THE LATE 1980s WERE YEARS of exodus from the Soviet Union. Gorbachev opened the door of the “iron curtain” and everyone who could escape was leaving. Every day, platforms at the Gomel railroad station were full of people: families who were lucky to get exit visas, and relatives and friends who came to say their last goodbyes to them.
From a book titled The Svetlana Boym Reader:
There was a code word: “to leave.” If you whispered it with a mysterious gravitas, there would be no need to ask further questions. To leave meant to flee once and for good. You knew well your point of departure, but not necessarily your destination. To leave was an intransitive verb that marked a break in space and time. You might as well be going to the moon or to the Underworld. Farewell parties in the 1970s and 1980s resembled funerals in their finality.
When I was asked if I would consider leaving, I said “yes” with no hesitation. I did not know what leaving would entail, but I started to go through the process as everyone else did. I apprised the family members, but there was no need or time to have long discussions—it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and the “iron curtain” could be down again at any time. We all knew how challenging and frightening immigration could be, but we had hope that after all of the suffering, we could build a better life.
I remember I was asked to provide a lot of original documents and go from one office to another. I spent a lot of time in Moscow and on the train from Gomel to Moscow and back again. The lines were enormously long, whether at the American Embassy in Moscow, banks for money exchange, or other numerous offices—to stay in line could take many hours or even days. Very often, the officials who asked me to provide another piece of reference paper—“spravka”—breathed vodka fumes on me. It took several months of traveling between Gomel and Moscow before I finally got my exit visa. I was stripped of my USSR citizenship as a punishment for leaving. All of my possessions were given away or sold—I was allowed to have with me only two suitcases and $140 at the time I exited the country. It was the point of no return. My goal was to reach America, but I was not sure if it would be possible, as the exit visa from the USSR was my only document. I promised my daughter that wherever I ended up, I would bring her there. We both knew that staying in the country we were born in did not bode well for the future.
The moment of my departure from the Soviet Union will be etched in my memory forever. I bought a train ticket to Vienna, Austria. By that time, the end of October 1989, I was totally drained, physically and emotionally, from my preparations to exit and by the uncertainty of the future. My father—he was 77-years-old at the time—and Natasha came to Brest, a city in Belarus at the border with Poland, to say their last goodbyes to me. I was walking on the platform to get to my train car, hauling my two suitcases behind. The iron fence separated the platform from the rest of the world. My daughter and my father hugged the iron rods from the other side of the fence and tried to scream their last words of goodbye. Their eyes were full of tears. None of us was certain that we ever would see each other again.
In 1991, when my father became brave enough to leave the country, the immigration process I went through was already closed; he, with his family, could go only to Israel. The same happened with my Aunt Inna and her son, Vova—even though they left soon after me, but they could go only to Israel, while her daughter, Rimma, was already in the United States. After a few years, Inna was able to reunite with her daughter Rimma via a family reunification program. Vova stayed in Israel until 2013. The Exodus from the Soviet Union tore many families apart.
The room where we were going through customs control was full of people—they, like I, were at the point of exiting the USSR for good, in hopes of finding a better life. Most of them were three generations of families: grandparents, parents, and children. I think I was the only solo traveler there. The two suitcases (for each person) that we were allowed to take with us were thoroughly searched by customs control officials. The rule was that if you did not give a bribe in advance, before you arrived at that point, you could miss your train. It was fine underground working order. My father gave 200 rubles to a special man—his job was carrying luggage at the station—and he was an initial point of contact in this well-functioning “enterprise.” The man shared the bribes with those who were searching our suitcases. So, I was lucky that all of my belongings, carefully packed by me, were not taken out, and I was not late for my train.
It was a sleepless night on the train to Vienna. There was no place to sit—our suitcases occupied the shelves, and we made an open space for children and elderly people. The rest of us stood. Every time the train passed the border of another country, armed soldiers checked every car of the train, demanding our documents. All of these stops made me very anxious. When the train finally arrived in Vienna the next morning, I felt exhausted, yet happy, to reach my first destination.
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