In My Own Words

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holocaust-survivorsBy Paul Shkuratov for

I never met my grandfather. He was born in 1918 in West Ukraine. He was a very religious Jew and the Ukraine is a very antisemitic place which is against not only Jews but against blacks, Mexicans, Latinos, and everybody else who is not white. My grandfather’s family was very poor. My mother said that my grandfather always prayed on Shabbos. They had a synagogue, and if he didn’t go, he would pray outside the apartment. When my grandfather went to high school nobody knew that he was a Jew until he put on his Star of David. Then everybody started to call him a dirty Jew.

Nobody knew that the Holocaust would happen. In 1939 when the Nazis occupied Eastern Europe, life was even worse. It started to get worse and worse and my grandfather had no choice but to leave the country. He was married by this time and my mother was born in 1936. It was about 1938 when they tried to leave.

They went to a train station to leave the country with all their papers by walking very quietly in the middle of the night. It might have been in Diarozhnva. They were going to Kazakhstan or somewhere it was safe. When they were on the station platform, an officer appeared. My grandfather was trying to explain to the officer that he was a citizen of West Ukraine and was trying to support his country. The officer said that, like every Jew, he was a liar. My grandfather went into his pocket to show him the papers and the officer thought he was going to get a gun. The officer grabbed his own gun and shot my grandfather right there on the platform. My grandfather fell down, but he did not die. My grandfather was in shock and thought he must have  been shot. It was a very great fortune because in his pocket was the blue pushke to support the free state of Israel and it was full of coins. So the bullet was stuck right into the box. It was very lucky and very fortunate.

I don’t know where my grandfather got the pushke. I think it was unusual then for people to have pushkes. I heard this story just once-I think it was from my grandmother and my mother. That’s why I believe that the blue box has brought me and my family fortune.

My mother always told me about living in Kazakhstan during the war. They were always very hungry there. They were always walking around the trees and when things fell down she collected them to feed her family. She was always the last to eat.

After the war, the family went back to Khmelnitsky in Ukraine. My grandfather died after the war. He was killed by a horse in a freak accident.  My mother decided to become a head nurse. She went to the medical university in a city called Zhitomir and studied there for two years to become a nurse, together with her adopted sister. My mother, which surprised me, felt she was a Jew only once. It was when she was going to give a small child a shot and the child called her a dirty Jew. Her parents said, “Don’t worry, she doesn’t know what it means.”

I was born in Khmelnitsky. My mother’s parents were both Jewish. My father had a Jewish mother but his father was not Jewish. My mother thought I should have a Jewish passport, but my father disagreed. He said, “He already has a hard life because he’s a Jew, why don’t we give him a Russian passport.” My parents listed me as a Russian. But it didn’t matter, because everyone knew I was a Jew because of my face. There is a saying in Russia: People punch you in the face not by passport, they punch you in the face by face.

My grandmother died when I was eleven years old. It was hard for me when she died, because not only did I lose a great person, but I also lost all the Jewish recipes. I remember the gefilte fish she used to make, and the kishka. My grandmother was buried in the Jewish cemetery. We visited the cemetery many times when I was a child.

My grandparents and parents spoke Yiddish all the time. When my mother wanted to say something bad about me, she would say it in Yiddish. My uncle would tell me what it meant. My parents celebrated Rosh Hashanah and Pesach, but in our home, not in the synagogue. We ate matzah at Passover, but not so anyone would know. My mother fasted on Yom Kippur.

My first high school was a block away from my apartment building. More than half of my class were Jewish. Later, I had to go to another school where there were no Jews. I was beaten at my new school. I tried to complain and tell my parents I didn’t want to go anymore. I was the only Jewish student at the new high school. There was a large Jewish population in the city, but not at my school. I felt that I was a Jew, because all the students hated me. They put swastikas on my jacket,  all over my body. My teacher was Jewish and she tried to protect me as much as she could, but when she wasn’t at school it was twice as bad. Now she lives in San Francisco. I met her on the bus a few years ago. We started to talk, and I asked her if she remembered the students who hated me. She said, “I hope they’re dead!”

My father died in 1987, three weeks before my 18th birthday. Before my birthday my father said, “Paul, I have a surprise for you.” It was a shaving machine. I kept it until I came to the U.S., but I didn’t use it any more and I threw it away. And I don’t shave anymore! My father was a dental technician. He died from cirrhosis, but he didn’t drink. He had liver disease for eight years before that. I think he had a genetic disease.

After high school and the army,  I decided to become a professional musician. I went to music school and they had tests for everybody. I was already a professional drummer, but I wanted to go higher. When the director listened to my voice he looked like he liked it. When I came to get the results, I was surprised that I was on a waiting list. I tried again the next year and it was worse. They refused me. The director said, “I want to see your passport.” He looked at my passport and then at me and then he closed it and said, “I don’t believe you. The door is closed at this school and in the Soviet Union. You should go someplace in the Middle East”-meaning Israel-“or the United States.” My life was terrible. After that, I met someone who helped me get into another music school and I became a professional drummer.

There were no synagogues in our city. The only one had been turned into a sport club or a store. Before I left Ukraine there was one small synagogue. Everyone who could leave left for Israel or the U.S.

My uncle was the first one from our family to leave the U.S.S.R. He went to a camp in Italy. There were two agencies there, one for Israel and one for the U.S. He chose the U.S. agency because his son was already in the U.S. My mother came to the United States in 1988 or 1989 to visit with my brother and they liked it and decided to stay. Most of my family is in San Francisco now with some others in New York, Texas, Los Angeles, Israel. No one is left in Ukraine.

When I came to the United States, I wanted to be more religious. A friend brought me and my mother to B’nai Emunah, which was my first synagogue, and I liked it. My first holiday was Tu B’Shevat. After Tu B’Shevat I thought I would come more often. My mother only comes about once a year. I didn’t know what to expect at services. I thought they were interesting and beautiful. I liked the cantor, and the rabbi, and all the people.

I became a very religious Jew when I came to the United states for two reasons-I want to know who I am and I didn’t know anything about my traditions and religion because of the stupid government.  Soon I will become a bar mitzvah. It took me only five months to learn to read Hebrew. Because I’m a musician, I have a good musical ear.

I got my own pushke about five years ago. I got it from Ilse Loewe and I didn’t know what it was. I thought it was just a box to save money. Ilse told me that I should put coins in it and when it was full I should call the phone number on it. I called the JNF, but I didn’t know their office was in San Francisco. Doron called me and we decided to meet. It was bad weather and I gave him the blue box and asked him to drive me to the Sunset. There was almost $81 in the box, which was a lot of money for me. Now I always have a pushke. It takes me about three months to fill it up.

A few years ago I met a nice Jewish Mexican woman and I got married.

I will continue to support Erez Israel as long as I live, not through the JNF, but through the Israel Emergency of the Jewish Community Federation. I think it’s important to support Israel, support the U.S., be a good family man, celebrate all the Jewish and American holidays, be a bar mitzvah, and celebrate Israel independence day-it’s all as important to me not less than a piece of bread or a breath of fresh air. I worry about my friends in Israel. I haven’t heard from them in six months.

I also belong to the Friends of Israel Society of Northern California. It’s part of the Russian Jewish community of San Francisco. We support 900 families in Israel. I do a lot of work for that community and they are very grateful. I’m the only one who speaks English. I will try to involve B’nai Emunah in that community. We’re trying to work with American people. I also belong to Voice for Israel. We support Israel. And I volunteer at the Jewish Home, helping people to celebrate the oneg Shabbat by serving them coffee, cookies, and snacks, and I help them celebrate Jewish holidays. I believe in mitzvahs. I also volunteer at the J, the Jewish Newsweekly. They also publish my letters. My topics are pro-Israel and anti-Bush.

I have two blue boxes in my house. I support the state of Israel, I support the United States. In my opinion Israel has the right to survive and fight back against terrorism. God should allow flowers to land all over the state of Israel. Living in such a beautiful city as San Francisco, I have no fear to be a Jew.

{Paul Shkuratov for}


  1. A good story. I’m so sorry the mean Russian kids drew swastikas on you. I especially like your last two sentences. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. This is a very valuable story of the last three generations of the writer’s family. It provides continuity to the lives of present-day Jewish people.

    I note that Paul’s grandfather, when he left Russia, strove to find a better home in another country. He was not forced to live in a squalid tent on the outskirts of Russia, raising his children and grandchildren to destroy that nation so that they could return to its ruins and set up their own state.

  3. This was captivating and I enjoyed reading it very much. It is a sweet and powerful story. I’M so sorry to read what happened to you in grade school, ignorant people are the very worst L.

  4. My mother lost her father at age 21 and my future husband lost his father when he was 9 years old. Hearing of parents dying before their children is absolutely heartbreaking. I’m sorry you were beaten up in school. I grew up in an area that didn’t have many Jews (I believe there were 5 Jews in the school), but we weren’t beaten up. We were teased, though. People threw pennies at me (this was in the late 1980s). I can’t imagine the discrimination you had to put up with, but I’m very glad you’ve found a happy life in San Francisco!

  5. Thank you very much for sending your Holocaust narrative. I found it very interesting and am very happy to share it with my students. It will also be on file at Elie Wiesel Center For Judaic Study at Boston University.

  6. What a rich family history! And so good that the history was passed on to you. The story about the Blue box saving grandfather’s life, and how you now maintain your own Blue Box, is very moving.


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