The men who created the Los Angeles Assn. of Veterans of WWII almost four decades ago sought to preserve the memory of the sacrifices they made as youth defending their Soviet homeland during World War II.
At its peak the group’s membership grew to more than 2,200 veterans. Today, that number has dropped to 400, 160 of whom served during World War II. Others are the children and widows of former servicemen.
Most of the Russian-speaking veterans fled the former Soviet Union for the United States, seeking to escape persecution because of their Jewish faith. All were hoping to find a better life for their families.
Now, as they move into their twilight years — the average age of the veterans is 92 — they worry that their association might die as their own lives expire.
“Before, we worried about getting citizenship for our members … teaching them English, housing,” said Yefim Stolyarsky, 91, the association’s president. “Now the concern is preserving contact among veterans, preserving the membership of the organization.”
Yevsey Epstein, 91, a medical forensics expert and native of Ukraine who served as commander of an anti-tank battalion in the Red Army, said he doubted it would be possible to preserve the legacy of the group.
“Our children and our grandchildren, they relate more to the United States and they don’t know what this group means,” he said.
The veterans meet twice a week to discuss issues in the community and to mingle. Because most of them speak limited English, they feel at home speaking Russian among their peers.
“I come and meet and socialize with people who understand me,” said Yulia Shikhleman, 81, the widow of a former Red Army officer and World War II veteran. “I can share with these people … tell them what’s going on with me. They listen to me. They comfort me.”
The group collects $2 a month in dues, saving the funds to spend at special occasions, such as purchasing birthday presents for members or gifts for those who are sick. They visit members who live at nursing homes and pay their respects at the funerals of comrades, which these days happen as often as every month.
“The very existence of the association is even stronger than brotherhood,” said Stolyarsky, a retired lieutenant colonel from the former Soviet republic of Moldova. “There is such unity. When those of us who served on the front meet … those of us who were on the edge of death, enduring bombs, lost our military comrades … it’s an inexplicable feeling.”
Stolyarsky served 30 years in the Red Army. He was twice wounded as he fought to help prevent the Germans from seizing Leningrad, today St. Petersburg, during a 872-day blockade of the city.
Other members have equally compelling stories.
Naum Sapozhnikov, 95, an aviation engineer, got his first taste of combat during the battle of Stalingrad, which stretched from August 1942 to February 1943. The fighting marked a turning point in World War II, halting the Nazi offensive and destroying much of Hitler’s army.
“It was the most terrible experience of my life,” said Sapozhnikov, who was 22 years old at the time.
Efim Kutz, 91, a founding member of the group and today its co-vice president, emigrated to the U.S. from the Ukrainian capital of Kiev in 1977. The former Red Army sergeant and career serviceman is the only member of the group who speaks English. He acts as a liaison between the veterans and city officials and handles the communications for the association.
At 90, Vladimir Barkon is — as his comrades jokingly describe him — “the baby of the group” and its other co-vice president. Originally from Ukraine, he enlisted voluntarily in the Soviet Army when he was 16 years old. He served at the front and was shot three times.
Many of the veterans have been married for at least 60 years. Several have spouses who are ailing. Stolyarsky’s wife of 67 years died earlier this year.
Shikhleman became teary-eyed as she described her connection to the group, which has been giving her moral support since her husband’s death in 1994.
“This is for us like a family,” Shikhleman said. “We love each other.”