Local Jews recall a different life in former Soviet Union

Leo Soroka’s coworker wanted to know: was he Russian or Ukrainian?

Soroka moved to the Milwaukee area from Ukraine in 1992 after the Soviet Union collapsed. A few years later, when asked about his nationality, Soroka answered that he was Jewish.

“He wouldn’t understand,” Soroka said. “For him, Jewish is just religion, it’s not nationality. So people here cannot comprehend why we are calling ourselves Jewish, because we’re not practicing. Especially in the beginning, we were not practicing at all.”

Soroka and his wife, Olga, left the former Soviet Union after about three decades in an environment where they were the subjects of antisemitic practices. The attitude was present in the Soviet Union for years. After World War II, the Sorokas and others who have since immigrated to the U.S. said they faced a variety of forms of discrimination as a result of their nationality.

The Sorokas said Jews in the Soviet Union were identified from birth.

That label appeared on birth certificates. It appeared in ledgers at school. When they turned 16, the label was on their internal passports.

Even still, both Leo and Olga Soroka said they had little connection to their faith. They grew up in Lviv, a city that had no operating synagogues after World War II. Prior to the war, Leo Soroka said, Lviv had about 20 synagogues. All but two were destroyed.

One became a warehouse, the other a physical education facility for a university.

The Sorokas said they knew they were Jewish from the official documentation but had no exposure to the faith or culture.

Olga Soroka said her grandparents were religious, and her father was exposed to Judaism while growing up in a shtetl, but he did not pass it down. Her father taught at a technical college, she said, and the family would have suffered if he were caught observing Shabbat or a Jewish holiday.

Discrimination against the Jews was about an attitude, rather than laws, the Sorokas and others said. Technically, Jews could legally practice. But they were always being watched, and they could face consequences — such as in professional settings — if caught.

“We basically hardly knew,” Olga Soroka said. “We kind of knew about Passover, somewhat knew, but we really did not know what it is about that holiday or anything else. We were very, very limited in everything that would be our heritage.”

Leo Soroka said his generation was the third in his family to be removed from practicing Judaism. Other than getting matzo from another city for Passover, he said his family did not expose him to the religion or customs.

He recalls having enough Jewish kids in his school that he did not feel alone. But when he applied for entrance to a college so he could become an engineer, he “barely squeaked by” on the oral exam, despite passing the written exams without issue.

“I suspect (it was) because of my looks,” Leo Soroka said. “I got into college, and then that was it. I didn’t have any trouble in college. But I basically went into the one place that usually was not a problem.”

Engineering schools were among the few higher education institutions where Jews could gain admission, the Sorokas said.

Such was the case for Alex and Yelena, who now live in Glendale but grew up in Moscow. They lived there for about 30 years before moving to the U.S. in the early 1990s.

Although today they are observant Jews, in Moscow their families did not practice. Both said they were educated as engineers, noting their limited access to other programs.

“You want to become a doctor, you’re Jewish, it is impossible to get into college in Moscow,” Alex Dykhne said. “You can go somewhere far away.”

Yelena Dykhne said she remembers a cousin who was turned away from a school that claimed he had high blood pressure, even though a test showed otherwise.

Alex and Yelena Dykhne, of Glendale, lived in Moscow for three decades. Photo by Sari Lesk.

Alex Dykhne said he was bullied because he was Jewish, and he faced discrimination at work. He recalls being rejected from a job after a human resources worker looked at his passport.

“A guy comes out and says, ‘Alex, I’m so sorry,’” he recounted. “‘I didn’t realize we (couldn’t) have more Jewish people working here.’”

Yelena Dykhne said she had a similar experience with an internship.

“To advance, you must be 10 heads ahead of others,” she said. “Otherwise, if (you’re) as good as others, you won’t be able to move. You have to be ‘A’ student. You have to be better than others.”

In America, the couple said they began observing the Jewish faith after their son’s bar mitzvah.