Interviewed by Israel Rubin and Carol Zuckert
May 24, 1999
IR: Alright, let's start. So who lives here?
YL: In this apartment we live both together. My wife, Rita and me, Yefim Levitskiy.
IR: Do you have any other family members who are not living here?
YL: Yes, my sister Tsylya Levitskaya. She lives in another apartment in town.
IR: She's not married?
YL: No, she's not married. She's alone. But she came with us. And Rita's papa, Michael Gamarnick, came with us but he passed away maybe, '92. We came together four people and our small dog, Alpha. But the dog also passed away, 15 years old. It was a long and hard, difficult trip.
IR: Before we get into that, can you tell me how old you are? You look like a young guy but I think you're probably younger than I am.
YL: I am now 70. My wife Rita, 60. Tsylya, my sister is 66 years old.
CZ: What year did you come?
YL: We came in February 1992.
IR: So you've been here quite a number of years together.
YL: Seven years we are here. When we came here I was 63. I tried to find a job but I could not. But Tsylya, she find a job at the University but not very soon. She worked before as a volunteer a couple of years and she used to work in some other places, not qualified work. But now she is working as a researcher at the University.
CZ: Which part of the University?
YL: It is the Department of Mining and Geology.
IR: How old did you say she is?
YL: 66. She is working maybe five year.
IR: Now, do you have any children?
YL: She, no, but we have two children, two daughters.
IR: They live here?
YL: No, not here in Tucson but in America. One daughter with her family they live in Seattle and another daughter with her family now live in Chicago. Before she used to live here.
IR: Your daughter in Seattle, how old is she?
YL: She is 27, yes.
IR: And she's married and her husband...
YL: Yes, she is married. Her husband is a Jewish, from Russia.
CZ: So she came before you came here or after?
YL: She came before us, a month before us. With her husband and her husband's mother. They came straight to Seattle because in Tucson it was very hot for his mother. Our oldest daughter, Leana...
IR: Before we leave, your daughter in Seattle. They're married. How many children do they have?
YL: Now they have two children, two daughters.
IR: Her husband, what does he do?
YL: He now is working as a Russian-English translator/interpreter for Russian people that have to go to the doctor, to some appointment. Mainly in hospitals, in medicine.
IR: Does your daughter work too?
YL: No, but when she came she used to work in nursing home as a nurse assistant. Then she finished the college on dental assistant. Then she delivered the baby and could not work. So now she has two small little babies, children and she can not work now, so her husband is working.
IR: And your other daughter is in Chicago? She also married someone who is Jewish?
YL: Yes, she married a Jewish man in Russia, also. They have two boys, two children.
IR: She also came a month before?
YL: No, she came with her husband and with her husband's parents a year before us. To Tucson. They live in Tucson several years but a year ago her husbandenrolled in the university in Chicago for one year program to became specialist in financing, mathematical financing.
IR: And your other daughter in Seattle, the last name?
IR: These are real Russian names.
YL: Now our daughter also, Yelena, oldest daughter, she used to work maybe a year or two in Tucson but then also she has two small children and she cannot work.
IR: Why did they leave Tucson?
CZ: Financial training program.
YL: Her husband started at university in Chicago for financial program, financial analyst.
CZ: Has he finished that program.
YL: In June he has to finish and then he will look for work, for a job.
CZ: How did he manage to go to school here? Did he get some financial help?
YL: Yes, he got a loan and the university pay for the apartment. But it is also a loan, so it is a big loan. Then when he will work his job is very good, has very good payment and he expect to return the loan soon. But it is dependent how h e can find a job after this but the prospectus of this is good because this qualification is in demand.
IR: How is it that you came to the United States? Why did you come?
YL: The main reason is the antisemitism in Russia. We was afraid for our children and for us because many threats was from some anti-Semite organizations. For our children is very bad prospectus to find good education, good job and so on, a nd so we decided to leave Russia and come to United States.
IR: What city were you living in in Russia?
YL: We lived in Novosibirsk, Siberia. We both was born in Ukraine, my sister also. Near Kiev.
IR: Is that near Gomel?
YL: No, Gomel is Belarusse. Kiev is capital of Ukraine but near Kiev is a small city, Boguslav, I and my sister was born in Boguslav.
IR: Were you born there also [to his wife]?
Mrs. YL: Khmelnitsky before Proscurof.
YL: Then the city has the name of Khmelnitsky but Khmelnitsky was a man several hundred years ago who united the Ukraine to Russia.
IR: That was his mistake.
CZ: My mother's parents are from near Kiev, my mother's side, near Kiev.
IR: My mother came from Gomel and my father came from Beresin. Do you know where that is?
YL: Yes, it is Belarusse.
IR: Where is it in relationship to Kiev?
YL: From Kiev it is north.
IR: Is it a big town, little town? Must be a little town?
YL: Gomel is a big town.
YL: Beresin is a smaller, but it is a big chemical plant.
IR: Is there any Jewish life in your city where you lived before you went to Siberia? Was there a synagogue?
YL: It was a synagogue. I live before I came to Novosibirsk in Chernovtsy, it is north Bokarina on the Ukraine, near Rumania, it is near Moldavia, Chernovtsy. The story of how we came to Siberia is maybe a little interesting. When the War T wo was over we was in evacuation, in Kuybyshev on the River Volga. Then we came back to our native city of Boguslav.
IR: Excuse me, you didn't serve in the Army?
IR: Too young?
YL: Young. But then I went to Kiev and enrolled in Chernovtsy institute for construction and building. Was a student one year. But our family was in Chernovtsy. Then in Chernovtsy there is a very old university, a good university. And I cam e to the university and enrolled in physic and mathematic department as a student and finished this university. When I finished the university my sister finished the high school but in this time, in Ukraine, there was very bad situation. Jewish people can not enroll in good universities, institutes. When I enrolled it was in 1946, after the war was finished. It was not so many students, so they need students and they accept Jewish people also. But later, in five years, they accept mostly only Ukraine peopl e. So my sister want to become educated person, to have high education, and she had to go to Tomsk, it is in Siberia. There she enrolled in the Tomsk Polytechnic Institute. She became a specialist, an engineer. Then she has direction to go work in Novosib irsk in radio factory plant. I came to here in Novosibirsk. At this time the Siberian branch of academia of science was open in Novosibirsk. I enrolled in Institute of Economics, Economic Department. Studied as a post-graduate student.
IR: Your wife was with you at that time? You were not married yet?
YL: Not yet. Then, when I finished the post-graduate I became a degree, Ph.D. degree in mathematical economics and used to work in the Institute of Economics 32 years, in Siberia, Novosibirsk. My sister then also became a post-graduate stud ent in another institute in Novosibirsk and she also became a Ph.D. in physics and mathematics.
IR: Where's the romance? I have to hear the romance.
YL: It's after a moment. When I started to work in Institute of Economics, Rita used to study in electro technic institute in Novosibirsk.
CZ: What kind of technical institute?
YL: Electro technic. Radio, TV. She is engineer in TV and Radio/TV. In another city, in Kazan, where Rita's brother used to live, I had a university friend, my friend. And they was friends in Kazan. She had some problem with doing her diplo ma and she needed a consultation.
CZ: Your friend or Rita?
YL: Rita. And my friend recommended her come to me.
CZ: I see. He had a motive, an ulterior motive. You know that word? He had a hidden motive.
YL: Yes. So we met in Novosibirsk and then in a couple of years we was married.
IR: Could you tell me something about your parents and their relationship to being Jewish. Were they already on the Stalin, and given everything up, or were they still practicing some Jewishness? Do you remember?
YL: Yes, I remember. My parents did not practice Jewish tradition because at the time was very difficult for this. For example, we had Jewish school in our town, in Boguslav. It was closed. And we had Jewish theater in Chernovtsy. It was al so closed. And in Kiev the Jewish theater was closed by the government. So the synagogue was not function, maybe it was a synagogue but they cannot do this that all people know about this.
IR: So your parents didn't practice anything?
IR: None of the holidays?
YL: I don't remember this. But I remember when it was Hanukkah my parents give me some money, this I remember. But not like this now, here. This kind of celebration I don't remember. But my mother can write good Yiddish and I remember very good that she write letters to her sisters in Yiddish and she write right to left side. When she received letters from her older sister she read also in Yiddish. I looked at these letters but I don't understand. We had a neighbor. He used to go to the Jew ish school before the school was closed and he know good Yiddish and he try to learn me to Yiddish language. Sometimes my parents used to speak Yiddish between them but with us they speak in Russian. But I listen Yiddish language from my parents, from nei ghbors and I could understand this language but I cannot write, cannot read. Now I maybe a little can understand but not so much.
IR: And your parents, were they in some way connected with being Jewish or they also had the same story [to wife].
YL: She remember when somebody came from Kiev and bring them matzoh. But celebration also no, because her father used to work as electrician and they was not so rich and they was afraid to do something Jewish celebrations. They did not prac tice.
Mrs. YL: We lived after WW2 in Rubtsovsk.
YL: From Nobasibersk south, it is a big region. And it was a big plant, factory that make tractors for agriculture, machines.
CZ: But that's not where you were born?
Mrs. YL: I born in Ukraine. when I was 3 years old Mama, me and my brother 11 years old ran away from fascists.
YL: Jewish people who would not run from the Fascists, they was murdered.
CZ: So what happened to you?
YL: We also run away from Boguslav. I was maybe 8 year old. My sister was 4 year old. And we ran away from the Fascists and I remember on one station bombs fall near us and blow up.
Mrs. YL: Refugee from Ukraine went to Russia live long time there. And I finished the school and then the Institute.
YL: And they remain in Siberia, they did not return back to Ukraine. Our family returned to the Ukraine but not in the same town but in Chernovtsy and I told you how I went back to Siberia.
IR: Can I ask a philosophic question? Your parents didn't learn and couldn't be about Jewish. And you didn't learn anything about Jewish. So how do you feel that you're Jewish? Am I making the question, does it make sense?
YL: The matter is that we used to live in Russian environment and we have some Russian friends and we was in school had Russian schoolmates and students. On the work we have Russian people, Jewish people. We don't feel any difference. But o ther people make us to feel this difference. So if we sometimes forgot that we are Jewish they remind us.
IR: Let me ask you this. In Russia they didn't want any religion at all? They really closed all religious...
YL: Yes, yes.
Mrs. YL: Maybe now it's changed.
IR: So since the non-Jews didn't practice Christianity but they consider themselves to be Christians, so why did they feel differently about the Jews? Is that a reasonable question? If they didn't know anything about being Christian, or ver y little, and they knew even less about being Jewish, and you knew just as little about being Jewish, what was it that they had against you to remind you that you were Jewish and so they feared you? Does it make sense, the question?
YL: Yes, it is a long story. I think that if they did not practice Christianity but from their parents, from grandparents they know they are Christian people. They know that Jesus Christ was murdered by Jewish people. And they know some sto ry about this. The matter is that in Russia, mainly not anti-Semitism from usual people, but from the government, it is a very big difference because the government made his politics so that Jewish people was like people second quality. Yes, second class. For example, her brother, he finished the Moscow Institute of Aviation. He used to build helicopters. He was a very great specialist and he used to work very hard. He had a heart attack and died when he was a young man. But he was deputy director of the big plant. But he could never became a director because, you understand? Many Jewish people, very smart and very talented, can became some administrative positions but not very high positions. The key positions was in hand of Russian people, not in hand o f Jewish people. When, for example, after finishing the university I went to Kiev and tried to enroll in post-graduate education. They did not accept me. My teacher from the university, he then was working in Kiev, I came to him for advice and he asked me "Are you Jewish?" and I answered "Yes." "But maybe you have in your relationships somebody who was not Jewish?" I answered "No." So he told me I cannot became a post-graduate.
IR: Let me ask you another philosophic question. Apparently the Jews in Russia who had very well in terms of their education. I mean, they drive to succeed. Was this a Jewish characteristic, was it a genetic characteristic? How do you philo sophically account for that. Do you have any ideas?
YL: Yes, maybe it is in Jewish character because Jewish people, they know they are punished from the government. They are stricken from other peoples that are anti-Semitic. And they try to became more educated and more successful in job to have a position that can they protect from this not good behavior from another people. So maybe it is from the history of Jewish people when it would be not difficult became high education, to get a good job for Jewish people they have not so desire to be came more better than another. But when they live in this environment maybe this is the cause why they try to be something better that can protect them from bad life.
CZ: What was life like in Siberia? What was it like being Jewish in Siberia? Did you have the same kind of problems that you had in the Ukraine?
YL: Yes, yes. In Ukraine is more concentrated, this problem. More brighter this problem, because in Ukraine more Jewish people live.
Mrs. YL: Before World War II.
YL: And after also. But when Khruschev came to the government he pronounces it first we have to promote Ukrainish people, Russian people, no Jewish people. So in the Ukraine it was very difficult situation. But in Siberia when the first tim e the Jewish people was in small quantities, it was for them better. But then when more Jewish people came to Siberia, it was very big migration of the people.
CZ: From one state to another?
YL: Yes. So, in Siberia then we have the same problem. For example, our good friends has some very smart boy who finish the high school very good and he want to enroll in the Novosibirsk University. But he could not because he was a Jewish boy. He has to go to another institute where it was not so popular like University. Then he can became a high education.
IR: You met a lot of Jewish people in Russia and Siberia. I mean, you met other Jewish people. Did you ever meet anybody who was religious Jew?
YL: Yes, of course. Our good friend, Haron, his father was a very religious man. In Novosibirsk they have one synagogue and he used to go to the synagogue and their son he also was very religious. He celebrate all Jewish celebrations. For t heir sons they made circumcision. Usually he used to bring us matzoh.
CZ: In Siberia?
YL: Yes, In Siberia. In Novosibirsk. And from him we know about some Jewish events, traditions. But he was so educated because his parents used to be religious people but our parents was not.
Mrs. YL: My grandfather was a very religious man. He lived in Ukraine in village. My papa can write Yiddish, or it is not Yiddish. Hebrew.
YL: He used to go to the Jewish school when he was a young boy, maybe two or three classes he finished, so he know some Hebrew words.
CZ: Were your grandsons, were they circumcised?
Mrs. YL: Yes.
IR: Now your children in Seattle and in Chicago. Are they connected with Jewish community in any way? Or are they just like all the other Jews?
YL: I don't know. When Yelena and her family live here her husband, and she sometimes they go to the synagogue and we also. And he used to make some Jewish tradition now. For example, he don't eat meat with milk. When he was he re he did not drive a car on Shabas and something else. But now he is very busy and he has no time to do this, maybe.
IR: How about you and your wife. Do you practice any Jewish traditions?
YL: Yes. When we came here we was met by our volunteers, Florence and John Aronson. They are very good people and they try to show us Tucson, some cultural centers, and they used to invite us every year to Passover, to their house.
IR: You don't light candles Friday night? Do you?
Mrs. YL: No.
YL: Only to to remember our parents. We light candles.
IR: So did you find it difficult to leave Russia? Was it a problem for you to get out of Russia when you came here seven years ago?
YL: Of course.
IR: Well, how did you apply? Where did you have to apply? Did you have to go to Moscow?
YL: First we apply to go to Israel. But then, in Chicago, live my cousin, my brother, two brothers, cousins. They came in Chicago before us. When we apply we write that we have a relative in America. And he write an affidavit about us. With his help we came here. All our family also.
IR: When you came here how was it that you came to Tucson? You should have gone to Chicago.
Mrs. YL: In Tucson live our daughter.
IR: OK, so she already came. How come she came to Tucson?
YL: Before she came to Tucson her husband's older brother came to Tucson.
IR: So one draws the other, draws the other.
YL: So why he came to Tucson I don't know. I think that in Tucson they starting to form some Jewish community from the newcomers. So they came here, [his] brother with his family came here. But now he is in Michigan, not here. He is a very smart man in mathematics and he became a professor of some institute in Michigan. So he live with his family in Michigan. His family went to Chicago.
CZ: I haven't really, I've only talked to one person from the eastern part of...
IR: Well, you know, if you have a little time, if you can contact them, and you have her phone number?
YL: I can call you.
CZ: I'll give it to you.
IR: See, I'm going to be going back East. I'm only going to be here another two weeks. I spend six months here and then six months in Washington DC.
CZ: I just live on the other side of Tucson Boulevard, I live really close. So if I give you some times maybe you could set up an interview or two for me. Would you do that?
CZ: This week, next week.
YL: I will try OK.
CZ: OK, let me write down some times that I'm free. Figure about an hour and a half at the most.
IR: OK, let's [end of tape 2]