“I am here for you”

Февраль 28, 2018

Interview with Steven H. Cymbrowitz for The New Review

Steven H. Cymbrowitz is a member of the New York State Assembly. He serves as Secretary to the Assembly’s Majority Conference and chair of the Environmental Conservation Committee’s Shoreline Protection Subcommittee. He is also a member of several other standing committees within the Assembly, including Agriculture, Codes, Health, Housing, Insurance and Steering.

-- Mr. Cymbrowitz, you belong to the second generation of Polish immigrants. Your parents were the Holocaust survivors who as small children were imprisoned into Kulmhof extermination camp in the Polish village of Warta. It is known that between 170000 and 360000 people – mostly Jews and Gypsies, as well as the Soviet prisoners of war - were executed there. What was the story of your parents? How were they able to survive?

-- My parents were born in Demblin, Poland, which is where they met and fell in love. On September 1, 1939 the Nazis bombed and invaded the city because of the military base in its center. The town was quickly sealed off and the Nazis took control and uprooted families, moving them into rooms in strangers’ homes with other Jewish families. Three years later, everyone in Demblin was rounded up and put in cattle cars and sent to either concentration or slave labor camps. My mom and her family were sent to Czestochowa to a slave labor camp called Warta. My mother and grandmother were in one barrack lined with bunk beds, and her father was in the men’s barracks with my father and some members of his family who were not sent to concentration camps. My mother’s job was to make bullets for the Nazi war effort, and to do that she had to put her hand in acid without gloves for each bullet. The night before the camp was liberated by the Russian army, my mother’s father was taken away and sent to Buchenwald, never to be seen again. After the war, my parents got married and lived in a DP Camp in Germany for five years, where my brother was born. Upon arriving in NY, they were helped by HIAS until they found an apartment on Hoe Avenue in the Bronx, where I was born several years later. In 1965, fifteen years after coming to America, my mother and father had saved enough money to buy a beautiful house in Forest Hills.

-- In one of your interviews you said how your mother had told you about her camp’s life and had begged you keep the memory about this horrible experience and to tell her story to your children. Our magazine tries to support the preservation of these memories in various ways, for example through our annual documentary film festival RUSDOCFILMFEST-3W by organizing a special film-program “Remembering the Holocaust in the 21st Century”. Using film documentaries, art and literature we hope to tell younger generations about the WWII and the Holocaust. About 50,000 survivors currently live in the New York City area. We know you as serve as an advocate on behalf of the Russian-speaking Holocaust survivors, as a founder and sponsor of the annual Holocaust Art, Essay and Poetry contest for Brooklyn students to encourage them to learn about and reflect on the Holocaust. Please tell us about this program.

-- Every year I sponsor a contest for students in grades 3 through 12 that gives them the opportunity to reflect on the Holocaust, examine how its lessons continue to impact our lives, and express their feelings using their creative talents. The contest culminates in an event at Kingsborough Community College, which is attended by about 400 people, where we display all of the contest entries and award certificates to the winners. The ceremony also includes guest speakers who talk about the Holocaust. This is an important component, because children need to see that the Holocaust isn’t just something you learn about in history books. In recent years the speakers have included Holocaust survivors, the presidents of Brooklyn College and Kingsborough Community College, and authors of books about the Holocaust. The Russian-speaking veterans and Holocaust survivor organizations in my district always attend the ceremony and this is extremely important as well. Kids (and many adults) don’t realize the losses that Russia suffered during the Holocaust. I make sure to honor these organizations and attend their events throughout the year.

-- The New Review was founded by two Russian-Jewish immigrants, writers Mark Aldanov and Mikhail Zetlin with the participation of the Nobel Prize laureate, Russian writer Ivan Bunin. While living in the occupied France during the WWII, Bunin saved several Jews, among them Jewish pianist Alexander Liberman and his wife, young writer Alexander Bachrach and Margarita Stepun, sister of the famous philosopher Feodor Stepun. Ivan Bunin hided them in his house and helped them to escape Nazi manhunts. Today we support the initiative of a group of European slavists and writers to give Ivan Bunin the Righteous Among the Nations, an honorific used by the State of Israel for non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from extermination by the Nazis. We believe that this would be very important in our times of rebirth of neo-Nazi movements in modern Europe. Unfortunately, we live in a world full of extremism and hatred directed at many ethnic groups. We strongly believe that people of all nationalities must collaborate to stop this. Please tell us about the main anti-hatred and anti-defamation programs of the New York State Assembly, the programs for supporting the equal civil rights and developing national heritage of American ethnic communities.

-- My Assembly district in southern Brooklyn (Sheepshead Bay, Manhattan Beach, Brighton Beach, and parts of Midwood and Gravesend) is home to large constituencies of both Holocaust survivors and Russian-speaking immigrants -- so keeping the world safe from anti-Semitism is an issue that’s extremely important to me and the people I represent. I recently condemned a bill that’s pending in Poland to criminalize the use of phrases like “Polish death camps” to talk about the Holocaust. They believe that such language “defames” Poland. In addition to being outrageous, I believe this is a calculated and dangerous attempt to rewrite history and sanitize Poland’s complicit role in committing the greatest atrocities in modern history. Making sure we continue to talk about the Holocaust in the harshest terms possible is the only way to keep the memory alive. As the son of two Polish Holocaust survivors, I promised my parents I would talk to the younger generations about their experiences and do all I could to ensure that the horrors of the past are never repeated. Never again! I’ve also spoken at conferences in Munich and Latvia sponsored by the organization “World Without Nazism” to decry the rise in anti-Semitism and neo-Nazi organizations. As I already described, I sponsor a contest every year for students in my district so they can learn about the Holocaust and understand the importance of fighting intolerance and bigotry.

-- According to Wikipedia (2012 data), the Russian-speaking Diaspora in the Tri-State area is about 1.6 million people strong, among them about 600,000 of these “Russians” who belong to the Russian-language multi-ethnic community live in New York City. Moreover, according to local Russian-language media (news.rusrek.com) based on the official American statistics about 3,160,000 Russian-speaking people from the post-Soviet territories legally live in the U.S., among them over 850,000 use Russian as their “mother tongue” at home. It seems that these numbers have grown substantially in 2018. We all remember the generous contribution of Russian immigrants to the American culture – all these names: Vladimir Zworykin, a creator of the American television; Igor Sikorsky, the helicopter inventor; Profs. Pitirim Sorokin and Nicholas Timasheff, American sociologists; Michael Chekhov, a founder of the American theater’s technique; choreographer George Balanchine, a founder of the American ballet – as well as his famous modern follower Mikhail Baryshnikov… This list of great names can be continued. Russian-speaking Diaspora contributes its talents and efforts to the U.S. But let’s now talk about the current times. Anti-Russian sentiments are very strong in our days – some American journalists call this “a new Cold War.” However, the Russian-speaking Diaspora belongs to the U.S. but not to the Russian Federation. Members of our community are afraid that this crisis between two countries will ricochet on the Diaspora. We already has some examples of the “bureaucratic high enthusiasm.” We remember you criticizing the city’s Board of Elections for trying to “relegate Russian-speaking voters to Siberia” after a team of Russian translators hired as part of a mayoral pilot program were ordered to stay 100 feet from their assigned polling places on the Election Day. We quote your words: “Once again, the New York City Board of Elections has demonstrated that it follows no one’s rules but its own and that it has no interest in making sure Russian-speaking New Yorkers are fully included in the voting process… On the contrary, the Board of Elections appears committed to disenfranchising one of New York City’s most populous immigrant groups, and that’s shameful.” Could you please tell us if the Assembly has some special programs aimed at the multi-ethnic Russian-speaking Diaspora? Does the Assembly plan to start new programs supporting us and other ethnic Diasporas in NYC?

-- As the assemblyman who represents the largest Russian-speaking population outside the former Soviet Union, it infuriates me that much of this vibrant and important constituency has been shut out of the democratic process because of a language barrier. While the Board of Elections has been quick to provide voting materials to those who speak other languages, there has been no serious attempt to accommodate the tri-state area’s 1.6 million Russian-speaking Americans who work hard, pay taxes, and contribute immeasurably to our state’s economic vitality. Instead, Russian-speaking New Yorkers have been expected to go to the voting booth and somehow make sense of an English-language ballot. This is more than unfair. It is insulting. Russian is the third most frequently spoken language other than English in New York City, ranking only behind Spanish and Chinese, according to the U.S. Census American Community Survey. Russian language speakers are also the third-highest group lacking English proficiency, just behind Spanish and Chinese. For the past few years I’ve sponsored legislation that would require municipalities with a million people or more – including New York City – to provide Russian-language translations of ballots and voting materials. This bill passed both houses of the Legislature in 2012, but was vetoed by the Governor due to cost. I’m still fighting to get this bill enacted into law. Russian-speaking residents need to be accommodated the same way we accommodate so many other engaged and civic-minded New Yorkers who happen to speak a language other than English.

-- We know that you pay a lot of attention to protect the rights of the low-income families and people in need, especially the seniors. We know your slogan: “Seniors First” – and heard about your initiative designed to accelerate and expand the construction and protection of senior housing across the city of New York. As everybody understands, the Russian-speaking Diaspora is in great need of such support as a community without too many strong lobbyists. We know that as an Assembly Housing Chair, you have a strong housing agenda at both the city and the state level. Please tell us more about these programs.

-- New York City is facing a shortage of affordable housing that exposes tenants to displacement from their communities and makes them more likely to become rent-burdened (meaning, more than 30 percent of the household’s income goes toward rent, which is contrary to housing affordability standards). Seniors are more likely to be rent-burdened than other populations; close to 60 percent of senior renters are rent-burdened, according to a 2017 report by the New York City Comptroller. In addition to new construction, the preservation of our existing housing stock, be it public housing or not, is also crucial to address the housing crisis and homelessness epidemic. That is why, as Chair of the Assembly Housing Committee, I’ve made sure that creating and preserving affordable housing stock is at the top of our agenda. As part of last year’s enacted state budget, I fought successfully for the inclusion of a statewide five-year, $2.5 billion spending plan for the creation and preservation of up to 6,000 supportive housing units and 100,000 affordable units. Throughout my time in the Assembly, I have worked to protect the quality of life, health, safety, and independence of older adults. According to that same 2017 Comptroller report, there are 1.1 million adults aged 65 plus living in New York City today, and that number is expected to increase to 1.4 million by the year 2040. Rising rents, combined with the recent economic recession, have put a strain on seniors, and some may be facing difficult times in retirement. As a result, they struggle to remain in their home or find housing options that suit their unique needs. The inclusion of the $125 million for low-income senior housing was so important to me, as well as recent changes to the SCRIE/DRIE programs, both of which will go a long way in providing much-needed affordable housing for seniors. In addition, I will continue to fight for the protection of our rent-regulated apartments, which are a proven method for ensuring affordability for renters of all ages.

By Marina Adamovitch, Editor-in-chief of The New Review