During her long life, Poulina Samoylovskaya has lived in four countries, but she’s actually emigrated only once — when she took off for the United States in 1992. She lived in the three other nations without ever having to leave her hometown of Kiev.
Born in imperial Russia in 1904, Samoylovskaya became a citizen of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics after the October Revolution in 1917, and when the USSR disintegrated, in the early ’90s, she lived in the independent nation of Ukraine. They were much more than name changes — they represented different epochs, lifestyles, and values.
With her snow-white hair, big open smile, and lively eyes, Samoylovskaya, now a resident of Springfield, hardly looks like a centenarian. Her mind remains sharp and focused, but age is catching up with her. She points to her walker and says, “My body is starting to fail me.”
Samoylovskaya’s memories of life in tsarist Russia are faint. She was one of four children and the youngest girl; her family lived with an aunt and uncle and their children. All of the children were taught to play piano and speak foreign languages. Her strongest memory of her childhood is sad: Her mother had cancer and died in 1916. For young Poulina, the loss of her mother overshadowed World War I, but her memories of the revolution and its aftermath are vivid.
The revolution and its attendant violence brought sleepless nights, Samoylovskaya says. Her family was Jewish, and there was constant fear of repression. She remembers friends and relatives who were thrown out of their houses, beaten badly, and robbed.
In 1941, the Soviet Union again was on the front lines of another global war, when Hitler’s armies invaded. It’s a calamity that Samoylovskaya remembers at if it were yesterday — she had to organize her family’s evacuation from Kiev. Her father was about 80, and she had other elderly relatives to take care of and two kids on her hands — her youngest was only 2. Her husband, Boris, had just been called up for military service, and there was no one to help.
The family traveled by train in cattle cars, but they did not mind — the farther from the fascists, the better. Samoylovskaya’s family left Kiev two weeks before Nazis occupied the city, and the first thing the occupiers did was to round up Jews and execute them. During the first week of September 1941, the Germans murdered more than 30,000 Jews in a Kiev suburb known as Babi Yar. Samoylovskaya still shivers when describing that time — she knew many of those who were slaughtered. Her brother was killed in a concentration camp in Minsk, another occupied city. Partisans offered to help him escape, but he would not leave his family, so they all died together.
Samoylovskaya and her family fled to the safety of the Urals, but there was not enough food and water on the journey. Her hungry 2-year-old, Alla, screamed all the time: “I have not eaten anything.”
Somebody wrote the sentence on the car, and the refugees came to refer to the car as the “’I have not eaten anything car.”
The incalculable hardships and losses of World War II form some of the most sorrowful memories of Samoylovskaya’s long life.
“When we were escaping from Kiev, I took everything that I could with me, but in a hurry I left the dearest thing is my life — the picture of my husband. I am still sorry about it. My daughter was too young to remember her daddy’s face, and all her life she has lived without father’s figure or at least his portrait.”
Marrying Boris, when Samoylovskaya was 20, was the happiest moment of her life. Learning, 14 years later, that she was a widow was the saddest. At first she received an official notification that he was missing in action. Later she met a veteran who had actually seen him die. So many Soviet soldiers, who lacked training and even weapons, perished in the early days of the Nazi invasion. Boris was one of them.
Alla was born on May 9, 1939. Six years later, on her birthday, the USSR declared victory over Germany — and every year the nation would celebrate. For Alla, though, it was a day of mourning, spent grieving the father she never knew.
Now an adjunct lecturer in the modern-languages program at the University of Illinois at Springfield, Alla Feld recalls how, in kindergarten, she was asked to recite a poem about soldiers and the war.
“I got so emotional about it that afterward the teacher had to ask my mother not to read me anything about World War II,” she says.
Poulina Samoylovskaya was 88 when she stepped on American soil. She came here with her daughter, a son-in-law, and two grandchildren. (Her only son died of cancer several years ago.)
She has struggled with English — it’s never easy to learn a new language — so she’s teaching Russian to her caregiver, Debby Anderson. “It is too hot to go to the balcony,” Debby says in Russian when Poulina wants to “go for a walk” but the temperature is more than 90 degrees. The two women stay together about six hours a day but have no complaints about miscommunication — the two women talk heart to heart or in Russian.
When Samoylovskaya turned 100, in 2004, she was given a big party. About 70 people came to celebrate. All of them were her or her family’s new American friends. Many good words were said, and the party was filmed.
Pictures taken at the party are in color and bright; the birthday girl is smiling. Her albums from her and her family’s early years are in black-and-white — a fitting analogy, given the hardship she endured.
Today, she says, she is as happy as it is possible to be at age 102. The losses will be with her forever; the success of those who survived gives her reason to smile and to be proud.
And her long life, she feels, could be a testament and an opportunity for others:
“What if gerontologists study me? I might be a good source of information.”
Mila Dvoretskaya-Lemme, a regular contributor, is a correspondent for Our Fair, a weekly in Karaganda, Kazakhstan.