Interviewed by Carol Zuckert (through interpreter)
March 17, 1999
CZ: I am interviewing Viktorya Messina in Vera's home, apartment, here in Council House, and I'm going to ask her a number of questions.
VM: Two nineteen.
CZ: Date of birth? [talking in Russian] Very good. And so what I want to know is information about your background, where you grew up, and I want to ask you question by question. But you can give me information in addition.
VM: And I give you information.
CZ: Terrific. OK. So, how many people are in your household?
CZ: And who are they?
VM: My daughter and granddaughter.
CZ: Live with you here, in Council House.
VM: No, no, no, no. In Council House only me.
CZ: Only you. Do you have to be a certain age to live here?
VM: Yes. After 65.
CZ: You have to be 65 or older. You're 65?
VM: No, I am 76.
CZ: And you? (To a friend?)
Friend: I'm an seventy ...
CZ: Never mind, never mind, I won't ask.
CZ: And do you know how old I am?
CZ: No, you should never say! 61. That's very good, very good.
VM: I have to say 56.
CZ: That's better.
CZ: That's altogether better. Very good, OK. So, only in your household here at Council House you live alone, OK. What were your parents' names? Your mother and dad?
VM: They are died many years ago.
CZ: Yes, many years ago.
VM: My mother was Kraina.
CZ: And her last name, married name?
VM: Kraina Fish.
CZ: And your father's name?
VM: Max Fish.
CZ: Little name.
CZ: Your father's name?
VM: No not Fish. Fish is my mother's name.
CZ: So your father was Michaelman.
VM: No, he is Max. His name was Max.
CZ: Oh, I got you. And how do you spell Michaelman?
CZ: OK, good, that's the father. And your husband's name was?
VM: I have many husbands. But what husband do you want? [talking in Russian]
CZ: So what are you trying to say?
VM: Have had two husbands.
CZ: Just two? I thought you were going to say 20 after all of that.
VM: When people laugh...
CZ: Gay, happy...crazy, you can say.
VM: No, no crazy.
CZ: No, crazy in a general, loose sense, not really dippy.
VM: Another word for joke?
CZ: Plays games, but, makes fun, haves a good time, make light, have fun. Silly? OK, so your first husband?
CZ: Last name Messin?
VM: No, Efim.
CZ: OK, Efim.
CZ: M-e-s-s-i-n-e. Not Messina? That's the last husband? What about the first husband.
VM: My first husband. My second husband is...
CZ: Another last name?
VM: No. First or second?
CZ: You tell me.
VM: First, Efim Messin.
CZ: This is the first husband?
VM: Yes, first husband.
CZ: Second husband?
VM: Zynoviy Bersursky.
CZ: Now how come you use Messina's name since he was your first husband? Help Vera. So, the first husband, you use his last name?
CZ: Is that what you do?
Vera: She used last name and then she remarried, she used the name from first husband.
VM: My daughter have last name Messina and I Messina but I divorced him but I Messina because my daughter is Messina.
CZ: I understand, very good. Thank you. Now your children's names?
VM: Julia Florinskaya.
CZ: And she is, where is she?
VM: In Tucson now. She studying at University.
CZ: Oh, she's a university student.
VM: My granddaughter.
CZ: Oh, Julia's your granddaughter? I was wondering about the age.
VM: Yes, my granddaughter. My daughter is Natasha Florinsky.
VM: No, Florinsky. She don't want Florinskaya.
CZ: So it's English version of that. OK, good. And what does she do, where is she, your daughter?
VM: My daughter study in New York in medical school.
CZ: Is she a physician?
VM: She is a doctor. In Russia she was a doctor.
CZ: What kind of a doctor?
VM: Plastic surgery. I was also plastic surgeon.
CZ: I see, very good, very good. We're gonna get there. So you were born, where were you born? Which part of Soviet Union?
VM: Moscow. I born in Moscow and Natasha and Julia was born in Moscow.
CZ: Did you live in Moscow most of your life?
CZ: And then you came right from Moscow to Tucson?
VM: Yes. Maybe in 1991.
CZ: Your daughter and granddaughter came here in 1991, and by the help of HIAS, how did they get here?
VM: My first husband live in Portland, Oregon and lived there many years. Twelve years or more.
CZ: Before 1991?
VM: Yes. And Natasha is his daughter.
CZ: So that's how she came. And she stayed in New York? Has she been in New York?
CZ: Where did she live?
VM: In Tucson.
CZ: Oh, she lived in Tucson before New York?
VM: Yes. She lives in New York only one year.
CZ: OK, so you were a physician, a plastic surgeon. You studied surgery?
CZ: Where did you go to school? Medical college?
VM: When or why?
CZ: Where. All of them. Where. Yeah, Victoria, back to Viktorya.
VM: Viktorya went to school in Moscow and graduated from medical institute. She has a D
CZ: PhD or MD?
VM: A PMD. Full professor.
CZ: What's the PMD?
VM: Professor Medical Doctor.
CZ: So you're both a professor and...what does that mean? I don't understand, because that's different than here.
VM: American don't have doctor.
CZ: No, we do, but not a professor. We have an MD but not a professor.
CZ: PhD and MD?
VM: Yes, and she used to work as a professor.
CZ: I'm sorry, am I making you crazy?
VM: She worked as a professor.
CZ: So you taught plastic surgery?
CZ: And where was that, same institute you went to?
CZ: And what was the official name of that?
VM: Um, in American? Um, ...Special Institute of the Dermatology and Plastic Surgery.
CZ: And how come you decided to do that? How did you decide to be a plastic surgeon?
VM: I worked many years as a surgeon on people's body, many years, 30 years of plastic surgery. Very interesting.
Vera: She said that the plastic surgery is easier than the surgery of the body.
VM: Yes. Sick stomachs.
CZ: Oh, oh, I see, I see, OK. Very hard.
VM: In America, did not woman who operated in own people body.
Vera: She said that in America you have not woman surgeons.
CZ: General surgeons. There are some but not very many. Especially in surgery. I'm sure you know. The women in medical...pediatricians, gynecologists.
VM: It is very hard here. In Russia many women. Very hard work.
CZ: The fact that you were a woman, did that interfere at all with getting into medical school? The fact that because she was a woman, was it difficult at all to get into medical school?
CZ: More women than men?
VM: About even.
CZ: So the fact that, I'm making an assumption now, were you Jewish?
CZ: Was that, did that, was that a problem, getting into medical school?
Vera: When she entered the medical school it was not so great anti-Semitism.
CZ: When was that?
Vera: Anti-Semitism was very great after the war.
CZ: After World War II?
Vera: Yes. She studied before.
CZ: Was when you graduated?
VM: I graduated in 1947.
CZ: So you're kinda right there. So that made it OK for you. Why did you decide to become a doctor?
VM: My father was a doctor. He graduated from first medical institute, I graduated from first medical institute, my daughter graduated from first medical institute.
CZ: I see.
Vera: Family profession.
CZ: That's not any easy profession, is it? You were lucky.
Vera: Her father was a professor also.
CZ: Isn't that nice. So, then after the war when you were practicing and when you were a professor, did the anti-Semitism interfere?
Vera: She two times tried to enter the aspirantura. What you call the school after the medical school?
CZ: Post graduate?
VM: Post graduate yes.
Vera: Where the people get PhD, what is aspirantura?
CZ: Well, mostly what happens in this country when you're a physician you don't get a Ph.D. Usually you go to medical school and you do your internship, then you do your residency, and then sometimes you'll do a post-doc, a post-doctoral st udy for some subspecialty, only. But you don't go back, usually, for a Ph.D. once you're in medicine.
VM: And when the doctors get the professorship, if the doctor teaches in the medical school, he is a professor?
CZ: He's a professor but he usually does not have a Ph.D. He can have a Ph.D. but not necessarily have a medical doctor.
VM: In Russia it is not so. After we graduated school, medical institute, we have only a name of a doctor, a physician. And after this, if they want to have Ph.D. they have to graduate from aspirantura. They have to make, write a dissertati on. At work, I wrote four books and more than one hundred articles.
CZ: More than a hundred articles? What was the subject of the books. What were the titles of the books?
VM: It's about plastic surgery.
CZ: Plastic surgery. And were these textbooks for the University, textbooks to be used for students?
CZ: I see, very interesting.
VM: It was many years ago. Now I live in a country house, I live in Tucson.
CZ: Are you happy?
VM: But all my life in Moscow I am Russian, my friend, my brother lives in Moscow and I like Moscow, I like my friends, all my life.
CZ: When did you come to Tucson exactly? You came you said a few years ago, like five years ago? So that's very hard. I mean that has to be so difficult to come to a strange country.
VM: Yes, it is very difficult.
CZ: Because I've moved from cities and it's very difficult and I speak the language.
VM: I don't speak language.
CZ: But you have friends and that helps. But your brother, your brother didn't want to leave?
VM: He has very big family. He is an engineer.
CZ: Did he have a chance to come here? Did he have the opportunity?
VM: No, no, no. He don't want, he want not.
CZ: The wife, she or he?
VM: He cannot, no money.
CZ: So how come you wanted to? Why did you want to?
VM: I want go to Moscow and see my brother. My daughter and my granddaughter live in Tucson. They are citizens. They like Tucson, they like America.
CZ: So that's why you're here.
VM: She is young, I am an old woman. I try live with them.
CZ: When you came, and now they're in New York.
VM: Tucson is very good city, very good.
CZ: But it's not your home. I understand totally. So, I want to know about your Judaism because a lot of people that were in Russia, the state of Russia, the country of Russia, didn't practice much Judaism, being Jewish.
VM: No. My father and mother, no. No language, Yiddish.
CZ: They knew Yiddish.
VM: Yes, but in our house they did not speak Yiddish. I don't know.
CZ: Did anybody read Hebrew?
CZ: Were you Jewish or did you think of yourself as Jewish?
VM: I am Jewish but I don't know the language, don't know, in Moscow one synagogue.
CZ: After the communists, before the communists?
VM: Before, all my life.
CZ: All your life there's only one synagogue in Moscow?
VM: In Moscow.
CZ: Do you know how many Jews there were in Moscow? How many Jewish people.?
VM: Many Jewish people but in synagogue goes only old men.
CZ: And your dad didn't, your father didn't.
Vera: We cannot. If we, went to the synagogue and institute, or on the job, they know about this, it was very bad for us. The people who attended the synagogue, it was for these people very bad.
CZ: They made it hard.
CZ: I'm sure, that's the anti-Semitism.
Vera: And not only anti-Semitism it is the communism ... atheism, you know atheism? And we cannot, for Jews in the institute, in the university, if they attended the synagogue it was very bad for them because they cannot, they have to be ath eist.
CZ: You have to be an atheist, I hear you.
CZ: So, is that something you miss? Do you feel wanting, a lack of? No, your Judaism? Does it feel important at all now? No? Not when you're not used to it, right? Is that right?
Vera: Yes, she don't used to it, yes. And we cannot speak Yiddish.
VM: We cannot speak English, we cannot speak Yiddish.
CZ: We don't use Yiddish very much any more.
Vera: You speak Yiddish?
CZ: I know about 25 words. That's all.
VM: I also know a few words.
CZ: See, we're the same. Only because my mother and my grandmother spoke Yiddish and I wanted to know what they were saying.
VM: So, in Russia also.
CZ: So you come here and you're not interested because it's nothing you ever did.
VM: What about you?
CZ: What about me? I've gotten older. I've become very interested in my Judaism. I get older and I'm very interested in it. I study with rabbi, I study Torah with a rabbi, I take special classes, so I'm very interested. But I didn't used to be, and in my life, I even had times where I had no Judaism in my life. None, none. So there have times, when I was in my 30s and 40s, when I was 30 and 40 years old when I had no Judaism. Virtually. But now it feels good to me. Well, I wonder about God and I think, it's just, I need, I feel like I need the spiritual connection, the feeling of God and the feeling of, just, it's comforting. It feels good and comfortable to me. And I think it has to do...
Vera: Where born your grandmother?
CZ: Kiev. Small town near Kiev, in Ukraine. So my grandmother and my grandfather. My mother was born in Chicago, Illinois, where I was born, but my mother's two oldest brothers were born in Russia. They came over with my grandmother. My gra ndfather came first then my grandmother with the two boys, the oldest children.
CZ: Before 1910. Sometime before 1910. Big migration. So, you don't feel any comfort from that? But my grandparents were very Orthodox. My grandfather ... That's a difference, that's a big difference. And as a child my mother kept a Kosher home. See, you didn't have any of that. Right? Is that true? None of that.
CZ: So you're just Jewish on paper.
VM: Yes, only. We cannot do it in Russia and we cannot be used to United States.
CZ: It's very hard for you. So do you have faith in anything? Do you have faith in God? Are you still atheists? Is that true? I mean, I just want to know. So being Jewish doesn't mean anything? Do you know that? So being Jewish doesn't mean anything except on your official papers, is that right?
VM: Yes, in Russian was so.
CZ: Here too.
Vera: Here I cannot say that here is. Many people ....Viktorya on holiday go to synagogue.
VM: Only holiday.
CZ: Oh, but you do go?
CZ: Oh, you go to Anshai. When do you go. On the high holy days?
VM: Only holidays.
CZ: Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur?
VM: Yes, New Year, Rosh Hashanna, Pesah.
CZ: You go to Seder?
VM: Oh yes, oh, two years I....
CZ: You made the Seder?
CZ: At your house?
VM: Yes, yes, yes.
CZ: How come? Why?
VM: We read.
CZ: From the haggada.
Vera: It was nice.
VM: It's nice. The whole five years when I live in Tucson the holiday Pesah is a holiday, I had matzoh
CZ: Only matzoh?
VM: No, no, no. Very nice. Two days.
CZ: Oh, just for the first two days, not for the whole eight days. I see. Any other days you celebrate besides Passover and Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashannah, any other days?
CZ: Do you do anything else? I know I'm being nosy.
Vera: Make yatza for her father.
CZ: Oh, your tight. So you recognize. Do you say Kaddish?
Vera: She cannot say Kaddish but in synagogue she stand up when the service go.
CZ: Do you go to synagogue any other Friday night?
Vera: She goes to the holidays the synagogue, on holidays and then the yatza and sometimes Shabat.
CZ: How often.
VM: Oh Shabat is very nice.
CZ: Do you have Shabat dinner?
VM: My daughter like Shabat.
CZ: But you don't do it yourself like you do Seder.
Vera: Every Friday night.
CZ: Me too, definitely not. But sometimes, light candles, wash hands. Good, good. So, is there anything, would you like more connection with your Judaism? No, you have enough. It's what you want, the way you want it now?
VM: Yes, yes. I read many books on Russian but literature books about Jewish. Fiction. You know Thomas Mann?
CZ: You bet.
VM: You know these books Thomas Mann. He was, and his brother?
CZ: I don't know the brother. Oh, Joseph and His Brother, yes, I've read those. Yes, I see. OK. I don't think I've ever read that actually.
VM: Oh it is very nice.
CZ: Thomas Mann is heavy.
Vera: Did you read Feuchtwanger? It's by a German writer.
CZ: Vonnegut? No, what's the name?
CZ: Did I ask you your date of birth? I didn't did I? Date of birth? Birthday? When you were born? I didn't ask, did I?
CZ: No, I asked how old you were but I didn't ask your date of birth.
VM: March 5, 1923.
CZ: Very good.
VM: Very good.
CZ: Are you a citizen?
Vera: No, she is waiting.
CZ: With you, like with you. Let me think. Is there anything that you think I'd be interested in knowing? Am I finished, is that what you're saying?
Vera: Yes. Yes or not?
CZ: Pretty much. I mean, unless there something you...
VM: What is your question? You have question more?
CZ: I think not. Do you have something you want to tell me?
VM: In Russian I tell you.... But in English...
CZ: Oh, but Vera can translate. I think we're probably finished. Thank you very much. Can we make a date to talk to you? Make a date, a time, now? Make a date now for next week?
Vera: I can give you many people. I can give you people every Friday.
CZ: I'd love it.
Vera: Every day.
VM: She can.
CZ: The interview is finished at about 5:00.