Holocaust Survivor Thrives with Support from Russian Jewish Cultural Center



“The Russian Jewish Center is like a home. It gives me life,” said Mila Denisenko of the support she has been given by Jewish Family Service’s new initiative.

 

On December 14, Mila Denisenko celebrated her 90th birthday at the Russian Jewish Cultural Center with her friends around her. Speaking Russian, they shared anecdotes about her life and their history together. Some praised her gift for singing. Delicious Russian-style birthday cake was served, along with much food and laughter. As befitted such a milestone, Mila received a bouquet of red roses.

Later, asked her favorite thing about the Center, Mila said, “I like it so much that we can communicate with each other, and that we have a lot in common, and perhaps the same way of thinking” (Mila’s quotes throughout are via interpreter).

It may look like just a room on the first floor of the Mayerson JCC – but the Center is the vibrant heart of a community 130 strong. Run by Jewish Family Service (JFS), the Russian Jewish Cultural Center mobilizes a network of life management care and offers a steady flow of engaging opportunities for the Russian-speaking Jewish community. Funded by the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati, the Center is relatively new.

Started in June 2017, each person has a JFS caseworker. Roughly 60 percent are Holocaust survivors; some are decorated veterans who, as soldiers in the Soviet army, helped defeat Hitler. Many, including Mila, have difficulty with English.

“They deserve to live in dignity,” says Luda Gikhman, JFS’s manager of the Center. “The cultural differences matter so much. They know what it is like to be forbidden to celebrate Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, and be denied good jobs and good education for their children because of their Jewishness.”

Turmoil in Odessa

For Mila, such safety, freedom, and economic stability is new.

When she was a child, Mila’s family lived in Odessa. While Odessa had a substantial Jewish population, it was problematic to practice one’s Judaism.

In 1941, when Mila was 12, the Axis powers conquered Odessa and she and her mother went into hiding, escaping the Odessa Massacre and suffering the Nazi regime. Her biggest memory of that time is being constantly on the run: cold, fearful and hungry.

Even after the war, things were rough. Antisemitism persisted. As a mother with her own family, Mila and her son lived in poverty. So, when Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika opened up their chances for emigration, they left, arriving in Cincinnati in 1989.

“God Bless America”

Can there be a homecoming in a new land? “When we share memories and conversations at the Center, we usually just end with ‘God bless America,’” says Mila. Her friends, she says, “understand what the United States offers better than anybody else.”

Center Offers Respect & A Dignified Life

While Mila has family – a son and grandchildren – she lives alone in an apartment in Golf Manor, and enjoys the Center almost every weekday. Mila says the Center’s staff gives everyone “a lot of attention and care, so that everybody feels important. Thanks to the Center, we don’t feel alone.”

The Center provides professionals and social workers who can help with a range of life-management needs. The Center works to counter social isolation. Its Russian-language programming includes issue-related discussion groups, poetry readings, a singing group Mila belongs to called the Song-Lovers Club, and communal celebration of Russian Jewish holidays.

Mila sums it up, saying, “The Russian Center is like a home, it gives me life. Everybody my age needs this help.”

 

The Jewish Family Service Russian Jewish Cultural Center is one of over fifty programs and agencies, both local and around the world, funded by the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati. To learn more, call 513.985.1500, email info@jfedcin.org or visit JewishCincinnati.org.

The Jewish Federation of Cincinnati: together we can do almost anything.