In Russia, Jews suffered for being Jewish and in Canada, the United States, and Israel they suffer for not being Jewish enough, says the director of the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto.
Anna Shternshis, who’s also the Al and Malka Green associate professor in Yiddish studies, was talking at a release event for her book When Sonia Met Boris at the University of Toronto On Sept.11.
The book is an oral history documentation of many complex topics associated with growing up in the Soviet Union as a Jew.
Shternshis interviewed 474 people across the United States, Canada, Germany and Russia. She did not do any interviews in Israel, partially due to an already overwhelming amount of interviews from these four countries, but also because many of the Russian Jews living in Israel have already been interviewed and their stories have been heard.
Shternshis felt it was important to give voice to the Russian Jews living in other parts of the world.
“Their voice is not silenced the way it was silenced in New York or Canada, where it is still silenced,” she said.
Despite the reluctance to open up about their history in earlier years, Shternshis says almost all of the Soviet Jews she interviewed wanted to share their history.
“I got to them at this point when they were in their life review stage and the memory of the past was very bright and also at the point when they started thinking, ‘why is no one recording my life story?’”
And so, Shternshis did. And published them too.
After transcribing the interviews, she sent copies back to the families of her subjects. The reception was more than gratifying.
“Very often the grown children wrote to me and said ‘we had no idea about the lives that our parents lead because they never told us.’”
When Sonia Met Boris sheds light on many of the struggles Soviet Jews faced in both the Soviet Union and the western world today.
“I got to these people usually before they interviewed for any other project,” she says “When I started this, nobody knew anything about Russian Jews. They were only studied in the context of how can we help them assimilate into American society.”
During her research, Shternshis found many of the interviews highlighted social change closer to the end of the Second World War. In particular, she said, some of the interviews would speak about the bad reputation Soviet Jewish soldiers received when they came back from the war.
“Women, Jewish and non-Jewish, were convinced that Jewish men could not be trusted because when Jewish soldiers learned of their families being killed during the war, many couldn’t get ahold of their wives… Many believed they were single again and they weren’t sure if they were going to live another day and they lived every day as their last one,” she said at her launch event.
Shternshis explained that when these Soviet Jewish soldiers returned from the war, they typically wanted to avoid marriage.
One of the couples Shternshis interviewed, Mira and Wolf, living in Brooklyn, N.Y., had a love story that was directly affected by the negative reputation of these Soviet Jewish soldiers.
“She [Mira] tells me, ‘well you know we met 55 years ago and I was a student in the Lviv Architecture School and he [Wolfe] was just released from the army. He saw me on the street, but you see I was only 19 and he was already 25. He was much older than me, but I was so afraid of him. He was a grown man, he has seen everything… I would not allow myself to date someone and then be treated like one of those field wives. I was afraid of him’ she says, ‘but I was really taken by him. He was so handsome and I think I loved him but I could not force myself to date him.’”
Mira went on to marry another man and Wolfe married another woman.
The story continues when they met again 35 years later in Brooklyn. Both of their former spouses had died and they each had one child. Mira had a son and Wolfe had a daughter.
Their reunion occurred when Mira’s son and Wolfe’s daughter accidentally started dating and wanted to introduce their parents.
“And here they met again. This time, they got married and now have a grandson in common,” says Shternshis.
A member of the audience at the release event felt an especially strong connection to the subject of the book.
“All these things she was telling us were so familiar to me and it was absolutely unbelievable,” said Lily Tannenbaum. “I told her] when she was signing the book that some of the stories could’ve been about my family.” Tannenbaum was accompanied by her daughter and granddaughter.
Shternshis has dedicated most of her life/adult years studying Yiddish, Jewish, and Russian Jewish culture and history. Her next project is another book that will examine the lives of the 1.8 million Jews that survived in Central Asia with a side project and potentially another book on Yiddish culture.
She will be speaking on the subject again in Russian at Studio N in North York on Oct. 10 and11. For more information visit: https://showoneproductions.ca/event/sonya-and-boris-2017/