On May 20, 1975, I stepped on American soil. No, it was not on Ellis Island. We landed in New York’s Kennedy Airport. My mother, my 4-year-old daughter, and I were part of a Jewish refugee wave from the former USSR. Our road was long and full of obstacles.
In those days nobody ever thought that the “iron curtain” would ever lift and people would be able to leave freely. In the beginning of 1972, rumors started that the Jews were allowed to go to Israel. At first nobody believed it, because there were no public announcements. The radio stations like BBC and Voice of America were jammed, but some people got through. We listened behind the closed apartment doors, so the neighbors would not hear.
Later that year, the first wave of Jewish refugees left the country. In 1973, rumors were spread that emigrants had to reimburse the government thousands of rubles for their college education. The rumors were true, hope withered. But, after six months, the payment fee was lifted. Later we heard about organizations advocating on behalf of Soviet Jews in the U.S., Canada, Israel, Britain, Europe, Latin America, and Australia giving us new hope and courage. It was hard to believe that people on the other side of the world were demonstrating on our behalf.
Miraculously, in 1974 my mother’s sister, who lived in New York, found us and sent us an invitation. Once I filed an application to leave, I was fired from my job. We survived on my mom’s small pension. The following nine months of waiting were filled with fear, anxiety, hope, doubt, and isolation.
We were lucky and at the end of the nine months, all three of us received permission to leave. We had to get rid of everything within 30 days and show up at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. We said goodbye to our relatives, who we would never see again, and left on a night train from Kiev to Moscow. We gave up our tiny apartment, were stripped of our citizenship (considered “traitors”), and went on a journey toward the unknown. The realization that I was in charge of my mother and my daughter’s lives was overwhelming. We stayed in Moscow for a week while our documents were processed by the American Embassy.
HIAS, the Jewish organization helping refugees, helped us every step of the way and on April 20, 1975, we left for Rome. I left behind the country of my ancestors for 500 years, never to return again. We stayed in Rome for a month to make sure we had no contagious diseases.
When we arrived in New York, HIAS supported us for the first six months until I found a job. I am eternally grateful to the countless people who gave me a chance to start a new life, learn English and get a job in “an office,” guided and helped me to graduate college, and hired me in spite of my accent.
It saddens me that after this election the new administration instead of uniting us is pitting us against each other. Instead of appealing to our compassion and common humanity, it plays on our basic fear of “the other.” We have been there before. The question is: Have we learned anything? Will we be silent while families are torn apart, children separated from their parents? Will we find excuses that we are “a nation of laws”? Who created the laws? Are these laws to serve only the rich and powerful or all our communities? We are at the crossroads, and future generations including our grandchildren, will be judging us.
Anna Plotkin is a resident of Atascadero. Send comments through the editor at email@example.com. Send a letter to the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.