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A Continuing Voyage

Konstantin Kraz's story posted on September 01, 2012 at 12:03 am. Konstantin emigrated from St. Petersburg, Russia to Oakland, United States in 1983

In many ways, my family’s immigration journey from the Soviet Union to the U.S. was different from that of many others. I don’t mean the journey itself – of course we followed the “typical” route for the time (1983): Vienna for initial clearance, Rome and its outskirts for the holding pattern while waiting for resettlement paperwork to go through, JFK for customs, and finally (for those who went on to the west coast) SFO. But the way we ended up growing into American life was somewhat less typical. New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles...even by the early ‘80s these cities had established Russian communities with infrastructure, connections, publications, official and unofficial cultural centers, and – most importantly – people who spoke the language and “got” the culture. As it turned out, our family had little of that in the community we settled into – and while this didn't make growing up any easier, looking back I am grateful for it.

My parents were younger than many emigrating couples – Dad was 31 and Mom turned 27 in Italy, young even by Russian standards to have a 7-year-old son – and my father was both ambitious and fiercely eager to sever ties to anything Soviet (to this day he prefers speaking English over Russian). The iconic Russian-American comedian Yakov Smirnoff joked in his early routines that when he went to Cleveland, they made him feel at home – so he had to escape again. This was how my father felt about the Russian-speaking community here; he would have tolerated it as a matter of necessity, but the America he was searching for lay beyond. It took him about two months to begin to find it.

It is important here to recognize that Soviet Jews immigrating to the United States, while certainly facing great hardships, did have many advantages. First and foremost, they were educated; I have never met an ex-Soviet Jew who emigrated as an adult without at least one university degree, and graduate degrees were common (once upon a time the Soviet Union levied a prohibitively steep fee on emigrating citizens as "reimbursement" for the education they received). Second, we didn't look different; sure, we dressed funny, ate weird food and didn't smile much, but we didn't trigger any limiting stereotypes just walking down the street. But perhaps most importantly, we had relentless support of the Jewish community both in transit and after our arrival. HIAS – the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society – helped arrange for literally every need during our physical immigration journey: transportation, orientation, lodging, paperwork…even down to organizing sight-seeing trips in Italy during our stay. Once Stateside, domestic Jewish organizations took over, providing housing and (in many cases) an immediate "home base" with job search resources, day care and cultural education for children, and connections to members of the community at large who were eager to help. (We are still friends with a family that got to know us nearly 30 years ago through donating several pieces of second-hand furniture.) None of this is to suggest that any of our families had it easy, but through the challenges we did have a great support system without which those challenges would be greater still.

And so, my parents' search for the real America began in our apartment in Oakland, California. It was night when we landed at SFO, and the power hadn't been switched on yet. There were three things on the kitchen counter: a bowl of dry Chex cereal, and two cans of 7-Up – my first, unforgettable tastes of American staple cuisine. My parents had both studied English in school, but it was rough at best. We got hold of a tape recorder, and they would record my Dad's telephone interviews so that someone from the JCC could help them later understand exactly what was said. Often, the conversations went something like this:

 - Question: "When would you be able to start?"

 - Answer: "My son is seven years old."


My father sent resumes everywhere from Florida to Alaska. A proud man, he viewed every day of reliance on financial assistance as a personal failure and would have happily moved anyplace where he could begin to provide for the family. As it happened, a technology company in a small coastal town only a couple hours' drive away needed someone with exactly my his experience; we moved two months after arriving in the U.S., just in time for me to start second grade. The position was underpaid, but gave my father a gift: a rare (among immigrants) chance to pick up his career where it left off and immediately move forward. He used that gift wisely, gaining expertise and eventually becoming a successful entrepreneur in his field.

As for my mother, she took care of family life and becoming part of a community. Along with becoming American, we were also becoming consciously Jewish. At the time, our town had one synagogue, a reform congregation. As Mom began to make friends and to connect with other parents in the community, I was slowly learning to connect with the heritage, history and values of the Jewish people. Though few of my friends in public school were Jewish and none were Russian (we were the first Russian family in town), I was fortunate later in life to be able to take a leadership role in the Russian Jewish community. Today, at home as an American and yet deeply connected to my family's roots, I am able to channel my parents' immigration journey into a continuing evolution of building a life in their adopted country. The identity of my generation of Soviet immigrants in America is a work in progress, and it is a privilege to be part of the continuing voyage.


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Ella F.:

unforgettable story, great writing --thanks,

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