My grandmother Tatiana Lvovna Drozdova was born in 1923 in a small shtetl near Odessa, Ukraine. When World War II broke out, she was evacuated, together with her parents and sister, to Stalingrad (present-day Volgograd, Russia), and then to a small town near Chelyabinsk. That’s where she met my grandfather Yakov, a geologist who worked in railway construction before joining the army and leaving military service in 1945.
After the war, the family returned to Odessa, only to find their apartment looted and destroyed. With no place to go, they decided to move to present-day Moldova, where all the relatives on my great-grandmother’s side of the family lived.
It was a special time for my family, as they reunited and began to rebuild their house in 1946. But my grandparents didn’t stay there, instead going to the Kolyma region, in the northernmost part of Russia’s Far East. My mom was born in Moldova but spent her childhood in the north. Then, at age 10, she had some health problems related to the severe weather in Kolyma, and my grandparents sent her back, where she was raised by loving grandparents and the whole mishpocha.
My grandparents lived and worked in the North (the Kolyma and Yakutia regions, the city of Magadan) all their lives, returning to Moldova in 1972 — the same year my parents left to pursue my father’s career as a navy nuclear submarine officer and researcher. They lived in Kamchatka, also in Russia’s Far East, until 1983, spending every vacation back home and keeping in touch with our family there through snail mail, phone calls, and packages.
After so much discussion of Moldova and Russia’s Far East, you may find yourself wondering how we came to Belarus, where I was born in 1986, just a month after the Chernobyl disaster. My father was appointed to a job at a research center for nuclear physics in Minsk, and we’ve lived here ever since. I think our family has always considered Belarus to be our temporary home, but once the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, we stayed for good.
I don’t want to recount the difficulty of life in the early 1990s; suffice it to say that even though I was a small child, I remember those years very well. My grandmother suffered from diabetes, and her health was deteriorating to the point that she could no longer walk. My grandfather, 10 years older and himself disabled, took care of her. They never complained, but it was clear their life was not easy.
Back then, it was difficult to get from Minsk to Moldova. There was just one train each week, and if we missed it, we had to wait until the following Wednesday. If something bad happened, it was hardly possible to get there. My grandparents lived in a one-room apartment, and when we were able to visit, we stayed with my other grandmother, who occupied one room in a communal apartment, with two other families all sharing a kitchen and bathroom. Still, my grandparents refused to relocate closer to my mother or her siblings.
My grandparents had a love story for the ages and were very independent, wanting to maintain that lifestyle until the very end. It was a very tough time for all of us, but today I see that it was all about my grandmother’s dignity and independence. She didn’t want her children to see her sick and helpless. I remember her sitting on her bed with scissors, cutting her own hair. She’d even cook like this, sitting on her bed and chopping vegetables. She mentioned once that someone came and helped around the house, but she didn’t like to talk about the help she was receiving — she considered herself very self-sufficient.
Growing up, whenever we had family gatherings or celebrations, my mother was always crying. I remember it like it was yesterday. She couldn’t find peace because she was convinced her parents were starving, alone and vulnerable. My mother would grab the phone and call her parents, offering to come visit them, but their answer was always the same: “Take care of your children, Svetlana. We can handle it.”
For years, my mother carried the burden of guilt that she wasn’t there when my grandmother passed away. Because of the train schedule, we even missed the funeral. My mom transferred all her love and care to us, her children — and to anyone else who came her way. We were always sheltering someone, always making small donations of clothes and food to those in need. I grew up looking at my mother constantly doing good deeds, but also always sad, always thinking about the past.
My grandmother died when I was 10, and my grandfather asked to be taken to Yakutia to spend the rest of his life in his beloved north. I wish I had more memories of my grandparents, and at least a few pictures of the large, loving Jewish family they were reunited with after the Holocaust. I’ve heard so many stories, but I don’t know what these people looked like. All our photos of the older generations are gone, and I only have a few of my grandparents.
In 2012, I started to work at JDC, excited for the chance to invest my skills into real actions making a difference in our community. I was also thrilled to be a part of a global team, diverse yet united by the same values. Finally, it was honestly my childhood dream to work for a humanitarian organization helping people in need. With JDC, I felt like I hit the jackpot.
We do so many things in Belarus, like providing much-needed homecare and material support, alleviating loneliness and offering socialization for vulnerable elderly Jews, and empowering the local community by educating a new generation of change-makers through our network of volunteer centers and teen clubs. Across the region, we innovate to provide timely responses to new challenges, and it has been so meaningful for me to know I’m part of building a bright Jewish future for my adopted country. But as I accompanied donors on home visits and volunteered to bring matzah and food packages to the neediest elderly, I always found myself thinking of my grandparents: What had their story been, really?
I started to research my family history, but I didn’t find anything in any online databases except for some burial records. Then, I had a flash of inspiration: I’ve always been amazed by the information preserved in our JDC archives — what if my grandmother had been a client of one of JDC’s Hesed social welfare centers? It was possible.
My dream was to find a few photos and make my mom a bit happier, but I could never have predicted what happened when I asked my colleagues to look into my family’s story last year. By this point, I had obtained a new position at JDC, serving as the former Soviet Union (FSU) coordinator for the Kaplan Leadership Initiative, a global JDC program that provides critical tools and support needed to cultivate leadership among Jewish community professionals in Europe, the FSU, and Latin America.
We were in Moldova with our cohort of 15 young professionals from all over the FSU, just an hour or so away from where my grandparents had lived. I knew I had to seize the moment, so I shared my story with my colleagues from JDC’s Moldova office. To tell the truth, I just wanted to reconnect with someone who knew how life was back then, so we could reminisce together. I even remember the taste of the bread from my childhood! Things like that bring people together, and I’ve missed that so much.
What if my grandmother had been a client of one of JDC’s Hesed social welfare centers? It was possible.
But I was fully engaged in my work with the Jewish professionals and just let these thoughts go, until one morning I got a message from one of my Moldovan colleagues. I still remember the text: ”YOU WON’T BELIEVE IT.” They weren’t wrong — still to this day I don’t believe it actually happened to me.
My colleagues had contacted the Hesed and shared my story. If there had been a digital database in the early ‘90s, it would have only taken a few clicks, but in my situation, all I could rely on were memories and connections between the people in the Jewish community. Somehow, though, they had found the homecare worker who had cared for my family. My grandparents were some of her first clients, and she was there for my grandmother until her very last day.
When I heard it, I couldn’t believe that it was actually happening: It felt like a well-directed movie. I was crying and smiling with the biggest smile at the same time. I couldn’t wait to tell my mom — even if nothing else happened, it was already a miracle. But then my dear colleagues insisted I meet with the homecare worker. They acted as a well-oiled machine that made it possible for me to spend a few precious hours with her; it had been 24 years since my last time in my grandparents’ neighborhood.
It was unbelievable. I had the chance to turn back time and return to my childhood, to see the streets, the places, the houses. It was all still there, just as I remembered. I met the homecare worker and just hugged her, unable to find the right words. I had many questions, but I deeply appreciated this opportunity to be there and say thank you in person.
Every time I visit a JDC client and see with my own eyes the impact of homecare, social activities, and volunteering, I know these services are a precious gift. This work is done with so much love that you barely find that thin line between your work and your calling. When taking care of my grandparents, the homecare worker could have simply done her job; instead, she cared for them as if they were her own family, always there whenever help was needed. I am grateful for that, but I’m even more appreciative that the story of my family is still alive in her memories today. Now I am here to continue it, closing one cycle and starting a new one with my own deeds.
Last year’s trip to Moldova changed my life. For me, the most important thing is that my mom, now 74, knows my grandmother received excellent care from JDC and the Jewish community, living her last days independently and with dignity.
And what about me? When I started to work at JDC, I had no idea I had this connection. Yes, I shared the mission and the values of the Joint, and I was honored to serve. Now, though, I’ve seen with my own eyes that everything is intertwined, that good deeds initiate a chain of events that have an unbelievable impact on all of us in the Jewish world, from the kid at the JCC preschool to a volunteer to the lovely grannies at the Hesed. We are here for a reason — to return and multiply the kindness. There are still so many people, just like my grandparents, who need us.
That’s more important now than ever, since COVID-19 has come knocking at our door. Being a part of the JDC team, I see every day the “backstage” of our life-saving work, all the energy and efforts behind each action. It isn’t easy — after all, we’ve never faced anything like this before. But our work has never stopped. The help keeps coming because we know the people who receive it simply can’t make it without us. And we are here for them, because each of them matters. For us, they are not “the elderly.” They are our bubbes and zeydes, and we can’t let them down.
Marina Gatskan, 34, serves as the FSU coordinator for the Kaplan Leadership Initiative. She also serves as the PR and missions coordinator in JDC’s Belarus office. She lives with her family in Minsk.