Babinsky. The Passage (1976). 1: Vienna, Austria

Babinsky. The Passage (1976). 1: Vienna, Austria

Vienna main train station. Photo from:

Vienna main train station. Photo from:

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April 21, 1976: Train to Vienna, Austria, with stop in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia.

We shared the train car with the couple with one suitcase. A bottle of vodka unlocked a vacant compartment to store our luggage. Dima and I spent most of the night in it sorting the things we would need in Vienna into two bags, according to HIAS requirement. The rest they would store somewhere until we got to Rome.

On the layover in Bratislava we dipped into our hard currency to feed the girls at the station’s café. The waitress fed us like royalty for only one dollar. The staff surrounded the table and quizzed us, in Russian, about the trick we had utilized to get away from their Big Brother.

As we got up to leave they applauded. One waiter galloped to the platform to bring the stuffed poodle that Polina had left behind and some pastries for the road.

Vienna a couple of hours away, Dima was excited, I was jittery. Czechoslovakia being a branch of an empire, the Maliche would take great delight in seizing and toying with us.

Man's cologne called "Troinoi." Used to bribe border control at the crossing from USSR to Czechoslovakia. (Photo from

Man’s cologne called “Troinoi.” Used to bribe border control at the crossing from USSR to Czechoslovakia. (Photo from

The Czech patrol entered the train at the border crossing with Austria to look-see in the bags and under the benches for contraband of people. The officers marched by, each persuaded to ignore us by a bottle of cologne and a chocolate bar Olenka (items identified in letters as anti-search warranty).

Wrapper from the popular chocolate bar Alyonka. Used to bribe border control at the crossing from USSR to Czechoslovakia. (Photo from

Wrapper from the popular chocolate bar Alyonka (Olenka in Ukrainian). Used to bribe border control at the crossing from USSR to Czechoslovakia. (Photo from

The train twitched and crawled pondering which way to go. It stopped to admit the Austrian border control that passed through so quietly that we almost missed it.

Two armed policemen boarded our car (Arab groups protesting immigration to Israel had attempted terrorist acts against Soviet arrivals), a teenager at one door and a middle-aged redhead at the one by us.

Absurdly, that big barrel-chested man who might have been among the euphoric crowds cheering the Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria thirty-eight years before, brought home the fact that we made it, once and for all.

I threw my arms around our liberator: “Danke! Danke! Danke!. (Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!)“ It was not giddiness, it was deliverance.

Taken aback but moved to tears, the policeman sat down with us, rifle between his knees. He showed off color pictures of his children and grandchildren and predicted a magnificent future awaiting us. “I thought my boss put the old and the rookies on this duty because it was not important. Now I see how meaningful it is.”

He returned to his post at the door, beaming at us all the way to Vienna.

On that train ride we told Emily that she was Jewish and had every reason to be proud of it. Seven years old, her observations had already taught her otherwise – we carried her off in the nick of time.

As the train approached Vienna I indulged in daydreaming about fresh vegetables at the height of off-season, at least carrots and cabbage. There was no deficit here, everybody said. But milk still available at noon would be a stretch anywhere.

April 22, 1976: Vienna, Austria.

Four men, two in black coats and hats from Sochnut and two in suits from HIAS, stood by when we got off the train. They asked in Russian where we had decided to go. The couple with one suitcase said Canada; Dima said America. Sochnut walked away. HIAS whisked us into the station.

They spoke English to each other and German to the station staff. The station stunned us with its cleanliness, quietness, a flower shop, passengers with no avoskas filled with oranges.

The men gave us Austrian currency to last three days and a piece of paper with the address and time of our next-day appointment. We found ourselves inside a van driven by a man with a neck wider than his closely cropped head. An identical van with two men and a German Shepherd followed inches behind.

(Letters from the trailblazers passing through Vienna in 1972 and 1973 and, of course, rumors had prepared us for police with guns at the ready. But the drama had recently subsided into an extra van, a formidable neck, and a menacing dog. Not that the Palestinian terrorists objected less to the flow of population to Israel, but how would one go about locating victims when the number of them exploded and publicity vanished? How would one go about avoiding those who, beginning in the fall of 1974, chose other destinations? More to the point, how would one go about identifying Soviet immigrants, when their temporary lodgings in old hotels were sprinkled throughout the city?  The last factor was, ironically, the result of meeting the terrorists’ demand to dismantle the original transit camp in order to facilitate the release of several immigrants they kidnapped in 1973.)

Encircled by our protectors and the dog, we entered an old five-story building. In the foyer, a lively middle-aged woman handed him a key to a room on the fourth floor. Luxurious, she called it.

On the third floor, we passed by the windowless communal kitchen behind a glass partition covered with sticky dust. It smelled of burned food. Women’s voices argued in Russian.

Our room fully deserved the epithet luxurious. Two twin beds for Syuta and Emily; a wider bed for Dima, me, and Polina between us; a round table with plenty of space to prepare and serve food; two chairs; and – a bathroom with a sink, toilet and bathtub!

“It’s already one o’clock but maybe some store still has milk,” I said uncertainly. Dima left to try our luck. I unpacked. Emily and Syuta each received a slice of bread and a hardboiled egg; I plugged in the electric kettle to boil water for tea and for Polina’s farina and the two-burner portable stove. The time came to impress my family with one of the three Bulgarian soup cubes, a princely gift by a friend of mine at our goodbye party. Not many people had heard of them, but she had the amazing fortune to get ten cubes during a business trip to Moscow soon after we applied for permission to emigrate.

Dima flew in, empty-handed but exuberant: “Let’s go! You won’t believe it!” He ignored my resistance and my questions about milk.

First Vienna Grocery Shopping.

We clambered down the stairs and crossed the street. Dima dragged me into a store. Not a store – a palace: bright lights, colorful packages, prettily-labeled jars of every configuration, fresh produce in clean bins where customers were allowed to pick, an entire wall dedicated to dairy. Not one empty shelf. Two cashiers. A few unhurried customers. And carts on wheels to place purchases in. That was what “no deficit exists” meant!

Not sure if we should ask for permission, we decided to appropriate a cart. Until we understood what we could afford we would only buy fresh food for the girls and Syuta. Dima and I were perfectly fine with the food from our suitcases.

Pictures of fruit on yogurt containers left us gasping. (We knew the word yogurt from stories about men in the Soviet Georgia that ate it to live to very old age.  But nobody said that yogurt could have fruit in it.) After some deliberation, we chose three strawberry yogurts.

The progress was slow. As I inched the cart forward, a new toy tempted us and I backed up to return what we had taken before to its proper shelf. One of the cashiers started following us watching curiously.

We bought little and took our time to calculate the total then check the change. Nobody yelled at us. “Entschuldigen. Herzlichen Dank! (Excuse us. Heartfelt thanks!)” I said earnestly.

We rushed to the post office for a quick call to Kiev then celebrated our mazel with a thick vegetable soup, yogurt, a pastry, and, for dessert, more admiration of the containers. Syuta intended to keep them indefinitely.

The letters from our predecessors had warned us to expect a visit on the first evening from two young immigrants in American jeans that bought what their compatriots had for sale. They did not haggle. They did not smile or waste time on small talk. No one knew their names or what part of USSR they came from or how they learned where to find their customers or how they managed to extend their stay in Vienna. They said that the nested dolls, painted wooden spoons, tools and linen would have to wait for the Rome flea market. Our ten bottles of vodka and two strings of amber beads (we were allowed two per person of the former and one per adult woman of the latter) fetched a breathtaking sum of over $150. For once, we were suppliers to the black market!

(Fast forward a dozen years. Some of the next-wave immigrants we sponsored presented me with amber necklaces. The women of Vienna and Rome had moved on from the amber craze, but the tale endured that in America amber beads made Soviet women stand out from the pack.)

One string of amber beads allowed per emigrant adult woman. Gift from sponsored family.

One string of amber beads allowed per emigrant adult woman. Gift from sponsored family.

Everything for the First Time.

The next day began with a trip to the market. I felt dizzy when my eyes fell on crates displaying rows of chicken livers, wings, breast—a crate for each chicken part.

Short lines to the sellers stood quietly. I chose deliberately and uncertainly. “Danke schon (Thank you very much),” the man said. I thought I hallucinated. “Danke schon, danke zehr (Thank you very much),” he repeated impatiently.

He gave me chicken livers and he thanked me? “Danke schon, nachste bitte (Thank you very much, next please),” he said through clenched teeth. Dima pulled me away.

Rakhil could not take it in, either, when I called to tell her about the livers galore and a seller thanking a customer.

The three weeks in Vienna involved tons of paperwork at the HIAS office on the last floor of an imposing building on BrahmsPlatz.

47 years later. Bena in front of the building that housed the HIAS office on BrahmsPlatz, Vienna, Austria, in the 1970s. April, 2023.

47 years later. Jacob in front of the building that housed the HIAS office on BrahmsPlatz, Vienna, Austria, in the 1970s. April, 2023.

We filled out a parcel order form for Rakhil (in the comments I wrote that she had hoped for a spring overcoat to emigrate in. She got one, emigrated in it, and wore it for twenty-seven years in the United States.)

BrahmsPlatz, Vienna. View on building housing HIAS office. Credit: Vera Izraelit. 2017

At our request, Emily and Polina were admitted to the hospital for urological tests where they stayed almost the entire time we spent in Vienna.

Visitations were allowed. The orderlies put diapers on seventeen-month-old Polina who had long been toilet-trained. We were not aware of non-cloth diapers. It took several days to re-train her after she came home.

The poor quality of film we fought to bring with us made the X-rays useless. Based on the new results, the doctor did not see any reflux to the kidneys. I did not believe him.

In addition to the free room, HIAS provided a daily stipend for food and transportation. It totaled 98 schillings, or around $7 at the 1976 exchange rate, for the five of us. The formula was: 28 schillings for the head of household (we had two, Dima and Syuta, because she had lived separately in Kiev and was counted as a separate family) and 14 schillings per person for the rest of the family.

The stipend was way too generous. In the two weeks in Vienna, our nest egg grew by $30 – we didn’t spend on Emily and Polina while they were hospitalized (HIAS declined to remove their allowances), walked instead of taking buses and used up the bread, salami, and eggs we had brought with us.

We were surrounded by reality where everything was for the first time. Courteous salespeople and the abundance of food was the main topic of conversation. And so were pedestrians waiting for the green light to cross an empty street, cordial policemen, and absence of avoskas.

One day, the lady in the foyer took Dima aside to inquire, in German and in English, if he was not averse to spending an hour in female company. He already knew that she was approaching every Soviet male in the building. What a capitalist: she had first dibs on a brand-new market and was not about to squander the opportunity! To her targets, her proposition was as incomprehensible and terrifying as full store shelves and smiling salesclerks were to their wives. Only yesterday, access to a blurry pornographic photograph was an event of a lifetime, a criminal one at that.

In skittish clusters, male immigrants slipped away to watch porno movies. Women grew addicted to window shopping because the greeting “Kann ich helfen? (May I help?)” chased them out of stores; they assumed they would be forced to buy something—helpful salespeople were unfathomable.

The demonstration on May First did not look like a demonstration: just smiling and chatting people strolling in the streets closed for traffic. No military parade. No military at all. No platforms with waving corpulent men to wave to.

Cup of Vienna coffee. Photo from:

Cup of Vienna coffee. Photo from:

People popped into cafés to have a cup of coffee then rejoined the flow. Or did not rejoin.

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