13 May Babinsky. Emigration (1974 – 1976). 3: Daily Survival. Unemployed
Like an automaton, I took Emily to and from school on days she felt well and, twice a week, took her for bougienage; carried her urine samples to Dr. Yesakiya; fed Polina; ran to the milk kitchen for her daily doctor-prescribed soup and dairy; received a battery of fillings and root canals from Doctor Gorenstein; traveled to the medical school clinic to treat gingivitis: future dentists smeared my bleeding gums and loosening teeth with a chalky substance.
Plus, it went without saying, the grueling queues for groceries, even though the official proud comparison with the Russian economy of 1913 was in favor of 1975.
The queues convulsed with hatred of Jews who caused shortages by eating up the Ukrainian bread and fatback and buying up salami to take to Israel.
Complacent about the reliability of the basic foods, the citizenry got blindsided by shortages of bread, milk, onions, etc.
Villagers, who sold their produce at the market at sky-high prices, filled their emptied sacks with bread to feed their pigs and to make moonshine.
Milk disappeared before eight in the morning. By the time I dropped off Emily at school I was late.
Once I stood holding Polina among the milk puddles-covered shelves and cried; a saleswoman reached under the counter and shoved a leaking milk carton toward me, “What are you doing here after eight?” I must have made a particularly pitiful picture – she did not want to keep the change.
The sword of Damocles hit below the belt when it targeted yellow onions—there wasn’t much one could cook without onions, so that humble vegetable got elevated to the rank of axis on which the world spun.
The prices in the markets jumped astronomically – “people that reek of onions live beyond their means,” a joke said. When I asked a neighbor, rhetorically, “Why should people devote their lives to onions?” she said, “We do get them eventually. That’s what’s important. So what if we have to stand in lines?”
The three-kilo bags emanated a whiff of rot. I fussed over each bulb like I would over a baby. Dima, disappointed by the scarcity of his favorite onion-on-bread meal, nevertheless disapproved of my obsession (he preferred that treat to anything else – the undying memory of the hungry wartime – he even ate it after dessert.)
One day, after work, he saw an almost forgotten picture in the kitchen: two bags of onions. The sight of him devouring a chunk of dark bread crowned with a salted slice of onion made me cry hysterically and call him uncaring—these onions cost several hours under the rain with Polina sleeping in the stroller. I don’t think I cried so desperately before or since.
I began hiding onions, wrapped in newspaper, on the bottom of the closet behind the potatoes or on a shelf behind books. (For a long time, Dima’s favorite joke in Chicago was “Just a warning: I’m cutting myself a piece of onion.”)
By November of 1975, Dima and Avram had collected most of the spravki assortment for the application: confirmations that we owed nothing to all the city rental centers, all the stores that offered installment plans, the local and central libraries, and other places I can’t recall.
The most nerve-racking document, the character reference, could only be obtained after job resignation. It had to be negative to prove that good people did not emigrate.
(Employers balked at furnishing the character reference, nervous that accommodating traitors would put the head of the company in a bad light. And the personnel departments were only happy to see the mortified traitors squirm. OVIR (Department of Visas and Registrations) took up the baton of abuse.
For Soviet citizens, this treatment was par for the course; when the West learned of it from the dissidents and made a fuss, local Party offices received an edict to expedite the processing of said traitors and – the irony of it! – resolve conflicts.)
When Dima resigned, the head of his department had to call a departmental meeting. He suggested that Dima skip it: “Why would you attend? You are not an employee any longer.”
The speakers expressed their predictable sentiments: a Jewish colleague whose gentile wife dreamed of emigration reminisced of a business trip abroad when a starry sky reminded him of the stars over Kremlin. In response, a perpetually inebriated Volga Deutsch man snorted: “Good for Dima!” On that note, the meeting adjourned.
For Dima’s character reference, his boss advised him to modify the one used to get the confirmation of his post-graduate program completion, i.e. make it negative. Dima added “not” to each complimentary statement. The manager reversed the “not of good moral standing” and wished Dima luck.
The personnel department was obligated to ask why a Soviet citizen would take such an inconceivable step. Like all emigrants, Dima blamed the spouse. The Party boss of the company, an ethnic Tatar, did not have to ask; he openly pumped Dima’s hand.
The entry “Resigned voluntarily because of permanent relocation to the state of Israel” in one’s employment record book made a person unemployable.
But Dima had another copy issued at the beginning of his career when he took a second job without permission. Having more than one employment record book was like having more than one passport—illegal; in our circumstances, highly so. With his “clean” copy, Dima found a job at a construction company.
I tendered my resignation on November 10, the day before my maternity leave ended, the first working day after the October Revolution holiday.
The neck of the personnel man, the retired colonel saved by a Jewish soldier, went from pale to crimson and back. Not good at role-play, I managed to act the part of a submissive wife to a tee: my husband threatened to leave me with two little children.
The colonel scowled, “Let him go! We will help you bring up the girls.” That is exactly what I am afraid of, I thought.
He vowed to supply the character reference over his dead body. He felt double crossed by the very people he had deigned to hire. Rattled, he summoned the woman on whose recommendation he had hired me almost two years before for a dressing down. Luckily, she kept her job.
Dima, the ultimate diplomat, dismissed my plan to lodge a complaint at the district Party office in order to get my character reference. My defiant physiognomy would land us in deep trouble. First, he wanted to talk to somebody at my company above personnel.
I knew the executives in passing only but my instinct led to one who was, I had overheard, not a Party member. Since the man was not aware of my existence it took him a minute to catch on; when he did he flew out of the office and returned fuming. “Wait in the hallway,” he said, “you’ll get your piece of paper. Oh, what a…” he did not finish what was apparently his opinion of the retired colonel.
My character reference conveyed a picture of a useless ignoramus ‒ not somebody the Soviet Union should hold on to.
Polina turned one and, of course, her hair was cut, all of it. The hair that had come out of the womb had to go at that age — no ifs, ands, or buts about it. This time, however, there was a practical reason for it, too – hairless, she would be more comfortable in the hot Rome summer while we waited for our visas to the U.S., especially if regular bathing proved problematic. Dima’s saintly patience helped little, she resisted with all her might until the barber made an angry face and screamed at her. Rakhil took possession of Polina’s “first hair”. She added it the family’s most sacred keepsakes. It came to America with her 2 years later.