October 17, 2019

Russian library faces possibility of a short shelf life

For two decades, the Russian Language Public Library on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood has been a testament to the large wave of Soviet Jews who immigrated to the Los Angeles region with personal libraries and a passion for literature.

The library holds more than 10,000 books donated by Russian-speaking immigrants who brought those treasured possessions in suitcases as they fled anti-Semitism and worsening economic conditions in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s. A yellow banner, stretched on top of a wall inside the library, declares in Russian: “An enclave of Russian culture on blessed American soil.”

Today, the library remains a bastion of the Russian-speaking community — although its future may be endangered. It is a place where many seniors socialize and find a good read. Its bookcases reach the ceiling, stuffed with Fyodor Dostoevsky and Anton Chekhov’s masterpieces, along with more current romance novels.

“People call us a social club,” said Sofiya Fikhman, 77, a Russian Jew and one of three volunteers who run the library, which receives its space and some financial help from the city of West Hollywood. “We chat and discuss news with our readers. We try to help them any way we can.”

But she and other library leaders are worried about its long-term future as many of its original patrons are dying or moving away and a younger generation is more assimilated and not as likely to use or support the facility. Some are concerned that the library could be in jeopardy of closing because it has limited funding and relies solely on volunteers.

In a wooden box, Fikhman keeps the handwritten reader cards, which used to total several hundred names but now is down to about 115 active members. A rubber band wraps cards with names of the many patrons who are not going to return.

When the library first opened, more than 20 volunteers helped with cataloging and organizing books. Now, only three volunteers work there.

One is Arnold Libman, a Russian Jewish immigrant who has been a library volunteer for two years.

“My heart breaks thinking about this library,” said the 70-year-old West Hollywood resident. “Amazon replaced paper books. Once in a while, we see young people, but not many of them are interested in Russian books.”

The library opened in 1997, after Naum Reznik, the late professor of mechanical engineering and founder of the Association of Engineers and Scientists in West Hollywood, received several boxes of books from private donors. Other donations followed from Soviet immigrants who saw their books as the way to preserve Russian culture in a foreign land.

For a few years, the library occupied a small room in the Chabad Russian Synagogue in West Hollywood. But as the population of Soviet immigrants continued to grow in the 1990s, the library’s shelves kept filling with books, magazines and vinyl records. Two patrons each donated 2,000 books.

The library moved to a room in Plummer Park, then outgrew that space and in 2011 moved to the current location in a two-story stucco building sandwiched between a pharmacy and a framing shop, near the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Martel Avenue.

The dusty smell of fading books lingers in the library’s overstuffed room. Several rows of white bookcases hold such books as Tolstoy’s novels and a history of the Holocaust; most of them are in Russian and a few in Yiddish. The oldest book, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Faust,” dates to 1898.

Israeli, Russian, American and California flags are attached to the top of a shelf. An outdated computer gathers dust next to three mismatched wooden chairs. There are no electronic security systems in the room.

Over the years, the library collected more than 25,000 books, but the limited space and decreasing interest in reading led volunteers to donate books to other libraries. Now, the organization keeps only 10,000 texts. The city of West Hollywood, which owns the building where the library occupies a room, pays for its maintenance and provides $1,800 a year to buy new books.

Fikhman became a volunteer after a colleague told her about the opportunity to help preserve the Russian library. Her life could have served as a plot for a novel.

She was 2 years old when the war between Germany and the Soviet Union began, and her father left home to join the Soviet army. Fikhman, her mother and grandparents were forced to live in a Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Odessa, Ukraine.

In the ghetto, they shared a small room with 13 other people, Fikhman said. One night, a group of guards took away Fikhman’s mother. Young Fikhman couldn’t stop crying and begging other inmates to bring back her mother.

Finally, a Romanian man whose wife had given birth with the assistance of  Fikhman’s mother, who was a midwife, left the room. Fikhman doesn’t know what happened next, but a few hours later, the man returned with Fikhman’s mother. It was a bittersweet reunion because neighbors learned later that more than 100 Jews were murdered that night.

Despite those troubled days, Fikhman said she learned that the world is not without good people.

Once, a German guard approached Fikhman and gave her a slice of bread.

“I don’t know how I would survive without that bread,” said Fikhman as she struggled to hold back tears. “He gave me bread every day. I couldn’t speak or thank him because I didn’t know German, but he will forever stay in my memory.”

She spent four years in the ghetto until the Soviets freed her family in 1944.

Today, Fikhman likes to spend time in the library, where she socializes with fellow Russian seniors, including some who commute from as far away as the San Fernando Valley.

The average reader is 80 years old, Fikhman said. But despite the patrons’ advanced age, a section with romance novels remains a hit.

“We used to say there is no sex in the Soviet Union,” Fikhman said. “Now, every modern book has a bed in the center of its plot, and our patrons enjoy reading about it.”

Lyubov Zagrebelskaya, a Russian Jew and resident of West Hollywood who moved from Ukraine 25 years ago, said she visits the library frequently and already has read most of the romance novels twice.

“I love different types of books, but lately, I fell in love with romance novels,” she said. “It helps me to relax and forget my problems.”

Over the last three years, the library has seen a new wave of book donations, Fikhman said, as people died or moved to nursing homes and their children found no interest or space to keep faded books.

The library is open only three days a week, from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. But there is no limit to the number of books people can take, said Grygoriy Golodnytskyy, a Russian Jew, who has been a volunteer at the library for five years.

“We allow our readers to take any number of books and keep them as long as they want to,” said the 82-year-old Santa Monica resident who moved from Ukraine 12 year ago.

Recently, Golodnytskyy purchased a record player for the library to play vinyl records donated by patrons.

Now, the staff is preparing to hold more gatherings and literature discussions.

“People in this area are lonely and don’t have many friends,” Fikhman said. “The library is one of a few places where they can be entertained.”