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"Uncle" David

Galina Briskin's story posted on September 18, 2012 at 9:46 am. Galina emigrated from Moscow, USSR to San Diego, United States in 1978

The Soviet Jewish immigrants were waiting for the American visas and security clearance in Vienna and then in Italy. HIAS helped the immigrants with food,lodging, and immigration documents processing, as the Soviet Government allowed them to exchange rubles only for $85.00 per person upon leaving. The episode from the book "THE JOURNEY FROM RUSSIA" gives the idea of how immigrants adapted to the new difficult conditions in a new world.

"Paulina liked to walk around Vienna by herself. She liked to stop at small boutiques and big department stores and look at the windows. She had no intention of going inside because she couldn’t afford to buy anything. When she walked, she was careful to look at the names of the streets so she could find her way back to the hotel. One afternoon, as she glanced at a window along Mariahilfer Strasse, a nice-looking middle-aged gentleman approached her.He addressed her in German. Paulina asked him whether he spoke English. “Can I help you?” he asked in English.“No, thank you. I just want to memorize the name of this street in order to find the way back to the hotel,” she said, smiling.“Where are you from? Are you an immigrant? Are you Jewish?”“Yes” “That is interesting. This is my boutique,” he said, pointing at the store that Paulina had just looked at through the widow. “Let’s have a cup of coffee. I would like to hear your story.” Paulina followed him, mesmerized by his kind, smart eyes and polite manners. He led her to a small table in a corner of the store. Roses and freesias spilled out from a cut crystal vase in the center of the marble-top table.“Sit down, dear. I will be back with the coffee in a second.” Paulina looked around. It was a chic place filled with beautiful dresses. The sweet scent of expensive French perfume filled the air. She was impressed with the soft-spoken courtesy and patience of the sales people as they assisted customers. Service in the Soviet Union had always been terrible. She had always assumed it was awful everywhere else, too.      Her new acquaintance came back shortly with a silver tray. He placed it on the table. He poured coffee in two cups of fine china and offered her a biscuit.“I am David Levitsky,” he said, stretching his hand to her.“I am Paulina Laskin,” she said, shaking his hand.“Do you have a family?”“ Yes, I emigrated with my family, my husband and two daughters.” She hesitated for a second to give him more information and then added, “My husband is a medical doctor and a scientist. He was invited to work at an American Research institute.” She noticed a deep sadness on his face.“I lost my children and my wife during the World War II. They were shot by Nazis before my eyes. I am the only survivor in my family. I remarried a wonderful woman, but we do not have children. I want to meet your family and invite you to dinner. What if I pick you up tomorrow and take you to our house? My wife Dora will be delighted to have you for dinner. Where are you staying?”Paulina gave him the name of the hotel.“I’ve never heard of this hotel,” he said, “but don’t worry, I’ll find it. I’ll pick you up at six tomorrow evening.”No wonder he had not heard of the hotel. It is probably familiar only to Russian emigrants and the Vienna prostitutes who always crowd the lobby, Paulina wanted to say. She was extremely excited about this unexpected surprise – meeting a stranger in a new country who showed an interest in her fate and invited her family to his house five minutes after they’ve met. She ran to the hotel. She could not wait to share the news with her family.

The next evening, she heard the noise and children’s voices in the corridor. She looked at her watch. It was six o’clock on a dot. David must be there to pick them up for the dinner. She opened the door and saw him climbing the last step. He was out of breath. A bunch of boys from the Russian Jewish emigrant families accompanied him. A giggly kid with red hair and thousands of freckles noticed Paulina standing in the doorway and pointed at her. “Is this the woman you are looking for?”David looked at Paulina and exclaimed: “Oh, yes, this is she. Thank you, boys, you helped me a lot. I probably would not have found her without you.” He reached into his pocket and took out a handful of coins. “Here are your tips. You earned them by honest work.” The boys surrounded him, eager to get their first earnings in foreign currency. David smiled at them with a kind and warm expression. The whole scene amused Paulina. She opened the door and invited him in. David’s face changed drastically as he entered the room. Paulina noticed his pale face and trembling lips and how he tried to hold the tears filling his beautiful big eyes. It took him a few seconds to regain his calm and greet Andrey and the girls. Paulina looked around; trying to decide what had upset him so much. She looked at their room as he might have seen it. It was a gloomy picture – the clothesline across the room, beds crowded edge to edge, luggage stacked in one corner, and boxes open and scattered. It was not the kind of situation one might have expected. There he was, meeting the family of a distinguished Soviet scientist, a PhD in  philosophy and MD, only to find them in a ramshackle shelter for ****** and homeless people. He wiped his tears with his snow-white handkerchief. “I am so honored to welcome you in a free world. I was lucky to meet your charming wife and I’ll do my best to make your stay in Vienna as pleasant as possible,” he told Andrey and the girls.Dora was waiting for them with open arms. She kissed everyone as if they were old friends and offered them a drink. She looked a little bit older than David, but had the body of  a young woman. Her black hair showed some streaks of silver gray. Her face radiated kindness and generosity. Paulina agreed with David when he mentioned that he had married a wonderful woman. The dinner was very simple. Dora prepared Vienna sausages that she served with salads and cooked vegetables. She baked a strawberry cake for dessert.“My husband is a very kind and emotionally sensitive person. He was so touched with the story you told him yesterday about your family that we want to help you. Just tell us, what do you need?” she asked.“We need only your moral support. The fact that we have been invited to dinner and found such warm people so far from our home is a tremendous help. This is only the beginning of our journey. We are the immigrants and we did not expect that it would be easy. But things are not so bad for us. At least we know that Andrey will have a job when we arrive in America. I noticed how David was shocked to see our room, but it does not bother me. It is only temporary. Someday you’ll come to visit us in California and see us in quite different situation. The girls will be professionals after graduation from universities, Andrey will be happy with his research, and I will probably have my own business.”“You are very optimistic, Paulina. I respect you for that,” David said. “You cannot achieve anything in your life if you do not believe in yourself. I have a proposition for your girls. I told you that I lost my children during the war. Dora and I do not have any relatives. We will be happy to help your girls to get a very good education in one of the best European universities. I am wealthy. Besides the boutiques in Vienna and Paris, I own diamond mines in Israel. I can afford to pay for your daughters’ education and living expenses. More than that, we shall arrange private tutors in music and foreign languages.”Paulina looked at the girls. Anya’s face was flush with excitement at the prospect of staying in Europe, but Masha’s face showed no emotion. David looked at her. “You do not have to give me the answer now. Think about this and you can call or write from Italy or America. Meanwhile, call me Uncle David. Masha, it is easier to travel when you live in Europe. You probably want to see the world. Uncle David will help you to see the most beautiful places.”Andrey was impressed with this proposal. Paulina could not understand why David was so touched and emotionally involved with their situation.“Thank you, David and Dora. This sounds very attractive, but it is up to the girls to decide. We will write to you when we get to America and see what awaits us there. Thank you, I am very moved to hear this from you,” Andrey said. He folded his napkin over and over as he spoke. Paulina had never seem him being  so emotional.      On the way back to the hotel, David stopped the car at his boutique store. “I want to give you some presents. Anya and Masha, you can choose whatever you like from our dresses and shoes.” This made Anya cry. “We are not poor people and I do not feel comfortable accepting presents from you,” she said.Masha refused to take anything. David looked disappointed.“I want to give you a present not because I think that you are poor emigrants, but because I like you and consider you my friends. When I come to America to be your guest, you will offer a present to me, and I will accept it with pleasure. The exchange of presents between friends is a common thing in our country,” he explained.Anya was still sobbing when she followed David into the shop. Masha had left all her clothes with her friends in Moscow because she thought she would start working and would be able to buy new clothes. Her friends would be able to use her things, she had told Paulina. All she had kept for herself was one pair of old jeans. Still, she was very reluctant to accept a gift from a man she had just met.  David helped Anya to choose a beautiful navy blue silk dress and matching shoes. Masha chose a pair of jeans and a shirt. As they spent time in the store, the girls began to relax.  “I’ll come tomorrow at the same time and take all of you to a nice restaurant for dinner,” he told them. He kissed everyone as if they were old friends.In their room, Paulina stretched out on her bed and said aloud, “I think that Uncle David will bring luck to us. We are lucky to meet nice people who are willing to help us change our life for the better. Roger did so much for us. If it wasn’t for him, wwe would never have left our country. Now David has appeared from nowhere. Andrey, why do you think people are so nice to us?”“Because you are nice to people. You have some amazing charm that attracts nice people,” Andrey said, looking at her lovingly.“I am glad I do not attract nasty people. I have a problem dealing with them.”“It is not true. You have a talent to deal with all kinds of people and make them feel good.”“I probably inherited this feature from my mother, although it is not possible to be as good as she is.”“Don’t underestimate yourself. Your talent to deal with people is beyond comparison,” Andrey told her.“Don’t underestimate yourself, either. It were you who made me feel confident of myself. You married quite a different woman. You made me like this by trusting me and giving me the freedom to make my own decisions.”    That night, Paulina couldn’t sleep. She thought about David’s proposal regarding the girls. With his proposition, they could go to universities right away and not waste time in America before they could afford to go to school. At the same time, she thought that it was not a good idea for them to live in Europe so far from their parents. Paulina was not sure that it would be easy for them to handle that. She did not trust Masha because her liberal ideas made her unpredictable. She also did not like the idea of living apart from them so soon after leaving Russia. She thought they should all live together for the first difficult years of adjustment in a new environment, and it would be a good lesson for the girls not to rely on somebody’s help but to put their own efforts into a new life. She hated to wake up Andrey but she needed to talk to him. She touched his shoulder.“What is it?” he asked. He had not been sleeping well lately, and Paulina realized that he was concerned about their future life in America.“I am thinking about David’s proposal. I can’t consider it seriously. The girls should stay with us. What do you think?”“Why do you ask me if you have already decided? I agree that they are not ready to live by themselves.”  


The excerpt from the book "Journey From Russia" by G.Briskin.