When former Russian paratrooper Khanon Zaratsky holds court in the Museum of Camaraderie in Sandy Springs, everybody listens. After all, he’s a colonel.
The 89-year-old former Red Army soldier is head of the American Association of Veterans of World War II From the Former USSR, and his goal is to rekindle what he calls the “Spirit of Elbe.”
He and other members of his organization, as well as American WWII veterans, meet regularly in the tidy but small museum within the Medside Adult Day Care Center, which is owned by Victor and Julia Vaysman, both immigrants from former Soviet republics.
They donate space in their multi-story medical building so that elderly Russians and Americans can talk and sometimes teach Atlanta children who know little to nothing about the war in which both Victor and his wife lost relatives.
Julia says there are tens of thousands of Russian immigrants in the Atlanta area who moved here to find better lives after the collapse of the USSR in 1989.
Zaratsky, who left the Soviet army in 1973 after serving since 1942, wants to rekindle what he says is the “comradeship” between Americans and Soviets that was damaged during the Cold War.
“Our purpose is to commemorate the camaraderie of two great allies,” he says. “We want to show that we are friends, and that there is no animosity, one side to the other.”
Like in other organizations of WWII veterans, membership is dwindling. He says only about 24 Soviet veterans are active, but they’re enlisting their children and grandchildren.
“The Spirit of Elbe is returning,” he says, referring to April 25, 1945, when Soviet and American troops met at the Elbe River in Germany and celebrated the imminent collapse of the Nazis. “We veterans from both sides have a responsibility to teach children about the war and that they should be friends. We want younger people to come here and learn.”
The museum is adorned with framed photographs of Russian and American troops, as well as an American flag and one adorned with the former USSR’s familiar hammer and sickle emblem.
“We are going to expand the museum,” says Victor Vaysman, 45, who came to the U.S. in 1991 from Moldova, a year after Julia, an immigrant from Azerbaijan, both formerly in the USSR.
Victor, a physician, and Julia, a registered nurse, met in 1991, formed Medside in 1993, “with a few hundred dollars in a bucket.” It now has 300 employees. Victor has an M.D. from Emory and also holds two degrees from Georgia Tech. Julia has an MBA from Georgia State. The two married in 1998 and have a 7-year-old daughter.
“There are a lot of people in this area from the former USSR who need help,” says Victor. “We consider it our honor to give people space for the museum.”
Lee Weinstein, commander of the Atlanta World War II Roundtable, says collaboration between Americans and Russians will “transcend any political differences of the past or present.”