Determined to Survive: One Woman’s Journey Across History

Zinaida Grutman was just a young girl when she fled her home. Here is her story of war, resilience, and Jewish life.

By Zinaida Grutman - JDC Client | January 18, 2022

Braving war, hunger, and cold, Zinaida Grutman fled her home when she just a child, finding refuge thousands of miles away.

Before Zinaida Grutman was 10 years old, she had survived war, hunger, and evacuation. This International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Zinaida talks about her childhood story, her life after the war, and the role JDC and Claims Conference now play in helping her lead a dignified life. 

I was born on the brink of war. 

Until age seven, I lived with my family in Kyiv. My parents tried their best to give my brother and me a Jewish childhood, teaching us about Jewish traditions and holidays. But this was difficult, too, because the Soviets also repressed Jewish life: We had to keep quiet. 

As challenging as this was, we couldn’t have predicted the coming hardship — the Second World War, the Nazis, and the evacuation that tore my family apart. 

When the Nazis invaded Ukraine, my mother, brother, and I fled Kyiv for Central Asia. My father, however, was called to the front. We didn’t see him for a long time. 

For six months, we traveled through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, to Kyrgyzstan, where we settled in a city called Osh. I started school there when I was eight — I’d missed the first year during the evacuation — and lived in Osh for the rest of the war.

If you ask me about my childhood, I always remember the evacuation first. Moving across the continent, into the unknown, was both a vivid and terrifying experience. 

Zinaida (left) with her JDC homecare worker.

I wouldn’t say it was all bad, though. The war taught me independence: There was no one to rely on but my mother.

My family experienced all the typical problems people had during the evacuation: malnutrition, freezing temperatures, persistent uncertainty. In Osh, my school had no heat or textbooks. We basically froze. And yet, I somehow overcame all these challenges. I had to — I was determined to survive. 

The best thing about Osh was my primary school teacher, Alexandra Gerasimovna. So many teachers inspired me through the years, but it all began in Osh with her.

At the local school, we didn’t have after-school programs — no athletic teams, singing groups, or social clubs. I didn’t need them, though. Alexandra Gerasimovna taught me how to think freely and love literature, a love I’ve carried into old age. 

When the war ended, we returned to Kyiv. After graduating secondary school, my one dream was to become a philologist — an expert in other languages. My dream never came true, though. I was unable to enroll.

A photo of Zinaida’s family.

Instead, I got married, had a son, and settled into my career as a librarian. My husband was a veteran, and for many years he worked as a lawyer. We were happily married for 42 years. 

But now they’re gone, both of them. My son died of appendicitis at age ten, and years later, my husband died of cancer. I buried my entire family. I felt so much pain when my son died that it’s difficult to put into words. I was entirely alone. 

It was right after my husband passed away, with no one to rely on and almost nothing left, that I found help through my local JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center.

When a person can no longer see, they have nothing. I have mostly lost my eyesight, and I can no longer enjoy my favorite pastime: reading. My whole life, I’ve taken comfort in books. Now that’s all gone.

My family experienced all the typical problems people had during the evacuation: malnutrition, freezing temperatures, persistent uncertainty.

That’s one of the reasons why I’m grateful for Natalya, my JDC homecare worker. She isn’t the first homecare worker I’ve ever had, but she’s one of my favorites. Natalya always tells me about what she’s seen and what she’s read. Especially during the pandemic, she became my eyes and ears. 

Natalya also cooks delicious meals and keeps my apartment spotless. I have no one left, but when Natalya arrives, everything feels fine. Natalya is genuinely interesting company — she just so happens to be a professionally-trained Spanish translator. I always wanted to study foreign languages, so Natalya and I have the most fascinating discussions. 

Before the pandemic, we used to go on long walks. But now that I’m losing my hearing and eyesight, I can no longer go outside. My body hurts, and the pandemic rages on, and now the world feels no larger than my apartment. But without JDC, I would be even more isolated. 

When my son and husband died, I was alone in the world. Then JDC entered my life. I have survived hunger, cold, a world war, and a global pandemic. But I don’t think I could have survived old age, alone, without help from JDC and the Claims Conference. Thank G-d for them.

Zinaida Grutman 87, is a JDC client in Kyiv, Ukraine, receiving food, medicine, and homecare. This care is made possible with support from Claims Conference.

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