Nina Belitskaya, 89, remembers when matzah was forbidden. In this reflection, Nina recalls the moment she risked everything so that her family could savor a timeless Passover tradition.
Down Pushkin Street, through the market and March frost, I trekked to the secret place.
I could return. Home was just blocks away. But, no, my father had asked me to do this thing, and who was I to say no? Back in Soviet times, no law could stop us from being Jews, but they could ban us from enjoying the traditions that had defined our people for generations. I stopped at the corner of Koltaryevsky Street. I opened the gate, climbed the front steps, and knocked on the front door. I waited.
I don’t know you. But I’ll assume that you can eat all the matzah you want, without fear of arrest, surveillance, or imprisonment. Walk into any store, and it’s there. Any brand, any flavor.
As a young girl, I wasn’t so lucky. Picture yourself in Poltava, Ukraine. It’s the 1940s. If you want matzah, you had one choice: the secret matzah factory. That’s why I walked to the corner of Pushkin and Koltaryevsky.
Filling the void of Soviet repression, the clandestine bakery produced and distributed matzah for Poltava’s Jews. Nothing could stop us from celebrating Passover. But that didn’t mean I was undaunted. I was only 15, and this was one of the scariest things I’d ever been asked to do.
I grabbed the matzah, turned around, and retraced my steps. Was I walking too fast? Too slow?
I grabbed the matzah, turned around, and retraced my steps. Was I walking too fast? Too slow? Pedestrians streamed forth, off to work, matinees, lunch-dates. Normal life. All of them know what I’ve done, I thought. All of them are walking towards me. They can see what’s beneath my coat, what I’ve taken. I’ll never make it home. Why is it so far away?
I sprinted through the front door. My mother and father were there, waiting.
“I will never get matzah again,” I said. “Please, please do not send me.” I felt tears coming. My mother was sick, so she couldn’t go. My father was part of the Communist party, so he couldn’t risk it. Behind the closed door, we savored the matzah I had spirited away from the secret factory and carried home.
That was our Jewish life: half-secret, half-underground.
Years and years we lived like this. But more time passed. And when the Soviet Union fell, so did the veil of secrecy.
In the 1990s, Poltava witnessed a Jewish revival, thanks to the investment and outreach of Jewish organizations like JDC. A woman came and taught us how to do a Passover seder. We cooked everything ourselves — charoset, maror. We all had tears in our eyes; the horseradish was so sharp, it made you cry.
That was the first seder of my life. What had been hidden was now revealed; what had been whispered, declared aloud. Inspired by this seder, I threw myself into Jewish community. And when Poltava’s JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center needed a librarian, I didn’t hesitate. I sent them my application.
For decades, I volunteered for Hesed, leading my fellow Jews back to their history and culture. When we organized a Yiddish theater, I became an amateur actress. We were all each other’s people, all each other’s family. I don’t think my parents ever could have imagined I would play such an active role in Jewish life.
Last year, news spread about a virus that was infecting the world. I never thought I’d get it, but in fall 2020, I did. My symptoms suggested a serious case of COVID-19. When I was discharged from the hospital, JDC gave me medicine, homecare, and other crucial assistance.
COVID-19 has changed me. My spine is in pain. I can’t lift heavy objects. But the virus has also brought my Jewish journey home. I volunteered with JDC for years, helping others find their way back to the community. In one moment, I went from Hesed volunteer to Hesed client.
If JDC hadn’t been there, I don’t know how I would have lived all these years. JDC helps us to remember that we are Jews. Each day, they affirm what I realized when I risked everything to get my parents matzah: We are responsible for each other, no matter what.
Even now, I can see that girl on the corner of Pushkin and Kolyaretvsky, that girl who waited in the cold for the matzah her parents couldn’t get for themselves. If I could, I would walk up to that girl and tell her I’m happy to have lived so long. I’d say that Jewish children can walk the streets without fear, that they can go to a store and buy matzah. Right here in Poltava!
I’d tell her that I haven’t lived my life in vain.
A vital member of the Poltava Jewish community, Nina Belitskaya, 89, a former librarian at the JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center, is a JDC client. A survivor of COVID-19, she receives homecare, food, medicine, and winter relief.