The Column: Forgotten heroes of a long-ago war

The vodka flowed, the plates were piled high with herring and lox, and the sweet voices of children singing in Russian brought tears to the eyes of the aging veterans at this year’s Victory Day celebration May 4 at the Russian consulate in San Francisco.

“It was a glorious victory, but it came at a price,” Russian Consul General Vladimir Vinokurov told the group, some 200 immigrants from the former Soviet Union, veterans of the Great Patriotic War — known to the rest of the world as World War II.

He doesn’t need to tell them. They’re the ones who saw their families  starve in the ghettos. They’re the ones who joined the partisans in the forests of Belarus and Ukraine, who fought with the Red Army, who suffered during the horrific three-year siege of Leningrad.

They’re elderly now — the youngest are nearly 90 — but they show up at the consulate every year to celebrate the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, men and women alike, their jackets festooned with rows of medals. Some use walkers, many have hearing aids, but their faces break out in smiles as they recognize comrades from years past.

I sat next to David Druker, a spritely gent who said he was “more than 90,” but who insisted that life wasn’t worth living without women. “Especially young, pretty ones,” he added, offering me another vodka shot.

A native of Minsk, Druker marched into Prague and Berlin with the conquering Soviet troops in 1944. Now he lives in Castro Valley.

Next to Druker sat 87-year-old Evsei Zalan of Fremont. At 17 he joined the partisans in his native Belarus, fighting in the forests while his parents died in a ghetto. 

“I was wounded here, and here,” he recounts, pulling away the corner of his jacket to show old scars. “And I got this for it,” he continues with pride, pointing to one of several dozen medals gleaming on his chest.

In the former Soviet Union, these guys were heroes. Every year on Victory Day, huge military parades commemorated the terrible price the Soviet Union paid in the war — more than 20 million dead — and honored the men and women who defended the Motherland. Little girls with bows in their hair would profer flowers to the marching veterans. Military music filled the air.

Today in Russia and Ukraine, after a brief hiatus in the early ’90s, the parades continue, albeit in less jingoistic manner. Fewer tanks, but the veterans are still honored, and respected.

Now they’re in America, following  children and grandchildren in search of a better life. Most are Jewish, as are the majority of FSU immigrants in the Bay Area. And if these Russian-speaking Jews often feel marginalized by the greater Jewish community, the elderly among them are even further out of the loop. They don’t know English. And no one cares what they did in the war.

America is not kind to its veterans. That’s because we haven’t suffered a war on our own soil — not in living memory, anyway.

The Russians have. Some 500,000 Jews fought for the Soviets in World War II; 200,000 of them died in battle. And the only ones who honor them  in this country, ironically, are the consulates of Russia and Ukraine — the very countries they left.

In 1978, a group of ex-Soviet vets organized the Association of World War II Veterans in San Francisco. Offshoots were created in 1990 in San Jose and 1992 in Palo Alto. More recently, the Palo Alto group built a small museum to house its members’ war memorabilia.

But the years are passing and the numbers are dwindling. Every year, the consulate event draws fewer people.

Zalan, who along with Druker belongs to the San Francisco association, says his small group of friends used to number 29 vets. “Now we are just nine,” he says.

Eighty-seven-year-old Yuriy Lyayder of Mountain View is president of the Palo Alto association, which had 160 members in 2007. They’re down to 97 today.

That makes him sad, certainly. But what he’s most worried about is the museum. With fewer members to pay dues, money is tight, and soon the association will have to shut its doors. What will happen to the museum and its precious artifacts?

“Maybe you know someone who would like to take it over?” he asks hopefully. I wish I did.

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of j., and can be reached at [email protected].

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].