After three months, typhus spread through the camp, resulting in more deaths. Healthy prisoners were put to work in labor camps. “It was a beginning of even worse hell,” Tiraspolskiy says. “I was heavily beaten because I was a Jew.” The Pechora camp was known as “the dead loop.” Non-Jews who lived nearby would try to help, throwing food over the fence. Somehow, Tiraspolskiy says, Aron escaped. Aron wandered around nearby villages begging for food, and was caught and “cut into pieces, as witnesses told me after the war.”
The camp was in the occupied zone administered by Romanians, who were German allies but less anti-Semitic. As the Soviets were getting closer, Tiraspolskiy says, the Germans gathered the Jewish prisoners: “They were sitting in a big truck to be taken away and be executed, but the Romanian soldiers stopped the Germans from taking them, and that’s how they survived.” Tiraspolskiy says Pechora was liberated by the Red Army on March 14, 1944.
The family returned to Tulchyn to find their little house destroyed. (Before the war, in 1939, Tulchyn’s 5,607 Jews had comprised 42 percent of the population. In 2012, there were about 150 Jews living there, less than 1 percent of the population, according to the Jewish Cemetery Project.) Officials found them an apartment without running water, but they were grateful.
Tiraspolskiy was drafted into the Soviet army in 1948, served two years and went back to Tulchyn, where he, like his father, became a shoemaker. He and his wife had two children, then she became ill and died. Two years later, Tiraspolskiy married a non-Jewish woman named Luba, 20 years his junior. They have been together since 1995. After his son and daughter immigrated to the United States, Tiraspolskiy and Luba followed in November 1997. They became U.S. citizens six years later.
Their subsidized, one-bedroom apartment in Gaithersburg is not fancy; it’s in a building for the low-income elderly. But they have no complaints. “The United States gave us everything to have a happy and comfortable life,” Tiraspolskiy says. Prominently displayed in the living room is a 1945 picture of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied forces in Europe, with Marshal Georgy Zhukov, leader of the Red Army in World War II, both saluting.
Tiraspolskiy stays in shape by walking and by lifting hand weights, which he happily demonstrates, and going to Rainbow to socialize with other elderly Jewish Russian speakers. When he’s home, his wife says, “He just watches Russian TV, speaks Russian, Russian, Russian. It’s OK, it’s good for him.”
Zakhar and Alla Rubinchik
Alla and Zakhar Rubinchik, who met through a matchmaker and were married in 1961, have a one-bedroom apartment in Silver Spring. Their son drives a school bus for Montgomery County. Photo by Benjamin Tankersley
As is the custom among Russian hosts, Zakhar Rubinchik has placed assorted candies, cakes and cookies on the dining room table. He offers a visitor coffee and urges the guest to eat. “That’s how it is every time you come,” says Nina Sznurman, his caseworker. “You won’t starve.”
This cornucopia stands in marked contrast to the lack of food Rubinchik and his family struggled with during the German siege of Leningrad, a city of 3 million where he was born on Feb. 2, 1938. The spacious 14th-floor apartment at White Oak Towers in Silver Spring, where Rubinchik lives with his wife, Alla, is far removed from that place and time so seared in his memory. Yet the war is palpable still. “I’m sorry, very nervous, the blockade,” he says as he speaks of it, tears welling in his eyes. “They were bombing every day.”
Rubinchik was little more than a toddler when the siege began. But he cries easily when sharing the little he remembers, and what he was told about his family members’ lives—and deaths—during the siege that lasted 872 days. Rubinchik was the fifth of six children. They lived well, thanks to their father’s job sewing mink coats. When the war started, the oldest brother went into the army; their father was drafted to do hard physical labor, something with a shovel is all Rubinchik remembers.
During the siege, which began in September 1941 and ended in January 1944, Rubinchik and his family stayed in their apartment. There was no electricity, no toilet and no heat.
“Nothing worked,” Rubinchik says. Food was rationed. Their father starved to death, then a brother died in his sleep from hunger. They were just two among about a million Leningrad residents who died of hunger or the cold during the blockade.
Jews in the occupied outskirts of Leningrad were simply murdered. In the suburb of Pushkin, hundreds of Jews were marched to a palatial garden in September 1941 and shot to death by the Nazis. Iosif, another Rubinchik brother, died on a train that was bombarded by German planes as he tried to flee Leningrad.
Zakhar Rubinchik’s wife, Alla, was born in 1936 in Gomel, in what is now Belarus, where Jews comprised nearly a third of the population of some 40,000. When the Germans occupied Gomel on Aug. 19, 1941, Jews were forced into four crowded ghettos. By December, 4,000 had been killed, including women and children gassed in vans. But many Jews managed to escape by moving back to Leningrad, and Alla and her family were among them. Her father, Yevsey, joined the Red Army and was killed in 1943.
To escape the still-advancing Nazi army, they moved east again, to Kirisov-skaya in the Ural Mountains. Alla, who was 5, went to school there with her older sister. After the war, they returned to Leningrad, and Alla trained to become a nurse. She was 25 and single when a matchmaker her mother knew introduced her to Zakhar, who sold refrigerators to restaurants.
They married a month later, in 1961.
They had, Zakhar says, a good apartment, a car, a garage. But even though they were not religious, they were marked as Jews. They wanted to go to synagogue on Simchas Torah, a joyous holiday when worshippers march around with Torah scrolls to mark the start of a new reading cycle, but were afraid to be seen there. Coming home from work one day, Alla heard a group of people complaining that everyone being selected for political office was Jewish. When she confronted them, they turned on her and started pulling her hair. “After that incident, I said enough, I’m going to move to America and live in peace,” she says.
The couple immigrated to the United States on March 22, 1990. Zakhar worked as a janitor at two synagogues and as an HVAC repairman. For 10 years, he moved inventory for the Shoppers Food Warehouse chain. The couple has one son, Alex, who lives in Baltimore and drives a school bus for Montgomery County. The 2005 Toyota Camry parked in the basement garage was a gift from him.
Zakhar and Alla moved into their one-bedroom Silver Spring apartment in 1995, the same year they became American citizens. It overlooks treetops as far as the eye can see. The kitchen is small, but the ample dining room opens into a large living area and the room where Zakhar keeps his art books and classical music CDs, which he shows with great pride. Among all that is a picture book of Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, as it was before the Russian Revolution of 1917, which culminated in Communist rule. “If I been Russian, not Jewish, I not go to America,” he says, wistfully. Still, he adds, “Every day I get up, God bless America.”
Eugene L. Meyer is a contributing editor for Bethesda Magazine. To comment on this story, e-mail comments@bethesda