War, communism, journeys to a new land: aging emigres preserve their stories

Imagine holding onto memories of some of the most significant parts of your life — fighting the Nazis during World War II or clandestinely observing the Jewish holidays, lest your anti-Semitic neighbors snitched on you to the authorities — and feeling that you could never share them with a soul. Not even those closest to you, like your children and grandchildren.

Evsei Abelev  photos/speak memory project

For many older Jews who grew up and lived most of their lives in the former Soviet Union, the practice of keeping silent became as natural to them as lining up for rationed goods and living in cramped quarters with several other families.

Two 30-something Jewish photographers — childhood friends who themselves had emigrated as young adults from Russia with their families — decided it was time to put an end to the silence. A few years ago, Marina Eybelman of San Francisco and New York-based Yuliya Levit embarked on a project to give aging émigrés, now in their 80s and 90s, an opportunity to talk about their families, their wartime experiences, their lives under an oppressive regime and their sense of themselves as Jews.

It was an important task, Levit and Eybelman agreed, not only because the storytelling could lead to a catharsis for those who had bottled up their memories for 70 or more years, but also because the elders in the community could impart to future generations an understanding of who they are and where they came from.

Thus was born the Speak Memory Project, an endeavor that over the past four years has resulted in approximately 50 photojournalistic profiles of elderly Jews who immigrated to the United States from the former Soviet Union. An exhibition featuring a dozen of these portraits and first-person narratives, including nine from the Bay Area, is on display at the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco through Dec. 13.

Rosa Kundel

For Levit, the catalyst for Speak Memory was her grandfather, Ilya Shabadash. He arrived in New York with her family in 2001 when he was in his 80s and spent his last years in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach, a predominantly Russian Jewish neighborhood. It was only after he died in 2005 that “I realized the importance of my grandfather’s stories,” Levit said, but by then “it was too late.”

So she began networking with other Jews in their 20s and 30s from the former Soviet Union to see if they could convince their grandparents to take part in taped interviews that would be photographed and subsequently turned into first-person narratives with arresting black-and-white portraits.

For this younger generation, who hungered to learn more about their Jewish backgrounds and connect to their traditions, it was not a hard sell. One of those who fully embraced the project was Eybelman, who became Levit’s Bay Area partner in Speak Memory two years ago. Since then, she has interviewed some 25 Russian Jewish octogenarians and nonagenarians.

“This project has helped me find a way to do what I love and what I had always been searching for,” said Eybelman, who studied Jewish literature and Eastern European Jewish folklore in college in post-glasnost Russia before coming to San Francisco with her parents and grandmother in 2002.

“People had always told me that I should be a professional photographer,” she said. Thanks to Speak Memory, she now defines herself as such.

“It’s fascinating to see and hear people’s stories unfold,” Eybelman said. For her and others, history is made real through their grandparents’ stories.

Two of her subjects whose profiles are on display at the Jewish Community Library are husband and wife Moses and Rosa Kundel, 90 and 88, respectively. The Bay Area couple said through an interpreter that they were “happy to express their thoughts without looking over their shoulders,” a reference to their lives in the former Soviet Union.

In his Speak Memory portrait, Moses Kundel recalled the stories of his parents’ and grandparents’ trauma as survivors and victims of bloody pogroms in Russian shtetls in the late 19th- and early 20th centuries, the interminable anti-Semitism that infected every aspect of Soviet life and his harrowing experiences in the Soviet army during World War II, when he was severely wounded by a shell and rendered mute for months.

Moses Kundel

In her profile, Rosa Kundel recounted the disappearance of a beloved uncle — presumed to have been executed after his arrest by Soviet authorities — and the KGB’s unsuccessful attempt to recruit her as a spy.

The Kundels, both teachers in the Soviet Union, said they wanted to share their stories to honor their children and grandchildren, who continue to embrace their Jewish heritage. That’s a most gratifying turn of events for the Kundels, given how difficult it was for them to live openly as Jews in the former Soviet Union.

Such gratification is intergenerational. Max Abelev, a member of the Bay Area émigré Jewish community in his 30s who came to the United States with his parents from Russia in 1991, said he was pleased that he had convinced three of his grandparents, Evsei Abelev, Elena Abeleva and Eva Markos, to participate. While he had heard a number of their stories over the years, he said, “I never took the trouble to document my grandparents in a systematic way.”

Abelev said that the Speak Memory Project is “a great community service and great art.” The stories and pictures that have emerged will give his daughter, now 7 years old, an appreciation for and awareness of her background as she grows up.

That is the wish of both Levit and Eybelman, whose project received support from the UJA-Federation of New York and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, as well as from the Genesis Philanthropy Group and individual donors. The exhibit will be on display at the Brownstone in New York City later this year.

Levit and Eybelman look forward to the day when their own children, still quite young, can learn about the generations who came before them. For now, though, they are eager to collect more stories and images, which they hope to turn someday into a book.

Speak Memory Project
is on display through Dec. 13 at the Jewish Community Library, 1835 Ellis St., S.F.  A reception for the photographers will be held 1-3:30 p.m. Oct. 18 at the library.

To contact the photographers and view more profiles, go to

Robert Nagler Miller
Robert Nagler Miller

Robert Nagler Miller, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University, received his master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. For more than 25 years, he worked as a writer and editor at a variety of nonprofits in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas. In 2016, he and his husband, Dr. Arnold Friedlander, relocated to Chicago. Robert loves schmoozing, noshing, kvetching, Scrabble, reading and NPR.