A personal take on Victory Day and honoring Russian-Jewish WWII veterans

JNS.org Managing Editor Alina Dain Sharon's grandfather received many medals for his role as a military doctor in the Red Army during World War II, like The Soviet Order of the Red Star (pictured). Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

While Israel’s annual Holocaust commemoration day, Yom HaShoah, has now passed, another memorial day is taking place May 9. On what is known as "Victory Day," or simply as "May 9," Russia and countries of the former Soviet Union commemorate Nazi Germany’s surrender to the Soviets in 1945. The day is also an opportunity to honor veterans who fought in the Red Army against the Nazis. Those veterans who are still living participate in parades and other events in their honor, bearing their medals on their suits.

In recent years Israel, which has a large Russian-Jewish community, has also started to hold events throughout the country on this day. In the Jewish community, we often think about ourselves at that time as only victims of the Holocaust, and we forget that Jews also served in the armies that fought against the Nazis, including in the Soviet Union's Red Army. Two of those servicemen were my grandfathers.

What stands out to me about both of my grandfathers is their bravery. I experience a strange sensation trying to compare my life today and the life that they led, particularly during the war. Here I am, sitting in my nice, cushy chair and writing this with my shiny Macbook Air, and it feels incomparable.

A few months ago my family and I discovered that the Russian government has been digitizing and publicizing wartime records of veterans. A simple search allowed me to find documents describing the wartime deeds of both of my grandfathers. My paternal grandfather, Alexander— after whom I am named, but is more known to me simply by the endearing nickname “dedushka Sasha” (grandpa Sasha, a Russian nickname for Alexander)—was a military doctor.

A copy of a document outlining wartime deeds for which he received the Soviet Order of the Red Star medal states that my grandfather “risked his life, ignoring severe bombing to give medical care to the wounded” and to evacuate them. Over a period of 24 hours, he helped treat and evacuate at least 17 wounded soldiers from his regiment under heavy fire, while at the same time treating and saving the life of 12 other soldiers from another regiment.

My grandfather also received the Order of the Patriotic War, another Soviet medal, for treating a wounded lieutenant under heavy fire. Documents describe how he “personally made his way” and ”under mortar fire by the enemy gave the heavily-wounded lieutenant first aid medical treatment, [and] carried him out of the field, thereby saving him from certain death.” These honors are only a few of the medals he received for his heroics as a doctor during World War II.

On my mother’s side, meanwhile, my grandfather Arkadiy enlisted in the Soviet army straight out of high school in 1942. It’s hard to imagine what went through the mind of any teenage boy who was joining the army at the time, but what is most amazing to me has always been the fact that my grandfather did not have to enlist. He was legally blind, which granted him an exemption, but chose to volunteer anyway. My grandfather, who was then an aspiring actor, then spent his service in the army doing something that I think was very much needed during that time—entertaining the troops.

Sadly, I never knew either of these brave men, both of whom died before I was born. Last year I became a mother for the first time, and it seemed apt—according to the Jewish tradition—to give my son the middle name Abraham, after my maternal grandfather’s Jewish name. While I hope my son will not see such a war in his lifetime, I also hope he carries something of both his great-grandfathers in him. Today, this blog is another opportunity for me to honor both of my grandfathers, along with all the other veterans—Jewish and non-Jewish alike—being honored on Victory Day around the world.

The world we live in now would not be the same without them. We would not be the same without them.

A Victory Day veteran parade in Haifa, Israel. Credit: Reuven Frizi.

Posted on May 9, 2016 .