Moscow: Is there any Deaf Jewish Identity in Russia?

Editor’s note: Mark Zaurov is a German graduate student (MA) at Hamburg University. He is majoring in Deaf Studies (Sign Language, Linguistic and Sociolinguistics, and Culture of the Deaf Community) and minors in History and Education. The education system is different in Germany than it is in the United States. Mark was born in Moscow and emigrated with his parents and deaf sister to Israel at the age of 3. Seven years later, the family moved to Germany.

Recently I was officially invited to Moscow, Russia, by Professor Galina Saitzeva and Mrs. Anna Komarova, Director of the Center for Deaf Studies and Bilingual Education, to deliver a paper about deaf Jewish people and their identity at the Deaf History Conference during the Deaf week organized by the Moscow Deaf Association for former CIS* countries. This conference is usually held in Moscow every five years. The President and the whole presidium of the Deaf Association of Armenian, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan met in Moscow for one week before they all traveled together with the Presidium of The Moscow Deaf Association to Helsinki, Finland to attend the World Federation of Deaf (WFD) meeting discussing the situation of deaf people of former CIS countries.

First of all, I would like to comment about my travel experience to Russia. Moscow is a very big city, much like New York City, and has a huge subway where the trains come every two minutes precisely. In the morning one could see the crowd rushing in down the subway just like the way it was described in Orwell’s novel, 1984. Also it was like in the movie, “Metropolis.” Moscow has four synagogues of which I visited one. There was one place for a library on the second floor equipped with TV/video, and braille devices for blind people. Ironically there was no service for the deaf people. Rightly or wrongly, I tried to evaluate the economic situation in Moscow – the average wage among my acquaintances is about 150 US dollars a month, but it costs twenty dollars to eat in a restaurant per person. It was quite interesting to note that the restaurants were always crowded. They also served Oriental food such as Uzbek cuisine. I would recommend one to try “Pilaw.” I visited President Mr. Bazoev who works at the Moscow Deaf Association. Moscow has nine schools for deaf and hard of hearing children. I visited one of them, the Bilingual school, and had the chance to see the class of Mrs. Elena Silianova (now elected to the DHI Board), where all the children except one have deaf parents. Professor Saitzewa created this class with Mrs. Anna Komarova. One of the very interesting highlights of my stay in Moscow during the Congress was that many deaf people and deaf Jewish people immediately recognized my Jewish-looking face. I was astonished that Russian deaf people were able to recognize me as a Jew. My “chance event” led me to the unexpected and unpredictable experience. In order to allow the truth to be heard in all its purity, this short encounter helped me to understand the central antisemitic tradition of the prior Soviet regime. At this moment when I told them that I am Jewish, they signed that they already knew of this because they recognize my Jewish looking face. I am continuing the chronicle of my experience. The point of interest to me reinforces the fact even now many ofthemdonothavetheofficialterm,“Jewish”intheirpassports as their parents as they declared to the state bureaucracy (government) that their child is a Ukrainian, Kazakh or Uzbek. The passport itself did not change and has the same paragraph five for recording the nationality as it was in the days of my parents in Moscow. Russia used “J” like the Nazis and continued using this after WW II.

Bazoev himself does not know the source of his origin and is probably a descendant of the Jews, because there are no documents about his ancestors as he commented,. The story was not new to me as several other people, for example, from Ukraine told me the same thing. Their parents did this because they didn’t want that their deaf children to have any further problems than they have now. Another reason was that during the war, many Ukrainians looked for Jewish children so they could shoot them. Some Jewish parents removed Jewish record in their passports so as to protect themselves and their children. One Kazakh who also came to the Moscow Deaf Week told me that the young generation has no Jewish identification ( erasure of letter “J” in the passport by their parents) and obtained no knowledge of our religious and cultural traditions. However, some of them experienced a lot of discrimination. He experienced the same kind of antisemitism in Moscow. Moscow people have mentioned to me the acute discrimination waves which were occurring outside of Moscow, especially in Armenia or Kazakhstan. When I asked the person from Kazakhstan, Ireceivedquite different information. But as fate has willed it, I met later a Jewish person from Rostov, who is a student of Design Studies in Moscow. He mentioned to me about his own discriminating experience during his childhood at the deaf school in Rostow. This is what he was told. “Sad that your parents didn’t kill you,” or “niggard/ miser.” He later pointed out that in Moscow he experienced thesamething.Justfiveminuteslaterduringourconversation, a big, drunken man came up to us, began to talk and provoke him. Luckily, Nadya Chaushian, who helped to interpret for me, protected the Rostovien. Nadya herself may be Jewish but doesn’t know it exactly from her deaf parents. Her husband Nikolai, who also has deaf parents, is the first deaf Director of the Moscow Theater School for Deaf. Nadya recognized the drunken man as the same man who gave me an evil look earlier and she excused him. However in my opinion, it looks so that there are now not a lot of prejudices against Jews among deaf people in Moscow and they are probably less antisemitic than in the Ukraine.

Luckily, I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Ginzburgskii, who was born 1914 in Warsaw, Poland. He lives now in St. Petersburg. When the First World War came, his parents ran away to Russia from Poland. In Leningrad, as a child he experienced discrimination at school by the deaf pupils who teased him with the sign “Jewry.” He was seldom at home with his parents, except for three months of holidays when he was bored attending the Synagogue praying. He did not understand what they were talking and mumbling about and wished to play soccer or go to theater. His father, a pious Jew, showed a sense of duty to his son’s deafness by cutting his beard off so that his son could read his lips. His father explained to him that a Jewish deaf child is routinely not obliged to study the Torah, because deaf people were exempt from studying Torah.

One day the new director of the theater, Mr. Sargar (also a deaf Jewish person) who came from Warsaw , advised the children not to tease their friend because of his origin but better to give him another nickname. Mr. Sargar even told them a similar story of his friend who had almost the same name – Ginzburg. He gave the same nickname-sign of Ginzburg to Ginzburskii. Mr. Sargar became the mentor of Mr. Ginzburskii. Throughout my interview, Mr. Ginzburgskii told me a very interesting story about the tragedy of the Deaf people during Stalin’s time. In 1937 the KGB officials gathered 35 Deaf people. Nine of them were Jews and one of them was Mr. Sargar. During the interrogation, the KGB people questioned everyone about their best friends. Then they gathered a another group after this and interrogated them in the same way. As result, many Jewish people from these groups were then killed, and the rest was sent to Siberia for the next ten years. They perished there. However in two years, some of them came back to reveal information about the investigation to prove that they were honest people and did nothing wrong against their country. But these things happened very rarely. Normally, the KGB officers, the so-called famous “Stalin’s troika” (three KGB People), always specified that the arrested people admitted to be guilty because they collaborated with Nazis. When the positive information about the people ashonest, good workers was proved, it was routinely ignored. Mr. Ginsburskii spent a lot of time and money to find their names and their graves. Mr. Ginsburskii would like to collect money to build a monument in memory of these peoples. Unfortunately there is no money for this. His story was a typical story for me from my “Deaf History” studies. We should interview more deaf senior people who survived the Second World War in every country. We should ask them how they survived under these awful circumstances. We need to find more of them in order to gather together evidence across historical boundaries. It is not enough to know (as philosophy does) since one has to succeed not to allow to repeat these terrible tragedies any more. It is important for our next generation to know how we survived.

As I mentioned earlier, many young people don’t have interest in going to the deaf Jewish club in Moscow because, as they say, they are not interested to celebrate the events only in the synagogue. They have other interests. They would like to talk about literature and other cultural events. I want to add that many deaf leaders are Jewish or have one Jewish parent but don’t pay attention to their Jewish identity because they don’t understand the importance of their Jewish heritage for their every day life and think that it is only a religious matter and it is not for them. In my opinion this is a result of more than 80 years of atheism in Russia.

The only Jewish deaf people visiting the Deaf Jewish club are more and more older people. Deaf Jewish people need a deaf rabbi or one Jewish person who has the knowledge of Sign language and Deaf Culture. We are here in Europe and in the United States, and one should be aware of this spiritual and financial poverty in Russia and the other countries of the former Soviet Union and support them as they cannot lead a Jewish life by themselves. The World Deaf Jewish presidium should also look after these Jewish people. Some of these people can not afford to travel to the Jewish Deaf Congress conference such as the one being planned for 2001 in Washington, DC, and among them, for example, is Mr. Ginsburskii who is now 84 years old and could not until now to fulfill his dream to see Israel. I would be happy if one day his dream will come true and he can also meet other deaf Jewish people and a deaf Rabbi, as he never saw one.

CIS is the Society of Independent Countries arranged since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It exists now almost on paper only and not in reality. The CIS consisted of several formal Republics, such as Russia, Ukraine, Byelorussia and other small Republics which were held to get her by the dictatorial leadership of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

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