Holocaust Survivor Yakov Ryaboy: This is My Life


May 2nd began the Days of Remembrance, also known as Yom HaShoah, an annual commemora-tion of the Holocaust established by the United States Congress. This solemn tribute puts a spotlight on the six million European Jews who were killed by Adolf Hitler’s reign, as well as the systematic killing of minority groups in Europe (Russian gypsies, homosexuals, disabled people and other groups were among those killed). This commemorative period also takes place around the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943.

The Holocaust lasted from 1933-1945; it was a horrific genocide that has left an everlasting imprint on history, leaving the survivors to bear the weight of their past for years to come. Even after 86 years, Spring Creek Towers’ (SCT) resident, and Holocaust survivor, Yakov Ryaboy can vividly recall the sharp barbed wire fences surrounding his small town in the Ukraine—but even more prevalent is the memory of living in constant fear. Ryaboy was born on August 29, 1935—just two years after Hitler began his systematic extermination.

“I remember the first day of the war, and the last day,” he said. It was a gradual change that occurred when World War II began, at first people still went to work and continued with their daily routine. “I remember everything, I can’t forget it,” he said.

His family lived in fear of deportation into concentration camps and raids from Death Squads (Nazis who would kill anyone who endangered security; these groups would often fill pits with corpses, and sometimes buried people alive). 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.

He and his mother managed to escape to another village, taking shelter within a woman’s ceiling. A few days after they fled, Ryaboy learned that close to 30,000 people were exterminated from his village. Just when they found a small reprieve from the fear, a group of Nazi’s burst into the home in search for Jews, shooting at the ceiling and floors. Luckily they were not harm-ed or discovered.

Ryaboy found a safe haven in Russia, a country that gave him the opportunity to pursue an education and a career in music. As a teenager, he felt a deep patriotic obligation to Russia, serving in their military for many years.

For some, this is where their stories end. They live with the pain, and just try to get by. But not Ryaboy, he gained a deep appreciation and love for life after every-thing he went through. He was a sponge for language and music, learning to speak multiple languages and play a variety of musical instruments. His resume of accomplishments and accolades are so vast that it would be incredibly difficult to list them all. But after interviewing Ryaboy, there is one thing that is certain—he is truly an amazing man. Like a phoenix rising above the ashes, he has cultivated a life not just well-lived, but a life that has focused on helping others.

He has served in the military, as a conductor at prestigious institutions in Russia, a teacher for 40 years, and even a health professional. After meeting his wife, who he has been married to for close to 60 years, he moved to America in the 1990s where he raised his family. He spends his time helping to educate others, whether it is teaching adults how to speak English and Russian, or instructing young children in SCT how to play the piano. “I must help people, not just for one day. I live to help and I don’t want to take money,” he said proudly.

His desire to teach reflects upon how education truly saved him because it gave him purpose. “My education is what I see in other boys, an opportunity to do well,” he said. Additionally, Ryaboy has written several musical compositions, such as his rendition of the Tango, and created numerous paintings. With a table covered in military medals, old photos, his compositions, and paintings, he can look up at the world and smile, stating “This is my life.”

And what a fulfilling beautiful life it continues to be. He participates in an array of activities with JASA Starrett Senior Center, as well as volunteering his time with Boulevard Adult Day Care of Flushing. “In adult daycare places, people see what I do. I’m dancing, singing, playing the piano, painting, and starring in plays, and they are all surprised,” he said.
Ryaboy continues to be a vivacious member of the SCT community, sharing his art, and music with others.

Photos by Dean Moses and paintings by Yakov Ryaboy