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A Troubled Past to A Brighter Future

Olga Kelmis's story posted on February 01, 2012 at 3:36 pm. Olga emigrated from Lvov, Ukraine to New York, United States in 1994

“My Story Essay”

Submitted by: Olga Kelmis

During the age in which we live in, it is very common to come upon a person who has immigrated to another country or had family members who have done so. America is famously known as one of the largest, and most diverse cultural melting pots on the face of the planet. Regardless of when one has immigrated to another area of residence, the process is usually hard and torturous. One has to leave the life that they once had behind; leave their jobs, their neighbors, and everything that is familiar to them in order to achieve a promised better-quality life in a country completely unfamiliar to them. Imagine the fear these people experienced, coming to a country without money, without a place to live, and attempt to learn a language completely foreign to their ears. This very closely describes my immigration experience; my family uprooted themselves seventeen years ago to travel halfway across to globe to a place they only read about in papers and saw on the news. The decision to do this became one that would change not only my life but my family members’ lives, forever.

People move to other countries for many different reasons. Some move for a better job opportunity, others travel large distances for the ones they love, yet others travel vast distances just to have some assurance of safety. I was born in Lvov, Ukraine on the 7th of December 1990. During this time, the town in which I lived in had started becoming largely anti-Semitic. If you were Jewish, many things were difficult for you, while your neighbors would think nothing of the obstacles you would have to overcome in order to be an equal to them. Being Jewish meant you weren’t allowed to attend certain schools like other students without having to pay a hefty sum. Job opportunities were limited because no one wanted Jewish people working for them. Remember that this was not the time of the famous World Wars or the Holocaust; this was just the 1990’s, just a few decades ago.

In order to better understand the hardships of my family, you would need to look a few years back to see how and why my family was pushed to move to America. My grandfather once told me of his experience living as a small boy in Nazi occupied Ukraine:

…At the beginning of World War II in the Soviet Union, my family including my mother, father, two sisters, and three brothers ran away from Obodovka to Bershad to our grandmother Lyuba Soltsman and grandfather; Srul Soltsman’s house. At the time they lived near a market and a synagogue; behind the house was a water well. A few days after our arrival at Bershad; the Romanian- German solders occupied the town. Subsequently the Bershad Ghetto was established. All the Jews lived in a place fenced by barbed wire. It was forbidden for us to go out of the fenced area. Yellow stars were placed on the front and back of our clothing. Our parents hid us in the house for most of the time. One day three Romanian-German soldiers and a Jewish Policai nicknamed “Bolter”; a man of whom many feared; were making a list of capable people and took away our food and clothing. When my mother took me outside, I saw mass amounts of people dead; even whole families. The naked corpses were taken to the back of the synagogue. In the Ghetto we were not supplied with any food, clothing, or money. My parents were tailors; they risked their and our lives tailoring clothes for the Ukrainians living outside the Ghetto in exchange for food (some beets, potatoes, and corn). In the Ghetto these types of exchanges were extremely forbidden and people and their families would be killed for any miscalculated step. My parents told me about this one man who picked up a rotten apple off the floor and was killed on the spot. Once I went under the fence to get a piece of corn. A Nazi solider spotted me and opened fire. Miraculously I was able to escape. We were always hungry. My sister Charna who was twenty years old at the time died in the Ghetto. She died because she gave away her food to the younger kids in the Ghetto. Jews from other regions were bought to the Ghetto and were placed in our house. Around twenty people; adults, children, and disabled individuals occupied the house. The living conditions were unsanitary and we were frequently ill. There was no way to get heat into the house so it was always cold inside. My father was taken away in 1942; we did not know of his whereabouts till 1944. When he came back, he told us that he was taken to a concentration camp in Nikolayev, Odessky Region, Ukraine. In March 1944 some of the victims who fled the concentration camp carried my father in a fabric sack. He was so weak that he could not move. We lived in complete isolation. People were violently mugged and killed...

These troubling times definitely influenced my family’s decision to move to the United States. Discrimination was everywhere and we needed to escape.

On the 25th of May 1994; my family and I immigrated to the United States. My mother recalls the first moments out of the airport as being an exhilarating experience; “Everything was remarkably beautiful from the weather to the neatly washed cars outside on the street corners”. Getting established in this new country was not easy at first. My family had no place to live; luckily my great aunt moved to America a decade ago, and let us stay over at her apartment until we established a permanent living situation. Seven people lived in a one bedroom apartment for a few months. During this time my parents immediately found jobs in order to support our family. In Ukraine my mother was a licensed nurse; however in America she needed to retake this exam in order to be licensed under the New York jurisdiction. She spent her days working as a nurse assistant, at night she would spend her time studying for her board exams. My father had a hard time finding a job in the area due to his inability to speak English. He eventually found work in a neighboring state working construction. This meant that I lived with my grandparents for most of my childhood, up to the age of thirteen. Overall times were tough, there were high points and low points, but eventually we made it through them together.

Looking back on the last seventeen years, it feels unreal that immigrating to America happened so long ago when it actually feels like yesterday. My family and I still are still met with challenges and struggles every day, and we continue to conquer them together as a unit, fighting against injustices and adversity of the Jewish people.


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Miriam Z.:

amazing story -- very interesting and thoughtful--thank you!!

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