The author with her beloved pup, Theodore, in Moscow. Both emigrated to the United States in 2010. Courtesy of Anna Sharudenko
I never thought that I would learn the lesson of betrayal at so young an age or that my own skin would experience the prejudice and hostility that Jews faced throughout centuries. When I was 9 years old, the following phrase pierced my naive heart: “You nasty and dirty Jewess!”
On the outside, I appeared a warrior, my back straight with confidence as if these words had done no damage to me. But on the inside, my heart was aching for those in the past who also experienced hatred. Feelings of powerlessness haunted me, and I thought about the millions of Jews murdered for being politically undesirable. To this day, it gives me nightmares to think about a time and place void of freedom and tolerance. Yet six years ago I was able to hold my head high in Moscow.
In my elementary school gym, with its smudged, light-green-painted walls and poorly drawn basketball court lines on the floor, I left behind a shadow of innocence and unsophistication. As I remember exiting that rectangular-shaped room, I became someone who I proudly identify myself as today: a Jew.
On a cold winter day, when the temperature reached minus-25 degrees Celsius, or minus-13 Fahrenheit, and delicate white snowflakes fell, nothing signaled of the upcoming event.
I was surrounded, if not trapped, by my fellow classmates in the girls’ locker room. Ever been on a battlefield surrounded by hungry jackals? They were stalking the prey (me), getting down on their haunches in attack mode, ready to pounce. To avoid predators, prey uses camouflage to hide its location or identity. That’s right, identity. The wild environment has the same rules as Homo sapiens. However, I stopped the pattern of the wild and did not hide my identity.
Their eyes lacked sympathy or humanity and only expressed wildness; I cannot forget them. The glowing and seething pupils were shooting virtual daggers at me. An acquaintance of mine, the tallest of the bunch and the most attractive with medium-length, thick brown hair, an oval face and milky white skin, took a step forward and shouted, “You nasty and dirty Jewess!” Shots of hatred were fired; her words offended and attacked my views, my religion and ME.
I never reacted. I appeared almost stone cold, but my inner feelings were of heartbreak. I even felt as if I were defeated, a loser in the battle against pure evil. I did not cry or express any visible anger, but suddenly felt transformed into an adult due to reality’s harsh touch.
Six years after the incident, I can still trace marks of frustration in my soul. Awareness that danger, anti-Semitism and discrimination exist in the world remain with me today. I suffered an emotional trauma in my pre-teen years; I was forced into an unfamiliar setting where the people surrounding me were dangerous emotionally and physically.
The bullying aspect of this incident played a less significant role than the shattering of my rose-colored glasses. My conception of the world filled with good people was shattered. Planet Earth is not an innocent place, floating in the Milky Way galaxy; it contains vile and despicable souls who will hurt you intentionally, and your mission is to learn how to defend yourself. Reality hit me in that locker room, and hit me hard. How can I feel comfortable in that school when the Holocaust also began with discrimination and humiliation? It became impossible for me to be a student and learn in the same room with that gang.
I highly doubt that the tall and beautiful girl from my Russian elementary school remembers me. She later told me that the whole school disliked me, and that students gossiped about my Jewish identity behind my back. I completed my fourth and last year in that school, and when I was 10 years old we purchased a one-way ticket to California.
Who can predict what would have happened to me if her obnoxious words didn’t strike me back then? Would I be as strong and as proud of being a Jew? The answer may appear blunt, but it is “no.”
I often think of my predecessors and deceased loved ones who were murdered in the Holocaust, especially when I am in synagogue on Shabbat and offered a chance to contribute their names during the recitation of Mourner’s Kaddish. These souls lost their lives and possibly my prayers will help them in their journey upward. After all, our souls are connected.