A Story of Survival: From the Ghetto to the Land of Milk and Honey

Posted on March 31, 2013


Servant’s Heart team members gather around Gregory and Mara.

By David Ettinger

During World War II, when Adolph Hitler and the Nazis committed unspeakable atrocities against the Jewish people of Europe, Gregory and Mara were fortunate enough to avoid the concentration camps.

However, they were forced to live in a German-imposed “ghetto” in the Ukraine, and the experience was terrifying. A ghetto was a fenced- or walled-off region of a city where the Nazis forced Jews to live en masse in inhuman conditions — similar to cattle — for the purpose of not only controlling the Jewish population of their conquered lands, but ultimately exterminating that population. Gregory and Mara, though seemingly destined for death, survived their childhood years in the Ukraine and would live through the Holocaust.

The couple, now in their late seventies, lives in a small but comfortable Jerusalem apartment, where they were visited by a team of four Servant’s Heart volunteers on May 15, 2012. Gregory and Mara are among several couples being looked after by the Jerusalem Assembly, a Christian fellowship supported by Zion’s Hope.

The JA helps supply Holocaust survivors with food, clothing, small electrical appliances, and much-needed one-on-one contact through consistent visitation.

SH volunteers Sara and Lisa flank a Holocaust survivor living in Jerusalem.

Though seven decades have passed, Gregory and Mara, who have been married for fifty-one years, still remember the events of their youth.

“I was three years old when the war started, and was living with my mother and grandmother,” said Gregory, who, with Mara, spoke through a Russian translator. “Once we were placed in the ghetto, there was no food for us. We had to scavenge for it anywhere we could find it. Anything we could get our hands on, we would cook it. So many people died of starvation during that time.”

In 1945, the Soviet army broke through to Gregory’s Ukrainian village and liberated the ghetto.

“They were able to push back the Nazis and free those of us who were still alive,” said Gregory, who was six at the time. “Whoever was healthy enough was allowed to leave the ghetto. We were one of the blessed families who miraculously survived our three years there.”

Sadly, not quite everyone survived. Gregory’s grandmother succumbed to the harsh conditions in the ghetto and died before the ghetto’s liberation, leaving young Gregory and his mother to face a new life in a very uncertain world. Gregory’s father was not with them.

“He had joined the Soviet army and was assigned to protect the border between Pakistan and Iran,” Gregory explained. “That is where he spent most of the war.”

A Russian Holocaust survivor speaks with the translator for Servant’s Heart.

Following the war, Gregory’s father was stationed in Azerbaijan, and was not permitted to return to the family. Then, shortly following the war, Gregory’s mother, severely weakened by having endured three years of subhuman conditions in the ghetto, got sick and died. The Soviet government located Gregory’s father, who came and took Gregory to live with him.\

Gregory would spend the next fifty-five years in Azerbaijan, where he eventually met Mara, and the two married and raised a family.

“Azerbaijan once had a fairly large Jewish population — 2.4 million Jews — but eventually they began leaving,” Gregory explained, as Islam became the nation’s dominant religion. “For a long time, life was good there. The Jewish people had their own synagogues and thriving businesses.”

However, the rapidly changing religious and social climate made life unbearable for Jews in Azerbaijan and the exodus began. Finally, in 2000, Gregory and Mara were able to make aliyah — immigration — to Israel.

“If we had remained in Azerbaijan, we would not have a house, receive medical treatment, or be able to collect benefits from the government,” Gregory said.

Despite making the right decision, Gregory and Mara were heartbroken to leave.

“We loved living there, but things had changed,” Gregory said. “There is just one [Jewish] man left in our former community. He is eighty-six years old. There is also a museum and a Torah[a collection of the first five books of the Old Testament] there. They, along with the elderly gentleman, are the only signs that a community of 2.4 million Jews once existed in Azerbaijan. It has become a land of devastation and hostility toward Jews.”

On the other hand, the couples’ lives have changed drastically since arriving in Israel.

“We are so blessed and prosperous here,” Mara said. “Our two [grown] children consider themselves Israeli, and our [five] grandchildren have been raised here and are thriving.”

On this day, Gregory and Mara were hosting the small group of four Americans from Servant’s Heart, insisting — according to the dictates of their traditions of hospitality — on indulging them with fruit, vegetables, home-cooked pastries, tea, and coffee. (Gregory and Mara were two of four Holocaust survivors the Servant’s Heart team visited that day.)

“Look at the feast we have here in Israel,” Mara said. “It is no wonder the Bible calls this country ‘a land of milk and honey.’ This is a land where we can survive, where we can prosper. Not only do we survive, but we survive well. Every day we have food and drink on our table so that we will never hunger or thirst. This is the meaning of ‘milk and honey.’ ”

The Jerusalem Assembly continues to minister to this elderly couple, and though not yet believers in Jesus Christ — something the Jerusalem Assembly is trying to rectify — Gregory and Mara see God’s hand upon their lives, as well as other Jewish immigrants.

“God has promised to bless the Jewish people, and so He has,” Gregory said. “Look at our Arab neighbors, they don’t have the all the things that we have. Why is this? Because God has promised a special blessing, a special inheritance, and His presence to the Jewish people.”

Gregory and Mara see themselves and all other Jewish immigrants as prophecy being fulfilled.

“The book of Ezekiel says that God will bring the dry bones back to Israel,” Gregory said. “Our family — we and our children and grandchildren — are those dry bones whom the Lord has brought to this special and wonderful land.”