'My Great-grandfather Bit a Nazi in the Neck. That's How He Escaped the Shooting Pits'

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: Why this young Saint Petersburg resident left his family and moved to Israel

Yuli Nirman.
Tomer Appelbaum

Yuli Nirman, 23, from Tel Aviv; arriving from Bulgaria

Hello, where are you coming from?

I was on vacation in Bulgaria with my parents. We visit Bulgaria every year, because my grandfather bought land there. It’s the first time I’ve seen my parents since the winter.

Why hadn’t you see them for such a long time?

Because I made aliyah and they stayed there. They didn’t think of immigrating, really. Mainly because our family is already five generations in St. Petersburg.

Can you tell us a little more about that?

The truth is that I agreed to be interviewed because my grandfather is Jewish and will be happy if I tell the story of his father – who fought the Nazis. My grandfather wanted to tell about it, and even sent the story to a newspaper.

Then we’ll be glad to hear it.

Aharon, my great-grandfather, was taken by the Nazis to the shooting pits at Dubrovno [in Belarus]. He was a big, strong man; he worked as a butcher. They walked along a trail toward the forest, and Aharon bit the Nazi in the neck and pushed him into the river with his mouth. My grandfather swam away and escaped.

That’s a marvelous story of heroism. Is the Star of David you’re wearing also from your great-grandfather?

Yes, it’s Aharon’s chain.

Why did you decide to immigrate to Israel?

At the age of 21, after I completed my studies, I thought, why not? I wanted to live a little in a different country.

In other words, it could have been any country?

Not necessarily. I have a connection with Israel – my dad is Jewish, and that’s part of our family history. I’d already visited. As an adolescent I came here on a program. I did that twice, each time for five months. It was the Masa Israel Journey.

How was it, getting used to life here?

It was hard at first, because it’s very expensive and my Hebrew isn’t good. But now I’m working as a gardener in Petah Tikva. I mean, what the hell! I also help photograph weddings. The weddings are sometimes segregated [between men and women], which surprised me. And I was also surprised by something small, which isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s interesting that it surprised me. I told my dad about it, and he was surprised, too.

I’m curious...

Well, when the girls at a wedding start to dance, they switch their high heels for flip-flops. That doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world. My dad said, “If she changes her shoes, why not change all the clothes?” In Russia it’s impossible to imagine that a girl would show up at a wedding in flip-flops.

Yes, we like to dance. Are you going to do army service?

I was asked to. I have a choice. They want a year and a half, and I’m thinking about it. If I knew for sure that I was going to stay in Israel my whole life, or if I’d made aliyah earlier, I’d go for it. I wasn’t inducted in Russia, because I have a problem with my vision.

In the Israeli army that’s not a problem. What would you have done if they’d drafted you in Russia?

I would have paid them under the table. I heard that’s done, you know, from friends. (Winks) Well, Putin has created a system where if you don’t want to do something, you can pay to get out of almost anything.

Putin aside, what was it like growing up in St. Petersburg?

It’s like an open-air museum. Growing up there was good. I’ve thought about it a lot. If I’d been born in a different city… Our list of big cities where it’s possible to live includes only Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kazan, because elsewhere there are no opportunities. You have an old house, and it’s falling apart; you have a road, and it’s wrecked; there are puddles, there’s dirt. Before the World Cup in Russia they cleaned things up. They have this saying in Russia: We don’t do anything for citizens, only for guests.

You started to say that you were thinking about life there – go on.

I thought that if I hadn’t been born in St. Petersburg, I would have certainly made aliyah. Because when you move from a small city in Russia to Israel, it’s just unbelievable. You can find work, it’s like a happy ticket to life. Guys from small [Russian] towns and villages were on Masa with me. They explained to me that they had only three options: Israel, Moscow or a job in their town for $300 a month.

But that’s not where you were born.

Right. In St. Petersburg, you can find a good job. Honestly, I’m still thinking about the aliyah thing.

From left, Alma Gur Arye, Lily Hochfeld, Itamar Gur Arye, and Efrat Lifshitz.
Tomer Appelbaum

From left, Alma Gur Arye,16, Lily Hochfeld,13, Itamar Gur Arye, 13, and Efrat Lifshitz, 48, from Jaffa and Tel Aviv; flying to Crete

Hello everyone. Where are you off to?

Alma: To Crete!

Efrat: It was totally spontaneous. We decided on it the day before yesterday.

Are you all Efrat’s kids?

Itamar: Alma and I are siblings, but in school they don’t believe us. They think Lily and I are brother and sister.

It’s true, you look alike. So you’re flying, out of the blue?

Efrat: The truth is that Itamar spent a month on Google Earth, looking for beautiful landscapes.

Itamar: There’s that yellow man on Google Earth, so I tour through him.

What are the conclusions, Itamar?

Not Crete, but the Maldives, that’s the conclusion.

We’re catching you here by yourself – where are the other men?

Efrat: I’m here, so no men are needed, thank you.

Children: Right!

What do you do, Efrat?

We have a health-food store in Jaffa, on Yehuda Hayamit Street – organic vegetables, food supplements, shakes, tasty food. Nice people come to us, the store has turned into a club. They call it “the organic place.” People come, have a popsicle with the kids. Sometimes it looks as if a kindergarten class has arrived.

Sounds nice. And your kids, what about them? What do we ask kids – how’s school?

Lily: I’ve been at five different schools.

What? Why so many?

Lily: First I was at the democratic school in Jaffa, then in the gifted children’s program, but I didn’t like it. After that I switched to the anthroposophic, which isn’t actually a school. We were 10 kids, we created our own class, and we spent a year there. Then it closed down and we all scattered.

Itamar: I went through the same track, only without the gifted part.

What was it like to go through so many schools? Isn’t it hard without an ongoing framework?

Itamar: At first it was really great, now I’m getting tired of it.

Efrat: One more school and then they’re coming to work at the store.

Alma: I’ve been helping at the store for seven years already. I do everything. I check that everyone is alright, what’s there and what’s missing, talk to people – I work.

What do you do for relaxation?

Alma: During summer vacation I was in a course for basketball coaches. I play for Elitzur Tel Aviv, which fell apart because there are no girls. In general, there aren’t any girls in basketball, and that’s sad.

So who will you coach?

I’ll go to Gavrieli, a primary school near Sheinkin [street in Tel Aviv]. I know the vice principal there, and that’s it. I’ll try to advertise it. In general, girls don’t come because it’s a social thing. “Uhh, basketball?…” They’re afraid to be chummy.

How was the course?

Tough. I was the only girl and most of the people were over the age of 25. There were some who were 50. They were… men. Everyone came to show off. Ego. I didn’t want to look like a self-righteous feminist, so I sometimes went with the flow. We were there for eight hours. Four in class, four at practice. I finished as the “outstanding” participant.

Congrats. How did the men react?

Alma: Shock. They really were in shock that it was me, of all people. And I was good, right? But it was also clear that it’s because I was the only girl.

Not necessarily. So, you guys, what do you have to say about the Israeli education system?

Lily: It needs improvement. I think they have to invest in teachers who care about the students.

Itamar: They need to “read” us better.

Do you think your opinions have anything to do with the fact that you went to unconventional schools?

Lily: No. I saw the most problems when I was at the regular school. I don’t know why, but I wouldn’t go back there.