Brandeis students interview their Russian-speaking elders
At the end of every interview session, whether they had been talking about love or loss or war, 96-year-old Mindel would look at 18-year-old Dina Kapengut and say, “You know, that’s life.” Every time.
“When someone says it over and over again, it becomes more than a phrase,” Kapengut said. “It was her acceptance. She was very happy with her life. She’s not resentful toward any part of it. This was her way of saying, I’m alive and I have a story, and that’s my life.” Kapengut collected and recorded Mindel’s life story as a project for the Brandeis Genesis Institute for Russian Jewry at Brandeis University. Kapengut was among the BGI fellows who partnered with Russian Jewish residents at the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center in Boston. Over the course of two semesters, they recorded and transcribed hours of interviews in Russian. As the interviews progressed, one theme emerged: the enormous impact of World War II. Most of the fellows were born in the former Soviet Union but grew up in America, speaking Russian with their parents and English with their friends. All have strong connections to their Russian heritage. Several had visited or studied in Russia. But few understood the history, reality and personal tolls of World War II in the Soviet Union, known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War. “World War II is covered in American classrooms, but it doesn’t have the focus on the USSR,” said Irina Dubinina, the fellows’ advisor and director of the Russian language program at Brandeis. “The students know something about it from personal stories from their grandparents – some of their grandparents have bullet scars, one student had a grandmother who survived Leningrad. But often we take our own grandparents for granted, and it takes talking to a stranger to discover something that is actually part of your own family.” The students compiled the stories they collected into a scrapbook which they presented to the seniors last week to commemorate V-E Day. This was just one the programs sponsored by the Brandeis Genesis Institute aimed at reaching out to the broader Russian Jewish Community.
Funded by the Genesis Philanthropy Group, the two-year old institute provides scholarships and programming to Russian-speaking students. It sponsors events for students and members of the Russian Jewish community – presenting everything from art exhibits to lectures to a professional boxer. The students who receive BGI fellowships, graduates and undergraduates, are expected to complete a community service project. This year, under Dubinina’s guidance, six undergraduate fellows decided to collect oral histories. Knowing some conversations could be difficult, Dubinina enlisted the help of Brandeis professor Cindy Cohen, founding director of the Oral History Center in Cambridge. She gave the students tips on how to ask questions and what kind of body language to use while Dubinina worked with them on cultural etiquette. Most importantly, they told the students to listen – really listen. “It was important for the students to know that these are not mines to be mined,” Dubinina said. Staff at the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center found residents healthy and coherent enough to share their stories. A nurse recommended that Brandeis senior Eli Tukachinsky talk to a woman named Olga. “She has a story behind her,” Tukachinsky remembered the nurse saying.
The first time the bubbly, talkative, 93-year-old Olga shared her story with Tukachinsky, she told it fluently, almost practiced. She calmly told the 21-year-old about working as a field nurse on the front lines of the war, about contemplating suicide after being captured by the Nazis, about the death of her husband. “When she spoke, sometimes she would hesitate a little,” Tukachinsky recalled. “But mostly, she would speak in a muted monotone.” Except when she spoke about her husband. On those occasions, tears welled up in her otherwise bright and clear eyes. Having never remarried nor had children, Olga was excited that at last she had someone to record her story. But some residents took a bit of prodding. Like Olga, 97-year-old Sofia was alone. She lost her fiancée and both her brothers in the war. She never married and had no children. “She would keep saying, I don’t know why you want to interview me, I had such a bad, horrible life,” BGI fellow Lena Vaynberg, 19, recalled. “And I said, that’s why I want to interview you. I always felt the need to say that you’re not going to be forgotten, your story is not going to be forgotten.” Like many of the student-residents partners, Vaynberg and Sofia did most of the interviews in Sofia’s room – which was decorated with pictures of her friend’s children and a small Chagall painting. Sofia told Vaynberg that the war had “shattered her life,” but she was still able to remain upbeat. “She always said, ‘that’s life,’” Vaynberg said. “She knows that life is ending now and she would say, ‘What else is there to do? I’m not going to sit here being depressed.’” Most of the students had never worked with seniors before. Some struggled with the realities of the aging and dying. Julia Rabkin, a Brandeis senior, recalled the sadness she would feel at times visiting her partner’s small room, decorated with bright artificial flowers and family pictures. “This person had lived such a rich life and then by the end, her life comes down to one room,” Rabkin said. Rabkin interviewed 88-year-old Aleksandra, the only non-Jewish resident interviewed. Stationed at the front on a hospital train, she witnessed death on a daily basis. Her stories were at times painful for Rabkin to hear, but she came to realize just how long a shadow the war had cast. “It affected the way [our grandparents] raised their children … our parents, who raised us in a certain way because of that,” Rabkin said. “Even three generations away from the war, I still identify with it. I still feel it. It’s part of my identity.”