At that time in the Soviet Union the idea of “leaving” permeated the air. When you ran into people you knew, you didn’t ask whether they were going, you asked “when?”. From the time I was twenty, everyone around me was gradually getting out.
The circumstances of our departure were already in the air. We had no doubts about whether to stay or not. It just wasn’t apparent how to arrange things. We weren’t really thinking about what we would do in America, didn’t have a clear idea about what we would make of ourselves. We weren’t thinking about it. We weren’t thinking about any of it, but we had no doubts.
We lived in Ukraine, where anti-Semitism was all around us. I can’t recall specific incidents of personal acts against me, but I always felt out of place there, always felt ill at ease. A very unpleasant environment, one in which we did not want to raise our child. And of course we wanted her to have all of the opportunities that she could have in other places.
Of course we wanted to be Jews. We did have that desire -- to feel like ourselves, to give that opportunity to our child.
Lyudmila's story. Illustration by Tanya Levina
When we were emigrating, one wasn’t supposed to talk about it, because one would immediately be fired. However, in order to apply for permission to emigrate, I needed to inform my work that I was leaving. And this was supposed to go through certain official channels. I was deathly afraid of all of this, because my husband was no longer working. He was immediately thrown out. I had a meeting with the head of the personnel department. It was a huge, huge, very big company. So I went to the head of the personnel department and handed him my statement, and his reaction was... He stood up. He shook my hand and he said, “If people like you are leaving the country, that means there is something wrong with the country. I respect you very much and I know that wherever you go you will succeed. I will do everything to help you!”. He took my statement, covered up my name, and brought it around to all of the departments to have people sign off on it without showing them whose statement it was. He did this at his own discretion.
Allie's family awaiting documents and permission to come to Amercia in Rome. Many families had to spend months, sometimes over a year in limbo in Italy or Austria, citizens of nowhere, waiting for a permission to immigrate to America. We felt as if we were being born again, as if we were diving... We felt it most strongly when crossing the border. We were going through Chop -- we didn’t fly, we went by land -- and they took away all of our documents. At some point we were boarding a train and we had no... well, you could say we had no identity. We felt like we were nobodies. We still didn’t have citizenship or work permits for America, we weren’t even going there yet, and it would be a long journey there, but we already had no rights to live in the country we were leaving. We were in no man’s land. We physically experienced the sensation of being persona non grata. We didn’t belong anywhere. We felt that we had to give up everything in order to start fresh. And this happened to us in every sense. We dove into nowhere. Into absolute nothingness. We were happy to accept this opportunity, because at the time when we were leaving people were saying that America had drastically cut its quota; that it stopped accepting refugees. We felt like we had jumped aboard a train just as it was taking off.
We submitted the documents to emigrate, but we hadn’t received permission to enter any country. My husband would be told to be at the OVIR [Office of Visas and Registration] at a certain time and check whether the permission would be there. And there would be no permission and he would go empty-handed. And suddenly we realized that our documents were being deliberately held back.
I came up to the OVIR one time and happened to see a general across the street from the building. You could say that he was the main person who decided our fate. My husband said, “If you want to leave, this is the only man who can help you”. Allie's family during first year after immigrating to America At that moment I was ready to give up everything, simply because we were already nowhere. So I walked up to the general and told him that I had to talk to him, because the fate of my family was in question and that I urgently needed this. He looked at me, surprised that I had just leapt at him, so to speak, and he said, “Let her in!”. And in the five or six minutes that we talked, I somehow convinced him that I really needed to leave. He made a call and said, “Papers on my desk, right away!”. And within several minutes he decided my fate. My husband and I stood in front of the OVIR building with the documents, completely befuddled. This was September and suddenly it started snowing. I was wearing sandals and a light jacket.
We had three suitcases. These suitcases were being constantly moved from one train to another. It was a complete nightmare. The suitcases had children’s clothes and men’s suits, because we thought that the children would have to go to school and that we wouldn’t be able to provide for them. And of course we had to dress them nicely, so that they would look no worse than the other children. So silly, right? Because we thought the children looked very dressed up, but here it was completely different. A completely different culture. And the men didn’t start work right away, of course.
Allie's family during first year after immigrating to America It took my husband a long time to get a job. He was very upset about it. He was so upset he started making jam. He can’t cook at all and had never cooked. But just to be useful around the house he started making jam. He was willing to do any work. Marik’s first job was to deliver apples for an Israeli businessman in New York. He was very proud that he was earning money. Do you know what he wore to deliver apples? The suit he was supposed to wear to his job. He had no other clothes. And each time he held a crate against his suit I would say, “Marik, you are earning $4 an hour on these apples. How much does your suit cost?!”
Our first shock was because we flew over in fur coats. It was March 13, 1989...That was one of the warmest days in history. My cousin and her mother were meeting us. We hadn’t seen them for ten years. She was wearing shorts and a t-shirt, and I had a fur coat on...Our relatives met us. They rented the first apartment for us. We were very lucky in that sense. They couldn’t help us with work, but the first advice, the first details, all of the stupid mistakes, all of that...So we did have a sense of reconnecting with our family.
Read Allie's Story here.
About this project: In 2013 I began working on a project I called ЭмMigration (Эм is from word Эмиграция, which means to emigrate, and the rest is from english word immigration. I wanted the name to reflect the journey, from leaving to arriving). The idea of a project came to me when I was talking to my peers who immigrated to US when they were kids. I was always struck by how visual and materialistic their dreams were of where they were going. A land of abundance of THINGS they always craved and never could have in Russia (USSR). So in a way, the kids, when they were changing countries, were looking forward to something. At the same time, their parents - and older generation, were looking back, reflecting on what they were leaving behind: friends, family history, pictures, favorite places in the city, memories, dreams- all very spiritual, non-material ideas. This juxtaposition was always interesting to me. This project, a series of portraits and interviews is a research on this subject, things lost, left behind and found.
This project was created as a Cojeco Blueprint Fellowship Alumni project and was presented at an exhibit "Inheritance of a story" in New York in 2013.