ForeverMissed
his Life

His Progeny

My father had only one daughter, me, Nina, born in 1952.

I have two children:

1. Gregory Neyman, born in 1977. He is a physician, married to Marsha, a speech therapist and writer. They live in Newtown, PA, have one daughter, Evette, born in 2008.

2. Judith Prays, born in 1987. She is an artist, web-designer and enterpreneur, married to Yonatan Mallinger, artist, jeweller and enterpreneur.  They live in Los Angeles and have a daughter, Roat, born in 2015. 

I remember my dad's complaints that I did not know enough about our Jewish heritage. Well, both his grandchildren became observant Jews. I would not presume to guess at his reaction to that. But the one thing I am sure about, is that he would have liked how they turned out and the families they have built. He might even be a little proud of them.

 

Kiev - 1956-1976

Kiev did not greet my parents with outstretched arms. First, there was no place to live. My parents rented a little room in Bikovnya, a village connected to Kiev by train.

Every morning my father went to work for an engineering company in Kiev by train. My mom took me, also by train, to Kiev, to leave me, a 4-year-old child, with friends or relatives for a few hours. Then she would go to war. She had two wars to fight: 1. Getting a place to live 2. Finding a job. Both wars consisted in writing letters and taking them to a variety of government offices, waiting in interminable lines, pleading your case and not getting too far.

Miraculously, within a year, we had a place to live: a 150 sq. ft. room in a communal apartment, housing 4 more families, a total of 20 people to share the kitchen and bathroom. Both my parents had a lengthy commute by overcrowded and unreliable public transportation to their jobs. The majority of people lived like that. 

At that point everything would probably fit into a manageable routine.  But my father's health started failing: he had stomach cancer. He underwent gastric resection, a difficult surgery with terrible recovery: restricted diet, bouts of severe pain accompanied him for the rest of his life. But he was a fighter, athletic, health-minded, and after a while figured out a way to lead a normal life. "Хочешь быть здоровым - будь им! If you want to be healthy - just be healthy!" was one of his favorite sayings. He believed in mind over matter. And his mind was strong.

In 1962 we moved into a luxurious by those standards new apartment: 300 sq. ft., two rooms, a tiny kitchen, and only the three of us to share all that. It was also right across the street from my father's job - so his life became easier.

My father loved his job, he loved spending time by the drawing board doing his technical designs. He moved pretty high in the hierarchy at work, and had a few patents to his name. His work involved secret clearance, so we did not know too much about it, just that his inventions involved the automated processes of washing containers of poisonous chemicals.

In 1975 he retired. He was not emotionally ready for retirement, and did it in the heat of the moment after a disagreement with his new young boss. I remember my dad in his short retirement year, a bit lost, and trying to establish a new routine.

August 13, 1976 started as a good day. I was visiting from Moscow, our cousin Larisa and her son Victor were visiting from Lvov. We went to an art exhibit, had a nice dinner at home, and then watched some comedy on TV. Then my dad decided to go for a jog. He was one of the few people in that time and place who jogged. Victor joined him. As he was telling us later, my dad crossed the street on his own, a bit carelessly.  He was hit by a car and thrown under the wheels of another car. Both drivers left the place of the accident and were never searched for. By the time we found the hospital my father had been taken to, he was already dead. The flowers he gave me for my birthday on August 5 were still in a vase.
 
According to his wishes, his body was cremated, and later moved to Moscow where the cremated remains of his mother were housed in a memorial wall of the Moscow Columbarium.

Sterlitamak 1951-1956

In Sterlitamak my father worked as an engineer at a chemical plant. It was a poisonous environment - harsh climate and a lot of industrial fallout. The population mostly consisted of local drunks, former inmates and some 'lucky' college graduates, placed there for their first jobs.

When my father was arrested, the country was engulfed in war. My parents lost track of each other from 1941 to 1952, and reunited with my father's release.My father's mother, Rosa, somehow located my mom through friends and let her know that my dad had been released. Since he was confined to Sterlitamak, my mother joined him there. Gifted with  unique optimism and positive outlook, my mom always described the place as a little haven of intelligentsia , good relationships and a nice two-room apartment with her job right across the street. So, when I was born in 1952, it was possible for her to work full time as a teacher and care for me.

Blessedly, Stalin died in 1953.  In 1956, my father was cleared of all charges, together with millions of other Gulagers. He was allowed to relocate to the place where he had been arrested, Kiev.

Gulag 1941-1951

Life in Gulag was harsh and survival unlikely. My dad never talked about that period of his life except for cryptic statements encouraging psychological and physical survival skills.

From the little that I know, he worked first on felling trees in the depths of Siberia. Exhausted by the grind of labor and starvation, inmates were dying left and right, disease and despair reigned. All of a sudded, by a stroke of luck, my father met  an acquaintance from his young years, who was one of the camp managers. This man, whose name and fate are unknown to me, had dated my dad's older sister before the war, and, for old time's sake, he saved my father's life by moving him into a white-collar engineering position. 

My father was released from Gulag upon completing his 10-year term in 1951, and sent to a place of permanent settlement of former inmates, Sterlitamak, where he was supposed to remain for the rest of his life. 

 

Pereiaslav-Kiev 1923-1941

My dad had fond memories of his life in Pereiaslav. He loved his mother's food, his friends and school. He was obviously a favorite in the family, an athletic and smart young man, surrounded by adoring sisters and parents. He loved math and told me on many occasions about his favorite math teacher - Yudif who taught him the joys of problem-solving.

It appears that most of his Pereiaslav schooling happenned in Yiddish and Hebrew though by the time I got to know my father, he had completely lost his Hebrew and Yiddish literacy. 

At some point in time, I believe in 1926, Grisha moved to Kiev, to live with some distant relatives and study engineering, first in a vocational school, then in college. He studied in the evenings, and worked at a plant during the day. He also earned additional money by doing other students' projects for them. At some point Grisha's parents and sisters joined him in Kiev.

In 1939 my dad and my mom met. My mom, Larisa Striliver, was then only 19 and was studying French at Kiev University. According to my mother, it was a romantic courtship, with flowers, compliments and promises of love.

My parents got married in May 1941. On the first day of Hitler's war with Russia, June 22 1941, my father was arrested by the government for allegedly telling and anti-government joke. Hope it was a good one, because it cost him 10 years of Gulag. 

The Palestine 1916-1923

The Finkelstein family settled in Petach Tikva, the first city of what is now modern-day Israel.  According my mother's story, one of the attractions of the new land were oranges, plentiful and  “cheaper than potatoes”. Which turned out to be disappointingly true. The potatoes were very expensive, and often, when buying a bucket of potatoes, you could find oranges buried under the top layer of the old-country delicacy.

It appears that the family engaged in a small business  which did not do well. Also, Arab rioting started in 1921. That was too much of ‘déjà vu’ – the same pogroms all over again.  It was time to move on.

For the next move the family was weighing two options: go to Canada, or ‘back home’, to Ukraine. ‘Back home’ won out: the war was over, no more pogroms, a familiar language. Also, the potatoes were  cheap. So, in 1923, in time for Grisha’s Bar Mitzvah, the family came back to Pereiaslav.

Early Childhood 1910-1916

My father was born on December 30, 1910 in a poor Jewish family of Yakov and Roza Finkelstein in a small Ukrainian town of Pereiaslav.  He was the second-youngest of 6 children and the welcome boy with 5 sisters.

The town was also a birth-place to Sholem Aleichem, a Yiddish writer,  whose stories became the basis for the musical Fiddler on the Roof. So, the setting of the film must be somewhat similar to how the town was in my father’s childhood. There is a photo of Sholom Aleichem's house in the gallery which probably somewhat resembles the houses around that time and place. 

In 1910 the town had about 6000 Jews. To serve this small community, at the end of the 19th century, a synagogue was built. The building had survived the WWII and is preserved until now as a factory of woven products. The factory is, ironically, named after Bogdan Khmelnitsky, a 17-th century Ukrainian military leader, responsible for horrible murders of Jews in the area and destruction of hundreds of Jewish communities. In the annals of the Jewish people, Khmelnitsky is considered one of the most sinister oppressors of the Jews of all generations.

But I digress. During my father’s childhood it was still a synagogue where his bris and bar mitzvah might have happened.

During the time of my dad’s boyhood three Jewish schools operated in Pereiaslav and this is where his education started, but not for long. He was about 7-8 years of age when the family made moved to the Palestine. 

The reason for leaving could have been the pogroms. One of such pogroms claimed the life of one of the older girls. And then there was conscription into the Russian army. Enough to send the family packing, once they had a boy to protect.