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My Grandmother and the 1922 Russian Typhus Epidemic

December 6, 2020 | by Sofya Tamarkin

Her father refused to believe the doctors' pessimistic diagnosis. Her miraculous survival instilled a steadfast gratitude to God, despite the barrage of atheistic Communist propaganda.

In 1922, the typhus epidemic reached its peak in Soviet territory, with 25 to 30 million cases in Russia. My grandmother, Zelda, was born in 1924 right after the Communist Revolution in the midst of the pandemic. Her mother died during the birth of Zelda’s younger sister, leaving her 26-year-old father, David, to raise three little orphaned girls. The oldest, Rachel, was 5, Zelda was 2 and Olga, named after her mother who passed away, was 2 hours old. These years were filled with challenges of poverty, hunger and sicknesses.

When Zelda was 7 years old, the typhus pandemic struck their household. All three of the girls became ill with this horrible illness. They had a high fever, stomach pain, terrible weakness and rash. While my grandmother's sisters remained conscious, Zelda succumbed to the worst of this disease.

Her father paid for a doctor’s visit which was a complicated and expensive ordeal. My grandmother often recounted the story of how the doctor examined each one of the girls separately and said, "David, you are a smart man, and I will be honest with you. Your oldest, Rachel, and youngest, Olga, have a chance of survival so you should admit them to the city hospital. But the middle one, Zelda, will not live. Don't waste your money or time. She has been unconscious for three days, and she has no chance of survival."

While seemingly unconscious, Zelda was aware of every word that the doctor said. Then she heard her papa’s reply, "I will take all three of them to the hospital. I won't give up on Zelda until she stops breathing."


Zelda (right) with her younger daughter Vera and little Sofya in Soviet Union.

The hospital had a big room with hundreds of beds. Papa sat on a chair near his daughters' beds. When he dozed off, he dreamed of his late wife. In his dream, she gave him four loaves of challah for each one of the girls and said that Zelda, needed an extra one to get her strength back. David was woken up by Zelda's weak tiny voice. After three days of going in and out of consciousness, she woke up and asked for a drink of water.

Zelda survived and lived her life vivaciously, always remembering her papa's answer. She became a beacon of hope and positivity for her family and everyone she encountered.

During her entire lifetime, Zelda saw her recovery as a true miracle and a clear message from the 'other side'. This incident made her so grateful to be alive and despite Communist atheist propaganda, she always believed in God. While Soviet government prohibited all religious observances, no authorities had the power to remove faith from people’s hearts. My grandmother knew that in our darkest moments, we are always guided by our Creator.

As we light the menorah this difficult year, let's remember that gratefulness and optimism hold the power to illuminate the world.

As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks wrote in his book Celebrating Life: Finding Happiness in Unexpected Places, “Making a blessing over life is the best way of turning life into a blessing.” This was Zelda's moto in life. Orphaned by her mother’s death at the age of two, widowed at 35, raising a sick daughter under the Communist oppression, starving throughout Stalin’s regime, and surviving World War II, she never lost hope, faith or positivity. As Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi famously taught, "A little bit of light dispels a lot of darkness."

The last time I saw my grandmother was on Purim day, right at the beginning of the Coronavirus Pandemic. She passed away on May 6th, 2020, almost a century after being born, due to failing health unrelated to the virus.

Me and my grandmother

This coming winter, instead of focusing on the things that are unavailable, places that are closed and travel that we can’t do, let's refocus our attention to what we are privileged to have. These gifts include basic necessities like water, clean air, our warm homes, food to eat, technology that connects us to each other and millions of other things we take for granted. As our sages teach, "Who is rich? One who is happy with his lot" (Ethics of the Fathers 4:1).

There is a tremendous virtue for working to transform yourself to become grateful and appreciative person. Unlike the pandemics of the last century, our generation has so many more resources to help us survive and overcome this challenging time.

As we light the candles of the Hanukkah menorah this complicated year, let's focus on the positive aspects of our lives and remember that gratefulness and optimism hold the power to illuminate the world.


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