The sign on Yulia Bereslavskiy’s door is also a symbol. It’s simple, computer-generated, and states: “Please knock.” To which Yulia has added by hand, “Leonid no enter!”
Yulia, 10, is a fifth-grade student at Public School 200 in Bensonhurst. Her brother Leonid, 6, is in the first grade.
They became orphans a year ago when their father, Vitaly, an engineer who brought them here from Latvia in 1992, was fatally shot while watching his brother’s laundromat in the basement of a Brownsville housing project. Vitaly’s wife had died while giving birth to Leonid a few months before the family emigrated.
The children moved into the Bensonhurst apartment of their grandparents after Vitaly died, sharing the crowded one-bedroom flat, living on Riva and Simon’s small monthly SSI check. Yulia would sleep on her grandmother’s bed; Leonid, on a living room couch.
The Jewish Week and all the city’s Russian-language newspapers wrote about the family’s plight then.
Today, life has improved for the Bereslavskiys. Today, with her own room, Yulia has privacy. Today, the family has space for unpacking.
“We have more room. We have a balcony,” Leonid brags.
“Besser,” Simon, 75, says in Yiddish — better. “Thank God, thank God.” He shows a visitor around the three-bedroom apartment into which they moved last summer. “A groiser dira, Simon says” — a bigger apartment. A half mile from their old home, it is Section 8, federally subsidized housing, obtained with the help of the Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst, the Bensonhurst Council of Jewish Organizations, and the office of then-Rep. Charles Schumer.
It’s actually two bedrooms, but part of the divided kitchen will become Leonid’s bedroom next week.
Then there’s Yulia’s bedroom. It overflows with stuffed animals. There are two bookcases full of books in English and Russian, a new computer in the corner, a typewriter still in its carton. Two bikes are in the middle of the room. Most of the items were donated by people who read about the Bereslavskiys last year.
In the months after their situation became known, the family received clothing that went on the children’s backs and money that went into a trust fund. An anonymous donor pledged a monthly stipend for 16 years, until Leonid turns 21. SAR Academy in Riverdale sent food for Passover, the Metropolitan New York Council on Jewish Poverty helped with moving expenses, a benefactor paid for piano lessons, neighbors offered invitations for meals, and an attorney offered his pro bono services to make Riva and Simon their grandchildren’s legal guardians.
“Most of the people who helped us, we don’t know,” says Yulia, who serves as interpreter for her grandparents, as they feel more comfortable in Yiddish or Russian.
“It helps,” Simon says of the kindness of strangers. “Who doesn’t need help?”
Riva, 72, pulls a photograph of Vitaly from a family album and shrugs. “I feel the same as I did last year.” She wipes away a tear. She’s grateful for all the help. “But it’s not going to bring back my son.”
The grandparents are retired pensioners. Riva spends her days cooking and cleaning and escorting her grandchildren to school. Simon helps. “His heart is not so good,” Riva says, apologetically.
“They’re in a much better situation” than last year, says Faye Levine, director of social services at the JCH, a UJA-Federation agency, which has assisted the family in obtaining government entitlements. “The Section 8 made a tremendous difference.”
Bensonhurst, a working-class Brooklyn neighborhood where thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union have settled, has many families whose stories are similar to the Bereslavskiys’, but not quite as dramatic, Levine says. “It’s a growing phenomenon of grandparents having to care for grandchildren” for a variety of reasons.
“There are many families going through losses,” she says. “Unfortunately, there are other families that are experiencing tragedy, and they may not hit the newspapers.”
For the Bereslavskiys, the memory of Vitaly is still fresh.
Riva and Simon took their grandchildren to his grave in Mount Judah Cemetery in Ridgewood, Queens, last month, a week before the anniversary of his murder. Yulia said a prayer in his memory on Yom Kippur — “the Yizkor thing.”
“I had a dream of my daddy” one recent night, she says. “I saw him walking.”
“All my dreams,” Yulia says, “include something” about him. “Sometimes I still start crying.”
“Sometimes he talks about it,” Yulia says. “Sometimes I hear him say, ‘When’s daddy coming home?’”
Sometimes, without thinking, Leonid refers to his grandparents as “my parents.”
Do they still lack for anything?
Yulia giggles. “I need a million dollars.” Then she turns serious. “A VCR.”
One thing, says Simon — an “old car” for driving the kids to school.
Riva holds her head between her hands, sighs, and answers in Yiddish. “The children,” she says, “should grow up and be well.”