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The Almost Jewish Russian Soldier

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The Soviet Union would not claim him.

The almost Jewish Russian soldier: I always had this philosophical argument each summer with my mother-in-law. Why did she feel it was necessary to leave Kharkiv, Ukraine, under Russian rule thirty years ago? 

Her response was always the same, “Once the iron curtain fell, I just knew that  I needed to leave with my only child and barely six-year-old son, a journey that would take months, and who knew if we would have a normal life.” She always seemed to say the same phrases, with the same emotions and little regrets; the decision paid off in making the family safe. 

For this brave decision, they left everything they ever knew on a belief that it would be better in America. For a Jew in Soviet Russia was impossible! A Russian soldier in Kharkiv, Ukraine, was hard, but a Jewish Russian soldier in Kharkiv, Ukraine, would be certain death.

It wasn’t an argument but an understanding of the approach and the need to flee with only a few suitcases. They passed each heavier-than-life bag through the train window.  An old man, full of energy and optimism, a Deadutchka, grandfather caught the heavy items and gladly placed them on the platform. Records, clothing too big for a later age, and toys so treasured were all snuggly into tightly packed suitcases busting at the seams. There was no time to rest before the train would start moving again. 

I never understood: Why was it so important to get out then from the soviet union? Plenty of her friends and relatives stayed, but for her, there was this urgency. Almost a premonition in which she knew she had to leave with the group of Jews fleeing. There was no turning back to Soviet Russia; she and her family were branded by law as traitors and could never return to the motherland.  

Her leaving meant that she would come to a country with no language, no job, and only a temporary residence by a distant family member for whom she didn’t even know. This created much fear and anxiety for many and especially her. Therefore, it became a tough time and a very challenging decision for her in particular.

She always responded, “I didn’t want my son to be a Russian Jewish soldier.” At the time, Ukraine was under Russian rule. For a Jew to be a Russian soldier, there is no chance for him to be a Jew, and he as a Jew would be mercilessly beaten if he was found out. Also, in general, a Russian soldier’s life is not accounted for, and if they would die, it would just be another number in the casualty of war. 

When my mother-in-law came to this country, it was incredibly difficult for her, first on a boat to Italy and then coming to America. It was an impossible situation, and I would tell her that I would have found my husband in Kharkiv, Ukraine, if you didn’t leave. I was always interested in going to help out as emissaries abroad, and somehow we would have found each other. 

Just look at the world today,  do you see how it changed?  It was always my naive answer to her heroic story. To give it all up on the worry of a Jewish boy becoming a Russian soldier? Perhaps that scenario would have never been.  

When I saw today’s news, I realized how lucky we were. Somehow, someway there was an angel that was whispering in her ear and told her to run away before there would be no way out. If my mother-in-law had stayed, my husband would have had to serve as a Ukrainian Jewish soldier in the war. However, it would have been even worse that he would be a Chabad emissary serving in the war! Only G-d could lift him up thirty years earlier and place him in a free country where he could serve as a Chabad emissary freely. 

The world, as of recently, felt and became turned upside down, and life as one knew it changed. My mother-in-law calls each day to Ukraine. She pushed and continues to push her friends of over fifty years to leave home, to leave the country that they call home, and be forced to embrace a life elsewhere in the hopes and chance to survive.

Pushing, pleading, whisperings words of love and comfort, and bracing for the impact. Could it work? Would they hear her plea to leave before it was way too late? It was mirroring, mimicking, and feeding on itself the war almost eighty years earlier, a battle where there was no way out and no place for Jews.

Who wants to get up and leave their home? Was there ever such a person that one has ever known to get up and just go? She did it before, but for her to revisit this nightmare a second time? It was a painful process to watch: friends being forced to flee without choice, options, and freedoms– this takes its toll on the helpers.

One day, she turns to me and explains, through all of her hard efforts, that she doesn’t know if all of them could get out. Most had sons that were obligated to fight as Ukrainian soldiers. Her friends, these mothers, couldn’t leave their sons. It was too much to ask because they didn’t know what would become of them. 

I pleaded with her as if she was making all of the decisions: “It’s worse if the mothers would stay.” My feelings were that they needed to get out of the once beautiful picturesque landscape, to leave just the remnant of what the town once held.

“It’s a complicated situation because as you and I know, no family wants to be broken apart. My guess was that they didn’t want to leave their loved ones and to go through what their friends went through thirty years earlier, a chance to flee, and breaking through the glass when the iron curtain and the Soviet Union fell,” my mother-in-law told me with that knowing look, that she knew best.

 Unfortunately, it was inevitable, friends, family, loved ones were all going to be split apart for the hope and chance to live: there was no other way! Here through the chaos, she stood as the comforter to many. I said to her, “You keep calling. They are not doing it, so what are the next options of what one can do?”

She whispered to me, “Just to be there for them, show love, and when I give some money to help them, then it shows them that I care. It is meant for them to feel and recognize that they are not alone in all of this catastrophe. If I can’t physically push them out of Ukraine, at least I could show them that I care and they are not alone.”

My mind felt peace, realizing that she was so right in her approach. Today, and thirty years ago, I understood in the hopes of having the American happy ending, one must push hard in what he feels is right. 

However, sometimes the ending is meant to be different, and one must walk along the path to be a comforter to many. A comforter to what someone else needs, their vision of what true helping is from that person, might be different from your own approach. My mother-in-law understood this point, even if it meant that some of her friends might not make it out alive. 

It’s the time spent caring and giving,  that one in a War-torn country can feel that they’re not alone. It’s knowing that someone has their back, someone cares for them, and someone understands what is in their heart. This is the meaning of truly loving your friend, truly loving your fellow, and truly helping one in need.  The idea of true love: It’s not my definition of what one needs but theirs.

About the Author
Born in New York state into a family on Shlichus, Esther was formally trained in Chabad institutions in America and Canada as an educator and community leader with the lifelong goal of helping an under-served Jewish populace. She and her husband, along with their children, have been serving the local community, as well as the Northeast Wisconsin region, for over a decade, providing for any and all needs of everyone's personal journey with G-d.
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