We recently lit candles to celebrate the miracle of Chanukah, but today, I want to share with you another inspirational story featuring candles, miracles, and delicious treats — the extraordinary life of our client Anna Budovskaya, who was born in 1917 and just turned 103.
Anna is a client of the JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center in Gomel, Belarus, and lives in Mozyr, a small town in that region. She has multiple sclerosis and a heart condition, and she depends on JDC for homecare, food, and more.
When I got a text message with her picture, I couldn’t believe my eyes. This wonderful woman looked 20 to 30 years younger than her age! I desperately wanted to meet her and ask thousands of questions and learn from her wisdom.
Due to the pandemic, we unfortunately cannot travel, but thanks to our wonderful Hesed coordinators, volunteers, and homecare workers (real-life angels!), we received a message from Anna. Here’s her life story, recorded by her homecare workers Nina Chuh and Lubov Naydenova.
— Marina Gatskan, JDC coordinator in Minsk, Belarus
I was born near Zhitomir, Ukraine, and my maiden name was Friedman. My father was a simple laborer, and my mother was a seamstress. I was one of six daughters, and when my father died in 1930, my mother had a very hard time providing for our family.
I was always hungry for knowledge. I went to school at the age of six and finished at 13. I wanted to study further, but my small town didn’t even have a vocational school, so I went to Kharkiv and began to work in construction. I worked shoulder to shoulder with grown men for almost a year until I heard that a new school had opened in my hometown. I decided to return and study, but I had no money to buy a train ticket. I remember being faced with a difficult choice — food or studies? Ultimately, I sold my food (dried mushrooms) to purchase the ticket.
Back home, I worked during the day and studied at night, and soon I was on my way to the medical university in Kyiv. I became a dentist, and in 1939, just after graduation, I was appointed to the small town of Mozyr, Belarus — near the city of Gomel. When I arrived, there were no dental clinics there at all, so my colleagues and I — all of us rookies — successfully campaigned the Ministry of Healthcare for a state subsidy to build one. I was put in charge of many engineering processes, perhaps because of my teen years working in construction.
Then one day, I met Efim in the theater. He was a traffic cop, and we fell in love and got married — a happy union of 50 years that produced two sons and later, grandchildren. But then the war broke out, as if without any notice. Since I was a doctor, I wasn’t allowed to evacuate; I also had a military rank and was called up for the service. My husband also got his draft card. So it was that Efim went one way and I went another, to the Western front.
I joined the troops commanded by General Pavlov, but our military operation failed and we were captured by the Nazis. Together with thousands of soldiers, all of us now prisoners of war, we were walking from Poltava to Kremenchug, both in present-day Ukraine, and then on to Auschwitz. Just imagine it: thousands of shadow-like people, kilometers of walking shadows.
I ducked into an archway and prayed, making a commitment to myself: ‘If I survive this hell, I will live a long life.’
My head was covered in a white scarf, and I wasn’t dressed like a prisoner. When we entered one of the small cities and stood in the central square, I got lost in the crowd. I ducked into an archway and prayed, making a commitment to myself: “If I survive this hell, I will live a long life.”
A woman walking by took pity on me and brought me to her house, giving me dinner and a bed for the night. I was so hungry that I wasn’t afraid anymore, and when I awoke in the middle of the night to eat the leftovers, that almost cost me my life.
I realized I needed to find a way back to Kyiv. I met many good people on my journey, and in one of the villages, I was given a fake ID and with it a new destiny and a new name. I became a nurse in a small town near Vinnytsia, traveling from house to house helping people. In return, the townspeople put a roof over my head and gave me food.
When I found out Mozyr was liberated, I tried to learn if my husband was still alive. Some people were happy the war was over, but my emotions were more complex — I cried because of pain and grief, and I wept in gratitude at my survival. Still, it wasn’t easy to return home. As a prisoner of war, I had to go through hell again. Every interrogation started with that question: “How did you survive?”
I paid my price, and life itself put me to the test, but G-d had another plan for me. In the 1950s, my sentence was lifted, and I was even awarded with medals and other honors. My husband also survived the war. Efim and I were reunited, and we had to get married again, since all of our old documents and certificates had been destroyed. I returned to my career, and in 1960 I finally opened the city’s first dental clinic. I spent the rest of my working years treating severe cases, performing surgeries, and teaching young people.
Now I’m 103, with a life full of different events and so many stories. Unfortunately, my husband, my son, and even my grandson have passed away. It’s worse than the hell of war to outlive your children and grandchildren, but you know what? I’m still here, still alive only because I have JDC, my dear Hesed homecare workers and staff, and visits from volunteers. I get so much support from them, and I’m grateful for every minute they spend with me.
Many ask me about the secret to my long life, and my darlings, all I can say is that you reap what you sow. It reminds me of the 1912 poem from Anna Akhmatova:
I’ve learned to live simply, wisely,
To look at the sky and pray to G-d,
And to take long walks before evening
To wear out this useless anxiety.
My wish for all who read this is that you believe in yourselves, trust your destiny, and live without fear. That has served me well in my long life.
Anna Budovskaya, 103, is a JDC client in Mozyr, Belarus. Services for Holocaust survivors across the former Soviet Union are made possible thanks to the Conference on Jewish Materials Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference), among other supporters.