On Monday, May 9, the entire Russian speaking world, including its Jewish contingent, will celebrate Victory Day. The participants will converse about the Great War (engaging ambivalent and uninterested strangers), watch the movies, sing the songs, have small gatherings in the kitchens and have plenty of vodka. For an uninformed onlooker the entire commemoration along with its customs and traditions looks bizarre and at times fake. Indeed, the participants act as if they themselves had fought in the war and won. To a Jewish observer the festivities resemble a Passover Seder but without religious undertones where a distant event is being remembered as part of one’s own history. The truth being told, there is no sham, but a real, deep rooted appreciation of an immense human suffering weaved into history of the country and each family.
The first question an intrigued stranger asks is “Why May 9”? As we all know other Allied Powers celebrate the same very victory on May 8. This is due to Comrade Joseph Stalin finding insufficient deference to the struggle and loses of the Soviet People accorded in the first signing (the one celebrated by the rest of the victories world). Hence, the second signing which upon insistence of the Soviet Leader took place in Berlin the following day.
So why is this 72 year old event is so dear and close to the hearts of current and former Russian citizens regardless of their nationality or class? To answer this question let me first tell you a few stories from my family history. My maternal grandfather, Boris, got summoned to the local army induction center two days after the war started. A few months later he and his infantry unit ended up on Northwestern front facing the Finnish Army. By January (four months later) his entire division together with most of the front were completely annihilated. The survivors, with severe frost bytes, scattered across vast Karelian forests were being picked up by Finnish scouts. He were to spend the winter in POW camps were temperatures inside barracks would drop way below sub zero (one morning sleeping in row of 10 people he was the only one to wake up alive, the rest were frozen dead). The remainder of the war he spent in special camps for Jewish POWs with tolerable living conditions (with the Rabbi from Helsinki visiting the inmates on few occasions). The story of these camps is fascinating in its own right, but outside of the scope of the current narrative. After the armistice agreement with Finland he and his comrades were interned back to the Soviet Union. Upon arrival he spent a year undergoing a “security clearance” by working in coal mines before being allowed to return to his hometown, Leningrad. My maternal grandmother, Anna, lost her entire family in her native Beshenkovichi, in Eastern Belarus. Her parents and sister were gunned down by the Nazis and their local collaborators. The only other surviving member of her family, her brother Fima, spent all war years in the army serving to become junior officer. My paternal grandmother, Vera, was the head of an army hospital. Her brother, Iosif, was an avid skier before the war. When the war started he joined a reconnaissance unit in a paratroop brigade. He had scored a dozen jumps behind the enemy lines and was severely wounded during the crossing of River Dnestr (when his unit was mistakenly parachuted into the river itself) where, in cold water and under heavy enemy fire, he had to spend a day before finally being evacuated.
All these people I knew personally. None of them liked to talk about the war. However, each year on May 9, all of them would become different people. On that day I could glean some stories from them. The former comrades would show up and the conversation would inadvertently turn to the memories so carefully guarded the rest of the year. This personal connection to the immense sadness and happiness of their tales has never left me. Their lives have directly shaped my worldview. After the war both the Soviets and currently the Putin regime have tried to change the story and own the narrative. However, their never ceasing attempts at historical revanchism don’t change the real meaning of the great victory. The people own this day.
As we relate to the war, my family is no different than any other Russian speaking Jewish family. Every member of my close social circle had parents, grandparents, uncles or aunts with similar stories and experiences. Thus on this great day don’t think of us as a circus troupe for it is a celebration for the entire humanity (even if Comrade Stalin decided not share it with the rest the world). Moreover, everyone may join the festivities: at the dinner table raise a shot of vodka (or whatever lightens your spirits up) and drink to the courage of those who saved this world 72 years ago.