ONE Jewish immigrant turns 100

Otilia (Tanya) Plungyan is a woman of indomitable spirit

Otilia (Tanya) Plungyan, center, and her daughters, Sophia Friedman, left, and Ella Levin, at the birthday party for Plungyan.  /PATTY HARWOODPAWTUCKET  – Otilia (Tanya) Plungyan was the youngest of six children born July 13, 1913 to a modest merchant and his wife.

The active and precocious young girl was much loved.

After Otilia completed her education at the gymnasium (secondary and college) level, she worked as a librarian in her Romanian hometown. After she met and married a young man, they moved to a different part of the country to be with his family. A few years later, the young couple, parents of a baby boy, was living in Soviet territory in the Republic of Moldova.

And then “it” came – the invasion by the Nazis – with all its horrors. With bombed evacuation trains and numerous deaths from diseases caused by unsanitary conditions, she lost her immediate family – her husband, son and mother-in-law all perished in the first three months of the war. The evacuation process brought her through the Caucasus and further into Tadzhikistan. With no knowledge of the Russian language, she was alone, scared and lost, and traveled mostly by walking or riding an ox.

After surviving a bout of typhoid, she was discharged from a hospital clad in the white dress and black rubber boots of someone less fortunate.  One of the hospital’s kind doctors gave her a cleaning job and allowed her to sleep on a gurney. Tanya’s gratitude was boundless; to this day, she can recall the name of this woman doctor.

For the next few years, she worked as a night watchman, cared for the horses and carried bags of grain – grueling manual work for a woman unaccustomed to hard physical work.

She encountered kindness and rudeness, friendships and abuse. One act of kindness brought her to her future husband Aron who took her into his family – his mother and four sisters. Kindness is always appreciated, but doubly so in times of hardship, isolation and strife. They were married a few years later and had their first daughter. Shortly after the end of the war, they returned to Aron’s homeland in Riga, Latvia. Surrounded by his family, Tanya became the vibrant person that she is today, giving birth to their second daughter.

Although she had lost touch with her parents and siblings, she and Aron made good friends and enjoyed celebrations, even when food was scarce and living quarters tight. Thirteen years later, she was able to connect with her siblings, though her parents had died.

After 30 years of blending into the Soviet lifestyle, Tanya and her husband, along with their youngest daughter, Ella Levin (now living in Philadelphia), son-in-law and grandchild, immigrated to Rhode Island in 1979, following in the footsteps of this writer, the oldest daughter, who had moved here seven years earlier.

Then in her 60s, Tanya learned English, her third language, after Rumanian and Russian. She blossomed in an environment offering religious freedom and a very active community life. After learning the basics of English, she became a member of “Golden Age Club” at the Jewish Community Center.

It didn’t take her long to become a vice president and eventually “madam president” of that vibrant organization supported by the Jewish Federation of Rhode Island (precursor of the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island). Sometime later, she became a JFRI board member.

Organizing trips and concerts, holding monthly birthday celebrations, inviting Russian immigrants to lunch programs and arranging transportation consumed a good portion of her time. She became a driving force behind most activities in the community of retirees and helped new immigrants with their needs.

Even after the “Golden Age Club” ended, Tanya continued to visit Jews in nursing homes, with Rev. Ethan Adler, to offer a kind word, a smile, a nosh and the rituals of Jewish holidays. Only in the last four or five years have physical limitations kept her from making these visits. Now, she is grateful when friends visit her at her home in Geneva Apartments in Pawtucket, where her door is always open.

Tanya is forever grateful to this country for allowing her to become a citizen and experience all its freedoms. Her indomitable spirit that kept her alive during World War II continues to this day.

Sophia Friedman (, is the elder daughter of Tanya and Aron Plungyan.