“Sit down, this is a long story,” Mikhail says, ushering a group of Fellowship volunteers around a lone table in the middle of the living room. Brothers Mikhail and Boris have prepared a history lesson and want their family’s Holocaust story to be told.
The room is dark. The 100-year-old wooden house is deeply shaded and hidden. They never turn on a light because they want to save what little money they have for basic needs. The home has belonged to their family since before the war and they don’t want to leave it behind. They are determined to keep their Jewish family history alive — no matter what.
Family memories fill their old home. They have a collection of ancient photographs that survived the war. They eagerly show Fellowship volunteers pictures of their grandparents and great-grandparents and talk lovingly about each family member.
Their home is in the Russian town of Nevel, a small town outside of St. Petersburg, which is the same place so many family members evacuated from to escape the Nazis and were forced to spread all over the country during the war. Nearby is the cemetery that has the graves of their deceased loved ones, which the brothers have faithfully looked after until recently when their health has started to decline.
“It Is Important to Revive These Memories”
The brothers remember a lot of local Jewish history in Nevel during and after the Nazi occupation, and the evil and pain of the Holocaust overshadow their family memories.
They tell us that the Nazis murdered one thousand Jews in Nevel. They recall how the neighboring lake turned red from the blood of women and children. The men dug their graves and then were killed themselves. “I would love not to remember it,” Mikhail admits. “But I understand it is important to revive these memories.”
The brothers know that if they don’t share their story now while they are still alive to tell it, that 100 years of history and Holocaust memories may be lost forever.
They tell us that their family evacuated the home during the war and it was turned into a weapon storage facility for the Nazis. When the Nazis finally left, neighbors never expected to see the family again and began taking items from their home — down to the wood on their walls and floors.
Miraculously, Mikhail and Boris found their way back to the house, which was still preserved, and now live in the very space once violently taken from their family.
Old, musty furniture fills the home. It has no running water, no central heating, and no bathroom. Still the home is filled with so many precious memories, they never want to leave.
A Lifeline of Support
Both brothers have a higher education and have lived and worked hard in Nevel all their lives. They pride themselves on being as independent as possible, and even as they grow older, they manage to carry buckets of water to their home from a nearby well. They also have tried to be as resourceful as possible by growing their own food and using wood to heat their home.
Then, the nearby well stopped working. Now these two elderly men struggle to carry water from another well located half a mile away. Getting water to their home is a daily issue, especially as their health declines. Both had a number of heart attacks, and Boris suffers from diabetes. They’d prefer to be completely self-sufficient. However, they know that without The Fellowship, they wouldn’t survive.
Fellowship-supported Hesed, our partner organization in the former Soviet Union, provides for their basic needs. Hesed also provides them a way to stay in touch with their faith through Jewish community centers, connecting them to the Jewish traditions and community they miss from their youth before the Nazis and anti-Semitism destroyed the vibrant Jewish community in Nevel.
Here to Bear Witness
While The Fellowship provides food, medicine, and winter warmth to the two brothers, more than that we are here to bear witness to these two brothers’ powerful story.
Today they still grieve their loved ones, but they can live more peacefully knowing someone is listening. Some days it seems as if the world has forgotten. Forgotten the people, events, and stories of the past.
But Isaiah 46:9 instructs us to, “Remember the former things, those of long ago.”
And this is what Mikhail and Boris teach us — that forgetting is not an option.
Tags: Holocaust Survivors International Holocaust Remembrance Day