“Mom, can you get me a visa, too? I would love to go to Russia with you and Dad?”
The connection was filled with static.
“Mom, can you hear me?”
I heard a tinny sound but couldn’t make out what mother was saying. The phone went dead.
Two weeks later – September 1975
After traveling around Europe on my own for six weeks using a Eurail pass, I was now with my parents. I was twenty years old, a recent college grad who left home at the end of my sixteenth year to get away from my family and now for the first time since then I was about to embark on a journey with the people I fled from.
My parents flew to Stockholm where I met them. We caught an overnight ferry to Helsinki where we would train into the Soviet Union.
I grew up devouring spy television shows such as The Man from Uncle (had a huge crush on secret agent Ilya Kuryakin), ISpy and Mission Impossible. We were in the middle of the Cold War and the Soviet Union was our enemy. I hadn’t forgotten the training I received when I was three years old. When the name Khrushchev was mentioned, I was taught to say “Feh.” I had no idea who he was, only that he was a bad guy.
By the time I was a teenager I was eager to find out what was behind the Iron Curtain. Whenever a door was closed, I wanted to go behind it. How were the people living there? What did they eat? Were the Jews able to go to synagogue? Were there Bar Mitzvahs, Bas Mitzvahs?
After growing up in a Jewish privileged neighborhood on Long Island, I was curious to know how our tribesmen were doing who never got out of the Soviet Union, like my grandparents managed to at the turn of the 20th century.
My experience of Judaism in my youth was something I ran from not towards. The High Holidays were a fashion show with the women’s hats so large you couldn’t see in front of them.
“I love your dress. Where’d you get it?” was a common question.
We all knew the stores which had the pricey, top fashions resided on Central Avenue in Cedarhurst, an avenue my mother never purchased at. It was Green Acres shopping center in Valley Stream, not part of the luxurious Five Towns and Loehman’s in Brooklyn in the 60s that she frequently visited and schlepped me along. Having your proboscis reduced and reshaped was a rite of passage with many teenage women and Dr. Diamond was the chosen surgeon who did his signature “turned up” nose.
Growing up surrounded by Jewish people, many trying to impress each other and a Rabbi whose focus was on power by who he knew, not what he knew was unappealing. I could never get his attention until I was in my late twenties and he learned I was good friends with someone who would later become Prime Minister of Israel. I fled my Jewish roots.
It wasn’t until I was traveling in Europe looking as I do with my curly brunette hair, and a nose that has a bump, did I realize I was a minority in the world, and easily identifiable as a Jew. Often, I was approached by people who didn’t speak a word of English asking me “You juif.” It was more of a curiosity than anti-Semitism as they had never met a Jew before.
In 1975 during Brezhnev’s reign visiting Russia was not an easy task, however far easier than a Russian leaving their Soviet bloc. At that time the only way out for non-Jews was defecting, which several athletes and performers like Rudolph Nureyev in 1961 and Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1974 did.
A foreigner wanting to visit Russia, had to go through the Soviet travel agency, Intourist. At that time, they would allow people to enter in organized groups and only be able to visit specially designated zones such as a limited number of neighborhoods in a limited number of cities.
Mother managed to get me a Soviet visa while I was in Europe which did require my signature. When I asked her years later how she did it, she responded, “Your father asked Rabbi Lindenberg and he signed it for us.” Due to dad being a Jewish funeral director, he had relationships with many Rabbis.
With Mom owning a travel agency she managed to get permission from Intourist to visit the Soviet Union without us being part of a group. In this case, Mom and Dad were a good team.
With no tour guide, no group leader, Mom, Dad and I were traveling by ourselves into enemy territory and boarded the overnight train the following afternoon. Our foreign language skills were non-existent other than Mom’s Yiddish, something I was sure the conductor didn’t speak.
Our compartment had two bunk beds. To avoid a stranger joining us Mom bought all four beds. Mom and Dad took the lower beds across from each other and I climbed up to the bunk above Dad.
I was ready for this adventure. After six weeks maneuvering quite well around Europe alone, I had confidence I could manage anywhere. I learned survival skills, not in the wilderness but in foreign cities. I needed to find places to sleep, eat and explore. Now, I would do the same for us in Russia. Even though my parents had traveled quite a bit, this was everyone’s first experience behind the Iron Curtain.
We were sound asleep when there was a loud knocking at our door. Woken we were paralyzed wondering who that could be in the middle of the night. Thoughts of Jews packed in cattle cars heading to Auschwitz flashed through my mind.
The banging persisted. My mother yelled to my father,
Dad, wearing only his boxer shorts, jumped up and his hands shook as he unlocked the door. There was a tall man dressed in uniform barking at him in Russian. We had no idea what he was saying until we heard the word “visa.” Mom had them all and passed them to Dad who handed them over.
The Russian checked each of them and then entered our small compartment and lifted up my father’s bed looking inside. We had no idea there was storage under it.
The Soviet’s dark gray hat had emblems on it as did his matching gray double breasted leather belted coat. He was the perfect example of a Russian commissar. Nothing was friendly or inviting. He was on the job and not done with us. He looked at me and yelled in Russian. For someone who didn’t speak the language, I understood what he wanted. His search continued as he went through my suitcase and I tightly wrapped my body in my top sheet. I felt exposed enough.
I had been reading “Looking for Mr. Goodbar.” The cover featured what appeared to be a naked woman under a blanket. The officer stared at it for a minute and then took it, no questions asked. As he continued, he got to my jeans and counted them. I had three pairs. He left them. Back then, Russians could only buy jeans on the black market. What he didn’t find were a couple of Newsweek magazines. All the media and news were controlled by the Soviet government. If anyone wanted to get true information about the West, not propaganda, they turned to Voice of America. It was illegal to listen to it and many did not risk doing so.
We stayed at the new Hotel Leningrad which opened five years earlier in 1970. It was large. The bellman brought us to our room. We noticed when we got out of the elevator a stern looking woman dressed in uniform sitting at a desk looking at us. I learned later that there was a person stationed at each floor monitoring the guests. Our room was sizable. All furnishings looked like the 50s in America. I wondered if our room was bugged.
It was not only September but Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Years. In communist Russia practicing a religion was not only frowned upon but often punished. Although it was illegal to do so, the government officially attacked those religious observers as political opposers to the state and its policies. Many took risks to practice and some suffered the consequences. And others did it secretly. Each time I asked a taxi driver to take us to the synagogue, they seemed to have no idea what I was talking about. Not sure if that was their trained Soviet response or actually the truth.
I decided to go back into the hotel and asked the man at the front desk to mark on a map where the synagogue was located. Now, I was able to show the taxi driver the map with no mention of the word synagogue.
It was obvious we were not local when we entered the synagogue. Mom and I were directed upstairs to where all the women were and Dad stayed downstairs to pray with the men. Before Mom and I went up, there was a man wearing a jean jacket and denim pants. He asked me in perfect English where I was from. I was sure he was American, too. We had only time for a few words before Mom nudged me to go upstairs. “No, I’m from Leningrad,” he responded to me.
Mom and I settled into our seats. We were as eager to speak to the women who surrounded us as they were eager to speak with us. Mom was fifty-one years old and looked decades younger than all of them. I wasn’t sure if these women were considerably older than her or just had a more difficult life which aged them. In no time, Mom was conversing with them in Yiddish. I didn’t understand what they were saying. I sat there as my eyes welled up, thinking how grateful I was that my grandparents got out when they did, fleeing the pogroms during the time of the Czar. And unfortunately, these fellow Jews did not. I wanted to help them, I wanted to get them out. I wanted to take them to a country where they had freedom to practice their religion.
I saw my mother opening up her wallet and showing them a picture. It was a photo from my eldest brother’s wedding. The women passed it around and they started to cry. I assumed because of how luxurious it looked. I learned later it was because they saw the chuppah my brother and his wife were standing under, something they couldn’t have at their weddings.
Mom asked them if they had bris?
They responded “no” as it was too dangerous to circumcise their boys as it was an easy way to identify them as Jewish.
When the service was over, we went downstairs and found Dad among the crowd of people who exited the synagogue and were now congregating outside.
The man who I met earlier was there with a few other guys and he called me over. I soon learned they were refuseniks, people who applied for a visa to leave and were refused. As a result, they had lost their jobs and their homes were searched. They wanted to show me around and I wanted to join them. I told my mother I would meet them at the hotel later. My parents weren’t happy but I was committed to spending time with my new friends and learning about their lives. As they toured me around Leningrad in their car, I heard their stories. Each was highly educated; each had lost everything yet they had a spirit and courage I had not seen among the Jewish people I had grown up with.
“We laugh because that is all we have left,” they explained. They were engineers, scientists, and academics who now were only allowed to work menial jobs such as janitors.
I felt an immediate connection. I thought if I had been living there, too, I would have done what they did, I would have fought for my rights. They dropped me off near my hotel and invited me to come the following night to their home for a meal.
While I had made their acquaintance, my parents had met another young man who asked them to come meet his father and sister. My mother was curious to see how they lived. Doing this was dangerous. The young man met us a couple blocks from the hotel. Always looking behind him, he took us by bus to his apartment. We stopped in front of the building and he made sure there was no one watching as he walked us through a courtyard up two flights of stairs. We slipped into their home. It was a one room apartment with a small kitchen which housed him and his parents. As his sister served us melon, we learned his father was a nuclear physicist. The entire family applied for visas to leave. Only the mother was approved, with Soviet’s most likely thinking she was too old to go alone. She was already on her way to the U.S. currently in Italy with the help of HIAS, a Jewish organization. The young man got up from his chair and returned holding a silver coffee pot. He asked my mother if she would do them a favor and take it out of Russia and get it to his mother who was on her way to Baltimore. Mom agreed to do so. They put it in a bag and included a letter. Now, he cautiously escorted us back by bus to our hotel.
As much as I wanted to go to my new friends’ home for dinner my parents insisted I didn’t and I was concerned about getting them into trouble. Before we left, a couple of days later one of them said he had something he wanted to give me and asked if he could get my Newsweek magazines. They were hungry for news, real news.
“It’s too dangerous for you to come into my hotel. There are commissars on every floor,” I expounded.
He dismissed my concern and came with me into my hotel room. I handed him the Newsweek magazines and he handed me a package.
“Please can you take this out for us? These are slides of letters we have written about our life here?” I took the envelope.
“Yes, of course!” I would have done anything to help them.
We said our good-byes. He managed to leave and not be stopped. I wasn’t sure if he suffered any consequences later. As he said, they had nothing else to lose.
We flew to Moscow where I managed to arrange a few things for us to do including the ballet, a trip to Red Square, and the circus which was a one ring with dog acts. In search of a restaurant to eat at before we went to the show I was directed to a building and told it was on the second floor. The three of us climbed the set of stairs and opened the door. The room was packed with people sitting at round tables. All heads turned and looked at us. We were obviously outsiders, and to the regime, we were intruders, perhaps spies. We were seated at a table and handed menus. All was written in Cyrillic and we were clueless. The table next to us had two couples and their food was served already.
Mom decided to get their attention. As Mom pointed to their dish, she was signing asking where it was listed on our menu. Soon, my mother was speaking Yiddish to them. There is something so universal about Jews detecting other Jews anywhere they meet in the world.
They were kind enough to let Mom know what they were eating, however, the man from the other couple sitting with them further from us looked very uncomfortable. They all bolted out of the restaurant not even touching their food.
I felt so horrible thinking they might have gotten in trouble due to us.
After three nights in Moscow, our trip to the former Soviet Union was coming to a close and we were packing to leave. I disappeared into the bathroom with a needle and thread and the slides I was giving in Leningrad. I sewed them into my hem and didn’t mention a word to my parents.
Other than an inexplicable ten-hour delay for our departure at the airport, we eventually made it home safely to New York. I survived my parents and we survived our little adventure behind the Iron Curtain.
I brought the slides to the Soviet Jewry office in New York and learned that one of the young men I spent time with in Leningrad was a KGB informer. I wondered who it was and in an odd way I understood the temptation to do so. Life there was hard and even harder when you became a refusenik.
This trip had a huge impact on me. I had finally met Jews I felt a kinship with – their intellect, their interests, and their struggle. They were not worried about what they were wearing, how their hair looked and or what car they were driving. For the first time in my life, I was proud to be a Jew and have always felt that way since.
Gayle Kirschenbaum is an Emmy award-winning filmmaker, photographer, writer, coach and speaker. Her film LOOK AT US NOW, MOTHER! premiered on Netflix and has been credited with transforming lives. To see her TEDx talk “No More Drama With Mama,” click here. To learn more about Gayle’s work visit GayleKirschenbaum.com