Bukharian Jews Remember Past, Look to Future
This feature piece was published in the Jewish Press on June 24, 2005. It is my first published article in a non-campus newspaper. This article describes the Bukharian Jewish veterans of the Second World War.
One of the American Jewish community's greatest success stories is that of the Bukharian Jews, who number around 50,000 in New York. In the early 1990s, when many of them immigrated here from the former Soviet republics of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, they were commonly misidentified as "Russians."
Over the past decade, the community created its own newspapers, theaters, yeshivot, synagogues, and a museum, as it worked to preserve its unique culture and identity within the larger Jewish community.
On May 8, the Congress and Center of Bukharian Jews of America held a 60th Anniversary of Victory celebration in the auditorium of Forest Hills High School. Though the fascist armies never reached Central Asia, the region was strongly affected by the war, sending thousands of its young men and women to combat and labor, and accepting hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe.
The war served to bring the Ashkenazi and Bukharian communities closer together. Labor veteran Sonya Starayeva, 85, worked at a military hospital and lost her cousin and father in combat. During the war, her family hosted the Rapaport family. After the war, the Rapaports returned to Poland, but the friendship between the two families continued for decades afterward.
Labor veteran Markiel Kulangiyev, 88, worked as an engineer in the Karakalpak region during the war. Because the "breadbasket" that is Ukraine was occupied, Kulangiyev was responsible for creating irrigation in the desert region in order to grow wheat for the war effort. His household sheltered four Muscovite Jewish families, which also resulted in lasting friendships. He lost thee family members in combat.
Of the 72 living veterans honored in Forest Hills, 23 were labor veterans, which means they were involved in military hospitals, manufacturing, and transporting materials to the front lines. Roza Fuzailova was 12 when the war began, and every Sunday, her school tended to the wounded soldiers, helping them write letters to their families. The Bukharian community suffered heavy losses; before the war, the Jewish community of Kazalinsk, Kazakhstan numbered 150. It lost 25 of its men in combat. Of the 5,000 known Bukharian Jews in the Red Army, 2,000 never returned home.
The Forest Hills celebration began with a series of patriotic songs. Semyon Shaulov, a National Poet of Uzbekistan, recited poems honoring fellow veterans. Congress president Boris Kandov serenaded them by dancing and handing out flowers. "I am proud that you have lived to this day to be with us," he told them. "We are grateful to you for preserving peace."
Following a moment of silence, the celebration took a traditional turn, with Moshiach Barayev singing in Bukhori, the language of Central Asian Jews. He wore a purple and gold joma robe. Several younger performers followed Barayev with popular Bukharian songs, with some of the veterans dancing in the aisles.
Among the speakers was Turkmenistan's permanent representative to the UN, Aksoltan Atayeva, who declared, "The memory f the martyrs lives,the holiday unites us all." Rabbi Michael Miller of the Jewish Community Relations Council told the assemblage, "Mazel Tov on the 60th anniversary and everything you have accomplished."
The celebration concluded with the debut of the film "Upholding Peace and Spring," produced by Ben Isakov. The documentary depicts a diverse collection of wartime experiences, including partisans, labor veterans, and entertainers. Scenes of fireworks, parades, and the raising of the red banner over a ruined Reichstag show the zeal and patriotism of Soviet Jews. In every allied country, the Jewish communities put all their strength into defeating fascism and rescuing their brethren.
Most of the veterans interviewed immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since then, they have become observant as Jews, eager to preserve their cultural traditions and record their stories.
Following the film ,the festivities continued at a nearby restaurant, where a representative of the Russian government gave out medals. The heroism of Bukharian Jewish veterans was also recognized with proclamations from the governments of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Russia, Israel, New York Governor George Pataki, Senator Hillary Clinton, and Congressman Anthony Weiner.
Next on the community's agenda is the upcoming completion of the Bukharian Jewish Community Center, which will be America's largest Bukharian synagogue and cultural center.