Yelena Belilovsky lived as an American by choice. She excelled in New York after being born in what is now Ukraine and what was then part of a nation repressed by a system renowned for provoking enervation. By always looking to better herself, she set the perfect example for dedicating life to personal progress.
Born in Kiev in 1963 to a Jewish doctor and engineer, Yelena was excellent student who was awarded the Gold Medal, the USSR’s top academic award. Working hard to learn became a recurring motif in her life.
But recognizing young scholars was one of the nation’s few indications of progress. Yelena also lived through the Soviet Union’s ceaseless obstacles. The system’s fundamental backwardness was embodied by a nuclear catastrophe that coincided with her personal joyous union: April 26, 1986 was the day when she celebrated her wedding with her husband Boris as Chernobyl melted 40 miles away. She didn’t let the specific disaster and general infirmity affect her application of aptitude, as she got a Masters in engineering the next year from National Technical University of Ukraine.
Still, her homeland proved stifling even while transitioning after falling apart. Yelena sought to escape remnants anti-Semitism and a lack of opportunity that continued to plague the new nation after the Soviet Union’s dissolution. Thankfully, there was America. Every relocation across borders presents challenges, but the cost of staying became prohibitive. She arrived in the US in 1993 and found she was an adroit partner with a nation that welcomes those motivated to prosper.
The new American began her professional life in the New York City region as a librarian at the Larchmont Public Library in Westchester County. But she was merely getting started. The same drive that led her to immigrate spurred her to continue ascending. For one, why settle for one diploma? Yelena earned another post-bachelor’s degree, this time a Master of Library Sciences from Pratt University in Brooklyn. Even more impressive was how she obtained it, namely while taking two buses in an effort to save money via a brutally long commute to and from the borough.
After again excelling at school, she once more turned what she had learned into further career success. Having moved on to a photo library where she introduced digital cataloging methods, Yelena was then hired at Fred Alger Management as a researcher before being promoted in 1999 to assistant vice president for information. She had next been planning to become a financial analyst for the company. Before that, she continued the theme of reinvention via changing what she was called, going by the name Helen at work as the Americanized equivalent in another sign she was adjusting well in her adopted home.
Yelena lived the sort of accomplishment-laden life that would seem too inspirational for a television show’s premise. America has always been welcoming to those who apply to be part of the dream, and someone who endured the limits put on life by the drearily brutal Soviet system definitely seemed to appreciate what she hadn’t had before. An immigrant who had at first struggled learning English ended up working for a prestigious firm above Manhattan while staying grounded with her husband and then-teenaged son, Eugene, in Mamaroneck a bit north of the big city.
Her final homeland provided chances that she gladly maximized. Given her adoration for the mutually beneficial relationship, she became such an evangelist for America that she persuaded her parents Leonid and Emma Tisnovsky and brother Ross to emigrate as she had. Yelena had also celebrated her son’s bar mitzvah in fall 2001; he is now a Cornell graduate.
Yelena was murdered at age 38 on September 11, 2001 after she went to work on the 93rd floor of One World Trade Center. The first plane used in the attack hit very close to her office at 8:46 a.m., 16 minutes after her workday’s start. She was one of 35 killed from a company with 39 employees, unimaginable devastation for a firm that had not long before moved from a small office on nearby Maiden Lane. She had just joined her company literally taking its place among the clouds.
Her final resting place is in Valhalla, New York’s Sharon Gardens Cemetery after her remains were recovered at the World Trade Center site. Also located in Westchester County, Yelena’s grave lies within a town named for the paradisiacal afterworld inhabited by slain heroes. Meanwhile, her continuous gift to those remaining behind is the inspiration she offers to anyone desiring to excel as a matter of applied personality.
Someone born in the Soviet Union who chose to be an American took every opportunity life presented and created her own as well. Yelena’s death will never affect how she moved ever upward.
Originally published September 11, 2013.