Seventy-two years ago close to six million European Jews were killed by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany reign. April 23rd is Holocaust Remembrance Day, which was created to commemorate all of those who suffered during the systematic murder of Jews and other minority groups in Europe (Russian gypsies, homosexuals, disabled people and other groups were among those killed). In addition, this commemoration takes place around the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943.
The Holocaust lasted from 1933- 1945, and during that time millions were placed in concentration camps, ghettos, and killed simply because they were Jewish or aiding Jews—these were people Hitler cruelly deemed as inferior to the Aryan (master) race. This horrific genocide has left an everlasting scar on history, and many of the survivors still bear the weight of their experiences all these years later.
Longtime Spring Creek Towers’ resident, Yakov Ryaboy, is one of the many Holocaust survivors who vividly remember what life was like in the 1940s. Ryaboy was born on August 29, 1935 in a ghetto within Berschad, Ukraine—just two years after Hitler began his systematic extermination of Jews. When reflecting on his past, the first thing Ryaboy remembers are the fences— sharp, barbwire fences surrounding his small town and living in constant fear. The houses were dilapidated with snow and ice dripping from the roofs and onto the floors. People were often seen crawling to homes (which were usually packed with 20 people) seeking food and sanctuary from the cold, but many of them perished because of hunger and sickness. According to firsthand accounts in the book, Geschichte der Juden in der Bukowina, during one winter, at the turn of the New Year (1942), of the 21,000 people deported to Berschad about 18,000 died. There were daily sleds overflowing with corpses, many of these bodies were dumped into mass graves. Despite all of the deaths, Berschad remained crowded with people as masses were forced daily to march into the ghetto from across the region.
His family lived in fear of deportation into concentration camps and raids from Death Squads (Nazis that killed anyone who endangered security; these groups would often fill pits with corpses, and sometimes buried people alive).
Ryaboy was just a child when thousands of people, from all across Eastern Europe, were being displaced in his small village—each and every one of them were malnourished, abused and were forced to wear the Star of David patches on their arms.
From age six to nine, Ryaboy worked with his mother in a hospital emptying bed pans.
One day, Ryaboy and his mother fled into the forest where they traveled to a neighboring village, and took shelter with a woman who Ryaboy’s mother knew right before World War II began. They gave the woman all they had, even the clothes off their back in exchange for a safe haven.
A few days after their escape, Ryaboy learned that all of those who were in the ghetto that he formely resided in were killed— close to 30,000 people were exterminated.
For some time, Ryaboy and his mother hid inside of tiny sections of the woman’s ceiling. Just when they thought they were finally safe, a group of Nazi soldiers burst through the home, demanding to know if any Jews were hiding there. The woman kept their secret and repeated animatedly to the soldier that no one lived in the home besides herself. The Nazi soliders scrutinized the woman for quite some time before shooting at the ceiling and floors demanding to know the truth. Luckily for Ryaboy and his mother, they were not harmed or discovered.
Ryaboy and his mother fled that woman’s home after the Nazi’s visit but were separated during their journey. Ryaboy lived in an orphanage for some time after that. While he was in school he learned to play the trumpet. His teacher, who was a musician in the military, told Ryaboy to enlist. After years of schooling and serving in the army, Ryaboy spent his life teaching music and working as a chiropractor.
In his 20s he met his wife, and they have been married for about 57 years. Despite the admiration he received from his fellow Ukrainian citizens for working in medicine and being a musician, Ryaboy wanted a better life for himself and his wife. In the 1990s, he moved to America and in 1995 he found an apartment in Spring Creek Towers, formerly known as Starrett City.
Now, Ryaboy spends his time teaching children how to play music, writing musical compositions, and enjoying the company of his friends, wife and son. Although he has made a better life for himself, the emotional scars of the Holocaust will always be embedded in his mind.
Photos by: Amanda Moses