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Dreams and Realities - Clara Minz's Story

Clara Minz's story posted by Daniel Koch on November 27, 2012 at 5:08 pm. Clara emigrated from Moscow, Soviet Union (USSR) to Boston, United States in 1981

 Dreams and Realities – Clara Minz’s  Story”


Clara Mints was born in 1922. Before the Revolution, her paternal grandmother lived in the large city of Nizhniy Novgorod (Gorky). She came from Poland which was part of the Russian Empire at this time. Before the Revolution, Jews could only live in the Pale of Settlement. Furthermore, they could only live in a large city if they were a rich merchant (“kupets pervoj gildie”), a lawyer, or a doctor. After the Revolution, the Soviets abolished ghettos and the Pale of Settlement, and allowed Jews to live anywhere in Soviet Russia. As a result, many Jews supported the Revolution and joined the revolutionaries. The Revolution gave Jews equal rights but the wealthy lost everything. Originally, Clara’s paternal grandmother owned a small factory where Clara’s father worked when he was about 14-years-old. The Soviets confiscated this factory after the Revolution, when they transferred all private property to the state. Clara’s grandmother hated the Soviets for this. After the authorities confiscated her grandmother's factory, her children became regular citizens who worked regular jobs. Clara’s father lived in a shtetl where he studied mostly religion and a few general subjects.

Clara’s mother was from an affluent Lithuanian family. The family was well off because they managed a big estate that belonged to a rich Polish family. As a result, they could afford to send Clara’s mother to a lyceum in the capital city of Vilnius. Students who graduated from the lyceum became well-educated. For example, Clara’s mother knew French, which in imperial Russia was considered a mark of nobility. When WWI started in 1914, Clara’s mother’s family escaped to Russia.

When Clara was born, the family moved from Nizhniy Novgorod to Moscow. First they rented a room and then got a small apartment. By 1922, Clara’s father owned a small tool shop with one employee. The USSR allowed this under the New Economic Policy. After the Revolution, when the Soviets seized all private property, farmers left their farms behind. Eventually, the farms fell apart because they lacked good management. In response, the government allowed some people to start certain private enterprises. Such people were dubbed NEPmen. A few years later in 1928, the government confiscated those same small businesses and announced that employers would be exiled. Clara’s mother panicked. Clara’s father was a good person and did not want his employee to lose his income, so he did not report that he had an employee. In the end, Clara’s father was not exiled but the authorities did confiscate his business.

 Soon, the government also began to jail those successful entrepreneurs and took Clara’s father away. They searched their apartment but they did not have anything valuable. Although Clara’s family had a relatively good income, they spent it all on summer home rentals, vacations, and good food, as opposed to gold or other valuables. The authorities demanded that Clara’s father bring them all his assets. Since he owned none, he devised a plan. He had some paper soviet money so he went to Nizhniy Novgorod and somehow exchanged it for tsarist gold coins. He brought the coins back and the authorities let him go. They let him keep his apartment and the family was not jailed or exiled. However, he needed to find another job. The only jobs available were in state enterprises. Clara’s mother, who never worked before, also began looking for work. She was an educated woman who hoped to get a job as a bookkeeper or accountant.

Clara’s father went looking for work. It was very important to have the right kind of background when applying for a job in the Soviet Union during this time. For example, he hid the fact that he previously owned a business. At first, he received a job in the Moscow city municipality. However, he did not stay long and found another job working for one of the secret factories dubbed, “pochtovyj yashchik”. They called the factories this because they had a P.O box instead of a proper address. Usually the plants worked on something related to defense or espionage. They dealt with military or nuclear secrets, physics, radio transmitters, or even biological weapons.

 Clara’s father’s factory was located in the Moscow suburbs. He began working in procurement for the factory. He spent a lot of time in Moscow at different ministries, getting supplies for his company. He had a lot of connections from his time as a private businessman. He also got along very well with people, so he succeeded in this job. He was a generous person, and people liked him. Clara remembers when he had his business and the family would gather guests in their home. Her father would preside over a large table with great food.

Clara’s paternal uncle was in private business and was also jailed. However, her uncle was not as lucky as her father. The authorities sent him into forced labor in northern Russia to build the Belomor-Baltic Canal. This canal was the first major project constructed with forced labor in the USSR. The USSR forced approximately 100,000 convicts into building the canal and there were enormous casualties among them. Clara’s uncle spent two years there but he survived.

Later on in 1937, when Stalin’s purges began, a wave of anti-Semitism forced all the Jews out of Clara’s father’s factory. However, they kept the most valuable people and this proved crucial when the Germans approached Moscow in the fall of 1941. At that time, entire plants, hospitals, and other institutions moved to the Far East and people like Clara’s dad were instrumental. Clara’s father’s plant was sent to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. The families could go as well since the plant provided a means of transportation. Clara, along with her mother and sister, left Moscow. Clara’s family had a one room apartment in a gorgeous building in the heart of Moscow and her father stayed behind because they feared for their apartment.

While in Tashkent, Clara began her studies in the medical school. There were almost no men enrolled. Her classmates were from all over the Soviet Union. There were refugees from Odessa, Kiev – all of the places occupied by the Germans. Throughout the war, food was rationed to 200 grams of bread per day, but because of Clara’s father’s work for the government, Clara’s family received a bit more. Little by little life eventually got better.

When Moscow was liberated, Clara’s family returned. Clara graduated from medical school in Moscow. She received a PhD in pediatrics. She always worked modestly. She considers herself lucky because the people she worked with were mostly Jews. Her patients were also mostly Jewish. Unfortunately, Clara’s husband’s work-life was not as ideal. Clara’s husband was a very talented individual. He received a Red Diploma in physics from Moscow University. When they got married, Clara was just finishing her last course. Her husband worked at an institute with a good graduate school. This was in, about, 1948. Sadly, the institute fired every single Jew. The new director missed her husband because he was a very talented and needed person, so he went to the ministry to try to get him rehired. The director was not even granted an audience. After this, her husband found it difficult to get a job in his field because he was a Jew. He eventually found a job somewhere doing spectral analysis but his director was a terrible anti-Semite. As a result, he could not write a dissertation even though he had the qualifications. It was only in the last few years, before Clara left the country, that his former employer rehired him.

Regardless, Clara’s husband wanted to believe that they were building a communist state in the USSR. On the other hand, Clara’s son hated the Soviet regime from the beginning. After he graduated from school, he began to look for jobs in the recruitment office. However, all the jobs paid very little. During this time, emigration from the USSR began. Her son managed to get a job with a family friend, worked for 1-2 years, and then Clara’s family decided to submit papers for immigration to Israel. Her son arrived in America with his wife and daughter in 1978. Clara, her husband, and her father, came in 1981.


What did you hear about Israel when you lived in the Soviet Union?


They wrote about Israel in the newspapers, but they would only refer to Israel as the, “Israeli aggressors.” Also, Clara’s father had a radio as far back as before the war. The radio could receive a signal from abroad. However, the authorities sometimes “suppressed” the signal with special transmitters. Other information got through from the West through journalists, etc.

When Israel was first established, the Soviet Union was on its side and even supplied aviation through the Czech Republic. At first, the Soviet Union was pro-Israel. Maybe this was because they thought that there were many people from the Soviet Union in Israel and many pro-communists among the Russian Jews. Russia even voted in the UN to establish the state of Israel. The Soviet Union’s attitude only changed later, when Israel found an ally in the US and the Arab –Israeli conflict began. When this happened the Soviet Union started referring to Israel as an aggressor.

People wanted to leave for Israel. In the beginning, the authorities would not let people out. After Stalin’s death and with America’s intervention, people started getting out little by little. Some people were held back by the State. Those that worked for secret companies could not leave. A friend of Clara’s had both children and their families in the US. However, she herself could not leave because she previously traveled to Italy as part of her job. It’s possible that the government believed she knew some technical secrets or perhaps they thought she was an Italian spy. Clara’s friend was only allowed to join her children a few years later when the authorities finally released her.