The taste of victory

Jewish WWII vets commemorate heroism.

By
May 17, 2010 22:05
Girls in WWII Red Army uniforms.

Nred army girls 311. (photo credit: NBen Hartman)

 
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MOSCOW - Mina Weiss was only 16 when most of her family was shot by German soldiers and their bodies buried in a mass grave in her village outside Sebastopol. The year was 1941, and the German assault on the Crimean Peninsula was in full swing. Weiss made the decision to fight.

According to the guidelines of the Red Army, women had to be 17 to enlist and Weiss lied about her age to serve. Eventually, she would serve in support units for frontline troops in seven countries, from Azerbaijan to Austria, where she helped hunt down works of art stolen from the Soviet Union by invading German troops.

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“I lied, I told them I was 17, but I had no choice, everyone was gone and I wanted so much to fight,” Weiss said. “They killed everyone; the youngest was a nine-month-old infant.”

Covered with medals from her service, Weiss choked back tears as she spoke of her annihilated family at a ceremony in Moscow last Monday, organized by the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress to honor the contribution Jewish soldiers made to the Red Army’s defeat of Nazi Germany 65 years ago last week.

In the courtyard, veterans laden with medals mingled with young admirers and the local press in an atmosphere thick with war-era nostalgia. Two young girls in World War II Red Army uniforms stood next to a replica field stove and served heaping bowls of kasha to visitors. As a band played military anthems from the Great Patriotic War, girls in Red Army uniforms danced with veterans, beaming at a glimpse of their past.

Held at Moscow’s House of Scientists a day after the official state holiday commemorating Russia’s victory, the annual event, “A salute to victory and the victors,” is one of the largest for Russia’s Jewish community and brings together veterans and their families from across the former Soviet Union.

For this year’s event, the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress invited President Shimon Peres and Miriam Peretz, the mother of two sons, Uriel and Eliraz, who were killed in action while serving in the IDF.



Peres, who was in Russia to take part in the 65th Victory Day parades, stood before the hundreds of veterans and their families, and leaders of the Jewish communities of the former Soviet Union and spoke of the terrible loss and extraordinary heroism that defined World War II for the people of the Soviet Union.

“History has diminished the role of the Russian army in winning the war, and has also diminished the price you paid in the war,” Peres said, taking issue with the historical narrative that gives the lion’s share of the Allied victory to the armed forces of Great Britain and the United States. “It is an honor to come here to say thank-you for this sacrifice.”

Peres also gave thanks for the contributions Israelis of Russian background have made to the country’s culture and society, and in particular its armed forces.

“Among immigrants to Israel from Russia are many soldiers who serve as officers and enlisted men in the army, and do so showing unnatural courage. Two weeks ago, I gave out 120 service commendations for IDF soldiers. I listened to the names and I heard ‘Vladimir,’ ‘Alexander.’ These are your sons, they are your sons and they are our shared future,” Peres said.

He spoke after Miriam Peretz addressed the gathering, speaking of the sacrifices she paid as the mother of two sons who fell in battle, and tied her tragedy and the service of her sons in the IDF to that of the soldiers of the Red Army who fought the Nazis.

“I came here to tell you of my personal story, a story of darkness and light, of faith and hope. This isn’t only my story, or that of the State of Israel, it’s the story of the victory of good over evil everywhere,” Peretz said.

“In every generation we stand before our enemies. It was Uriel’s generation who stood before the terrorists of Hizbullah in Lebanon, it was Eliraz’s generation who faced them in Gaza, and today we mark the victory over the Nazi evil. Every generation has its enemies, every generation its good people, every generation its heroism.”

At the end of the ceremony, the crowd rose for the Russian national anthem, followed by “Hatikva.” Afterward, young men and women in World War II uniforms circled through the crowd, giving flowers to the elderly veterans.

EARLIER IN the day, a ceremony was held at Moscow’s Holocaust Memorial Synagogue to dedicate a new Torah scroll. Located in Victory Park on Poklonnaya hill, the synagogue holds daily services and includes a museum covering the history of the Holocaust and the Jewish resistance to the Nazis.

Euro-Asian Jewish Congress president Alexander Mashkevich presided and carried the Torah in his arms beneath a huppa as a klezmer band played “Heveinu Shalom Aleichem” and “Am Yisrael Hai,” and congregants danced the hora.

Inside the synagogue, Mashkevich described why the congress held the ceremony to coincide with Victory Day celebrations, saying that the 65th anniversary of the victory and places like the Holocaust Memorial Synagogue are crucial to ensuring the memory of the annihilation of European Jewry does not fade away.

“I think this anniversary is very important for everybody in the world because everybody who doesn’t want anything like this to happen again must remember and remind the world of what happened in World War II,” Mashkevich said.

“I think it’s very symbolic that today we bring a Torah to the memorial synagogue. Sixty-five years after the defeat of the Nazis, who tried to erase even the memory of the Jewish people, we are here working to make Jewish life better and better.”

Mashkevich, a Kazakhstan businessman who built an estimated $1 billion-$3 billion fortune on mining and energy interests, said that while he is a Zionist and also holds an Israeli passport, there is great importance in maintaining a strong Diaspora as well as a strong Israel.

“I support aliya personally, and I support the idea that all Jews must come back to the motherland, but I know that what is very important is for there to be a strong Diaspora as well as a strong Israel. And we believe that every Jew throughout the Diaspora must show their support of Israel. A combination of a strong Diaspora and a strong Israel is very important to the Jewish people.”

As president and founder of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, Mashkevich leads an organization that promotes the concerns of the estimated 2.5 million Jews who live in Asia and Oceania, from the nearly 1 million that live in Russia to the around two dozen who live in Mongolia. A large number of the member communities in the EAJC come from majority Muslim countries such as Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran, whose 30,000 to 40,000 Jews are of special concern to the EAJC, he said.

“We are very happy that Jews have freedom of religion in Iran, and we know that the situation in Iran is not good and we hope the situation can change there,” Mashkevich said, adding that he has spoken to Iranian leaders in the energy sector about the economic benefits for both countries of normalization with Israel.

While the ceremony was being held, Moscow and other cities and towns across Russia were sleeping off the collective hangover from the Victory Day celebrations the day before. The parade in Moscow was the biggest ever held in postwar Russia, and included 10,000 soldiers from Russia and the former Soviet satellite states, and for the first time troops representing the US and Great Britain; 159 war machines rolled through the streets and over Red Square 127 fighters, bombers and helicopters did a low flyover and shook the buildings below.

Among the soldiers marching in the parade was a contingent of veterans from the former Soviet Union. In their ranks walked Mina Weiss, who said the feeling of marching victorious again, 65 years later, with soldiers from across the world was a once-in-a-lifetime feeling.

“I’m very happy to have lived this long to become a great-grandmother, and to see what we accomplished and to see this friendship between the armies of so many different countries and people.”

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