Individual Lives, Common Story

The fourth volume of Individual Lives, Common Story, published by students in the EL Practicum, is available to view and/or download in Russian and English. The collection features the life stories and memories of Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants about the Great Patriotic War, Jewish life in the Soviet Union, and immigration to the United States.

Student Reflections

"Individual Lives, A Common Story": participating students share their reflections

In fall 2014, we had a unique and valuable opportunity to learn first-hand about the lives of the generation of Russian speakers who survived World War II, experienced hardships in Soviet Russia, and eventually emigrated to the United States. We had weekly meetings with our elderly friends where we talked and shared experiences. We hope that the life stories we present in this collection will help bridge the intergenerational gap and foster a better understanding of the older generation by college-age readers.

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Student Reflections

Dennis Averin

"Participating in an experiential learning class at the Hebrew Rehab Center in Roslindale taught me that everyone has a story, and no matter how unimportant they may think it is, there is at least one other person who will listen and enjoy it. The time I spent with Maria on Fridays when she was telling me various stories and anecdotes, was a joyous one and renewed my appreciation of spoken word history. Over the course of the class my relationship with Maria changed from biographer to friend. To this day I still continue to visit her and call her when I can."

Kristen Foaksman

"This was an amazing experience for me. Words cannot describe how much this meant to me. It was both very interesting and profound to converse with my interviewee. Elderly people need this attention. They have so much to tell you, but it takes the right person to get some of them to open up, and I feel that I have accomplished that with my interviewee. Elderly people are living historical artifacts, full of wisdom… It practically feels like he is another grandfather to me, even if we aren’t related."

Anna Mukhina

"Though I have had previous experience working with the elderly, they would only provide a few isolated stories and insights into what life was like in the early USSR and during the war. My time with Esfir, during which she agreed to share her personal stories, was truly an eye-opening experience, and I learned much about history, heritage, and the harsh realities people faced in that time. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to have known Esfir and her story. I hope that through our work together it will live on, and a part of history will be preserved."

Michael Vilenchuk

"Hebrew Rehabilitation Center provides a unique opportunity for collecting oral histories of immigrants from all around the former Soviet Union. This process is long overdue, and I am glad that I had a chance to make my contribution. My interviewee remembers so much at her age of 84! As I arrived weekly for the interview, she would greet me with treats, and together we would extract vivid images from her memory. A person who survived the German occupation in a ghetto in western Ukraine is a living piece of history.

As much as I enjoyed spending time with Dora, it was by no means an easy task. Due to my lackluster level of proficiency in Russian, I was initially reluctant to participate in the "Individual Lives, Common Story" practicum, knowing I could be a poor interviewer. The practicum helped me improve my speaking and writing ability in Russian."

Ryan Yoffe

"Having never volunteered with the elderly, I didn't know what to expect at the HRC or from my time with Alexandra. But after over 4 months of meeting and speaking with Alexandra about her life and experiences, I can say that I would not trade the time I spent with her for anything else. Our time was simple; we sat together and spoke for fifty minutes at a time. But her stories threw me back into a much different time, one that is hard to imagine today. War, famine, wandering, and working endless hours to help the war effort. In America, Alexandra's generation is referred to as "The Greatest Generation." Though an immigrant to this country, she keeps strongly to this epithet. I hope that through our work together more people will hear her story. It is one that needs to be heard, and without which we will slowly lose grasp of our history and heritage."


Dennis Averin

"My mom was right when she said that all people in Odessa are related to each other. The world is such a small place that you do not know where and when you may meet a fellow countryman. This is exactly what happened with me.

In September 2014, I started going to the HRC with other Brandeis students to collect life stories of the HRC residents. I was assigned to interview Maria Tovbein. Four months later, on December 4, when I was at Maria's birthday celebration, I learned that Maria's daughter Nora is the best friend of my aunt who lives Israel!

This is how it happened: my aunt called from Israel to wish Nora's mother Maria happy birthday. During this conversation, Nora told her friend, my aunt, that her mother have been rhapsodizing for the last four months about this young student Denni who comes for a visit every week. He interviews her about her life, they talk and joke. Nora said that Maria fell in love with Dennis as if he were her own grandson, mentioning that he is a polite and well-mannered young man. "And what is most interesting," commented Nora on the telephone with my aunt, "is that his parents are also from Odessa." "What are their names and where did they live?" questioned my aunt. "The mother's name is Inga, they lived in the city center..." At these words, my aunt laughed and said that "these Inga and Dennis" must be her relatives. She hung up with Nora and called my grandmother; then my grandmother called my mom to clarify all the details. "And so, they ARE my relatives, and this wonderful young man is my nephew!" my aunt proudly exclaimed to Nora when she called her back 15 minutes later.

Moreover, the grandson of Maria and my mother were born on the same day of the same year, and in the same city—Odessa. I suppose it was fate that I met Maria and Nora. Yes, it really is a small world for the Odessians! On Chanukah, my family and I went to visit Maria and brought her homemade latkes. She was overjoyed, and her eyes shone with happiness. My parents, grandmother and Maria reminisced about the old days. We looked at the pictures in Maria's family album, chatted and, like real people from Odessa, found much in common. I am very glad that fate brought me to Maria. She is a wonderful and warm person. She is very educated and surprisingly strong-willed. I'm grateful for the opportunity to spend quality time with her. She loves me like a grandson and I love her back. I plan on visiting her in the future. I really hope that I can give my dear Maria a big hug on her 100th birthday!"