Maybe it becomes easier, losing everything and having to start all over again, when you do it for the fourth time.
The son and daughter of Yevgenia Khaimsky, swept out of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, had nothing but their cars and the clothes on their backs, but they could still laugh as they sat inside the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington in Rockville. Compare this, they said, with everything their mother had been through -- the Russian Revolution, the Holocaust and fleeing the Soviet Union -- and Katrina was a disaster they would surely survive.
Not that the hurricane left them unscathed. Her son said his home was beautiful, an old French-style brick house on Marcia Avenue with a wrought-iron fence, a second-floor balcony and a swimming pool. It was only a mile from levees that broke, releasing Lake Pontchartrain's waters into the punch bowl of New Orleans. He hasn't seen the home, he says, but he has seen the pictures, and he knows it is gone.
The 25 albums of family photographs: gone.
His wife's Steinway piano and manuscripts of the music she'd composed: gone.
His daughter's home, only a block away, which she was going to move into on the day of the storm: gone.
Prosperity is a fragile thing, and no one would have known that better than Yevgenia Khaimsky herself, who sat between her 60-year-old son, Viktor Khalimsky -- his last name is spelled slightly differently -- and her daughter, Alexandra Shikhris, 57. Yevgenia was silent, nodding off occasionally. She is 92 and has Alzheimer's disease, which has left her with little but the memories of her family history. It is a story that her children know and which they said has consoled them as they find themselves with nothing but their family, yet again.
A Series of Escapes
Yevgenia Khaimsky was born in 1913 to a well-to-do Jewish family in Odessa, a major Black Sea port whose heat and humidity remind Viktor and Alexandra of New Orleans. Odessa is now a part of Ukraine, but in those days it was ruled by the Russian czar, Nicholas II, last ruler of the ill-fated Romanov dynasty.
The problems began in 1917, when Nicholas II was overthrown by Communist revolutionaries. They intended to confiscate the property of the wealthy -- including that of Yevgenia's family. The family fled with many other Russians to Romania, waiting three years for an American visa. But the Communists pressured Romania to return the Russian exiles, and they were forced to return, penniless.
This was the first time the family started over.
Unlike some of their fellow exiles, they were not shot or imprisoned on their return but were allowed to make a new life in Odessa. This came to an abrupt end on June 22, 1941, when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, taking the Red Army completely by surprise. On July 15, Yevgenia, a doctor, married a man she had met only a month before. On Oct. 16, the swiftly advancing German army occupied Odessa, which it would control until April 1944.
In the wake of the German army came units of the Nazi quasi-military special police called the Schutzstaffel -- the SS -- which were sent in to exterminate Jews. They rounded up those they found in Odessa and threw them into prison. Yevgenia and her new husband, Naum, escaped. Not long after, the Germans locked their captives in a workhouse and set fire to it. Nearly all of her relatives were inside.
Yevgenia and five surviving family members spent the next three years hiding in a Christian woman's basement bathroom. It was a large, communal house, and German officers stayed there. She and her husband helped the anti-German partisans, secretly typing and distributing leaflets with news from the Soviet government; news of titanic battles to the east, at Stalingrad and Kursk; news that the tide was turning.
On April 10, 1944, the Red Army liberated Odessa. The next year, Viktor was born. His name, meaning "victory," a celebration of the end of the war. With more than 20 million Russians dead and most of the major cities in ruins after a war of stupefying scale and brutality, Yevgenia began to rebuild her life.
That was the second time.
Viktor led a good enough childhood, then studied engineering and eventually became vice president of a Moscow company, while his wife worked on her music. By Soviet standards, they were well off. "Young people used to live very happily," Viktor recalled, "so long as you didn't fight against the system. If you fight, you're out."
Viktor had no love for the oppressive Soviet government but was fearful of what might happen if he asked to emigrate. Eventually, the decision was made for him: His company was working on construction for the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, and a superior ordered him to give his approval to a building he knew was not complete. He refused and was told he had to leave the Soviet Union. He and his wife were forced to quit their jobs and leave their homes; his parents worked to support them.
"But other than this," Viktor said, his dark sense of humor intact, "we didn't have any problems."
In 1978, he and his wife landed in New Orleans. His sister, Alexandra, followed a year later, and Yevgenia a year after that. They were jobless, impoverished, unable to speak English and starting over for the third time.
Twenty-seven years later, Viktor, who had worked his way up from hospital maintenance worker to vice president of Magnum Oil, and Alexandra, a musician, would be homeless again. They did not think the hurricane would be a disaster. The year before, they had fled ahead of Hurricane Ivan, only to see that it did little damage to their area.
"On Saturday, when my brother called me, I said, 'Oh, it's not going to happen,' " said Alexandra, who lived in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie.
"They were making jokes of me," Viktor said. But he persuaded his sister that they had to go. Twenty hours before the storm hit, they got into their cars, prepared for a short trip -- a few bottles of water, some snacks and an extra pair of tennis shoes -- and left for Houston.
The drive took 14 hours, and that was just the beginning. That first day, it seemed that New Orleans had been spared, but the levees had broken and the city was collapsing. Unable to return, the family traveled to Atlanta. Their mother's health was deteriorating under the strain of constant travel and lack of medical care.
"After 21/2 weeks, we realized we could not destroy her," Viktor said. They decided to bring her to the Hebrew Home, a nursing home in Rockville, close to relatives. Alexandra was crying on the morning they dropped Yevgenia off (Naum, Yevgenia's husband, died earlier this year). She said she has been having trouble sleeping, as the enormity of the Katrina disaster has caught up with her. Alexandra will return to Atlanta for a while; Viktor and his wife are renting a place in Shirlington, and they hope to return to New Orleans next spring.
"When I feel depressed because of this, I always think of my family during the war, and think it was much worse," Alexandra said.
"The difference is, this is not man-made. Everything before was done by humans," Viktor said. "You have no one to blame. All I know is, we'll recover. As a family, we'll recover, as a community, we'll recover. . . . In every bad story, something good comes out."