Ismail Borisovich Blonsky was born in the ancient city of Polotz, Russia on New Year’s Day in 1917 and left us on November 21, 2020, just shy of his 104th birthday.
The year of his birth marked the last campaigns of World War I and the start of the Russian Revolution. Born in winter, he was nicknamed “Zima” (meaning “winter” in Russian). In 1918 the communist Red Army advanced South. Zima’s father, Boris, was stationed in the Crimean region serving in the Imperial Army (later called the White Army) as a lieutenant and communications specialist with field command. Zima’s parents realized that the Red Army would prevail and decided to escape north to his mother’s estate in Druskieniki, near the Baltic Sea. With the collapse of the Russian Empire, Druskieniki was no longer under Russian rule but was part of the newly formed Second Polish Republic. Before they could depart, Zima’s mother, Sophia and her newborn infant daughter, died of TB and were buried in the Crimea at the old Tartar Cemetery.
It took an entire year for two-year-old Zima and his father, traveling with other family members, to transverse Russia and arrive in Druskieniki. When they arrived, they discovered that the main house had been looted and burned to the ground. Settling into the servant’s quarters, Zima’s father, Boris, married a Polish woman named Zofi and adopted her daughter Tamara. Boris took in Zofi’s family members as well as those of his first wife. During the 1920s, they suffered periods of starvation and deprivation. Zima’s half-brother Joseph was born at that time.
The rest of the Blonsky family scattered to different parts of Europe. Zima’s grandmother, Natalia Kloubukoff Blonsky, and her daughter Olga (aka Aunt Lucy) were evacuated to Constantinople and later were accepted by the United States as refugees. They landed in New York City and eked out a meager living in Manhattan residing on 144th Street - an area that became a White Russian enclave.
Growing up in Poland, Zima enjoyed the wonderful natural beauty of the picturesque spa town of Druskieniki (presently in Lithuania and known as Druskininkai). The river Neman flows through this town famous for its Sanitarium and hot springs. In Summer, this resort town swelled with tourists “taking the curative waters,” and in Winter it shrank to a small settlement of roughly 12,000 inhabitants. Zima was an avid sportsman entering many competitions during his teenage years. Skiing, speed skating, biking, hunting, and photography all became his passions.
After finishing Business school in Vilnus in 1938, he became the Director of the Accounting Department at the Spa.
On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland and Zima received his draft notice. Poland attempted to defend itself with its gallant cavalry but was quickly overrun by Nazi tanks. The entire campaign lasted a little over four weeks before Poland surrendered. Zima never got to serve, but soon found himself dodging the Communists as well as the Nazis.
On September 17, 1939, Druskieniki was incorporated into the Soviet Union as agreed in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between the Nazis and the Communists. Druskieniki was once again controlled by Russians.
The Soviet military needed accurate weather reports for their airport in Druskeniki. Discovering that Zima was bi-lingual in Russian and Polish, the Soviets sent him to Belostok to be trained as a meteorologist. In class, Zima met his future wife Taisija, known as Tasia. Tasia came from Brest and was also being trained as a meteorologist. Eventually both were assigned to the Druskeniki weather station. Zima married the stunningly beautiful Tasia on April 30, 1940 when he was only 23 and she was 19. Their first child, Igor, was born a year later.
As the war progressed, the Nazis seized Druskeniki. By the end of June 1941, Zima’s father, stepmother and half-brother formed a resistance cell to sabotage the Nazi effort. When Zima’s mother-in-law, Vera, visited Druskeniki, she was appalled by the dangerous activities of the Blonsky household. She noticed grenades and arms in the main house. Fearing for the lives of her daughter and grandson, Zima’s mother-in-law quickly took Tasia and little Igor back home to Brest. To follow his wife and son, Zima had to apply for permission to leave work at the spa and to obtain travel papers to Brest. After one month he finally received the necessary documentation.
One week after Zima arrived in Brest, Zima’s parents and brother in Druskeniki were arrested by the Nazis and sent to the Majdanek Prisoner of War and Concentration camp. Zofi (Zima’s stepmother) was executed. His father and brother were tortured. On March 13, 1944, Zima’s father died in the Nazi camp. His brother, Joseph, lost one lung but survived World War II.
When Zima was in Brest, he began to work with his father-in-law, Ivan, at the local hospital, there Zima literally fell in love with dentistry. Secretly traveling to Kiev, he attended classes to become a dental technician. As the war progressed, the Soviet Army advanced on Brest. Since Zima’s father-in-law, was a former officer in the Imperial Army, he was considered a traitor by the Communists. Zima himself was the son of a White Army officer; the family knew their fate would be grim under the Communists. They decided they would rather be force-evacuated by the Nazis than face the advancing Soviet Army and be sent to Siberia. They were transported by cattle car to the lower Danube region of the Reich and placed into a Nazi forced labor camp. As a slave laborer, Zima was sent to Vienna to replace windows shattered in bombing raids. Later, he was assigned grueling work with a logging gang in the forest.
Toward the end of the war, the family was sent to Nordhausen-Dora, a Nazi concentration camp for slave labors from conquered Eastern European countries. When the Allied forces destroyed the Peenemunde V-2 plant developed by Werner von Braun and his rocketry group, the war effort was transferred south to Nordhausen. They produced the secret V-2 rockets that pummeled England. In 1945 Zima was sent to sweep the munitions yard at the Nordhausen-Dora factory. He was happy to be outside. He quickly realized that workers sent to work inside were never to be seen or heard from again. Wikipedia describes the camp:
The inmates at Dora-Mittelbau were treated in a brutal and inhumane manner, working 14-hour days and being denied access to basic hygiene, beds, and adequate rations. Around one in three of the roughly 60,000 prisoners who were sent to Dora-Mittelbau died.
Luckily for Zima, shortly after he started his new task, US troops liberated the camp on April 11, 1945 and the war soon ended in Europe.
After the war, Zima’s family and his in-laws were classified as “stateless.” For the next four years they were transferred from one refugee camp to another.
While living in the UNRRA Displaced Person’s camp, Zima worked as a dental technician at the American Hospital in Korbach. Seeking resettlement in other lands, Zima was able to connect with his Aunt Lucy in New York City. He discovered that his cousin, Paul Roudakoff, who was sponsored by Aunt Lucy and his grandmother had come to the U.S. in 1923 and was a lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Lieutenant Paul Roudakoff was serving as the Executive Officer of the Liaison and Protocol Section stationed in Berlin. Cousin Paul was able to facilitate the resettlement of Zima and his family by having their Aunt Lucy act as sponsor.
On June 8, 1949, Zima and his family arrived in New York City on the military transport ship USS General J. H. McRae and moved in with Aunt Lucy on 144th St. in Manhattan. They lived with her for about a year while getting established. Zima’s in-laws arrived in the port of New York the following year and both families moved to 84th St. in Manhattan.
Quietly and systematically, the family began to build a life in America. They soon purchased land in New Jersey and in 1951 Zima and Tasia’s daughter, Natalie, was born. On weekends, over the next few years, Zima built a house in New Jersey for his in-laws and retained an upstairs apartment for his family to use when not in New York City. Working two jobs as a nightwatchman and a delivery man, Zima eventually landed work as a dental technician and resumed his professional life. The family moved to an apartment in the Bronx.
In 1965 he received news from Poland that his brother Joseph had passed away suddenly. Zima took on the task of supporting his brother’s widow and two children.
By the late 60’s, as Zima reputation for excellent work grew, he was able to set up a boutique dental laboratory on Fifth Avenue in New York City.
In 1971, he purchased a house and moved his family to Congers, NY.
He lived a simple, quiet family life, but still enjoyed speed skating on Rockland Lake near his house. In 1986, Tasia, his wife of almost 46 years passed away. He began to move his practice to Congers. After Tasia’s passing, Zima married Wladyslawa Siembida, who was from Poland. She predeceased him in 2013. His daughter, Natalie, then took him to live with her in Arlington, Virginia where he remained until he passed away from prostate cancer.
He led a life marked by discipline, industry and diligence. Over 70 years his laboratory work enabled thousands of people to eat comfortably and with dignity. Zima frequently did pro bono work and received many letters of thanks and gratitude. Clever, quick witted and an original thinker, he formed life-long friendships.
Zima is survived by his two children, three grandchildren, and two great grandchildren. He was a man of few words; but he made those words matter. He was kind-hearted and fiercely protective of those that he loved. Zima took his role as patriarch of the family seriously and guided his family through turbulence and calm. He built a life truly exemplary of the American Dream. He will live on in the hearts of all those he touched.