A Long Way From Russia
For this Jewish couple, born during the height of Hitlers’s invasion into their home, Jewish Family & Children’s Services provides the comfort and family they’ve long been deprived of, a world away.
By John Grossi
George and Luba Gelmis sit in their living room enjoying an afternoon snack featuring Russian cookies and coffee or tea. Their house is full of Russian relics, dolls, and miniature drum sets. A painting of Moses and the Ten Commandments hangs prominently from the wall. George breaks the silence by banging his left fist on the table and tapping his two right fingers to create a beat.
“That’s Ella,” he says through a strong Russian accent.
“Ella Fitzgerald the singer,” clarifies Luba in the same accent.
George goes on to explain his career as a drummer - playing with some of the great musical acts in LA during the 70’s, 80s, and 90’s.
“45 years we’ve been in America!” he exclaims.
“44 years,” corrects Luba.
He looks at her slyly and says, “57 years we’ve been married!”
World War II and Anti-Semitism
George and Luba were born in Odessa, Russia, right as Hitler and the Nazi army attacked during World War II. Their families both evacuated to nearby countries where their mothers in exile raised the children for the duration of the war. George recalls that he came down with chicken pox and scarlet fever and was told he would die.
“Now I’m 87 years old,” he laughs.
Bombing, guns, violence, and looming death best describe their childhood as young Jewish children on the run from Hitler’s army.
When the families finally returned to Odessa, they found a city destroyed. In 1964, the young couple got married. They lived in a small one-room apartment that was dark, with no lamps or windows.
“But at least it was a place to live!” laughs Luba.
As they made their way in the world of work and trade, they each suffered daily through discrimination, outright racism, and unsafe environments. Most of all, they realized the unfortunate truth. Odessa, the place their families had lived for generations and generations, would never be a place they could flourish. Not as a Jew at least.
“The anti-Semitism was everywhere. It is still there today.”
George and Luba made a scary decision to uproot their lives and immigrate to America. They moved to Florida first, then eventually to Southern California. Over the years, they learned the language, had a son, and raised him on a modest income. George played the drums in big bands and small bands all over Los Angeles. Luba worked for various city agencies.
Jewish Family & Children’s Service
In the early 2000’s, they finally found, applied for, and began receiving benefits from a Holocaust survivors’ program, run through the Jewish Family & Children’s Service (JFCS) at the Alpert Jewish Community Center in Long Beach.
“Since then, nothing but good things to say about this program. Excellent!” says Luba. “They come here and ask us what I need and anything they will help us with.”
For the first time, these aging Russian Jews - immigrants who had suffered so much in life
- were getting support, love, care, and heartfelt companionship. The program also organized events that connected Holocaust survivors to bond over the foods and music of their old countries.
In recent years, Luba has had a stroke and George had a fall that put him in a wheelchair. Jewish Family and Children’s Service stepped in immediately to help, buying the couple Life
Alert necklaces and helping them through paperwork, recovery, and anything else they needed.
During COVID, the volunteers of the JFCS would continue to check in on George and Luba twice a month and were always available over the phone to help with any sort of support the couple needed - medical help, food, financial assistance, you name it.
It is hard for most of us to grasp what a program like this has meant to two people who have been through so much upheaval, terror and insecurity ever since birth in a war-torn country. They remain kind and humble humans, and talk graciously about JFCS.
Perhaps their son best appreciates the impact that JFCS has made in their lives. A Carnegie-Mellon graduate and rising star in Manhattan, he works as a scientific editor at a major hospital.
“Because the program takes such good care of us ... our son trusts them completely,” says Luba. “We are so thankful that because of them, he doesn’t have to be here taking care of us.”
For these two Holocaust survivors, immigrants, and proud Jews, it’s clear that the best gift given by Jewish Family and Children’s Service is the opportunity to live with dignity and
independence, allowing their son to grow, learn, work, and thrive in a country that gives him a chance they never had, in a job that values his merit over religious background.
Our professionals work with adults and children to strengthen relationships, cope with grief or loss, recover from trauma and manage emotional issues often associated with depression and anxiety. We help seniors to live with dignity and age safely in their homes. We offer safety and support for victims of domestic violence and their families. We provide children with counseling, art, and play therapy to help them succeed in relationships and at school. More than anything, we offer people the comfort of knowing that they don’t have to face life’s challenges alone. Learn more at JFCSLongBeach.org.