they stand in a circle lifting something over their heads
At Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay in Walnut Creek, Holocaust survivors from the former Soviet Union participate in a yoga class. (Photo/Max A. Cherney)

Soviet-born Holocaust survivors thrive in Walnut Creek program

Sixteen Holocaust survivors from the former Soviet Union doing yoga — not exactly a common sight in suburban Walnut Creek. But over the past year, it’s become a biweekly happening at the offices of Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay.

The yoga classes are one component of JFCS’ Holocaust Survivor Services and its year-old program for survivors from the former Soviet Union, paid for in part by the Department of Health and Human Services. It is the first survivor program in the United States funded by federal dollars.

It’s not exactly yoga mats and downward-facing dog. In this yoga class, participants formed a rough circle, and at the instructor’s behest began tapping their shoulders and other body parts with implements that resembled the letter T.

The program currently serves more than 100 people, providing assistance with medical and dental needs, art and drama classes, as well as staging community events. Participants receive a free lunch, transportation and counseling.

On April 9, JFCS hosted a Passover seder. “It’s multigenerational, there are adults and children and grandchildren, we have some performances and a lot of food,” said Masha Ksendzova, a case manager with JFCS. “People communicate with each other. They love it.” Members of the drama class performed a theatrical version of the Exodus, she said.

The program “has definitely taken off, and people have learned a lot about normal aging, for example,” said Rita Clancy, director of adult services and Holocaust programs at JFCS. “We have had fall prevention classes from a physical therapist, in Russian. People were cautious initially and they weren’t sure they wanted to talk about anything. It went from that, to year two, people are signing up for individual sessions with a Russian-speaking psychologist. Basically, we’re getting at the trauma in different ways.”

But when you ask the participants whether they consider themselves survivors, many will say that they are not.

“I’m not a Holocaust survivor because I was born in 1942,” said program participant Yevgeniya Ignat. “My dad’s family lived in Kiev after the invasion of the Nazis, and the whole family went to Babi Yar and were killed there. My grandma, grandpa, my aunts, cousins, my uncle, so maybe about seven or eight people were killed there in Babi Yar.”

On Sept. 29 and 30, 1941, Nazi police units and auxiliaries murdered the Jewish population of Kiev at Babi Yar, a ravine northwest of the city. It was one of the largest mass murders at a single location in World War II.

Why would they eschew the “survivor” label, even though the definition has expanded to include former residents of the USSR? Psychology and Soviet culture may be responsible, at least in part.

“These people, especially survivors from the former Soviet Union, have had continuous trauma after the war,” said Clancy. “So what happens is they grow up in a culture minimizing everything they’ve been through. So even a person who was hungry and malnourished during the war, and was on the run, will say, ‘Technically, I am not a survivor.’”

I’m glad that I came here, as all of us live separately from our children and we can’t communicate that often, and our grandchildren are very busy too.

JFCS began seeing an increase in Holocaust survivors in 1998, when the Claims Conference, launched by postwar Germany to address survivor needs, opened compensation programs to victims from the former Soviet Union and East European countries, Clancy said. Now, about 60 percent of the Holocaust survivors the agency serves are from the former Soviet Union.

Indeed, several of the yoga class participants said they left their native lands during the wave of emigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union as the Cold War drew to a close.

“I got married, and it turned out that my husband’s daughter from his first marriage lived in the United States, and she sent us the invitation in 1989,” Ignat said. “We got the status as refugees and moved to California, to San Francisco because Victoria, his daughter, lived there.”

But after Ignat’s husband died she found herself isolated and alone in the Walnut Creek retirement community where she lives.

“This program gives you the opportunity from the very beginning to communicate with people,” Ignat said. “You know I simply don’t want to be home alone. I like to communicate with people. I like art, of course. I like to talk about that. I’m glad that I came here, as all of us live separately from our children and we can’t communicate that often, and our grandchildren are very busy too.”

While participants enjoy the activities, for many socializing with others is the most important thing. It’s also especially helpful to be around other Russian speakers since many are still learning English.

“With Holocaust survivors, especially those ones who came from Russia, they have a lot of problems,” Ksendzova said. “They’re very intelligent, but they came here when they were already old, and it’s hard for them to learn English. So they are isolated with the language problem.”

Survivors from the former USSR had, until the Claims Conference, been largely overlooked as a group that was entitled to German restitution.

“The Jews from the former Soviet Union received benefits much later than Jews from Western Europe,” Clancy said. “The way Germany looked at survivors, first camp survivors, then ghetto, then those in hiding. Also, they had to deal with negotiating with the Russian government, there was the Cold War and that created a big divide, politically.”

But now that the definition has expanded, it’s possible for survivors from the former Soviet Union to access benefits, another helpful service in Clancy’s program.

JFCS received $100,000 in 2016 through a national program run by the Jewish Federations of North America, funded by the DHS. JFCS received an additional $50,000 this year but needs to raise local matching funds to retain the additional grant monies.

“Fundraising is probably the most significant challenge,” Ksendzova said.

JFCS/East Bay will launch a fundraising campaign to collect matching funds for the grant. For information, contact JFCS Holocaust Survivor Services at (510) 558-7800 ext. 257 or visit jfcs-eastbay.org/holocaust-survivor-services.

max cherney
Max A. Cherney

Max A. Cherney is a staff writer at J. He can be reached at max@jweekly.com.