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The Crossroads

Savely Gurshman's story posted by Julia Zaltsman on November 14, 2012 at 4:59 pm. Savely emigrated from Leningrad, Soviet Union (USSR) to Boston, United States in 1989

This story was collected by Julia Zaltsman, a Brandeis-Genesis Institute fellow,  as part of a joint project with the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center in Roslindale, MA.The Brandeis-Genesis Institute (BGI) is an initiative that prepares Russian-speaking students from around the world to become effective community leaders fortified by Jewish knowledge, a systematic understanding of Russian Jewry, and a commitment to the future of the Jewish people.

Alla Gurshman was born  in St. Petersburg, Russia, formerly known as Leningrad. Alla had one brother, five years her elder, who died of cancer at 75 in Russia. At 16, her life became extremely difficult because of World War II and the start of the Seige of Leningrad. The Germans trapped Alla and her mother in Leningrad during the blockade while her father served in the army for six years. Her father died of cancer at 54, soon after returning from his service. During the war, Alla and her girlfriend would gather the corpses off of the streets and load them into trucks. The trucks would take the dead bodies to mass graves at the Piskariyovskoye Memorial Cemetery. As payment for this horrible job, the girls would receive a small amounts of alcohol, which they would trade on a black market for bread with soldiers. They had to do it to live. They also ate rats, cats, and anything they could scavenge to survive. People experienced extreme hunger and desperation throughout the 900 days of the seige.

After the war, Alla studied chemistry at the technical college in Leningrad. She also met her husband, Savely, in college.Savely Gurshman was born on May 17th, 1919. He is 93 and was also born in Leningrad. He was the youngest child among four siblings. He had a brother 13 years his elder, another brother five years his elder, and a sister 11 years his elder, all of whom have passed away. His father died at 48 from bronchial asthma. Savely was only seven years old. His mother died when she was 87 years old from natural causes. Savely had a fairly normal Soviet childhood. He played outside with other kids and  liked skating. He earned second place in the city-wide competition for his skating. He later joined the Young Komsomol League and began his studies at Bonch-Bruevich college. In his third year of university, he volunteered to fight in the army. While in the army, he joined the Communist Party and remained a member for close to 40 years. The Soviets considered membership in the Party a privilege and an honor. The Party provided benefits for its members and the government trusted Party members much more than other citizens. Upon leaving the Soviet Union, Savely left his Party membership to his older brother, even though the Soviets revoked membership privileges  for those who emigrated.

After the war, Savely finished his studies in communications as a communications engineer. Savely and Alla went to work at the same war factory, where he became an engineer and a rocket builder. She worked in the technical control department. Savely worked there for 36 years, up until leaving for America, as the head of the assembly plant. He felt the most anti-semitism at work. The director would tell him how unfortunate it was that he was Jewish and how if he was not Jewish, he would be the head engineer. Regardless of his impressive qualifications, the factory withheld his promotion because he was a Jew.

During his five-year service in the army, Savely visited Alla’s second cousin, an old friend from his youth, because he wanted to show her that he was alive. Alla thought he was unpleasant and thought nothing of him. After Savely’s discharge from the army in 1946, he returned to Alla’s second cousin’s home for a gathering. Savely, Alla, and a friend were all talking. The friend turned to him and asked if he would escort her out. He said, “No,” because he would be escorting Alla. For the last 64 years, he has been her escort.Alla and Savely now live together at the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center in Roslindale, Massachusetts. They have one daughter, Nina, one grandson, Yuri, and four great-grandchildren ages eleven, nine, five, and three. Nina studied bridge building in St. Petersburg, but there was no need for her work in America. She lives in Framingham, Massachusetts and runs a private daycare. Her husband works as a high-level computer programmer. Yuri attended high school at Phillips Academy and then Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He now works in finance. Yuri and his family lived in New York, but recently relocated to Toronto for a great job offer. Everyone in the family speaks Russian well. Yuri and his family are now learning French in Canada too.Few people openly practiced Judaism in the Soviet period.

Savely’s grandmother was very religious, and she played a major role in the Leningrad synagogue. She was originally from Lithuania and owned several businesses, but she sent her children to school in Leningrad for a better education. Once the Revolution started, she packed a small suitcase, and fled to her children in Leningrad. She received a letter asking her what to do with the money from the sale of her businesses and property. She replied that all of it should be donated to the Jewish community. Her grave is now in the walls of the synagogue, with an honorary plaque that reads, “The Most Intelligent Woman.” Alla’s paternal grandparents were deeply religious Hasids, who celebrated all minor and major holidays. The faith never really carried over to Savely and Alla’s generation because the Soviets discouraged religion after the Revolution. Alla lacked Jewish faith and education because there was only one synagogue in all of Leningrad. This synagogue remained partly closed, even though a large community of Jews existed in the city. In fact, when the synagogue baked matzah, more Russians than Jews lined up to buy it. At the time, food was scarce, and people loved crunchiness. The community saw the synagogue as less of a holy place and more as a community gathering place. Alla and Savely’s friends would get arrested just for going to synagogue and gathering together to sing and dance. No one in Alla’s family really knew Hebrew. Her mother was religious, but she did not know Hebrew either. She had a prayer-book from 1917 that had Hebrew text on one side and Russian on the other. She read the Russian side of the book every morning, at her father’s grave, and every holiday that she could understand. Alla brought this 100-year old prayer-book to America and gave it to her own daughter, Nina, as a keepsake.The Soviets refused to allow many Jews to depart, presumably because they were some of the smartest and most scholarly citizens.

Immigration to Israel and America began in the late 1970’s, which is when the Gurshman family began their attempts to emigrate to America. They chose America over Israel because Nina’s husband already had family in the U.S.A. The authorities did not grant Alla and Savely permission to leave for 10 years. They considered Savely’s work with rocket construction confidential information and this information could not be released from the country for national security reasons. Some people would have given up trying to emigrate from the Soviet Union after being refused, but Savely adamantly kept applying for exit visas every six months. Nina and Yuri attended several demonstrations, where Jews protested for release from the Soviet Union. The authorities granted Nina’s family permission to leave after 8 years of refusals, but they were unsure if they should proceed without Alla and Savely. Alla and Savely told their daughter to go and live a free life. They would breathe easier knowing she was in a better place. Alla stresses that the children’s quality of life was most important to her and Savely. Alla and Savely felt outraged and upset by their repeated denials, especially once Nina’s family left. The authorities told them that they would never see their daughter and grandson again.

Anti-Semitism was the main reason they wanted to leave the Soviet Union. Alla knew she was a Jew from the moment she was born because of the constant slurs she heard at school, work, and around the city. Under Stalin, the anti-Semitic sentiment stemmed from the government, so the government took no measures against Jewish slurs. She heard phrases like, “dirty ****” and, “what a shame that you’re a Jew” everywhere. She would stand in line for produce and a complete stranger would say, “Oh you ****, get out of here to your Israel. You’re taking up space.” There were little skirmishes, where people would push her around. They never hurt her seriously and she never needed to go to the hospital. However, others were not so lucky. For example, she knew of a Jewish college student who got beaten by his peers for being Jewish. As a Jew, Alla had to receive the highest scores on her entrance exams to gain acceptance into a university. Despite her scores, the Soviets allowed no more than five percent of Jews into the universities.Before World War II, anti-Semitism was not as bad. During the war, Jews fought alongside the Russians, at the same rank, against Hitler. Afterwards, there was a period when Stalin wanted to move all the Jews to the Far East. In Birobidzhan, Stalin constructed barracks and tried to create a Jewish republic. Alla and Savely were unsure of this republic and Birobidzhan wasn’t advertised very loudly. They never considered going, and never had the option to go. However, Alla says she knows that a clump of Jews went. Jokingly, she adds that Jews are everywhere anyways. Alla and Savely agree that the worst anti-Semitism arose in the early 1950’s, after the war and establishment of Israel. They endured this anti-Semitism until the day they left for America. Alla, and many of her peers, felt that Stalin and Hitler’s main goal was to rob smart and wealthy Jews of their hard-earned valuables. The political decisions they made masked the progressive theft of these possessions. Many Jews also felt that the Soviets and Germans overlooked the rich culture the Jewish people contributed to Russia and Germany, such as writers, composers, and even revolutionaries. Other mass propaganda also surfaced. Savely explains that articles written about Jews, accused them of cosmopolitanism and disloyalty towards the Soviet Union.  The Soviets jailed, shot, or sent away certain Jews. Around 1951-52, people began to call Jewish doctors, “killers in white coats” and said that they purposely poisoned and killed patients. This wave of anti-Semitism led a whole group of Russian doctors to refuse treatment from Jewish doctors.

 Savely blames Stalin for this rampant anti-Semitism. He believes Stalin planned the mass exodus of Jews during his lifetime, though he never said when it would happen and died before he could carry it out. Someone also wrote an article that slandered Savely and accused him of giving a Jewish acquaintance an illegal document. Luckily, Stalin died the next day. It is uncertain what would happen to Savely if Stalin did not die. “It was some miracle,” Alla comments.Eventually, Gorbachev came to power. Reagan’s involvement forced Gorbachev to loosen the restraints on Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union. The authorities permitted many to exit after Gorbachev announced that people who worked with confidential information could be granted permission to leave the country after five years away from their job. Savely instantly wrote a letter to Gorbachev stating that he had been away from his job for eight years, living on pension. In 1989, the Soviets granted the Gurshmans permission to leave via a phone call from Gorbachev’s office in Moscow. The office told Alla and Savely that the Department of Visas and Registrations would be informed and any problems could be handled by calling Gorbachev’s office. Soon, the Department of Visas and Registrations called and told them to come down to the office. When they went to get their exit documents, the woman working at the desk told them how lucky they were because they could leave and she had to stay. The Soviets stripped them of their Russian citizenship, and forced them pay a fee for this process. They felt like homeless people, travelling to a foreign land without as much as a passport. They had to travel through Austria and Italy before finally arriving in America. Alla smuggled the document that said that they could not leave the Soviet Union because they knew confidential information. As soon as she showed it to officials in Vienna and Italy, they quickly released them to the U.S.A. They lived in Vienna for 16 days and Italy for 30 days.  Relative to other emigrants from the Soviet Union, who had to stay in Austria or Italy for up to 9 months, their stays were short. They left their home, dacha, car, garage, and most of their belongings behind to start a new life in America. However, they were reunited with their daughter and grandson in Boston.

 Alla and Savely took two suitcases with them to America. They had no idea what America would be like. When they left Russia, they brought lemonade and cookies. Alla says she brought a lot of cookies because she worried they would starve from hunger on their first day in America. Back in Russia, Alla enjoyed sewing, so she mailed her sewing machine to America, thinking she would continue. Upon arriving in America, she realized that no one needed it. In Russia, the OBXCC secret auditing police organization would arrest people and watch the everyday actions of citizens. The Soviets considered gatherings of large groups, especially Jews, a form of resistance against the government.

 When Alla and Savely first came to Nina’s home in Framingham, neighbors, friends, and acquaintances came to visit. Savely, who still smoked, went out in the yard to smoke and said, “Listen, there are five cars parked outside, and there’s no OBXCC!” They could not believe that five cars did not attract any attention and the authorities did not come to arrest them! They instantly felt complete freedom. Alla and Savely settled down in subsidized housing in Boston and went to a nearby synagogue soon after arriving in America. They went to the synagogue often at first. Not knowing Hebrew made it difficult for them to truly connect to Jewish prayer, so their visits became scarcer. Alla always keeps a phrase from her mother’s prayer book in her mind. The phrase is, “You can pray anywhere, as long as it’s genuine.” She can only pray in Russian, in her own words, yet she feels more spiritually connected to Jews than to Russians. The reason is unexplainable. Savely considers himself an American Jew because he can freely go to synagogue, and he does not feel embarrassed about being Jewish anymore. Neither of them considers themselves Russian.

They travelled to Israel as soon as they could afford it, and spent two weeks there. They cannot find words to describe Israel. Alla says, “It’s hard to explain, but it’s like going to another world.” They have a stone from a holy synagogue in Israel, and a blue envelope with sand from the holy land. They were in awe of the civilization that the Israelis built in such a short amount of time.Alla and Savely knew no English when they arrived, so they attended some English classes at the home, led by volunteers. Alla does not remember as much English as Savely, but English is not easy for either of them. Before coming to the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center, they accomplished everyday tasks using the English they knew.

Unfortunately, both Alla and Savely began to lose their ability to walk with age. At first, they had helpers around the house. Eventually, they needed constant care, so Alla and Savely moved into the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center. At the center, residents can attend synagogue weekly, and Alla and Savely go when time allows. During Hanukkah in 2011, Savely touched and put on a tallit for the first time in his life. They are thankful and happy for their relative health and for their beautiful family. Alla is very grateful for the center. The staff provides a comfortable, caring environment that’s as close to home as possible. They both hold America dear, as the land that took them in and treated them well. They are thankful that they are with their family, for Supplemental Security Income, medical help, and the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center. Alla feels that, “God chose us to be in America.” Neither Alla nor Savely would ever want to live or visit the Soviet Union. They cannot forget the brutal anti-Semitism and degradation they, and all of their loved ones, experienced. The Soviets deprived Yuri of an education and denied admission to graduate school to their son-in-law because of his Judaism. Now, Russia uses its media to ask all those who left to come back. They promise big money and a great life but Alla and Savely believe that Russia cannot be trusted. They believe that Russia is essentially the same as before in regards to Jews and politics. Alla says of returning to Russia, “Let everything be good for them, I don’t wish harm upon anyone. But without us.”