Cyla Kutnowsky


How on earth would I ever find a refugee that not only is willing to talk, but is also available in the next two weeks? That was my one and only thought when I was handed this assignment. Fortunately, it was much easier than it seems. At first I thought about the Lost Boy that I knew personally, but he lived in Minnesota, and we don’t exactly have contact with him so that was out of the picture. My next thought was to ask my mom; she thought of a few people, and we emailed them all only to get no response. I was stuck. I had no idea what to do and about four days left to find a refugee. My mom got a text from a good friend of ours and it hit. Our family friends’ grandma was forced to run during World War II. I already had a close relationship with that whole family, and I was shocked to hear the actual story of all of this after fourteen years of knowing them. My friends’ grandmother’s name is Cyla Schuster, originally Cyla Kutnowsky.

I was nervously waiting her arrival when I looked out my window and saw her walking to the door. It was in that moment that I realized I was still in my pajamas. I ran around my room frantically looking for normal clothing while my mom welcomed her in with a hug and kiss on the cheek. I ran down and greeted her just the same. We gave her a tour of the house as it has been about a year since we moved, and she hasn’t been over since then. My nerves dissipated once I saw her strength. Through her bug-eyed Prada sunglasses, I could see her steely eyes, eager to explain to me her past. I asked her where she wanted to sit, expecting a response like, “I really don’t care, anywhere works,” or “Anywhere I’m just your guest.” Instead I received, in an extremely thick Israeli accent, “There are two chairs out back that we will sit at; this would be best.” Maybe it was because I knew her or maybe it was because of her sureness that I felt completely at ease. She knew what she wanted and just like her parents knew how to succeed and survive.

She led me back to where she wanted to sit; I watched her grey maxi skirt and Coach sandals, hesitant to make complete eye contact. Eventually after asking if I could take notes during the interview and going through the house-warming proceeds, I asked the first question.

“So I suppose I will just get on with it. What is your family background?” I inquired.

I’m hoping she was pleasantly surprised because her eyes widened and she just said, “Oh! Okay well where do I start?” She explained to me that her father was from Poland and her mother was from Russia; they met in Uzbekistan while fleeing from World War II because they were Jewish. Her father in Poland found that he would be drafted into the army, but because he was Jewish he would fight in the front line to be killed.  Her father fled the country simply because he did not want to die. While he fled he left all of his family and belongings behind in the Warsaw Ghetto, never to see any of them ever again. He hopped onto a train just trying to go anywhere and ended up in Russia. Once in Russia, he realized he would be drafted into war once again, and again he ran.  This time he ended up in Uzbekistan. More Jews were fleeing, just like Cyla’s mother’s family was from Kiev, Russia, and they all fled to Uzbekistan. Hitler had no intention to enter this country, so it was somewhat of a safe haven for Jews. At the time it was extremely poor, and only Muslims lived there. The Muslims were extremely welcoming to the Jews, offering assistance to those in need. Since she had been with me she hadn’t budged from her seat; she sat straight sipping her water, legs crossed, occasionally wiggling her ring around her ring finger.

Her parents met in Uzbekistan and as she explains, “People did not necessarily get married because they were in love; they got married because there were circumstances that you didn’t want to be alone, and you never knew what the next day is going to bring so why not?” After her parents wed, her mother became pregnant with twins; unfortunately, the twins did not survive for long because her parents could not support them. Soon after, they had Cyla. She was born in Uzbekistan, a Jew on the run from Hitler. The war was coming to a close, and although things were dying down, they still felt a need to move out of the poor country of Uzbekistan. Her father created an organization that helps Jewish families out of Europe to America, Israel, and so on. He was invested in creating a better life for Jews, a life they deserved. This whole time she was still sitting completely still, not moving or blinking for what seemed like forever. I was too immersed in her story. After a slight weight change, a sip of water and a sharp clear of her throat, she sat up and she recalled her earliest memory. She remembered the absolute fear of “ominous death” even though the war was almost over. The whole atmosphere in Europe screamed sadness and death, and they had to escape. She told us of her still existent fear of government and how easy it is for the government to be tweaked, toyed with, and twisted. Her voice tightened and her tone strengthened as she claimed that “This government is just as dysfunctional as Germany’s was. People are just more able to cover it up.” She apologized for going off topic and began again with her story.

Her father, who was an avid follower of the Jewish tradition, knew they were going to live in Israel, so they began the long trek to an unknown land. As she spoke with me about her memories and her parents, her glass began to shake and the ice, which was slowly melting, clicked and echoed in my mind. She explained that her mother was from Russia, father was from Poland. During the trip one brother was born in Germany, one in Israel, and her in Uzbekistan. She moved quickly up and back into her chair with a large smile recalling a common family phrase of endearment, “Our little family, we are the united nations.” I took a peek at my notes realizing this talk has answered most of my questions: Where were you born? What is your earliest memory? And do you remember why your family had to flee? I ignored the questions and just asked what I was truly eager to understand.

I quickly blurted, “So what was the actual path that your family took from Uzbekistan to Israel?”

She tightened her lips and looked down trying to remember the exact order of the countries. They moved from Uzbekistan to Poland, to Germany, to France, to Italy, to Turkey, the last but not least, to Israel. This trip was not a simple few week trip; this took years and by the time they got there she was eight. She remembered her trip from Italy to Turkey; they chose to go by boat because they lived in southern Italy. They got on a freight ship, and she remembers the boat going down, people screaming, and six thousand Jews trying to leave Italy, praying and running in complete panic. Her father was “mechanically inclined,” and fortunately her father saved the ship and fixed it well enough to last them the rest of the trip. Her own father saved six thousand lives. She recalled this with such enthusiasm as if she felt that her family did something good during such a bad time and is so thankful she did not drown in the Mediterranean. Once in Israel she said life was hard, but enjoyable, she loved it. I thought about how this speaks to her and her parent’s strength that they could be put through the Holocaust and escape and provide a normal, happy upbringing for their child.

She said she believes that she inherited this strength that her parents had. She said, “I look back on my parents’ generation, and I just realize how strong they were. What hard workers they were. They didn’t expect anyone to give them anything, that sense of entitlement that just kills me now. I come from a different type that, nobody ever gave us anything. We worked and fought for what we had. If we didn’t have a lot that was ok because we worked for a better life and we got it.” I thought about that for what seems like forever. I imagine the Holocaust happening today in America and how weak this generation is, the obese and the rich who take advantage of the system, how would they react to this. They couldn’t. We would be annihilated immediately. She said, “That sense of entitlement is killing me, it is absolutely killing me. If you need to survive, go work for it, just work.” I thought of myself how greedy I truly am and how greedy everyone looks compared to the people from the Holocaust. I felt ashamed because her words rang so true in my heart.

I listened as she spoke off topic about governments and greed. We bantered about our opinions like the old friends we are despite the 60-year age gap between us. We realized that we had strayed off topic and again switch back to Israel. She spoke about simple things like how they turned off the water valve during the day, so she will forever be extremely water conscientious and never waste. She said that while she was moving around on the run they had to be environmentally friendly, using everything they could and never, ever, ever throwing anything away. It was just a normal part of her life, and now people dispose of things after taking a bite of them. She told me how she looks at people when they throw stuff away and thinks, “What are you doing? I would have killed for even a part of that when I was on the run. That hot dog would have lasted me through a full week, and you just throw it away like that? How could you do that?” Little things like that make me realize just how easy we have it and how selfish we have been. She also talked about the hard times in Israel, the wars, revolts, and violence in that country, yet she still loved it. She grew up in Israel, made friends, and went through life like a normal woman until she moved to America just to better her life a little bit more in New York where she met her husband and had her children and then a few years later moved to San Francisco and here she is in my backyard telling me her life story, repeating everything she knew and remembered, going through waves of subtle emotions hidden behind immense courage and her Prada sunglasses.