When she was 13, Nazi bombs dropped on Yana Gilchenok’s house in the Gorodok ghetto of Belarus, driving her, along with her mother, sister and niece, to seek shelter with other families in a nearby forest.
“Of course, I was scared. I was starving and scared. Oh, I assure you, it was pitiful,” Mrs. Gilchenok, now 90, said in Russian while sitting on a couch in her one-bedroom apartment in Washington Heights. “In the middle of it all, my mother told me, ‘A person is far stronger than steel.’”
After surviving for many weeks in the forest, her family boarded a train and eventually found their way to an older sister and her non-Jewish husband, who shared a communal apartment in Kazan, a city east of Moscow. Mrs. Gilchenok slept on their bedroom floor for a year.
After the war, Mrs. Gilchenok went to high school, studied medicine and became a cardiologist and pulmonologist. She married a cousin twice removed named Alexander. They moved into their own apartment in Leningrad and had two sons.
“I never, ever wanted to leave Russia,” Mrs. Gilchenok said. “After all of the pain and fear, after we survived, my husband and I had finally achieved stability. We both had a salary and a pension! That’s like having two salaries. We were just starting to make money for the first time. We had just begun to live.”
But her sons did not enjoy living in 1980s Leningrad, where anti-Semitism was “an epidemic,” said Mrs. Gilchenok. Bullied by classmates and rejected from graduate schools in chemistry and engineering because of their Jewish heritage, her sons were unable to find jobs.
“It was banditry. Boys in our neighborhood would hit them and take away their hats,” Mrs. Gilchenok said. “They only had about 3 rubles, but the bullies were ready to kill even for one. They told them directly: It’s because you’re Jewish.”
The sons convinced Mrs. Gilchenok and her husband to move to the United States. In 1989, the family immigrated on the basis of religious persecution and settled in Washington Heights.
Her sons, then 28 and 34, took English classes and soon found jobs. But Ms. Gilchenok had no medical license or English language skills, so she could not practice cardiology in America.
“I went from being a physician in Russia to a babysitter earning $4 per hour,” she said.
Then in 2011, Mrs. Gilchenok faced the “greatest tragedy” of her life, she said, when she lost her younger son to a heart attack. He was 50 years old.
Mrs. Gilchenok decided not to tell her husband, who was bedridden, suffering from bladder cancer and Parkinson’s disease. “Why would I kill him when he was already dying?” she said.
Instead, she told Mr. Gilchenok that their son had moved to another state for work, but he suspected something wasn’t right, she said. He would ask things like, “What, they don’t have phones in other states?”
Her husband died two years later, in 2013, leaving Mrs. Gilchenok, then 85, alone in New York. Her surviving son lives with his family in Minnesota, she said, and visits when he can.
Mrs. Gilchenok suffers from depression, chronic bronchitis and back pain stemming from her osteoarthritis. For six years during her husband’s illness, Mrs. Gilchenok slept on a child-size mattress so that she could be next to him as he slept in a hospital bed in their bedroom.
“When I was preoccupied with my husband’s illness, I didn’t even notice how small it was,” she said. “But after so many years of sleeping poorly, it became painful.”
Through a grant from The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund, Mrs. Gilchenok, who has been receiving $750 in Supplemental Security Income monthly and $180 monthly in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, received a therapeutic mattress pad, bought for $249 in June. Last month, a mattress was purchased for her for $349. The help came from a social services program at the Y.M. & Y.W.H.A. of Washington Heights and Inwood, a beneficiary of UJA-Federation of New York, one of the eight organizations supported by The Neediest Cases Fund.
Mrs. Gilchenok said her conversations with the Russian-speaking staff members at the Washington Heights Y, as well as with Russian neighbors in her building, which is managed by the organization, keep her going.
“I read the news every day,” she said, picking up a copy of V Novom Svete, or In the New World, the most popular weekly Russian-language newspaper in America.
“You have to know and be able to talk about these things,” she said. “That’s important at my age.”
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