They live under the radar, 330 Russian-speaking Jews who survived World War II and ended up in Montgomery County. They range in age from 72 to 94; three were in utero when their pregnant mothers fled the Nazi armies. Technically, they are all considered Holocaust survivors, though they escaped the most infamous death camps and shooting squads by traveling east, away from the front lines, where the Nazi war machine tried and failed to conquer the Soviet Union.
They were children then. Today they are elders. They live among us, mostly in modest subsidized apartments: on East West Highway next to the Round House Theatre in Bethesda; in a high-rise off Route 29 in Silver Spring; in an apartment building for seniors near downtown Gaithersburg. At least one survivor lives in a subsidized apartment in a high-end building off Rockville Pike. Another has a town house in Potomac, near large mansions and gated communities.
Watching over them is the Rockville-based Jewish Social Services Agency (JSSA). Of the 425 Holocaust survivors under JSSA’s care, most are from the former Soviet Union. Some have received regular reparations from Germany for years. Others have received a one-time payment of about $2,500 under a 2012 agreement that classified as Holocaust survivors those individuals who had lived in unoccupied areas within 60 miles of the front lines. In 2008, reparations had been extended specifically to survivors of the Nazi siege of Leningrad.
After the war, many of the survivors now living in Montgomery County returned to their former hometowns. But faced with new anti-Semitism decades later, and aided by a global campaign to “Free Soviet Jewry,” they immigrated to the United States. Now naturalized U.S. citizens, they are patriotic Americans, grateful to be in the country where their children and grandchildren have assimilated. For the most part, they have not: They speak limited English, watch Russian television channels and socialize with other Russian speakers of their generation at Rainbow, an adult day care program operating in the Magen David Sephardic Congregation building near White Flint and in an industrial area off Interstate 270 in Gaithersburg.
Marina Kositsyna and Inna Lyubimova are among JSSA’s six Russian-speaking case managers. Kositsyna, 50, has 80 clients, all elderly Russian speakers. College-educated and Jewish, she came to the United States in 1992 from Moscow, where she says she was “told to my face we cannot accept you [for a job] because you are Jewish.” Lyubimova, 44, who is not Jewish, works with 61 clients. “It is very encouraging to be around them,” she says. “They have a good life, they enjoy their grandchildren here. They feel safe in this country.”
JSSA’s clients are all on fixed incomes, recipients of food stamps, housing vouchers and Medicaid. Most receive SSI (Supplemental Security Income); a few get Social Security. When they first immigrated here, JSSA helped them resettle, providing some financial aid and workshops on how to live in America. Now, JSSA provides each of them with a $125 gift card for Giant every month, as well as free eyeglasses and free dental care. Caseworkers help them arrange transportation for doctor visits and grocery shopping. Clients also receive personal home care, including help taking showers or getting dressed, according to Ellen Blalock, director of JSSA’s Holocaust Survivor Program, which receives funding from The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. Blalock says survivors learn about the program largely through word of mouth, then contact JSSA for help.
They are among the 7,834 people in Montgomery County who primarily speak Russian, a number that’s higher than in any other jurisdiction in the state, according to the 2009-2013 U.S. Census American Community Survey. In their twilight years, they have stories to tell that they think you should know. Told largely with their caseworkers acting as translators, here are four of them.
Fenya Gelfer, 90, survived the mass killings by pretending to be a non-Jewish orphan. She immigrated to America in 1992 and now lives in downtown Bethesda. Photo by Benjamin Tankersley
For 20 years, Fenya Gelfer has lived in a one-bedroom, 9th-floor apartment next to Round House Theatre in downtown Bethesda. Her home is filled with photographs, including a family picture taken in 1936, before the war. Ceramic dogs decorate a bookcase. A picture of Yosemite National Park hangs above a couch. There are souvenir plates on the wall, given to her as gifts, from San Francisco, St. Maarten and Disneyland—places she’s never been. Though she’ll proudly tell you that she’s made two trips to Israel, where her son lives, her heart is here.
“Oh, thank you, America,” says Gelfer, now 90. “Thank you, God. God bless America.”
Gelfer is originally from Mogilev, a city near Minsk, now the capital of Belarus. She was born into a middle-class family and went to public school. Her father, David Rabinovich, born in 1898, joined the Soviet army before the war, which assured the family certain privileges, including the one-story home in which they lived. The house had no yard, but did have views of the nearby Dnieper River. “We didn’t starve. We had enough clothes. My mother didn’t work,” Gelfer recalls.
Her family was not religious. “Nobody believed in any God. Everybody believed in Lenin and Stalin,” she says. “All the synagogues and churches were destroyed before the war.” They didn’t keep kosher—only in America would Gelfer learn about such strict dietary laws. They knew they were Jewish, but they weren’t defined by it, she says, and they lived harmoniously in a mixed neighborhood with their gentile neighbors.
Their world changed on June 22, 1941, the day Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union under the code name Operation Barbarossa. Gelfer’s father had planned a family picnic at his army base across the river, but it was abruptly canceled. They learned from a 5 a.m. radio broadcast that the war had begun. That night, Gelfer’s father came to say goodbye, and that was the last time she saw him. He was killed in combat.
Within two or three days of the invasion, Germans occupied Mogilev. That August, the occupiers promulgated an order in Russian—Gelfer still has a copy. “All people of Jewish nationality both male and female during 24 hours should leave the city and relocate to area of ghetto,” it reads. “People who do not fulfill this order will be forced to do that and all their belongings will be confiscated.” She says the notice was posted on houses everywhere.
On Sept. 25, 1941, Jews were given 24 hours to relocate to the ghetto, after which those still on the street—forced to wear yellow Stars of David both front and back—would be arrested, Gelfer says. The non-Jewish Belarusians displaced by the ghetto were moved into the Jews’ former homes, and the Jews moved into the gentiles’ homes. Non-Jewish friends brought potatoes to her mother.
Gelfer becomes very animated as she talks about how she survived. “It’s a long story. Oh, my God,” she says more than once. Her non-Jewish friends instructed her to go to the city office of records claiming to be an orphan, she says. There, she took the name of a Russian classmate who had relocated before the Germans came. So she now had a birth certificate stating that she was Russian, with the name of her classmate, Lida Belousova, written on it.
Later that fall, the weather got very cold. Germans came with dogs and ordered the Jews in the ghetto to leave their homes. Gelfer’s mother told her to run away, to tell the Germans she was not Jewish and had come there by mistake. With that ruse, she left the ghetto. That night, the Germans carried out mass killings there. Gelfer went to a former neighbor, who took her in.
Because she was still known in that neighborhood, Gelfer, then 15, realized she had to leave, and she went to an orphanage. In need of work, she went to a bakery, where she was recognized and reported to police. After about six months in jail, a tall German asked for Lida Belousova. “That’s me,” Gelfer said. He got her out of jail, gave her a purse as a gift and said, “You are free now.”
Gelfer presumes the German thought she was Russian. Not knowing where to go next, she returned to the orphanage, where she bathed, ate and soon developed a high fever that landed her in the hospital. After her release, the orphanage declined to take her back. It was the summer of 1942 when she pleaded with her former neighbors to keep her, which they did, briefly. “Fenya, you should leave Mogilev,” a neighbor advised. “Go to any village. You do not look Jewish, you have a Russian birth certificate.” She went from one village to another, she says, babysitting and doing yard work just to earn money to survive, fearing her presence would eventually raise suspicions. She lived like this for a few years, until the war was over.
She presumed that her younger sister, Rezita, had been killed. But when the Nazis shot all the Jews in the Mogilev ghetto, their mother covered Rezita’s body with her own. The next night, Rezita extricated herself from the pile of dead bodies and escaped. (She and Gelfer met up several years after the war, and she also immigrated to America and lived in Silver Spring. Rezita died nearly two years ago.)
Returning to Mogilev, Gelfer found her family home in ruins, but her grandparents’ house was still standing. It was there, at a party, that she met her husband, Isaac Gelfer, strikingly handsome in his Soviet army uniform with medals from the Battle of Stalingrad. She was 19, he was 25 when they married in 1946. The couple had two children, a son and a daughter, before Isaac Gelfer died in 1959, at the age of 38. Thirty-three years later, in 1992, she immigrated to America with her daughter’s family. At first, they all shared an apartment in Silver Spring, then Gelfer moved out on her own.
Gelfer had no friends and couldn’t speak English, she says, but she took language classes and studied American history. She passed the test for citizenship and took the oath of allegiance in 1995. She now receives about $300 a month in reparations from Germany, along with Medicaid, food stamps and SSI. Twice a week she goes to Rainbow, where she socializes with other elderly Jews who are Russian speakers. But make no mistake about it: Her allegiance is to her adopted country. “America is better than Russia,” she declares.