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Living history through the eyes of Soviet Holocaust survivors

Practically every Russian-speaking Jewish family in the Chicago area lost loved ones in the Holocaust. 

World War Two Memorial image
Dr. Yonit Hoffman and family light candles in memory of 6 million Jews killed during the Holocaust.

October was a special month for survivors of the Holocaust, their loved ones, and those who wanted to learn more about the Holocaust's impact on the Russian-speaking Jewish community. 

Chicago Connect, Reklama Media, the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, Holocaust Community Services of Jewish Child and Family Services, CJE Senior Life, and HIAS Chicago marked the 73 anniversary since the mass destruction of Soviet Jewry had begun. 

At the dawn of World War II, more than 4.5 million Jews lived on the Soviet Union territory. Of these, a little bit more than three million ended up under Nazi occupation. Many were able to flee to unoccupied regions or served in the Soviet military. During the war, Hitler murdered nearly all of those under occupation. Only about 120,000 survived. 

All of the Jewish  shtetls  were destroyed, and the Yiddish language and Jewish culture ceased to exist. The survivors found themselves under a Stalinist regime which suppressed all discussions of the Jewish people's suffering. No monuments were erected to the victims. No information about their fate was published. It was only after the Soviet Union collapsed that the true horrors endured by the Soviet Jews became known. 

Practically every Russian-speaking Jewish family in the Chicago area lost loved ones in the Holocaust. On Oct. 5, about 200 memorial candles were lit in their memory at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Educational Center.

Russian Newspaper Reklama has been collecting and publishing materials dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust in the Russian-speaking Jewish community of Chicago for more than 20 years. Three "Never Forget" photo albums in Russian and English telling the stories of survival and heroism were already published, and Reklama, with the help of community members and sponsors, intends to publish more. There are still many stories of Soviet Jews that have never been told. 

Matus Stolov, from Evanston, was 13 when he ended up in the Minsk ghetto. When he was about to be transported, to places unknown, and felt he could not leave his mother alone at the empty train station in Minsk, he jumped out of the moving train to be with her. For the next two years, Matus helped his mother and her friends serving with the Underground to bring people from the ghetto to the partisans in the forest. 

The Minsk ghetto was one of the largest ghettos in Europe, second only to the Lvov ghetto in the Ukraine. Only about 8,000 people survived in the Minsk ghetto. By the end of 1942, Nazi and local collaborators killed more than 90,000 Jews in the Minsk ghetto, including thousands of German Jews from Hamburg, Berlin, and other cities.

Distinguished Jewish artist, Lazar Ran, a Minsk native, was also represented at the Soviet Holocaust story commemoration, in the presentation of his unique etchings.  Ran, who lost his family, including two children, in the Minsk ghetto, created his collection "The Minsk Ghetto," as a chronicle of life in the ghetto during the Holocaust, and a tribute to Jewish people executed by the Nazis and their collaborators. The presentation was made possible by Boris Tsinman and family, of Arlington Heights, who purchased the collection from Ran's heirs and has generously made these works available for viewing. 

May 2015 will mark the 70th anniversary since Victory Day-marking the end of World War II-and many Holocaust survivors and World War II veterans feel that it might be their last big celebration.  Holocaust Community Services of Jewish Child and Family Services, CJE Senior Life, the Russian Jewish Division of JUF, the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, and Reklama Media have planned a year-long calendar of events to share the Soviet Holocaust story-which has been untold for far too long.  

Maya Gumirov is a clinician for Jewish Child & Family Services, a partner in serving our community supported by the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

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