A Siberian-Jewish Tragedy

The crash of the Air Siberia jet over the Black Sea last week was an Israeli tragedy, but more specifically and acutely, it was a tragedy for Siberian Jewry. Fifty of the 76 people killed were Siberian Jewish immigrants to Israel, mainly from the metropolis of Novosibirsk.

"I would never feel as close to someone from the big cities, like Moscow, as I do to someone from Siberia," said Nataly Liss, 19, who lost two close friends in the crash, Irina Starikovsky and Nataly Simanina. "The people who live in the big cities are much colder, more closed; they build walls around themselves, they don’t open up to you. Not so with the people from Siberia," Liss said.

Nearly 75,000 Jews immigrated to Israel from the region of Novosibirsk, a city of nearly 2 million. An estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Jews remain.

Vladimir Kruglykov, who lost his aunt, Yelena Komayev, 77, in the crash, says his parents got to Siberia the same way a lot of Siberians did, including the first waves of Jewish arrivals. "My mother’s family came here after fleeing the famine in Ukraine in 1930 and 1931, and my father’s family got here after escaping from Minsk, in Belarus, in 1941, when the Nazis invaded," he said.

More Jews came to Siberia in the 1950s with the emptying out of Soviet work camps following Stalin’s death, and, more happily, as Novosibirsk, with its numerous universities, technical institutes and cultural centers, began attracting Jewish intellectuals. "Their standard of living was good, compared to that of most other Soviet citizens," said Dr. Stefani Hoffman, director of Hebrew University’s Mayrock Center for Russian studies.

With the exception of a flare-up of Russian ultranationalism around the Soviet Union, Novosibirsk was essentially free of anti-Semitism at the time of the Soviet Union’s fall. "It wasn’t an issue," Kruglykov said. "Maybe somebody, sometime, may have said a word in passing [about his being Jewish], but no more."

The Novosibirsk authorities treated the plane crash as its own tragedy — something that had happened to Siberians, not foreigners, said Victor Ben-Canaan, head of the Jewish Agency office in Novosibirsk.

"The city dispatched 15 ambulances with doctors, nurses and psychologists to treat the people who were waiting at the [Novosibirsk] airport for their loved ones to arrive," said Ben-Canaan. Mayor Vladimir Gorodesky came to the airport to help comfort them. Air Siberia flew relatives and friends of the victims to Sochi, the city where the remains of the victims were brought, to identify them, Ben-Canaan said.

"Siberia is in the east, where anti-Semitism isn’t so pronounced," he said. "You find it as you move further west in the former Soviet Union — to Ukraine, Russia, the Baltics."

The world of Siberian Jewry began to deteriorate with the fall of the Soviet Union — first with the new scent of anti-Semitism, which has since faded, then with the end of the socialist economy. A very large proportion of Jews in Novosibirsk were academics, and the Soviet Union gave them relatively good housing, salaries and benefits. But the turn to anarchic capitalism left them without a decent standard of living or security, as their salaries and pensions withered in value, said Dr. Ludmilla Tsigelman, a Russian immigrant academic who lived in Novosibirsk for a number of years. The Jews of Novosibirsk were mainstays of the Soviet academic elite, and they went down with it.

They began emmigrating to Israel in the mid-1990s — a few years later than many other Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union. Asher Ostrin, head of the Jewish Agency’s FSU desk, explains: "The Jewish community of Siberia was transplanted; it didn’t have deep roots. So when the gates of immigration opened, the challenge in Siberia wasn’t to revive a dormant Jewish identity, but essentially to create one from scratch."

In the last year, immigration from Siberia to Israel has slowed considerably, Ben-Canaan said. "Siberia can now offer Jews some promise of stability, while the events of the last year in Israel don’t encourage them to make aliyah — and this, of course, is an understatement."

Life in Israel has been hard for many Siberian Jews, as it has for many of the 1 million-plus former Soviet Jews who have arrived since 1989. With so many academically trained professionals among the immigrants, many, if not most, have had to take jobs far below their abilities. A foreign language and foreign work culture have also been professional barriers.

"You hear a lot of Siberian Jews rave about Israel when they’re just here visiting, but you won’t hear it from the ones who live here," Kruglykov said. His aunt came here in her 70s, alone, leaving her children and grandchildren in Siberia, and lived in the town of Pardess Hanna, either in an apartment by herself, or, for a time, with her sister. "Of course, it was extremely difficult for her," her nephew said.

Another victim, Ina Michelson, had difficulties with Israel’s immigration laws because she wasn’t Jewish; she received Israeli citizenship by being married to a Jew, whom she later divorced. She was flying to Novosibirsk to bring over her mother, also not Jewish, who was lying in a hospital after suffering a heart attack. "Now we have to go through the procedures to bring the mother over here, because she’s all the family that Ina’s 13-year-old daughter has to take care of her," said a friend of Michelson’s.

Irina Starikovsky was an opera singer studying at Tel Aviv University and working at a supermarket to support herself. Nataly Simanina worked as a chambermaid at Kibbutz Tzuba’s guesthouse while studying to be an accountant. Both in their early 20s, their families still in Siberia, they had it hard, too, said their friend, Nataly Liss.

Liss, who also makes up rooms at the kibbutz guesthouse and has begun college studies, was Simanina’s roommate. "I love it here; the people are like my family, but I can’t stay here anymore. The walls are pressing in on me."

With 51 deaths in a close-knit community like Israel’s Siberian Jews, a lot of people are having it hard these days.