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

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

Post office in Ostia Lido, near Rome. Soviet immigrants congregated in front of it in the late 1970s. Photo from:

Post office in Ostia Lido, near Rome. Soviet immigrants congregated in front of it in the late 1970s. Photo from:

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Next: Immigration. 1: First Days in Chicago


May 6, 1976: Rome, Italy.

On May 6, two buses chartered by HIAS brought us, a hundred Soviet immigrants, to Rome to wait for our entry visas. That was our final layover before the final destination.

The buses stopped at several hotels and called out the families that were supposed to get off at each stop. We had a week to rent an apartment; HIAS would pay for it until we leave for the United States.

In the evening Polina’s temperature spiked, she felt nauseous. The receptionist contacted HIAS.

A tall, dark and handsome young doctor spoke only Italian.

Russian-Italian Phrasebook. 1971

Through a phrasebook we asked for the children to be admitted to a hospital. Like in Vienna, Polina had to wear diapers.

Luckily, her doctor spoke German but, like his Austrian colleague, he could not decode the Kiev X-rays and did not observe refluxes on new film, no matter how convincingly I argued that they were present.

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.

Apartment with Marble Floors.

Dima rented a room through May in a three-room apartment in Ostia Lido, a beachfront suburb, half-hour train ride from Rome, where the Soviet immigrants settled until their visas cleared which took at least three months but depended on the destination’s immigration requirements.

Every evening, Dima pinned a note “need apartment beginning June 1” to his shirt and headed to the square in front of the post office. It seemed the entire two-thousand-strong community congregated there to exchange news and rumors. A square man with his hand in the pocket of an oversized suit jacket strolled around the edge of the crowd. Supposedly, he worked for the mafia that HIAS hired for protection.

We finally sublet a spacious room with a balcony and marble floors in a two-room apartment from an immigrant family that gave it up to save money. They kept the smaller room with a phone. The rent in a central location was more expensive than in the so-called “communist” area where apartments were humid and most resembled khrushchevka.

Our room showed off an oval table inlaid with paisley design and covered with beveled glass; eight curved chairs upholstered in paisley crème silk; and a three-leaved mirror.

To keep the furniture in pristine condition, the original renters had paid a three-hundred dollar deposit. Now we were responsible for it if the landlord’s inspection spotted a scratch or a smudge.

I issued an order, in Rakhil’s tone, to stay away from the furniture. Or else. The landlord or his sister showed up unannounced and frequently. The sister made it her job to convince me that I had Italian blood in my veins.

HIAS had added a folding tray and three twin folding beds to the ambiance. For the next three-and-a-half months—a little longer than the average wait for the United States because, we were told, not every local community was able 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, two at a time, from the tray.

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?

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.

On Sundays, I took the children to the beach, while Dima went to the flea market to sell the linen, the cameras, and the chess set.

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

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

It was slow going and took a lot of discounting: the glut depressed the prices. But the chess went for fifty lira, the price of my calf-length fur-lined black sheepskin coat, great for Chicago winters. The market called Mercato Porta Portese was known to us, Russians, as Americana.

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. The market carried everything, from chicken of immense size and an outrageous assortment of produce to kerchiefs, socks, and leather coats.

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

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 long walk from the station – nobody in my family normally ate much but an enormous amount of food disappeared every week into our bellies ‒ the prospect of taking charge of whatever awaited us made me laugh for joy inside.

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.

Emily turned eight in Rome, I thirty-one, and the United States two hundred. Rumors swirled that America would stop letting in immigrants after July 4. Independence Day passed, marked by the Entebbe hostage-rescue operation carried out by Israel. The Soviet Union called it Israel’s aggression against Uganda.

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, clothing sizes, and weights; a sample of a business letter and a curriculum vitae (also called resume, we were told); 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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