Gima and Maria, both 80, are Holocaust survivors. After a life filled with hardships, the married couple is filled with joy as Rabbi Eckstein delivers a warm blanket and check for heating. “Thank you very much,” Gima utters in awe as he holds the $100 check he has just received and stands up to shake Rabbi Eckstein’s hand. “We’ve never gotten anything like this,” adds Maria as she inspects the blanket they have just been given. “This is very warm,” the two of them exclaim. “Now we’ll be able to stay warm during the cold winter. Thank you so much.”
Gima and Maria were both born in Minsk, Belarus. When asked to talk a bit about their experiences during the dark days of World War II and the Holocaust, the stories and exact dates begin flowing quickly, as if the couple continues to relive these horrible memories daily.
“I was only 8 years old when the war broke out,” Gima says. “I was the youngest of three children. I lived with my parents. Everything happened so fast. It’s a miracle that I’m here to tell you my story.
“The Nazis began to bomb heavily. It’s just because our home was located near the train station that we were able to escape. My sister and brother were already married. They lived in one of the eastern districts further from the center of the city. They weren’t able to reach the train station and were trapped in the city. Rumors spread quickly that the Nazis set aside 12 small streets as a ghetto for the Jews. It was only later that we learned my sister and brother were among the 35,000 Jews massacred by the Nazis on November 7, 1941.”
“I was the same age as Gima,” says Maria as she shakes her head sadly. “Only we weren’t lucky enough to get out of the city by train. My family escaped on foot. I remember being tired and hungry and thinking that I just didn’t have the strength to go on. My mother refused to stop. There was even a time when she had to carry me on her back. We barely slept. We just kept on going as fast as possible to get away from the bombs. When I think back on the fate of the Jews who were left behind, I’m embarrassed by how much I complained at the time. The Jews in the ghetto were living in starvation and in wrecked houses.
“On November 7, the Nazis entered the ghetto and surrounded some of the Jewish streets. All of the Jews living in these streets were loaded onto trucks and driven to the outskirts of the city where large deep graves had been prepared by the Nazis. First the children were thrown into the grave. The women were pushed in on top of the children. Then the men were thrown in. The Nazis then opened fire from machine guns. My grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins were all massacred together,” cries Maria.
Gima and his mother, as well as Maria, her 9-year-old brother, and 6-year-old sister ultimately made it to Uzbekistan, where they lived during the rest of the war and spent the majority of their days cold and hungry.
Both Gima and Maria returned to Minsk in the summer of 1945 at the end of the war. “It was a very sad time,” Maria says. “The entire time we were in Uzbekistan, we heard rumors about what was going on in Minsk, but returning to the reality was almost unbearable. Every Jew who couldn’t escape had been killed. The houses were destroyed. The community was destroyed. We didn’t know what to do.”
“My sister and brother were dead, my grandparents, my cousins as well,” says Gima. “I sometimes wonder how those of us who survived found the strength to continue living. When you’re faced with the reality of almost total destruction, you start to question everything. Why did the others die? Why did you live? Is there any reason to go on living? Ultimately you understand that you have no choice other than to move forward. But it’s not easy.”
Gima and Maria graduated university, married, and moved to Chernobyl, Ukraine, where Gima worked as an engineer in a factory and Maria taught at the local conservatory. “We went where we found work,” Gima says. “But we never felt that Chernobyl was our home. The truth of the matter is, after the war we no longer felt like the FSU was our home. We knew there was someplace better where Jews could be free.”
In 1991, Gima and Maria realized their dream and made aliyah (immigrated to Israel). “We had no reason to stay,” said Maria. Despite their happiness at living in the Jewish state, Gima and Maria don’t deny that they still have faced many difficulties in the Holy Land. “During the first 10 years, I worked as a gardener in the local parks,” Gima says. “I worked as a dishwasher,” adds Maria. “These were minimum-wage jobs, but we needed the money. We didn’t come with anything, and what the government gives us just isn’t enough to pay our bills.”
Things have gotten even more difficult in the past few years, as Gima was diagnosed with intestinal cancer. “Most of our money goes to treatments and medicines,” says Gima. There’s just not enough to pay for rent, food, and medicine. Winter heat is a luxury we just can’t afford.”
As Gima holds the Fellowship check that will let him heat his apartment, he says, “After everything we’ve been through, I thought we Jews were alone and no one cared about us. This shows me that there are good and kind people who want to help take care of the Jews. I thank you for the help, and, most of all, for the concern.”