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The Story of my Grandmother

Fanya Portnov's story posted by Daniel Strizhevsky on October 12, 2013 at 2:24 pm. Fanya emigrated from Bobruysk, Belarus to New York, United States in 1989

I was seven years old in 1936 when my father was arrested by Stalin's KGB, called NKVD at the time, and sent to the Gulag. We did not have any communications with him for five years and did not know if he was alive or not. He came back to us on June 22, 1941, at 4 am, exactly when the war with Fascist Germany was declared. My father did not want to evacuate, he had been lucky to survive the labor camps in Kolyma, and dreamed for five years of rejoining his family in Bobruysk. He did not believe that the Germans were killing Jews, and thought that this rumor was communist propaganda. He was not alone in thinking like this; many people in my small Belarus town thought the same way, and all of them who stayed, perished in the flames of this terrible war. My aunt with her daughter and my uncle with his wife and five children were among them.


 


My family decided to stay. I was eleven at this time. One day I went outside my home, I saw many people, with their belongings, slowly and silently walking to the train station, hoping to catch a train that would take them as far as possible from the war. I was terrified, I ran home crying. I was truly hysterical and so terrified, that my parents changed their minds. We quickly packed whatever was necessary, and ran to the train station. We were lucky to get to the town of Kirov, in the far North.


My father joined the army even though he was older than 40. He thought he would be executed by the communists as an enemy of the state if he did not join. He remained in the army until the very end of the war.


After the war I was accepted to the College of Foreign Languages in the city of Minsk. At this point anti-Semitism was not very strong, and I was able to get into this college. However, while I was a student there, resentment of Jews became stronger and stronger. Somehow the Nazis hatred of the Jews infected many Russian people. Even though I was able to graduate from college, the work of an interpreter was not possible for me. Jews were not permitted such prestigious positions. However, I managed to get a job as a high school German teacher. I taught at the same school for thirty-three years. This school was very far from the center of the town, sometimes I was not able to catch the bus as they rarely came. The route was very unpopular, and sometimes I had to walk an hour and a half to be at school on time.


 


I never thought of changing jobs because as a Jew, I was lucky to keep the one I had. In the fifties, when Stalin's fight against "cosmopolitans" began, it was, in fact, targeting Jews. In this modern version of a pogrom, many Jews were killed after being accused of killing Russians. Jewish doctors were singled out as being "murderers in white coats." It was a very scary time. Every Jewish home, and even some non-Jewish ones, could expect a knock at the door at night; family members or, in some cases, entire families disappeared forever. Only Stalin's death in 1953 saved us from deportation and death.


 


I got married in 1955 and had two children. Life went on. People get used to everything, so we adjusted to anti-Semitism. Even though it was now part of our life, it hurt, but we saw no way out. My kids were used to the limitations of the life as a Jew from the early age. Immigration was never possible, so we never even thought about it. By the mid-1980s leaving the Soviet Union became possible. I remember when many of our neighbors and friends began talking about going to the United States. We were so hopeful to have the possibility of a better life and freedom for our children and grandchildren. With the help of HIAS this dream became a reality. It was twenty-four years since we came to the United States, and though most of my life happened in Belarus, where I had friends, and some good moments, I am so happy to be here, to see my children and grandchildren pursue their dreams! 


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