A VE-Day Eulogy to a Hero, and my Personal Idol
On New Year’s Eve, 2018, one of the most sacred days for Russians, when families get together, as for Christmas, to celebrate the New Year, my grandfather passed away, at 4 AM, from a heart attack. But really, my grandpa has not really been alive for about the last 2 years before that. Sure, he was still breathing. But it was no longer him, not anymore. Dementia finally took over his brain. The last 2 years of his life were not him. Not being able to be left alone at the house. The memory loss of not recognizing anyone, except for my grandma, sometimes. Needing to wear a diaper. Sleeping for 20 hours a day, like a sloth. Those may have been my grandfather’s body, but not my grandpa, the person. So when he passed away, it was a relief of sorts. The idy finally caught up with the mind, stopping breathing only made it “official”Rather than mourn my grandpa, he would want me to celebrate his life. So I shall, with a eulogy.
Who was my grandpa, exactly? Son. Husband. Father. Grandfather. Veteran. Survivor. Refugee. Immigrant. An honorable man. A decorated World War II veteran with a distinguished military career, which cut a promising soccer career short, my grandfather abhorred war, seeing the life-changing affects it has on both soldiers and civilians. He has always maintained that war should only be as the “very last resort”, staunchly opposing the Iraqi War, and before that, Russian bombing campaigns in Chechnya, for example. Himself a victim of anti-Semitism, and having freed concentration camps, he saw firsthand how bigotry can morph into genocide, and was a staunch opponent of racism, preferring to develop friendships with people of different backgrounds, ethnic cultures, and religions. Whether making friends with his Chinese, Irish, and Indian neighbors, or developing relationships with American, Canadian, British, and French soldiers in Berlin, he has always enjoyed learning about other cultures. He was passionate about volunteering, travel, and sports. My grandfather, the athlete and the Army Tanker, was one of the most gentle human beings I have known. He made sure that his family and friends were taken care of. He was always there to provide advice, or just a s a shoulder to cry on. His massages, whether for my father, my grandma, me, or his numerous friends and colleagues, were legendary. A strong family man, he has provided me with the challenge to follow in his footsteps, as well as to do right for my family and friends.
My grandfather had a difficult childhood, having grown up during the Great Ukrainian Famine, You thought the American Great Depression was bad? Try living for days without food because Joseph Stalin initiates the “Holodomor Genocide” against Ukrainians to cease Ukrainian independence. My grandfather, went hungry often, yet managed to survive, despite having so little.
Despite the tough times, my grandfather became an excellent athlete. By age 14, he was playing in the 5th Division of Soviet soccer, under the Dynamo Kiev academy, semi-professionally, as a striker. With 7 goals and 9 assists in 36 game, he may well have been on his way in turning pro. But then, World War II happened.
When the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union, my grandpa’s entire family was in danger. As Jews, they fled to Kazakstan on overpacked trains. These trains were at risk of getting bombed by German fighter jets. The alternative was getting captured by Nazi soldiers, taken to the forests, and getting shot in the back, in cold blood. Two years later, as soon as he turned 18, my grandpa joined the Soviet Army as a Tanker, during one of the worst and most murderous low point of the war for the Soviets, at the Siege of St. Petersburgh. Along with the fighter jets, the tanks provided primary cover for ground troops, saving millions of lives and being at the forefront of repelling Nazi attacks. My grandpa encountered several close calls with death. He had frostbite on both of his ears. It was so freezing that he literally had to take shots of vodka just to be able to feel his body. He was wounded, spending the rest of his life with a piece of shrapnel from a German grenade lodged inside his thigh. This caused him to never play soccer again. Yet he returned after his injury, to keep fighting.
As the Soviet Army repelled the Nazis and eventually entered Germany, my grandpa was right there. He was there during the last desperate days, when German “10 year old kids” were forced into the German Army, and he was forced to kill them, because otherwise they would have killed his comrades. He was there when the Soviet, American, British, and French Armies met, trading food, photographs, and cigarettes with Americans, Canadians, and Europeans. He was there when the Nazis surrendered.
During World War II, my grandfather won 16 medals for valor, including the Soviet equivalent of the Purple Heart. Yet according to himself, the most important task he completed was freeing the concentration camps. Auschwitz. Treblinka. Sobibor. My grandfather has never had a single nightmare from the war, nor PTSD….yet what he saw in the concentration camps left him with nightmares sometimes. “Charred corpses”. “Human Walking Skeletons”. My grandpa considered freeing the camps as his major achievement throughout the war, closely followed by helping to defeat those who created those camps and committed genocide against his people.
After the war, my grandpa fell in love with a girl, my grandmother, and married her. She had one condition: quit smoking cigarettes. Many people today can’t quit even with packs, pills, and gum. My grandfather did it cold turkey, and never had a cigarette since. Love was his only medicine. He was at the forefront of building infrastructure throughout Ukraine, managing the building of roads and highways. My grandma and him had just one child, my father, who had a happy childhood filled with love, skiing in the winter, and summer resorts in the summers.
Yet things in the Soviet Union were not good, especially for Jews. Frequent anti-Semitism meant that Jews were passed over for jobs. They were beat up. My grandpa has relatives and friends who have just “disappeared”. After my mom and dad married and I was born, my grandfather, a World War II hero, and so vital to building out the Soviet infrastructure, risked everything, left his friends and much of his family behind, and immigrated with us to the United States. He has always admired the US, since talking to American troops in Berlin and keeping some of their photographs. He believed in capitalism, seeing how Socialism deprived so many of the motivation to work hard, eroded adequate customer service, and left undersupplied products way below demand, creating hours-long lines. But most of all, he moved to the United States, so I, his only grandson, could obtain full opportunities as an American, where I would be judged on my skills and character, not by religion, like he sometimes was.
In the United States, my grandpa immediately set out to learn about his new country. A foreign language is difficult for people over 70 to learn, let alone computers, yet he learned both. He learned about American history. Followed the economy. Followed current events. Became an American citizen. Read the papers, in both Russian and English, and watched network news in both languages. Voted in not just every presidential election, but every state and town one as well. Met Mayors Tom Menino and Marty Walsh, as well as Governor Charlie Baker. My grandpa loved watching sports, so he learned football and baseball, sports that were foreign to him. He loved cowboy movies and shows, especially “Walker Texas Ranger”. More than anything, he was always there for his family. Whenever something needed fixing or maintenance, he was there. Whenever a new house was purchased and moved into, he helped with the maintenance, the upkeep, and the cleaning. He remained active, signing up for gyms, swimming in pools, jogging and exercising every morning. He loved being outdoors, as well as playing cards. Always active and athletic, my grandpa played badminton, tennis, and danced with my grandma all the way into his early 90s.
Most importantly, my grandfather made sure that my family was happy and taken care of. We always had food on the table. Every birthday, New Year, or Jewish holiday, there would be money waiting to be cashed, despite him getting minimum wage of about $500 a month from the American government. Up until high school, he would come by every other day with my grandma (my other grandparents would come by on the other days) and cook dinner, help with homework, or play soccer or throw a football around in the backyard. He taught me Texas Hold’em, and played chess with me. Every summer, he would take my grandma and me to a cottage at Dennisport, Cape Cod. He went with me to Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins, and Revolution games. He would watch the Boston sports teams play with me, but his favorite sport was soccer, which he once had so much promise in. Whenever we watched European soccer leagues or the World Cup, he would analyze the action on the field, telling me what should have been done, and analyzing every strategy. I wish I could be the soccer player he was, but unfortunately, I am much less athletic or cooler than him; my soccer dream ended after high school.
Never again will I celebrate New Years’ with my grandfather. We shall not exchange gifts, take shots of vodka, nor drink champagne on January 1st, at 12:00 AM .It is so easy to just get depressed, and to hate New Years’ Eve. But My grandfather would never want that. Rather than leave a bitter taste every day for New Years’ he would want me to make resolutions, and then to actually follow through on them.
So here’s mine. I will try to be at least 50% the man my grandfather was. I shall do my best to stand up, and speak out for social justice, common decency, and human rights, even when doing so is unpopular or inconvenient. I shall enjoy the diversity of my friends, neighbors, and work colleagues, learning about their cultures, trying different foods, going to new parties, and places of worship, and celebrations. I shall travel more, take more photographs, and laugh more. I shall continue playing and watching sports, work out, and stay active and fit. And when I start my own family, I shall do all in my power to provide them with the best life I can, investing in every opportunity to continue achieving the American Dream that my grandfather always wanted for me.
Grandpa, rest in peace, and rest in power. I shall always love you. I shall always cherish the 30 years of lessons and memories that you have taught me. Time and space certainly makes the grief easier, yet not one day goes by, when I don’t miss your jokes, your stories, your companionship in watching cowboy movies, or discussing our passion for sports, especially soccer. And one day, we there will come a point when I, and our entire family, shall be reunited once again, this time forever.