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I Was Saving My Son

Raisa Silver's story posted on December 04, 2012 at 5:31 pm. Raisa emigrated from Moscow, Soviet Union (USSR) to Millburn, NJ, United States in 1975

The story of Raisa Silver, a mother, a writer and a very special person.

Written by Naomi Zubkova 

In 1969, we first heard that people, primarily Polish Jews, were allowed to leave U.S.S.R. We knew about the existence of Israel, and, like most of Moscow’s Jewish intelligentsia, were secretly anti-Soviet. However, we could not imagine ourselves living in another country.

Everything changed with the birth of our baby boy – he was born  premature and was very sick. The doctors diagnosed him with a brain hemorrhage. We soon realized that the only chance we have in saving him was to emigrate.

I am an engineer-economist by training. By nature I am a writer, journalist, and poet. Like many young idealistic girls of my time I wrote poetry, however I thought very little about my poetic gifts. Since I was fascinated by the stories about the far away and forbidden to visit countries, I wanted to become a geography teacher. But I was not accepted as a Geography major to the University because my grades on the written entrance  exam were rigged. The official explanation for the lower grade was my ‘poor handwriting’. This was a typical Soviet excuse to keep Jews from entering the prestigious departments of the Moscow University.   As a result, in 1951, I barely managed to be accepted as an evening student majoring in Engineering and Economics. At that time, the failure to gain acceptance to the University was a heavy blow for an intelligent and ambitious girl.

I lived with my mother. My father died when I was 11 years old. As I now understand, we lived in difficult circumstances. However, we did not realize it, and even helped others. While studying at  College, I held a factory job. I married in my fifth year of attending school. My daughter Vera was born when I was 23 years old.

My husband David Zilbermints was a real genius. I consider myself basically an average person, having some musical and literary inclanations. He was, as they say, “off the charts”. But even he had hard time getting into Moscow’s Baumhann’s Technical College. His entrance exam’s essay was conveniently ‘lost’ and therefore his grade was unsatisfactory, which prevented him from getting into College of his choice. 

After graduating I worked as an engineer/economist. I hated my job. Instead, I adored literature and painting. This was typical of the young people of that time. I realized that I was in the wrong place. I was  born to be a social worker, a rabbi and a psychotherapist rolled into one, if you will. All my life I enjoyed working with people, helping them, sharing their problems.

I worked in the Central Science and Research Institute of Projects and Automated Systems in Construction. First I started as an engineer, then I was promoted to a senior engineer. My photo was posted on a Company’s News Board featuring best employees.  Gradually  I developed a strong antipathy to everything I was doing.  Sometimes I had the feeling that there was a glass wall growing between me and my friends. I was the team captain of two project institutes, and was considered “the most sharpest and beautiful girl in Moscow and Moscow Oblast (region)”…

Later, Lev was born. Unimaginally difficult times began. When he was 13 month old, he was diagnosed with petit mal epilepsy. Lev had up to forty seizures per day.

How on earth  he could have been born a normal, healthy child. The horror was that my doctor, the district gynecologist, had a severe form of schizophrenia. She was forbidden to perform abortions, which was a common thing in the Soviet Union, but allowed to treat ill patients and care for pregnant women. I had fainting spells due to negative Rhesus factor. My doctor was not concerned about this. When, at seven months, I started having labor pains, my gynecologist decided it was cystitis. She prescribed an antibiotic and sent me home.

A miracle saved our son. Friends got medicines for him wherever it could be found: in Kremlin’s hospital, the KGB clinic… Only the American medicine, which was injected into Lev’s head, was working.

Later, our son was diagnosed mentally retarded. At age three, he could barely talk, although he quite easily coped with three-digit numbers. From now on our life was dedicated to Lev’s schedule.

We shared  an apartment with my father-in-law on the outskirts of Moscow , by the subway station “Kahovskaya”. Old Abraham Lazarevich Zilbermints was a smart, intelligent but very difficult man. Three years before our emigration I finally ‘received’ a great three-room apartment with assistance from my Company.

My husband David finished very prestigious college and  worked in the Likhachev’s constructor’s bureau. David was an inventor, and he alone invented the hydraulic mechanism for the Company  Director’s car. It saved the company thouthands of dollars since this mechanisms were only available in England.  He jokingly called his department the “Judraulics bureau” since all its employees were Jewish. He was brilliantly educated, an erudite man with a keen intellect. Our children, daughter and son, are like him, both intellectually and talent-wise.

He did not want to emigrate, did not understand how we could get started in another country. We did not know anything about life in other countries, did not imagine whether our son could receive free medical treatment somewhere.

First we thought about Israel. Through connections and friends we forwarded Lev’s medical history to Israel’s Ministry of Health. From there came an answer. Your son, it said, can be treated and taught. However, so far it can be only done in the United States, Canada and France.

My husband knew German, took courses to learn English and Japanese. He earned extra money by making technical translations. Every month we had to pay middlemen huge money for Lev’s medicines.

I did not have spare money left over for myself. As a result, I sewed the clothes for the whole family and knitted winter clothes. I recall how, at age 38, my mother presented me with a beautiful wool jersey  three-piece suit – this was my only suit bought from the store. But material hardships did not concern me. There was the concerts at the Moscow Conservatory, the’ Sovremennik’ Theater. Our daughter Vera was growing up to be a very  talented  young girl.

Despite everything, life went on. My mother and my old, beloved nanny Shurochka babysat   with Lev. This allowed me to go to work part-time, sometimes visit  the theater or a concert. They loved Lev and cared for him.

This continued until Lev turned seven. At that time we  seriously started thinking about emigrating. Everyone --the doctors who diagnosed Lev; the psychotherapists who helped me work with him; the school teachers who thought Lev made their verdict: our son’s place is in the a school for mentally retarded. We as parents had no ‘say’ in the Soviet Education system. This was the last straw. We were ready to emigrate.

Ekaterina Sverdlova, A. Solzhenitsyn’s mother-in-law, happened to be my co-worker. She arranged for “an aunt of my husband” from Israel to send us a ficticious invitation to emigrate. We applied soon after.

I was immediately laid off. So I changed career and became  a clerk at the nearby store. There I was recipient of a thank-you letter from my grateful customers.

My husband remained at his job. However, every week an instructor from the Regional Party Committee came to my husband’s department to read a lecture about Israel’s nefarious plots and condemn ‘agressors’.

My father-in-law firmly  refused to emigrate, saying that he became rooted to this country. He survived pogroms in Odessa and the Russian Revolution. At almost 80 years old, he spent days in Lenin’s Library, secretly writing the history of the Jewish people. Unfortunately, no one got to read it.

Just before our emigration, my father-in-law broke his leg. When we requested from OVIR to delay our emigration we’ve been refused.  We were told to bid farewell to Abraham at his bedside. But he did not remain alone. My mother and friends frequently visited him.

More than thirty years passed since then. Sometimes I wake up in horror during the night.

How could we leave grandfather alone?!

My mother at first also refused to leave. She emigrated later.

Lev had petit mal epilepsy, and, as the Soviet  doctor said, water in his brain. Later, it turned out to be not quite, or more accurately, not so at all.

In the summer of 1974, we attempted to meet with the American consul. We wanted to find out if we would be allowed to America with Lev’s illnesses. The dissident Mikhail Agursky helped us in this. With the consent of the U.S. consul, Agursky gave us his phone number. My husband who spoke a little  English called the consul from a pay phone and then he  agreed to meet him.

But the meeting did not take place, because, whenmy husband was approaching the American Embassy, he was intercepted by plainclothes KGB agents. They seized him, pushed him into a taxi, and tore his pants top to bottom. He was then delivered to the nearest police station. A bystander who happened to see this shouted, “What are you doing? Why did you seize such an intelligent man?” She was told by the KGB that  “He stole a purse from a citizen.”

At this  time, U.S. Senator Bill Brady was in Moscow with an official visit. So the KGB decided that my husband was a defector trying to meet the Senator. Obviously there was a huge uproar, because the head of KGB’s Jewish section came to the police station. My husband told him everything about Lev’s hopeless situation. He obviously told his story so well that we were allowed to leave the country without any problems.

But when the KGB agents were pushing my husband into the taxi, they punched him very hard in the stomach. Four months after arriving in the US, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He was ill for two and a half years. These were painful years, alternating between home and hospital. My husband could not stand these circumstances. He committed suicide by jumping out of a hospital window.

Our route to America lay through Austria and Italy. We lived in Ostia for four months. Once we arrived, we were greeted by HIAS representative. Well-known dissidents Veronica Stein and her husband Yuri, who’ve been exiled from U.S.S.R. in 1973 and residing in Italy, notified HIAS about the arrival of Solzhenitsyn’s friends with a sick child.

In Italy, with HIAS’ assistance, Lev was examined by a number of doctors. In America we arrived  to a very good Jewish community in Millburn, New Jersey. We were well-received. This was very important for us, since we had no one in America, no one to talk to or advise us. 

The Girl from Sretenka.

Our daughter Vera went to New York a day after we arrived in America. She was accepted to Queens College.  Later, she transferred to Columbia University. Vera graduated with Honors from Columbia in 1979.

However, she left Moscow with a heavy heart.

She was very capable writer. At age 14-15, Vera wrote stories, mostly humorous. Her stories were well-received and sometimes published in two major Soviet newspapers, “Moscow Komsomolets” and “Komsomoskaya Pravda”, on the same day.

One day, the journalist Sasha Aronov called me from “Moscow Komsomolets”. He said that the last name Zilbermints was not the best for Komsomol (Communist Union of Youth) press. That was when I remembered my uncle, Aviation General Efim Polyanker. He changed his name to Paul Polyansky at age sixteen to sound more Russian than Jewish . Thus my Verochka became Vera Polyanskaya.

Occasionally it happened, that the same issue of Komsomolskaya Pravda published two stories, one by Vera Zilbermints, the other by Vera Polyanskaya. Vera’s writing  took first place in the yearly Lenin’s jubilee contest and she was awarded a trip to the German Democratic Republic from the Komsomol Central Committee.

At the same time, the Sretenka High school for Performing Arts recruited gifted children for a theater class. Vera’s stories became her pass into this school. Beginning ninth grade, she studied there in the department of theater journalism. After graduation, she was immediately accepted as a sophomore theater major by the Moscow University. What really complicated the situation that she was madly in love with her class mate.  So Vera too, refused to emigrate.

 It was so hard to convince her to go with us! I thought I would die from a heart attack.

My husband insisted on leaving hebehind. All he was able to think is Lev. He was a very temperamental, impulsive, but highly decent  man.

I used all my connections trying to find out if this young boy could follow us to America someday. But I firmly told Vera, “I cannot leave you. If something happens to your father, I will be all alone with a sick son.”

And Vera left with us.

Here in America, Lev immediately went to third grade in elementary school. In U.S.S.R, it was proposed that Lev attend school for mentally retarded children. He was homeschooled by a teacher. In first grade, he computated three-digit numbers. But he was a very active and attentive child. My husband bought him a big notebook and gave him math problems to solve. I wrote about this in a letter to my co-workers back in the USSR along with the best wishes for the New Year 1976.  I wrote that we were doing well. Vera is attending a university. Lev is in third grade, and a member of the U.S. Chess Federation. Nobody believed me – the letter had a n effect of a bombshell.

Laughter is good, but these were difficult times. We lived in Irvington for 2.5 years. Lev was in school. A school-bus came and picked him up.My husband was very sick, alternating between hospital and home. He managed to get a job, joining a small engineering company for $5-6 per hour. The company took full advantage of his talents.  When he was really sick and they need him  they would sent a car to pick him up.

The doctors in the hospital  called him a  “miracle”. A priest came to see him. Father George grew up in America. They spent lots of time arguing about Biblical themes,about life in general.  He admitted that debating with my husband helped him to sharpen his arguments before delivering sermons in his church.

When my husband died, he was buried by a rabbi and the entire local Baptist community. Baptists donned yarmulkes. Later they offered me care and assistance.

 I remained alone with Lev. Vera was attending school in New York.

At this point, my mother had not yet arrived. My father-in-law  was still alive, but  we could not tell him that his son died.

I began to write. If I did not write, I might not have survived.

And Lev… As soon as we arrived in America, my husband used the telephone book to find the best epilepsy specialist in the country, Dr. Gail Solomon. She worked in the Columbia Prespyterian Hospital. We called there and were immediately accepted. The Millburn Jewish community paid for Lev’s medical expenses. Lev was monitored at the Columbia University. As soon as new medicines were picked for him, his condition stabilized. The situation drastically improved when Lev, who has very bad hearing, was prescribed eyeglasses and hearing aids.

Lev was treated very well in school, even though he was a child with a special needs.

From the hospital bed  my husband called home and helped Lev with schoolwork. He went through botany at the elementary school level. Up until sixth grade, Lev did great in science.

At first, the Jewish community assisted us. Later, I did not require this help. As a brilliant student, Vera received a scholarship. She also worked part-time. I received assistance and also worked. I worked in small magazines, typed, and sorted papers. I also cleaned apartments.

A year-and-a-half later, I met Leon, now my husband.

He is an engineer from Kiev. Knowing, smart, strong, business-oriented.  Sometimes he likes to brag.  A serious family man. In other words, a typical know-it-all from Darnitsa.

We are together 32 years. Many interesting things we have done together. I came up with ideas, and he picked up and executed them.

When my husband was in a hospital, dying from cancer, I needed to recoup for the next day and another battle. So I began to take a walk around the lake every evening.. I thought how fortunate I was that I came to America. Because I saved Lev and took Vera with me. I thought about this! In Russia, Lev would have been confined to a psychiatric hospital. Here he attends school. This realization gave me added strength.

I  had a decent job, but it was not my calling.

I had already started writing articles at the time. It all started with an essay about becoming an American citizen. I was so impressed by this occasion that I wrote an essay and sent it to the newspaper “Novoye Russkoye Slovo.” The newspaper published it as a story. Suddenly I became active, each week sending a new story for publication.

The newspaper published all my  stories. I started receiving bags of mail from the readers. Bags! I wept. This shocked me, as it seemed that I did not deserve this. Do not deserve to have my story published in the jubilee issue of the newspaper, right next to the story of a great writer Vasily Aksenov. Do not deserve to have my article open the learning book of ‘Russian language and literature for American Uuniversity students’.

This country saved my son. I remember very well what he was and what he has become.

He was seriously treated in school. The teachers took care of him like I would care for my boy. Teachers visited me during holidays. I saw such human kindness. Of course, not all people here are so wonderful. The main thing is concept, a sense of direction. I clearly saw that Lev would receive proper attention here. Eyeglasses needed? No problem. A hearing aid? Please. A specialist-doctor? No problem. This school does not suit you? Let us try another one. Everything was done with love and respect to a little sick child with serious desease, and this literally shocked me.

 When lawyers advised me to sue the hospital where my husband  committed suicide, I refused. I was offered a large sum of money, but I could not do it. I was incredibly grateful for the care given to him  and to me. I am still amazed by the respectful way disabled people are treated in this country.

I’m still amazed when our Polish superintendent wishes me a Happy Rosh Hashanah. I know there are many imperfections here. But the main thing is a positive attitude, humanity. I remember how we attended a concert of the Israeli ensemble. The huge hall was packed. Everywhere were heads in yarmulkes.  So Jews could gather together? I wept!

I still remember our hotel in East Orange when we’ve arrived. I went out for a walk. In a garden  a man was cutting roses. I stopped admiring the beauty of the flowers. The man gave me a small bouquet as a gift. I wanted to tell the man this was my first day in America, but I was embarrassed of my accent.

Here my Jewishness was never a problem. But back in Russia… On the street, my husband is addressing Lev by name. A drunkard is walking towards them. He is asking, “You are a fool, a fool. Why did you give a Jewish name  to such a beautiful boy?” What of my daughter, Vera Zilbermints, an immigrant, being accepted to Columbia University with scholarship?

Lev cannot work. But only think how many interesting things he has done! He was listed five times in WHO’S WHO AMONG COLLEGE STUDENTS IN AMERICA.

I pay for one three-credit course which Lev takes in college. This allolws him to represent the college in chess competitions, be on the staff of the school newspaper, etc. He is also the Republican Chairman of Newark’s West Ward. Lev organizes tournaments at the McDonald’s in Newark. Teenagers from various backgrounds, many are from  disadvantage families, participate in Lev’s tournaments.

Some things Lev does very well, others does not understand at all. He is the way he is. Lev is considered one of the best chess players in New Jersey. He publishes a lot of articles in chess magazines. Also, he created a chess team in his school.

Back in 1988, I received a call from NJ Federation of Metrowest – they offered me a position of the Director of a Senior Center club.  Our Federation had 14 such clubs. Thirteen were American, and one, Russian-American. I was given a very decent salary and  worked there for almost 15 years. This was really what I wanted. I came up with projects and ideas by myself. Not only that, but I even gave lectures to my  American colleagues  about organizing  care of senior citizens. I was paid $250 per hour for these lectures.

My club had literature readings, a library, English lessons. There also were lectures about the lives of elderly people, and a wonderful choir, “From Russia With Love”. I even myself headed the choir, thanks to my musical training. We had a wonderful pianist, Leonid Pikovsky, a teacher at Kharkov’s Conservatory. Our choir made appearances in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Newspapers in New York and New Jersey wrote about  the Senior choir which raised the confidence of my senior citizens.

My film scenarios had been used to create the short film clips about immigrants learning English. I collected the oral stories of immigtrants  who were children in the early 20th century.

For another 8 years, I was director of the Recreation Activity Department in a multi-apartment complex in Newark. Ten thousand people, mainly immigrants, lived in these apartments. Lev and I helped Newark’s mayor, Cory Booker, during elections. C. Booker visited the apartment complex often as both  Lev and I helped him  greatly with public relations.

Several times a year I organized free medical checkups for illegals and those without medical insurance. Women received mammograms. A gynecologist did medical checkups in my office. Later we screened men for prostate cancer with no charge and saved many lives.

I did various things. Used my own money to help people move to a better apartments, picked up donated furniture. Helped someone to win a lawsuit against a hospital, another with medical insurance. Cannot list everything I did.

It is a fire inside me, the motivation to always come and help. It was the same way in Moscow. And many  people  in New Jersey– whether they are Russian  immigrants or not, know that if you need help, ask Raisa.

Since 2009 I am retired. My husband and I attend the nearby University. We pay $125 per semester and study interesting subjects: politics, movies, music.

I even gave lectures in English at the  University last semester. My course was called “Russian for Fun.”  Life goes on!  And I think I made it in America.