Recently, I dragged my children to the most southern part of Brooklyn on a gray, drizzly day to attend a parade for Soviet veterans on the 70th Anniversary of the end of World War II. Considering my ambivalence toward Brighton Beach, my antipathy towards fellow immigrants who voluntarily ghetto-ize themselves to the point of not even having their children learn English, and my general abhorrence of any and all things USSR, the question was: Why?
The first thing we did was buy flowers. That’s how it was done in the former Soviet Union, and COJECO, the organization sponsoring the parade, had specifically encouraged spectators to bring some.
My 15-year-old, he of the something sardonic to say for every occasion, wondered, “Is this just for Jews, or are we giving flowers to anti-Semites, too?”
I honestly didn’t know. While, initially, only Jews had been allowed to leave the Soviet Union (as part of a “family reunification” program, certainly not because all might be less than utopian within the Worker’s Paradise), non-Jewish relatives soon followed. In the wake of World War II, Brighton Beach had one of the largest Jewish populations in the world. Now, however, you see as many crosses amongst Russian-speaking residents as you do Stars of David.
About 20 or so elderly veterans turned up for the parade. Some were wheeled by their children, some rode in motorized scooters, while others were still proudly walking on their own. There were men as well as women, representatives of the Army as well as the Navy. They wore traditional uniforms, or merely had medals pinned to the lapels of their jackets. Another dozen people or so carried black and white photographs mounted on stands featuring photos of veterans who had passed away, or their decorations sewn onto pillows. Finally, close to 100 people came to watch and cheer them on.
I told my daughter to give individual flowers to people who were wearing medals.
“Why?” she wanted to know.
“As our way of saying thank you for them having fought a long time ago to keep us safe.”
That made perfect sense to her. And you could see that it meant a lot to the vets, too.
Celebrating the end of World War II isn’t the big deal in America that it was back in the USSR. There, veterans were feted as heroes. Here, a good part of the population can’t even recall what the war was fought over, much less who’d participated, and how much had been sacrificed. (The USSR lost 11 million soldiers, compared to the USA’s 400,000, and that’s not counting Soviet civilian deaths.) When they immigrated, these veterans left all that behind. (Another thing many left behind was their medals. My grandfather, for instance, wasn’t allowed to take his out of the USSR, him now being a traitor to the state and all. Rules changed down the line, and family members who arrived later were able to bring some.)
The uniforms worn by many were decorated with Soviet insignias. A few red hammer and sickle flags were waved. Usually, when I see those symbols on American t-shirts or baseball hats, I am struck by the urge to ask whether their owners would be equally as comfortable wearing flags of the Confederacy or South Africa. But here, on this particular day, they didn’t bother me as much.
Mainly because we were honoring people who’d gone to hell and back and lived to tell about it under that flag. Only to find out a few decades later that everything they’d fought for, and their friends had died for, was a sham. It was bad enough when Khrushev revealed the hideous crimes committed under their WWII leader Josef Stalin. Can you imagine how they felt as more and more gruesome information was declassified after the collapse of the Soviet Union?
Damn it, after all that, these folks deserve a parade, and cute little children coming up to give them flowers and thank them for their service. Cute little children who, it’s a fact, would not have existed had Hitler been successful. These men and women are not going to be around forever (though I was amazed at how spry some of them, in their 90s, still were, miraculously.) We should pay our respects before it’s too late.
So that’s my political reason. But I also had a personal one.
As I said above, my mother’s father had served. (My father’s father was killed at the battle of Kursk; his mother worked as an Army nurse.) My mother’s father was very proud of his service. He’d wanted to make a career in the Soviet navy, but that wasn’t really an option for Jews. Still, he retired with the more than respectable rank of Captain, and always thought of himself as one, even after he was stripped of his medals for daring to follow his disloyal children to the United States.
As a parent, I often think about his choice. He’d been a true believer. And yet he gave all of it up–the decorations, the parades, the honor, the life–and stood, stripped of accolades he’d rightfully earned, to be duly shamed by Communist Party members in a traditional, public ceremony, all for the sake of his two daughters. If he could do all that, I could certainly suck up some of my objections to Brighton Beach.
At the parade, two men were walking side by side, wearing the exact same brimmed Navy caps as my grandfather wore (his original had been taken away, too, but he bought a replacement in the States). I told my daughter to go give them flowers. And then I took a picture.
I sent it to my mother. She cried.
She sent it to her sister. She cried.
To answer my initial question from above: That’s why I did it.