12 May Babinsky. Emigration (1974 – 1976). 4: Application Submitted!
Proof of Israeli Cousins
At the end of December, we were down to the last charade: proof of family lineage common with the invitation sender. The lineage was known as legend.
My writing aptitude stood us in good stead. I invented a great-great-grandfather that went to Palestine after his divorce. His great-great-grandson (we picked one of the seven invitations with the least odd name) was eager to reunite with me.
According to the indefatigable grapevine, the attorney appointed to process, free of charge, the legends had obtained that tasty gig from her big-shot prosecutor-husband. She expected ten rubles per person, fifteen if she compiled the legend herself. The money went into the top desk drawer on her right that she kept ajar. The typist expected a bottle of perfume or a box of chocolates.
Coincidentally, the attorney had worked at the company from which I had been fired two years earlier—it was her signature that confirmed that the firing adhered to the letter of the law. She hugged me and asked about the whereabouts of the emigrant who had prompted the firing.
She praised my legend but removed the exact dates (“too many details,” she said) and left just months and years. The typist told me to come back in two hours on the dot.
Dima had an errand to run, so Emily babysat Polina alone. Buoyed by my blat with the attorney, I knew she would give me a signoff ahead of other people waiting for her. She did see me right away but found typing errors. The text had to be retyped and reexamined prior to closing time. No documents were to be left in the office overnight. I ran back to the typist with three rubles in my fist to ensure priority.
A few minutes before five, the attorney affixed her signature and stamp, hugged me again, and asked me to give her regards to former coworkers. The display of affection would not jive with payment, I thought.
I flagged down a car (a private, illegal, ride was cheaper than a taxi.) Emily sat on the sofa, swaying, her eyelids drooping, watching Polina play. The instant she saw me she fell sideways and was asleep.
Leery of the attorney’s husband’s clout over OVIR, Dima went to her office to finish the transaction. Ignoring her murmurs “you shouldn’t” he slipped fifty rubles into the top drawer on the right. Now we were ready.
My great-uncle Leib and his sister-in-law Katya intended to get a marriage certificate and apply for emigration in Leningrad. We had planned to synchronize our itinerary but his worsened stomach pain made it impossible to consider travel.
I wanted to postpone my application until we knew his diagnosis and outlook. He panicked. “Please leave, leave, leave! I’m seventy-five; it doesn’t matter where I die. You have young children. If you get stuck I will never forgive myself. Leave, leave, leave!” (Six months later, on June 3, 1976, we received the news in Rome that he passed away of liver cancer.)
On Monday, January 5, 1976, the first working day after the New Year holiday, Dima, fortified by valium, submitted our and Syuta’s applications to OVIR. He returned in an upbeat mood: “Can you imagine? I was asked to sit down!”
The clerk complained that her workload was getting heavier by the day. Dima apologized for adding to it. She thanked him for understanding. That Versailles-level etiquette was revolutionary, all thanks to the dissidents who had complained to the West of inhumane treatment of applicants.
The next day Dima resigned from his job. (Utilizing his illegal employment record book one more time,
he applied for a two-week project that another hopeful emigrant found for himself, gave the salary to that person then burned that employment record book.)
Avram and Rakhil started paying our apartment fee and utilities. We had barely enough to cover our living expenses.
Meanwhile, the 25th Congress of the USSR Communist Party commenced in Moscow. For 10 days every newspaper delivered every word uttered at this circus. Dima joked that since each paper was officially independent we should compare the speeches to catch any differences. In his mumbling way, Comrade Brezhnev reported to the weary, cynical audience: “We have created a new society, a society the likes of which mankind has not yet known. This is a society of a crisis-free, constantly growing economy, mature socialist relations, and genuine freedom. This is a society of firm confidence in the future, bright communist prospects.”
The staggering expense that awaited us after getting the permission gnawed on us constantly.
The privilege of renouncing Soviet citizenship which was what the exit visa entailed cost eight hundred rubles per passport holder – 2,400 rubles for our family.
Syuta saved up 500 and, like all emigrating pensioners, was entitled to a six-month pension advance of 270 rubles.
Avram and Rakhil owed us 2,500 rubles, the price of the co-op they would receive when they surrendered their unit.
The government exchanged a 100 rubles per person into American dollars at the rate of ninety cents per ruble (as opposed to the black market rate of ten rubles per dollar), so we needed 500 rubles for that.
We could borrow from the “sales system workers” who were eager to funnel their savings out of the country. They offered loans to the intelligentsia at a rate of thirty-three dollars in the West for each hundred rubles in the USSR. But how could we be sure we would have dollars to spare?
We borrowed 300 rubles from each of three friends and vowed to pay off the loans with American clothes.
On February 28, 1976, Dima turned forty-one. He invited his former schoolmates over to the party.
A neighbor who worked at a grocery store got us a few tomatoes and pickles at the low official price. Dima personally peeled the comma-shaped pickles.
Awed by fresh vegetables in February, the guests took tiny portions of the salad; we took nothing. “Remember the season,” they cautioned each other as they passed around the dish.
Silence descended when Dima announced our news. One of the guests held up his palm: “Just do not write to us!” The rest avoided our eyes.
Allowed and Not Allowed
The rumor mill estimated that we should expect the summons in about three months. The permission would give us three weeks to wrap up what we already referred to as our former life.
The in-process crowd kept its collective ear to the proverbial ground where the shifting rules were being transmitted.
A swarm of details and errands, fragmented but inseparable, filled our pre-summons white-knuckle days. Only a multi-screen presentation could give that picture its due.
We were allowed to take out of the country–
–three hundred grams of silver per family;
–one gold watch worn on adult’s wrist;
–one gold wedding band worn on married adult’s finger;
–one gold signet ring worn on adult male’s finger;
–one gold ring with a small stone worn on adult female’s finger;
–one pair of gold earrings worn in adult female’s ears;
–one string of beads made of amber (at the time, amber happened to be in demand at the Rome flea market) worn on adult woman’s neck;
–university pins corresponding to the schools in the notarized diploma copies;
–two bottles of alcohol per person (used as currency or sold in the Rome flea market);
–one of each of photographic and video equipment nomenclature per family (to be sold in the Rome flea market);
–an unlimited number of books and records;
–one address book per family, with no Soviet addresses or phones;
–an unlimited number of photographs;
–unlimited cuts of fabric, none larger than three meters;
–one wall rug per family;
–ten pillow cases per person;
–ten sheets per person;
–ten duvets per person.
We were not allowed to take out of the country–
–even a kopeck of Soviet currency;
–gold necklaces or chains;
–handwritten or typed material;
–books or records published before World War II;
–artwork or musical instruments without the Ministry of Culture certification of no cultural value;
–photographs of people in military uniform;
–photographs of bridges and other strategic objects.
The gem-and-stone restrictions served to deprive the Jewish Rockefellers of the Soviet Union from sneaking out their wealth.
Syuta owned no jewelry. Dima and I owned our wedding bands and a thin gold ring with a microscopic maybe-precious stone, a friend’s goodbye gift. And since no gold could be worn around the neck, we had handles welded to the sides of bábushka’s little gold (or gold-plated) pendant watch that I wore on my wrist.
Rakhil owned six silver tablespoons and forks that Polina had bought (or bartered) at the flea market after the war.
Their combined weight exceeded the limit, so she gave us the spoons to bring out.
The prohibition of X-rays (reasons: film contained silver; image might be military-related) created a problem. In order to be able to communicate with foreign physicians we had to have the girls’ film with us.
(Dr. Yesakiya also diagnosed Polina with the narrowing of the urethra, though she had no symptoms. All my children would have it, he said, with or without symptoms.) On his own initiative Gennady sneaked the X-rays out of the hospital, swiped two syringes, vials with anti-fever medication, and a sterilization tub. He taught Dima to break the vials safely and make injections. He also wrote up the diagnosis and treatment on the hospital letterhead, and gave us a book on the disease. Never did Gennady acknowledge, by word or body language, that he had guessed why we would need these preparations. But, one day, he made a neither-here-nor-there statement that Western medicine might be more advanced.