I grew up in Latvia. The stage of fairy tales. Where Sleeping Beauty lay and Snow White hid from the wicked witch. This enchanted setting sheltered me from the turmoil of my birthplace. Barely safe from the grip of communist Russia, Latvia was as uninviting as a Siberian winter. Before birth, I had two strikes against me: my family’s belief in Judaism and my Russian nationality. Latvians saw both of these cultures not only as alien but also pernicious; they treated the two with outward hostility.Antipathy became part of our daily lives. A Latvian woman even chased my ten-year-old brother off a public bus after discovering that he went to a Jewish school. My mother knew that living in Latvia was no longer a viable option. She began the arduous process of acquiring refugee status for my family.
Our physical passage to America was simple. We took a train to Moscow and after a short stopover at JFK, flew to Los Angeles. However, the emotional repercussions of this short trip were far more lasting. The inability of my seven-year-old mind to comprehend the possibilities of the American dream sank me into a depression. I saw only the negative: I had left behind my father, grandparents, friends, home and way of life. I entered a world where I was a deaf-mute. Understanding nothing and unable to communicate, a sense of impending doom haunted my life. I am going to fail, I thought. This is not my land. Arriving home after a long day of school, I would sit down in front of the TV, mute the volume and watch the jubilant mid-day Duck Tales cartoon run before me as I sobbed my pain.Soon after moving to the US, I morphed from a loving, carefree child into something that could only be described as a dry husk. I went through the day mechanically: woke up at 6am, chewed and swallowed my scrambled eggs, rode the bus to school, sat in class straining to catch a word here or there, came home dizzy with exhaustion, cried, and went off to bed only to repeat the same empty routine the next day.But I was born a fighter. This was a “sink or swim” situation and I would not flounder. After months of struggling with the language, my thinking suddenly transferred from Russian to English. It was as though someone had flicked on an internal switch. Armed with self-expression, I released my unspoken emotions.As I look back on the experience of my immigration, I thank my mother for her wisdom in bringing us to America. I remember the experience of feeling caged by an inability to communicate. This is why I educate myself: never again do I want to be limited by a lack of knowledge.Like Sleeping Beauty, I awoke from my slumber, but not to a handsome prince, rather I awoke to a renewed zeal for education and life.
Donna is the participant of the Russian Jewish Community Leadership Porgram (RJCLP).
A joint program of the Jewish Agency for Israel, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, and the Genesis Philanthropy Group.