Ex-Soviet vets recall triumphs and ordeals

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Still, both former Soviet colonels say they are proud to be World War II veterans, as are 1,000 fellow expatriates in San Francisco.

The silver-haired group gathers regularly to share Russian cultural events and entertainment. Bedecked in medals and military uniforms, they sing old war songs, observe holidays and march in Veterans Day parades.

The vets constitute the largest chapter of a national organization known as Russian War Veterans — all of them Jewish. And they outnumber the local group of Jewish War Veterans by 800.

But being Jewish wasn't something to brag about in the Soviet military. The system's anti-Semitism was entrenched, many Jewish vets agree, and a Communist ban on religious practice suppressed Judaism throughout the country.

Most of the veterans hardly knew what it meant to be Jewish when they first arrived in San Francisco.

"We came here like we were born yesterday," Shekhtman, 75, said in an interview at Congregation Emanu-El — a place where many Richmond District Russians have come to know Judaism.

The congregation welcomed many emigres into the fold by creating a Russian chavurah and offering high school tutorial programs to help them integrate.

Gary Cohn, Emanu-El's executive director, noted that several other San Francisco and Peninsula synagogues run extensive Russian emigre programs to help newcomers bone up on their English as well as their Judaism.

Despite the warm welcome, Shekhtman and Vinogradsky, also 75, maintain they are still outsiders within the Jewish community.

"There is a huge American Jewish community in the Bay Area and now a huge Russian Jewish community. But the Russians are never invited" to Jewish community events beyond the congregations, said Shekhtman's wife, Galina, who interpreted as the two men talked over one another in Russian.

"We would like to integrate with the American Jewish community," Galina Shekhtman added, but Bay Area Jewish organizations "never inform us or send us letters. It is as if we don't exist."

The two men and their wives have been here since the late 1970s, but membership in their veterans club, formed in the early 1980s, has blossomed over the past five years with the arrival of more recent emigres.

Last year, their numbers justified starting a monthly Russian-language newspaper, Veteran. The paper hit newsstands last January with coverage of the Russian community and current events in Israel.

Unfortunately, printing costs have been high and membership dues do not adequately fund the paper, which may fold if its publishers cannot find a cheaper printing method or a sponsor, Shekhtman said.

But while it lasts, the paper delights its readers with local Russian lore and tales of the good old days.

Not everything about the good old days was good. The vets lost 200,000 of their Jewish comrades in battle during World War II, which is described as one of the bloodiest ordeals in Russian history. Another 100,000 Jews of 500,000 in the ranks were wounded. Ten million Russian soldiers altogether died between 1941-45, the vets reported.

"We owe them a lot for breaking the back of the German army at the Battle of Stalingrad," says Wallace Levin, commander of the Lt. Sidney Sommer San Francisco Post No. 152 of the Jewish War Veterans.

About 25 Russian veterans also are members of the Jewish War Veterans. The two organizations march together in the Veterans Day parade and observe Memorial Day ceremonies at the Presidio.

Vinogradsky said there was no official distinction between Jews and non-Jews on the front lines.

"On the front, everyone was equal. There was no anti-Semitism," he said.

However, it was difficult for a Jew to get a government position, military promotion and war decorations. Most Jews coped with the occasional arbitrary discrimination during the war, but things took a turn for the worse after Berlin fell.

Shekhtman was stationed in Kiev the day he was suddenly sent to the harbor post of Sovetskaja Gavan, north of Manchuria. There, he was to commandeer a tank battalion.

"It is one thing to live in the European part of the country. It is another to live in the cold, barren east," he said.

Shekhtman, who served for 33 years, is certain that the assignment, was ethnically motivated. Other Jewish comrades were sent to the icy island of Sakhalin, off the coast of Sovetskaja Gavan.

Vinogradsky, a 25-year serviceman, was stationed in Soviet-occupied Romania following the war.

He rented a room from a Romanian Jewish family that at one point invited him to make aliyah with them.

"They promised a lot of really good things" in the land of milk and honey, Vinogradsky recalled. But he was too patriotic to leave the Soviet military.

He was sorry later that he didn't.

Loyalties changed for both men as anti-Semitism in the military and in Russian society grew stronger with every passing year. Though discrimination was not overt, Shekhtman and Vinogradsky said non-Jewish servicemen rarely were eager to become their friends. And opportunities for Jews to advance took twice as much time and effort.

Both men retired in the 1970s and emigrated shortly after. They claim to have lost their love for Russia on account of its anti-Semitism.

Levin of the Jewish War Veterans recalled another Russian vet once telling him, "`It's better to be poor in America with its freedoms than middle-class in Russia.'"

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.