The Immigration of Victory Day
It is a well-known fact that Brooklyn has a rich population of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, mainly residing in Brighton Beach and mostly coming from Ukraine. Brighton Beach, or Little Odessa, in addition to servings as a residential neighborhood for many Russian-speaking Americans, is also a cultural outlet for Soviet immigrants. In the last two decades, residents have reiterated the cultural identity of Brighton Beach by commemorating the Soviet victory during World War II. Although, no veterans can testify to the first open and organized celebration of Victory Day on Brighton Beach, most have suggested that the holiday gained traction in the mid-1990s, shortly after the fall of the Soviet union and an influx of ex-Soviets into New York. 1
Upon inquiring into the origin of Brighton’s Victory Day celebration, I spoke with Pat Singer, the founder and president of the Brighton Neighborhood Association, a grassroots community organization that has maintained a political presence on Brighton Beach for the last forty years. She recalls the first parades manifesting in the 90s. “There are two veteran organizations: American Association of Invalids and Veterans of World War II and the All American Association of Invalids of World War II.” Leonid Rozenberg founded the former organization in 1997, and Semyon Komissar founded the second one as a response shortly after. The organization has served as a hub for approximately 2,000 Soviet veterans in Brooklyn and organized the Victory Day parade annually with a dinner at evening ceremonial events at Millennium Theater.
These celebrations have continued for a decade amassing anywhere from 20-30 veterans annually. “The tragedy is that they’re old,” remarked Singer. The perpetuity of the parades is dated, and while it has received regular attendance annually, the majority of the persons are older generation immigrants. The planning of the parade has been done mainly by Rozenberg’s organization with help from various community non-profits over the years such as the Russian-American Arts Foundation and the American Forum of World Congress of Russian Jewry, who vivified the parade in 2005 with the song of Victory Day, a sonnet that often follows parades and into the homes of families. 2
The attendance at these parades has been dwindling and one veteran pointed out the key difference of Victory Day’s immigration: apathy from younger generations. “I’m ashamed that my grandchildren and great grandchildren don’t acknowledge today,” whispered a Ukrainian veteran who preferred to remain anonymous.
The celebration of Victory Day in New York is limited to the elderly and the initiative of the veterans themselves. The holiday is more removed from younger generations for several reasons. Firstly, Victory Day is not recognized as a national holiday and classes are not dismissed. Furthermore, classes in public schools pay little attention to ethnic or international holidays, whereas the most notable Russian private school in Brooklyn declined to comment. Americanization and immigration often entail a cultural dissonance where patriotism for home nations is abandoned. This truth is evidenced among the veteran’s themselves by the differences between the two veteran organizations.
Singer explained that the similarities end with their names. Seymon Komissar’s organization, the All American Association of Invalids of World War II, has assimilated more to American practices. Komissar himself learned to speak English fluently and invites American journalists and politicians to the organization’s events. While both Komissar and Rozenberg hold annual dinners on Victory Day, Rozenberg’s are tailored to the Russian-speaking community more so than Komissar’s that welcomes public officials and journalists by leading multilingual processions. Singer explained that she has to alternate between dinners, year-to-year.
Whereas, the Russian federation has made progress in providing social welfare for its veterans by offering free services, some immigrants grew disillusioned from what they described as the lack of hospitality from their own community. Alexandra, a seventy-nine year old Ukrainian immigrant from Kazakhstan, said she was shocked when she heard about this year’s processions. “The parade has been canceled because Rozenberg is ill and instead these moneygrubbers are charging veterans forty rubles [dollars] for a fake dinner,” she exclaimed when she heard about Millennium’s ticket sale for an evening reception. Two other veterans joined in persuading me not to attend. “We won’t be there, I can find another place to dine and have a 100-grams for my lost brothers,” reiterated a veteran accoutered in countless military medals and banners. The disconnect between the American Association of Veterans and Invalids of WW2 and the Russian community landed this years celebration in disarray.
Others worry that the holiday won’t be celebrated in the future. When I first approached a veteran in uniform in the Jewish Community Center at Brighton Beach, he was confused and looking for directions and scheduling for the days parade. Another veteran resting on a wheelchair on the Riegelmann Boardwalk encouraged me to follow him to the parade after answering a few questions, unaware of this year’s cancellation.
While the absence of the parade shows a downturn of community organization on Brighton Beach, many immigrants enjoyed the Moscow military parade on Russian television programming at their homes, emulating their experiences from their home countries. By wearing St. George’s ribbon in public, and toasting to their ancestors, commemoration survives, but dwindles, in a familial context. Without a memorial ground for Soviet veterans, the future commemoration of Victory Day remains uncertain in New York.
The America Association of Veterans and Invalids of World War II has made attempts to obtain a burial ground and memorial site at New Montefiore Cemetery, but, with costs at $25,000, hopes for a future site for immigrant veterans are small.
- Singer, Pat. Personal Interview by Svyatoslav Brodetskiy. 28 Apr 2011. 16 May 2011. ↩
- Bukowsky, Rivka. “2-day fete for Soviet vets here.” NY Daily News. NY Daily News, 03 Apr 2005. Web. 16 May 2011. <http://articles.nydailynews.com/2005-04-03/local/18293271_1_fellow-veterans-veteran-s-parade-veterans-rights>. ↩