be Belorussian [non-Jewish], and we are still corresponding with her
mother, and they were very good friends. The other daughter [Faina]
was very outgoing, and I had her whole class in my house very often.

LS: Was there any problems with anti-Semitism in the school, among
the teachers or among the students?

BS: The elder daughter, who was in an art technical school [who
graduated from a studio art school for gifted children], was a very
good student; she was one of the top five percent that were eligible
to go a higher art college [without having to take entrance
examinations], but there was some kind of a mix-up or some kind of
a substitute--they never knew how it happened--she was not
allowed to take only one leading exam with the five percent quota.
She was shifted aside, and she had to take all the entrance exams.
Nevertheless, she managed to pass all these exams very well, and she
was admitted. But the younger daughter already felt anti-Semitism
quite more vividly. The tried to enter the university, and there are
oral exams there. So, there are two teachers, and you are answering
the questions. They kept her there forever, and they were drilling
her, and they would ask more and more questions, much more that
would be the regular situation, and she noticed that the examiner
checked her passport data--the name and last name and the
nationality and all that--and even the other teacher already said,
"Well, don't you think it's already enough." It was quite obvious that
he was trying to give her more and more questions, so that she
makes mistakes and he can give her a lower grade. She didn't
manage to get through the entrance competition, and she wasn't
admitted to the university. She remembered that, and she was sure
that it was because of anti-Semitism. So, for a year after school she
worked at the same office where her father was [had been] working,
in the weather forecasting [bureau]. The following year she no
longer tried to get into the university to the biological department,
but she went to the teaching college, the same biological department,
which was kind of a little easier and less prestigious, so she hoped
that he could get in there. And even there she only entered the
correspondence course because she had to continue working and
earning a living. After she finished that correspondence course, she

1 9

became a teacher in the school where was [had studied as a child].
She was working and studying by correspondence.

LS: Did both children continue to live in the apartment with you and
your husband?
BS: The father had already died, so there were just three of them.
LS: Did your father remarry or did he live by himself?
BS: He remarried.

LS: When you were working, did you have just a circle of women
friends at the institute where you worked?

BS: Her best friend was since her student years, and she maintains
correspondence with her even now.

LS: What I am asking is when she was working as a dentist all these
years, did she have a circle of friends? And if she did, did they go
out, did they do things?

BS: There were some people that she was closer with, but she was
always trying to be on good terms with everybody at work, not
antagonize anybody, and there was always a lot of meetings in the
Soviet Union that you had to attend, and then there were some
outings, some trips from the institute, from the hospital, to Leningrad
and other places, and she tried to participate, so that she would
associate with people. There was as always, when there are a lot of
women working together, there is gossip and there are some
confidences that are shared, and she managed not to spread the
gossip, and that's why she was on good terms with a lot of people.
She managed to stay on good terms with most people, so she didn't
really have a lot of conflicts. But of course, rumors were going
around, and sometimes she even heard that parents would come
with their children to a dentist and they needed an appointment
with one or other dentist, and she heard from other people that some
parents would say, "Yeah, OK, but I don't want to take my child to a
Jewish doctor." [But, although no one ever said it in my face, I heard
from others that sometimes people would bring their children to the


clinic and they would say to the receptionist, "We need to see a

dentist, but make sure you don't put us down to see that Jewish

woman." Things like that were already happening.]

LS: Did you have a circle of friends, you and your husband?

BS: Yes. There were some people who worked with her husband,
they became friends with some of his colleagues; others were friends
they made during vacations. Their house [family] was quite
hospitable, and they liked to entertain. Her husband was a very
gregarious person... [he was full of life, but he didn't get to live long.]

LS: I had one more question. Some of the people that I have
interviewed have said that it just sort of happened that most of their
friends turned out to be Jewish because they felt they had more in
common with Jewish people. Was this true in your case or not?

BS: No. The majority of their friends were not Jewish.

LS: Were your children as enthusiastic about the party as you had
been when you were growing up?

BS: They had already a completely different outlook. They saw
everything very clearly.

LS: What did they see exactly?

BS: They saw a lot of injustice. They never even thought of joining
the party.

LS: Did that not hurt your husband?

BS: There were still little when their father was alive.

LS: How old was Paulina when she got married?
BS: Twenty-one.
LS: What year was that?


BS: In '67, after the father died.

LS: Am I right to assume that it wouldn't have mattered to you
· whether she had married somebody who was Jewish or non-Jewish?

BS: Yes.

LS: I guess what I hear is that the children were becoming more and
more disillusioned?

BS: Yes, they were growing up in a different ... [End Tape 2 Side 1]

[Tape 2 Side 2]

B S: And they understood all the lies and propaganda in literature, in
the press. Everything was forced on you. There were endless
propaganda indoctrination meetings. Whether you want or not, you
had to attend them and you had to study for them and prepare
notes. And the same was happening even in high school, you had to
go through the same brainwashing all the time. And everybody felt
that they were forced to say things that don't believe in. Even young
kids, starting in third grade, had to attend these political information
meeting. She remembers her grandson was maybe in fifth grade
when he was sick and tired of all this propaganda and he skipped
one of these meetings. And she remembers how one of the other
kids from his class was such a staunch pioneer that he [followed him
back home and came in to complain to his mother about his behavior,
urging her to take necessary measures to make sure he attend these
meetings.] even came home and he was berating the mother that she
doesn't influence him well enough--he is supposed to go and attend
these meetings. Paulina pretended to be very serious and told him,
"OK, I'll talk to him."

LS: Were there any bad repercussions for you after the 1967 War in

BS: Yes, when people already started emigrating, it was felt very
strongly. Anybody who was trying to emigrate in those years had to


go through a whole series of meetings where everybody, all the co

workers, were supposed to stand up and denounce them. She

remembers one episode very vividly, when she was supposed to do

check-ups of children's teeth in one school, and there was a boy in

ninth grade whose family was emigrating, and the principal of this

school assembled everybody in the hall and called this boy out to

stand in front of this whole school and was berating him and saying,

"Look at him. Here is this traitor. He is going to shoot at you

tomorrow, when he goes to Israel." And this was a very good test of

every administrator, of every bureaucrat, how he behaved in these

situations, how he either exploited this opportunity or remained a

decent person and was not overdoing what was absolutely expected

of him. And even though in that particular case the parents

complained and the principal was reprimanded for going overboard,

but still it showed who is who.

LS: Did you have any friends who had left?

BS: There were some friends who were leaving, but the situation
was such that there were police at the railway stations and a lot of
people--including them--were even reluctant to go to the railway

station to say good-bye because everybody was kind of watched.
Every now and then you ran into situations when common people,
sometimes drunks, would go into arguments in the street and would
say, "Oh, if you don't like it here, why don't you go to Israel" and
stuff like that. In any case, even though most people that she
worked with were not Jewish and she wasn't really very
nationalistically brought up, there came a point when you felt more
and more often that you are not like everybody, that you are singled
out, that you are different. Her father used to tell them about an
episode that got stuck in his memory since he was only fourteen
years old. He was working for this landlord and he was once going in
a horse-drawn carriage with him, and there was a man, dead-drunk,
lying in a swamp, in a puddle, and this boy was quite stunned by this
spectacle, and he said, "Like a pig!" And the landlord said, "Well, it's
not for you to judge. It's his land" [and he is free to do what he
chooses in his land.] And he remembered since that young age, and
he used to tell the children and the grandchildren that, "Maybe it's
not our land really, maybe we don't really belong here." And even
though here she is new and she doesn't really understand everything


as well as she did back there, but she feels much more at home here

than she felt there.

LS: But didn't you once feel at home?

BS: [That was only] before the war. And mostly, probably, because
they were just young and naive. It took years to find out a lot of
things that they didn't know, that were hidden from them. The
propaganda used to say that Jews didn't fight, that they were only
hiding from the Germans, and at the same time they would never
admit how many Jews were killed by the Germans. And now they
have discovered this place where thousands and thousands of Jews
were killed in Minsk, and for years and years they would only say
that so many thousands of Soviet citizens perished. They were
always trying to hide the nationality. She knows a man who crawled
out of this pit where people were [killed and he is still alive].

LS: So, I guess what I hear you saying that this whole business of

being aware of the nationality was forced upon you and wasn't

something that you really chose?

BS: Yes, it was the circumstances of life that were-forced upon you.

They were forced to realize [came to the conclusion] that this is

government supported anti-Semitism, that is being propagated and

forced upon them. Now they read a lot of things that they had

absolutely no way of knowing when living back there. So, it took a

long time to realize things that seem so obvious.

LS: Were you ready to emigrate in 1978, in 1979, when people
started leaving in large numbers?

BS: [No, we weren't ready then.] In 1980, when her daughter
emigrated, the main driving force was the son-in-law, who was very
persistent, who felt a lot of obstacles to any advancement in his job.
He graduated from a radio-technical institute, and after that was
drafted to the army for one year, and coming back could not find any
kind of meaningful job in his profession. Finally, he went to teach
[programming] at a vocational school, but wouldn't be promoted,
even though his former student was put above him, and he felt that
there was absolutely no way of achieving anything in that country.


He was very insistent [and my daughter supported him all the way],
and they emigrated, and here he really did very well. He is quite
talented and does very well in his job. They were the first in the
family to leave, and it was mostly the son-in-law who was the
initiator. It wasn't easy to leave in 1980; there were not very many
people who were allowed to leave. Well, they didn't object--they
had to sign the papers saying that they don't object. [She signed the
papers giving her daughter permission to leave.] So, the daughter
was the first to leave. For ten years she went back and forth. For
ten years, she was away from her daughter and she was heartbroken.
She would write every ten days, but it was a very emotional
situation for her mother. When they started allowing to go for visits,
she finally managed to get here, and everybody was joking that she
got here on the same day as Gorbachov.

LS: When was that?

BS: In 1986.

LS: Oh, you came for a visit?

BS: Yes. She came for a visit, and then she went back [in March

1987], and then she applied for emigration, and then she came.

LS: Did you know then that Paulina and her husband would also

BS: No. If she had known that they were planning to leave, she
wouldn't come for a visit. They would just emigrate all together, but
since one daughter was here and the other daughter was there, she
was kind of between them, and she decided to at least visit this

LS: When you came back, had Paulina and Alexander made up their

BS: [No.] She wanted her two daughters to live together [to be near
each other], and she wanted all the grandchildren to be here, and the
worst thing she feared was for the grandson to go to the Soviet
Army, but her other daughter's husband was sure that he wouldn't


be able to find the same kind of job in the same profession here. He
was not prepared to switch to something else, and when she came
back from this visit to the States, she told them, "I cannot push you, I
cannot insist on anything. Of course, I would like everybody to be
together, but you have to decide it between yourselves, and you
have to come to a joint decision. I don't want you to quarrel or the
family to be broken because one wants to go and the other doesn't,
and one is forcing the other. You have to come to this decision
jointly. There were a lot of stumbles, and the jobs in the art field
were very scrutinized, like if there were something similar to a star
in the house, they would destroy the whole house and so on, they felt
it very acutely in their jobs. [I understand that you will be
interviewing Paulina as well, and she will be able to tell you much
better about all of that.] It just so happened that with every next
generation, the desire to leave was stronger and stronger. So, the

grandson was absolutely adamant; he wanted to leave, he wanted
go. The children were also beginning to realize that they have to
follow. So, it was stronger in the younger generation.
LS: Would you have gone if Paulina and Alexander had stayed?
BS: She wouldn't have left. [My heart would have been· broken.]
grandson was very important, and she would have stayed.
LS: The first grandson
was more important than the
BS: No, she wouldn't have left them.
family] had already left ten years ago.
These [the other daughter's
And then a grandson was

born here. This grandson was born here, and this was only six years
old when he left. [Showing photos]

LS: Were your two daughters named for anyone?

BS: Yes. Her husband's mother who was shot by the Germans was
named Paulina. [Her other daughter was named after her paternal

LS: When you decided to leave, did the five of you come together?


BS: Yes. But then they were separated in Vienna. This daughter
who was here already was a citizen; so, she was left in Vienna, and
the sister with her family was sent to Rome. She was admitted to
America as an immigrant, not as a refugee, because she had a
daughter here. Then her papers were lost somewhere in Vienna, and
she spent eight months in Vienna.

LS: Were Alexander and Paulina already here when you came?

BS: Yes.

LS: When you came, I supposed they met you at the airport. Was
there anybody else from the community who met you at the airport?

BS: [No, nobody from the community, but we have so many relatives
here, and a lot of people were at the airport to meet me. My
grandson even videotaped everything, so now we have a permanent
record of it.] There were so many relatives, and this grandson even
had a video camera, and there were a lot of relatives at the airport.

LS: What kind of relatives are there, besides your two daughters?

BS: Her son-in-law's sister with her husband and children; his

brother with his family, his mother. His father died in the Soviet

Union one year after they left, and his mother got here. And then

one of the friends with whom she worked in Minsk and her family.
There were a lot of people.

LS: And was this apartment ready and waiting for you?

BS: No, when she first came here, she lived with Paulina, and then

she was put on a waiting list for this subsidized apartment. And she
lives here with her grandson. [When my turn came, an apartment
became vacant in this building, and we rented it. And so I am living
here and taking care of my grandson.

LS: And where did you get the furniture?

BS: The daughter gave her some furniture, and then she bought a TV
for her. And there were some friends who gave them some things.


And recently she bought the big table and chairs. Paulina bought her
a bed. Then she got a dresser and a mirror from the Connection (a
furniture store run by the Jewish Community Center for Russians.)

LS: Do you use the Jewish Center very much?

BS: Yes, she learns English there. She is more and less managing in
everyday life, but she is studying English very hard.

LS: How often do you go for English lessons?

BS: At first it was once a week, and then on Sundays Inna Braginsky
was working with them, and now for two months they have an
intensive course, and it's every day.

LS: Who is teaching that?

BS: Zhenia Malikin.

LS: Have you needed to use any other resources that are available to
you through the Jewish Community, Jewish Family Service? Have
you had any connections with Jewish Family Service?

BS: She didn't really have any problems, so far everything has been
going kind of smooth.

LS: For example, when she got this apartment, she got a lower rate
because she is a senior citizen with limited resources. [End Tape 2
Side 2]

[Tape 3 Side 1]

BS: Primarily the family and the network of other immigrants who
get information to the newcomers as to when to get registered for
this or that. There was one day when people went to put down their
names and that's what they did.


LS: What do you use the Jewish Community Center for besides

English lessons?

BS: Well, they have tours occasionally, then they arranged a trip to a
Tchaikovsky concert, things like that. Not that she uses it very often
and a lot because she is quite busy here too with the grandchildren.
Her daughters are working, and she helps them out with the

LS: I know how you helped Paulina out because she has a six-or

seven-year-old. But how can you help Faina who lives so much

further away in Shoreview?

BS: It's true, they don't see each other very often because she can't

get there on her own. They have to drive her. So, it's only for

weekends and some family events.

LS: Have you made a circle of friends at the Jewish Community


BS: She came to know quite a few people from Minsk and Moscow

and Leningrad. Not that they are very close friends yet, but she

meets quite a few people.

LS: That has to be very difficult to come to another country at this

BS: It is difficult Some of the Americans are very cordial and very
warm, and somebody even offered to teach her English, but that was
very soon after she first came here, and at that time, she said, "Well,
I don't think I am ready for that yet. I need a bilingual teacher at
least to start." But people are very kind and very outgoing. But it's
difficult to communicate with them.

LS: Do you think that the help that has been given to the Russians
has been fairly equal or do you think that some people have gotten
more than others?

BS: She thinks that there is a lot of help given and she thinks that
the attitude depends very much on how people lived there. Her life


was very modest. She never could afford much, she never had any

savings, and she never could buy anything for myself. And here

now, even though she just recently came, she thinks that she can

already afford much more. So, it probably depends on what people

left behind and from what kind of lifestyle they came, and that

determines how they assess what they have now. She never had a

lot of demands. [My needs have always been very modest.]

LS: I know that Paulina and Alexander have jointed Mt. Zion. Have

you gone with them?

BS: Yes, yes. They go there, not every Friday, but she always goes

with them.

LS: Was that the first synagogue that you ever attended?

BS: Yes.

LS: How do you find it? Do you feel comfortable there?

BS: [Yes. I don't feel like a stranger there at all. When she came to
visit, some American friends also invited them to a synagogue for
some holiday. But the problem is, of course, that she doesn't
understand everything. Now she understands a little better.] It is
very hard to come to the synagogue and to see all this, even though
she doesn't understand everything--it's a little bit easier now, but in
the beginning she hardly understood anything at all. In any case, at
her age, it's very difficult with all the new things. You always
compare what was in your life before, and all these comparisons
inevitably come, and you can't really enjoy all the new things as
much as young people can because you are always kind of saddened
by the comparisons of what was back there, how much you've
missed, how much your life was spent without what you see now and
so on. Her generation went through a lot of very difficult stages. Of
course, they were stupefied by the propaganda, and now that they
are reading a lot of these things, they are just horrified to think of
what could have happened if Stalin had not died.

LS: What about your health? Have you had any occasion to use a
dentist here?


BS: [Yes, of course, I have had such occasions. And for me that was
an experience that stirred a lot of emotions. I felt mixed emotions:
first of all, I admired their sophisticated equipment and the calm
atmosphere in which dentists work.] It was truly amazing to see all
the instruments and the tools that the dentists have here, and how
quietly and calm they can work and their environment. They had
very different atmosphere there. They were always required to
cover that many cases, the numbers were always more important
than quality. She could talk endlessly about this subject. And she
felt very sorry for the conditions that the Soviet dentists have to
work in. Although they may be very good doctors, the way they
have to practice is just unbelievable. She used to work in dental
surgery, and even now kids always tell her if you have to open a can
or something, "Mother, that's for your hand." She uses force even in
things that don't require it. Now she is pushing herself, "Relax, you
don't have to do it so [unclear] She is using the set of tools that she
brought from Russia, and she is pulling baby teeth from her
granddaughter. [And I enjoy doing it so much because I liked my
work so much.] We play games: she makes an appointment and she
comes to grandmother. She boils the instrument, she puts her in a
chair, and she comes as if for an appointment, and then she pulls the
baby tooth and she gives it to her, and a dollar. And she is happy.

LS: Is your role as a grandmother any different here, in America,
than it was in Russia?

BS: My task is easier here.

LS: Why is it easier?

BS: [First of all, I can go and buy any groceries I want at any time. I
don't have to wait in lines, I don't have to get up before dawn and
rush to the store to see if anything is available. Back there, although
I lived on my own, I always tried to get groceries for the children.] I
don't have the problems of thinking how to buy groceries for the
family, like I had there. While she still does some hand washing, but
that there are laundry machines, she can use them. Everyday life
and everyday functions are much easier. [Back there, we spent all
our lives taking care of everyday chores.]

3 1

LS: What do you enJOY most about living here and what do you find

most irritating?

BS: [Since I don't have to deal with the kind of things that young
people do, I like everything here.] She likes practically everything
she sees here, and she likes how they celebrate birthdays here and
go out to restaurants and all these family festivities. She likes the
way people of her age live here, not only immigrants, but Americans
as well. She really appreciates that people of her age or even older
still take good care of themselves, and dress and take care of their
hair and appearance. It's really amazing that people of old age· and
handicapped people are still in the midst of everything; they are
visible, they don't have to crawl in that corner; [they participate in
various trips]. Nothing like this exists in the Soviet Union. If you are
retired and, God forbid, you're sick or handicapped, you're just a
nobody. There was absolutely no care [attention given to] of retired
people, no entertainment. Here you really feel like a human being.
It's a tremendous difference.

LS: Have you met some people, American people, who lived in

America for like thirty-forty years and live in your apartments,
people your age?

BS: She met some retired people, not in their homes, but when
Paulina and her family had invited guests, when they had
celebrations for the Passover and so on. You probably know
Maryann Wark, president of the synagogue. I've visited them. Last
year, for the Jewish New Year, the rabbi of that synagogue invited
them. Her [granddaughter's] friend's parents invited them, but they
are young people. There are some friends who came here about ten
year ago.

LS: What do you miss most about your old life?

BS: There is no immediate family that was left back in Minsk. [ I
miss the graves of the loved ones that I left behind. Not a day goes
by without thinking of them, particularly on birthdays and death
anniversaries, I am always there in my thoughts.] Yes, I miss the


cemetery. And of course, I miss my friends. And of course, I still

miss my work. I liked it very much.

LS: Did you work until you left?

BS: She worked until that time when she came here for a visit and
[unclear] [I worked until my visit here in 1987. I took a vacation
then, and never returned to work.] It was all a big secret. She never
really told anybody at work that her daughter had emigrated. She
never really talked about it with people over there.

LS: Do you know about the Russian choir at the Jewish Community

BS: [Of course.]

LS: Would you ever consider joining that?

BS: No, I have no voice. And I have no time between the English
studies and helping the daughters, there is not much time.

LS: What cultural differences you find most frustrating in America?

BS: She can't think of anything at all as irritating. She understands
that moving to a new country is like getting born again. And of
course, she thinks it's easiest for the children who are starting
everything here--it's wonderful for them--but there isn't very much
left for us to do at her age. [Of course, for the grandchildren, who are
just beginning their lives here, and for people like myself, who are
nearing the end of their lives, it's really nice to be here. I get most
joy out of life watching my grandchildren grow up here.] For
[unclear] [middle?] generation, of course, it's the hardest because
they have to build a new life and they have problems now and then,
and of course, she is with them and she is sharing all these problems
with them. But it's very good that they don't lose heart, they work
hard. But of course, it will take years for things to work out.

LS: I think it is a good place to end. I think it will take years.

want to thank you very much.