Babinsky. Emigration (1974 – 1976). 1: Waiting for Invitation from Israel

Babinsky. Emigration (1974 – 1976). 1: Waiting for Invitation from Israel

Leonid Brezhnev, 1974. Photo from:Брежнев,_Леонид_Ильич

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Emigration gained steam. Everything hinged on an invitation. Rakhil passed our names to all her acquaintances who were going to Moscow to open their exit visas.

Years did nothing to dull the memory of the foreboding with which we awaited the long envelope with an angled blue-and-red strip around the edge. The moment it crossed the Soviet border we would cease to be invisible, whether it reached us in a month or in a year or was not delivered.

We gave away our Samizdat, a ballpoint pen with a picture of a naked woman (any ballpoint pens were forbidden to sign with because they created trace that could conceivably be then used to forge the signature),

Strip Tease Ballpoint Pen. Photo from:

an issue of Playboy and pornographic photographs that Dima had bought from tourists—as soon as an invitation surfaced a search was not inconceivable, in spite of our insignificance.

Predictably, my job hunt turned up nothing. We planned another baby, and my job would pay maternity leave, three months before and three after the baby’s birth.

In March of 1974, I was pregnant and finally employed. A tenuous blat nudged me into a company that coordinated shipments of some industrial materials.

A retired colonel, the one-person personnel department, hired Jews to non-managerial positions in memory of a Jewish soldier who had saved his life during the war. He missed no opportunity to remind us of his appreciation.

I joined a brand-new department of scientific organization of work effort, part of a trend aimed at winning the race with the capitalists’ alleged efficiency. It was headed by a Party cell member responsible for ramming subscriptions of Pravda down a maximum number of throats; the rest of the time he salivated over fishing implements kept in his desk drawer.

His assistant was busy courting his mistress outside the company. Myself and two other women titled engineers, discussed children, husbands, our youth, and, when our manager was not there, Baryshnikov’s defection; at lunchtime we scattered to nearby stores on an off-chance they “dumped” deficit groceries.

This pregnancy, like the first, was uneventful, and, again, unhooking my skirt at the waist sufficed. Any food, besides white bread and milk, left an aftertaste in its wake. I shed seven kilos (fourteen pounds.)

Doctors attributed the bitterness in my mouth and the phantom nausea to cholecystitis, an unavoidable consequence of childhood hepatitis. The baby was due at the end of November.

Provided the situation remained unchanged, the immediate future would progress on the following timetable: the baby is toilet-trained by next November; we submit our application; we emigrate in the spring of 1976.

Syuta was to come with us. Avram and Rakhil would follow later: if we got refused they would help us survive. Rakhil instructed, “Do not feel guilty. Get the children out. The rest is irrelevant.”

The domestic winds blew in our favor. No sage or scholar or virulent anti-Semite at heart, Brezhnev was a godsend. He dutifully waved from podiums and fumbled through speeches. Allegedly, his staff gave him two copies of a speech once by mistake and, unnoticed by him or his listeners, he read both to hearty applause.

Bushy-browed and draped in over a hundred decorations, from four Hero of the Soviet Union distinctions for “Heroic feats in service to the Soviet state and society” down to pedestrian medals, he was easy pickings for anekdot makers.

He showed signs of having suffered a stroke. We prayed for his wellbeing. Spider sense told us that his successor would not be as benign.

The amiable mood toward the West stretched into the mid-1970s. It coincided with abysmal agricultural outputs and acute shortages of everything that depended on them.

The Watergate scandal received scant attention: a removal of a head of state was not an example to advertise. The media proudly reiterated that the Soviet Union’s signature on the 1975 Helsinki Declaration made it buddies with the West—the document mentioned respect for human rights.

A reassuring one-liner “the Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has departed Moscow following productive talks” regularly flickered on the bottom of newspaper pages, never on the front page. The Western radio intimated that the shuttle diplomacy negotiated issues of Jewish emigration and perhaps not only to Israel, in return for the Most Favored Nation status and for American wheat – hence the joke “How many bushels am I worth?”

Thankfully, our euphoria blocked out all hints of uncertainty. Voice of America reports of Palestinian terrorists targeting Soviet Jews during the layover in Austria sounded abstract. We even shrugged off the hostage-taking of several emigrants on September 28, 1973. No, we were not sitting ducks at the mercy of the finicky global politics but weighty bargaining chips blissfully gearing up to cut and run at a moment’s notice. Run to the world where people were invincible, problems few and mundane, and resolutions prompt and amicable. In reality, as we learned decades later, the emigration scheme had come close to collapse.

In exchange for the release of the hostages, the Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky agreed to close on December 10 the transit camp where the emigrants spent a week or two until enough assembled to fill a plane to Tel Aviv. He limited their stay in Austria to a maximum of 14 hours, the time required for transfer from the train station to the airport. A special envoy of the Egyptian President personally thanked Kreisky for understanding. While at it, he informed him of the coming war, information that Kreisky, not a fan of Israel, did not feel obliged to share. On October 6, the Yom Kippur War began.

Be it as it may, Kreisky, a politician and a Jew, when faced with a once-in-a-lifetime moral dilemma, acted honorably. He took seriously the responsibility for condemning Soviet Jews to continue life behind the Iron Curtain. Their fate hinged on his diplomatic balancing act alone, considering the terrorists’ resolve to cease repatriation to Israel and the USSR’s refusal to accept another country as a transit hub. All that Golda Meir, Israel’s Kiev-born Prime Minister, had to pledge was a shortened stay of the emigrants in Austria, no publicity, and no use of the term “Nazis” in relation to the Austrians. She quipped that the Kreisky’s team did not even offer her a glass of water during the negotiations.

In the end, Kreisky was instrumental in helping 164,000 Soviet Jews move on to Israel, in spite of Arab countries’ demands to stop the mass influx of professionals into their enemy’s economy, in general, and the defense industry, in particular. They may have encouraged the introduction in 1972 of an educational tax for those wishing to emigrate. However, the USSR needed bread more than engineers and scientists and therefore promptly abandoned that tax in return for American wheat.

Beginning in 1972, HIAS began transferring the few families that had American sponsors from Vienna to Rome to be processed by the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service.) To the mass, a choice of destinations became possible in the middle of 1974. This development and the absence of a centralized location made moot the hard-won diplomatic compromises of a short time before.

(At the Vienna train station, representatives of Sochnut took charge of families going to Israel; HIAS brought the rest to Rome where soon-to-be Americans, Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders petitioned the respective immigration services for entry visas.)

Dima argued for destination change: he could not endure to live in Israel and not be able to serve in the army and protect his country. People around him would never believe that such a healthy-looking man had heart problems. (We did not realize then that he had already aged out of the Israeli army.)

He visualized boys throwing stones and dung at him like he had done to healthy-looking men during the war. His nightmares scared me. After all, as long we got out, the destination did not matter.

INS granted the Soviet immigrants the status of political refugees, i.e. the right to work in the United States. HIAS arranged their transportation and living expenses; ORT set up English classes; local Jewish charities took over once the new immigrants landed in their towns.

Since the law forbade the entrance of Communist Party members to the United States, each former communist had to confirm, in writing, that he or she had sought that membership merely to further their careers. It took an average of three months to gain entry to America but longer to Canada, Australia or New Zealand that filtered the flow by age and skills.

Rakhil kept handing our names to everybody with permission under their belt. She knew that not all took her list to the Dutch Embassy but some, surely, did. She claimed to have done it twenty times and counting.

Quantity meant little; the invitation received from Israel marked the completion of the task, and therein laid the catch: delivery depended on various hurdles, from official delaying tactics to a mailman’s grudge.

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