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I Feel Like an American

Leonid Vaysman's story posted by Hannah Berkman on February 26, 2013 at 11:26 pm. Leonid emigrated from Kiev, Ukraine to Los Angeles, United States in 1998

I emigrated on April 13 1998 from Kiev. I was 67 years old, and I worked in the USSR until the very last day in a science lab as a supervisor, and I have a Ph.D. I came with my wife. Four years earlier, my youngest son Eugene moved here. I left because I didn’t have any children there anymore, my elder son Jacob moved to Israel with his family as well. At that age, there was nothing left to do there except for my work, and I could’ve worked until this very day if I hadn’t left.


At the time that I was immigrating, it was already easier to get immigration documents and I didn’t run into any trouble with that. My son sent an invitation to unite the family and I was granted permission to leave immediately. The only trouble I ran into was within myself, when deciding whether or not to immigrate. When I arrived in America, however, I was given such a warm welcome that I realized that we had made the right choice.


I lived there my whole life and went through all my milestones there in the USSR. I remember the war; I was only ten years old when the war began. I spent my whole life there, and that certainly leaves a mark. Therefore It was a difficult decision to immigrate because at that age, I wasn’t sure if I could adapt to living in a different place or if I would just be a burden. That was very scary to me. I wasn’t content with life in the Soviet Union, but it was the only life we knew and we were used to it. When I came here, I found out a lot that I didn’t know here and I began to look differently at my life in the Soviet Union. It was a country of lies; the government lied to the people and that was the only way to rule the country. No one could find out the truth about anything. Only now we know that over 100 million people were killed during the 74 years that the Soviet Union existed; 43 million died in the war because the Soviet government essentially allowed Hitler to come to power. We only found that out in America when that information finally became available to us.


My wife and I came to Los Angeles, where my son lived, and our close relatives also immigrated soon after. Of course, Los Angeles had shortcomings, but that comes with anything in life. We live very well here, America did a lot for us; we are well taken care of. I learned English well, and I can now write poems and prose even in English. I learned some English in the Soviet Union when I got my Ph.D in technical sciences but that was in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s but after that I forgot all of that. Furthermore, the English that we were taught there is nothing like the English that is spoken here. Even the professors who taught English language in the USSR couldn’t speak it here for the first half-year or so, they had to adjust their language skills. I had to learn everything anew, which took a lot of time, and I am happy with the result but I will never be able to speak like a native speaker. By the time I came here, I couldn’t work in my profession anymore because of my age, foreign diplomas, and language barrier. However, now I write poetry and prose in English, Russian, and Ukrainian, and get published in various magazines here and in Israel, Russia, and Ukraine.


It was difficult to adjust to life in America, however now I don’t feel like an outcast at all; I have adjusted. I understand American laws and abide by them, I drive a car, I speak English, and I have American friends. I feel that for my age, I live a fulfilling life here. I definitely don’t regret my decision to come here. It was, however, difficult to leave behind friends and family in Kiev. When I get the chance, I travel to Kiev and visit family, colleagues, and friends, and unfortunately, gravesites as well.


Everyone here was incredibly friendly and welcoming. We were helped in every aspect: housing, healthcare, etc. I was given the chance to study at ORT Institute and I learned English there. We found other Russian immigrants quickly and I even reconnected with people I knew in Kiev and made new friends as well. When I came here, my outlook on life changed. I learned so much that I hadn’t previously known; I had access to so much more information and literature. I watch television, I go to the library and read books, and am able to learn so much more than I could there. But I remember my past very often and am nostalgic about it, but I’m not full of grief. My youth is gone, and that time is gone. You can’t return to it so of course I remember everything that was.


As for religion, I always felt like a Jew, even in the Soviet Union. But there I couldn’t follow the traditions because I didn’t have access to religion or religious texts at all. If you go to the synagogue, KGB will open a file on you and will follow you. Only several years after the Soviet Union fell apart could you go to the synagogue openly. I study Hebrew and Jewish history and traditions. We go to synagogue here on the holidays as a family and try to follow Jewish traditions.


Today, I feel like an American.