Living through history

Living through history

Alexander Smukler of Montclair talks about life in the Soviet Union and here

Alexander Smukler at home
Alexander Smukler at home

People’s lives often divide into halves, but rarely as neatly as Alexander Smukler’s does.

For the first 30 years, he was a Russian; a Jew at first unknowingly, then grudgingly, and then overwhelmingly, and at least a pro-forma communist, son of a hardline mother.

For the second half — 31 years now, so the balance is shifting — he’s been a Russian-born American Jew, an entrepreneur who now has a big, art-filled house in Montclair, an art collector with a keen eye, an active philanthropist. A devout capitalist.

As some of his art and other objects that he’s collected go on exhibit at the Wende Museum in Culver City, California — the exhibit, called, “Soviet Jewish Life: Bill Aron and Yevgeniy Fiks,” opens this weekend — he talked about his eventful life.

Mr. Smukler was born in 1960 to “a very assimilated Jewish family,” he said. His mother’s family had been evacuated from western Russia to a small town in Siberia during World War II, where “they were starving and went through very hard times,” but still he downplayed as “no story, really, because it’s the same story as the stories of millions of other Russians who were evacuated.”

But “my father’s family was different,” he said. His father, Simon Smukler, who was born in 1926, was 14 when the war started. The family lived in Kiev; on September 29, 1941 — Yom Kippur — the Germans began marching groups of Jews from that Ukrainian city, home to vast numbers of Jews, to the ravine called Babi Yar. “They were told they were being relocated, and that they’d be picked up by cars and trucks,” Mr. Smukler said. “They were carrying suitcases, and bringing their babies and kids. They walked for five or six miles from the places where they lived to the place where they perished.” The Nazis ordered their victims to strip naked and then shot them; more than 30,000 Jews died that way.

“It’s a real mystery, how my family survived,” Mr. Smukler said. “They lived in the heart of Podil, the Jewish district, where all the craftsmen, tailors, shoemakers, lived. All their relatives and friends and neighbors died.

Alla and Alexander Smukler celebrate his 60th birthday last year.

“I know only part of the story. My grandfather, Joseph, had three kids; my aunt was born in 1941, so she was a newborn. My grandparents escaped because they went in the opposite direction.

“A few days before, my grandfather had found a limping horse, and he bought it for two bottles of vodka.” That wasn’t entirely surprising; his grandfather had been in the business of renting horses and carts for construction work before the war.

The whole family didn’t make it out, though. Joseph and his wife, Hanna, had three children; Alexander’s father, Simon, and Simon’s baby sister, Lena, survived. But the oldest child, Ephraim, did not. “He ended up in Babi Yar, and died there. He disappeared when my grandparents were leaving. He was running somewhere with his friends. They couldn’t find him. They left him a letter in their house, saying that they were moving east. It was only after the war that we found out that he was captured by Ukrainian collaborators, brought to Babi Yar, and shot.”

“I was too young to realize that I should ask my grandparents how they knew to get into that cart and go in the opposite direction.” They died when Sasha (that’s short for Alexander) was a teenager, “and they never wanted to talk about it,” he said.

After that escape, “somehow they survived,” he continued. They were hidden by a series of Ukrainian farmers, they kept moving east, and “finally they were able to cross the front lines and ended up in Soviet territory.” That’s where they stayed, eventually moving to Moscow when the war ended.

After they got to Siberia, meanwhile, Mr. Smukler’s mother’s father, Simon Podolsky, was drafted into the Red Army; his wife, Hanna, and their daughter, Olga, waited for him there. Eventually, after the war ended, Mr. Podolsky returned to his family, and they too moved to Moscow.

“That’s how my parents met, in Moscow, in 1959,” Mr. Smukler said. He was born the next year, and his sister, Tanya, who lives in Rockaway now, came along a few years later.

“It was a kind of a shidduch,” an arranged match, “between my mother’s and my father’s family. They put them together.” Why, given that both families actively rejected their Jewishness, at least publicly? “That’s a good question,” he said. “I don’t really know why. But it was important for them that they married Jews. Everybody in my family married Jews. It’s hard to explain, because on the one hand they all tried to be assimilated.

Sasha Smukler’s school photographs; above, Moscow School #518 celebrated its opening in 1974.

“They kept some traditions, but only secretly. For example, we always had a seder in my father’s house, but we never called it a seder. I never knew why we were going there. There was a big table, and he always managed to get matzah and my grandmother made gefilte fish, but no one explained it, so I had no clue why there was matzah. We just thought that it was a kind of bread that my grandfather liked once in a while.

“Like once a year.”

Mr. Smukler’s father was an engineer, and his mother was a doctor; actually she was a dentist, but medicine and dentistry were taught in the same school, Mr. Smukler said, and anyway she spent most of her career as a hospital administrator.

“My mother was a hardline communist,” he said. “She was a believer. That’s why she got that position as part of the top hospital management. My father was not a communist, but he was the guy who didn’t want to talk about any of it. Not the war, not Jews, not Israel, not anything. Everything connected with the traditions of Judaism was completely forbidden in my family.

“So that’s how I grew up, in a very assimilated family,” he continued. “I had no clue about anything Jewish. I never even knew that I am a Jew.

“I learned about this only when I was probably 9 years old, when I went to summer camp. I was trying to get onto the soccer team, and the coach told me, ‘You know the Jews are not playing soccer. You are not going to be a team member, because you are Jewish.’

“‘You have to go to the chess club.’

Its senior class, including Mr. Smukler, two years later.

“And I went to my mom, who was visiting, and I said, ‘Mom, what is this about? Why did he call me a Jew? I don’t understand. And why can’t I be a soccer player? I’m playing soccer very well. Much better than the others.’

“So my mother said, ‘OK. Wait a minute. Let me explain it to you.’

“And that’s how the Pandora’s box opened.”

It wasn’t easy for young Sasha. “I was devastated,” he said. “I was a red-haired, very athletic kid, and I didn’t understand why I should go to the chess club.”

How could the coach know that that Sasha and his family were Jewish, even though Sasha didn’t? It was easy, Mr. Smukler said. The Soviet Union’s ID documents all specified what was called nationality, “and in Russia being Jewish had nothing to do with religion. It is a nationality.” So his Jewishness literally was stamped all over his official papers. And of course his last name was Jewish, although he didn’t know it then. The grown-ups all knew, though.

“That was the beginning of the moment when I became an adult,” he said. “After that, there were long years of struggle for my identity, looking for an explanation of why I am different. And it became a constant struggle, because every day they reminded you that you are a second-class citizen.”

The Smuklers, like many other Russians of the professional class, lived in a communal apartment in a huge postwar building. Because of his mother’s job, it was in a desirable neighborhood, right across the Moskva River from the Kremlin.

“Our family had two rooms, approximately 280 square feet, along a long corridor,” he said. The two rooms connected internally, like a hotel suite. “At the end of the corridor there was a toilet and a bathroom, in separate rooms, and on a wall there was a schedule showing who could use it when.

In Moscow in 2012, Mr. Smukler speaks at a conference; he’s on a mission for the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry, one of many organizations in which he’s active.

“There was one large kitchen, with two stoves. Women could cook there, and there was a schedule about when they could cook.” It wasn’t really like a kibbutz, where everyone sits together for a communally produced meal. “It was more like a dorm, with common areas,” Mr. Smukler said. “Everyone also was responsible for cleaning the whole common area, also on a schedule. My family had to clean the bathroom and the toilets and the kitchen, I think it was every second Thursday.

“In that time, in the ’60s and ’70s, it was absolutely common. Most of my friends grew up in these communal apartments. And we grew up basically on the streets. We never spent time in the apartment. We were always outside.

“It was very cold in the wintertime, and the river would freeze. We cleaned the surface and played hockey. Almost every building had a yard where we could play hockey. And in the summertime, I still remember jumping into the river and swimming. Now the river is so dirty, too dirty for that, but I remember well swimming there.”

Being Jewish was a complication. “I had no knowledge about being a Jew, but I always felt foreign,” Mr. Smukler said. “You can’t do this, you can’t do that. My father’s mantra was that if you’re not going to be the best student in school, you will never be admitted to the university. Why? Simply because you’re a Jew. He always told me that you had to be the best. You had to work harder than anyone else if you want to have anything in this life. And that actually was absolutely true. In 1977, when I was 17 years old, most of the universities in Moscow did not accept Jews. Only a few were open to us.

“All of this was negative, but on the other hand, I always felt that my grandfather, my father’s father, had a secret life. I would hear him listening to a radio station, and sometimes I caught him with it on, and I knew that it was KOI, Kol Yisrael,” the Voice of Israel. “Sometimes it was in Hebrew, sometimes it was in Yiddish,” which Sasha and the other kids his age did not understand. “He would listen, but as soon as the children would walk in he’d turn it off and put on music. We knew he had a weird secret life behind the walls.

“He would talk in Yiddish with my grandmother. But whenever I asked him what was going on in Israel — we did have relatives there — he’d tell me, ‘That, you have to discuss with your father.’

“My grandfather was extremely nice, but he never shared his memories of the war and the way they escaped and survived — he didn’t want to talk about it. He was afraid it would traumatize the children, and he wanted to forget about it. They did not want to talk about Israel.

Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher always spent time with Russian Jews when she visited the USSR. Here, in 1990, from left, are Mr. Smukler, Valery Engel, and Roman Gefter.

“When I would ask my father about Israel, or what it means to be Jewish, he always told me that he didn’t want to talk about it. He said that it wasn’t safe to discuss it.

“He was so paranoid about everything. He said ‘Ears are everywhere so you better not talk about Israel. Never ask me about it.’ They’d run away from the kids to talk about it sometimes.

“Sometimes I laugh about how there were two subjects that were completely forbidden in the Soviet Union. Young people and children couldn’t talk about them. One was sex, and the other was Israel.”

The Smuklers did hear about Israel — from the Russian vantage point. “We heard about the ’67 war,” Mr. Smukler said. “Russian propaganda claimed that Israel was the aggressor, and a terrible state, and it talked about apartheid. It’s funny; the propaganda then was very similar to what we hear now in the United States. It’s the same words, but from different groups. History is repeating itself, but now from the United States, not from a communist country.”

There were some perks to living in the Soviet Union, at least if you were a fairly high-level worker. “Both of my parents got 40 or 45 days of vacation every year, and they took us to Crimea every summer,” Mr. Smukler said. One parent would go on vacation with Sasha and Tanya first; when the first vacation was over that parent would go home and be replaced by the other parent. That meant that the kids got three months at the beach in the beautiful peninsula in the Black Sea. “It’s a beautiful place, with an amazing climate, and especially in the summer it’s full of fruits and vegetables,” he said. “Not many people know how gorgeous it is. It is a haven in the world.”

It was perfect for the so-called Russian intelligentsia, Mr. Smukler continued. “It was affordable. We took an overnight train with a sleeping compartment. We loved it.” And it was the place where his life changed.

“In 1976, on the beach, for the first time, I saw young people wearing a Magen David,” a Jewish star. “It was an explosion in my mind.

“In my mind, I asked myself, ‘How come they are openly wearing a six-point star, and they are not scared? And nobody is paying any attention to them.’

In May 1992, Mr. Smukler meets with former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow; he was with the Nathan Cummings Foundation.

“They looked so smart, so brave. They were all athletic and gorgeous and glamorous. I was so amazed and so shocked. I followed them on the beach to see who they were and what they were doing, and I realized that they were speaking a language that I did not recognize.

“They were speaking Hebrew.

“That was the first time that I met people who were wearing this, and I was so paralyzed and amazed and I told myself that I had to wear this.” He stopped talking and pulled out the star that he wears under his shirt. “I have been wearing this almost 40 years,” he said. “I never took it off.”

Back in Crimea, the teenage Sasha soon learned that Hebrew teachers and students gathered on the peninsula, specifically at a place called Koktebel, to learn together. “At night, they went to the mountains, sat near the firepits, developed their Hebrew skills, and talked about immigration and Israel,” he said. They came from every possible place in the Soviet Union.”

Sasha was transfixed. He wanted to be one of them. “So slowly, slowly, I tried to get their attention, to get involved. But I was a 16-year-old-kid. They were older; maybe five or six years old. When you’re 16, that’s a barrier.”

But Sasha did have one tool. Remember when the soccer coach told him to forget soccer but go to where Jews belong, the chess club? He took that advice. “I was a chess master, so I started to play chess on the beach,” he said. “I played with a few people at the same time” — flashy! — “and they immediately came to my game, and sat across from me, and we played. They were strong players.”

That’s how he met his first Hebrew teachers, Yuli Edelstein, who later became the speaker of the Knesset, and Mikhail Nekrasov. “At first, they were reluctant to take me into their circle, because I was too young and they had to be very secretive,” Mr. Smukler said. “But when we returned to Moscow that year, I got in contact with Nekrasov, and he said, ‘You have to come to synagogue during the high holidays, and especially during Simchat Torah.

In 2014, Mr. Smukler, as president of the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry, shakes hands with then Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu in Israel.

“That was September 1976. It was the first time I went to the main Moscow synagogue.” He couldn’t have gone either there or to any other synagogue on the holidays before, he added, because he had no way of knowing what the holidays were, much less when they were. “I was shocked,” he continued. “It was a crowd, a huge crowd, of young kids like me, maybe a little older. We were dancing and singing, there were lots of beautiful girls, and everyone was talking to each other, and there was lots and lots of exchanging of information, and of samizdat books.” (Samizdat was the banned literature that dissidents inelegantly copied and bravely, surreptitiously distributed.)

“It gave me such strength,” Mr. Smucker said. “Now I realized that I am not alone. I am not by myself in being a Jew. There were so many people around me who were strong, active, and proud to be Jewish.

“That changed my life completely.”

Mr. Smukler graduated from high school that year and went on to the Moscow School of Technology. “It was a different story by then,” he said. “I got involved, I had a lot of friends, and we all exchanged samizdat books. The first one that I read and made me into a proud Jews was ‘Exodus’ by Leon Uris. That book was a window for us into a different world.”

Mr. Smukler kept reading and learning. He became a potent force in the world of Soviet Jews. He soon realized that he wanted to immigrate. That no longer was as nearly entirely impossible as it had been, but that was a low bar. “What the Soviet Union did was open the door a little bit, then close it for a few years, then slowly open it again, and some people were able to immigrate. And then after 1980 the door was closed again, for at least seven years, until Gorbachev came to power.

“I had already decided to immigrate. I applied in April of 1980, and got my first refusal on August 3, 1980. It was a letter from the Minister of the Interior, saying that we refuse to give you an exit visa because of your parents.”

His parents, remember, both worked for the government; that meant, according to Soviet reasoning, that they might be in possession of state secrets, which for some reason meant that their children could not leave the country. Soon after his refusal, the laws were changed, so that everyone who wanted to get out, no matter how old they were, had to get permission from their parents, “saying that they support your decision to leave them behind.”

He applied again, but his parents said no.

“Dream Flower” by New York-based Russian Jewish artist Edward Bekkerman.

Meanwhile, between the first refusal and the second one, Mr. Smukler got married. He and his wife, Alla Shtraks, first met at a cousin’s wedding, and their parents “got together, and somehow put us together.” She was 15 and he was 18; when they married, she was 19 and he was 21. Forty years later, they’re still married.

“We had a similar background and similar lives,” Mr. Smukler said. “She is also from a very assimilated Jewish family. Both of her grandfathers were hardline communists. They were in very high positions in the Soviet hierarchy. One of them, Shaul Shuv, was the 13th child of a chasidic rabbi from a small Polish shtetl who ran away from his family and became a Bolshevik. All of his family perished during the war, including his father, who was buried alive in front of his congregation.”

“He had an absolutely outstanding career; he was the COO of the largest Soviet auto plant at the time. But in 1949, he was arrested and sent to the gulag as a Zionist agent. He got 25 years as a spy, and as an active agent of an international Zionist organization called the Joint.” As in the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

“I got his file in the 1990s from the KGB,” Mr. Smukler continued. “In 1934, he was working in the auto plant, Zis, when a delegation from the Joint came to the factory to buy machinery for their farms in Crimea. It was an experiment, to see if there could be kibbutzim in Crimea; there were approximately 20 to 25 large kibbutzim there then. So the delegation came to his plant to buy machinery for this agricultural experiment, and he was chosen to work with them because he spoke fluent Yiddish. The delegation came from the United States, but most of them spoke Yiddish.

“He met with the delegation, but finally the Joint refused to buy Soviet machinery. It bought them in the United States and shipped them instead.

“Fifteen years later, in 1949, he was arrested and sentenced as a Joint agent. The plot was purposely not to buy Soviet machinery in 1934, and it was his fault.

“He was sent to the gulag, but at least he came back. At least he wasn’t killed. He went through hell.” He didn’t have to serve out his full sentence because Khrushchev released most of the prisoners in the Siberian labor camps. “He came back in 1957, and he went back to his plant, and started there again, at the lowest level.

“He ended up a professor. He taught about technology in Moscow. He had an outstanding career.”

Work by Issachar Ber Rybak, 1897-1935.

Sasha and Alla immigrated to the United states in 1991, and “in 1993 I went back to Moscow and got him and his wife.” The elderly couple — Shaul Shuv and Elena Basina-Shuv — settled in Morristown.

“He was so hardline communist, even coming back from the gulag, that he told everyone that it was all a mistake,” Mr. Smukler said. “Stalin was a terrible dictator, but everyone else was right, and one day we will build a better world on our planet, and socialism will win.”

Mr. Shuv had serious health problems, including diabetes. His legs bled. “I brought him to the emergency room in Morristown, and the doctor was working on his injuries,” Mr. Smukler said. “I stayed with him to translate — he didn’t speak any English — and I saw him crying, like he was suffering great pain.

“I said to him, ‘Grandpa, you are suffering. Tell me, and I will ask them to make you comfortable.’

“‘And he said, ‘No, I am not crying from physical pain. I am crying because all my life I was struggling and fighting against capitalism and capitalists. I devoted my life to communism.

“‘And now I am in the hospital, in the worst capitalist country in the world, and I realized that my life was wasted.

“‘I wasted my life. Don’t make that same mistake, grandson. It was all fake.

One of Aleksander Tyshler’s portraits of his wife, Flora Syrkina.

“ ‘It was all fake.’”

Ms. Basina-Shuv, like her husband, came from a town called Gaisin. She and her then infant daughter, Stella, were her family of origin’s only survivors, “and she died here, in New Jersey, at the age of 98,” Mr. Smukler said.

Both Sasha and Alla Smukler were deeply involved in the push to get Soviet Jews out of the country. By the time they left in 1991, the restrictions once again had started to ease. His sister already had moved to the United States, so his parents, knowing that “the Soviet Union was shaky and ready to collapse, changed their minds.” He’d already gotten permission from Gorbachev; his parents gave theirs as well, “but they said if you want to immigrate, we have to come with you,” Mr. Smukler reported. “We all have to go together.”

So the decision was made, but “my mother tragically passed away two weeks before she was to get on the plane,” he continued. “She had worked with radiation all her life, and she got liver cancer.” She was 57. “My father came here and lived happily in Morristown with my sister until he died in 2004.”

When he came to this country, Mr. Smukler used his entrepreneurial instincts and his enormous web of connections to establish himself. He worked in travel agencies — first for a friend, then for himself, at an agency called All Ways Travel — to establish a program called “Back to the Roots.” “It was a special tour for people who wanted to go back to the former Soviet Union and discover their roots,” he said. “Our biggest clients were UJA federations. We sent large missions to shtetls in Ukraine and Poland, and the Soviet Union, which already had collapsed. The republics were open to tourism, and we were very welcome.” Often the trips would go from eastern Europe to Israel.

Soon he started helping Americans go to the FSU to adopt children, and he became increasingly active with Russian Jewish immigrant groups. In 2007, he sold the travel agency, signed a noncompete agreement, and started a construction company with a friend. “I went back to Moscow often to work there, and we became very successful,” he said. “I ended up buying a Moscow franchise for Century 21, then I bought the right to develop the Century 21 franchising system in the former Soviet Union. I sold it to one of the largest Russian banks in 2014.

“After that I built a few other companies. Now I’m semi-retired, and I’m collecting art.”

The art that most interests him, Mr. Smukler said, “is by Jewish artists who were not able to leave the Russian empire, or the Soviet Union. Most of them worked behind the Iron Curtain, and they are not known to the world. I want to preserve their names.

This work is by artist Lev Tabenkin, who lives in Moscow.

“Based on my understanding and my opinion and my eye, some of them are more talented than Chagall. The world knows Chagall, Soutine, and a few others, but those are just the ones who were able to get out. Chagall had hundreds of classmates who couldn’t get out. Many of them died in the Holocaust, and some in Stalin’s labor camps.”

Now, Alla and Sasha Smukler live happily in Montclair. She’s a Moscow Conservatory-trained pianist; she teaches privately now. They have three sons — the two older ones were born in the Soviet Union, and the youngest one was born here. They belong to Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, as well as a few other local synagogues. Life is good — and deeply, profoundly American.

As he looks back on his life in Russia, the first part of his life, which prepared him well for the second part, Mr. Smukler remembers the story of his meeting with Leon Uris, the writer whose book “Exodus” had been so important to him.

“In 1989 Leon Uris came to Moscow,” Mr. Smukler said. “He’d been invited by the Soviet actors’ guild.” Mr. Smukler, as an active and prominent member of the local Jewish community, was invited to meet Mr. Uris. “I met with him in the lobby of the Hotel Savoy,” he said. “I was so naïve. I had no idea about how copyright worked.

“So he was with his assistant, and I said, ‘Mr. Uris, it is such a pleasure to meet you here. Every young Soviet Jew knows you, and we admire your book.’

“And he said, ‘Wait a minute. How can I be so popular here? I never published the book in Russia.’

“I was so naïve! I said, ‘No, no. We published tens of thousands of your book.’ And he got so angry. He said to his assistant, ‘I want to talk to my lawyer. I never gave anybody the right to translate my books into Russian. They stole my book. Tens of thousands of copies of my book!’

“Flowers” by Abraham Manevich, 1935.

“He was so angry, and so unhappy, and so upset with me, all evening, and I was so shocked.

“So the next day I came back to the Savoy for breakfast with him, and I brought him this book.” He displayed a copy of the samizdat version of the book, as earlier he’d shown his Star of David. It was a tiny book with tiny print; it would be shipped out surreptitiously, enlarged, and reprinted. “I showed it to him, and I said, ‘I want to show you what kind of book every Russian Jew reads. It is the beginning of Jewish education. It’s been so important in helping us to identify as Jews and make us proud Jews.’

“And he took this book, and said, ‘Oh my God! Who translated it?’ And I said, ‘One of our friends. A few tourists brought us the English version, and we translated it, and this is how we publish it, so thousands and thousands of people can read it. it goes from one person’s hand to another’s.

“And then he started to cry. And he said, ‘Oh my God! I apologize. I didn’t realize that you translated my book, and distributed it hand to hand.’

“I told him that I knew people who had been sent to a labor camp for nine years just for having that book, because it was on the list of forbidden books. If the KGB found it in your possession — well, if they do, that’s it.

“He was crying like a baby. He said, ‘This is much better than the Nobel prize. This makes such a difference in my life.”

Those are extraordinary memories to bring across the ocean with you as you start your new life.