Sofiya Fikhman was about 3 years old when her father enlisted in the Soviet Amy and her mother and grandparents fled on foot her hometown on the outskirts of Odessa before the Nazi Army began the mass murder of the Jewish population.
In the span of about 80 years, Fikhman’s life has taken many unexpected turns: she survived the Nazi ghetto, moved to the United States and raised a large family in West Hollywood, in the area also known as Little Odessa.
About nine years ago, she began volunteering for the Russian Language Public Library, across the street from Plummer Park. There, she connected with other Russian-speaking expats and war veterans, as well as other Holocaust survivors.
Fikhman said hearing about civilians being bombed by Russian forces — especially at and Babyn Yar, site of a World War II massacre of Jews — is taking a toll on her. Tuesday afternoon’s missile assault at Babyn Yar, which aimed to take down a nearby TV tower, killed five civilians.
Russians are destroying the Kyiv TV Tower.
They are trying to cut us off from communications. pic.twitter.com/ppi264K5Jf
— Illia Ponomarenko (@IAPonomarenko) March 1, 2022
Babyn Yar is one of the world’s most recognized symbols of the Holocaust. In 1941, during a two-day period, about 33,770 Jews were massacred by Nazi forces.
“Those of us who grew up during World War II, can’t see what is happening in Ukraine without tears,” said Fikhman, 83. “The ‘war’ is a very scary word. People of my generation have vivid memories of it.”
Thankfully, local officials said cherished memorials in the are were unscathed, including a large public menorah, a new synagogue and a monument memorializing Soviets and prisoners of war who perished during WWII. The BBC reported that a museum building which was not yet in use caught fire, and that trees around the area were burned and uprooted.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called the assault “beyond humanity.”
Yad Vashem of the Holocaust memorial museum in Israel told the New York Times in a statement that Babyn Yar had “irreplaceable value for research, education and commemoration of the Holocaust.” And the U.S. Holocaust Museum tweeted that its officials were “outraged.”
Since the start of the invasion on Feb. 25, synagogues across Ukraine were turned into bomb shelters.
The loss of life in Ukraine today is our primary concern. We are also outraged at the damage inflicted on the Babyn Yar memorial by Russia’s attack today. #BabynYar was the site of one of the largest mass shootings during the Holocaust. It is sacred ground. Learn more.
— US Holocaust Museum (@HolocaustMuseum) March 1, 2022
“Putin seeks to distort and manipulate the Holocaust to justify an illegal invasion of a sovereign democratic country is utterly abhorrent. It is symbolic that he starts attacking Kyiv by bombing the site of the Babyn Yar, the biggest Nazi massacre,” said Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Babyn Tar Holocaust Memorial on Tuesday in a statement.
“We remind the Russian leadership that Kyiv, Kharkiv, Kherson, Mariupol and other Ukrainian cities were last subjected to massive bombing by Nazi Germany during World War II, now they are burning under the blows of Putin’s army, under the false and outrageous narrative of “denazifying” Ukraine and its people,” he said.
The bombing of Babyn Yar by Russian forces sparked criticism from rabbis and government officials around the world.
Israel’s Foreign MinisterYair Lapid, said on Twitter the country would help restore the site.
“What is the point of saying ‘never again’ for 80 years, if the world stays silent when a bomb drops on the same site of Babyn Yar? At least 5 killed. History repeats,” said on Twitter Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelenskiy, who is ethnically Jewish. Several of his relatives were among nearly 1,5 million Jews killed in Ukraine by Nazi soldiers.
To the world: what is the point of saying «never again» for 80 years, if the world stays silent when a bomb drops on the same site of Babyn Yar? At least 5 killed. History repeating…
— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) March 1, 2022
In 1941, after leaving her hometown in Odessa region, Fikhman and her family found a house in the remote area of Ukraine and were welcomed by a Ukrainian woman who allowed them to hide in the basement of her house with several other Jews.
Eventually, Fikhman’s family was forced to run again before they were caught by German soldiers and sent to a ghetto where they shared a small room with 13 other people.
“When you are a child and live in extreme circumstances, you become an adult very quickly,” she said.
She started volunteering for the Russian Language Public Library about nine years ago. It was opened in 1997 by Naum Reznik, the late professor of mechanical engineering and founder of the Association of Engineers and Scientists in West Hollywood in a small room in the Chabad Russian Synagogue.
As the library kept receiving boxes of books from private donors as immigrants from the former Soviet Union republics brought suitcases filled with books magazines and vinyl records as they fled anti-Semitism, it was decided to move it to a small room in Plummer Park and finally in 2011 to its current location on Santa Monica Blvd.
Today, the library is filled with bookcases that almost reach the ceiling, holding nearly 10,000 books, keeping novels by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Anton Chekhov and Nikolai Gogol. They also include history books about the Holocaust written in English, Russian and Yiddish. The oldest library book by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Faust,” dated to 1898.
Fikhman said her volunteer work at the library allows her to keep her mind off the news.
“I’ve never thought that I would ever live through events like this war,” she said, fighting back tears. “I always thought that the stories of WWII would be passed from one generation to another and everyone would be scared of the word ‘war.’ But it turned out that I was wrong.”