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Helen and Sol Krawitz Holocaust Memorial Education Center

Shimon and Sara Birnbaum Jewish Community Center

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Survivor Profile




(1943 - PRESENT)






APRIL 12, 1943







  • BIOGRAPHY BY Nancy Gorrell

    Riva Ferdman was born on April 12, 1943 on a collective farm in northern Kazakhstan. At the time, her mother and her four siblings were living in abject poverty, sleeping in one corner together on the floor of a room in the house of local people. Her mother and her siblings survived alone, their father off in the war fighting in the Soviet Army. For them, survival was a constant struggle; cold, hunger and starvation were endemic. For a time, Riva’s mother thought her father was dead, lost for good. Riva, just an infant at the time, describes in her interview the remarkable stories her mother told her about those wartime years. Why? “Because you should know what happened. We should fight all the time for peace. The war was very bad.”

    Her mother tells Riva the story of her miraculous birth, the story of her “magical” voice, and the equally inspired story of how she got her name, and how the family reunited with the father they thought was dead in the war. Riva, child survivor, grows up in post-war Vinnitsa, Ukraine. In her interview she also recounts her father’s background, how he came from a family of nine children; her mother’s background, how she came from a family of 12 children, and how, when they came back to their pre-war house in Vinnitsa, Ukraine, her family had lost 49 relatives—aunts, uncles, children and her grandparents. Starting from the age of three, Riva describes her earliest post war memories as very hard and anti-Semitism “everywhere.” Nevertheless, Vinnitsa became her home for 52 years of her life until Riva emigrated from Vinnitsa in the 1990s to the United States. Riva has a daughter, Anna, and a son, Gregory, a doctor living in Israel who passed five years ago. She has a granddaughter living in Israel, Arielle Ayzenberg.



    Date: December 19, 2016

    Location: Ferdman Residence

    Interviewer: Nancy Gorrell

    Q: Where and when were you born?
    I was born in Kazakhstan on April 12, 1943, and I lived on a farm SSR, in a farm called 10 years Kaz. SSR. It was a collective, communist farm.


    Q: What was your family background?
    My family lived in the Ukraine in the town Vinnitsa/Vinnytsia or before the Second World War started. My father built a very big house. He was from a very poor family. He lived without the father. And when he was six years old he was given to another family and he worked for them. He had eight brothers and sisters; he was the 9th. He believed in giving the best for his children; it was his dream. He worked very hard. When he was 16 he married my mom. She was fifteen. Her name was Cheyndl.


    Q: Where was your family living before Vinnitsa?
    They lived in a shletl, so he came to Vinnitsa. This was not just Jewish; it was a Ukrainian town. In June 1941 the Germans started the war with Russia. He was 35 years old. My father joined the army in the beginning of the war. My mom and four children were evacuated to the south of the country to Chechnya. When my family went there, it was a very hard time. They had no food, clothing or a safe place to live. The local people didn’t like Jewish people. So they don’t want to give help. And this year, 1941, my father was wounded, and he was in a hospital. When he came out, the army gave him ten days break to see his family. Until he found them, it took nine days. And he did the best in this moment, for this one day with his family. He did a great gift for my mom, for after nine months…I was born! But that time, Chechnya had oil. And the Germans came to get it. So people were evacuated again to north Kazakhstan.


    Q: What was Kazakhstan like during the war years?
    I was just a baby. In the north, Kazakhstan was very poor, lots of snow. Local people had no food for themselves, so the help was very little. We lived in the corner of a room in the house of local people. In this room, on the floor without anything on the floor, we slept with our mom in one corner. They had not oil, not wood for heat. And one Russian family that was evacuated too; they were so poor they didn’t know how to live in this condition. They filled the oven and closed the doors and windows, and in the morning, they all died from the gas. They never woke up. I was born in this place later in April. My mom was 35 years old, and she could not work because her legs were swollen. My mother considered dying like the Russians because she didn’t know how she would live and take care of the children. But my ten year old brother, David, he said, “Let’s go to the farm office and maybe we’ll get a letter from relatives.” At that time my mom received letters that my Dad died in the war. He was actually in a hospital in another republic far away in Armenia. When my brother said to go, they all went seven miles through the fields and snow to the farm office. They saw eight or ten wolves following them. My mom knew that wolves were scared off by fire and screaming. So she started to scream. The wolves stopped only when they heard screams. But what could they do? They couldn’t do it more. So at that time, my mom opened my sheets and started to hit my ass, and as a baby, I started to cry. The wolves ran away. So from that time on, I had a nice voice in school and college. My mother said it was from the time she hit me and the wolves ran away. So my brother and me with my voice saved the lives of our family.


    Q: Did your family ever get to the farm office?
    It was all not for nothing. When they got to the farm office, they got documents from my father giving my mother permission to move to another place where the family met him. It was in Uzbekistan where many were evacuated from Russia and Ukraine during the war. My father was there. It was amazing. I could not know all this because I was just born, but my mother told me all this after the war in March 1944. We went back to our town in the Ukraine. Thank you god that our house was in good shape. It was not bombed. From that time, I lived in Vinnitsa, Ukraine 52 years.


    Q: What were your earliest memories of that time?
    I remember myself from three years. What I was dressed in, my friends. I know all this because my mother said, “Sit, I tell you the story. You should know what happened. We should fight all the time for peace. The war was very bad.”


    Q: What are some of your growing up memories?
    When I was seven years old in Vinnitsa, I went to first grade, and I was the only one with a Jewish name, Riva. And the children were laughing about me. So I came home crying. “Why do I have a name like Riva? Why don’t I have a Russian name?” And my mother told me that when I was born, and she gets the documents that my father died in the war, they decided to go to the farm office to take the birth certificate, they got a half pound of cereal for one month more. In Jewish style, she wanted to name me after my father, but she saw a dream. And in the dream came to her, her grandma; her name was Riva, Cheyndl, “Don’t give your husband’s name; he will be alive. Give her my name, Riva.” So my mother named me Riva, and my father lived. My mother came from a family of twelve children, no electricity. So they made children. Really, the life was so hard, my dad from a family of nine children. When they came back, we lost 49 relatives from our family—aunts, uncles, children and my grandparents.


    Q: Did you go to school and get an education?
    I went to school for seven years and then to college. In Ukraine it was very hard to go to college. You needed money or a good friend. Most went to Russia where anti-Semitism was less. My sister went to Kazakhstan. So I went to college in Russia, then in Kazakhstan for five years because my sister was there. I studied engineering. My sister became a teacher. After that I went to a second college for art. I eventually became the chief in a development department and then VP of the company. Jewish people could only be the 2nd head in a good company. The first man in the company you should be in the communist party and Russian and not Jewish. But Jews were there because they needed smart heads.


    Q: Did you observe Judaism in anyway?
    It’s a funny question. Before we went to America, we went to an old aunt, and it was Yom Kippur. It was one room. There was the torah. Only on Yom Kippur. Why are you here Riva? KGB here. I’m not scared. Yes, you cannot. KGB checked everything. There were synagogues in Moscow. But in our town, it was one room, in one apartment, by one Jewish family in town. That was the synagogue. When people died, or old people wanted to pray, people came to this apartment to have a minyan and pray. We were like under the lamp. They checked everything. When I worked, I filled up a very big application, so they could check me. They asked so many questions about my whole family. Most of my family had died.


    Q: What happened to your brothers and sisters?

    My sister came over with her son and daughter (when?)  They lived in Hillsboro. She was three years in this country. Now I have one sister, and she is in Ukraine. Two brothers died. I am the only one left in America. I never went back.


    Q: Why did you emigrate from the Ukraine to America?
    In the 1990s the time became very hard because every republic wanted to become independent. We were scared for our children. My daughter studied in regular school and musical school. She was 15 years and experienced much anti-Semitism. In our house every window was a hammer or a stick because we didn’t want to fight with them. Other kids and adults tried to scare us to leave, “Why are you still here?” They called us bad names, “zhydi,” (a slur for Jew).  I left at age 52. Now I live 21 years in this country, in this town, all time in Somerville. And I repeat the words of my husband, “God bless America and American people.” When we came were shocked with all the help of Jewish Family Service and the Jewish people. People here are excellent, excellent help. In our country, Ukraine, no one helps.

  • Sources and Credits:


    SSBJCC Survivor Registry Interview by Nancy Gorrell, December 19, 2016, Biography by Nancy Gorrell