Ukrainian Holocaust survivor Maya Krakovsky, 84, was deeply saddened by the recent violent attack on Jews in New York as 2019 drew to a close, and the Jewish Hanukkah eight-day festival of lights ended.
Krakovsky has survived so much sadness and loss throughout her years. Yet, she also has tremendous inner strength and resilience that drove her to immigrate to the United States with her mother, her husband, Rafael, daughter, Polina, and son, Alex, in May 1980 from Ukraine. She currently lives in Kentlands with her son, daughter-in law, Jackie, and granddaughter Samantha.
Krakovsky sat down to tell The Town Courier her story of how she survived the mass killing of Jews in Ukraine during World War II and how she eventually immigrated to the United States.
“It was with great fear and sadness that we received the news that our town, Liubar, was bombed by Hitler,” said Krakovsky. She remembers her family and neighbors’ mass exodus on foot and from the town where her father, grandfather and other men were massacred by the Nazis in 1941. Five at the time, she remembers hiding from the airplanes that were firing machine guns in the tall, unharvested wheat fields with her mother, sister, Ana, and many others. “My mother broke her arm, and we went to a hospital where they then told us that we should leave as the Germans were coming and would kill us,” said Krakovsky.
Liubar is 175 miles southwest of Ukraine’s capital, Kiev. At the end of the 19th century, more than 40 percent of the population was Jewish. In July 1941, the German army occupied the town. An estimated 1.5 million Jews died during the Nazi occupation of Ukraine, which lasted until spring 1944 when the Soviet Red Army took control of all of Ukraine.
Krakovsky knows that somehow she and her mother and sister found their way onto a cattle train that took them from Ukraine to Uzbekistan, the route she took to escape Ukraine. They went all the way to Uzbekistan, near Tashkent on this train. “I was sick, and they took me from the train. I do not remember any of this, but my mother tells me she went to look for me in the morgue, my mother found me in the morgue, and she took me with her to the hospital on the river Volga.” Krakovsky said that she was unconscious; all she remembers is waking up in a hospital.
Another clear memory is that her mother, sister and she worked briefly on a collective farm picking grapes and eating grapes as a way to survive. They decided to return to Ukraine, following the Soviet soldiers who were advancing and taking back territory from the Germans. They came back to their desecrated town, Liubar. “Someone had opened a store in our old house. Mama asked him to leave. She went to military police, and they made sure that he did not return,” said Krakovsky.
In 1947 Krakovsky, her sister and mother decided to move to Kiev, where her aunt lived so that they could go to school. She lived and worked in Kiev and at age 27 married her husband, Rafael, a Jew originally from Belarus who had come to Kiev and had studied engineering. She had her son, Alex, in 1966 and then her daughter, Polina, in 1977.
Life was not easy for her or her husband. Maya had difficulty finding work. Though they were not practicing, Jews were always identified as such in their passports and identification cards.
“Why did I leave Kiev? We had no choice. Alex fought with kids at school because he was protecting a friend. Alex was trying to save him because of a Jewish friend. The teachers said to me that they could not protect my son at school. I decided we had to leave. It was terrible. We decided to go to Canada and then to the United States with mother and husband, 14-year-old (son) and three years old (daughter). I was 44 years old, Rafael was 49. The situation was so bad because we were Jewish,” said Krakovsky.
They left in January 1980. “We sold everything; we were not allowed to keep anything. You lose everything. We went to Vienna, Austria, to Rome, Italy, all with the help of the Jewish Community Center. We stayed in Italy for four months. They helped us. We came to Maryland because Rafa, my husband, already had his cousin, Edward Danstker, living here,” said Krakovsky.
The Jewish Community Center (JCC) was formed in the U.S. in 1948 and merged four agencies: the Jewish Adult Bureau, the Council Educational Alliance, Camp Wise and the Cultural Department of Jewish Community Council. Its mission has been aiding the integration of Jewish immigrants into American life. In the 1970s, the JCC added programs to help the socialization of Soviet Jews. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society also has played an essential role in advocating and supporting the immigration of the Russian Jewish population since 1881.
When Krakovsky came to Maryland with her family, she and her husband started working immediately. Krakovsky cleaned homes and became a seamstress while her husband eventually found work with the Metro system. Krakovsky worked 18-hour days. “ I did not go on welfare, I worked. I hope that my story inspires other immigrants to know that if you work hard and support each other, you can do this, you can do this,” she said.
“I wanted my kids to have the best that they can have. I want my kids to work hard like me. I worked very hard. What you think is essential. What you do is vital. Don’t look at the government pocket, don’t look at mama and papa’s pocket, work! Look at my grandchildren. They are the best in the world,” she said. Granddaughter Samantha Krakovksy is a junior at Quince Orchard High, and granddaughter Eliana Krakovsky is a physics major at the University of Maryland.
“I hope my grandchildren never see what I saw, never live under the conditions I did. I pray for this. Religion is not everything. It does not mean that you have to push this on other people, say that you are better than somebody; we are all the same. It is your choice to believe in what you believe in,” said Krakovsky.