First published in The Record, November 9, 2017
She survived the Holocaust and the USSR. At 78, her evolution continues.
What if they have no trees in America?
This was Claudia Liberchuk’s fear. Or what if America has trees, but not like the forests in Kiev, where the canopy explodes every fall into leafy clouds of yellow, red and orange?
“I did not tell my husband this fear,” said Liberchuck, 78, who survived the Holocaust as a child by hiding from the Nazis in a cellar, escaped the Soviet Union in 1988 and now lives in Passaic. “The only thing I was afraid of was: What if America doesn’t have autumn?”
And then it happened. Liberchuk’s first home in the United States was an apartment in Brooklyn, where the trees stood in spindly rows by the curb.
When her biggest fear came true, Liberchuk spun it into poetry.
“In Brooklyn we didn’t have fall colors. All we had was naked trees,” she said. “I decided it’s even better. Because the branches, they talk to each other. They’re naked. They’re more sincere because they’re not covered in nice dresses and sleeves.”
Her poetry is not the empty romanticism of a flowery Pollyanna. It grows in a soil of grit.
“I said, ‘OK, I will survive with this,’ ” Liberchuk said. “I made myself accept it.”
Hers is a life of adaptations, some forced, others chosen. As a Jewish girl in Ukraine, Liberchuk barely survived the Holocaust. As an adult she spent 30 years navigating Soviet oppression. Arriving in the United States at age 49 with no money and no job and speaking no English, she built the life she’d always dreamed of.
Now her evolution continues. After surviving years of state-sponsored terror against Judaism, a religion she barely practiced, Liberchuk is learning to live by the laws of her faith.
“Never think if you will make it. You think how you will make it,” she said. “You are going to make it anyway. This is my way of life.”
When Germany invaded Ukraine in 1941, Liberchuk’s father, Moyshi, was drafted into the Soviet army. Her mother, Raisa, bought train tickets to take Claudia east, away from the fighting. She boarded the train carrying Claudia, who was not yet 2 years old.
Then a man climbed aboard. He asked Raisa to step off the train so he could load in his furniture. Then the train left, with the Liberchuks still standing on the platform. When they returned to their home, in the western Ukrainian city of Vinnitsia, they discovered that their neighbor had taken possession of their house.
The man did not feed Liberchuk’s family. But he did allow them to hide in the cellar.
Liberchuk learned this story from her mother years later. She could be angry. Instead she is grateful.
“He put himself at risk” by hiding them from the Nazis, Liberchuk said. “At least we are alive.”
Liberchuk’s grandmother lived 30 miles away in a small town called Zhmerynka. When war started, rumors circulated that Jews in Zhmerynka (pronounced shma-RAY-nka) would be spared. With no food, and traveling only at night, Raisa Liberchuk carried Claudia to her mother’s house.
“We were eating raw corn out of the field,” Liberchuk said, “and drinking water from the ditch by the side of the road.”
The rumors proved correct. Zhmerynka was controlled by Romania, not the Nazis, and it came to be administered by Dr. Adolph Herschmann, a Jewish man and skillful politician who managed to save most of Zhmerynka’s residents from murder, according to a study published in 2012 by Vadim Altskan, a senior researcher at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Even in this supposed haven, Liberchuk and her family lived under constant threat from passing German soldiers, she said. When she was 3, Liberchuk said, a group of soldiers beat and kicked her in the street. Herschmann stepped in and saved her, she said.
Raisa Liberchuk worked on a potato farm. She was allowed to keep the peels, which she boiled into broth. This was the family’s food for three years.
“I was a horrible eater,” Liberchuk said. “Maybe that is why I survived. I didn’t like to eat.”
Zhmerynka became intensely overcrowded. Joined by refugees and family friends, Liberchuk lived with seven other people in a room barely big enough for a bed and an armchair.
“Nobody wanted to take people in, because we had no space. But my grandmother took them in,” Liberchuk said. “We found a space. They slept under the bed.”
After the Nazis retreated in 1944, Raisa Liberchuk was walking down a road with Claudia in her arms, the family quilt draped over her dress of rags. They passed a Soviet soldier walking on crutches and a wooden leg. The soldier called Raisa’s name. They did not recognize each other — three years of war and starvation had aged them decades. But the soldier remembered the quilt.
“It was my father,” Liberchuk said.
After the war, Liberchuk's parents kept their Judaism secret, even from their daughter. One day a year, Raisa Liberchuk avoided sewing. On the same day, she dipped cotton in kerosene and burned it in the casing of a defused landmine. Liberchuk’s mother said these deeds were meant to remember Claudia's grandfather, never mentioning their true purpose, to celebrate Yom Kippur. For Passover they ate matzo, but they kept leavened bread in the house, just in case a neighbor stopped by.
It was a life of constant fear. Still, Liberchuk considers herself lucky.
“I had both parents. My father was working. I always had food,” she said. “This was rare.”
Finding ways out
Liberchuk went to night school in Kiev, married, gave birth to a son and got a high-paying job engineering rocket caps for the Soviet military. The job came with a high security clearance. That plus her Jewish heritage meant the Soviets kept close tabs on her movements, making it difficult for Liberchuk to escape.
“I always thought: As soon as I leave this country, it will work out,” she said. “I will survive on pennies. But I will be free.”
She took a lower-paying job as a structural engineer, then waited years for the government to forget about her. In 1980, Liberchuk and her husband, Gregory, requested permission to leave. When their application finally was approved eight years later, they relinquished their apartment and most of their possessions. They flew to John F. Kennedy International Airport with $150 from the Soviet government.
Liberchuk remembers the date: Aug. 12, 1988.
“My husband was very worried. How will we survive here?” she said. “I was not afraid. I knew I would do my best.”
Gregory found work first, making matzo for the Manischewitz Co. for $7 an hour.
“I never was so rich in my life,” Liberchuk said. “I thought, ‘Ah! I can buy a sweater for myself!’”
Liberchuk got a job with a construction company and taught herself electrical engineering. She and her husband bought an apartment in the Bronx, where they made friends who also enjoyed visiting museums and attending Broadway shows.
“I had read about Fellini. I had read about the Impressionist and Surrealist painters. In the Soviet Union I could not see them,” she said. “Now I finally got a chance to see them in person. That was a high point of my life.”
Liberchuk’s son Alexander moved to Passaic, joined the city’s Orthodox Jewish community and started a family, which has grown to include eight children. In 2009, her husband died, and Liberchuk faced a choice: stay in the Bronx and continue to enjoy the city’s culture with her non-observant Jewish friends, or move to Passaic and join her son’s religious life.
She chose Passaic. She was 72.
“At first I felt sarcastic. This is not my place,” she said. “I am not religious like the people here. They don’t listen to classical music like I do. They don’t go to the movies. They have a lot of kids, and their only concerns are their families.”
Liberchuk joined Sequoia, a program for senior citizens run by Jewish Family Service and Children's Center of Clifton-Passaic. Again she felt like an outsider. Most members of the group are liberal, Liberchuk said, where she supports President Donald Trump.
“For 49 years I lived in a country where everybody had to have one opinion,” she said. “I came to United States to have my own opinion.”
Soon she will turn 80. Her politics will not bend. But in her personal life, Liberchuk still makes the best of new situations. All her life she wore pants and short-sleeved shirts. But on a recent Monday morning, Liberchuk welcomed a visitor into her apartment — 4,600 miles and a lifetime away from the Holocaust ghetto of Zhmerynka — wearing a long beige skirt and a long-sleeved shirt that buttoned high at the neck. On her head she wore a gray scarf.
“Sometimes I’m surprised myself by how I adapt to different circumstances. I believe in God, but I don’t know the customs” of Judaism, she said. “I am learning.”