November 16, 2018

WWII veterans’ group battles time and others’ apathy

Many members of the Los Angeles Association of Veterans of World War II fought in some of the fiercest battles of that conflict, but now they are facing new foes: old age and a lack of interest among young people in preserving their legacy.

“People are getting sick and leaving us,” said Boris Melamed, 80, the association’s president. “But our children and grandchildren don’t have time to think about the second world war.”

Many of the group’s veterans are bedridden or moving to nursing homes. Some members worry the association soon will disappear as it struggles to recruit younger volunteers.

The group, made up mostly of Russian Jews, was founded in 1977 in a World War II veteran’s West Hollywood apartment as a way to socialize and preserve the legacy of veterans. Over time, its ranks became filled with those who served in the Soviet army after a wave of Russian-Jewish immigrants settled in West Hollywood.

Membership grew to 1,200 people in the 2000s after the group opened its doors to widows and children of veterans. It didn’t take long, though, for those numbers to shrink, as many veterans reached their 80s and 90s. Today, the association has 108 members. Their average age is 94, and the oldest member is 103.

“The situation is getting worse and worse, and many veterans are passing away,” Melamed, whose father served in the Soviet military, said as he sat in his office on a recent afternoon. A faded poster hung on the wall with a sign that read “Jewish heroes of WWII.”

“We say goodbye to someone almost every two weeks,” he said.

What used to be biweekly meetings turned into occasional gatherings to handle emergencies. During the Victory Day parade on May 9 — which celebrates the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany — many veterans were unable to walk. Instead, they rode a bus along Santa Monica Boulevard to Plummer Park’s monument to Soviet veterans of World War II, known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War.

Today, the association rents two rooms from the city of West Hollywood in a building across the street from Plummer Park for $1 a year. Once a month, it collects a $2 fee to buy gift certificates for birthdays and flowers for deceased members.

Melamed moved from Ukraine in 1982. His father was an engineer and served in the Soviet military squad that in 1945 removed explosives from the Reichstag building, home of the German parliament, in Berlin, after the surrender of the German army.

In 2002, Melamed joined the association as a volunteer to help with communications and event planning, and in March of this year he became the association’s president after Yefim Stolyarsky resigned due to health issues, following 26 years of service.

Melamed said the reason the association struggles to attract younger Russian volunteers is because they are busy chasing their American dream and are not interested in learning about Soviet history.

“Many children and grandchildren of veterans came to this country when they were 12 and 13 years old,” Melamed said. “They went to universities, took big posts and forgot the Russian language. They don’t have time to learn about World War II.”

Another member, Yevsey Epstein, was a teen-ager when the war started. He was a commander of an antitank battalion in the Soviet army. Now 94 and a West Hollywood resident, he said he’s not optimistic about the future of the veterans’ organization.

“The association will be over soon because there are few of us left,” Epstein said in Russian. “I have four grandchildren, and they don’t care about the Second World War. All they care about is taking care of their families and children.”

Stolyarsky, who became the honorary president of the association after his resignation, said the group has been struggling for a long time to attract younger volunteers.

“Young people are not interested in volunteering for us, and that’s really sad,” he said. “If they won’t help our association, it will disappear soon.”

Born in Ukraine, Stolyarsky enlisted in the Soviet army at age 19. Shortly after his division commander was killed in battle, Stolyarsky was promoted to the position, heading a battalion of 360 soldiers. More than once, the distance between his battalion and the German army was less than 1,000 feet, he said. He was injured several times, and a bullet fragment remains lodged in his ribs.

Just like others in the group, Stolyarsky has many war stories to tell, and he said it is important that someone preserve those memories for future generations.

A few weeks ago, Melamed found a volunteer who will help the association launch a new website and Facebook page. But for now, the group doesn’t have any far-reaching plans.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen next,” Melamed said. “We’ll wait until the end of the year and then will see whether we will keep the association open.”