My Grandmother Rita

My grandmother Rita (Revekka) Zhuravel née Birzh, daughter of Anna (Nechome Itke) and Max, was laid to rest in Moscow on Friday afternoon on June 6, 2014.

Rita and Meyer Zhuravel. Courtesy of the author.
Rita and Meyer Zhuravel in 1949. Courtesy of the author.

She lived a life defined by the relentless history of the 20th century.

The 1917 revolution, bringing pogroms, hunger and innumerable losses in its wake, also abolished the much hated Pale of Settlement and opened the floodgates of Russia’s great cities to its Jews. My grandmother’s family was part of this giant eastward migration, moving from Polish Bialystok to Moscow shortly before her birth.

Rita grew up in Moscow’s historical center, its cozy lanes full of pretty pastel-colored classical facades. Only the reality behind the façade of the Soviet capital in the thirties was grim. When Stalin drove from the Kremlin to his dacha through the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare, guards stood alongside the avenue, rudely discouraging passersby from idling on the sidewalk. His secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria cruised the streets in a chauffer-driven car picking up young girls, who were thrown out once he took advantage of them. One of my grandmother’s classmates committed suicide after a ride in his limousine. At night my grandmother and other building residents heard the whirring of the bread van motor in the dark leafy yard. The vans brought Beria’s people who came to arrest alleged enemies of the state in the small hours of the morning, expelling their wives from the city, taking the children away to orphanages, and leaving the emptied out rooms of crowded communal apartments vacant to neighbor’s claims.

Barely days after my grandmother’s prom, on June 22, 1941, the Wehrmacht attacked the Soviet Union. All of her male classmates were swiftly mobilized and moved to the front, hardly armed or trained. Only one of them, a poet, came back from the war, blind in both eyes as the result of an injury. The Germans advanced swiftly. When a decision to evacuate the government from the capital was announced in mid-October, Moscow went into panic. Top secret documents that escaped archival packing crates or burning were flying in the streets, people attacking east bound trains in a mad rush to leave the city before it falls.

An officer saw the unmistakably Jewish Rita on a tram and told her unequivocally, “Young lady, you have to leave Moscow. Trust me, you have to go.” At this point, most Muscovites did not know what was happening to the Jews on Nazi-occupied territory. The officer did.

Leaving was not easy. To procure a place in train heading east and to safety, one needed to prove that one’s place of work has been evacuated and one was needed there. My great-grandmother, a nurse at an orphanage evacuated to the Urals, was able to procure such a permit for her daughter. Eighteen year old Rita boarded the train with a single loaf of bread on a cold December day. The train attendant refused to let her onboard despite her ticket, and she had to bribe him with the bread for a place in an unheated vestibule. She survived the long journey in the middle of the winter only because a kindly person, an officer again, brought her inside the warm carriage by the hand and made people make space for her.

Over the next year and a half she taught secondary school in a village in Russia’s heartland, covering everything from German (which she did not speak) to sports (which she did not like). She supplemented her poor diet with a daily glass of milk from the cow attached to the school. Years later she would say that this is what enabled her to physically survive the war.

She came back to Moscow in 1943. In a city on the brink of starvation, she had a younger sister to support. Although she dreamed of becoming a doctor, it was a teachers’ college that offered her a place and a job in the archive that came with ration stamps. She took the job, enrolled in studies, and met and married my officer grandfather a couple of years after the war.

In the early fifties, during Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaign that initially targeted Jewish doctors and swiftly turned into a plan to deport all Soviet Jews to the Russian Far East, the two of them lived with suitcases stored readily under the bed so as not to waste time packing if secret police came for them in the night. Stalin died in 1953, and with him his paranoia that has paralyzed the country for years. My grandfather was finally able to leave the army. Now with a baby, they returned to Moscow after years of nomadic existence on military bases where they lived in terrible conditions. A somewhat more normal life set in.

Rita never became a doctor that she dreamed of becoming. In the Soviet Union at the time, one could not get a degree once one already had one. A particularly stubborn and driven person might have tried to circumvent the system, but my grandmother, private and retiring, avoided head-on clashes. She remained a teacher, a compromise that never fulfilled her intellectually.

Teaching history, she dealt with a highly politicized subject. Both her Jewishness and reluctance to join the party made her utterly unreliable in the eyes of the authorities. Her advancement opportunities were severely limited. When she was not trusted to see a grade she was teaching from elementary school through the last two years of high school, it was a serious blow. She taught domestic studies to girls after that in order to bring her career to a close in a realm far removed from the demands of ideology.

Retiring as early as she could, even ahead of the standard fifty five age mark for women, she focused on her family, procuring provisions which took hours of standing in lines to poorly stocked stores, and on showering her grandchildren with attention.

Self-realization and achievement, so important for my generation, were not part of her vocabulary, with so much of her life focused on physical and moral survival. She lived a life that was immensely poorer, in all senses, than she had deserved. Yet after a lifetime in a country that denied its citizens privacy and mercilessly crushed their ambition, she remained kind, not at all tainted by the cruelty of the time. She left me with an overwhelming sense of unconditional love and unequivocal acceptance that still washes over me now that she is gone.

My grandmother’s life is a testament to so many more lives irreparably broken by history and the Orwellian circumstances of the Soviet Union. Yet she has been among the lucky ones: she survived, and her life had been outwardly intact. She passed away on Monday, June 2, 2014, 8 days after her 91 birthday.

She experienced her Jewishness as an inevitable handicap as well as a source of deeply felt ethnic pride. The fact that both of her grandchildren chose to make Israel their home was both a miracle and a never ceasing source of wonder to her. Buried according to Jewish law, she is likely the first family member over the last hundred years to be afforded this basic dignity.

A few months before she passed away, she learnt that she was going to be a great-grandmother. While she did not communicate with us much by then, I know that this brought her comfort and a degree of happiness one probably wishes for in one’s final days.

Grandmother, I loved you very much.

May your memory be for a blessing.


About the Author
Anya Zhuravel Segal lives in the Beit Hakerem neighborhood of Jerusalem with her husband and two children. They recently spent ten days in home quarantine after a teacher’s aide in her son’s preschool tested positive for coronavirus.