Interviewed by Carol Zuckert
April 30, 1999
CZ Today is April 30, 1999. And Lee Serwitt and Carol Zuckert are interviewing Mr. Bukhman and his wife is present as well. So, tell me who are your family members?
VB I am Vilyam Bukhman and I was born in Ukraine in small schtettel. This schtettel was named Chichenyk. This is in Vinnitskaya County. And then we used to live in different schtettels, we live maybe eleven years in the Jewish schtettel. And then we came to Odessa, it was in 1937.
CZ Excuse me, one minute. Tell me a little bit about life in your schtettel.
VB I don't remember exactly what happened with me, but I remember that we were very, very poor. I have two brothers, Israel and Illya, and I am the oldest. And we lived with two brothers. And we were very poor because my father was a very sick man. It was during the Civil War in Russia. Bandits want to kill him. And from this time he was trembling, very weak, stressed, and it was years.
CZ Since the time the bandits wanted to kill him his condition kept getting worse.
VB A lot of bandit groups were in Ukraine at that time. And they came to the schtettel and they say: "Jewish, give us gold." And my grandfather, he was a worker, but he was very educated in Jewish and he was a "gabe" in the synagogue. And he was, at this time, in the schtettel, where poor Jewish people lived. The bandits say: "If you don't give us the money, the gold, we kill you." But we have nothing. "So you go with us" said they to my grandfather. They gave him a shovel and he dug a grave. "You prepare this grave for you and we will shot you." And they shot not him, in other places. He was 75 years old at this time.
CZ This is your grandfather?
VB Yes. And after that he could not move, nothing. don't know what happened to him.
VB Yes, paralyzed. And he laid in the bed, and my grandmother, Esther fed him. And one night came two Schkootzen, one was 13 year old, another was 17 years old. They said to Esther, "Give us money. You have a lot of money." And she had not money. They killed her and my grandfather saw what they did. From this time he lived maybe two weeks and also died. In the Yiddish schtettel we have a Ukranian side and when we knew who killed them the people from the Ukranian side arrested the boys.
CZ So this was like a jury of both Ukrainian and the Yiddish type, if you will, that made a decision together.
VB At this time I was born. I was born in 1926. And my mother was eleventh child. She was mazentil. The most young child. And she don't know about this. About that time her two brothers and one sister went to Brazilia and could not write them. Very, very dangerous it was. You can go to the prison.
CZ Because you're writing a letter?
CZ So one of your uncles....
VB Two uncles and one aunt.
CZ Moved to Brazil, or somewhere in South America, you lost contact.
VB Yes. And my mother wanted also go. And my mother and one sister they went to the place on the Ønestr River, it is between Rumania and the Besarabia. The Besarabia is in Moldavia now. Before it was all in Ukraine. And they stopped on the river because my mother's sister was pregnant and she must deliver the baby. And the could not go farther. And they wanted to go to Israel, to Palestine because my mother had a boyfriend, not a boyfriend, a groom, and he waited for her. My mother was a nice woman. A little black, like a Chicano, you know Chicano? People who have maybe in USA also. They travel all the countries.
VB Gypsies, yes. And my father fall in love and she stayed in this schtettel and she was married.
CZ So she wasn't pregnant then.
VB No, her sister was pregnant. And this sister, her husband, one son, one daughter was killed in Mariple by Germans, by Nazis.
CZ Later, because you're talking about '27, right? No, what year are you talking about?
CZ No, you're talking now when your mother met your father. That was 1925?
VB It was 1925, no 1924. In this time was born Lova, my brother, and I was born. And then later was born Israel and Illya. We were poor and I had not enough dresses and shoes.
CZ How old were you?
VB Five years old. I remember when my grandmother died. She came in our house where we lived, then came the robbers and all what we had they took away. And my father's mother, the grandmother on the side of my father, she saw this, I was maybe three years old, she came, she saw...
CZ There's nothing left.
VB Yes, and she sat, like this, on the chair and said "All is empty" and fall and died.
CZ The shock of it.
VB Yes. She was very old. And the second what I remember good, all the summer I go without a hat and shoes. It was, I remember, in 1932, I was six years old . And when I went to the school mother gave me shoes. I remember I have not a coat, it is not very expensive, we have not this. And the first time, when they came to, I was eleven years old and they came to Odessa, this is the first time, my brother, this is my uncle's son, my cousin, he have no children and he buy me clothes and I go and go, I can't remember how many years. I had not a good childhood because I had not toys. Toys, I made myself. I wanted have a ball, I took rags and we made a ball. And when we came to Odessa, in 1937, and I wanted a radio. We could not buy this. And I bought some parts for radio and I made a radio myself. And when the first time the radio begin to speak, the father can't understand, the mother can't understand what's happening! Then I wanted a bicycle. All my life I wanted a bicycle and my father could not buy this. We cannot afford. It was before the war. And when I began to work and I lived in Baku, I came from Baku to Odessa on vacation and I bought the bicycle and I had a lot of fun because it was my dream. Very interesting material, I can write about this. And in 1941 came the war. It was a terrible time.
CZ Excuse me one minute please. What were you doing when you were Odessa?
VB I studied in the school.
LS Your father went for another job?
VB He was an accountant, bookkeeper, yeah. And we had very, very low income.
CZ OK, so this is about 1937 and you're in Odessa and the war is beginning.
VB In 1941.
CZ So this was 1937. You started to talk about 1937, I think. What happened in 1937 to 1941?
VB In 1932 was a very big famine. All the people. It was a very, very hard winter. I remember I sat at home and my mother did not allow me to go out because in our place some people ate children.
CZ Was it a rumor or do you know they did that?
VB They killed the children.
CZ Because they were starving.
VB Yes. And I sit at home and it was a cold winter. I remember this. I saw in the window on the ground, on the snow, dead people.
LS They starved to death.
VB It was very terrible time, very terrible time.
LS In Odessa?
VB Not in Odessa, in Odessa it was not. This was only in the villages. In Odessa it was a little better because who have money, can buy a little, bread, flour, and rice, farina, buckwheat. And my brother and sister and my father's brother who lived in Odessa sometimes gave us a little. We had very good beets and we made sugar.
CZ Beet sugar.
VB It was very good. And sometimes my mother gave me onion, I slice it in pieces, a little salt and I ate this.
LS That was a treat, that was special?
VB No, it was very nice. And the best was makooka. When you prepare the oil from corn.
CZ Corn oil?
VB No, not corn oil. Sunflower. They squeeze this with a big press, and it was very nice because they have a little, little like oil, and I...
CZ Suck on it or chew on it.
VB Ya. And when I studied in the institute I worked in different places. And then in 1943, when I was 17 years old we went from Odessa and we went on the north, north of Moscow it was very cold and we had not warm clothes.
CZ Just shirts to wear, that's all.
VB Yes. And then we went on the south to Uzbekistan and we lived in very small village. And then we went to Fergona. Fergona is a nice town and we lived all the time in it. And in 1943 I went away from my house, my parents, I went to Tashkent. And they invite, some people, they invite us to study, because in the institute were only girls, they could not have men and they say "you don't go" in the army because the army only take 18 and 19 year olds. And I went to study in institute in the railway institute.
VB No, no. An engineer.
CZ Mechanical engineer.
VB Yeah. At this time the life was very bad for me and I lived alone. I lived in house where lived only students.
VB Dormitory. In this place we eat, we sleep. I lived in this place three years, to 1946.
LS Were there other Jewish young men?
VB No, and I was one Jewish boy who lived in this place. There were maybe 400 people but I was one Jewish.
CZ How come?
VB I don't know. And I lived not bad because my appearance is Jewish but is more Russian also. I have not typical Jewish appearance.
LS You fit in with the other people.
VB Yeah, I can good...
CZ Mix well.
VB Ya. And I lived with five Russian people, very nice boys. Mrs Because he was quiet, because he like to study.
VB But in Soviet Union I feel that I am Jewish. When I came to Israel it was very nice.
CZ When were you in Israel?
VB In 1995.
CZ To visit your brothers.
VB Yes, and maybe this year I want to...
CZ After you moved to America you went to Israel for a trip.
VB Yes. Mrs His youngest brother came to us in 1992.
VB In 1992. Mrs And he calls every two weeks because he went in Israel in 1977 and he lived 22 years there.
CZ Alright, so you're in school in...
VB In this institute. At this time it was a rationing system in our country. We received 500 grams of bread per day and some other groceries.
CZ That's all. But you had to cook for yourself? They give you the groceries?
VB Yes. And these boys, they are from Kazakstan and they sometimes went home and brought big apples. [someone stops by, Syrian girl who lives in Ukraine 10 years, speaks good Russian.]
CZ Wait, wait, stop. [recorder turned off]
VB And then in 1946 I returned to Odessa. My mother and father were in Odessa, the Red Army captured Odessa and my mother and father in 1944 returned to Odessa. My brothers and I stayed in Tashkent to study. In 1946 I returned to Odessa. I had one pants, very big, and I have one shirt, like yours, this color
CZ Magenta. That was all you had on your back?
VB I had not shoes. Like slippers. From cartoons. And I came to Odessa.
LS Your mother was shocked to see you.
VB And she went with me, I remember we went in the store and she bought me the clothes, shoes.
CZ How old were you?
VB I was twenty years old. And the shoes she pay for, I remember, 1000 rubles.
CZ That's a lot. Very big money.
VB And in this time in Odessa we have not water, we have not bread, it's very difficult. I went maybe one kilometer and brought buckets with water. And the bread was rationing. We received 200 grams for the people who did not work, and 400 grams of bread for working people.
CZ Some kind of a carrier.
VB Yes. The life was very bad. It was better maybe in 1953 to 1963. It was getting more normal.
CZ So the life was bad because there weren't any supplies? You didn't have any money to buy anything?
VB Because the Soviet Union is a country, now I understand what happened. At this time I can't. Because you don't have relationship with all countries. We have only relationship with Poland, with Bulgaria, with East Germany, Czechoslovakia, they all was very poor. And we were all very poor. The plan of Marshall very quickly lifted the economy of Germany, France and all western countries, and we have nothing and we say no. The western countries are capitalist, imperialist, they want war. And the life very, very slowly became a little better.
CZ So were you working?
VB I begin working in 1950. I finished the institute, I am a mechanical engineer, and I went to Baku in Azerbaijan and I used to work on a big plant. We were repairing the ships. At this time, I haven't a wife. And I have the money. In Baku was a life at this time not very bad. We have caviar...
LS Vodka, champagne.
VB No, vodka and champagne I don't drink. Mrs Not drink, not smoke, ever.
VB Good herring, very good fish. And I went and brought red caviar, black caviar, and I ate grapes, very good grapes. And I was so big.
CZ You gained weight.
VB Because I ate what I did not in Odessa. And I worked, I worked not bad, and after one year, in 1951 I married this girl.
CZ What year was this, I'm sorry.
VB 1951. This story is nice. I had a friend. And one time we went to dance. We were young. We went to Odessa University and we saw a desk where the pictures of best students were located. I said "this girl is very good." We came to introduce ourselves. One time, maybe after months, I went to a concert . We came with my friend to this concert, in conservatory. And we listened and before us we saw the same girl and her friend.
VB We said, maybe it is the same girl.
CZ Oh, you recognized her?
VB Ya. And from this time we know each other and next year we were married.
CZ So what year was this now, 1951?
CZ Which means fated. Fate, meant to be. So this was 1951?
VB Yes, 1951. 48 years ago. And we lived in Baku Mrs I was studying at the university, and in 1951 he went to Baku. When I finished the university ...
VB She must have paper to Baku. In Azerbaijan she can work like a teacher. A teacher in Russian language and Russian literature.
CZ Is that what you went to the university to learn Russian literature and Russian language? Mrs Yes
VB And she used to work maybe 40 years.
CZ At what level did you teach? What kind of school did you teach? Mrs High school
VB We have not high school. We have school from 1 to 10 grades.
CZ The upper grades.
VB Five years we lived in Baku together and then we decided to return to Odessa. Very difficult time because... Mrs My father was sick.
CZ He needed your help, your father...
VB The heart don't work. Heart attack. Mrs He had a problem with his heart and for this reason he had water inside...
VB And in Odessa I began to work in design institute. And I worked in this place 35 years. I began to work in 1957 and stopped to work in 1992 when I went from Odessa to United States, yes.
CZ What about anti-Semitism. Did you have any trouble being a Jew?
VB On my work in the scientific institute it was anti-Semitism, we felt it. And when I went one step from the door, from the institute, I felt it also. I remember when I went with my mother and she spoke to me in Yiddish, I answered in Yiddish. And small boys mimicked, imitated us.
CZ They were talking to you like that?
LS They were making fun of the language.
LS You still feel uncomfortable. Mrs In Odessa, I every time felt that I am Jewish. He was a very smart man and he could do something better and more. But he could not because he is Jewish. He could not go in the scientific institute in Azerbaijan. We could not go to other country because we are Jewish.
CZ Because it said on the passport.
VB Ya. I am Jewish and I had a very nice job. I was a chief of ten engineers. And all time I designed different constructions, different machines, tools, for the ships. I have 35 inventions. I can show you. But I was on level, 45 years.
LS No advance.
VB No, no, no. Because of my nationality. And I was a very good specialist but they did not allow any promoting for me. And on the street, in the bus, or in the train, you can listen: "Zhid, zhid, zhid." Mrs You know this?
CZ Yeah, I know what it means. They were saying bad things to you or bad things about Jews? On the trolley.
VB About Jews, to me also.
CZ How would somebody on the bus know you are Jewish?
VB My name is Bukhman.
CZ As soon as they hear your name they know you're Jewish.
VB Then they know I'm Jewish. One more example. One time in bus Jewish people said to young man: Maybe you get up and this old man will sit. He cannot stay on the legs." And he is answered: "He can go to Israel. We don't need him here." So rude was what he said. And one good Russian man said, he smiles and said: "Good. This man will go to Israel and all Jewish will go to Israel. Will you have a better life? No, you will not have a better life. You will have the same life what you have." It is good to smile now. Now sometimes in USA I remember that.
CZ So it will take awhile for you to really heal.
CZ So, tell me, did your parents, were you Jewish at all? Could you be Jewish?
VB My family is all Jewish, yes.
CZ But did you practice? Did you do Shabat? Did you do the holidays?
VB Yes. I know this. My father, when I was a child he told me about Shabat, about Pesah, about Hanukkah, about Purim, he spoke with me about the history, what it means. And I know a little all this. And what is in my heart today also. I remember what my father, for example, he said to me, "The Jewish lived very bad in Egypt and they wanted return to Israel." And he said to me "When Moses come to the Red Sea he have a big staff and he parted the sea, and the Jewish people went to the other side of the seashore. Mrs [shows a photograph]
CZ A photograph of Vilyam, how nice. Mrs It's not me but...
CZ It still was you. I mean, it still is you but you're, beautiful pictures. Mrs And his uniform...
VB It was on the plant, when I worked and I studied. This was in 1952, maybe.
CZ Beautiful, thank you. Mrs You see on the desk this photo?
LS This is the photo that he saw that he fell in love with. Mrs Yes.
CZ That's a nice story. How nice. Mrs And you speak so long time I want that you check my borsch.
CZ We're not finished. So, you're back being Jewish and your father telling you all about...
VB And he said to me: And this is really, we went and when the Egyptian came the water went back and they died.
LS So you remembered that story.
CZ And so did you practice?
VB No. I saw how my father prayed. He have the tallis, and every morning...morning or evening, I don't remember...he prayed.
LS So he was very religious.
VB He was in the Yiddish school in his village, schtettel. My mother finished 7th grade in gymnasium. And I know a little about this, a little, but at this time it was very dangerous to practice Judaism.. When the police write a letter that my father don't ...
CZ Secret police.
VB Ya, it was a very bad time. And his trembling, what he had from the civil war, was worse and worse and he could not do nothing. And my mother she said that she believed in God. Sometimes she don't believe in God. She said "The God knows how millions of people were killed and he did not prevent it." Now I also have this in my head and when I go and speak with Russian rabbi, he come to us and speak, I say to him "Explain this. We are Russian Jews. We believe in God and God did not help us. I say, "not right, not right." Maybe I am guilty of this also because I lost my heart. I did not speak with my heart. I had not Shabat, I had not the Jewish holidays. You know, we were not Jew.
CZ When you were in Russia.
VB Ya, when I was in Russia. And sometimes I think "Why am I Jew? Why we have this all problems? Maybe it was better when I was born as a Russian." Understand, this is...
CZ Yes, yes, your pain.
VB Ya, but when one man said, when my daughter was six years old he said "give me 1000 rubles and I write that she's Russian." I say, "No, I am Jewish, I die Jewish and my daughter my son also Jewish and they die Jewish."
LS He wanted to write you a fake...
VB No, no, I cannot. But I know some people who did this.
CZ So, in your very soul.
VB It is bad, really.
CZ So it's against your beliefs, your core, your soul.
VB I say I have a Jewish heart.
CZ Sounds like it indeed.
VB I know a lot of people, families, they became Russians but they are Jewish.
LS People struggle with it. Americans too. Mrs I think that it is not their fault. Because they lived in that place so long time.
VB No. But they come now to USA, they can be Jewish now, but they don't want.
LS Maybe they will someday.
VB No, they don't want. They are Russian.
CZ What would you do to help make them more Jewish?
VB I organized a Jewish Club. The name of the club is Who Like Yiddish? You know how many come to this? Before maybe 10, now 5, 6 people. I cannot speak about this. I understand that we have a very nice Yiddish history, Jewish history very nice, the culture's nice. We have good writers, musicians. We can speak about all this and you can be Jewish now and they don't want to. I can't understand.
CZ Do you know why? Mrs I know why. Because elderly people they are sick. We must do with young men.
VB Young men is...
CZ Yes but young people...yes, it's a big discussion.
VB It's a big discussion. It's a very difficult story. The young don't want this and the old people can't.
CZ So how, what would you do to get the young? How would you attract the young?
VB I have also a daughter have a son.
CZ I wanted to ask you about them, that's right. That's very important.
VB I speak with them, with my son: you go to the synagogue, maybe one time, two times a month, and you listen what this Yiddish Bible is. Because in Russia what they say the Bible in Russia, the Jewish Torah is not the same. You see, the Jewish are very peaceful people, they like other people, they help other. You have not this in Christian Bible. The Christian all times they killed, they make pogroms, and all times Jewish is all "guilty, guilty." Jewish are not guilty. They are very peaceful people.
CZ So your children, so tell me...
VB My daughter, she lives in New Jersey. She came first.
CZ How old is she now, about?
VB 45. Mrs Almost 46. And my daughter go to synagogue in New Jersey.
CZ Is she married to a Jewish man? Mrs Yes, Jewish man.
CZ Does she have children?
VB She have one son. He finished Columbia University and now he is in medical school. And he's a very nice programmer, very nice. I don't understand why he goes to the medical school. They pay him so much.
CZ So, is the son Jewish?
CZ The doctor?
VB No. My son is...
CZ No, no, no. The grandson.
LS He goes to Columbia University Medical School.
VB He's Jewish. Mrs We went to live in Tucson because I had in New York very high blood pressure.
VB Six months she lived in New York. Mrs And I had bronchitis and arthritis and I feel so bad.
LS The climate in New York was not good. Too damp.
VB Here is drier. Here is good. Mrs Much better. My friend Berta call and she write to me that very nice in Tucson for me.
CZ So your son, then.
VB Our son is in Tucson and he works, he is a Licensed Practical Nurse and he have a license, American license, he passed the examination. Now he bought a house, small house, now he sell the house, bought better house, in northeast side.
LS Oh, sold the first one and ... Mrs Because in this place too much black and Mexicans.
VB And the school now is good. And how he can buy this house, he have not money. But he sell the old house, got a profit and with this he can buy better house. The American way.
LS What was Rudy in the Soviet Union? He was also a nurse?
VB He was an engineer. He worked in my institute, like a designer. Rudy have a very good head, he is very smart, and he can do what he want.
CZ So, did he marry a woman in the Soviet Union?
VB Ya. And he have now one son. He is very nice boy. He have also, he have so good hands. He can change this and this, repair the bicycles, can make something.
CZ How old is he? The grandson.
VB April 2nd he was 15 years old.
LS And the granddaughter.
VB She is 14.
LS They come from a fine family.
VB And I am also a fine Jewish.
CZ So is your son Jewish? Does he practice Judaism?
VB Here one and a half maybe two years he studied in Hebrew Academy. At this time he does not practice...
LS But he has a little background so if he wants to again...
VB In this place where he lives now, one family is Jewish, have small boys, and others are Japanese, Korean, and American. And he speak very good English. And he forget a little Russian.
LS All the children forget Russian.
VB But he speak well Russian.
CZ I want to talk more. You both have different ideas but ideas about what you could do, what we could do to make the people that came here more Jewish. What could you do? Mrs We don't know. Help us.
VB What you can do to invite the young Jewish, the young people. I feel not good because my son not really Jewish. I say to him, you must have the Shabat, you must know the holidays, a little. Mrs Some people do this.
VB One people we know. Mrs One, or two, or three, it doesn't matter. That Clara, that work in kindergarten.
VB I say, if my grandson would study all the time he will be Jewish. Maybe, maybe. And before we had a director, principal in the school, he is a very bad man. Before was a Catholic woman, she was very nice both to Jewish and all other. And now she go away. And he says "You must pay $400 a month." I cannot. $50 I can.
CZ So you're saying he was charging too much so your grandson couldn't go anymore.
VB Ya. They cannot pay. Some people think, "Ah, he buy a house." The house is not his. This house is mortgaged, 30 years he is like a slave, he must pay. And the salary is not very high, maybe $1000, maybe $1,500 a month.
LS They've gotten more scholarship money since then. People have donated a bunch.
VB Now it's better, ya?
LS Yes, much better.
VB When he go away.
LS Timing is everything.
CZ So you decided not to go to Israel? You decided to come to, because your daughter was in New Jersey.
VB Yes, we decided. I spoke with my brother and he said: if your daughter lives in USA you must go to your daughter. Because, I like my family. I cannot live one day when I don't go to my son. Mrs Our daughter called us.
VB Every evening she call us. My family is very close. And he know this. But I like very my brother. Our family is very close. My mother, when my father was sick, I said: "You must know. You have one brother, you must help each other." And when there was a war my little brother was 4 years old and he cannot go. We went a lot and he said: "Vilyam, help me, my legs." I sat him on my shoulders and I went with him.
CZ You carried him on your shoulders. Mrs But we must go to America because our daughter lives here.
VB My brother is 61 years old now, and I like him as my son. And he call to me: "Vilyam, what happen, how you feeling?" Very nice brother. And he lives in Israel good, has a good job, very good job.
CZ That's great.
VB He has a good home. He is a building constructor.
CZ What I want you to do is think, not now, but you're on this committee, but I want help if you could with some ideas. If you could, and I know you think about it all the time. Not now necessarily, you don't have to tell me know. But to think about what you think we could do for the young people, and we can talk more about your committee because I'd like to know more about that. But to think about it. We can finish for now. It's an hour and a half, it's a long time. Mrs Yes.
VB I think about this and then we will speak again.