Traitor! How Could You Desert Your Motherland?

Traitor! How Could You Desert Your Motherland?

Kiev, Friendship of Peoples Blvd., 14. Low structure on the right is building garbage collection area. March 2016.

What side are you on?

A friend sent me pictures a few days ago of the building where I’d lived the last twelve years in Kiev (they are in a separate album on my site). That was where my wedding took place, my children were born, and from where a cab drove us on April 20, 1976 to the train station and on the way out of the Soviet Union. It took years for me to realize how meaningful the week before that cab ride was.

National and international champion-athletes for whom the building was originally built constituted the majority of the tenants. The rest, us included, had moved through apartment swaps (Read Babinsky, Gnoyensky (1904-2004). 9: Khrushchev’s Thaw; Sputniks; Shortages.).

The athletes certainly lived it up, what with access to special stores for anything from tomatoes to furs, international travel, generous government allowance, made-up job placement that proved their amateur status (famously, all the Soviet athletes were amateur… on paper). And since obviously most of them owned cars, they were allowed to build garages from corrugated metal next to the building—people on whom the country depended for its image deserved not to park in an assigned lot on the other side of the city.

They were so much above my station in life that we barely recognized each other, not even to say hello. So, why talk about them, you ask. Well, because in our last week in Kiev they unintentionally – or intentionally, who knows? – transmitted their approval of our choice and confidence in our future. Both were in short supply at the time.

My husband could not leave the house so as not to get sucked into a provoked fight that would result in detention and cancellation of our exit visas. No sooner had I walked out of the building manager’s office after signing off on the surrender of our apartment than our downstairs neighbor, her eyes rounded with panic, dashed into her apartment at the sight of me.

I understood the panic: we were both Jewish but I was a Zionist and a traitor. We were on the opposite sides of the barricade. I might have done the same in her place.

Neighbors passed me by without acknowledging my existence but exuding disgust. One hissed something about ungrateful Jews. I didn’t let my older daughter out of my sight fearing she would be bullied. The few families who wanted to say good-bye scratched on our door late at night and slithered in and out of our apartment.

Then one of the athletes saw me and stopped in his tracks to bow deferentially in full view of passersby. And bowed again when he sensed that I could not believe my eyes. The admiration was palpable.

I kept running into them every time I was outside; it felt like they were protecting me and telling me that they understood and that I was not alone. We were on the same side—they had been abroad to the forbidden capitalist world, so they had seen what I was not able to comprehend yet.

I wish I knew their names so that I could thank them now.


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