14 May Babinsky. Emigration (1974 – 1976). 2: New Daughter. Invitation. Preparation to Apply
New Arrivals: Daughter and Invitation
Polina was born on Monday, November 11, 1974, at four in the morning.
Like Emily, she arrived two weeks early. My insistence to be examined right away paid off: in a déjà vu moment, the nurse screamed, “The baby’s coming!” She had no time to wake up the doctor.
Including the wait for the ambulance (Dima left on a business trip that day), labor lasted two hours, twice what it took for Emily. It was still considered precipitous and, therefore, for seventy-two hours I could not see the baby.
Emily had no quarrel with the notion of a waiting list at a baby store. She quietly hoped for a sister but, naturally, we would have to take whoever that store had available. (She could not know how much I wanted a girl: I would not be able to name a boy Polina.)
Two days before the completion of the standard seven-day hospital stay I overheard a conversation about a strep infection raging in the ward. I wrote a note to Rakhil; that evening a furious doctor stomped into the room and barked, “You want a discharge? You got it!” Emily fell in love with Polina at first sight.
Out of Rakhil’s twenty-plus requests, seven invitations reached us, at short intervals, beginning in September of 1975. Our mail carrier Dusya delivered each at dawn. The first time, the rustle at the front door gave us a jolt. Though we had disposed of everything remotely subversive, the prospect of a search was scary.
Dima returned from the door holding the coveted envelope. Dusya let the door open a crack; she stayed out of view wordlessly like a ghost. She was instrumental in concealing our plans until we turned in our apartment.
When we ran into each other during the day, Dusya played with Polina, gave me the mail, then, unruffled, sailed on. I longed to give her a sign that we appreciated her discretion but her demeanor did not invite intimacy.
According to the people in the know, each invitation triggered a parcel with clothes from an American Jewish charity. If the parcel disappeared along the way, nobody was the wiser but if it didn’t, the applicants usually sold it on the black market to help keep their heads above water.
Supposedly, in Vienna, immigrants could request invitations sent to others and fill out parcel requests indicating specific clothing and sizes.
Dima got a hold of a fartsovshchik to sell the content of the two packages we received: women’s golf shirts, tops, and a sweater. We had a distinct feeling that on the black market it would fetch several times over the astronomical sum she paid us – one-hundred-seventy rubles. She suggested that there was more in store for us if we fixed her up with a single Jewish man ready to emigrate.
(Curious about our final destination, Dusya stopped over at Avram and Rakhil’s house after we emigrated. Her first husband Georgiy lived in Chicago. A teacher of German, he had been an interpreter for the Nazis during the occupation then escaped with them to the West.
Dusya, eight months pregnant, had stayed behind. A Red Army officer had quartered at her house after the liberation, married her, and adopted her son. Through his sister, Georgiy had supplied her with clothes, makeup, and lingerie that she sold on the black market; he even sent her future daughter-in-law a wedding dress.
Dusya gave Rakhil his address to pass on to us. We called Georgiy the day after we arrived in Chicago; he came over with a bottle of cognac. He was quite the romantic, his eyes glistened as he poured out his love story. But his openness shrank when he learned we were Jewish; he dodged the topic of his exact job duties under the Nazi occupation.)
Preparation to Apply for Permission to Emigrate
The invitations sequestered us into a precarious, tightly-wound reality. We warned friends not to call us if they were afraid to; we would call them from a public phone. We kept an eye on the ebb and flow of political tides that had the power to smooth out, speed up, toughen, or terminate our progress.
We, Dima mostly, made new contacts among the definite-emigrant cohort, went to the station to see them off, monitored the grapevine bulletins, devoured letters from the beachheads in Israel, Vienna, and Rome. They were the pony express of directives on what to do and in what order, what to take with, what bribes worked on customs officers and border patrol, what to say and not to say.
We had no time or money to hire an English teacher, so we convinced ourselves that Dima’s high school and university English and my three-year correspondence course and the translating experience would suffice to begin with.
Nobody we knew had reached America yet. We pictured capitalism as an unfailingly fair and efficient society inhabited by universally wise and brilliant folk—the opposite of what our society taught us it was.
Consequently, that society would have little use for Soviet engineers let alone non-techies. All the women saw their future in babysitting and all the men in longshoremen-ship. Dima, envious of robust health, hoped to claw his way as a handyman. We were too old to matter, anyway. The children mattered.
The devotion of the people on the short list that knew we had breached the point of no return could not be overestimated. Our anchor and support system, they rooted for us unconditionally, lent us money, and shared their food during the last four months of scarcity.
By necessity, they remained in the lived-in barracks whereas we stepped out onto the frontline—everybody is alone on the frontline. Over the years, I have replayed in my mind the discussions of that distant time, wondering about the mysterious “ripeness” they had not reached. Didn’t we live in the same city at the same time and belong to the same circle? But we had no right to proffer advice to join us on a path that felt more like a chasm.
Trailblazers and visionaries they called us decades later, and historically perhaps that was our role. At the time, we were part desperado part oddballs numb with fear. Fear of the barracks.
The daily routine proceeded on autopilot – food gotten hold of, socks darned, laundry done. As much as we hoped that Emily would not attend the Soviet school for long or at all, we played along with her happy anticipation of becoming a first-grader.
Since an invitation to emigrate was yet to materialize, we prudently picked the school fifteen minutes away and across a major street, not the Experimental School #80 that was so close that we could clearly see the portraits of Marx and Lenin on its wall and the red flags between them from our windows. The latter taught all the subjects in Ukrainian, except Russian language, that is – there was one in each district and few parents with a modicum of self-respect entertained the notion that their children, regardless of ethnicity, should speak Ukrainian fluently.
To explain the packing, the chaotic schedule, and whispered neurotic conversations we told her we planned a vacation before the end of school year. She immediately shared the exciting news with her friends whose parents expressed their surprise at the timing.
Emily worried that we would leave before she became an Octobrist or that she would not be considered worthy of the honor but she was accepted, along with the entire class, and proudly wore a pin with a picture of Lenin as a young boy on her pinafore.
When Emily matter-of-factly told us of a boy ambushed “for being Jewish” we realized that she did not know she was Jewish.
She did not look Jewish; her name was not Jewish; there was nothing in her home that was different from her friends’ homes; at Passover time, we referred to matzos as flatbread, so that she would not be accused of practicing a religion.
We had a conversation with her on the general badness of violence but, in view of our forthcoming exit, let slide the real nature of the episode.