21 Apr April 21 — Chop, Lenin, and Miracle
Red Sea and Iron Curtain
I know exactly how my forefathers felt when they waited for the Pharaoh’s decision and when the Red Sea parted. That’s because I too waited for that decision and saw the Iron Curtain part. If you had never lived in the Soviet Union you will just have to trust me that my exodus did meet the criteria qualifying it as a miracle.
It was at Chop that the Curtain parted for my family on April 21, 1976. Chop is a railroad station on the Ukrainian border with Hungary and Slovakia (then Czechoslovakia). This and other points of no return gave us, the Soviet Jewish emigrants, a sendoff not to be forgotten.
Bracelets Not Allowed!
Since we were traitors, sellouts, and Zionists it went without saying that we possessed riches galore. Therefore, it was up to us to prove that we did not cook up schemes to smuggle said riches under the guise of emigration. And it was up to the customs officials to stop us from robbing our motherland blind. Naturally, their search focused on unearthing anything forbidden and above-limit (complete list here). Naturally, jewelry topped the list. The allowable items had to be worn, not packed away: a wedding band (if married); one gold watch per adult; one pair of earrings, one gold chain and one ring per adult woman. And absolutely no bracelets!
Each family boasts a unique Chop story hilarious in its absurdity even to people who did not know an absurd-less life. The Chop experience ranged from sadistic to benign depending, of course, not on law, even if it existed, but on the individual officers, on the politics of the moment, and on what the traitors did for a living. Someone whose profession afforded a window to an illegal side income or to the black market, like a sales person, butcher, or dental technician warranted an extra look. Intelligentsia, on the other hand… Well, engineers, doctors, or teachers were not worth the effort.
X-Rays And Diamonds Not Allowed!
My intelligentsia family had it especially easy at Chop. Not only did we own less than the allowed jewelry, but our eighteen-month-old’s non-stop bawling provided a strong incentive to abbreviate the search. The officers did not mess up our belongings. They did not force a gyne exam (in the presence of a male officer) on my mother-in-law or me. They did not tear apart our children’s toys. In fact, we pled with them to rifle through our stuff – we could not board the train without their signoff.
Still, we encountered potentially disastrous glitches. One was our children’s X-rays. We needed the film to help communicate with physicians in foreign lands. But taking X-rays out of the Soviet Union was prohibited – the film contained silver, and, more importantly, who was to say that the images on them were not of secret weapons. Amazingly, the compliment “you are an intelligent man” that my husband paid to one of the officers convinced him to take the risk and let the films pass.
Then the senior officer caught sight of the glittering bits of glass in my seven-year-old’s little tin candy box. She loved the sparkle of pieces of broken jars under the lights. She reacted with a whimper and a nosebleed to the loss of her treasure whisked away to mine for diamonds. This glitch came to a happy ending as well.
What Is the Rush?
That senior officer had had it in for us from the moment we walked into the customs area: “Today is April 21! And you’re not embarrassed?” His disgust was palpable. My husband and I simultaneously lowered our heads in a show of guilt — that man had complete power over us. What did he mean? Should we have given him more than two bottles of vodka? “Tomorrow is Lenin’s birthday! Couldn’t you wait for a couple days?”
How could we forget? He was right, we should have postponed our departure! We hoped against hope that our guilty faces would placate him. In the end, he concluded that his righteous contempt was punishment enough. Judging by the knots in our stomachs, it was.
Lenin Is With Us!
Voluntarily, Lenin had never entered our thoughts. His name though was constantly around us. Six years before Chop, the Soviet Union celebrated the hundredth birthday of its founder and practically God. The habitual mass worship soared to a farce. For weeks, Lenin-related themes filled newspapers, radio, television, concerts, speeches, factory meeting, school assemblies.
Every flat surface, except sidewalks and roofs, sported his face or name or the slogan “Lenin is with us.” And as usual, jokes popped up that ridiculed the madness. But who needed to think up jokes if “Lenin is with us” was imprinted on a ribbon holding a set of bed sheets?
Farewell to the Bosom of God
And so on the eve of Lenin’s birthday we fled the world he had hatched.
It was time to look ahead. All we saw was the proverbial clean slate. As family and friends bid us farewell, many of them wondered if we had thought twice before burning the bridge to that “bosom of God” motherland of ours. In truth, we didn’t — we simply closed our eyes and bet that nothing could be worse than that bosom.
On the day of Lenin’s birthday we, with the X-rays and no diamonds, arrived into the world he loathed. I want to think this timing not poorly planned but symbolic.