Dreams Fade As Cancer Strikes Home Of Bensonhurst Artist

Photo Credit: Eric Michael Johnson for The New York Times

After emigrating to Atlanta, Georgia from Kiev, Ukraine twenty years ago, Semion Shkolnik and his wife Alla experienced material success and familial happiness, only to discover that in life, both can be fleeting.

Shkolnik, a painter who left his homeland after being invited to show his work in the Southeastern U.S. metropolis, found his cubist canvasses to be in demand. According to the New York Times, he had steady work as a portrait painter, as well as a graphic and interior designer.

Alla Shkolnik likewise found an outlet for her skills in Georgia’s burgeoning technology sector as a software engineer.

Their son Albert was born in 1998.

From the Times:

But Mr. Shkolnik’s life took a turn for the worse in 2008, when Alla Shkolnik began having chronic stomach problems, and the Shkolniks moved to New York for better medical care. Mr. Shkolnik feared that his wife had been affected years earlier by contamination from the 1986 nuclear plant accident in Chernobyl, less than 100 miles from Kiev. A biopsy indicated no cancer, but her health worsened. In early 2009, the couple sought a second opinion, and those doctors told Ms. Shkolnik that she had Stage 4 gastric cancer.
“The first doctor tested the wrong place in her body,” Mr. Shkolnik, 66, said, and the mistake cost her crucial months of treatment. “From there, everything, in a short time frame, went down and down and down,” he said.

For the next three years, Shkolnick put his work to the side to care for his ailing wife.

Meanwhile, their son Albert was having a rough go of it in his new surroundings. He was getting beat up by the other children in the family’s Staten Island neighborhood.

The family moved again – this time to Bensonhurst, where Albert found the diverse student body at Sethlow Intermediate School more welcoming.

As his mother endured the final months of her life in the never ending pain and nausea caused by her chemotherapy, Albert escaped into the world of video games like Starfcraft.

Alla Shkolnik died last June. After his wife’s death at 54 years old, Semion’s only graphic work to date is a poster of Alla posing with a red carnation, which he framed and placed next to her headstone. He visits the Staten Island grave site weekly, leaving a fresh carnation each time. “Every week,” he told the Times.

In the meantime, Semion Shkolnik has his own health issues to deal with. In 2009, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer which is thankfully in remission.

Unfortunately, his financial situation has proven even more of a threat to his well being.

Shkolnik, who became an American citizen in 2001, now has no studio and no money for new materials. Every month he receives $399 in Social Security benefits, $478 in Supplemental Security income and $367 in food stamps. His 13-year-old son Albert receives an additional $302. With an $850 rent, there is very little left for purchases like new clothing, much less paint and canvass.

To help buy clothes for Albert, Shkolnik turned to the Edith and Carl Marks Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst, a beneficiary of UJA-Federation of New York, one of the seven agencies supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund. Marks JCH spent $300 in Neediest Cases money to assist Simeon in buying his son shoes, a winter coat and clothes.

Alla Skolnik’s dying wish was for Albert to do well in school and go on to a successful career. The 13-year-old plans to test into a top New York City public high school. According to the Times, he “has become a whiz at computer programming and gaming, and tweaks computer games into more sophisticated versions,” even rebuilding “his aging computer to give it the capacity to handle the games.”

The Times article ends with Mr. Shkolnik holding a photograph of his deceased wife, looking first at her image and then at his son on the computer.

“It’s an impossible dream for me now to be an artist,” he said. “I’m thinking about his future now.”