Last year, I traveled to Kharkov, Ukraine to visit eight Holocaust survivors. During the war, all of them were evacuated far, far away — Siberia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and beyond … all except one.
The daughter of a Russian mother and a Jewish father, Asya Seredenko was just six when the Germans came to her city. Her father joined the war effort as soon as he could, and her older half-brother (who had no Jewish ancestry) was shipped to safety in Germany. Asya and her mother were left to fend for themselves in a Kharkov under attack.
Asya’s mother first hid her in a large hope chest. A German soldier looking for Jews even visited their home, resting his hand on the very wood she lay underneath, still and silent. Soon though, they realized that their home — known to be the residence of a Jewish solider — was not safe, and Asya was spirited away to her godmother’s home four streets over. She hid in a small corner of the kitchen and knew to jump out the window into the barn where the cows lived whenever a German came too close. At night, her godmother snuck her out of the house for short walks outside.
Watch Asya tell her story of survival and resilience.
She wasn’t evacuated, so she was there when the Germans began moving Kharkov’s Jews to a makeshift ghetto. This wasn’t like Warsaw, where walls were built around a city neighborhood. Instead, more than 16,000 Jews marched some 20 kilometers to the wooden barracks that once housed the workers of a tractor factory. There they waited for the angel of death, without heat or electricity.
Asya remembers that some Kharkov residents grabbed the children of Jews as their parents made their death march, pledging to hide them and keep them safe. Others snatched the belongings of these doomed Jews, stealing clothes and jewelry and more.
Within about three weeks, the tractor barracks was liquidated. The Jews were brought a few kilometers away to the ravine at Drobytsky Yar, so named because villagers nearby came to associate it with “drob” — the Russian word for “bullet.” The Jews were made to strip down and march naked down a dirt road. Then they were shot into the ravine. Well, not everyone: The killing, which some say started on Christmas Day, was reserved for men. Women and children were pushed into the ravine alive, with the expectation that they would quickly freeze to death.
After the war, Asya became a biology and chemistry teacher, spending decades at a special institute for the deaf. Now she receives homecare, food, and medicine from JDC, in partnership with the Claims Conference. She knows she wouldn’t survive without it.
We talked about so many things with Asya, and as our conversation wound down, she began to sum up the lessons of her life.
“When I was a child, being Jewish almost killed me,” she told us. “Now being Jewish is what keeps me alive.”
A gracious hostess even when she had so little, Asya insisted on preparing a modest spread for us after the interview: tea, oranges, a few slices of cheese. We admired her furniture and dishes, and she told us they were pre-Russian Revolution. Her late husband wasn’t Jewish, and they’d belonged to his Ukrainian parents.
She said she was always confused by that detail. Her in-laws were simple people, and this furniture and china was so luxurious. It didn’t add up.
Then a former student of hers came to visit and said her late husband had once mentioned that the chairs and the plates were originally from a Jewish family that lived next to her husband’s parents. Knowing they were headed to the tractor factory ghetto and then Drobytsky Yar, they’d given these beloved prized possessions to their non-Jewish neighbors.
At first I was in shock, and then I realized: We’re all sitting on Drobytsky Yar chairs. We’re all eating off of Drobytsky Yar plates. Everything we have also belongs to those we’ve lost. When we fail, when we’re cruel, we let them down. And when we build, create, love, their souls are lifted, too.
At the ravine’s memorial hall, Anna pointed out the surname of a murdered family: Weisleder. In Russian, it’s just one letter removed from mine. We’re all just an accident of history away from being one of the names on that wall.
We’re not so special, so powerful, so good. We’re just lucky.
So what do we do with that? We do our best. We try to live good lives. We try to help the vulnerable. We try to listen and learn. We try to remember that at any given moment, we could lose it all.
There’s a big menorah monument at the entrance to Drobytsky Yar — thick, black, angry. It’s not gentle at all. It’s a provocation and a witness.
I said the Mourner’s Kaddish there, but then I said the Shecheheyanu, too.
Alex Weisler is a video producer and digital storyteller at JDC.
For more stories of resilience from the tens of thousands of elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union that JDC and our partners provide with aid — nearly half of them Holocaust survivors like Asya — visit JDC.org/FSU.