Since she fled the former Soviet Union more than a decade ago, Anya Verkhovskaya has come more than full circle. As an assistant to the director of outreach and notification for the International Commission on Holocaust-Era Insurance Claims, she travels frequently to her birthplace to work on the project of advising Jews living in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union on their claims. To date they have garnered 250,000 applications.
Returning to work in the region she had left as a teenage political refugee was "very, very emotional," said Verkhovskaya, now 30. Her current work there is a stark contrast to her youth in Moscow as a member of the Jewish Musical Theater. The Communist authorities had used it as "governmental proof that there was no anti-Semitism or program to destroy Jewish culture and Jewish religion," Verkhovskaya said. "Of course it was very carefully watched by KGB. They traveled with us very closely and we were only allowed to do certain things." Their big fear, Verkhovskaya recalled, was that "we would send out a pro-Israeli message."
Following her flight from Russia at age 19, Steven Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation asked Verkhovskaya to work in Eastern Europe, where she helped gather more than 9,000 survivors' testimonies. (While working for the Foundation in Bulgaria, Verkhovskaya met her husband, Haim Cohen. They now have a 14-month-old son, Aaron.)
"Anya has to be taken seriously," said Dr. Michael Berenbaum, president of the Berenbaum Group and former CEO of Spielberg's foundation, where Verkhovskaya worked from 1994-97. "She's done a Herculean job gathering information on the former Soviet Union and has been deeply involved on getting the accurate information to the right people. She's a serious hard worker to be reckoned with."
"It's been lot of hard work, but I'm very comfortable in this country because I can be who I am and I can give whatever education I want to my children," said Verkhovskaya. "I left Russia when I was 19, and for 10 years I couldn't get away from this feeling of fear every time I passed by a shul . I don't want my children to ever go through that."
After coming to America, Verkhovskaya worked as production manager on the 1998 Oscar-winning documentary "The Last Days." She is currently co-producing another documentary called "Children of the Abyss," about the youngest Holocaust survivors in the former Soviet Union.
In addition to her professional work, Verkhovskaya has been very active in community affairs. She serves on the board of directors of the Archive for the Russian-Jewish-American Institute of the Diaspora. In 1998, Verkhovskaya started Heritage Films, a company to help others record their personal histories.
The local Russian community in Los Angeles is both weak and strong, Verkhovskaya said. "It is weak because anyone who's found themselves in a new environment is completely vulnerable. On the other hand, it's very strong because it was able to overcome all complexity of immigration and achieve certain goals." She finds the community "absolutely wonderful" and hopes to build more bridges between the Russian Jewish community and the people of Los Angeles.
Though Verkhovskaya has come far from home, she would still like to go farther: "My dream job would be to go to Israel to work as an [inter]mediary between sabras and Russians." Given Verkhovskaya's determination, she will no doubt fulfill her dreams, but the L.A. community will surely miss her.
For more information on Anya Verkhovskaya and Heritage Films, visit www.heritagefilms.com.