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U.S.: 11 September -- New York's Russian Community Holds Ceremony To Remember Fallen (Part 4)

  • Nikola Krastev

Friends and relatives of the victims of 11 September who were of Russian descent marked the anniversary of the tragedy in a solemn ceremony in the pouring rain this past weekend. About 200 people gathered for a low-key memorial service on a street corner in Brighton Beach, the ethnic Russian enclave in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. RFE/RL correspondent Nikola Krastev was there and filed this report -- part of our series marking the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks.

New York, 4 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Ahead of the anniversary that will bring pause to their city and nation, Americans of Russian descent gathered on 1 September to remember loved ones who were among the 2,823 killed in the World Trade Center attacks on 11 September.

The event was organized by the World Congress of Russian Jewry, a Moscow-based, nonprofit organization. But the service was dedicated to the memory of all victims of Russian descent -- Jews and gentiles alike.

The Brighton Beach ceremony commemorated the lives of Russians who had become U.S. citizens. Their 24 names were printed on dozens of blue helium balloons that were later released into the soggy sky as a symbol of their souls ascending to heaven.

One of the few who spoke at the ceremony was Neli Braginskaya, the mother of Alexander Braginsky, a 38-year-old foreign exchange products manager for Reuters Information Services who was killed in the World Trade Center attacks. Braginskaya spoke about the tragedy and its meaning to immigrants.

"We all here have immigrated -- some of us earlier, others later. Some of us have already settled. Others are continuing to establish their lives. All of it is so superficial, so worthless -- whether you have a bigger apartment or a smaller one, a fancy car or no car -- none of this is worth a cent. Your children are at home, your grandchildren are with you. When you get back home, you will hug them. This is all that matters, believe me. There is no other happiness. We are willing to give up everything today, including our own lives, to just for a minute see our children."

Braginskaya also drew parallels between the new terrorism concerns in the United States and the situation in Israel, where many ethnic Russians also live.

"We are here not for our children anymore, but for yours. Let your children, your grandchildren be alive. As long as there is terrorism in America, as long as there is terrorism in Israel, we are not sure that all of them will be alive. My friends, we have to do all we can, as much as we can, to help the [United States], to help Israel, because your children and your grandchildren have to live."

Most of the Russian victims in the World Trade Center disaster were well-established in their lives and careers. Some of them grew up in Russia and later emigrated to the U.S, while others -- many in their early 20s -- had emigrated as children with their families and were raised in the United States.

But their Russian identity, many of the participants said, remained strong. One of them was 21-year-old Vladimir Savinkin, an accountant at Cantor Fitzgerald, a financial services company. He was one of the firm's 658 employees killed in the 11 September attacks.

Savinkin's father, Valerii, expressed the hope that the victims will never be forgotten.

"I would like to believe that after many years, a little boy will walk with his father at the Seaside Park (a park along the ocean shore in Brighton Beach). He will see the memorial plaque with the names of our loved ones, and he will ask his father, 'Dad. Hey, dad! You named me Vladimir. Here is the name of another Vladimir -- Vladimir Savinkin. Who is he?' Maybe the little boy will learn then the story about the horrible day of September 11, 2001. And maybe in the heart of this little, yet unborn, child, a compassion for the victims will arise. This is also our memory."

Other victims remembered at the ceremony included 45-year-old Arkady Zaltsman, officially listed as Moldovan, who was an architect at the firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill.

Another victim was Yelena Belilovsky, a 38-year-old assistant vice president of Fred Alger Management, an investment firm. The New York newspaper "Newsday" featured her last autumn in a story titled, "After Surviving Chornobyl, She Came to America." Her husband, Boris, told the newspaper they were on their honeymoon in Kyiv in April 1986 at the time of the disaster at Chornobyl, 65 kilometers away.

Braginskaya told those assembled at the memorial that each of the victims of the attacks had a unique story. All ended abruptly and irreversibly, she said, but they will live on through memories.

"Those who were killed will never come back, but they are with us, our children are with us. We remember them and as long as the world remembers them, they will continue to live. Two days ago, we were at another funeral for one of our children (for the child of another Russian family in Brighton Beach), whose mother and father are here [at the memorial service]. One of the mothers told me something I had not thought about before. She said, 'You know, when a child loses its parents, it's an orphan. When a wife loses a husband, she is a widow. But how should we call ourselves -- mothers who lost their children? There's no such word in the Russian language.' "

There are differing accounts of the number of Russian victims in the World Trade Center disaster, depending on how the term "Russian" is defined.

The ABC television network, in its news report about the Brighton Beach ceremony, put the number of Russians killed in the World Trade Center attacks at 16 -- the most conservative estimate. Other unofficial reports estimate the number of ethnic Russians killed as ranging from 25 to as many as 75. The higher number includes all those from the former Soviet Union who may have used Russian as their native tongue.