Motel Shmulevich says some days he feels lonely because so many people he has known have passed away. Still, the 105-year-old former Soviet Jew has a way to cheer himself up.
“When I feel upset, I open my passport and that makes me feel much better,” he said. “I am a very old man.”
Shmulevich was born before World War I in what is now Moldova, and the span of his life could serve as a historical novel. A Jew born in Romania, he survived both world wars, the seizure of his native land by the Soviets and the collapse of the Soviet Union. He then immigrated to the United States, where he has lived in West Hollywood since 1993.
The former educator was born in 1912 in Leova, a small Romanian town along the Prut River in Eastern Europe with a small population of Jews. A 1907 city census put the number at about 4,500, enough to support kosher markets, a Jewish cemetery and a synagogue. Now, it’s almost entirely Christian.
Shmulevich grew up in a household with four children. His father owned a restaurant while his mother took care of their family. At home, Shmulevich spoke Yiddish. At school, he studied Hebrew and Romanian. He went to a synagogue regularly with his father until he turned 13.
“I became very progressive and didn’t want to go to my synagogue anymore,” he said.
That period of his life coincided with a family upheaval when his mother left them and moved in with another man.
As with many young Jews in his town, Shmulevich welcomed the Soviet government and viewed it as a liberator when the Soviet Union began looking to take over Romania-controlled Moldova, known as Bessarabia at the time. These left-leaning views were common among young Jews, said Steven Shvarts, a nephew of Shmulevich, whose father also lived in Leova and sympathized with the Soviet ideology.
In addition to his active political life, Shmulevich was a good student. He graduated from college and was a Romanian language teacher, eventually being promoted and overseeing several schools and about 180 teachers. He speaks affectionately about this period, when he would ride a horse to inspect neighboring schools. Around the same time, he married his cousin Ada, an elementary school teacher, and moved with her to Kishinev, the capital of Bessarabia.
In the summer of 1940, Bessarabia officially became part of the Soviet Union and was known as the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic.
The peaceful and prosperous life Shmulevich built with Ada was cut short in 1941, however, when Nazi Germany invaded, forcing residents to evacuate to Central Asia and other places across the Soviet Union.
At that point, the Romanian government regained control, and the Jews who didn’t evacuate were herded into newly formed ghettos and concentration camps.
As a Soviet supporter, Shmulevich strived to join its army, but the military enlistment officers rejected his application because of his poor vision. While unfit for combat, he was transferred by the military to the Caucasus, an oil-rich region of the Soviet Union nestled between the Caspian and Black seas, where Shmulevich dug trenches as part of the defense against the German army.
“We heard bullets above our heads all the time,” he said. “I saw death every day, and our lives were constantly in danger. Many people in my troop were killed.”
After the war, Shmulevich returned to Kishinev, which now is the Moldovan capital of Chisinau. But the shadows of the war and despair followed him back home.
“I worried that so many people died,” he said. “But I survived, and I couldn’t stop thinking about those who were killed.”
Shmulevich eventually lost his faith in the Soviet Union. “The Soviet leadership was not anything we thought it was,” he said. “But thanks to the Soviets, we won the war.”
Shmulevich said he doesn’t remember experiencing anti-Semitism. Only once, in the 1960s, he witnessed discrimination when his son, Misha, an honor student, was rejected by a university.
“Back then, they enrolled only ethnic Russians into universities,” Shmulevich said, adding that he had to seek help from his affluent friends in the Soviet ministry of education to enroll his son. “But later, my son was accepted even though he was a Jew.”
His son finished college and soon was mobilized by the Soviet military into a border conflict with China in 1969. Two months later, Shmulevich received news that his son had been killed during the military operations.
“He went there happy and full of life,” Shmulevich said. “The next time I saw him, he was in a coffin.”
Ada, who was unable to bear the grief, died a few years later.
The loss of his son and wife left Shmulevich forlorn, but he found support from Lyuba, the wife of a childhood friend, who had lost her husband around the same time Ada died. The pair decided to marry.
Shmulevich was almost 80 when Lyuba suggested they join her relatives in Los Angeles. A volatile political environment and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 strengthened their decision to move to the U.S.
Lyuba’s family welcomed the couple with open arms when they arrived in L.A. For the first time since his childhood, Shmulevich began celebrating Jewish holidays.
“Thanks to her, I was lucky enough to move here,” he said.
Lyuba died in 2003.
“When my wife was alive, I really enjoyed celebrating Rosh Hashanah and other holidays,” he said.
These days, he tries to keep his brain active by calculating math problems, solving crossword puzzles and memorizing phone numbers of his relatives and friends. He admits longevity runs in his family: His half-brother Roman is 91 and his sister Inda is 101.
Shmulevich says the key to longevity is optimism and an active lifestyle. Despite his advanced age, he exercises 30 minutes every day. After breakfast, he takes a two-hour stroll, leaning on his walker and singing his favorite Russian song from the 1930s: “Ah, Odessa, a jewel by the sea, you witnessed so much sorrow. My beloved town, it is time for you to live and thrive.”