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I am Grateful to this Country

Yelizaveta Gun's story posted by Sam Genchikmakher on June 30, 2012 at 9:32 pm. Yelizaveta emigrated from Odessa, Soviet Union (USSR) to New York, United States in 1991

I immigrated to the United State from the Soviet Union in 1991. However, the story of my immigration begins decades before. It begins in 1941, with the start of the Second World War. I was born in Odessa in 1937. When World War II broke out, Odessa soon fell under German occupation, and my family was separated. My father and oldest brother were drafted into the Red Army, my oldest sister was evacuated. My mother, younger sister, brother and I stayed and were sent to the Bogdanovka death camp in Ukraine. My mother begged local Ukrainian farmers to adopt me, and thanks to them I was saved. My mother, sister and brother however, were murdered in the camp. I lived with my adopted Ukrainian family for many years after the war. Only in 1955 was I reunited with my long-lost oldest brother and sister.


                Though was raised by a Ukrainian family, I never forgot my past, when I was forced into a ghetto at the age of four. I and most other Jews were always reminded of who we were by those who persecuted us, from our neighbors in Odessa to the Soviet Government. When I grew up, I married a Jewish man and in effect, our children were Jewish.  Being Jewish, life was never very sweet in Odessa. Just as with most Jews in the Soviet Union, we were teased as children in school, and faced discrimination in academic institutions and in the workplace. My oldest brother and sister, whom I had lost during World War II, had immigrated to the U.S and Canada by 1980. A few years later, I decided to join them.


                Back then in the Soviet Union, the law required you to have a relative in the U.S or Canada so that you could get a visa to immigrate there. All documents that had linked my family together had been destroyed in the war, because of this I was forced to postpone my immigration to 1991, when there was more availability to organizations such as HIAS who could help me with my situation. In 1991 when I was finally able to get a Visa to Israel, I didn’t know what to do because I wanted to go to my family in the United States. Although the U.S gave me permission to enter the country, my government did not. Thankfully, with the help of the organization “SPATE” I was able to arrange a flight to Israel, with a stop-over in New York. There I would enter the U.S and return the tickets to Israel.


                Before we left, my family I gave away many of our possessions to friends and neighbors. Tables, rugs, chairs, etc. I took only the essentials for my flight; two suitcases filled with clothes, some jewelry and photographs. There were seven of us; my husband and me, my son, my son’s son, my daughter, her husband and their daughter. We took a train to Sheremetev airport in Moscow, from Odessa, and waited to receive documents confirming our departure. I sat there and waited, the suspense killing me; What if we didn’t get our documents?  At 3:00 AM, it was a relief when a representative of the organization came and gave us our papers. We boarded the plane and took off for America.


 When we arrived at the airport we didn’t know what to do, what to expect. We were in a place so different from where we had come from, how could we possibly have made it on our own? My family and I are grateful every day, every hour, to this country because they accepted us, and helped us get back on our feet. It was difficult. There were no jobs, we didn’t know the language, but the government did not forsake us. And neither did the people here. There’s always been something about the people I’ve met in New York that makes them completely different from those I knew in Odessa. Here people were kinder, more generous and much more willing to help. Many times in our first few years we were only able to get by because of the people, often strangers, who gave us their sound advice.


One thing I’ll never forget about my first few years here were the first $10 that I made. With just $10 that I made in one day, I was already able to go to a store and buy myself a nice a pair of shoes. This was astonishing considering that I would have had to work and save for months back in Odessa just to get the cheapest pair! Throughout all my years here I have always been astounded by the concern this country has for the individual. Just a few years ago I was on a cruise with my family. Two hours after we had left an island there was an announcement over the speakers that a passenger was sick and needed medical attention on land; therefore we would be turning back. The ship turned right around with all of its thousands of passengers just for this one man’s sake. I thought to myself; for something like that to have happened in the Soviet Union! Placing such great value on an individual’s life was unheard of there.


For me, one of the greatest differences between the United States and the Soviet Union is how the memory of the holocaust is preserved. In the Soviet Union, talk of the holocaust was taboo. I like most other holocaust survivors in the Soviet Union, never told my story to others. If I had, it would have created great difficulties for my family and me. The Soviet government had no intention of keeping any memory of the holocaust. To them, we were all just on “occupied territory”. When I arrived in the U.S I was happy to learn that there was no taboo on the subject here. For the first time, I was able to come out and tell others of my experience. I did even more than that; I became an active member of an association of holocaust survivors. I’ve gone to schools to tell students my story, I’ve had my experience archived and the Ukrainian family that saved my life has been recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem.


I am grateful to America in so many ways, but mostly because the country accepted us. It went even beyond that. It helped my family and me get back on our feet, to make a life for ourselves out of nothing. I can only hope future generations will remember our story, and know of our plight. 


1 Comments

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Paul S.:

this is a great story, true story -- unique and one of many--thank you!

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