German paratroopers sailed high above Kremenchuck when a blast from the attack tossed a young Jewish girl to the ground. There she laid, in the Ukrainian industrial city where she was sent from Kyiv by her father, for her safety, during World War II.
“One of the neighbors was crying, ‘the girl who came from Kyiv is dead.’ I jumped up and said ‘No, I’m alive.’ We fled. We walked 120 kilometers with German planes shooting at us. I remember everything,” said Milwaukeean Lena Vusiker, 91, who is the resettlement program director at Jewish Family Services, where she has worked for the past four decades.
Some 80 years later, that harrowing experience is seared in the memory of Vusiker as she watches her home country under another brutal invasion, this time at the hands of Russia. But she admires from afar the bravery exhibited by the men and women of her homeland.
“Ukrainians have courage. They don’t have ammunition. People are dying every day. It’s very difficult for them. A lot of people are escaping. But men are fighting even with Kyiv surrounded,” she said. “They are resilient. They will not let them into Kyiv. They will resist.”
She said she believes history is repeating itself as Ukraine is once again being invaded by a hostile neighbor.
“It’s very difficult for me to watch because it reminds me of those horrible days of the war and when everything was broken, smashed and ruined. Putin is a sick person. He wanted war. He dreamt about this,” she said. “It’s difficult because Russians and Ukrainians speak the same language.”
Language has always been the center of Vusiker’s life. After the war, Vusiker became a teacher at an English school in Kyiv where she taught English along with American literature and geography. But life in Ukraine was difficult for Jews at the time. Jews were persecuted, she said, with many restrictions placed on them in terms of where they were allowed to work and live.
“We fled. Not in the manner that people are fleeing now,” said Vusiker, who came to the U.S. with her mother, her brother and his wife and child. “Life was difficult. We were Jewish and we were in Ukraine where it is not so easy.”
Vusiker came to Milwaukee in the spring of 1980 and soon got a job at Jewish Social Services where she was an English-Russian interpreter and began teaching English to Russian immigrants. She became the director of the program, leading a team of resettlement professionals in the 1980s when 40 to 50 Russian-speaking immigrants would arrive in the city each week.
They would greet them at the airport and help them find housing and a job. They would help Russians buy furniture and clothing while the agency would help financially. In addition, Vusiker and her team would go to parent-teacher conferences, doctor visits and the bank with Russian-Americans.
Her team would also read mail for them, help them apply to school and step in when a conflict with a bill arose. They became their chaperones and their advocates, helping them get adjusted to the American way of life while navigating complex and, at times, nerve-wracking financial and social situations especially for those who do not speak English, she said.
“We helped them find their place in this country. It is very important phase in their lives,” she said. “It was much more than just language. It was helping people in a new country adjust. We taught them about America and taught ourselves as well.”
Most, if not all refugees from the former Soviet Union who have made their way through Milwaukee have in some way, shape or form worked with Lena, said Kevin Boland, the director of social services at Jewish Family Services.
“She is not only known throughout the community for the support that she gives professionally as working with JFS, but just as being a great person,” he said.
The number of Russian speakers emigrating to Milwaukee has decreased over the years. Vusiker, however, still plays a vital role, assisting elderly Russian speakers who are Holocaust survivors and those who lived in the former Soviet Union. She translates for them at doctor’s appointments. She also assists them in getting benefits. She has been especially busy going with them to get their COVID vaccine to explain to them what was happening.
Boland said it would not surprise him if Milwaukee sees Ukrainian refugees in the near future. Some of those refugees will have experienced the horrors of war and, as a result, Vusiker will be vital in their resettlement.
“Some of my other staff can work with individuals and help them get connected with resources and funds and all of those things, but we haven’t experienced it ourselves,” he said. “You cannot put a value on lived experience, being a survivor of the atrocities that she went through and that others coming from the Ukraine are going through now. She understands that sometimes alone it is enough to help someone, you know, to empower them a little bit more to take the next step.”