Mother Russia Says Goodbye

 

“So, off to Yiz-RRRA-il, are you?” The officer spat out the word in mock-shtetl Yiddish.

“Yes.”

“Mind you don’t find yourself with a back full of lead on your way out.”

Dad, a highly unmilitary man, held a commission as a reserve second lieutenant in the Red Army’s chemical corps, which he acquired at university through the Soviet version of ROTC. After applying to emigrate in January of 1978, he was ordered to report to the local military personnel board to resign his commission. The major in charge was not particularly hostile, just bored and indifferent. When the paperwork was done in triplicate, officially stamped and sealed, and dad was even more thoroughgoing a civilian than when he entered, the major wished him well and nodded toward the door. Outside in the yellow anteroom – yellow semi-gloss being the livery of Soviet low officialdom – the other uniformed personnel were less insouciant. For several years they watched as a trickle of reservists passing through their doors on their way to Israel or America grew into a steady stream. These bespectacled engineers, doctors, chemists, and computer programmers confirmed their worst suspicions about Jews: they were bookish, disloyal, rear-guard, anti-Soviet ingrates. Hence the menacing little anti-Semitic snarl.

It’s unclear when Jews first arrived in this part of the Russian Empire. Kharkov is a young city, younger than New York, established only in the middle of the 17thcentury as a frontier outpost at the edge of Russia’s southern steppe. Settled by semi-self-governing Cossacks and escaped serfs, the town grew up outside of Muscovy’s ancient core as a kind of Russian version of St. Louis or Denver. Serfdom and serfish thinking were less deeply rooted here than in the old Russian city-states – Kiev, Pskov, Novgorod, Moscow – and a spirit of frontier independence survived in subtle forms into the modern period. By the 18thcentury it was a prosperous market town and, as in the American West, Jewish traders began to arrive from Poland with wagons full of Austrian linens, housewares, and other dry goods. By 1799 they had their own cemetery, and by the middle of the 19th century, there were two synagogues – one for merchants and one for members of the local garrison. In 1856 the widow Shimefeld paid the city fathers 500 rubles for a monopoly license to provide kosher meals to visiting merchants. Within a year the merchants petitioned to have the widow’s license revoked—a 1500 ruble grant to the city treasury did the trick.

Kharkov lay outside the Pale of Settlement, which functioned less as a barrier than as a kind of sieve, filtering through the talented and energetic, as well as those in a position to negotiate an appropriate fee with the authorities. The University was established in 1804 – second in the empire after Moscow – turning the town into a cosmopolitan center of learning and a magnet for Jewish youth throughout Ukraine. Its uniquely independent-minded academic culture endured long into the Soviet era. By 1886 Jews constituted 28% of the student body, and 41.5% of medical students. In 1887 quotas were introduced — yet another talent sieve. Despite the obstacles, by the turn of the 20thcentury Jews dominated the city’s commerce, industry, banking, the skilled trades, engineering, medicine, and journalism. After the revolution, their prominence extended to the highest ranks of the new regime, including, truth be told, its security services. Uniquely among Ukrainian cities, there were no pogroms here, either before the revolution, or during the bloody Civil War that followed.

The Bolshevik revolution opened up Russia’s great cities, including Kharkov, to a kind of interior immigration for the Jews of the Pale – strikingly parallel in scale and consequence to the vast wave of Jewish immigration to the United States in the preceding decades. On the eve of World War II 150,000 Jews made their home in Kharkov, out of a total population of some 900,000. Unlike the large concentrations of Jews further West, which were overrun within days or weeks of the German invasion, Kharkov remained unoccupied for four crucial months, until October 24, 1941. Because of this reprieve, about 90% of Kharkov’s Jews escaped the Nazis. Many returned after the city’s liberation in August 1943, but the population never fully recovered. By the time we left, the Jewish population of Kharkov stood at some 90 thousand. By 1989, just as the Soviet edifice was about to come crumbling down, it had fallen to 49 thousand. Today the number stands at a bare ten thousand – approximately where it was at the turn of the 20thcentury. Over 1 million Jews have left the countries of the former Soviet Union in the last 50 years.

These numbers tell the story of Europe’s Jews generally. Europe continues to hemorrhage Jews. In 1945, after the Holocaust, there were 3.2 million Jews left in Europe; Today a mere 1.4 million remain. Remarkably, Jews persist in being the most mobile of peoples. According to statistics compiled by the Pew Research Center, Jews have by far the highest overall rate of migration of all major religious groups. Fully a quarter of Jews alive today have migrated from their place of birth. This compares to one out of twenty Christians and one out of 25 Muslims.

Our own departure occurred with lightning speed. Permission to leave took only a month. We were allowed to exchange and take with us $300 U.S. dollars. I remember dad returning home from a trip to the U.S. consulate in Moscow and producing a handful of greenbacks and coins. He pointed to the words “In God We Trust” and explained what they meant. As a good eight-year-old Soviet child, I found the words fascinating but strange and vaguely off-putting.

The night of February 23, 1978—Soviet Army and Navy Day— is clear and bitterly cold. Our apartment door is open, and friends come and go, sitting down on the green linoleum floor to talk, raising glasses, passing along names and addresses that could be useful “over there.” Emptied of all furniture and books, the tiny one-room apartment seems cavernous. All that is left is a large world map hanging above the place where my fold-out bed used to be. For two years I had studied that map, memorizing the names of unimaginably exotic places: Antananarivo, Székesfehérvár, Kerguelen, Chicago. Dad had marked out our itinerary using a ruler and a thick red pencil: Kharkov—Brest—Vienna—Rome—New York. The map will be left where it hangs, a slightly subversive calling card for the next tenants.

At the train station, late that evening, a group of men stands huddled together against the cold in their shearling coats and rabbit fur hats, talking in hushed tones, some smoking, stamping their feet on the dirty hard-packed snow of the platform. Their mood is subdued and the jokes are sardonic. They are saying farewell, perhaps forever, perhaps until they meet again in Boston or Cleveland or New York. An elderly railroad worker makes his way steadily down the length of the border-bound train checking the brakes, hunched over in his wool overcoat, his breath like steam from a small locomotive. As he passes the group of Jews, looking straight ahead, and without addressing anyone in particular, he says in a clear and knowing voice, “Happy travels, friends.”

This is not a thing one says to a casual traveler. But he has seen this scene played out dozens of times now, and surely understands its significance.

There are 14 comments.

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  1. Doug Watt Moderator
    Doug Watt
    @DougWatt

    Amazing story, amazing courage, and America benefited from an amazing journey.

    Thank you. 

    • #1
  2. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    In the early 1980s, I met a Russian Jew, a filmmaker, who had escaped from the Soviet Union. He never had good things to say about our American leftist college students.

    • #2
  3. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    A really good essay, by the way, which I meant to say above,

    • #3
  4. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Quite an adventure yet ahead.

    Good post, Oblomov. The stories of those who know the stories always interest me.

    • #4
  5. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    My maternal grandfather was born in Odessa, and came here around 1920.  My paternal grandfather was born somewhere in what is now western Ukraine or eastern Poland.  He defected from the Russian Navy in Shanghai, and made it to the West Coast around 1912.

    • #5
  6. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    RushBabe49 (View Comment):

    My maternal grandfather was born in Odessa, and came here around 1920. My paternal grandfather was born somewhere in what is now western Ukraine or eastern Poland. He defected from the Russian Navy in Shanghai, and made it to the West Coast around 1912.

    In the 1970s, I had a boyfriend whose Jewish grandfather had escaped from Russia by running through potato fields at night until he reached the Austrian border. When I knew him, he was an old man but still if Stalin’s name was mentioned in front of him, he would cry.

    • #6
  7. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    A wonderful post, Oblomov. I hope it’s part of a series. 

    • #7
  8. Jim Beck Inactive
    Jim Beck
    @JimBeck

    Evening Oblomov,

    You mentioned that the phrase In God we trust, put you off a little.  What other things were surprising, either good or bad, or off putting happened as you traveled to different countries and to the US as well?  I am glad that your exit from the USSR was at a time where the difficulties were fewer, and especially that you were allowed to leave.

    • #8
  9. Oblomov Member
    Oblomov
    @Oblomov

    Jim Beck (View Comment):

    Evening Oblomov,

    You mentioned that the phrase In God we trust, put you off a little. What other things were surprising, either good or bad, or off putting happened as you traveled to different countries and to the US as well? I am glad that your exit from the USSR was at a time where the difficulties were fewer, and especially that you were allowed to leave.

    Well, I was 8, so everything was exciting and surprising. Probably one of the things I looked forward to the most was having an unlimited supply of chewing gum. If I had been a few years older, I’m sure I would have had more mature feelings and reflections. My parents, for example, had seen lots of Italian movies, so actually being in Italy must have been exciting beyond belief for them. 

    Actually, here’s something. We arrived in Italy in March 1978. A week later former prime minister Aldo Moro was kidnapped by the Red Brigades and later murdered. I remember Rome in lockdown mode with soldiers and APCs everywhere. It was very surprising and exciting. We lived in Ostia, which was divided into a “Communist” neighborhood and a “Fascist” neighborhood. There were no other neighborhoods. We were in the Fascist neighborhood.

    And that probably explains why later in life I became a member of Ricochet.

    • #9
  10. Jim Beck Inactive
    Jim Beck
    @JimBeck

    Morning Oblomov,

    We all already knew you were a fascist, it goes without saying.  Our Russia friends noticed that it was more colorful in the West and that there was no waiting a part of daily life.

    • #10
  11. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    RushBabe49 (View Comment):

    My maternal grandfather was born in Odessa, and came here around 1920. My paternal grandfather was born somewhere in what is now western Ukraine or eastern Poland. He defected from the Russian Navy in Shanghai, and made it to the West Coast around 1912.

    My great-grandfather was born in Latvia. I think he was part of the Russian Merchant Marine. He jumped ship in New York and enlisted in the US Navy the same day. I think his English consisted of “yes”, “no”, and “Navy.”

    • #11
  12. Nanda Panjandrum Member
    Nanda Panjandrum
    @

    Wonderful post, Oblomov!  I, too, look forward to more installments! Happy New Year!

    • #12
  13. Oblomov Member
    Oblomov
    @Oblomov

    Nanda Panjandrum (View Comment):

    Wonderful post, Oblomov! I, too, look forward to more installments! Happy New Year!

    Thanks Nanda and Happy New Year to you too!

    • #13
  14. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    Our 1980s Haggaddah has a special prayer at the end for the Soviet Jews who were still in bondage then.  

    • #14
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