Seventy years ago, good triumphed over evil.
On May 8, the 70th anniversary of Victory Day, 400 people packed the Illinois Holocaust Museum to honor Holocaust survivors and World War II veterans.
Hosted by Chicago Association of Veterans of World War II, the two-hour statewide commemoration opened with remarks from its Pres. Abram Sagalovich. "All these veterans of the Great Patriotic War and World War II are real heroes who liberated the world from fascism," he said. "Their sacrifice and bravery will always live in our memories."
About 500,000 Jews served in the Red Army, and some 200,000 were killed in combat or after being captured by the Nazis, according to Yad Vashem. More than 160,000 earned citations. About 1.5 million Jews fought in the Allied Armies.
"We remember the millions of innocent men, women, and children who were brutally murdered by the Nazi regime," said Gov. Bruce Rauner. "We can never forget them,"
In addition to Rauner, U.S. Senator Mark Kirk and Holocaust Museum CEO Susan Abrams also spoke. Three dignitaries- Consul General of Ukraine Gerasko Larysa, Deputy Consul General of Israel Alex Goldman, and Consul General of Lithuania Marijus Gudynas-touched on how the war affected their countries.
"We owe our freedom to the courage and determination of the Allied Armies," said Goldman, whose grandfathers fought in the Red Army. "History has taught us that Jewish lives can never be entrusted to another nation. We must always be able to defend ourselves by ourselves."
These history lessons are not lost on Gudynas. The war ended in 1945, but Lithuania didn't enjoy freedom until the 1990s when the Soviet occupation ended.
The world was silent even when the warning bells sounded, when the Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty was signed, when Nazis' jackboots hit the streets. Alarms are ringing again, he said. "Today, when I look at the rise in anti-Semitism, it reminds me of the 1930s…Today, when I look at what Putin does, it reminds me what Hitler and Stalin did."
He urged veterans to "tell the story you saw. If you don't, the story will repeat. We cannot afford a Third World War."
Gudyna's call to action is especially urgent, given that the numbers of World War II veterans are dwindling. Close to 400 Russian-speaking veterans are left in Chicago.
One of them is Mikhail Salganik, 90, who emigrated to the U.S. in 1989. "This day is bigger than his birthday," said his granddaughter, Natalie Zaborenko. The 24 honorary medals he wears may explain why. He worked in anti-Nazi intelligence and helped liberate villages in Lublin and Minsk. At the end of the war, he was in an Uzbekistan hospital.
"It took me a month to get there. That's how badly I was injured," he recalled. Pointing to scars on his leg and the back of his head, he explains that a partisan on the German side threw an explosive at his tank as he was entering Berlin.
"I crawled out from underneath," he said. "As the tank blew up, I see a Nazi tank driving towards me. I'm lying on the ground, thinking, 'I'm going to die.' Nazis are everywhere. All I had was a gun."
He pretended to be dead and prayed, said Salganik, whose father was a rabbi. Soon, Red Army troops arrived. He knew then he would survive.
Over 800,000 women served in the Red Army, mostly as medics and nurses, but some were on the front lines.
Bella Kaganovich, 93, was there, and carried a rifle very large for her petite size. In May 1942, months before the Battle of Stalingrad, she was sent to the Eastern Front.
"I wasn't drafted. I volunteered, because my country was in a terrible situation. I want younger generations to know that war is a fearful thing," she said through a Russian translator at the Victory Day Gala and brunch on May 9 at the Doubletree Hotel in Skokie.
One painful memory is the first time she saw people killed while serving in the Battalion of Air Surveillance unit. "The Nazis bombed a hospital, and soldiers were killed. They were buried in one big grave."
Artillery strikes destroyed people, places, and supplies. One day she vividly recalls that her women's unit received military boots from America. They were two sizes too large, but she was grateful anyway. After the war, Kaganovich studied medicine and finally came to the U.S. in 1992.
With a smile that could light up Times Square, she says thanks America-for help during the war and her life here.
Victory Day events were hosted by the Chicago Association of Veterans of World War II and sponsored by the Peter Polsky Freedom Fund. Community partners include The IHMEC, Holocaust Community Services, Council for Jewish Elderly, and JUF's Russian Jewish Division
Jennifer Brody is a former associate editor at JUF News and a freelance writer living in Chicago.