Babinsky. The Passage (1976). 2: Rome, Italy

Babinsky. The Passage (1976). 2: Rome, Italy

47 years later. Post office in Ostia Lido, near Rome, Italy. Every evening Soviet immigrants congregated in front of it in the late 1970s to exchange information. April, 2023.

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May 6, 1976: Rome, Italy.

There were a hundred of us. Our trip from Vienna to Rome began before sunrise. In Rome we were to wait for the entry visas to the final destinations. The trip followed a strict routine conducted with military precision. Our caseworkers had told us bluntly that disrupting it would attract attention of terrorists. We gathered in hushed groups at designated pickup spots throughout Vienna. Each family had no more than two suitcases. The rest of the luggage that HIAS had whisked away the day we crossed the border would travel to Rome separately.

The two chartered buses arrived simultaneously from opposite directions and parked on opposite sides of the street. In low voices the HIAS reps, one per bus, checked identities against their list. They spoke Russian but discouraged small talk. As recommended, we brought sandwiches and snacks on board. The reps regularly distributed water in paper cups, a novelty greeted with childlike curiosity. The fact that the bus had a washroom (too clean to use, someone quipped) set off bright-eyed reminiscences of Soviet travel with bathroom experiences behind bushes.
In a few hours, the buses stopped, engines running, at a nondescript spot off the main road. Within minutes, two empty buses rolled up. The drivers jumped out and started transferring the suitcases. Flanked by the reps, we boarded the new buses in single file.

We reached Rome in the evening. The reps reminded us to rent an apartment immediately because the one-week hotel stay was not extendable. At each drop-off stop, they announced the names of families that were to get off, sprinted into the hotel, and emerged with room keys. The driver extracted the luggage from underneath the bus.

As we climbed the stale-smelling stairs to the fourth floor we discovered that Polina’s temperature spiked and that she felt nauseous – the familiar symptoms of bladder reflux that Emily had suffered for two years, the last time less than a month before. The receptionist contacted HIAS. A tall, dark, handsome young doctor appeared promptly. Our Russian-Italian phrasebook paired with intense gesturing explained that the girls needed urological tests done right away.

Russian-Italian Phrasebook. 1971

The doctor jotted down the name and address of a hospital and vanished. In the morning, we marched into the hospital, HIAS phone number in hand. Emily and Polina got admitted, placed in rooms on different floors, and fed. Like in Vienna, Polina had to wear diapers. The phrasebook helped locate their doctor. Fortunately, he spoke German but, like his Austrian colleague, he claimed that the Kiev X-rays were undecipherable. (After two weeks of tests, he stated adamantly that the girls did not have refluxes, no matter how convincingly I argued the opposite.)

Emily’s symptoms did not return after we left Kiev. Afraid to become complacent, I still touched the girls’ foreheads a dozen times a day.

Rome in May.

A young man in American jeans approached us at the entrance to the hotel. He introduced himself as Marik from Kishinev, specialist in assisting fellow immigrants and, he remarked smugly, leaving soon for Los Angeles. He knew of a room that became available in a three-room apartment in Ostia Lido, a beachfront suburb, where all Soviet immigrants settled. Decent location, not the pathetic “communist district” that should be avoided. The fee – seventy dollars – payable upfront. Marik also had a friend with a van, in case we were interested.

(Marik and the mover and the men who bought our vodka in Vienna belonged to the entrepreneurial part of the immigrant contingent. Until 1975 it constituted the majority. Despite their privileged life in the society kept afloat by black market and underground economy, Soviet entrepreneurs, Jewish or married to Jews, ran for the exit as soon as the opportunity presented itself in the late 1960s. Born risk-takers, they sensed the danger of wavering and acted on it before meaningful numbers of intelligentsia joined the flow. Since owning foreign currency was illegal and international fund transfer undreamed of, they preserved their riches by entrusting valuables or loaning money to the penniless intelligentsia. The terms varied between $250 and $350 for every 1,000 rubles lent. Somehow the parties never lost touch and honored their oral contracts.

Inside the Soviet Union these universes were incompatible and unconnected: businessmen officially condemned for their warped capitalist mindset – in the saddle; intelligentsia – smothered by lowly status and meager resources. And then they crossed the border. The enterprising types found themselves at the mercy of consumers; the intelligentsia discovered that education and skills might count as assets.

Soviet businessmen (an oxymoron, considering that the concept of business was outlawed) that burst out from behind the Iron Curtain anticipating to fit like a glove on the other side. Before long, stunned Ostia Lido did not trust Russian-speaking renters, demanded fat rental deposits in American dollars, did not hand over the purchase to a Russian before checking the payment carefully. HIAS went to great lengths to quell lawsuits and dodge bad publicity. Odessa natives excelled to such a degree that many rent signs featured “Apartamente Odessa no.” The name of the city became generic for conning and cheating. Some of them sold the landlord’s antique furniture and rugs at the flea market. To be fair, not only Odessa-ites and not always antique but enough for every meet-and-greet session to admonish the new arrivals to not acknowledge their connection to Odessa when asked by locals.)

The following day we moved into the room that Marik had found. Soon, our big luggage reunited with us. A couple from Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), a physician and a pianist, lived in the largest room. Nina, a Siberian-born math professor from Moscow, with her teenaged son occupied the smallest room. She was going to Chicago where her Jewish ex-husband, also a mathematician, had immigrated earlier. Nina hated the Soviet Union and antisemitism with passion. She had refused to let her son change his Jewish surname to her maiden name. Instead, she enrolled him into a karate class to stop the boys that harassed him. It took her a long time to get her mother’s written permission to emigrate. Her mother insisted that only thanks to their motherland was she, a war widow, able to bring up three children to become university professors. Nina countered: “not thanks to the motherland but in spite of it.” We all felt at home in the small kitchen; we had led similar lives and left them behind for the same reason; we couldn’t wait to face the unknown that was upon us.

Two weeks later, the landlady stopped by with a final reminder that her son was moving in on May 28 and changing the lock – clearly, Marik had neglected to mention that fact to us. Our communal neighbors had simply presumed that we knew. For the last four days of the month, HIAS arranged a temporary apartment in the “communist district.” Afterwards, we were on our own or with another Marik to charge a fee and potentially cheat.

So, every evening, Dima pinned a note “apartment needed beginning June 1” to his shirt and headed to the square in front of the post office.

(It seemed the entire two-thousand-strong Soviet immigrant community congregated there to exchange news and to seek help. A thickset unsmiling man, his hand always in the pocket of an oversized suit jacket, strolled around the perimeter of the square. Rumor persisted that he was working for the mafia that HIAS hired for our protection. Rome’s history of hosting Jewish immigrants began in the fall of 1974 when destinations other than Israel opened up. Palestinian terrorists showed no interest in the Rome crowd, but better safe than sorry.)

On May 27, Marik’s friend with a van charged five dollars to drive us to our temporary lodgings – a third-floor studio in one of the rows of three-story khrushchevkas.

Construction of khrushchevky. Photo from:

Hand-painted red flags, hammer-and-sickles, and doves of peace decorated the walls. No wonder the Soviet immigrants dubbed the area “communist.” We kept the windows open, but the damp smell stayed. My joints kept me awake at night. The furniture consisted of a single bed and a short sofa called, we learned in America, a loveseat. Syuta slept on the bed, Polina on the sofa; the rest of us on the floor. The previous renters must have left quite a while ago because the remnants of food on the kitchen table had turned to stone. Electricity zapped through us when we turned on the lights or opened the refrigerator.

Dima’s vigils at the post office came to nothing. No place used by HIAS was vacant or had the landlords’ permission to allow a family with small children. We had to inform our caseworker that in a few days we’d have no roof over our heads. But before we did, a fairy entered the scene: 80-year-old Fira from Odessa waddled through the post office swarm toward Dima, read the sign attached to his shirt and said that one room in the two-room apartment her family rented was unused and that she wanted no fee for her service.

Apartment with Marble Floors.

Marik’s friend with a van drove us from the “communist district” to our last Rome apartment. A wide street next to the post office; nice buildings with long balconies; no red flags painted on the walls. A humongous room with a balcony and marble floor. The kind of furniture exhibited behind red rope in museums swallowed up most of the space – an oval table inlaid with paisley design and covered with beveled glass; eight curved chairs upholstered in paisley crème silk; a three-leaved mirror.

The Shklyanoys in Rome, Italy. Year 1976.

47 years later. Zoe, Bena and Emily in Ostia Lido (Lido di Ostia), a town near Rome, where Soviet immigrants of the 1970s waited for entry visas to their final destinations. The long second-floor balcony on the right belonged to the apartment where we stayed for 3,5 months in 1976. April, 2023

Three hundred dollars guaranteed the pristine condition of the furniture. Now we were responsible for that deposit if the landlord spotted a scratch or a smudge. I issued an order to Emily and Polina, in Rakhil’s tone, to stay away from the furniture. Or else. The landlord or his sister showed up unannounced and frequently. The sister had no doubt that I had Italian blood in my veins — “you have to ask your parents, they would know,” she kept repeating. She was not alone; not a day went by without someone stopping me in the street to ask for directions and being surprised that I didn’t understand them.

HIAS added a folding tray and three twin folding beds to the ambiance.

Soviet Folding Bed. Source:

For the next three-and-a-half months—longer than the average because, we were told, not every community was in a position to handle a large family—the four of us slept on two twin beds connected with wire: the children in the middle, flanked by Dima and me lying on our sides. We ate from the tray, taking turns.

Fira was a stereotypical Odessa businesswoman, in the Soviet definition of the word of course. I’d seen her doubles at the famous Odessa Privoz Market when visiting my great-aunt, Esther. Quick-witted, kindhearted, observant, loud, arms akimbo. She spoke the delicious colorful Odessa tongue, shaped partially by folk translation of Yiddish, and with the inimitable accent that was stuff of jokes and of stories by the countless talents reared there.

Fira’s family occupied the smaller room jam-packed with beds and two dressers, a telephone on one of them. Little of the marble floor was visible. Fira and her husband’s life revolved around their six-year-old great-granddaughter Isabella, a beautiful girl, tall for her age. They kept her in the room, except for meals when she consumed an inordinate amount of thick chicken bouillon. Isabella did not speak, only made guttural sounds. To attract attention, she hit anyone in sight with her feet; my ankles acquired black-and-blue rings that looked like tattoos. Sometimes she escaped from her great-grandfather’s frail grip and loped around shrieking until Fira forced her into a corner with a broom. Isabella was the reason for emigration – the family believed in the miracles of Western medicine. She was also the reason they had already spent nearly a year in Ostia while HIAS was searching for permanent care for her in the United States.

The old couple paid little attention to what their granddaughter Lilya, Isabella’s mother, and teenaged grandson were doing; they only worried about their safety. The siblings, strikingly good-looking, loved preening themselves in front of the mirror before leaving the house late at night. When they came back early in the morning, Fira yelled at them using language that, per Dima, I wouldn’t understand even if the drama had woken me and that one wouldn’t expect from a woman, much less a grandmother. On the phone, Fira complained to her daughter, the mother of the siblings, of their behavior, to no avail. The daughter had stayed back in Odessa busy lending her mother’s money to the emigrating intelligentsia.

Lilya had an Italian boyfriend, a restaurant owner, who made sure that Lilya wore the clothes her figure deserved. He regularly presented Fira with a pallet of fresh fish. Out of respect, she said. We took advantage of his visits to practice English; he loved talking about his restaurant and his women. Lilya’s Odessa boyfriend addressed her “my dear wifey” in his letters from Chicago but when asked to sponsor her he claimed that she was barely an acquaintance.

Fira felt sorry for us, useless intelligentsia taking useless English classes. She made it her job to prepare us for the struggles ahead. In Odessa, she worked at a beachfront grocery store, specializing in the sale of watermelons off a stand erected directly on the beach. Fira demonstrated repeatedly how she had shortweighted her customers by placing the watermelons on the scale in a special way. To her disappointment, I stubbornly refused to learn. The head of the customs office personally ensured that Fira got some choice jewels and two thousand dollars in cash out of the country, in exchange for her old dacha. She now had an eight-hundred-dollars emergency stash hidden so cleverly that her grandchildren would never find it. The entrepreneurs and the intelligentsia, we were the history of the country we miraculously escaped.

On Saturdays, we took walks in the Old City and the Vatican: Polina slept in the stroller, Emily enjoyed an ice cream, Dima and I exchanged incredulous glances – were we in Rome or would the Colosseum and the piazzas dissolve if we pinched ourselves?

Shklyanoys by the Rome Collosseum. Summer 1976.

Bena and Emily Shklyanoy at the St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican. Summer 1976.

Bena and Emily Shklyanoy at the St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican. Summer 1976.

47 years later. Bena, Emily, and Zoe at the Rome Colosseum. April, 2023.

On Sundays, I took the children to the beach, while Dima went to the flea market.

Bena, Polina, and Emily Shklyanoy. Rome, Italy. Year 1976.

Bena, Polina, and Emily Shklyanoy. Rome, Italy. Year 1976.

The market called Mercato Porta Portese was known to us, Russians, as Americana. It was founded after WWII to meet the need to sell, buy and barter literary anything.  Now we had to sell the linen, the cameras, and the chess set. It was slow going and took a lot of discounting: the glut depressed the prices.

47 years later. The ancient city gate in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome, Italy. Entrance to the Porta Portese flea market held weekly in Rome, Italy. Known to Soviet immigrants of the 1970s as the “Americana”. April, 2023.

47 years later. Trastevere neighborhood of Rome, Italy. Porta Portese flea market held on Sundays. Known to Soviet immigrants of the 1970s as “Americana”. April, 2023.

The chess went for fifty lira, the price of a calf-length fur-lined black sheepskin coat I bought after we found out that we were going to Chicago. It was the only serious purchase we made in Rome, our crown jewel. The coat didn’t have the sleek and refined look of such a coat sold on the black market in Kiev, but then it didn’t cost eight times my monthly salary. That coat served me well in the first two Chicago winters. When I learned to drive, I switched to a more practical short puffy jacket with a hood.

Where Will We End Up in America?

The HIAS office was located on Viale Regina Margherita, 3. Our caseworker, Mrs. Miller, the first American I met, spoke Russian well, thanks to her father, a pre-revolution emigrant from Ukraine and, she noted sarcastically, a diehard Communist.

She supplied us with paperwork about rules of conduct in Italy, English classes, and services that HIAS, JOINT, and ORT provided. On a special form we listed our work experience and education (in Chicago we learned that it was called resume). All of the material was in Russian.

HIAS JOINT ORT. Welcome. Schedule. Requesting Documents. English Classes

HIAS JOINT ORT. Welcome. Schedule. Requesting Documents. English Classes. Translation.

HIAS JOINT. Welcome and Rules

HIAS JOINT. Welcome and Rules. Translation.

HIAS. Resume

HIAS. Resume. Translation

We signed reimbursement and promissory notes that spelled out, in Russian and English, the terms of paying back for everything we received before reaching out destination. Not that we understood what we were signing.

HIAS Reimbursement. English and Russian

HIAS Promissory Note. English and Russian

To say that Mrs. Miller impressed me was to say nothing. In her fifties, tall, slim, tanned, hair boyish and meticulously dyed and styled. In spite of her, by Soviet standards, old age, she had the guts to wear pants, fitted tops, and necklaces made from large painted wooden beads.

She did not act elderly, either: her movements were self-assured, smile bright, voice confident. Were all old American women like her? Would I be like her in twenty-five years?

In turn, Mrs. Miller was impressed that we tried to speak and filled out paperwork in English. Before chucking our file into the proverbial hat to be plucked by a random American Jewish community, she needed to complete the “preferences” page.

We had no right to be choosy, we said, but it would be easier to find a job in a larger city. Except New York, if possible, that was a catch-all destination. Letters from New York to acquaintances still in Rome advised that one did not need to know English to live there and we did not want that.

Rome: Shopping. English Classes.

Once a week I shopped in the city at “The Round Market” (official name Mercato di Piazza Vittorio, now Nuovo Mercato Esquilino) located in Piazza Vittorio Emmanuelle II.

Rome “Round Market”, 1970s. Official name; Mercato di Piazza Vittorio (now Nuovo Mercato Esquilino) located in Piazza Vittorio Emmanuelle II. Credit: Marina Dennis on Facebook

47 years later. Nuovo Mercato Esquilino market in Piazza Vittorio Emmanuelle II in Rome, Italy. Formerly Mercato di Piazza Vittorio, known to Soviet immigrants of the 1970s as the “Round Market”. April, 2023.

47 years later. Zoe, Bena, and Emily in front of the Nuovo Mercato Esquilino market in Piazza Vittorio Emmanuelle II in Rome, Italy. Formerly Mercato di Piazza Vittorio, known to Soviet immigrants of the 1970s as the “Round Market”. April, 2023.

The market carried everything, from chicken of immense size — we called them “The Wings of the Soviets”, the name of a popular soccer team — and an outrageous assortment of produce to kerchiefs, socks, and leather coats. Even aristocratically-looking, inlaid with paisley design, lacquered serving tables, some with wheels.

We became the proud owners of summer shoes and clothes bought there. The children’s red sandals, had they appeared in a Kiev store, would have brought the female population of the city to its knees.

I gleefully schlepped my two overflowing Kiev-born avoskas on the train and on the fifteen-minute walk from the station. Nobody in my family normally ate much but an enormous amount of food disappeared every week into our bellies. The husband of our neighbor Fira accompanied me almost every week. An eighty-year-old and a diabetic, he had to stop every few minutes to catch his breath so I would add some of his bags to my load. Still, no weight felt heavy, I didn’t feel tired – the prospect of taking charge of whatever awaited us made me laugh for joy.

ORT-organized English classes offered two six-week levels, beginner and advanced, in two shifts: one of each in the morning and in the afternoon. They met on the top floor (don’t remember an elevator) of a building in the Trastevere area near the Tiber River. (Dah… Of course near the river–tevere is river in Italian.) During the breaks we spilled out through a wide door onto a spacious “balcony” that was actually part of the roof of the building.

With an average stay of three months in Rome, an immigrant could potentially go through the entire program once. ORT encouraged repeating it as many full or partial cycles as possible.

HIAS refunded public transportation expense for near-perfect attendance—the better our command of language the sooner we would get jobs and the higher-paid they would be and the faster we would pay back the charities. Amazingly, some saw that policy as a blatant infringement on their freedom of choice. The prevailing wisdom was “When we reach our destination, English will come.”

Two young immigrants conducted the placement test comprised of “what is your name?” and “where do you come from?” pronounced slowly and precisely. They got tired of waiting for my grammatically correct answers and placed me in the beginner level. I signed up for the afternoon class; Dima for the advanced morning class.

On the first day, I did not understand the instructor’s “what is your name.” She might as well have spoken Chinese. Somebody took pity and translated the question into Russian. “This cycle is almost over. Next week the class will start with the alphabet,” my desk-mate consoled me. Not the right moment to brag that I had translated scientific articles.

Soon, the group depended on my help in spelling. However, the instructor had to write out her questions for me on the blackboard. I was able to squeeze out a monosyllabic reply, otherwise I wrote it out. She reluctantly promoted me to the advanced level where I gradually began hearing English. Speaking fluently remained beyond my grasp.

The instructor, a Canadian, married to her high school sweetheart, a visiting professor at a Rome university, mentioned her in-laws, post–World War II immigrants to Canada from Ukraine.

To her surprise, an uncomfortable silence met her words. Neither side expressed any desire to meet when the in-laws came to Italy on vacation. What would she know about the kind of people who ran from Ukraine with the Nazi army?

The intelligentsia part of the immigrants threw itself onto the forbidden literature available at the library maintained by the Tolstoy Foundation (a charity established by Leo Tolstoy’s daughter. In Rome, it helped gentile emigrants from the Soviet Union.)

We inhaled Doctor Zhivago, Master and Margarita, and the Russian translation of Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror. But once sated, I knew I had to quit Russian-reading and practice real-life spoken English. Dima took the middle-of-the-road approach: he surrendered to the temptation of the fruit not forbidden any longer.

Besides Mrs. Miller, we spoke English with our neighbor’s Italian boyfriend. He talked about the restaurant he owned and women he loved. We warned him of the raucous teenagers waving red flags from convertible clunkers. The flags did not bode well for an approaching election—victorious Communists would surely take away his restaurant and send us back. He laughed: “They always make noise before an election. On the election day – where are the Communists? No Communists!” The wonders of a multi-party system.

Preparing for America.

Rumors swirled that America would stop letting in immigrants after July 4. Then we would go to Israel – deep inside, we had wanted that anyway. Independence Day passed, marked by the Entebbe hostage-rescue operation carried out by Israel. The Soviet Union called it aggression against Uganda. If you don’t believe me, here is a clip and the translation.

Soviet newspaper report of the Israeli counter-terrorist raid at the Entebbe airport in Uganda. July 4, 1976.

Raid on the airfield.

LONDON, 4. (TASS)*. According to reports from Kampala**, three Israeli Air Force planes invaded Ugandan territory last night. They landed an armed group which raided Entebbe airport where the recently hijacked Air France passenger plane with hostages was located. In the ensuing firefight, the hijackers of the plane were killed. The airfield suffered significant damage, a fuel depot was blown up, and several Ugandan aircraft were destroyed.

PORT LOUIS,*** 4. (TASS). A new act of piracy by the Israeli military committed at Entebbe airport received sharp condemnation at the assembly of heads of state and government of the member countries of the Organization of African Unity (OAU). At this morning’s meeting of the assembly, as reported by an OAU representative at a press conference, a message from Ugandan President Idi Amin was read out. It notes that an Israeli armed group landed in Entebbe and destroyed the airport building and more than ten military and civilian aircraft. One hundred Ugandan soldiers and officers were killed in the skirmish. Idi Amin called on African countries to strongly condemn this Zionist attack and demanded to urgently convene the UN Security Council to discuss the attack on Entebbe airport.

(*Russian News Agency TASS. In Soviet times, named Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union (Телеграфное агентство Советского Союза, Telegrafnoye agentstvo Sovetskogo Soyuza), the central agency for news collection and distribution for all Soviet newspapers, radio and television stations.                                                              **Kampala, the capital of Uganda.                                                                                                                                                  *** Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius, island country in the Indian Ocean, located off the eastern coast of Africa.)

At the end of July, we learned that the Chicago Jewish community had agreed to sponsor our family provided we passed medical tests and the interview with the American Consul.

We looked crushed: Chicago meant gangs and slaughterhouses. Mrs. Miller thought our information outdated: “I’m from Chicago myself and I personally recommended you. It’s a great city. If you don’t find a job in Chicago you won’t find it anywhere. JFCS (Jewish Family and Community Services) will take good care of you.”

The United States did not easily let in people with psychological or lung issues – apparently it took to heart my great-grandfather Velvel’s criteria he had used in shidduch research. The American doctor and the American Consul gave us the green light. (I think they both, plus the Immigration and Naturalization Service staffer, were located in the building of the U.S. Consulate on 121 Via Veneto, third floor). Entering New Culture (in English and Russian). Published by HIAS in 1976.

HIAS followed up with a brochure, in English and Russian, “Entering a New Culture: A Handbook for Soviet Migrants to the United States of America” written by David Harris (now an Executive Director of American Jewish Committee, one of the oldest Jewish advocacy organizations) and translated by a fellow-immigrant. (A year later, HIAS asked me to update the brochure with current information.)

The brochure was priceless. It covered every aspect of life in America, from geography, citizenship, political structure, parties and elections to the cost of calls from a public phone; addressing an envelope; asking a policeman for directions; and minimum wage.

It contained a list of federal holidays; conversion tables of temperature, American clothing sizes, and weights; a sample of a business letter and curriculum vitae (another word for resume, we were told in Chicago); an insert of a black-and-white map of the United States; and a chapter “Hints about everyday American life.”

It said there that Americans “react negatively to body or mouth odors;” tip fifteen percent in restaurants; write the number seven “without the bar across the middle;” do not ask money-related questions; consider a smile “very important,” and do not prohibit left-handedness.

Many details went over our heads until we faced them. Like the chapter “Who are you?” that explained that Jewish was a religion not a nationality.

On September 14, 1976, HIAS delivered us and several other families to the airport, checked in our luggage, and walked us to the gate of our Alitalia flight to New York.

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