BY: TYLER WOODS
I knew him as Markus the upholstery man, as I often visited his upholstery shop as a child in San Francisco. He taught me how to use a nail gun, the coolest toy for a ten year old, and always had Kopobka (a Russian candy) for me to eat. Before this last month, that is all I knew Marcus to be, Marcus the upholstery man who had a funny looking tattoo on his left hand. I had no idea that his story was a representation of the thousands of Ukrainian and Russian refugees still in America today. The Ukraine after WWII was a place many avoided. A volatile government matched with communist ideals warded off American policy makers and citizens. A place where, even though it was more progressive than Russia, Jews still feared to live in. Marcus Miretsky, a Jew who found refuge in America, came from the Ukraine after his experiences with persecution.
It was a typical San Francisco Saturday morning as I exited the 101 at Vermont Street. Fog blanketed the city, and eager drivers sped past me as I tried to find my way to Marcus’ shop. It had been a hectic morning to say the least. My phone had broken, leaving me without my interview questions, recording device, or navigation. I desperately tried to remember the way my grandmother had taken me to his shop. I had exactly ten minutes before my interview, and I was sweating. I could not call anyone for help, nor could I Google the location. I pulled off the road and exited my car. The cool San Francisco air revived my mindset and calmed my nerves. As I began driving I started to remember certain buildings. The McDonalds across from the supermarket was where I remembered it, one block from Marcus’ shop. I turned left on Florida Street and there it was: A tall three story industrial building with Belmar written at the top. I made it.
The room was warm. Dark mahogany wood engulfed the walls, and soft fabrics lined the chairs. I sat there worried. I had no recording device, only a piece of paper and interview questions in my mind. The two double doors I had entered through swung open, and without warning a bellowing voice rang through my ears.
“Tyler! My boy! You’ve grown!”
Marcus always wore wingtip shoes, quite possibly in the brightest color he could find and always dressed well. He was by no means the tallest Ukrainian refugee out there as he stood looking up to me.
“Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today,” I remarked.
“Of course! I remember when you used to come through my shop and play with the tools. We made a chair together. Do you remember?”
I remembered my time in Marcus’ shop vividly, and after catching up with both him and his wife Bella, who was working nearby, I asked my first question. “What was your experience with persecution?”
He quickly replied in broken English, “Well, for example, when I was little and my grandfather wanted to take me to synagogue, ok, it has been warning by Ukrainian government not to take children to synagogue. Just they kept for the old people. They wanted to eliminate the new population from believing in something more than government. Another thing, when I was teenager and I got Beatles and Presley, because I’m 60s, and when they caught you with the record they put you in jail. That why I always kept my room closed tight when I played the rock or boogie in my room. Another thing, if government catch you with American jeans or shirts they bring you to militia and shave your hair. Then everyone point and laugh at you and call you “American.” I thought and wish one day that I could be there.”
The feeling of government control was obvious and not something I experience today. It was new and surprising to me to hear these things. I asked my next question, “How did it make you feel when you tried to go to synagogue. Was there fear?”
“No, when you kid it’s not fear. You don’t understand fear. It’s like a game that you are playing. Your grandpa hide you in his cape and the fear was from my grandfather in fear. I was playing a game to hide. For me it was not fear.”
I noticed the tattoo on Marcus’ hand as he scratched it. I wondered what it was as I never knew.
“What is that on your hand?” I eagerly asked.
“It is tattoo from when I was in military service to protect my beautiful country, to protect the communism in my country.”
I had not realized he was in the army, so I asked a follow up question. “How did you find yourself in the army?”
He replied with a smile, “It was mandatory of course, as it is now in Putin time. And in my time if you come 5-15 minutes late they can arrest you as you stand in the line.”
“What was your role in the army?” I quickly interjected.
“To tell you the truth I was a soldier. You name it, I shoot AK-47, I ride in the tank, I almost saw combat. I was in a plane in 1968 to go to Prague but God saved me, I think he loves me, because I was in KGB service. The KGB service protects me because I was soldier in KGB.”
Before he was able to go any further, his wife Bella interjected, “I came to say good bye and they kept us whole night outside with no food and didn’t let me in to see my husband before he went to war.”
“It’s all a high secret” Marcus added. “You don’t know where you are going or why.”
It was a lot to take, especially finding out he was in the KGB, but I continued my questions. “How did you find yourself in the KBG? Was it automatic?”
“No, they send you at random to be a sailor or a special office. I was just picked to be soldier in KGB army. I was in college before but they pull me out to be in military. I was studying to be a vocalist.”
“You left Ukraine. When did you leave?” I asked.
“I left in 1969. The army would shorten service time based on certain criteria. It was if you had a wife, they shorten one year. If you have children, they shorten year. And if you have a sick parent they shorten again. I had all of those things, but they would not let me go home. They told me that you Jews are story tellers and these things are not true.”
“So they separated you from the Russian population just because you were Jewish?” I blurted out.
“Yes, so I served more years. I already served two years.”
“Tell him how the officers beat you,” Bella added.
“Yes, 23 officers beat me with chairs because I was Jew. Luckily, they turned off the lights, and I grabbed this and hit someone and broke their shin and I jumped out of two story building into trashcan. This is how I survived. I spent two weeks in military hospital because I had bruises and broken ribs…. You don’t want to be a Jew in military for Russia. From first day they separate you. The General made a meeting and told everyone, ‘There is a new type of people, the Jews, they are not good people,’ and one guy said, “Who are these people?” and the General said, ‘They are among us.’ My friend turned to me and said, ‘Marcus, who are these awful people?’ and I said, ‘Nicholas, it’s me,’ and he said, ‘No, no, not you Marcus.’”
As a Jew I recognized his pain, and it hurt me to think of such brutality just because of someone’s religion. I continued the interview. “How did this make you feel?” I asked.
“At first you want to take your AK-47 and shoot them. Bang! Bang! Bang! I get up one night because I could not sleep and go to the pyramid. Pyramid holds all the guns and bullets. I tried to get into it, but God help me it was locked and the key locked in officer’s room. I want to just take 30 bullets and kill all the people. But when I woke up and was outside, I got fresh breath of air and thought to myself, ‘No, this life is worth more than this garbage, and I want to be in America one day and I have to be patient so I waited.”
“How did you then get to America?”
“It was time of Jimmy Carter,” he replied. “He fight for human rights, and in 1959 he exchanged thousand Soviet Jews for bread and meat. But Russia did not know of this, and America did not know of this. I got here from Carter’s exchange. And they sent me to San Francisco with a work permit because I was in upholstery business and San Francisco good for upholstery.”
Curious about his experiences recently, I asked, “Have you ever gone back?”
“Yes, nine years ago to Kiev. It was beautiful. We were supposed to stay two weeks, but I could only stay six days. The mentality is too different. It was waste of time. I went back to military barracks and remembered what I went through.”
Finalizing the interview, I asked Marcus if he had any resentment towards the people who wronged him in the past.
“You cannot go through life with anger. I try to keep my head calm and my heart warm. You cannot keep the anger. The biggest fight in your life is with yourself, not with others,” he said with a sense of enlightenment.
As the interview closed, both Marcus and his wife Bella smiled and looked at each other.
“We have been together since we were 19 and nothing has separated us. That is my joy.”
Marcus has found success in America and is grateful for his experience and the opportunities he has been given. His outlook gives me a sense of understanding how lucky I am to be born here without these struggles.
As I exited the three story building, I reflected upon the conflicts I have in my life and began to forgive. Entering into the interview, unsure of the outcome, I left with a new outlook on life. I realized the importance of witnesses and the role they play in society. Without first-hand witnesses like Marcus, I could not be as thankful for the small things in my life. My freedom is more important to me now than it has been in the past, and I recognize the cruel and unfair life of some people. Now, after all of these years, I found out what that tattoo on his hand represented. In Russian it read “Bel-Mar,” short for Bella and Marcus. The name he gave his business. As I drove home I remembered what Marcus said, “The biggest fight is with yourself, not others.”