Exodus from Hell or Saving Lives

Victoria Richter is a lifelong teacher and learner of languages as well as a musical interpreter. She also works with elderly as a CNA. Victoria is a refugee from Russia who found her truth and happiness in close ties with her Providence community of family and friends.

Sermon Text

On Thursday, Aug. 14, my husband Moe and I together with many Unitarians took part in the pro-immigration protest at the Wyatt Detention Center in Central Falls. The protest was organized by the Jewish action group Never Again is Now.  During the protest one of the organizers told the story of how his family was saved from death in the Nazi concentration camps by Hungarians who helped them get fake papers. I immediately knew why I was there at the protest: I had my own family story – a story that needed to be told and I had come there to gather my spirits to tell it.  Six million Jews were lost in the holocaust.  We, the descendants of the survivors, know deeply that we can never let it happen again.

Recently I have translated my father’s recollections of his experiences during the Nazi period. Listen to the words of my father:

I was nine years old.  We lived in Russia in Rostov on Don on the border of Ukraine. A Jewish family:  my parents, my sister Nonna, and me.  Although mother seemed small and fragile, she was an undeniable leader with a decisive and powerful personality. This was confirmed at every tragic moment of our lives.

On June 22, 1941, we heard on the loudspeakers that the war had begun. On Sunday morning a German plane dropped a bomb on the noisy crowded Rostov farmer’s market.  The city froze from fear and a foreboding of new troubles.

My father was drafted. One winter’s day, we heard explosions, and in a few days our fighting troops retreated from the city. The coming of the Germans was a complete surprise; we didn’t even have time to evacuate.

We decided to run.  When we arrived at the Don River crossover, everything was on fire. Bombshells were exploding, and the Germans were entering the city.

Mama rushed Nonna and me across a large field. It was very hot, but the thick aroma of herbs and the screeching of grasshoppers put me in a peaceful mood. But the nearby explosions were vivid and lethal reminders of the war that was stepping on our toes.
I looked to my right and … OMG: forty feet from us was a German soldier lying in the grass, his automatic gun pointed towards us, flickering in the sun. My mother squeezed my hand hard and whispered, “Don’t look that way!” We passed, trying not to pay attention to him. He chose to do the same.

Finally, we reached Don River crossing. But here we realized there was no hope; the flimsy pontoon bridge was under attack by the German Messerschmitts and Henkels. At the crossing on the hill, a lonely old machine gun was perched – shooting into the air but not reaching the planes. A truck stalled in the middle of the crossing bridge was immediately thrown into the river! Away! Away from there! Mama grabbed us, and we ran to the left along the riverbank. In a few moments we spotted a boat loaded with people and already moving away from the bank.

Mama pleaded to the boater, “Friend, please save us! The children and I are going to die!”

“I have no place to put you. I don’t want your money. It’s worthless.”

Mother realized something, “Dear, here is a sack of tobacco, maybe this will be of use?”

The boat driver looked at the sack and said, “Well, fine, hop in, let’s hope we won’t sink!” We boarded the boat, and it sailed to the other side. I tried not to breath, fearing that even a small gulp can turn our Noah’s ark into a submarine. And it worked!

After we landed, we grabbed our things and ran to a train station with the ominous name “Sinister.” The Germans were constantly bombing the station. As soon as we ran and hid in a trench, the bombs started falling. A few fell onto the train carrying wounded soldiers. It is impossible to describe the horror of seeing all that.

When the raid was over, mama disappeared somewhere and came back with a bottle of milk, warm from the burning sun, and a few carrots. In an hour, we loaded into an open platform of the train that carried us to the South.

At last we arrived in Kislovodsk. In this town, our big family gathered together in a one-bedroom apartment rented by my grandparents. My aunt Rakhil and cousin Sonia were there too.  Her father had been arrested by the GPU, Stalin’s secret police. Every morning Sonia went to work in the hospital that was located in a former sanatorium.

Kislovodsk was a clean, sunny, and quiet resort town. It was hard to believe that somewhere there was a war. Grandfather was making canvas summer hats and traditional Uzbek skullcaps in his workshop on the high riverbank.

Everything was so peaceful and beautiful until one morning when my friend Senka, a scruffy and naughty 10-year old, knocked on my window. When I dashed outside, Senka, impatiently spit out, “You are wasting time here. Don’t you know that everything is free in the stores now?”

“I can’t believe, it’s really communism!” I exclaimed.

The street leading to the train station was an incredible sight. All the store doors were wide open. There were no sales people, and you could enter the stores and take whatever you like. I took a chess set – an object of my longtime cravings.  I was surprised by the stupid adults who, for some bizarre reason, were all running into a next-door shop with the sign “Jewelry.”

Later that evening, I saw Germans entering town. The first men rode in on motorcycles; they were field gendarmerie. They were wearing half semi-circular tin plates saying, “God is with us!” They were followed by military vehicles where we could see the gunmen sitting on the benches in the bed of the truck.

The new German order declared itself immediately with posters on every  wall. Some of them were directly relevant to us. “All the Jews must register in a three day period. All the Jews must sew on their outer clothing a yellow six-corner star and wear it every time they go out.”

Our Sonia fell in love with a young pilot named Dima who had been her patient in the military hospital. She married him before the Germans came and moved in with his parents. One day she rushed in with terrible news: the night before they heard shots, and in the morning they learned that the Germans had killed two Jewish families living nearby.

The following day, the new flyers stated the order: “All Jews must gather at a meeting point for moving to a living area specially appointed for them. They must bring valuables, clothing, food. The penalty  for non-compliance is immediate execution”

This was the end. My grandparents and aunt Rakhil kissed us for the last time and set off to the meeting point, towards their deaths. My grandparents and my aunt Rakhil, together with tens of thousands of other Jews were killed in the vicinity of the Mineralnyie Vody. Cousin Sonia survived because her husband Dima was ethnically Russian, and at that point the Nazis did not touch members of mixed families.

We did not go to the meeting point. Mother refused. Our chances to survive were minimal, but she decided to fight for our lives till the end.

Fortunately, we didn’t look like typical Jews. People used to take us sometimes for Georgians and sometimes for Armenians. We decided to run to Piatigorsk where my parents’ childhood friend Guskov and his family had a house and a garden. We couldn’t stay at Guskovs for long. Orders were posted all over the town: “The punishment for hiding Jews is execution.”

One morning, at the flea market where mama had gone to sell some things so we could buy food, a dark-haired man called her by name. “What are you doing here, Sarah?” Mama flinched and looked at the man. It was her husband’s old schoolmate, Zhora       Manaian.

“Shush, Zhora! What do you think I am doing here? Seeking my own death? How did YOU get here?”

They  stepped to the side. “After I was wounded, I was in the hospital, and when the Germans came I decided to serve in the police to avoid prison camp. Can I do anything for you?”

“You see, we don’t have any papers. I had to hide my passport because it says I am Jewish. If we could only get some sort of official paper – a document.  I would pay anything for it!“

“Yea, right – as if you have so much money, that’s why you are selling your stuff in a flea market?!”

“Yes it’s true,”  mother nodded, “but I have a golden watch ­– my husband’s present!”

And so, it worked! We became the proud owners of the wonderful document that I keep with me even to this very day: the document that saved our lives.

Hurray!  We are Armenians! We urgently began learning the new Armenian words that Zhora wrote for us in case we should meet up our new compatriots. We came up with the story that we did not know Armenian very well because we had always lived in Baku, Azerbaijan. Soon, once again, we were packed up and on the go. We rented a room in a village Tbilissi in a hut near the road but far from civilization.

Life is such a wonderful thing when you come so close to losing it! Never mind the cold, the hunger, and the fear;  it is still life. All of our stuff, our bedding, dresses, and sweaters, we traded for milk, flour, and oil. I don’t remember any other food. One day I went out to find some dry grass to use for fire, and I found a real chicken egg. Some crazy chicken apparently decided to lay an egg in a completely inappropriate place. It was so good: a fried egg for three of us! A feast!

Eventually the Germans left, and the Russians returned. We were saved! Mother went to Major Petrov, the military governor of the village, and showed him the papers. He scanned through the German’s census of the village and exclaimed, “You, citizen, escaped by the skin of your teeth: the Germans listed you as a suspicious person slated for extermination.”

At last we returned to Rostov, our home. And finally, a night came when all the windows in the city were illuminated. This was the night of the Victory Day!

My mother’s portrait hangs in my living room in Brooklyn. When people ask, I say “This is my mother. She was a Jewish heroine. She gave us life twice: first time at birth and second time when she rescued us from Hell.

(translated from the notes of Yury Rikhter)

While my father was saved, the rest of the family and millions of other Jews were shot or lost their lives in gas chambers.  Many of them, including my family, came to this country in search of safety and in hopes to NEVER AGAIN experience the horrors of hate and violence. And yet, on the evening of August 14th, we were attacked and forced back with a cloud of toxic gas while protesting at the site of the heartless imprisonment of innocent human beings at the Wyatt Detention Center right here, in Central Falls. I am standing here before you asking you to join me in saying these words:

Never again. Never again. Never again begins NOW!