February 25th, 2007

  • kerbale

לזכר משה וואָלף ע"ה

Despite war, loss his spirit thrived

Sunday, February 25, 2007
The Oregonian

Moisey Wolf grew up in Warsaw the son of a successful lawyer, attended a Jewish day school and spent happy, carefree summers at his grandparents' estate in the Polish countryside.

"Life was good, interesting and full of variety," he said.

But it was an especially bad time and place to be a Jew. In September 1939, when he was 17, he ran for his life when the German army swept into Poland. His father was killed immediately, and Moisey learned later that the Nazis killed his mother and three siblings.

Moisey became a refugee twice: fleeing the Nazis from Poland to Ukraine, and then to Russia, a strange new land with a strange language.

But he not only survived, he became a doctor and prospered. Fifty years later, he emigrated from Russia to Portland, and until his sudden death Feb. 14, 2007, at 84, was getting his autobiography translated from Russian into English.

Had the war not intervened, Moisey might have become a doctor in Poland. He was to start his studies at Warsaw University in September 1939 -- the month the Germans invaded. In a college near Kovel, Ukraine, he studied medicine until June 1941, when the Germans invaded Brest. Moisey fled east again, to Russia, and by July 3 was in Stalingrad.

In the next three months, he quickly learned Russian, lived in a commune, worked in a thread factory, apprenticed as a blacksmith and by September 1941 enrolled at Stalingrad University. He worked the night shift loading trains and struggled to stay awake in class. In August 1942, German bombs began to fall. At age 20, after three years of medical school, he was pressed into the Soviet army and sent to the front all winter, through the bloody Battle of Stalingrad.

After that he returned to medical school in Moscow. It was there he met his future wife, Susanna Kozlovskaya, who finished her studies to become a pediatrician the same year he got his degree as a psychiatrist. They married in 1944 and daughter Nadezhda was born in 1945.

The hard times weren't over. In 1948, Stalin's regime sent Moisey far from Moscow, to the frozen far north and then to the far east as an army physician.

He was allowed to return to Moscow and his family in 1956. In 1957, 12 years after their daughter's birth, they had a son. Moisey then became well known in Moscow as a psychiatrist, respected for his hypnotherapy and treatment of epilepsy and devotion to his patients.

Life was good again. Two months a year he vacationed at resorts on the Black Sea or at his country house. But he had to practice his faith secretly. There were underground high holy days, matzo that appeared secretly on a doorstep.

In 1974, he found an aunt and extended family members who had survived the Holocaust, through the help of Rabbi Yonah Geller of Portland. His aunt, who was then living in Portland, visited him in Moscow.

Then came perestroika, the Soviet reforms of the 1980s. In 1990, Moisey's son, Solomon, wife and daughter came to Portland. Moisey and Susanna followed in 1992.

Moisey quickly added English to his six other languages, but adjusting to a new country at age 70 proved difficult.

The man who until the day he emigrated was a respected head of a clinic, who worked 50 years healing troubled souls, suddenly found himself without much to do.

He collaborated with his son, also a psychiatrist, and volunteered for an intercultural psychiatry program at Oregon Health & Science University. The Jewish community saw that he was a treasure chest of knowledge about Yiddish and Hebrew culture and Judaism. He quickly started writing for periodicals.

He became known as one of the world's leading experts in the Yiddish language. People called him from Russia, and even Russian church pastors consulted him.

He learned to e-mail, communicating with people all over the world using the Hebrew, Yiddish and Russian fonts on his computer.

He never learned to drive, which bound him to the couple's Raleigh Hills home, and he never acquired a taste for American foods or sitcoms. But he became a proud U.S. citizen.

When his daughter, Nadezhda, a concert pianist, died at 59 in 2004, it was a huge blow. But he played an important role as "dedushka" (grandpa) to three young granddaughters, preparing them for bat mitzvah. Although he was Orthodox, he believed girls need to learn to read the Torah, too.

Russian Jews would invite him to recite kaddish and sit shiva.

Here he was able to celebrate Passover openly -- celebrating his own exit from tyranny. For Shabbat at home, after downing a shot of cognac, he came to life and was soothed by telling stories from his childhood that still lived in him.

He did Torah readings for synagogues, in demand because of his beautifully preserved biblical Hebrew that he had learned as a child and remembered through 50 years of communist domination.

In a way his ancestors never could have predicted, he had become a sort of unofficial rabbi in this strange new land.

Amy Martinez Starke: 503-221-8534; amystarke@news.oregonian.com

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