David Douchman (l), my sister Ruth wearing his medals (r)
David Alexanderovich Douchman is my mother’s first cousin. His mother Bronja was my grandmother’s eldest sister and, unlike my great-grandparents and their seven other children, she didn’t leave Russia for Danzig in 1917. David grew up in Moscow, the son of two physicians who were already in the Vorkota Gulag at the beginning of War World II. He joined the tank brigade, becoming one of 500,000 Jewish men and women who served in the Red Army; Jews who the Center for Jewish History refers to as “forgotten heroes of World War II.” He was wounded in the Battle of Kursk, then returned to the war and was among the Auschwitz liberators.
In one of the ironic twists of Jewish history, David and his family have lived in Germany since 1997. Like thousands of Russian Jews, he was offered generous reparations by the German government. Also like thousands of Russian Jews who survived decades of oppression by the Soviet Union, he married a non-Jewish woman. Zoya spoke a little Yiddish, cooked Jewish delicacies, sung Jewish songs, and when they moved to Germany she enjoyed attending events at the Jewish Community Center more than her husband did. At another time and place that did not involve first subjugation by a totalitarian, anti-Semitic regime followed by life in a strictly Orthodox Jewish community with rules that seemed impossible to understand, she might even have converted. Instead, she was what the Torah refers to as a ger toshav; a non-Jew who lives among Jews.
But when Zoya died in 2011 after being married to David for 62 years, his status as a decorated World War II Red Army veteran and an Auschwitz liberator that had opened many doors for his family did not work at the local Jewish cemetery. Unlike most other European cities, including many in Germany, his community* offered no section for intermarried Jews to be buried together.
Today, Zoya lies in the newest part of the Russian Orthodox section of a municipal cemetery. (The burial ground also has sections for Lutherans, Catholics, Muslims, and athiests.) Her grave is the only one in that small section not marked with a cross. The family purchased plots for everybody when Zoya died, so some day David and eventually their son and daughter-in-law will also lie there. David’s Jewish identity survived his parents’ internment in the gulag, his agonizing tours of duty in World War II, and 50+ years of working for the Soviet state as a world-class athlete.
It was no match, however, for the minhag of a Jewish cemetery.
*I am not naming this community to avoid speaking rechilut about an entire group.