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From Miracle to Miracle: My Grandmother's Story (Part Two)

Aleksandra Gelfand's story posted by Gary Dreyer on March 06, 2013 at 10:43 pm. Aleksandra emigrated from Petrozavodsk, Russia to New York, United States in 1992

Aleksandra Gelfand immigrated from Petrozavodsk, Russia to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (and eventually New York City, NY) in October of 1992. This part of the story includes all her memories from after 1945.

            After the war’s end in May of 1945, it took a while for all enlisted men to gradually return home. My father ultimately came back during the winter of 1946, and slowly but surely we did our best to return to our normal lives. However, many of the scars inflicted by those four long years never seemed to heal. I began going to the local school in September of 1945, which I was lucky to do as many children around my age missed many years of schooling and would end up years behind. I was an excellent student, and was the highest ranked student in my class in both fourth and seventh grade. But alas, things were never easy for Jews in the Ukraine, as a rule. While myself and all the other Jewish students received letters of recommendation and achievement at our tenth grade graduation, none of us were ever considered for the famous gold medal, the highest honor the Soviet school system bestowed on one member of every single graduating class. By this time my older brother was studying at a technical college in the city of Petrozavodsk, the capital of what was then the Karelo-Finnish SSR. My mother’s sister aunt Anna had also settled down there after the war, working as a highly respected physician. When the time came for me to apply for higher education, there was no doubt that very little opportunity existed anywhere in the Ukraine for anyone of Jewish heritage, and the only places willing to accept Jews were few and far away, primarily in Northern Russia and Siberia, with a few other institutions in the Baltic republics and the Caucuses also willing to overlook this tremendous disadvantage. One of the areas where Jews could get an education and live in relative stability was Petrozavodsk, and as we already had ties there, the decision was made for me to apply to Petrozavodsk University to the department of Physics and Mathematics. Soon after my application, I was informed of my acceptance.

            In July of 1955 I left my hometown of Chernyakhiv on a train bound for Lenningrad (now St. Petersburg) with my cousin Betty from Zhitomir. The distance from Chernykhiv to Petrozavodsk is roughly 2000 kilometers, essentially the same as from New York to Miami. Both of us were utterly terrified about what awaited, but we both knew that it was the only way for us to obtain an education and our only hope for leading better, more stable lives. Upon arrival in Lenningrad we had to go from once railway terminal to another, which we miraculously managed to do without any major problems, despite neither of us ever being in a city as large and complex as the one we were now in. The six years which followed were full of tremendous difficulty and hardship, but somehow I managed to graduate in June of 1961 with a degree in Mathematics from the University of Petrozavodsk, making me my parent’s third child to receive a higher education.

            While I was a student at the university, I also took a number of jobs to support myself. At first, I worked for a while as a laboratory assistant. It was difficult, tiring work which took up much time and paid relatively little. In 1958 however, I took a job in a village school around 30 kilometers from Petrozavodsk. It was quite a rough experience, as getting to and from there was very difficult, and the job was quite demanding. But I gained a lot of experience in teaching, and was able to make a rather decent income when compared with what I had been earning before. After working there for two years, I made the decision that it was time to move on and find a new career. Therefore, I took a job at School ?24 in Petrozavodsk. I worked there for around two years, and I cannot say that it was a bad experience, but I simply became bored of it soon after and instead decided to take an engineering job at a major local construction materials factory. This would turn out to be one of the best decisions of my life. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy my job there, I also became acquainted with the lead engineer of the factory, one of the most amazing men I have ever met in my entire life, and my future father-in-law. I met my husband on January 5, 1963 after his father introduced me to him, and we were married on February 16 of the same year.

            Housing in the Soviet Union was always scarce, and adequate conditions were almost impossible to find. Originally after my arrival in Petrozavodsk, I lived in Aunt Anna’s reasonably-sized apartment. However, after she was married, I had to move into a room in a wooden house known as a “barrack” in Russian. Conditions there were rather bad, and I was always searching for something better. After a while, it came to my attention that a woman with a room in a decent apartment building was looking to do a swap, as she was engaged in a bitter feud with the woman who owned most of the apartment. Seeing the opportunity, and with little to lose, I jumped at the chance and swapped housing with her. While this room was somewhat smaller than the one I had in the barrack, I finally had access to electricity and running water and was innumerably grateful. Thankfully, I got on extremely well with Baba Dunya, woman who lived in the rest of the apartment along with her daughter, and she would remain a close family friend for many years. It was in this room that my husband and I started our married life together, and the room in which my older daughter would spend the first year of her life.

                Baba Dunya was the widow of a rather high-ranking officer and according to Soviet law was thus entitled to her own separate apartment. However, she did no desire to move whatsoever, and instead proposed that we, a growing family seeking more space and privacy, move into the apartment she was guaranteed, and she would then have her entire current apartment to herself. Getting the Soviet bureaucracy to agree to of the demands of a private individual was no easy task, and for the better part of a year Baba Dunya went to the Ministry of Housing on a weekly basis to seek out an apartment for us. Finally, in the fall of 1965 she was successful. Thus, on November 1965, the three of us moved out of the room into a studio apartment in a new neighborhood of the city. The same year, I left my job at the factory to work in a vocational high school (called a PTU in the USSR) specializing in the construction industry. Eventually, I would become its assistant principle. The job was rather far away from our new apartment, so my commute to and from work became a pretty big hassle.

            In 1967 my father passed away in Chernyakhiv, and the house my parents owned there was sold off. It was a devastating loss, as I had always been very close to him, and in his later years did not get to see him very often because of the distance. After his death, I no longer had any family living in Chernyakhiv. Most of those who had survived the war moved into cities, with the majority heading to Zhitomir, the capital of the oblast. I gave birth to my younger daughter in 1969 and named her after my father. My mother moved in with my sister and her family in Moscow, and would remain there until she passed on in 1975. Both were buried in Chernyakhiv’s Jewish cemetery.

                Living conditions throughout the Soviet Union were never particularly wonderful, and one of the most difficult items to obtain was a car. In 1967 my husband and I made the decision to purchase a blue Zaporozhets, a subcompact car popular at the time, but still appallingly expensive.  We were only able to put up half the money for the car, with the other half being borrowed from friends and family. I find it hard to imagine now, but somehow the four of us were able to travel all around the USSR in this car with all our luggage, and with literally no complaints, regardless of the discomfort we all felt because of the cramped conditions and the lack of any air conditioning whatsoever.

            In 1970 I applied for a housing upgrade as the studio apartment became rather cramped for the four of us. Eventually it was granted, and in the spring of 1972 we moved into our final home in the Soviet Union, a one bedroom apartment on the fourth floor of a newly constructed Khruschevka, as Soviet cement-paneled apartment buildings were called.

            Immigration was never a topic which came up seriously in our household prior to 1981. That year my older daughter was denied a spot at university in the field she wished to pursue, which we were told was almost entirely due to her Jewish “nationality”, as there were plenty of people who got in with far lower grades, and from outside the KASSR, whose residents were given priority in applying to the University. I now had significant doubts as to whether it was worth staying, and whether my children could have many more opportunities in the West.

            My husband was particularly enthusiastic about it, and believed that immigration to the United States was a viable solution to our problems. It is definitely possible that we could have left then and there, but alas, 1981 and most of the early to middle part of that decade was a very difficult time to obtain a visa as their distribution had been severely curtailed following the Moscow Olympics boycott, when immigration restrictions were loosened and many people were allowed to leave.  After the Olympics however, relations with the west soured, and the Soviet government took it out on those seeking exit visas, and the number of those refused steadily increased. Beyond that, I had always been rather terrified of immigration, probably because like many I had been brainwashed by to some degree by Soviet propaganda. I doubted whether my children would be happy and successful, as we were taught that the “capitalist system” was evil and destroyed families. Thus, no actions were taken by any of us, and the issued was put on the backburner for almost ten years.

            My husband’s younger brother left for the United States in late 1989, and we started seriously discussing the issue again. In January of 1991, my husband went to the United States to visit my brother in law and his family. By this time, his older sister was also preparing to immigrate, and conditions in the country had deteriorated significantly in the preceding years. Not long after he returned, he had a sit-down without daughters and I and asked whether they believed they would be better off in the United States, which we always knew would be our destination in such a case. He told them that neither he nor I had much of a future there, and that we would follow their wishes. With no hesitation, both said that they wanted to immigrate, and soon.

             By this time my younger daughter was less than two years away from earning her medical degree, so we decided that it would be best that she be allowed to finish her education here and that we immigrate immediately after.  Regardless, we submitted our documents to the necessary agencies and began a long wait which would take until November of 1992.

            Meanwhile, shortages of food and supplies became rampant through the city and the country in general. Basic, simple needs and products were becoming more and more difficult to obtain. Beyond that, political instability became a huge problem, as well as the rising anti-Semitism and crime rates which came with it. Basic needs were soon rationed, and they were pathetically meager. My older daughter had severe problems trying to get baby products and food for her two toddlers. It began to feel as if I were in a time warp, back in the terrifying dark days of my wartime childhood with its regular hunger and overall sense of misery.

            In November of 1992, my husband, younger daughter Inna, and mother-in-law left Petrozavodsk. A few months earlier, I had gone to the Ukraine to see the graves of my parents, and visit my relatives who remained in Zhitomir, along my brother who lived in Kharkov with his family. I said farewell to all of them as if I were seeing them for the last time in my life. It was an excruciatingly painful and terrifying few months. The worst part of the experience by far was the fact that my older daughter and her family would not be going with us. To make the situation even more difficult, we also had no way of knowing if she would end up joining us in the United States. From Petrozavodsk we took a train to Moscow, from whose Sheremetyevo airport we were supposed to depart from the next day. We stayed the night at my sister’s apartment, not knowing what waited for us at the end of our journey.

            The experience at Sheremetyevo was surreal. We were scheduled to fly to JFK airport on a chartered TWA flight. Unfortunately, the plane arrived 24 hours late. That final day and night was a horror. We were not allowed to take more than $300 in cash with us and we, the passengers, were not assigned a gate or sitting area. Thus, almost everyone was forced to spend 24 hours on the floor, and no food or drink of any kind was provided. Most people were terrified to spend any of their money, so they went with no food for the entire day.

            Finally, after a long wait the plane arrived. A few hours after departure it had to land at Frankfurt because an elderly woman on board had gotten very sick and had to be transported to a hospital. After landing at Kennedy Airport, we slept the night at my brother in law’s apartment in Brooklyn. The next day we had to return to the airport for our flight to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, whose Jewish community had volunteered to take us. We arrived there after a very short flight on a small plane, which had no more than ten people on board, including the pilot. We spent the next four months there, after which we moved to New York City, knowing that Inna, my daughter, could have many more career opportunities there than in Harrisburg. Additionally, we had no relatives in Harrisburg, whereas a large part of my husband’s family in particular had already settled there, including his brother and sister. All throughout our immigration process, agencies such as HIAS and Jewish Family Services were an absolute blessing, helping us not only in leaving Russia, but also giving filing all the necessary documents and providing financial and material assistance after we arrived in the States.

            After getting settled in in New York, my primary goal became reuniting with my older daughter and grandchildren, still living in Petrozavodsk. I filed all the necessary paperwork almost immediately, and thankfully they arrived in the spring of 1994. Over the next few years, the rest of my family, including my brother, sister, and all my nieces and nephews immigrated as well. My husband, daughter, and mother-in-law all received American citizenship in 2000, and we were able to cast our first votes the same year. I am eternally grateful to this country for all it has been able to provide to my family, and am proud to call myself an American.