Among the hundreds of monuments that form the stark and moving Sheepshead Bay Holocaust Memorial – monuments bearing familiar names like Auschwitz, Birkenau, Bergen-Belsen and Babi Yar – one stone, the most recently engraved, stands out. It stands out because you have never heard of the village that it memorializes.
In fact, were it not for the passion and tenacity of a grandchild of one of the victims of the Bogdanovka massacre the memory of this incredible atrocity would have been swept into the dustbin of history.
The village of Bogdanovka was a Jewish collective farm among the huge collectives of the fertile Stavropol region near the Caucasian Mountains.
Stavropol, besides being the breadbasket of Russia was also the birthplace of Nobel prize-winning author Solzhenitsyn and first president of the USSR Gorbachev, among other notables.
Small as it was, Bogdanovka was efficient and productive and considered a model farm. In 1943 only women, children and old men inhabited Bogdanovka because all males of military age were enlisted in the battle against Nazi Germany. Utilizing as cruel and demonic a ruse as can be imagined, the Nazis gathered the 472 residents of the town together on Yom Kippur of that year, ostensibly to commemorate the holiday.
Instead, every one of the elderly men and women, mothers, infants and children were thrown alive into an abandoned well by the Nazis and their collaborators. Only two young children managed to escape into the woods.
Also saved from this horror was Mrs. Zoya Yusupova who had just married and moved to another village. She learned the fate of her father, mother and sister from gentile eyewitnesses. Still later she learned that her husband had been killed in action.
Years later after immigrating to the United States with her two sons, her older son, Alex, came in contact with Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe (F.R.E.E.), the Chabad-Lubavitch organization devoted to assisting new immigrants from the FSU. In time, Alex Yusupov became very close to F.R.E.E. and Rabbis Herschel and Mayer Okunov who founded the organization at the request of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
Inspired by the dedication of F.R.E.E. he became reacquainted with his Jewish roots, which had become a distant memory during the years of Communism, the Nazi nightmare and the upheaval that followed.
Along with this came the mission to memorialize the martyred souls of Bogdanovka. With the creation of the Sheepshead Bay Holocaust Memorial Park and its many monuments it seemed that Alex’ dream would become a reality. “It was not that easy,” according to Alex, “only after five years of negotiating and red tape was permission given to place a monument in memory of the victims of this unspeakable crime.”
“My mom was only 17 at the time,” he continued, “We want to show our kids what happened to our grandfather and grandmother.” On Sunday morning, May 8, as President Bush and Russian President Putin prepared to celebrate the end of World War II in Red Square, a small group, representing the remnant of those with a connection to the tragic victims of Bogdanovka, gathered in Sheepshead Bay to dedicate the new monument and to remember. During a program organized by Mr. Yusupov in conjunction with F.R.E.E., Rabbi David Hollander, spiritual leader of the Hebrew Alliance – FREE Synagogue, declared that the plight of the Jews during World War II was met by a world whose “hearts had turned to stone.”
Surrounded by the hundreds of granite monuments that comprise the memorial, Rabbi Hollander’s words resonated as he proclaimed, “the very stones weep.” Many were brought to tears as Mrs. Yusupova spoke and Rabbi Ephraim Okunov chanted Keyl Male Rochmim. The program continued at the F.R.E.E. Synagogue in Brighton Beach where the group was addressed by Alex Yusupov and many of the older participants.
F.R.E.E. – Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe was founded in 1969 at the directive of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, as the Chabad Lubavitch Russian Immigrant Program, led by a group of young “partisans” and fellow Soviet refugees.
Since then, F.R.E.E.’s unique approach has found a path to the hearts and souls of tens of thousands of Russian-speaking Jewish families, by providing free bar mitzvahs, summer camps, kosher food, Jewish education and circumcisions on boys and men who were forbidden to have them in the former USSR.
F.R.E.E.’s outstanding success has become the worldwide model for aid organizations serving Russian Jewish families around the globe.