Babinsky. Family (1967 – 1975). 7: Thinking of Escape

Babinsky. Family (1967 – 1975). 7: Thinking of Escape

Kiev. Statue of Lenin (removed in 2014) at the foot of the Shevchenko Blvd. Year 1997.

Kiev. Statue of Lenin (removed in 2014) at the foot of the Shevchenko Blvd. Year 1997.

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Celebrated figures went through hell but their outgoing numbers increased. And so did the number of defections. News reports of the pathetic existence in Israel and the West could not snuff out the trend. An unknown source estimated the number of ordinary folks willing to try at forty thousand.

But we hesitated: if prominent personalities went to prisons or psychiatric institutions, then we would be swatted like flies. “I’m not telling you what to do but are you going to linger here until the door shuts?” Rakhil demanded to know.

She chomped at the bit, urging Avram to apply. My great-uncle Leib chimed in over the phone: “The Maliche will not repeat this mistake. We have to squeeze through the fortochka before the lockdown.”

The government portrayed emigration as a humanitarian gesture to unify families divided by the war. The family angle provided a face-saving mechanism to get rid of people that attracted unwanted attention in the West—the Soviet Union could not possibly acknowledge that its citizens contemplated emigration for other than genealogical reasons.

Therefore, Israel became the default destination and Jewish the default nationality that qualified to emigrate. Little wonder that the joke “a Jewish spouse is not a luxury but a means of transportation” did not sound funny.

In reality, Soviet Jews, by and large, did not have relatives outside the country. If they did, they had severed the connection during Stalin’s 1930s purges. (As far as I recall, some Volga Deutsch—descendants of Germans invited by the Catherine the Great to populate the area of the river Volga—and Seventh-Day Adventists could emigrate as well, to West Germany and Canada, respectively.)

Hebrew was all but outlawed and teaching it was a crime but some textbooks sneaked in. We went to a lesson at somebody’s house but did not have the guts to continue.

Rumors circulated that a few ordinary people, non-dissidents, had dipped their toes into the emigration streamlet ‒ applied and were waiting for permission. A large portion of them were “sales system workers” (euphemism for black market suppliers.) The bureaucracy cleared their path quickly: the luxuriously appointed apartments they vacated were a valuable commodity.

The kicked and beaten intelligentsia trickled in fretfully. They had no leverage and no material possessions. The applicants were subject to immediate firing from their jobs, expulsion from the Party; stripping of their war medals, and contempt and boorishness at the OVIR (Department of Visas and Registrations) and every place that issued spravki.

But above it all loomed the cessation of the exodus at any moment—Soviet laws did not contain grandfathering clauses. If the application got denied, the “sales system workers” would find jobs but the intelligentsia refuseniks would be left flapping in the wind—on one hand, no employer would open itself to accusations of weaving a Zionist nest; on the other, unemployment equated to social parasitism punishable by law.

Looking for Israeli Cousins

Missives from the emigrants to their families and others who dared to correspond were the favorite form of literature and the hottest property to behold. Not acquainted with any recipients close enough to be privy to the originals, our family mulled over the information percolating through the grapevine, scrutinizing it for between-the-lines meanings.

Many letters resembled diaries chronicling the search, gynecological and proctological occasionally included, at the customs office in Chop, the Ukrainian station on the border with Hungary and Czechoslovakia (now Slovakia); the train ride through Czechoslovakia to Vienna that the Austrian Chancellor, Bruno Kreisky who happened to be Jewish had opened for layover; the flight to Tel Aviv; the first austere but private apartments, and a bureaucracy as unbearable as the heat.

They cautioned not to lie to employers or officials. They whined about the unintelligible language taught at the ulpan (Hebrew-teaching classes); crowed about the government stipends and the discounted loans; sent color photos of their opened refrigerators filled to the brim; lectured on spirituality and depth of Jewish traditions; bragged about the powerful military; warned of the first jobs cleaning houses, washing public toilets and stairs in underground passages—one had to start somewhere, then the sky was the limit.

To apply, one required an invitation from an Israeli relative. People who knew recent immigrants to Israel, weaved the data necessary to generate invitations—names, birth dates, and addresses—into mundane letters: “On August 23, my uncle Boris Yefimovich Lerner turned forty. We gathered in his apartment 11, on Suvorov Street 11, postal code 11111.”

Another way to obtain an invitation was to sneak the information into the Netherlands Embassy in Moscow that represented Israel in the Soviet Union. Besides its sanctioned duty to issue entry visas to Israel, the embassy forwarded the names to Israel from where “cousins” sent invitations to long-lost Soviet “cousins.”

A written job resignation constituted the declared intent to emigrate—“I’m hereby resigning voluntarily for the purpose of permanent relocation to the state of Israel.” It triggered company-wide meetings where designated speakers, preferably Jews, unmasked the traitors and asserted their own loyalty.

Afterward, the gutsiest privately wished the traitors luck; if gentile, they whispered “I wish I could.” The irony that instead of quashing the mutiny the meetings popularized it and stirred up envy was not lost on the Party. By the mid-1970s the meetings narrowed from company-wide to department-wide before conspicuously petering out.

In the spring of 1972, Rakhil set out to find willing and dependable messengers to trust our names to. She demanded that Dima and I keep our heads out of the noose until the invitation was generated. But she did not want to entertain the scenario that it would be generated but not delivered.

Dima was hounded by recurring nightmares: Israeli boys throw stones at him like he used to throw stones at healthy-looking men during the war; his heart attack leaves me to beg on a Tel Aviv street corner. The nightmares did not entirely fade in daylight.

We Have to Get Out

In a whisper or a roar, “applying” and “leaving” dominated minds. An anekdot went: “A Jew approaches two other Jews talking in the street: ‘Whatever you are talking about we have to get out.’”

Amazingly, ardor seemed inversely proportional to action. The reticent jumped in. The froth-at-the-mouth crusaders vacillated blaming their insufficient “ripeness” for the hesitation. Maybe if the university did not admit their child. Maybe after completing the dissertation. Maybe after a much-deserved vacation.

“It’s easy for you,” they commented on our definitive stance. “You have nothing to lose, except the apartment. Dima has an average career and you possess no skills to speak of.” Dima’s calming hand on mine stopped me from asking, “Suppose you bring all your projects to fruition – then what?”

We did have real advantages, though. Neither of us had security clearance, Party membership, ex-spouses or obstinate parents to wrangle consent from.

Parents that opted to stay had to sign a statement: “we have no objection to our child’s permanent relocation to the state of Israel; we have no financial claim toward our child.”

Unless ideological concerns or vindictiveness were involved, the ex-spouse granted consent easily for minor children: the non-custodial parent paid future alimony upfront if he applied, or stopped paying it if the ex-spouse applied.

With adult children, the fault line generally lay in the gratitude of their shtetl-born parents to the Maliche for dismantling the Pale of Settlement, opening doors to education, assigning free apartments, providing free medical care and pensions. For the shtetlers the above good deeds outweighed hunger, Stalin, anti-Semitism, miserable communal living, lines for herring and peas, bribing to get urine tests done, decades wait for tiny apartments.

One father threatened to commit suicide rather than sign his consent; his middle-aged daughters gave their consent to their children and hibernated helplessly for three years; they began the emigration process the day he died.

In another family, the mother begged her only son not to deprive her of the sight of Lenin (on Lenin’s birthdays she spent hours at the Kiev’s main statue of Lenin until the city’s Party bosses arrived to tape the official ceremony for TV and chased her off; I witnessed that scene once); the family never emigrated.

With predictably disastrous results, some desperate believers approached Party functionaries for advice or with appeals to straighten out their children.

The parents saw nothing but loss in the wake of their children’s uncompromising attitude: loss of their blood-earned war medals; of the kvittel, if applicable; of accomplishments, real or perceived; of their, if they had retired, irreplaceability won by caring for grandchildren and standing in lines for groceries; of their financial independence: no other country would indulge old folk like their motherland.

The battles for the consent decimated the strongest bonds. Some daredevils found a way to cut loose—forged the parents’ signature; paid off an official; performed some typing virtuosity on an unrelated already signed document—but the risks if found out were great.

Eventually most parents affixed their signature or let themselves be dragged out, like lambs to the slaughter, but some held the entire family hostage until the emigration stopped altogether.

Black Sea Vacation.

In August of 1972 we went on vacation to Yevpatoria, a Crimean city popular for its beaches. At the train station, owners of vacation rentals encircled the arriving passengers. We followed a man who promised a beachfront room.

The rickety two-story fenced-off structure stood directly on the white sand – a perfect location. The façade was busy with outside stairs, two faucets without a sink, and a comb-like row of doors and windows. Two-burner stoves, one per room, punctuated the inside corridor where we also washed our hair and bathed Emily.

Our room fit a full-size bed and a twin. The suitcases lived under them. We ate and kept groceries on the windowsill. To reach it, we had to move sideways between the beds. A five-stall outhouse spiced the air; rivulets gliding from beneath the doors pooled at the gate; a rusted plague on the gate advised “usage of outhouse by strangers is prohibited.”

We quickly settled into a typical sea-vacation routine: breakfast; Dima and Emily go to the beach; I take the bus to the market, sort the groceries, bring lunch to the beach; we spend some time together; Dima heads to the cafeteria to hold a spot in line for dinner; Emily and I join him later.

The cafeteria served Emily’s favorite, kotlety and darkish spaghetti, daily. The server splashed some butter over the meal, butter so diluted that cold water washed out a grease stain. Then we went spazieren on the boardwalk, rented a bicycle for Emily, bought ice cream, Dima played chess on a bench with other men.

On the beach, Emily played with a redhead girl from Volgograd (city called Tsarytsyn until 1925 and Stalingrad from 1925 to 1961), a daughter of an army major. The high volume of the father’s tape recorder chased away beach-goers far enough to swear, if need be, they did not hear Vladimir Vysotsky’s songs.

We longed to bolt too but Emily would not abandon her playmate. When the father warmed up to us, he talked only about, four years after the event, the invasion of Czechoslovakia. He was promoted to his current rank for his part in it.

“My father fought the Nazis there. Now, the Czech said, ‘Father a hero, son an invader,’” he kept repeating. “If not my pregnant wife back home, I would have turned the turret of my tank and aimed at my commanders.” His freckled face took on the rust color of his hair. “You don’t understand: we had orders to mow over people if they tried to stop us!” He did not lower his voice. Scared stiff, we sat stoically surrounded by no man’s land.

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Next: Family. 8: Lenin in the Sky. Sickness and Treatment

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