Stalinist internment sparks literature award
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Stalinist internment sparks literature award

ELMWOOD PARK – The Nazis would surely have put Lyudmila Prakhina’s parents in a cattle car and sent them to almost certain death in a concentration camp during World War II. They didn’t get that chance, because Josef Stalin got it first.

"My parents, like many innocent people under Stalin, were arrested on June 13, 1941, and exiled to a distant corner of the Soviet Union," recalled Prakhina, an 11-year borough resident who is a native of Moldova. "My father later perished in Siberia, while my mother, who was pregnant with me at the time, was exiled to Uzbekistan along with my sisters. They survived."

This woman, now a grandmother, has chosen to honor the memory of those murdered under Stalinism and Nazism — and also raise awareness of Stalin’s mass deportations — by establishing a literary award for outstanding works of prose, poetry, journalism, or scholarship about that tragic period of European history.

The first of what is hoped to be an annual award was bestowed on Herman Rosenblat, author of the Holocaust memoir, "Angel at the Fence," on Jan. ‘7 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan. Not coincidentally, the date coincided with the 63rd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Soviet army.

"The award is our contribution to the struggle for peace and democracy and against anti-Semitism and all forms of repression and degradation of humanity," said Prakhina.

The Prakhin International Literary Foundation — established several years ago by Prakhina and her two sons, Boris and Michael — aims to provide financial and moral support to authors who educate the public about the Stalinist regime, which between 1941 and 1949 deported from the central Asian republics some 3.3 million Jews, Estonians, Greeks, Poles, Latvians, and many other ethnic groups.

More than ’00 guests attended the award ceremony at the museum, many of them children. "Our main goal is to get kids involved," said Boris Prakhina, a Paramus resident.

He is eager to make sure future generations do not remain ignorant of what happened to his grandparents and to millions of others under Stalin, who was general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 19” until his death in 1953.

"From 1939 to 1941, the Communists conquered the small republics around the borders [of what became the Soviet Union] and many citizens were sent on cattle cars to Siberia. People died in Stalin’s camps as well as in Nazi camps, but I don’t think many people realize this part of history. I didn’t."

Prakhina explained that many documents formerly suppressed by the KGB, the Soviet secret police, are now available to the public. "We found documents that specified as to how my grandfather and grandmother were taken from their house and put in cattle cars to Siberia. When I read it, I was amazed," he said.

Like his grandparents, many of the Jews in these republics were helplessly sandwiched between the evils of Hitler and of Stalin. Some were victimized by both in turn. Still others, exiled to Siberia during the early years of the war and released around 1954, came home unaware of the devastation the Holocaust had wrought.

Yet Lyudmila Prakhina emphasizes that the Jews did not have a monopoly on suffering.

"[R]epression, pogroms, and desecration against a person or people is not an exclusively Jewish issue but one that to varying degrees affects all the people who populate our globe," she said.

The foundation has a second, and just as personal, mission of remembrance.

It also bestows an annual "Truth is in the Sea" award for outstanding Russian works on sailing and the sea, in partnership with the St. Petersburg branch of the Russian Writers Union, in memory of Prakhina’s husband, Lazar Prakhin.

The late yachtsman took part in many sailing regattas in the Baltic, Black, and Azov Seas, the Gulf of Finland, and Chudskoe Lake. He also led a transcontinental river expedition across the entire breadth of Russia in 1971, accompanied by his wife. She later chronicled the adventure as co-author of the book "14,000 Kilometers Across the Rivers of Russia From East to West."

Prakhin died on his yacht in the Gulf of Finland on Oct. 13, 1993, probably during a storm although his family is unsure of the exact circumstances. He is buried south of the gulf, in the Russian town of Kingisepp, beneath a tombstone that reads, "The Truth is in the Sea."

"With these awards, we will commemorate our father and also do something for humankind, to unite everybody," Boris Prakhina said.

The event at the Museum of Jewish Heritage was highlighted by two choral performances by children, including a group from All Bright Center, an arts, science, and sports enrichment center in Fair Lawn founded by two Russian immigrants. Support for the ceremony was provided, in addition to the Prakhina family, by the North Jersey Surgery Center, Institute for Diagnosis and Treatment of Pain, and LAZAR Consultants LLC.

For more information about the foundation and the awards, see www.Prakhin.org.

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