January-February 2016 | Featured Article

The Other Holocaust Survivors

Montgomery County is home to hundreds of Russian Jews who faced unimaginable hardships

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Ida Aranzon Zusin


Ida Zusin and her family came to the United States in 1989, mostly because of discrimination against Jews. Zusin, a widow, lives in a modest Cape Cod in Potomac's Avenel neighborhood.  Photo by Benjamin Tankersley

Ida Aranzon Zusin remembers the noise and the fear as she and her family sought safety from the German bombs, first in her hometown of Mogilev, then as they fled eastward on trains that Nazi planes attacked. She was just 8 when her train was bombed, but she still recalls hiding in the woods near the tracks until the danger passed. Other passenger cars had been destroyed, but not hers, and her family managed to escape with their lives.

Though she has been in America for a quarter century, Zusin, 83, speaks almost no English. Widowed since 2012, she lives with her 60-year-old daughter, Bela Shmirkin, and her son-in-law, Michael, in a modest Cape Cod in Potomac’s Avenel neighborhood; her home is one of the affordable units builders were required to include in the high-end subdivision.

She watches Russian television, reads Russian books and goes to see friends at Rainbow, though not as often as she once did. These days, she complains of leg pain and uses a walker. “Right now, it’s hard for her to go anywhere,” Shmirkin says.

Life for Zusin was better in many ways before the war, when she lived with her parents and three siblings in an apartment in the industrial city of Mogilev, in what was then part of the Soviet Union and is today Belarus. Like most Jews under Soviet rule, they were not religious and attended secular schools. Their father was in charge of security at a leather factory.

Then, on June 22, 1941, Hitler reneged on his nonaggression pact with Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union.

As German bombs fell on the city, the children were sheltered in a building next to the leather factory. Zusin was old enough to know that she could be killed. She remembers the ground shaking from the blasts. As German troops drew closer, evacuation plans were hastily made at the factory for all the families, Jews and non-Jews alike.

The government-provided train that Zusin rode on was packed with military personnel and families fleeing the war. Passengers didn’t know where they were going. It was a summer morning when the train left at 11 a.m., stopping at villages along the way so the passengers could use bathrooms. It took a month to reach the final stop, a village named Serpeevka in the Ural Mountains.

Zusin’s father was not with her family. He had been drafted into the Soviet army and, they would learn later, was killed in combat in 1943, as was her Uncle Boris. Zusin and her family found out that Boris and three others were captured by the Germans, who made them dig their own graves and then shot them. Zusin, her siblings and her mother all managed to survive.

Altogether, 18 Mogilev families made it to Serpeevka, and all but Zusin’s family left to find work in other communities. The mayor, a man named Alex, provided her family with lodging.

Villagers stored vegetables underground in an adjoining barn during winter, so the Zusin family did not lack for food. The mayor’s wife had a sewing machine she didn’t use and gave it to Zusin’s mother, who sewed for the villagers. Zusin went to school but was older than her peers, who called her names. “The kids were mean,” she says. She dropped out and picked cherries, which she sold twice a week in nearby towns for money to buy sugar, salt and other necessities. She often walked 20 miles each day, she says, returning late at night.

The family learned about the liberation of Mogilev on the radio and prepared to take a train home. “All the villagers came to say goodbye,” Zusin recalls. “They were crying.” Back home, they found nothing left of their apartment, which had been bombed. But the leather factory was still standing, and in return for working there, they were given a new place to live, which was shared with three other families and lacked indoor plumbing.

Zusin resumed her schooling in Mogilev, then went to work in a knitting factory because she couldn’t afford college. After she married Reuvan Zusin, another survivor from Mogilev, and had her first child, a son, in 1953, she stopped working. Eventually, when her fourth child was in seventh grade, she got a job as an elevator operator.

Shmirkin says the family left Belarus in 1989, mostly because of discrimination against Jews: “It’s like a quota. You cannot go to university, even if you are the smartest. We were thinking about our children. We also couldn’t practice our religion,” Shmirkin says. After moving to America, the whole family lived in a three-bedroom apartment in Silver Spring for nine months, after which Zusin and her husband moved into a subsidized apartment in downtown Bethesda, where they lived for 20 years until his death.

Zusin’s grandchildren attended the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville for two years on full scholarships, then transferred to public schools. Both graduated from the University of Maryland, got married, and are doing well professionally. But for Zusin and her husband, the adjustment to life in America was much harder. “At their age, it was very difficult for them to study English and accept a new culture. They couldn’t find jobs here,” Shmirkin says. “My mom was babysitting for families in the [Congregation Beth El] synagogue.” Shmirkin's father, a shoemaker in Mogilev, had heart surgery and wasn’t able to work.

Today, Zusin’s older sister, Nina, lives in Boyds with her daughter; another sister, Faina, lives in Derwood, and her brother, Arkadi, the youngest, lives in Israel. Zusin has eight grandchildren; seven are in the Washington, D.C., area and one is serving in the Israel Defense Forces. She has 10 great-grandchildren, five nearby and five in Israel. Her home is indistinguishable from most of the others on Potomac’s Pleasant Gate Lane, except for the mezuzah—a piece of paper inscribed with Hebrew from the Torah and contained inside a decorative case—affixed to the front door.

 

Yuri Yakovlevich Tiraspolskiy


When Yuri Tiraspolskiy was 11, he and his family members were ordered to wear the yellow Star of David on their clothes, a mark of their Jewishness, or be shot. Photo by Benjamin Tankersley

For Americans, Dec. 7, 1941, is a date that will live in infamy—the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. But for Yuri Yakovlevich Tiraspolskiy, 85, that day is unforgettable for a different reason: That’s when Tiraspolskiy, then 11, and his family were rounded up by Nazis who had occupied their hometown of Tulchyn in western Ukraine. Before the war, Tiraspolskiy’s father was a respected shoemaker, and Jews and non-Jews mingled freely in their town. There had been rumors of an imminent invasion, but the population was largely unprepared, and the Germans met little resistance as they entered.

Tiraspolskiy’s family had almost escaped. Before the Nazis arrived, his parents were offered a horse-drawn cart and advised to go 100 miles east to another town. Almost there, they could see their destination aflame from Nazi bombings, so they decided to turn back. Nazi troops they encountered on their return trip shouted anti-Jewish slurs. Back in Tulchyn, they were ordered to wear the yellow Star of David on their clothes, a mark of their Jewishness, or be shot.

Then, on Dec. 7, Nazis with dogs came for the Jews. Tiraspolskiy remembers that they were all herded barefoot in their underwear into a Jewish school and locked up without food or water for two days. On the third day, they were driven 14 miles to a concentration camp in the village of Pechora. On the way, they were tortured in a horse barn. Old men with beards were fair game, Tiraspolskiy says—the Nazis pulled their beards, then took them into the woods and shot them.

The family made it to Pechora the next day. Tiraspolskiy, his 13-year-old brother, Aron, and their mother and father, Tuba and Yankel, were assigned to a second floor room with 50 to 60 others. “We were worn out by tortures and starvation,” Tiraspolskiy recalls. Camp prisoners were dying at the rate of 150 to 200 a day. “The corpses were collected on carts and dumped into big pits. Besides, the Nazis were checking the rooms regularly and killing anybody they disliked. Every day, people were taken to be killed. They were told they were being taken to be let go, but it was a lie. For days, we could hear the screams coming from the pit.”