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Paying homage to the women who served in the Great Patriotic War

This year, Mother’s Day brings added meaning to the Russian-speaking community in Chicago because it coincides with the annual Victory Day celebration. 

Victory Days image
The late Bella Kaganovich, who served as a volunteer on the Eastern Front during the war.

This year, Mother's Day brings added meaning to the Russian-speaking community in Chicago because it coincides with the annual Victory Day celebration. 

Victory Day marks Germany's surrender to the Soviet Union in 1945, ending the Great Patriotic War for the USSR. In total, the USSR lost about 20 million of its citizens in the four years of fighting. Among them were 11 million Soviet soldiers-including 800,000 women-who served as pilots, snipers, machine gunners, tank crew members, and partisans, as well as in auxiliary roles. Nearly 200,000 woman soldiers received some form of a medal or recognition and 89 of them received Soviet Union's highest award, the Hero of the Soviet Union.

One such decorated soldier was Bella Kaganovich, who passed away in March at the age of 94. In May 1942, months before the Battle of Stalingrad, Kaganovich was sent to the Eastern Front. "I wasn't drafted. I volunteered because my country was in a terrible situation," she said at the last year's Victory Day celebration at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center.

The coinciding of Victory Day and Mother's Day sheds light on the important role women played during the war as well as their role today. The Victory Day events in Chicago will be led by the Women's Leadership Board of Russian-speaking World War II veterans. 

"As each year passes, Victory Day gets more important to celebrate," said Tanya Polsky, founder of the Women's Leadership Board. "Our veterans represent a generation that sacrificed everything so that we could prosper today. They are national treasures who need recognition. We find pure joy in being able to help them celebrate this very important day properly with dignity and grace."

In addition to the celebratory brunch on Sunday, May 8, at Skokie's Doubletree Hotel, the Chicago Association of Veterans of World War II will hold a Victory Day gathering on Friday, May 6, at Bernard Horwich JCC in Chicago. More than 500 veterans, Holocaust survivors, and other community members are expected to attend this year's events. 

Yet, the majority of the war heroes are no longer able to leave their homes. JUF's Russian Jewish Division will once again mobilize volunteers and coordinate over 200 home visits to bedridden veterans. Young professionals will bring  veterans what has now become a Victory Day tradition: red carnations and cards made by children from Russian daycare centers. While presenting these gifts, the volunteers will hear the stories of courage and sacrifice. 

Annual Victory Day events are sponsored by the Peter Polsky Freedom Fund. Community partners include Holocaust Community Services, CJE SeniorLife, and JUF's Russian Jewish Division.

Evgenia Kovelman is director of JUF's Russian Jewish Division.

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