Birobidzhan: Tracking Down Faces From 1995

In the past few days, as we've gathered information on Birobidzhan, we've also tried to track down people I met in 1995. I wrote about Boris Kaufman at the old synagogue, and reported that his mentor, Oleg Shavulski, left for Germany two and a half years ago. We emailed Oleg to ask why he chose to leave, but haven't heard back yet.

For others, I've heard the same refrain over and over: "He [or she] moved to Israel." Alexander Yakubson, who moved to Israel in 1991, then returned to Birobidzhan in 1995, has once again moved there. David Waiserman, who in 1995 told us, "My parents built this city. They are lying in its graveyard. How can I just pick up and go?" has moved there as well.

Maria Shokhtova, who was a Yiddish teacher at School No. 2, also moved to Israel. And we were told that Ira, a former student who would now be 20, moved to Germany with her family several years ago.

We did manage to find two others who have remained in Birobidzhan. When I called a number I'd been given for Yakov Sherman, his wife answered. I explained who I was, and said I'd love to meet with him. "He's not well," she said. "He suffered a stroke two years ago. He can't really talk or have company."

I told her we had a photograph to give him, and she came to meet us in town. She brought us chocolates, and said that when she told him I'd called, he remembered me. Yakov was a warm, welcoming man when we met in 1995, and I felt sad for him, and also for her. It was a stark reminder that anything can happen in 10 years, and that not all the news we'll hear over this trip will be good.



Mikhail Diment is one of just three Jewish residents Lisa interviewed in 1995 who stayed in Birobidzhan rather than emigrating abroad. (David Hillegas)

The other person who stayed in Birobidzhan, Mikhail Diment, met us at the Vostok Hotel. I remembered him as a thin, tired-looking man, but now he looks great, especially for a man of almost 70. His face was ruddy and full, his eyes lively. I asked him why he'd stayed in Birobidzhan when so many left, and here's what he told me:

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"I have a daughter who lives here; she works for the railroad. My son-in-law works for the railroad, too. And we're lucky enough to live in the same dvor [apartment block] -- we see each other all the time.

My son-in-law has an elderly mother who's not in good health; she had a stroke and can't walk anymore. So it would be difficult for them to move, of course. What would they do, just abandon her? Of course not.

... If I were alone, I would have loved to go [to Israel]. And my wife likes it there, too... But we have everything we need here -- our family, we have a dacha, we even have a dog! There's no reason for us to go."

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So many people have left -- and yet the Jewish community has seen a resurgence of activity. Tomorrow, we'll try to sum up what all these changes might mean.

By Lisa Dickey |  September 14, 2005; 4:56 AM ET
Previous: Birobidzhan - New Rabbi, New Synagogue | Next: Birobidzhan: The Jewish Community Lives On

Comments

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I live in Argentina and I want to know if I can contact by email any Waiserman, my grandparents were Jacob Waiserman and Aida Reifman and became to Argentina around 1905 from Bessarabia o Soroki, my grand mother were from Briceva but i dont know if jacob was from Birobidzhan. Thanks Silvia waiserman
waisercat@arnet.com.ar

Posted by: silvia | November 18, 2005 10:40 PM

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