They’re doing it for love of country and love of language.
Twenty Russian students, immigrants aged from the mid-60s to 87, spend nine hours a week studying English at the B’nai B’rith extension of the Washington Irving Adult Education Center.
They are not just learning about adverbs and adjectives, pronouns and possessives, but about each other and the discrimination they faced growing up Jewish in Eastern Europe.
Some lived through the horrors of World War II and lost relatives and friends. Others continued to face persecution and threats because of their religion and found a new home in America.
These students spent a couple hours last week talking about why they wanted to learn to speak English. They struggled at times with the words, but managed to convey the feeling. They said they wanted to learn the language of their children, grandchildren and their adopted country and wanted to get more in touch with American culture.
“It’s very important for me because I love this country. I love this language. I’m very happy,” said 78-year-old Valentina Khirge, originally from Kiev, the capital of Ukraine.
Khirge lost much of her family during a mass killing in World War II at Babi Yar — in which 34,000 Jews were executed in a ravine by that name just outside Kiev.
Eighty-one-year-old Fishel Finkelshteyn was a 15-year-old firefighter in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) during the Axis blockade of 1941 to 1943, which cut the city from supplies and food. To survive, he said, “I ate wood glue and paint oil.”
“I want to recognize the United States and say thank you,” he said.
Finkelshteyn emigrated to the United States in 1996 because his uniquely Jewish-sounding name “was no good for Russia.”
Brushka Shkolnik, 77, came to the United States in 1991. She is another Holocaust survivor and spent three years from 1941 to 1944 in a Ukraine ghetto, working in a local train station. She lived in a small barn that held 200 other Jews. “We slept on the floor. It was very cold,” she said.
Even in peacetime, these students experienced anti-Semitism. Sarra Shlizerman, 72, said her daughter and son-in-law were targeted in western Ukraine.
“Someone threw an explosive device in the attic. They were sleeping at the time. The ceiling of the kitchen collapsed,” she said.
Fortunately, nobody was hurt. They emigrated to get away from the religious persecution. She and other relatives emigrated to the United States in 1991. Shlizerman is very happy to be in the United States. “This is a real dream,” she said.
Others had trouble finding work and education for their children or grandchildren. Yevgenia Volfson, 67, lost her daughter in the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and took custody of her granddaughter. “She [went] to kindergarten and the teacher said ‘you don’t need to go to this kindergarten. You need to go to another country,’ ” she said.
Some of the students also mentioned that they were discriminated against because of “Paragraph 5,” which is the section of a passport where nationality is listed. Jewish was listed as a nationality, not a religion — and used to discriminate against them in education and work.
These students want to learn English so they can integrate into the culture more fully — whether it be visiting their family, going grocery shopping, going to the doctor or worshiping.
When 72-year-old Marina Glikina came to the United States from St. Petersburg in 1996, she said she was surprised there were three synagogues. In St. Petersburg, there was one and it was guarded by the militia, which watched who came in and out.
Glikina said she wanted to study English to be able to more fully participate in the service.
Yefim Khirge, 81, formerly of Kiev, said his reason for learning English is simple — it is this country’s language and people cannot be plugged into the social life without it. “How can we live without this language? Everybody has to study it,” he said.
It is not easy, as some like 81-year-old Sima Kuzmina and her 81-year-old husband Konstantin have found out.
“I have 81 years old and cannot remember English words. I study, study, study. Today I study. Next day, I don’t remember,” she said.
However, Kuzmina said it is worth the effort.
The newest students are Sabella Gasanova, 66, and her husband Konstantin Sarumov, 67, who arrived in the United States from Azerbaijan two years ago after winning a green card in the lottery. The couple emigrated to get away from discrimination because of Sarumov’s Armenian background. “They called us black people,” he said.
They did not speak any English at all when they arrived, but she said she has found the classroom environment very supportive.
“Now, when I go to the hospital and store and shopping, I don’t need any help,” she said.
All of the students express great pride in their adopted country.
“Thomas Jefferson said that all men have rights,” said 68-year-old Oleksandr Yevzerov, originally from Kiev and studying for his citizenship test. “All men are created equal — rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We have life. We have liberty. We don’t have much segregation and we’re happy because we’re united with my family.”
Instructor Barbara Dworkin, who has been teaching the class since 2000, said the students are very dedicated to their studies — often walking through the snow and ice from their nearby apartment complexes to get to the class. For the students that live too far away to walk, she car pools them.
Dworkin praised Washington Irving Director Sheila Tebbano, who Dworkin said has been unwavering in her support of the program and sometimes visits the class. “We’ve never had a principal that’s taken such a personal interest in the students,” she said.
One of the students, Zorya Dobkina, a 79-year-old surgeon who came to the United States 11 years ago to escape discrimination, wrote a letter to Tebbano about how much she enjoyed the program. She apologized if her memory is “out of order.”
“I would like to express my dream that one day we will not be judged only by the number of mistakes we make on English tests, but by the content of our character and behavior as human beings. This class is the best opportunity for us to learn how to struggle for life and liberty,” she wrote.
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