It was a bittersweet celebration in Brighton Beach last week.
More than 250 people — many of them with ties to Russia or the former Soviet Union — attended the Victory Day celebration hosted by the Be Proud Foundation at the National Restaurant on May 8 to pay tribute to the many heroes and victims of World War II, which ended 70 years ago this month.
Attendees ate, drank, sang, and listened to speeches in honor of the sacrifices made by civilians and soldiers during the war.
“Russian people like to go eat, drink and have a good time,” said 90-year-old Grigory Danilovich, who was just 17 when the war began and he was drafted into the Soviet Army. But he said the night wasn’t as festive as it would have been when he was in his prime, in part because of the occasion.
“We are not young anymore, we cannot dance and party like we used to do,” he said. “But this was a night to remember. Tonight we gather to pay tribute to our fallen friends.”
Most of the veterans in attendance were soldiers in the Soviet Army, others were citizens who lived through the nightmare of the war and survived the onslaught of the Nazis.
The organizer said she created the event to honor the memory of her family.
“This was in memory of my father and my mother,” said Raisia Chernina, the executive director of the foundation. “This event is not just about the war, but about how people survived the war.”
Danilovich was a native of the Ukranian capital Kiev, and he served in an anti-tank brigade during the Battle of Stalingrad, one of the war’s most brutal encounters. He destroyed two German tanks before he was hospitalized with shrapnel in his spine. He recovered and returned to battle, helping to push the Nazis out of the Ukraine and Poland, losing one of his eyes in the process. He has lived in Brooklyn since 1989.
He said that even during a celebration of the hard-won victory, memories of the war were painful.
“I try to not think about these events often, but many of them are rooted down in my memory,” Danilovich said. “On a night like this, they come back to me. It is very difficult.”
Another Red Army veteran agreed.
“Even now, as I speak to you about this, my heart races and my eyes well with tears,” said Leonid Rozenfeld, 90, who helped liberate Berlin at the head of a Soviet tank regiment. “I remember the millions of people who died because of these horrors, these atrocities, the killing, the death, the trauma, and the starvation.”