HIAS helped them
Locals reflect on lives changed forever
It was 130 years ago when the small Russian Jewish community of New York City formed what became the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). Its purpose was to provide meals, transportation, and jobs for the growing number of new immigrants fleeing an increasingly anti-Semitic Russia.
Between 1880 and 1920, more than two million Jews would flee Russia, most coming to the United States, where HIAS helped settle them into American life.
It was to HIAS that Jewish survivors of the Titanic turned to for help when they finally arrived in New York.
More recently, HIAS played a lead role in resettling the nearly half-a-million Jews of the former Soviet Union who immigrated to America, beginning in the 1970s and peaking in the early 1990s.
To mark its 130th anniversary this year, HIAS published a book of recollections by 30 of those recent immigrants. Four of them made their homes in northern New Jersey; these are their stories.
When I was little, I would spin in a circle until the dizziness made me collapse. Once on the floor, I’d close my eyes and feel myself move with the room. I’d pretend I was Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz,” and I would wish to be back in the place where I was born.
Because I’d lived in America since I was three years old, my birthplace wasn’t really “home.” But the unattainability of that country — the one that housed a grandmother, uncle, aunt, and cousins I had never met — was appealing. What was in that place we had left behind for a better life? That country that had left impressions on every other member of my family, even my sister, Diana. She was eight when we came to America, but still remembered Minsk — school recitals, the courtyard outside our co-op, her first-grade friends — and grasped that language as I never would. Eventually, both the room and I would stop spinning, and I would be back in New Jersey, the only homeland I knew.
The country where I was born had an amusement park called Park Cheluskinsov, where my parents shared their first kiss. It had mountains on the banks of the Black Sea where my grandparents vacationed. It had a square where people gathered to greet concert singers or protest the government. And it had people who welcomed you with tables of red and black caviar, cake Napoleon, and black bread topped with thick yellow butter. But I remember none of this. All I remember is an elevator in my uncle’s apartment building. It was brown….
I can’t say that my curiosity about my birthplace had to do with understanding where I belonged. As a child, belonging meant a peanut butter sandwich for lunch, like all the other kids, not the caviar sandwiches I begged my mother to stop giving me. Belonging meant buying the pony tail holders with little suns on them, the kind Punky Brewster wore. I tried to be the same as all the other Jersey kids because that conformity linked me to the homeland I did know. I wanted to be a regular American girl who had crushes on the popular boys, not the girl who had crushes on bookworms and boys who could do long division in their heads.
And yet, I longed to visit my birthplace. It was a selfish longing; I was tired of being the outsider in the family. I was jealous that I would never experience what my father had — passionately hating a government that discriminated against you because you were Jewish. I’d never experience what my mother had — sentimentally romanticizing those Russian places where she had met her husband, had her children, and rode high on her own father’s shoulders.
My jealousy grew as I learned to read the Russian alphabet (at age ten), as I struggled to understand the nuances in Russian jokes told at family parties, when I tried to use Russian expressions, and everyone laughed in amusement. Jealousy that my sister carried Benetton bags and wore denim jeans with holes, just as her classmates did, but she also belonged in my parents’ world. Jealousy that I never would.
When [Soviet Premier Mikhail] Gorbachev came to power, and Russia ceased to be the Evil Empire, I thought the Cold War ending was a good thing — mostly because it would separate me less from my classmates. When the U.S.S.R. collapsed, one of 15 newly separate countries was Belarus, the state of my hometown of Minsk. From that point on, I was no longer from the Soviet Union, but from Belarus. In tenth grade history, we discussed the implications of what had happened in the FSU. One classmate said to me, “You must be so sad because now you can never go home.” She was being kind, trying to be insightful. My urge was to ask her what she was talking about and remind her that my home was two blocks from hers. But I gave her the answer she wanted. “Yeah, a little,” I said, and she patted me on the arm.
There was another reason I answered her as I did: I felt I was supposed to be sad. And why didn’t these events mean more to me? I remember huddling together with my family, in 1991, to watch TV images of tanks outside Gorbachev’s home where he was under house arrest. I longed to feel something. Tears filled my mother’s eyes and my father said, “Why are you crying? This is a good thing. It’s freedom.” Thinking back, I believe my mother longed to be in the midst of it all. As much as she bristled at the questions in people’s eyes when she said, “I am American” in heavily accented English, she felt for the Russian people on television. Part of her was with them. Russia was not only her homeland, but also her connection to her girlhood, the place where she learned about life and became the woman she was.
Technically I was sad, but, again, it was because the connection to this land continued to elude me…; because I knew that I could never see Minsk in the way my family had.
For 20 years, I voiced no interest in visiting Minsk. Then, in 1999, I began to write a novel, the story of three generations of a Russian-Jewish family not unlike my own. At first, I wanted simply to relate the characters’ emotions; but as I wrote, I found myself longing to experience the world I was creating in my novel. When I wrote about a tree, I wondered if it still existed today, and if it did, whether the initials my father had carved into it decades before were still there. Whether those initials were there or not seemed to make all the difference. I began searching through books and poring through photos, as if looking at the pictures often enough would connect me to something the rest of my family shared….
I wrote about Park Cheluskinsov and about my grandmother’s birthplace, Ragachov, and tried to make a connection through the keys on my computer. But by the time I’d finished a full draft of my novel, my desire to visit my birthplace had only increased….
But going back is no longer about finding a sense of belonging in my family. It is about understanding my characters. Understanding my family. Understanding myself. My husband is American, and I don’t know if he understands why I want to go, but he respects it. We have a son now who is almost four. He doesn’t know Russian, and this doesn’t bother me. I don’t think of it as his language. But, one day, I do want to take a family trip so he can see the roots of his family, the place I came from (even if not exactly). I want him to be able to piece together all parts of him. It can be something we can all learn from, one generation teaching the next.
It’s been years since I spun in a circle, arms open wide. I do it now and collapse on the floor. I feel the earth spin below me, and I keep my eyes closed, picturing the images from my books. It’s a long time before I open my eyes.
Margie Gelbwasser immigrated from Minsk, Belarus, in 1979. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, son, and two very licky kitties. She is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in various magazines; her essay, “Blending the Red with the White and the Blue,” about growing up Russian and Jewish, appeared in “Waking Up American: Coming of Age Biculturally.” Her first novel, “Inconvenient,” was named a 2011 Sydney Taylor Notable Book for Teens; she is at work on her next novel, “Pieces of Us.” She dedicated this article to “my parents, without whom I wouldn’t have the life I do today.”
More on: HIAS helped them
Father was a complicated man from a convoluted country
My father lasted 79 years, five years longer than the life of the Soviet system.
“My five-year plan,” he would have joked, because even in America he remained imbued with his native concepts. For him, “native” meant the U.S.S.R.
Now, when neither he nor the system exists, I ask myself why they turned out to be inseparable to the end. Father hated the Soviet system and yet he owed everything to it — everything in his life that was good and everything that was bad. He spent his old age trying to separate one from the other, the good from the bad, the system from the man.
The unforgettable summer of persimmons and wary waiting
In the 1970s and 1980s, hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews managed to leave the U.S.S.R., mainly for Israel and the United States. Soviet authorities couldn’t allow the U.S. government and Jewish refugee agencies to process these emigrants on its own soil, so my family, like thousands of others, spent the fall of 1988 in Austria and Italy. Vienna was the place where we encountered life outside the Soviet Union — a baptismal Pepsi, automatic sliding doors — but those weeks were a fog of disbelief at what we were seeing and what we no longer would.
By the time we reached Rome and then the seaside Italian town of Ladispoli [where a transit center had been established for Soviet Jewish refugees], we had begun to relax. Summer ran unseasonably long that year, and we made ourselves sick on translucent Muscat grapes that looked as if a quantum of sun had lodged inside, like the prehistoric flies petrified in the amber jewelry we had brought to pawn at a nearby flea market. Our subsidy from HIAS was enough to rent a small villa with a garden and a ceramic-tile floor that cooled sand-scalded feet after a morning on the beach with my grandfather.
To the haters I was a Jew, but to Jews I am — what am I?
“Where are you from?” he asks. I don’t want to speak to him, but I seem to be suffering from a pathological, smiling complacence. It’s New York City, it’s summer, and it’s hot as hell. I’m working as a paralegal in a Manhattan law firm, a job that I hate, because at this point in time I’m still entertaining the notion that I will go to law school and be a lawyer — an idea that I also hate, but one that I think will surely save me from a future that is anything but certain. Right now, I’m on my lunch break and trying to maneuver my way back to the building where I work, sweat beads dripping down my spine, sweat stains on my white blouse. Oh my, that’s not professional at all. Tsk.
The man, the one who asked me where I was from, is just some stranger. I have gotten lost again, because when I leave the building for lunch. I seem to run for my life — away! — and not pay attention to the streets I’m following. I had asked him for directions. I have honed my voice into a plausible New England dialect, but it gives me away again. It doesn’t do that every time. Sometimes, I pass.