14 Jun Babinsky, Gnoyensky (1904 – 2004). 10: Brezhnev; Voice of America; Emigration.
Kiev. Brezhnev. Emigration. Mid-1960s – 1977.
While we lived together, Avram and Rakhil listened to the Voice of America at friends’ houses. Animated like a teenager that had gotten away with mischief, Rakhil delivered world news, even news of demonstrations on behalf of Soviet Jews, with the certainty of a witness and a prophet.
Around the kitchen table, over tea with cube sugar, they talked about America and Israel like they talked about their shtetls: warmly, familiarly, with an innate acceptance.
After the Six-Day War, the sanctioned portrayal of Israel shifted from that of a bunch of weaklings to that of a gang of Zionist warmongers. That transformation applied, in the popular mind, to the Jews at hand: yesterday trapped pushovers, today part of a nation that wanted them.
In 1972, my husband’s connections snuck us into a two-room 270-square-foot co-op in a convenient location. We swapped it with Avram and Rakhil, who swore in writing that they did not receive a bribe to take a smaller apartment.
The same year Avram had prostate surgery. Health care was free. Payment to providers constituted a punishable offense on par with bribing. Be it as it may, one had to pay to get care from the desired physician and from medical personnel toiling for minimal wages. Avram’s six-week hospital stay depleted our savings.
Prior to surgery, Avram handed his surgeon the agreed-upon amount. After the surgery, Rakhil skulked around the hospital hallways to incentivize the nurses and orderlies assigned to Avram’s room so that they would check his temperature, change his sheets regularly, help him walk the long corridor to the bathroom, let in Rakhil on non-visiting hours – do a multitude of little things that ensured he would come out alive and not an invalid.
Almost every day, Rakhil bought the best groceries at the market. Twice a day, she took an hour-long bus ride to deliver meals to Avram that he considered luxurious: chicken soup, fish, fruit, hand-squeezed juice. My bábushka Polina prepared them fresh every day, in spite of pneumonia. She passed away in December.
Our co-op was located in a nine-story building in Bereznyaki on Tychina Street, the developing district on the left bank of the Dnepr River. The area had a library, but no stores or cleaners or post offices or sidewalks or enough bus stops.
Before moving in, Avram found a locksmith, a carpenter, an electrician to repair what was not working. Rakhil procured the missing closet door. A worker from an adjacent construction site removed it from the apartment he was finishing. “What are people in the last building going to do?” Rakhil wondered, rhetorically. The compensation for these services was quoted in bottles of vodka for a threesome as cash might be confiscated by wives.
Now that they lived separately and were less worried about getting my husband and me fired, Avram and Rakhil were drinking in the Voice of America and BBC reports like they would water in a desert.
They also visited with some families immigrating to Israel to wish them luck and to gather information. Not every Jew approved of or considered emigration but by the early 1970s, one usually knew somebody who knew somebody who had applied and even somebody who got permission.
The television showcased the few who crawled back (perhaps by design) to warn of instability, of uncaring capitalists, of lack of ideology, of pornographic magazines in full view, of professionals forced into menial jobs.
It was to no avail. The several thousand Soviet Jews that left the country of 250 million in the 1960s had kindled a craving that no official admonishment could sooth, let alone quash. It was difficult to verbalize what the craving was for but the authorized interviews could not compete with color photographs and flesh-and-blood letters from the paupers, previously known as Soviet citizens.
Letters from Israel told about government stipends and discounts on kitchen appliances, the first austere but not communal apartments, and a bureaucracy as unbearable as the heat. About circumcision and easygoing, supportive neighbors.
About courses that taught the incomprehensible language in an exotic alphabet read from right to left. About the military service to protect one’s family. About the first jobs: cleaning houses, washing public toilets and stairs in underground passages – one had to start somewhere, but then the sky was the limit.
Not a single person was left without shelter or food or clothing or medical care or schools. Inside the Soviet Union, envy tinged the customary anti-Semitism. Again, the Jews were ahead of the game – they had a way out.
Typically, many in Avram and Rakhil’s generation tried to make their adult children stay put by refusing to emigrate with them or to furnish the mandatory written consent or even by threatening to report their plans.
For all that generation knew, the letters from Israel were dictated by Israel KGB. How could one betray the motherland, the workers’ paradise that guaranteed employment and pension, free medical care, education, and a place to live? Here, the seniors were in a position to pitch in when their children needed a couch or a coat. There, they would huddle around manholes for warmth (the pervasive symbol of capitalist life in the Soviet media.)
The debates masked the fear of expulsion from the Party, of admitting life-long gullibility, of forsaking status, of losing independence, of religion, a new language, loose morals, crime. Avram observed that only the fear for the children’s future did not make the list.
Rakhil’s friend that had given her shelter in the desperate time of cosmopolitanism tearfully related their last conversation: “I was born here and I will die here,” the friend said; Rakhil replied in the Averbukh manner: “And then what? Then your grandson will die here too.” The woman did not speak with Rakhil again but she emigrated with her children.
Rakhil was eager to apply; Avram insisted on waiting for us. My husband and I submitted our application in the beginning of 1976. Avram and Rakhil decided to wait to apply until after we had left: if we were refused permission to emigrate and became family non grata, their legitimate status would alleviate some of the pain that was sure to follow.
We departed from Kiev on April 20. At the train station, Avram’s eyes filled with tears, Rakhil’s were dry, still, and huge. A halt of the exodus after our exit would mean never seeing each other again.
We crossed the Soviet border on April 21. As soon as she learned that we were out of danger, Rakhil recast her public persona into a buoyant, relaxed character.
Now that her children were beyond the Maliche’s reach, it presented no danger. In food lines, among the gloomy watchful faces, she mocked the exuberance one showed when onions or herring were still available when one reached the counter.
Rakhil was hoping that her uncle Leib’s condition would improve and they would emigrate together but it deteriorated. A nurse took care of him around the clock after he married her thus giving her his apartment. His run-of-the-mill khrushchevka was a palace compared to the dormitory room in a remote district of Leningrad that she and her son shared with another family.
Leib passed away soon after we left. His will directed to give his books to Rakhil and to cremate his body, the latter contrary to Jewish tradition but understandable, considering nobody remained to maintain or visit his grave.
Avram and Rakhil wrapped so many books that before approving the packages for shipment, the post office checked that the shipping address was where they had their propiska and demanded to see a notarized copy of the will as proof of book ownership. Many books were left behind when the post office ran out of wrapping paper.
Back in Kiev, the hassle began of gathering the countless spravki for the emigration application. Rakhil delivered the first shot across the bow when she requested the local library to confirm that she or Avram had no checked-out books in their possession. It took several attempts – who was she to feel entitled to a spravka?
Consequently, Avram took over the paperwork collection. After the permission came, Avram and Rakhil sold their co-op, meaning they surrendered it to the building committee, and got their money back along with the appropriate spravka. Without that spravka they could not apply for their exit visas; without the refund they had no way of paying for them.