Sitting at the kitchen table of her homey midtown apartment, Yuliya Genina offers cookies and then begins to tell her story.
“People don’t know what it means, exactly, war. But we from the former Soviet Union know exactly what is war,” she says.
“We are the last generation who are witnesses, who know what happened and how hard it was, especially for Jewish people,” Genina says, explaining why she chose to add her tale to the collection of Holocaust survivors’ stories on Jewish Family & Children’s Services website (www.jfcstucson.org/holocaust-survivors).
Genina and her twin sister were 10 years old when German troops invaded her hometown of Kharkov in Ukraine. At first her father was not worried. “He said that the Germans were an intelligent and cultured people. He said they didn’t kill the Jews during the First World War, and that they wouldn’t do so now,” Genina wrote in her story on the website.
But when her mother saw a sign instructing all Jews to bring their gold, jewelry and other valuables, and meet at a tractor factory, she knew they had to leave. The girls fled with their mother, eventually connecting later with their father in Siberia. The scenes of destruction and death that Genina saw along the way still haunt her.
“Suddenly, we heard the noise of German Messerschmitts … and the earth all around us began to explode,” she wrote of the Germans bombing a freight train she was on. “Through cracks in the boxcar we saw a woman lying on the ground and two small children crying and running around her (what I saw will stay with me to the end of my life). Right then, our mother put us on her lap, hugged us and said, ‘If our fate is to survive, we’ll survive it all together. I don’t want to live without you, and I don’t want you to be left without me.’ That Messerschmitt has been in my mind ever since that day. … We saw the pilot fly low and spray the people (those who had left the boxcar) with his machine guns. And that’s what I’ll always remember, that moment is unforgettable.”
Genina hadn’t thought of herself as a Holocaust survivor until she met others in a support group through JFCS. She became committed to sharing her story so that future generations will know “exactly what is war.”
For Raisa Moroz, manager of the Holocaust Survivors Program at JFCS, preserving personal histories like Genina’s is an important facet of the program. She started collecting stories when she began working as a case manager at JFCS.
“I realized that no one knew what Russian Holocaust survivors went through,” she says. She put together a list of questions as guidelines for her Russian-speaking clients to write their stories. Once she had 13 of them, Moroz began looking for a way to share the tales. “We needed to educate the Tucson community about what happened,” she says. The first step, of course, was to translate them into English.
With serendipitous timing, Richard Fenwick, a retired Russian linguist and translator for the U.S. Air Force, came across JFCS while looking for ways to put his Russian language skills to good use. Fenwick now spends about 10 hours a week volunteering with JFCS: translating stories to English, helping with case work and visiting Russian-speaking clients.
“It’s important to show how the Holocaust occurred at regional levels,” Fenwick says. “We don’t hear much about the war in Ukraine and Belarus, for example.”
Today some 30 stories are posted on the JFCS website, and the collection continues to grow. Genina’s memoir is among the latest additions.
In addition to the support group, JFCS offers in-home help, transportation services and financial assistance for Holocaust survivors. An English-speaking support group meets weekly and a Russian-speaking group meets monthly. Funding for these services is provided by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona, the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona and individual donors. Beneficiaries must meet criteria outlined by the Claims Conference in order to receive assistance — and JFCS helps applicants complete the paperwork for compensation.
The Friendly Visitors program pairs volunteers with survivors for weekly visits. Fenwick and survivor Boris Nayshtut meet every Monday afternoon for conversation. “We’ve created a friendship,” Fenwick says. He also notes that students in the University of Arizona’s Department of Russian and Slavic Studies receive credit for volunteering in the program, and many of them remain involved after they’ve completed the course work. “That underscores how fulfilling it is,” he says.
According to Moroz, JFCS serves some 90 survivors each year, but she knows that there are many others who could qualify for assistance if they would just come forward.
For more information about the Holocaust Survivors program at JFCS, contact Moroz at 795-0300, ext. 2214, or [email protected].
Nancy Ben-Asher Ozeri is a feature writer and editor living in Tucson. She can be reached at [email protected].