This essay was originally published on JDC’s In Service Blog (JDC is a Repair the World partner grantee), and was contributed by Melanie Pasch who served in Kazakhstan with fellow Cornell University students.
I’m writing from a JCC in Almaty, Kazakhstan. We just got back from a home visit with an elderly Jewish woman who escaped Russia at the start of World War II, she was able to make a life for herself here with a husband and two beautiful sons. Unfortunately she lost her husband over ten years ago and then her sons in 2004 and 2006 respectively. She has a grandson who remains in touch with her, but not nearly enough. She lives alone in a ground-level apartment here in Almaty with her three cats. We cleaned her house and cleared out her yard, which was full of leaves from last autumn or possibly several autumns. She was so happy we were there. After our work we always join the babushka, as they say, for some chai (tea) and had a chance to talk. My Russian is improving; by that I mean I can now say a few phrases and in combination with body language and facial expressions, communicate at a basic level.
Luckily we work with our Kazakhstani Jewish peers who have been living with us and help translate. Not all of them even speak English, but we somehow have managed to become quite close. The babushka was so sweet and fun to joke around with. We asked what her secret was for beauty in old age and she strongly suggested that I consider marrying her grandson, or at least a nice man who will give me the “castle” that I deserve. I told her she should remember to call him and tell my husband that in a few years whoever that may be. We all laughed and she proceeded to invite me to come live with her and perfect my Russian. It was honestly very temping. She even told me she loved me to which I responded in repeating “Ya tebya lublu.” She didn’t believe that she was the only person I’ve ever said those Russian words to, but it was of course true. She hugged and kissed me goodbye and I new it would be the last time I would ever see her. Regardless of my kind words, the realities of this world aren’t exactly conducive to a close lasting friendship with a woman who doesn’t own a computer in Kazakhstan.
I’m fascinated by the stories of the people we visit. As the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, with whom I was lucky enough to have as a central influence in my life, I really am so interested in learning where these people come from. Did they experience the vanished world in which my grandparents once lived? I have grown up hearing about “shtetls” and feeling as if I had once lived there myself. I feel a part of me is still from that world since the “old country” shaped the people who shaped me. Not all of these people came from the world of Yiddish “shtetls,” but these people are still Jewish people –my people. They still smile and hug us despite our sweaty conditions and still push another cup of tea and cookie on us –G-d forbid we should go hungry. Despite the language barrier, it is clear on a very real level that these “babushkas” or “dedushkas” are one of our own.
These home visits produce very complex emotions; part of me is so happy that I had the opportunity to make these seemingly forgotten people smile and live in a slightly cleaner home, but my heart still breaks just knowing that they are living in these conditions to begin with. For anyone to live in poverty is a horrible thing, Jewish or non-Jewish, but when someone who laughs like my grandma and sings like my Papa is living this way –I simply cannot sleep.
The first home I went to was on the outskirts of the city in a more rural setting. The briefing said they had no central utilities, little did I realize at the time that that meant they use an actual outhouse. This particular elderly couple at the ages of 86 and 87 could barely walk anymore. Little was left to my imagination when the babushka had to relieve herself and walked outside to urinate against the outer wall of her house with us only a few feet away. Even without language I could feel her helpless embarrassment as she went about her business with us close by to spot her (she had told her she frequently falls). I thought of my own grandma who is also 86 and now dependent on diapers and a live-in nurse. This couple is lucky to have a homecare visit from the Almaty Hesed sponsored by the JDC twice a week. The visitor cooks food that they assured me is delicious and helps them clean themselves and do other basic care. Thank G-d for the work they are doing! But what about the other five days of the week? My grandma has diabetes and takes so many medications that it’s practically a full-time job to keep them organized and on schedule. I can’t imagine that these people of the same age could not need similar care sooner or later.
The elderly man of this household particularly resonated with me. He was evacuated to Kazakhstan with his mother and sister from his “shtetl” in Ukraine at the outbreak of World War II. I had to dig to uncover his Yiddish past, but soon he was singing Yiddish songs from his childhood for me and the rest of my work group. It literally brought tears to my eyes as this 87 year old man who could barely hold his head up was able to paint me a window into the vanished world of my grandparents, however small it may have been. For that moment especially I could see my Papa in his eyes as he sang the same Yiddish lyrics I’m sure he would have joined in on with a smile. I recorded the song to share it with my grandma and hopefully send it to the Yiddish Book Center to hopefully be preserved forever. I’ve watched the video a few times since and keep thinking –what if I had never went to his tiny home in southeastern Kazakhstan? What if I wouldn’t have asked him if he spoke Yiddish? This man has no children and his mother and sister with whom he escaped have since died. No one would have heard his story, nevertheless see the nostalgia in his eyes and the bitter sweetness in his voice. His memories would have died with him.
Luckily the JDC has somehow found him and even brought me to him! It is truly magical to think about this seemingly absurd connection, that of an 87 year old Kazakhstani man and a 20 year old American college student. He worked in a factory for almost 50 years and has never known what its like to sit on a toilet inside the warmth of his own home –needless to say we’ve had very different life experiences. I am so fortunate to have heard this man sing his favorite Yiddish song and I know I will never forget him as long as I live. I will be sure to tell my children about him and teach them to never forget the very real needs of Jews in the most obscure corners of the earth. Now that the JDC has opened my eyes, I will never shut them again and want to do everything I can to continue to help my people in need all over the world.
Find more essays and photos over at JDC’s In Service Blog.