Marking the 70th Anniversary of the End of WWII as a Post-Soviet Jew
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the WWII, a symbolic date marked on different days in different parts of the world. Nazi Germany capitulated on April 30, 1945, and in many history books, this day marks the end of the war with Germany. Of course, the conflict continued in the Pacific until September 1945, but for most Europeans, this was the end of the war.
It is a date that is recorded differently in the psyche of the nations that see themselves as participants of that massive conflict. Most likely there will be little to mark this occasion in the American and British media this spring. In Britain, Remembrance Day (Nov. 11th) is widely used to commemorate the lives lost in the sacrifices of that generation. In the United States, you may hear references to WWII around Memorial Day.
The Former Soviet Union marks the victory day on May 9th, the day when the first victory parade was held in Moscow in Red Square in 1945. Every year as a child, I watched the veterans walk down the central street of my city, where I greeted them with flowers and listened to their stories. I wondered what it would be like to have my grandfathers in my life, sharing stories about the war on that day.
I never met either of my grandfathers. In fact, my parents don't really remember their fathers, either; they were just 1 and 2 years old when their fathers kissed their families goodbye, put them on trains headed east, and marched into the conscription office to volunteer to go to the war front. Neither one came back alive, nor do we know where they were buried – or if they were buried at all. In those days, “lost in action” (the military term in Russian is actually "lost without a trace") was all too common, especially in the first days and months of the war, which claimed millions of lives of Soviet soldiers and civilians – close to 40 million total losses estimated. My uncle turned 18 during the war and was drafted, never to return home. He, too, was lost without a trace: no date of death, no grave to visit, no stone to erect.
May 9th was always about three things for me: the parade of the veterans in my town, the big military parade in Red Square (that I would sometimes watch on TV), and the quiet family gatherings, somber in spirit. The sadness of that day belonged to everyone; the many songs that were written and performed on that day spoke about “happiness with tears of sadness in your eyes.” This was the only day when we could mourn and remember my grandfathers.
When I moved to England to attend rabbinical school, there were no commemorations on May 9th, and the military parades in Red Square looked so strange and out of place from a distance. As a young man, I didn't pay too much attention to this, and in fact, I developed a healthy, skeptical view of the way Russians marked that victory. When the Iron Curtain fell, it became painfully obvious that the victors were in much worse shape than the country they defeated, and so I began to question the entire idea of the annual celebration, as did many others.
When I returned to Russia in 2004, I was dismayed to find the country spending millions on military parades while often failing to provide basic needs for the very few remaining veterans of that war. I was angry at the system, but I also got caught up in the spirit of the day by thinking of the war and my grandfathers and my Uncle Moses, whose name I carry as my Hebrew name (Moshe).
For the last seven years, I have largely ignored the day here in America. I called my parents, mostly because I knew they needed to receive that call from me. This year, on the 70th anniversary of that first parade, things will be different.
This year, I will take my parents to a special concert in New York on May 8th, and I will talk about the day and what it means that evening at Shabbat services at my congregation. I will talk to the veterans I know, who somehow survived that devastating war. I will remember my grandfathers and my uncle, people I have never met but whose DNA I carry. I will ignore the parade on the Red Square and all the political madness that surrounds it, and I will work hard not to allow the Russian propaganda machine upset me.
Instead, I will reclaim the part of that day I remember from childhood – honor for the living and memory of the fallen. This year, I will mark the 70th anniversary of this victory in the most personal way I know: by lighting a yahrzeit candle and by telling my children why the sacrifices of my grandfathers mattered. May their memory endure for a blessing.