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Latvian immigrant is expert on Russian, Jewish history

Roza Simkhovich

Roza Simkhovich is proud to say that she has been an American for nearly 39 years. She and her family came from Latvia, a Baltic country formerly part of the Soviet Union, to the United States looking for relief from anti-Semitism. As an educator for nearly 30 years, she has taught classes on a variety of topics, including the Soviet Union and Jewish history. Her current series of talks, “The Thorny Pass of Jewish Emancipation,” which began Feb. 6 at the Tucson Jewish Community Center, continues on Tuesdays through February; anyone interested can attend individual classes. The talks will explore the roots of modern anti-Semitism.

Simkhovich was born in Riga, Latvia’s capital. Her parents had come to Latvia from Romania during World War II to escape from the Nazis. Many of her family members were killed in the Holocaust, and Simkhovich was named for an aunt who was one of the victims. She says there was more tolerance toward Jews in the Soviet Union after World War II, but there still was anti-Semitism.

“I couldn’t understand why other children were mean to me because I was Jewish,” she says. “I experienced cruelty from people who didn’t even know me, but my name is Jewish and people thought my appearance was Jewish. It is hard for children to understand hate.”

Simkhovich related two specific incidences of discrimination. “One time when I went on a hiking trip,” she says, “there was a Russian girl on the trip who was so hateful of Jews that even the other Russian girls were shocked.” It was not only things that the girl said. She also tried to push Simkhovich down while on the hike.

“Another time was when my mother and I were at a cafe drinking coffee, and there were these two guys there,” she recalls. “One of them said that if he had a gun he would shoot me because he thought I was Jewish.”

In 1979, Simkhovich immigrated to the United States with her husband, Zakhar; their 3-year-old son; her parents; and some of her husband’s family members. They joined her brother who had emigrated from Latvia about two years earlier and was living in Tucson.

“I didn’t want to live in Latvia if I had a choice. Even though I was born in Latvia, I feel American and I love Tucson,” she says.

Soon after coming to Tucson, she became involved with the Jewish community. She served on the board of the Tucson Jewish Community Center in the 1980s and  organized the “Celebration of Heritage” concerts at the J. She revived the concert series last spring because she wants “people to understand the beauty of other cultures through music, to help people understand each other.”

Simkhovich has a master’s degree in engineering with a specialty in food science from a university in Latvia, but in the United States it was difficult to get a job in her field. She went on to obtain a master’s degree in education from the University of Arizona, and then taught Russian as a senior lecturer in the UA Department of Russian and Slavic Studies for 23 years, specializing in teaching oral communication, translation, interpreting and business language.

“I thank G-d that I have an ability with languages,” says Simkhovich. “I learned Yiddish from my parents and growing up in Latvia, learned Latvian and Russian. Starting in fifth grade I took English as my foreign language.” In Tucson she worked hard to improve her skills in oral and written English.

Along with teaching Russian, she started a drama group for her students and chose, produced and directed one-act plays that the students performed annually at meetings of the Arizona chapter of the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages. She also is a former president of AzAATSEEL.

“The plays were fun for the students and helped them to learn Russian,” she says.“It is not enough to just learn the language. Each culture has its own expressions and their own emotional responses that they express in certain ways such as in drama and music.”

In 1993, Simkhovich founded the Commonwealth of Independent States and Eastern European Forum, designed for people planning on or already doing business in countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. In 1990 she organized a resettlement program for immigrants from the Soviet Union. “I knew how difficult it could be to adjust to a new culture, so I could help others,” she says. “We had a lot of volunteers that responded to this challenge in Tucson.” She also developed programs for Russian immigrants, many of them 60 years and older, and helped them to pass the citizenship test. “These people went through so much in their lifetimes, and it was often very tough on them, but they were ready to study and become citizens,” she says.

After retiring from the UA almost 10 years ago, Simkhovich has been busy studying Russian and Jewish history, and teaching courses on these subjects. “I want to give American Jews a better understanding of where their families come from,” she explains. “Learning history is of paramount importance. We need to understand ourselves through knowing about the history of the Jewish people and how other people have treated the Jews.

“How did our people become pariahs?” she asks. The beginnings of anti-Semitism as well as its modern incarnations are topics of her new lecture series. “Today there is so much anti-Semitism on the internet, and so many people believe what they read. We need to be aware of what is going on and do something to prevent the horrible things that happened before.”

Vida and Eliot Barron have taken three classes with Simkhovich; two on the Soviet Union and one on Russian authors. “Roza speaks for more than an hour without using notes, and she presents the information clearly and is passionate about each subject,” says Eliot.

“We have been so honored and grateful to have been in her classes and to get to know her. I have a special connection to Roza because I coordinated a Russian resettlement program in Hartford, Connecticut,” says Vida, who feels that “it is important to learn about Jewish history and about the Soviet Union from someone who lived there.” The Barrons are attending her current class.

“Anti-Semitism has been around for centuries, and it seems as if we carry our history in our genes because we can identify with the Jewish experience,” says Simkhovich. “The U.S. is a wonderful country for Jews, but Jews are still a minority, and many times are not accepted. We can believe that what happened in Germany will never happen again, but I think it can happen. Jews should never be complacent when it comes to anti-Semitism.

“Jews as an ethnic group have contributed a lot to science and culture, and we need to be recognized for that, and I think that can help change attitudes in the world. I hope we can help children have a different frame of mind. I hope we can stop hate. One way to do that is to share culture and history.”

“The Thorny Pass of Jewish Emancipation” is offered on Tuesdays at the Tucson J through Feb. 27, from 1:30-2:30 p.m., at $9 per class.

Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to reflect that the year Simkhovich began a resettlement program for refugees from the Soviet Union was 1990.

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