Jewish Journal

Not Your American Summer Camp…

by Julia Bendis

December 1, 2010 | 1:46 pm

When school was ending last year, I started looking for summer camps for my kids.  As I started looking, they started whining…  What kid complains about going to camp?  Not only complains, but begs not to be sent to one?

That’s when I decided that it was time to sit my kids down, and tell them all about the so-called “summer camps” I had to go to!  I know that most kids in America love going to summer camp, not only because they are fun, and they get to hang out with their friends, but also because they are 5-Star resorts!  At least, compared to the Russian, Socialistic camps we were forced to go to!

Every summer, my brother and I got shipped to my grandparents in Ukraine.  At first, we were excited thinking we would spend three months with our wonderful grandparents, just being pampered.  Listening to Grandpa’s War stories as Grandma complained: “Stop with the Bobbemyseh (nonsense, stories, wive’s tales-Yiddish)”.  Apparently, he liked to embellish his time in the Red Army a bit…  But, we quickly learned that going to visit grandparents over the summer, equals spending the whole summer in a Russian-Communist camp.

As soon as we would get off the airplane, they would tell us that Grandma pulled some strings with her “government friends”, and got us into the Best overnight camp ever!  Now, when I say overnight, I am not talking seven days away from home.  I am talking two weeks, sometimes longer!  And when I say Best, I mean they actually had beds instead of just mattresses on the floor.

Just when we thought we were done with one camp, they would give us a break for a week, and put us right back into another camp.  My grandma’s words: “Its better than sitting here in the apartment on the fifth floor all summer!”, only in Russian with some Yiddish mixed in for good measure.

Let me tell you about these camps.  One in particular stands out the most.  It was so far in the woods, somewhere by the Black Sea that we first had to take a two-hour bus ride, then an old party boat to get to it, then walk a couple miles.  My grandma went there with us, just to make sure we made it safe, and for moral support.  Or as I’d like to call it, “Preparation”.

My brother and I were so scared and upset about going to camp, that the whole time we traveled my Grandma kept promising to stay there with us.  Once, we finally made it there, my Grandma vanished in thin air!  To this day, I have no idea how or when she left…  I learned quickly that my Grandma lies, a lot, especially when trying to get us to do something.

I still remember being surrounded by hundreds of bugs and mosquitoes, and Sadistic camp counselors.  I truly believe that when the Communists were building their camps, they set out to look for the most vicious counselors they could find.  Some were probably ex-Nazi’s left over from the War, just pretending to be Russians.  Here are some of the questions they asked during the interview process:

-Have you ever worked with kids before?


-Do you have children of your own?


-Do you ever want to have children?


-Do you LIKE children?


-Proceed to the next station for your badge.

I kid you not when I say that these people would walk around with sticks in their hands during nap time, and threaten to glue our mouths shut if we didn’t go to sleep.  It didn’t matter that some of us were older than 5 and didn’t NEED to take naps, or the fact that we were all sleeping in the same room, boys and girls!  At one point, I saw one of the counselors get the glue, just for better effect!

And talk about bathrooms…  There were none!  We had to use the forest as our own, personal bathroom!  I don’t even remember having showers there.

There were no games, no fun.  At least, I don’t remember having any.  Forget about scavenger hunts, and roasting marshmallows over fire.  We got rations of food and an hour of playground time.  The rest of the time, I have no idea what we did.  Probably get brainwashed, and learn about Lenin and Stalin, and the foundation of Socialism.

The camps here in the U.S. are truly resorts compared to the ones we had in Russia.  No kid should ever complain about being sent to camp!

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I was born in Ukraine, in the former USSR, and grew up in Riga, Latvia which is on the Baltic Sea.  My family and I immigrated to the United States in 1989, right before the...

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