Wednesday, May 11, 2011


May 9 marks Victory Day (Den' Pobedy) in Russia and the former Soviet Union. Victory Day is the Russian equivalent of the American holiday Memorial Day, but without the Indy 500. Instead, veterans of what Russians call “The Great Patriotic War” dress up in their military regalia and march together with their former comrades-in-arms to celebrate the victory of the Red Army over Nazi Germany. The sacrifices that Soviet soldiers made in the Great Patriotic War were staggering: approximately eight million Soviet soldiers lost their lives fighting for their motherland. Among the many soldiers who heroically fought the German invaders were about half a million Jewish soldiers. They were fighting not only to defend their motherland, but also to avenge the murder of their mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters.

AHEYM has interviewed numerous Jewish veterans over the years, many of whom have shared their wartime experiences with us on tape. The pride they feel in their achievements are palpable; and the respect and admiration they have earned should be limitless. However, Victory Day celebrations in Ukraine have become contentious. Many veterans seek to memorialize Victory Day by marching under the Hammer and Sickle — the flag under which they defeated Nazism. Others, mostly younger Ukrainians, view the Soviet period as an occupation, and bristle at the idea of honoring the Red Army, which wiped out their dreams of establishing an independent Ukrainian state. Since it is often the Jewish veterans who feel most strongly and unambiguously about the Red Army victory over Nazi Germany, the scuffles that sometimes break out during Victory Day parades can take on an anti-Semitic tint. Some Ukrainian nationalists view the Hammer and Sickle as an offensive symbol, akin to the Nazi swastika. For others, the Soviet flag is precisely the symbol that liberated Europe from the swastika.

Victory Day celebration in Kovel, Ukraine, May 9, 2003.  Some 
veterans march under the Hammer and Sickle; others use a 
red flag with the Hammer and Sickle insignia torn out.

David Furman, born in Berdichev in 1919, was one of the 1.1 million Soviet soldiers who fought in the Battle of Stalingrad, the seven-month battle that turned the war on the Eastern front and left one and a quarter million German and Soviet soldiers dead. Furman left school at the age of fourteen to become a carpenter like his father, but he was drafted into the army in 1939. He was stationed in the Far East until the war broke out in 1941, when he was taken to the front. He fought at the front until 1943, when he lost his leg in battle. By the time that Stalingrad began, in August 1942, Furman had already received word that his entire family — his father, Zelig; his mother, Leyke; his sister, Kheyved and his two brothers, Moyshe and Berl--had been murdered by the Nazis in Berdichev. He knew what he was fighting for.

In this clip, Furman, whom we first met at the synagogue soup kitchen in which the interview takes place, tells about his experience in the war. Viewers should note that the question posed to him is “Tell us something about Berdichev? Were you born in Berdichev? Tell us about the old days? Tell us about your schooling?” Rather than talk about his childhood or his hometown, Furman shares with us his proudest moment--his military service. He rushes through his childhood and neglects his postwar life, but straightens his back, raises his chin, and lets out a smile as he tells us that he fought in Stalingrad! Not only that, but he pulls out of his pocket a snapshot of himself decorated with military medals, as though he expected an international camera crew to show up at the soup kitchen that day. For David Furman, every day is Victory Day.

--Jeffrey Veidlinger

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