Maria Parsheva has only distant memories of Ukraine, the former Soviet republic she left at the age of 7, says the Midwood resident, now 20.
But Parsheva, one of three Jewish students attacked Friday night while riding the Q train, says her mother’s memories of the region are much more vivid — and that news of the Dec. 7 assault reminded her of the violence once endured by Ukrainian Jews.
“My mother says it happened in the Ukraine every day,” Parsheva told The Jewish Week in a phone interview Tuesday, four days after the attack. “That’s why she brought me here, I guess.” Her mother, she added, was surprised that such an incident could take place in the United States.
Parsheva discussed the attack, which included anti-Semitic slurs, even as she and three other victims pushed for the filing of hate-crime charges against the young adults who allegedly beat them. In addition to Parsheva, the victims included two other Jewish students — Walter Adler, 23, of Midwood, her boyfriend, and Angelica Krischanovich, 21, of Jackson Heights, a classmate of Adler’s — and the Muslim passenger who came to their aid, Hassan Askari, 20, of Brighton Beach.
The incident began around 11 p.m., shortly after Parsheva, Adler and Krischanovich boarded a Brooklyn-bound Q train with Nick Rosenbaum, Adler’s best friend, at Canal Street in Manhattan. Parsheva, a junior at Baruch College, and Adler, a senior at Hunter College, said all four had just come from a Lower Manhattan club, where they had dinner and celebrated Chanukah.
Some of the train’s passengers were wishing each other a merry Christmas, Adler said, prompting he and Krischanovich to wish the passengers a happy Chanukah. At that point, he continued, three young men in the car advanced on him, while two young women approached Krischanovich. One of the young men, who at one point displayed a tattoo of Jesus, shouted “Happy Chanukah?! That’s when the Jews killed Jesus,” said Adler, who also heard shouts of “dirty Jews,” “you f—ing Jews” and other slurs.
Two waves of scuffles broke out, Adler said — one involving himself, the other involving Krischanovich. Adler said he suffered a split lower lip, for which he later received several stitches at a local hospital, and a black eye. Krischanovich was hit in the face by one of the young women, Parsheva said in a separate interview, adding that she was elbowed in the face — accidentally, she believes — and fell down.
During the episode, the Jewish students appealed to other passengers in the packed car to help, but no one other than Askari stepped forward, according to Adler and Parsheva. As a result, Askari was also beaten, sustaining two black eyes and a swollen face, he said.
As Parsheva tried to help Adler, she saw the young man with the tattoo holding what looked like a pocketknife and grew “hysterical,” believing he might stab someone, she said. So she and Adler managed to reach the back of the car and pull the emergency cord, stopping the train as it pulled into the DeKalb Avenue stop. That, in turn, summoned the transit police, who arrested 10 suspects in the case.
The suspects were charged with various misdemeanors, including assault, menacing and inciting a riot, according to the Brooklyn district attorney’s office. But, as of Tuesday night, it seemed likely that those charges would be upgraded to hate crimes, said Joel Levy, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. Levy said he received his information from the commander of the New York Police Department’s Hate Crimes Task Force, whose detectives have already interviewed the four victims of the assault.
Of the 10 suspects, seven are white males, one is a black male and two are white women, a police spokesman said. All were arraigned and released by a Brooklyn judge Saturday, before Jewish leaders learned of the incident Monday and before the Hate Crimes Task Force became involved.
Two suspects — Joseph Jirovec and Zachary Rogalski, both 19 and both of Brooklyn — have been charged in past hate crimes in Brooklyn, said Assemblyman Dov Hikind (D-Brooklyn), whose office contacted The Jewish Week. Jirovec is scheduled to begin a six-month sentence next month for his role in a 2006 crime, an assault against four black teenagers in Gerritsen Beach, the New York Post reported. The charges against Rogalski stem from an attack against three black youths in Marine Park, said Hikind, who added that he doesn’t know the outcome of that case.
Hikind criticized authorities for not having filed hate-crime charges against the suspects beforehand and for having released them from jail. “They must be laughing all the way home,” he said. Authorities, he added, blew an opportunity “to get really tough on these guys” and make a statement on hate crime.
Meanwhile, the lawyer for Jirovec, Peter Mollo, said his client’s late mother was Jewish and that, therefore, Jirovec couldn’t possibly be anti-Semitic.
Jirovec, whose father is a firefighter, also claims that the four Jewish students initiated the conflict, that members of the Jewish group were drunk and that one of them called one of his friends “the ‘N’ word,” Mollo said. The lawyer added that Jirovec told him that the anti-Semitic slurs were part of a story invented by the four students much later.
Word of the incident reached Jewish leaders after Parsheva approached officials at the Baruch College chapter of Hillel on Monday, she said. Hillel then arranged for Parsheva to speak to officials at the ADL and the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.
Parsheva spends much of her time at the campus Hillel, while her boyfriend is a leader at Hunter of Agents for Change, a club devoted to promoting dialogue among different ethnic, racial and religious groups.
Parsheva said that, as jarred as she was by the attack, she was also stunned that several dozen passengers on the train failed to help her and her friends. The one passenger who did, Askari, won praise this week from JCRC, which issued a statement calling the American-born Muslim “courageous” and saying he “showed what New Yorkers are truly about.”
But Askari, who grew up in Bangladesh and returned to the States only a year ago, told The Jewish Week that he didn’t consider himself a hero. “I just did something that I felt was normal,” he said, adding that his parents taught him “to help your fellow man.” A practicing Muslim, he also said he pays no attention to the religious, ethnic or racial background of others and that he has a diverse array of friends, including some who are Jewish.
Askari, currently a waiter at two Indian restaurants in the East Village, attends Berkeley College in Manhattan, where he hopes to study finance.
Both Parsheva and Adler, a native of Manhattan, said Friday’s episode marked the first time they had ever encountered anti-Semitism in the city. “I never experienced anti-Semitism in New York, and I hope to never experience it again,” Parsheva said.