Back to Written Stories

image of author


Vladimir Bychkov's story posted by HIAS on March 27, 2013 at 10:44 am. Vladimir emigrated from Moscow, Soviet Union (USSR) to New York, United States in 1974

Our Alitalia plane landed in Kennedy Airport at 7pm on April 29, 1975. The lifetime dream came true. It is difficult to appreciate what I had felt. A new life was about to begin. We expected to see a large building full of lights. Instead, it was smaller than airport in Moscow. We did not know that it was one of many terminals serving different airlines. Inside, we were met by George Fisher. A hug, tears, embraces. We were among friends in the country of our dreams. George was dressed in blue jeans and dilapidated jacket, a sort of uniform of a humanitarian intellectual. One immigrant asked us later, “Who was the man greeting you at the airport?” “A professor”, I answered. “I thought that he was a vagabond”, quipped the guy.  

The omnipresent HIAS transferred us to NYANA (New York Association for New Americans), the Jewish resettlement agency. A bus brought us to the Wellington Hotel in the heart of Manhattan at the intersection of 5th Avenue and 57th Street. On my first glimpse of the New World down from the 12th floor I saw wide streets, a few pedestrians and big cars. I grabbed my Sony short wave radio: many stations, jazz and soft soothing music caressed my ear. We went to have a snack at the ground floor café and, then, out to street. I had a feeling of a person who crossed the firing lines in a battle and successfully reached his own camp. 

The first step to regain my profession was to take an examination mandatory for foreign educated physicians to get into residency training before obtaining their license to practice medicine. The examination comprised about 600 multiple choice questions covering all the disciplines taught in medical school. This obstacle was not easy to overcome, especially if you were many years out of school. A test of fluency in English had been also included. For the majority of the immigrant doctors it used to take at least a year. According to statistics, only 10% of former Soviets were able to pass the test. I had an advantage of being a pathologist, the specialty requiring an all-embracing knowledge of the basic sciences and diseases, and I was fluent in English. 

First of all, we needed to find lodging. Our friend from the time in Italy, Efim Byrenbaum, who had come one week earlier, started looking for places to settle down. He ventured by subway from Manhattan to Astoria, then to Kew Gardens, and further to Rego Park and to Forest Hills which he found to be the best. The wife of the local rabbi in Forest Hills, Mrs. Rosenblatt, had created an efficient program of resettlement for Soviet Jews. Volunteers donated furniture and the utensils needed to start normal life. We found an apartment on the second floor of a five story brick building typical for the New York boroughs. The only thing we did not have were the beds, though we had the mattresses. The first night there, armies of cockroaches emerged from nowhere. These insects have roamed the earth for millions of years, and they are still not ready to give up even in America. The beds, cupboards, and lamps were brought to us by George whose old friend had left for Germany. 

We had visited NYANA which provided us with money and put me in touch with a prominent pathologist, Dr. Blaustein, who suggested that I would be able to pass the examination in a year. He was wrong; I did it in less than two months. The examination was tiresome (6 hours for 600 questions). My ability to sustain prolonged mental activity acquired in chess tournaments turned out to be quite helpful. 

I began to build connections with the pathologists in New York working in academic institutions, my ultimate goal to reach. One of the places I had visited was the Department of Pathology of Albert Einstein College of Medicine. The chairman, Dr. Robert Terry, introduced me to the faculty. One of the staff members, Dr. Michael Janis, who had Russian, Romanian, Polish, and Israeli emigrant background, took an active part in my fate. He had an opening for a research fellow to analyze data from the cases of malignancy. It was my first employment which I began July 1st not knowing that I already passed the test allowing me to enter a residency training program. I had been offered an annual salary of $12000; but when I started my job, they graciously gave me $2000 more. 

Having lived in the Soviet Union, I had no idea about bank accounts and about being paid by check. After getting my first check, I went to the bank to retrieve the money. They were so surprised to see a man who wanted $1800 in cash that they called Einstein College to be sure that I was not a felon. Then I filled my pockets with the money and took a cab to deliver it to Forest Hills. I did not open my own account until six months later. 

Meanwhile, I paid bills by getting the money orders at the post office or in cash at the outlets of the utility companies. 

We discovered previously unknown relatives in the United States. A brother of my grandfather immigrated to America in 1905. He was about to be drafted into the army during the war between Russia and Japan. He couldn’t use his passport to escape and had asked my grandfather to give him his as the brothers looked alike. My grandfather refused out of cowardice. The brother, anyway, immigrated to America together with his wife and four daughters. He began as a peddler in New York, but all his children later received higher education. One of them, Frieda, became a librarian at the New York Times where she worked all her life. She married a Frenchman and they had a daughter, Bennie. A tiny link was preserved between my mother’s cousin in Moscow, the cousins in the United States, and the cousins in Israel (the daughters of my grandfather’s sister). We had the telephone number of Frieda and gave her a call. Though she was very old at the time, she came to visit us in Forest Hills. Then she invited us to visit her in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. An arrangement had been made between me and her son-in-law to pick us up at a subway station. We hardly knew NY subway, but managed however to reach the designated station. A tall black man came toward us smiling. He introduced himself as Jose Mancioln. When we entered the apartment he took off his hat and we saw a yarmulke on his head. What a surprise! 

Another cousin of my mother, Hanna, became a high school principal in Los Angeles. She married a Reformed rabbi who created the Braille alphabet in Hebrew for the blind. He himself developed blindness at the age of 27 due to degeneration of retina, a genetic disorder. They were very concerned for us, had sent us a check for $200 from the Crocker Bank in Los Angeles. To cash the check I travelled to Wall Street to the office of the bank which was located on the 17th floor of a skyscraper. A clerk could not figure out what I wanted. When he understood the reason for my ignorance, he explained to me the way to cash checks at a local bank. The California relatives wanted to have our photographs so they mailed us a Polaroid camera. A year later, they sent to us the round trip airplane tickets to Los Angeles, and we spent an unforgettable week visiting Disneyland and other popular sites. 

The third sister died before our arrival in the country. She was married to a man who crafted mascara beauty products. They became wealthy; and, because they did not have any children, they left their fortune to the remaining sisters.    

I never met the fourth sister. She had several descendants; all of them were successful professionals. 

Ida and Lena were making fast progress in English, and Sonia mastered it in no time. We did not want to send her to a public school and opted for a Jewish school. There she had to learn Hebrew in addition to English, also new to her. She was progressing so well that was promoted to the second grade after only two months in the School. We explained to her that we did not follow kashrus and other religious traditions at home but we respected the Jewish religion. We needed money and Ida started as a baby sitter in a religious Jewish family with two little children. It helped her linguistic advance. I tried to introduce English as the language to be spoken at home but to no avail. 

Insufficient knowledge of English by many immigrants led to some funny episodes. A newly arrived immigrant stayed with her American relatives who went out. In the meantime, their friends came for a visit and were met by their guest. “Where are so and so”, asked the visitors. “They passed away”, answered the guest. “And who are you?” “I am their ghost”, she said. Another immigrant, checking an apartment for rent, asked the owner about a “chicken”; but she meant “kitchen”. 

Soon it became clear that a car in America is not a luxury but an absolute necessity. I had an International Driver’s License from Russia though my driving experience was limited to several lessons given by an instructor in Moscow. To exchange the International Driver’s License for the New York State License I did not have to take a driving test. Passing a written exam on the Rules of the Road was sufficient. 

We did not have enough money to purchase a decent car and somebody offered to sell us an old Dodge Polara for only $600. I had to pick it up at a place 60 miles from New York. I was attracted by the offer of the car owner to rehearse with me before I depart. I was unfamiliar with the automatic transmission, power steering, and power brakes. After getting into the driver’s seat, I turned on the engine and released the brakes. To my great surprise the car started moving. A small push on the pedal caused a sharp acceleration. The man who sold me the car said, “This drunken Russian will kill me”. The car seemed to be so big that I doubted its ability to cross the Whitestone Bridge. Nevertheless, I came to Forest Hills alive. I parked the car in a wrong spot and I did not have an inspection sticker, so I was summoned to Traffic Court. The judge ordered me to pay a fine of $15 for illegal parking. After I had explained to him the reason for my ignorance, he dismissed the charge. In the next moment, I heard my name anew. “Again you!” quipped the judge. “You have to pay $15 fine for the lack of a sticker, but I am reducing it to $5”, he concluded. I hired an instructor to drive with me for the time being. After a few lessons, he became convinced that I was good enough to do it on my own.  

The growing stream of immigration from the Soviet Union brought in some old friends. One of them, Lora, called us from Vienna asking to advise her on the choice between Australia and the U.S. She listened to my convincing statement that there is no better place than America. We invited her family, which included her husband and two daughters, to stay with us in Forest Hills while looking for their own apartment. She expected to see the hills covered by a forest and Ida sitting on the porch of a cottage in a rustic dress. To her surprise it was a borough looking more like working class neighborhood than a bourgeois enclave.   

Another dear friend, Alex Tabenkin, arrived in New York with his wife, two sons and an elderly mother on their way to Providence, R.I.. It was at night when he called us. I took them on a tour of Manhattan. Alex already had professional connections in Rhode Island and had gotten a job right away. 

Since I possessed a certificate allowing me to start residency and already had been a fellow at the Albert Einstein College, I was appointed (from July 1st, 1976) as the Chief Resident in Pathology with an annual salary of $18,000. It allowed us to rent a two bedroom apartment. We could also afford an air conditioner and a new car. My Dodge Polara succumbed by that time. I sold it for $300 less than I had bought it for. I needed to have a loan to purchase a new car. Because I did not have any credit record and no cash, I had to have a guarantor. It was a friend, Sara Ginsburg. We bought a brand new Pontiac Ventura for $5,000. 

Working in the Department of Pathology of the Albert Einstein College made possible my professional resurrection. Due to my past experience I was employed more like a faculty member than as a resident. I received an assignment to be in charge of the Radiology-Pathology conferences at which radiographic films were compared with results of the pathology reports. Once somebody showed an x-ray of a skull, but nobody knew what pathological process it demonstrated. It happened to be an x-ray of the skull of Albert Einstein, and was, to say the least, quite normal. 

I had been given the honor of debating before the New York Pathology Society a rare case of an ovarian tumor which caused profuse diarrhea in an elderly woman. My opponent was the same prominent professor, Dr. Ansell Blaustein, who two years earlier had tried to prognosticate my future. I assessed the case correctly. My first academic challenge in the U.S., to my great satisfaction, was a success. 

The time had come to prepare for the next exam to acquire my license to practice medicine. The examination took three days and was comprised of 1,500 questions. The first day it covered the basic sciences, the next day included clinical disciplines and the third day was a simulation of clinical management. The format of the clinical management test was based on the “Erasure Technique”: a description of clinical condition was followed by sequential choices of answers hidden by a covering layer which should have been erased. It was important to choose only those questions that could contribute to the correct approach. Selection of the right questions was rewarded while a choice of the wrong ones produced a negative effect. I was slightly concerned about that portion of the exam because I was not a clinician accustomed to make choices of treatment. But this part of the examination produced my best score. I could frequently figure out from the beginning of a question the projected outcome. 

As an example, a military pilot develops a chest pain; the EKG shows changes suggestive of a myocardial infarct. What approach would you choose? As pathologist, I knew a lot about the likely diagnostic errors. I suspected from the start a viral infection as a cause of the misleading indicators on EKG. Having made a correct guess, it was then easy to follow the right approach. Here was another puzzle: a child complains of pain in her heels when standing up. Would you ask the mother about the vitamins the child gets? Seemingly, it is irrelevant. However, I remembered that an overdose of vitamin A may produce bone changes leading to that symptom. 

A friend of mine, a horse race gambler, offered me a bet of $100 that I would succeed. I decided to accept; at least, if I failed, there would be a consolation prize. Fortunately for me, he won and invited us to dinner. 

The time had come to look for a job. I wanted to work in a medical school where I could combine practice with teaching and research. I sent numerous letters of enquiry together with my CV to numerous medical schools. All letters had to be individually typed as word processors had not yet come into being. This tremendous job was performed by Ida. I had discovered that I could not get a position in New York because the State regulations required a pathologist to have three straight years of residency training. In my case, one year was termed a fellowship. The board representative called me to provide an explanation. Fortunately, the phone was picked up by one of my peers, Dr. Michael Janis, who told the caller that it was a pure bureaucratic formality to apply such a requisition to an experienced physician like me. The argument had the desired effect and the N.Y. Medical Board gave me a license, but it was too late. I had already found a job in Chicago. 

Waiting for job offers was long and worrisome but, when I was close to despair, Dr. Samuel Nierenberg, the Chairman of Pathology at the University of Illinois Medical School, called and asked me to come for an interview. A few days later I arrived in Chicago. All I knew about Chicago was that it was famous for its gangsters and that it had the nickname “Windy City”. Both happened to be wrong. The place I wanted to join impressed me. It contained several hospitals affiliated with two medical schools: the University of Illinois and Rush Presbyterian. Dr. Nierenberg met me cheerfully and offered me the position of Assistant Professor and Director of Residency Training. It fit me perfectly. After an hour of conversation and before he told me of his decision, he met another staff member in a hallway and told him, “Here is Dr. Bychkov who is going to work with us”. I called Ida about the news and she started to cry as she did not want to move from New York. 

Lena had built in New York her own circle of friends. One of the new acquaintances was Ilya Schiller from Boston. Their friendship started to grow into something bigger. We knew his parents with whom we had a number of common friends.   Lena moved to Boston to get her Bachelor’s Degree in French language and literature at Brandeis University which was offering generous scholarships to Russian Jewish emigrants. 

We had to find a place to live in Chicago. There was somebody in New York who had acquaintances in Chicago, Abel and Galina Kolchinsky. At the end of June, 1978, Ida and I departed Forest Hills for a drive of 900 miles to Chicago to look for a place to settle down. It was the first time that we travelled so far by highway. We got Trip ticks from AAA leading us from page to page through the country. I did all the driving because Ida had not yet learned to drive. On the way we reached a motel and entered a reception area carrying our suitcases. “Unfortunate people, you car had been broken!” exclaimed a clerk. Having never stayed at a motel we did not know that there was a direct entrance to the rooms from outside. 

We came to Chicago to the Kolchinskys who were very cheerful and friendly people. The next day we visited my future place of work at the University of Illinois. The chairman, Dr. Nierenberg, greeted us cheerfully and invited us for dinner. He also asked his manager, Seymour Greenspon, to be our guide. We drove to the locations where we wanted to rent. Once I forgot to stop in front of a stop sign. We were caught and Seymour begged the policeman to forgo the fine since I was a newcomer to Chicago. He talked so much that the policeman said, “If you will not stop talking, I’ll fine him for sure”. We rented a spacious apartment on the second floor of a two story building at the far north side of the city. When in the evening we dined with Dr. Nierenberg and his wife I had to go to the men’s room, but in my excited state of mind I could not figure out which door was for the men. I took a chance and entered the right door. 

We departed Forest Hills for our new life in Chicago on June 28, 1978. We took our personal possessions with us by car, and the furniture and trunks had to be picked by the “Mayflower”, the long distance movers; but the  truck failed to arrive. I called the company to find out what was going on. The company official apologized but did not give us any assurance about the truck’s coming. Angry, I managed to reach the Vice President of the Mayflower telling him that I was a doctor who had to start promptly my duties in Chicago. Unlike his polite subordinates, he told me, ”If you would not stop yelling at me you will never get a truck”. At the moment I did not know that  lightning had struck their vital computer in Indianapolis. Meanwhile, they kept our belongings in storage until our friend, a lawyer, told the Mayflower that they could be in trouble because I was a VIP whose immigration was achieved via the high level contacts (deliberate lie).          

We could not settle in the new apartment without furniture. Fortunately, we were invited to stay with the Kolchinskys, who took excellent care of us and were a great help in this difficult period. They had two children with whom Sonia formed a close friendship. 

Through the Kolichinskys, we met Marina and Roger Cunningham. She was born in China, a daughter of the emigrants from Russia. After the Communists took over China, her father was imprisoned. Later, they immigrated to Venezuela and then to the United States. Marina had a PhD. degree in Russian literature. When we came to Chicago, she worked for the Jewish Family and Community Service as a resettlement worker. At that time, more and more immigrants were arriving from Russia and the agency needed new employees. Marina brought Ida to the agency to interview for a job. Ida came with Sonia who was 9 at the time. The director of the agency asked Sonia what she would like to become. “I want to be an oceanographer”, she replied. “No”, said the interviewer, “a Jewish child would be or a doctor, or a lawyer”. So, Ida went to work for the agency and Sonia, eventually, became a lawyer.           

In 10 years of her work in the Jewish Family Service, Ida resettled about 2000 Soviet immigrants. Her English improved significantly. After several years with the agency, she was appointed as supervisor to a group of the resettlement workers. The immigrants she took care of loved her. She was attentive to their needs and had an individual approach in every case tackling their problems the best way possible. Among the people resettled by Ida was a couple from Riga. He was a photographer there, but his cousin in the US became a famous writer, Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow. Despite their different social status, Saul was very attentive to his cousin. He helped him morally and materially. At the age of 82, Saul had a child with his fourth wife. On a post card showing him with his new daughter, he wrote to his cousin in Yiddish: “How do you like this?”           

I started teaching activity, holding classes, giving lectures, and supervising residents. There were some deficiencies in my English. Though I had known English for more than 20 years, I did not know well how to swear. A morgue attendant helped me with this handicap.          

When I came to deliver my first lecture at the medical school, the hall was already occupied due to a scheduling error. I managed to take my hundred students across the street to another building. My lectures in pathology were usually well attended, but I had my largest audience at a gathering of Amnesty International assembled to hear the truth about the Soviet Union. The first question I received was, “What is the essence of the Soviet system?” An answer immediately flashed in my mind was, “It is like the Mafia armed with tanks and atomic bombs”. But one question I answered incorrectly, “Can the Communist regime be changed”? “Not in the foreseeable future” I said. “It is an iron clad structure guarded by the secret police and armored cars where any dissident activity is cruelly suppressed”. Fortunately, history proved me wrong.           

I was concerned about my Russian accent. One of my Moscow colleagues told me prior to departure from the USSR that I was making a mistake by emigrating. He said, “You are a good teacher, highly appreciated by the students; there you would not be able to reach the same level”. He happened to be dead wrong. In 1980, the students honored me with the “Golden Apple” award as the best teacher of the year. While receiving the prize I told the students about my colleague’s warning, to their delight and applause.            

One more barrier had to be overcome to complete my credentials: examination by the American Board of Pathology. In September of 1978, I flew to Miami with a microscope to view the test slides. I could not afford to fail an examination in the specialty to which I had dedicated 23 years of my life. A pattern of the first specimen I looked at was not familiar to me. The shivers engulfed my body. I had to stabilize my head over the microscope. Fortunately I managed to put myself together. I passed the exam. Six months later, the Board of Pathology examination was given in Chicago. I was invited to attend a dinner given by the Board for Chicago faculty. At the entrance to the dining hall was Dr. French, executive director of the American Board of Pathology, who was welcoming the guests. When I approached, he saw my name tag and congratulated me. He said, “You are the first Soviet pathologist who passed the American board”.           

With my new salary of $36,000, we could afford to buy a house. We found one in Lincolnwood, the immediate northern suburb of Chicago, for $90,000. The concept of a mortgage was absolutely unknown to us. We had only $5,000 to put down, but we had to have another $5,000 to initiate an application. Our real estate agent went to my chairman asking him to sign a letter explaining to a lending bank that my starting salary, being a novice, was below my level. He, right away, added $4,000 to it. But we still needed to bring our available cash to $10,000. The extra $5,000 was lent to us by our real estate agent.    

 The next step in the process of our adjustment to life in America was for Ida to learn to drive. We hired an instructor and my outbursts of volleys of swear words in Russian complemented the learning process. Eventually, she became infatuated with fast driving.           

Sonia became well adjusted at the Hillel Torah Hebrew School she entered.  Most of the children at the school were orthodox and kept kosher.  We had done a very good job – as Sonia herself admitted – of showing her how to respect the faith of those around her, but still stay true to our family’s traditions. Sonia’s best friend was the daughter of a local rabbi, and her family knew that we would always treat their beliefs seriously.  When Sonia’s friend slept over, as she often did, we fed her kosher food on paper plates. Sonia had the chance to learn Hebrew and to understand her Jewish heritage, something she would not be able to get in the USSR.

 Sonia did very well in school, participated in the stage performances, and even sang in a choir, despite our family’s dismal musical history. I had a bad musical ear and my father could recognize only two melodies: the Soviet National Anthem and the Spanish folk song “Celita”. Sonia graduated as the valedictorian of her eighth grade class, and we were under pressure from the school to continue her Jewish education. But since we were not religious, she went to an excellent public school in our district.  

Meanwhile, one of my duties in the Medical School was to select from among numerous applicants the proper candidates for our training program. I tried to help to physicians from the “Iron Curtain” countries, but motivation to become a pathologist was of primary importance. The best reason for the choice was an interest in the study of the disease processes. The worst answer would be that a pathologist does not have to make night calls. In reality, it is not so. A pathologist can be called at night to provide an urgent diagnosis on a biopsy.       

Now, the time had come for us to get American citizenship. We passed our interviews, but Ida was deemed ineligible. The strange reason was that she had been a member of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. The rules of naturalization require 5 years of residing in the United States, but 10 years for former members of the Communist or the Nazi party. Fortunately, we met a young lawyer who knew about an amendment to the rules that offers an exception for those who were forced to join these parties under pressure. He compiled a letter on Ida’s behalf to the authorities but no response was forthcoming. Then, I went to the immigration office with the intention of talking to the chief. I couldn’t see him, but his secretary promised to call his attention to Ida’s problem. A few days later, the Director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Chicago called me and apologized for the delay.  I became a citizen in 1980; Sonia and Ida became citizens in 1982. 

Living in Chicago, we missed our older daughter Lena in Boston and our friends in New York. To see them, we travelled often to both places. We did it by driving to Boston through Canada’s MacDonald – Cartier Expressway, and to New York via Interstates 80 and 90. I remember our apprehension when for the first time we had to cross the border. In the Soviet Union, a border was considered sacred and crossing it something special. Instead of a vigilant border guard, there was a half asleep elderly man who waved his hand pointing toward Canada without even checking our documents. The trips used to take a day and a half with stops in Detroit and Toronto where we had friends. It was such enjoyment to see the picturesque countryside and watch the thundering Niagara Falls.           

Soon, an event happened which led to another turn in our fate. At a meeting of the Chicago Pathology Society, I met Dr. Emilio Orfei, a professor at Loyola University School of Medicine. He was an Italian not only in his name, but also in his accent and gestures. I never missed an opportunity to speak Italian. The Italians I talked to used to ask me why I knew Italian. My answer was always the same, “Because I like it”. A short time later I was invited by Dr. Orfei for lunch. He asked me how I liked working at the University of Illinois and what my salary was. He offered me a position at Loyola with an increase in my title and wages. I was nervous to tell my chairman at the time, Dr. Andersen, about the new opportunity. He was a very good man and a well-known scientist. His attitude toward me could be understood from his statement about my immigration, “Their loss is our gain”. Before I had the guts to approach him, he suddenly asked me about the invitation from Loyola. He said, “My friend, Dr. Tobin (the Dean of Loyola Medical School), asked me about you”; and he added, “you should go there; a State university could never pay you a decent salary”.           

I started at Loyola on July 1, 1983. I received the title of Associate Professor and was offered a salary of $62,000. I was not accustomed to negotiating money, but Ida told me that this was not an American way. I opened my mouth and, in a blink, the offer was increased to $67,000.           

The faculty at my new place of work consisted of very nice and friendly people. I did diagnostic work, supervised the residents and taught the students. By virtue of my special interest in Obstetric and Gynecologic Pathology, I was invited to teach this course in the respective department. 

Frequently people sue obstetricians for the mishaps during labor. If a health problem of a newborn is blamed on a doctor, the doctor is liable to pay the plaintiff a large sum of money for the treatment and support of an injured child. Due to my wide experience in pathology of the newborns, acquired mostly in Russia where almost 100% of the dead are subjected to autopsy (the autopsy rate in U.S. is about 15%), my expertise became an asset for the court deliberations. I also served as an expert witness in the other cases involving gynecologic pathology. 

At Loyola, I found a line of research which I continued in my further scientific endeavors. I met Dr. Patrick Toto who was the Chairman of Pathology at the Dental School. He applied lectins - the substances derived from plants - to the study of pathology of the salivary glands. It gave me an idea to apply the same method to the study of uterine tumors. This approach yielded some results which improved the diagnostic criteria of malignancy. It also gave me an opportunity to make a number of presentations at scientific meetings in the U.S. and abroad.

 One of the presentations was in Vienna, Austria, at the European Congress of Pathology. I hoped to meet there some of my former colleagues from the Soviet Union. Among hundreds of names of the participants I found one, Markov, sounding like he could be Russian, but he happened to be from Bulgaria. Suddenly a woman participant called me by name. She was a professor at the medical school where Ida and I had worked. I was surprised because Soviet citizens where dissuaded from getting in touch with the immigrants. I asked her what is going on in the Soviet Union and she said, “You could better tell me”. She told me a joke: “The doors to the Party Congress should be kept closed to prevent the mist from inside from getting out”.   

In 1989, I made a presentation at the International Cancer Congress in Seattle. Again, among thousands of participants, I could not find any former colleagues. Once I saw a man who looked Russian, but he was from San Francisco. I played chess with him although he told me that he played only for money. After a difficult struggle I won a dollar. 

We had a gorgeous house in Lincolnwood. Being a homeowner taught me a number of new skills like handling a mower, a seed spreader, rakes, shovels, and the like. I became very proud of being able to replace a broken glass in a window. 

We bought a new car, a Pontiac Phoenix, the first front wheel drive American car. On April 5, 1983, we started our habitual trip to Boston. When living Chicago, the wind was so strong that the top of the Sears Tower swayed and the elevators stopped. When we entered Michigan, a blinding snowfall forced us to move at a turtle’s pace. Many cars skidded from the road, but our Phoenix went through. Upon reaching Detroit, we called Lena who advised us to halt for a day because Boston was covered by a foot of snow. But the worst blizzard waited for us at Niagara. Nevertheless, we managed to reach Boston safely.           

As I got older, I had to pay attention to some health issues. For a while, I had known that I had an inguinal hernia. Sometimes I had to go to my office to adjust the painful bulge in my groin. There was no solution but to remove it. The operation was done by one of the best surgeons at Loyola, Dr. Pickelman. The procedure was performed under spinal anesthesia and the next day I could stand up. After Dr. Pickelman visited me, he said: “Now I am going to see the actually sick people.”

           Loyola University Hospital was a very well kept place. All the nursing staff was supervised by Catholic nuns, and in every room there was a crucifix. A priest came to visit me and, finding that I was Jewish, offered to remove the crucifix. Of course I refused as it didn’t bother me a bit. Later, I became friends with the priest, Father Stephan, a Pole who spoke Russian. He invited me to attend a celebration marking his 25 years of the Jesuit priesthood. At the ceremony I sat next to an old Pole who served as a personal secretary to Pope John II. We had a very interesting conversation. 

My other health problem involved the prostate. I was found to have prostatic hyperplasia, same as my father. Three days before the New Year of 1988, I developed an obstruction of the urinary tract. It happened on a very snowy morning and I decided to go to my hospital to seek help. The snowfall was so heavy that most of the staff could not report to work. A resident in the Urology Department telephoned the chairman, Dr. Flanigan. Despite the heavy blizzard, he came. Two days later, he performed a transurethral resection of prostate (TURP). It is not a complicated procedure, but the postoperative period is frequently tough because the patient has to urinate through a wound. I went home three days later, but felt feeble. 

My recovery was aggravated by the fact that in two days I had to go to the airport to meet a professor from Germany, Gisela Dallenbach Helweg, one of the leading gynecologic pathologists in the world, who had to deliver a lecture at Loyola upon my invitation. A day before the event, I panicked. I called a psychiatrist whom I knew, and he advised me to get Xanax, a strong anti anxiety drug. This medicine produced the desired effect, but necessitated periodic increases of the dose. Eventually, I managed to get rid of it. In the meantime, I slowed down with the visible change in my behavior. Our secretary commented on it this way, “Doctor, you have hit a wall”. 

I tried my best to keep the previous pace. I got a grant to study ovaries in inflammatory conditions. The study made sense, and it was the first analysis of this subject based on substantial data.           

We got a new chairman, Dr. Chester Herman, who had published more than 50 papers in which he was almost never the lead author. Dr. Herman’s attractiveness to Loyola probably was hinged on the fact that he was once a member of the Jesuit Order. He was also politically active in the American Society of Clinical Pathologists. Unfortunately, his expertise in pathology – and his people skills - could have been better. He made an inadvisable error when he decided that only American graduates were to be filmed for a media clip promoting pathology to potential applicants. The associate chairman of the department, Dr. Greg O’Connor, a distinguished pathologist and former director of the International Cancer Center, called on staff to boycott this venture. I and my colleague, Dr. Armin, an Iranian, went with our grievance to the Dean. Due my concern of retribution from my chairman, I asked Dr. John Isaacs, the highly respected Chairman of

Obstetrics and Gynecology, to give me a second faculty appointment in his department. He did, and gave me the title of Associate Professor, thus making me untouchable.  


Me (middle, in dark jacket; second row) and my colleagues at Mount Sinai School of Medicine (Dr.Shiller, middle, first row). 

Dr. Isaacs offered to have me write a chapter on Breast Pathology for his “Textbook of Breast Disease”. I wanted to start the text with a diagram of the microscopic pattern of the breast. Because my drawing skills are very limited, I needed to find somebody capable of doing it professionally but could not identify anybody. So I had to do it myself. I took a roll of toilet paper, squeezed it and outlined the contour. Then I used a cap of the marker pen to make a nipple. By using a ruler I traced the ducts and other details. The endeavor succeeded. A reviewer found my chapter to be the best in the monograph. A number of years later, Dr. Isaacs agreed to be the coauthor of my book “Pathology in the Practice of Gynecology”.


In the interim, my daughters were moving forward with their lives. Lena and Ilya Schiller got married in Boston in a wonderful ceremony. It was the first Jewish wedding to be attended by me and Ida. Three years later their first child was born, my beloved granddaughter, Julie. After hearing the news, I was waiting impatiently at the school bus stop to tell Sonia about it. When she arrived, she found out that she had become an aunt.          

Sonia attended Niles West High School.  There, she excelled in her studies. She also got engaged in the debate team and became its leader. They won a number of prizes at the national competitions. Upon graduation, Sonia chose to attend the undergraduate program at the University of Chicago majoring in Political Science. She could have enrolled at Loyola University tuition free because I was a faculty member there, but we preferred the better place for her education disregarding the expense. Sonia received her Bachelor and Master in International Relations and Juris Doctor (Law) degrees from the University. There she met many lifelong friends and her future husband, a young man from Iowa named Colby Green. 

In the fall of 1987, Lena and Ilya had their second child, a wonderful boy named Michael.  

In the autumn of 1988, we travelled to Moscow to see Zhenia, Ida’s brother. This was the first time that émigrés were allowed to return. 

I had a feeling of trepidation to come back to the old country. We had a long wait at a checkpoint and, when we reached it, we discovered that we had been standing in the wrong line. The customs official who saw my desolation allowed us to get through. We were picked up by friends and brought to the hotel for foreign tourists. It was the place where, on occasion, I had bought newspapers from abroad. This time I myself was from abroad. The room had been booked in advance with daily fee of $100, though we had no intention of staying there. We were then allowed to stay with our relatives but still had to pay for the room at the hotel.

 We were allowed to return to the Soviet Union at the time when the Soviet Union had reached complete political and economical abyss. The shelves in the supermarkets were bare, but there were special stores where goods could be purchased for American dollars. To enter such stores we had to display our American passports. 

Ida and I went to see our old place of work. At the entrance we met the Associate Dean who, without showing much surprise, greeted us as though he had seen us yesterday. Our former colleagues surrounded us curiously, as though we were from another planet. 

On our way back to America, an employee of Delta Airlines was explaining to the departing passengers the customs rules in US. I was ready to embrace her, as she was the first American to be seen by us in two weeks. A stop in Frankfurt to change planes brought us back to the world of freedom and prosperity.             

In the late 80s the stream of emigrants from the Soviet Union had significantly subsided, and the number of resettlement workers in Chicago had been correspondingly reduced. As a result, Ida became unemployed. 

I had always nurtured the desire to return to the East Coast and the chance turned up. I was invited to give a presentation at the Hospital for Mothers and Infants in Providence, a subsidiary of Brown University. The chief of Pathology at the Hospital offered me a position of Director of Surgical Pathology to replace a doctor who was planning to quit. The position suited me perfectly well but the man stayed on. After a while, two new openings began looming on the horizon. One was at Lahey Clinic in Boston and the other at Elmhurst Hospital Center in New York. At Lahey Clinic the staff did not show any interest in me, and New York remained the only option.         

I was recommended for the position in New York by Dr. Liane Deligdisch whom I had met before. She arranged for my interview with Dr. Alan Schiller who had just became the Chairman of Pathology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, of which Elmhurst Hospital was a subsidiary. It was love at first sight and Dr. Schiller offered me a position of Director of Pathology there. The Pathology Department of this 600 bed hospital had 250 employees with the operational budget of $18,000,000. But Dr. Schiller had some reservations about my ability to handle it. He called Dr. Raul Fresco, his former teacher, who had worked with me at Loyola. To Dr. Schiller’s doubts concerning my lack of administrative experience, Dr. Fresco responded, “He will do it!” and I got the job.


My life acquired a new dimension. I had to face a challenge I was not so eager to meet. I never liked to give orders to others and I did not have any experience with that, but the advantage of coming back to the East Coast, not to mention a lofty salary, was too much to ignore. It reminded me of a joke in which a man was asked, “Do you play the violin?” and he answered, “I do, but I have never tried.”

 The department I was put in charge consisted of a number of subdivisions and had 250 personnel. The two main parts were Anatomic Pathology and Clinical Pathology. The first was in my area of expertise, the second included clinical laboratories with which I had never dealt. Fortunately, the laboratories were run by Dr. Valeriy Glezerov, also from the former Soviet Union, an experienced person in Clinical Pathology. From the very beginning we formed an efficient alliance, later complemented by friendship.

 The status of the Elmhurst Hospital Center was particular to New York. On one hand, it was run by the New York City administration as were the other 12 city hospitals. On the other hand, the quality medical care was assured by its affiliation with Mount Sinai School of Medicine which provided physicians and some of the technical staff. This created difficulty in running the services. The situation was aggravated by the presence of powerful trade unions.

 The day I started my assignment, July 1, 1990, I was informed of an impending strike in the hematology lab due to staff dissatisfaction with the working conditions. “What should I do?” flashed in my mind. In reality, I was not supposed to do anything as the conflict should have been handled by the hospital administration. All my knowledge about strikes was from the media and books, but I felt obligated to act. I went to meet the intended strikers assuring them that I would look into their grievances and do my best to resolve them. Some of the personnel consented to stay.

 Steadily, I learned how to navigate in the intricate political makeup of the place. There was constant bickering between the Mount Sinai and city administrators about money. With hundreds of thousands of the laboratory tests and a budget close to $18,000,000 we were under constant pressure to cut operational expenses. Wherever we could, we tried to make our modus operandi more efficient. Once I was asked by a novice, “What does it take to be a good director?” I answered, “To have good associates”.  Understanding people was an important ability. My knowledge of languages spoken by the foreign born employees was also an asset.

 About ten percent of the personnel were Soviet refugees. Some people tried to explain this fact by the director’s background and even complained about it to the administration. In reality, I had nothing to do with selection of the staff below the M.D. and Ph.D. level. It was the duty of the manager - Veronica Henry - an immigrant from Barbados who, by virtue of her great personality and stamina, considerably facilitated my task. The Associate Director of the hospital in charge of the laboratory service used the presence in the department of many Soviet refugees as a pretense to blame me. He called a meeting with the head of Pathology at Mount Sinai, Dr. Schiller, and Hospital Director, Pete Velez. In the face of those unfounded accusations, I was so outraged that I knocked my fist on the table. At this dramatic moment, Dr. Schiller calmed the situation by saying, “He is the best and stop this rubbish now!”       

There were many sensitive areas in the department. Microbiology was one of the most important due to the presence in the hospital of numerous patients with AIDS who were prone to infections, especially tuberculosis. Once, a repairman ignored the warning on the door of the TB lab not to enter, and cleaned the filters of an air conditioner releasing dangerous bacteria in the air. Thank God, there were no consequences.

 Another time, due to a labeling error in the blood bank, mismatched blood was transfused to the wrong patient; fortunately, the patient recovered. Though these events were beyond my control, the repercussions of any human errors could have fallen on my head.

 Our department functioned well and I could dedicate a lot of my time to teaching and research. I wanted to realize my old dream of writing a monograph on gynecologic pathology of the kind I failed to steal from Moscow exhibition in 1959. To do it. I asked Dr. Isaacs from Loyola, to join forces with me. The endeavor was agreed upon in a Russian restaurant in Manhattan where Dr. Isaacs fell in love with a local product named “Horseradish Vodka”. The restaurant kept the method of its production secret, but Ida succeeded to spy it out. To make it, is just necessary to add honey to horseradish immersed in vodka.

 Three years into my tenure at the Mount Sinai Medical School and Elmhurst Hospital, the school added another hospital to its affiliates: Queens Medical Center. Then, the idea arose of cutting operational costs by removing duplication of services. Pathology was the primary department to start the trend, and I was put in charge of the pathology departments in both hospitals with a modest increase in my salary. We used this opportunity to shuttle analogous tests between the laboratories, reducing the expense for reagents and cutting a number of employees. In all, we generated an annual savings of about $2,000,000.

 My working day typically began by reviewing difficult cases with the attending physicians and the residents. It is customary in pathology to review slides with colleagues. Once, a member of our medical staff rendered an erroneous diagnosis of malignancy of the thyroid resulting in surgical removal of the gland. His main mistake was being too self-confident and not consulting with colleagues. He had made some mistakes before and, when he showed me the specimen, I advised him to resign immediately to avoid the painful procedure of expulsion.

 The microscope opens a mysterious world of invisible components forming our body. A pathologist has to know a huge range of images to decipher their meaning. There are confusing microscopic patterns which may be misinterpreted, like in the above mentioned case.

 I recall some challenging cases form my own practice. Once, I managed to diagnose unsuspected syphilis on a biopsy of a lymph node from a 40 year old man. Looking at the slide, I noticed tiny collections of plasma cells (cells providing for immune defense) around capillaries in the capsule of the node. I suspected syphilis. To the treating doctor, my suggestion of syphilis came as a complete surprise. But the patient, when thoroughly questioned, admitted contacting the disease in the past, a fact he had tried to hide. We then ordered a special test to identify the bacteria, which confirmed my diagnosis.

 We also used to review biopsies from patients coming for treatment to our hospital from other places.  There was a patient admitted for radiotherapy with the diagnosis of uterine malignancy. The tumor we saw was very unusual, so I consulted with my colleagues. However, its identification remained unclear. Suddenly an idea flashed in my mind. It was a very rare benign condition which did not require therapy. In another case, I was about to misdiagnose a benign swelling of a chest as malignancy. Luckily, I was corrected by a colleague.

 Upon returning to New York, we temporarily rented an apartment in Forest Hills while looking for a house in a suburb. The apartment we leased was located on the second floor of a three story building with a bedroom facing a backyard and a living room facing the street. One evening, when we were watching television in the living room, burglars crawled into the bedroom and stole our jewelry. A policeman who came to investigate said that we were lucky not to bump into the robbers. Insurance paid for the loss, but no money could compensate for our sentimental attachment to Ida’s wedding band and to an old ring belonging to my mother.

 Sometimes, we had visitors from abroad. One such visitor – a friend from Moscow - made a funny mistake:  he asked me why American tooth paste had bad taste and unpleasant smell, but he had mistakenly used our liquid soap. 

With my director’s salary we could afford to buy a house in a nice location. Our choice fell on Manhasset Hills. When people ask where you live on Long Island, you answer with an exit number on the Long Island Expressway. We lived at exit 24, the next after Great Neck. The latter had a higher status than Manhasset Hills, but it was beyond the reach of a pathologist. It was a place more affordable to gynecologists, anesthesiologists, and plastic surgeons. 

After an exhausting survey of about 30 homes, we found a very nice house. It was a ranch with three bedrooms and an attached garage. We had three bathrooms, reminding me of the time in Moscow when we lived in a communal apartment with one toilet for 25 people. 

I invited my best friend from Russia, Vladimir Makovkin, to visit me. I took him to Washington and to Boston, and showed him rural America. He was very impressed with everything but, being a do-it-yourself handyman, especially with Home Depot. 

Ida found employment at the United Jewish Appeal (UJA) in New York in a division dealing with the emigrants from Russia. She even made presentation on the subject at the International Jewish Congress in the early 90’s, and was the next speaker after Yitzhak Shamir, Prime Minister of Israel. She also presented Passover greetings from UJA on New York TV. 

To help newly arriving Soviet doctors pass the licensing requirements in the U.S., I organized and chaired the “Soviet Émigré Physicians Advisory Council”, conducting monthly seminars at Elmhurst Hospital. In nine years of its existence, about 1,000 former Soviet doctors attended its sessions. In addition to the instructions regarding the exams, we helped those who passed the exams to find a place in residency training, mandatory for medical licensure. The competition to get a residency position was very strong, especially for the foreign graduates, and I helped many of them personally by using my connections in the medical community.      

 This social activity brought me to new heights. I was elected to the Board of Directors of NYANA, one of the largest resettlement agencies in the world. I was the only immigrant on the Board and greatly enjoyed the opportunity to help my fellow countrymen. I was also assigned to supervise medical care to the immigrants. In addition, I became a member of the Advisory Council to the New York City Comptroller. One day, as I was sitting in City Hall, I reflected once again on unpredictability of the road of life which had brought me so far.

A significant part of our lives was occupied by travel. Ida and I had a wonderful companion, Julie, our granddaughter. She was eleven when we made our first trip together, from Boston to Washington DC. We went to see all of the Washington museums and monuments. We were lucky because on the day we arrived, the White House was open to the public. Julie was tireless, curious and always joyful.

Many times we travelled to Italy. We visited our friends in Pescara in their newly built compound, situated on a hill overlooking the Adriatic Sea. Pescara is a lovely modern town. It was almost completely destroyed during the Second World War and then rebuilt in the modern European style. There are no historical places and no Roman ruins there. The town’s main attraction is a sandy beach rimmed by multicolored umbrellas. The sea there is shallow and it takes a long walk to reach a place deep enough to swim, a feature very attractive for me, a non swimmer. We felt as we belonged to the family of our Italian friends: Teresa and Alberto Di Paolo, their three children Pierluigi, Federica and Stefano, their uncle Romano Ampolla Rella, his wife Maria, and their children Franco and Simona. 

Later, Pierluigi married a woman named Stefania, who graduated from the University of Milan with a degree in Russian language. Their wedding in Pescara was an unforgettable event. We held center stage as Pierluigi called Ida and me: “My American Parents”. Little Julie danced a lot, including a turn with Stefania’s father, standing on top of his shoes. In the middle of the festivities, I saw Franco surrounded by a flock of young people discussing the theory of Karl Marx. After personal experience with its application, I had to explain to them that it could not work. I heard that the owners of an Italian automobile factory in Turin (FIAT) provided their workers with a paid vacation in the Soviet Union to dissuade them from socialist ideas.  

We also went to Florence and Siena, places of invaluable art treasures. Once in Sienna we were approached by a woman looking like an American Indian who knew Russian. She lived in Venezuela and her husband was a Russian immigrant. She was acquainted with Marina Cunningham’s family, our friends from Chicago. Once, while in Siena, we went to the central square to get a cab. There was only one couple in front of us and they happened to be our close friends, Lilia Goldenberg and her husband Victor from Israel. Another time, in Milan, Ida and I were sitting in a restaurant wondering what to choose from a menu. A man at the next table understood Russian and gave us advice. He also knew Marina Cunningham’s family. What a small world!

We had an unforgettable trip to Sicily with our long time friends Alex and Faina Tabenkin. We rented a car in Rome and went to Naples, and then traveled by ferry boat to Palermo. One of my goals was to visit Corleone, the birth place of the “Godfather”, hero of the famous movie about the Mafia. I asked some local people what they thought of the movie. “It is  fiction and a fruit of imagination”, they responded. On the way back, while we were going through a narrow street leading down to a highway, we got stuck between a wall of a building on one side and a car on the other. A small crowd gathered around. The problem was resolved when three men picked up the blocking car and put it aside.

When we were visiting Syracuse in southern Sicily, Alex figured out that we were very close to the island of Malta. We rushed to get to the wharf to catch the boat, but it looked as if we missed the exit to it. When we were sure that we had failed, the wharf suddenly appeared in front of our eyes. The steersman on the boat was a Russian Armenian who had come that far in search of fortune. 

Malta is one big city with an ancient Crusader’s fortress. We found a Russian restaurant, “At a Friend”, which was managed by a group of people from Moscow. Ida wanted to go to a casino. Though I don’t like gambling, I agreed on condition that after a first successful attempt we would leave. We dropped a coin in and a clanging stream of Malta’s dollars poured out, $150 in all. We were done. 

In Verona, the beautiful town of Romeo and Juliet, we acquired new friends. I asked an Italian woman for directions from our hotel to a castle we wanted to visit, and she asked me in turn why I knew Italian. I gave her my usual answer, “Because I like it and, besides, my father knew Latin and that made it easy for him to learn other European languages. But why should I learn a dead language, Latin, when there is Italian?” She then said, “Be careful, I am a teacher of Latin”. Upon returning to our hotel, we were told that there was a letter for us. It was surprising, as we did not have any acquaintances in Verona. It turned out to be a letter from the woman we had met, Francesca, who invited us for a visit. After being with them for just a couple of hours, her husband, Attilio Castellani, said to us, “I have known you only for a short time, but I have a feeling of knowing you forever.” We visited them again after a year or so, and Lena’s family also met them later in Verona.

 We also made several trips to France. The first time, when we arrived in Paris from an airport by taxi, I was not  impressed until we entered it on foot. There is incomparable charm in its streets, its boulevards, and its small cafes. We went up the Eifel Tower and walked to Montmartre. There, we were surrounded by artists willing to draw our portraits for only $10 apiece. One of them said, “Come here professor, I’ll do it”. “How do you know I am a professor?” I asked. “It is evident!” he replied. I remember eating ice cream with Julie and Ida in the most beautiful spot in Paris, the Avenue des Champs-Élysées.  Julie laughed (and still does) at my remark that Mashpee on Cape Cod is be a better place.

Once, in a café, we asked to be seated by the second floor window to watch the street life. But when a waiter found out that we wanted to have only a desert, he asked us to move to the first floor. We felt offended and left. For comparison, here was an episode which occurred in a café in Chicago. A waitress, after finding out that we wanted only a desert, expressed her discontent. Ida and I stood up with the intention to leave. Observing it, the chief waiter implored, “Please stay and you will be served by another attendant”. We remained, and when we were about to pay, we were told, “On the house.”  

Twice, we stayed in Southern France in a provincial town named “Ville Franche Sur Mer”. When Ida and I ventured outside, we heard the sounds of music. We followed the music to the City Square where we saw tables with wine and snacks and people dancing around. “What are you celebrating?” I asked; “The Spring” followed the answer. 

We crossed France by car from South to North in one day. Finally, when we tried to find the hotel at Charles De Gaulle airport where we had a reservation, we could not locate it. In the month since we made the reservation, the hotel had been renamed. 

The other beautiful country we visited was Holland, a nation of tulips and wooden shoes. Sonia was already waiting for us in the Hague, where she had gone for a conference on International Law. Holland is so densely populated that there are almost no places in the countryside to stop, if nature is calling. Then, we saw a store with the hope of resolving the problem, but it was closed for lunch. However, an owner was so kind as to give us hospitality in her apartment. We brought tulip bulbs from Holland in violation of the customs regulation which forbids importing agricultural products to the U.S. Luckily, they were not detected, and the bulbs beautified our Manhasset Hills backyard. 

We made another trip by car with our dear friends, the Tabenkins, this time to France, Belgium, Germany, and Luxemburg. I have never learned to drive a car with a stick shift, so Alex’s skills were invaluable. He couldn’t miss any historical battle site or military cemetery on the way.


We travelled three times to England.  Once, I attended a seminar in London. It was so boring that I decided that we should escape for a day to visit Edinburgh. On the train I met an Englishman with whom we shared memories of a soccer match between Dinamo (a Moscow team) and Chelsea (a Premier League English team) in 1945. Soviet soccer had been unknown to the world, and the matches attracted a lot of attention. The teams scored 3 goals each. Then, Dinamo played three more games with Arsenal (4:3), Cardiff City (10:1), and Glasgow Rangers (2:2). It was a sensation: an unknown team beat the founders of soccer. By the way, the Russians cheated by adding to Dinamo some outstanding players from the other squads. The Soviets used the success for propaganda purposes, even produced a musical “Eleven Unknowns”.

I made a presentation at a scientific meeting in Cambridge. At a party wrapping up the event I was sitting at a table with my American colleagues when an Italian participant approached and asked me why I was not being together with my people, the Italians. I was happy to join them. 

Theaters play an important role in Londoners’ life. They have their permanent casts, and the tickets to the shows are inexpensive. One day we visited three shows in a row; and, though we were soaked by rain in-between, we stayed patiently to the end. We saw “Fiddler on the Roof” at Covent Garden with the star performance by Topol culminated with a standing ovation. Julie said: “Look they are not Jewish, but how they applaud!”

 In 1995, I made a presentation at the International Congress of Pathology in Madrid. At the convention I met my three former colleagues from Russia including the Chief Pathologist of the country, Dr. Sarkisov. Ida and I invited them out to dinner set for 8 PM but, in Madrid, the dinner is served not earlier than 9. My bonds with the Italians helped me because the manager of the selected restaurant was an Italian, and we were able to be served before the usual opening time.

 From Madrid we travelled by an overnight train to Lisbon, Portugal. It was very convenient: you go to bed in Madrid and wake up in Lisbon. The city impressed us with its straight thoroughfare, “Avenue De Libertad”, imitating “Avenue des Champs-Élysées” in Paris. The reason was that Napoleon copied the Champs-Élysées from the Avenue De Libertad and not vice versa. Especially impressive was the Atlantic shore where the Eucalyptus trees are dispersed between the large boulders, remnants of the Ice Age. We were at the furthest protrusion of Europe into Atlantic Ocean, “Caba De Roca” (Head of a Cliff), with the Atlantic Ocean shining below.


We also vacationed together with Julie in Puerto Rico. At a hotel in San Juan we received an unexpectedly luxurious suit because they ran out of the regular accommodations. The beach there was unappealing and inconvenient. Instead, there was a large swimming pool where Julie tried to teach Ida and me to swim, however unsuccessfully. The scenery in Puerto Rico country side is marvelous with waterfalls, caves and tropical gardens. In a restaurant we met two girls from South America with whom I managed to communicate in Spanish. It brought to my mind a joke about importance of knowing foreign languages: A cat was waiting for a mouse to appear from a hole in the floor while meowing to her kittens. A mouse heard it and did not venture out. The cat then got an idea to pretend to be a dog and began to bark. The mouse went out.  The cat caught him and then instructed her kittens, “Now you see how important is to know at least one foreign language”.  

Ida and I travelled to Alaska to visit Victor Fisher who was one of the founders of the state. He served there as a State Senator for many years, and many people we met greeted him by “Hi, Vic!” He took us on a boat trip and to a wildlife reserve where we observed various Northern animals. At one point, the bus had to slow down not to disturb a wolf walking leisurely in front.

 Several times we visited Israel. There, we found some relatives. Three of my mother’s cousins had immigrated to Palestine in the mid 20s. They were Zionists and ignored the difficulties of adaptation in the land. We met their descendants. Sonia stayed for a couple of days with a Hebrew speaking family to check her ability to communicate in the language she learned in school as a child. She managed very well.

 I will never forget our first arrival at Ben Gurion airport. The thick warm air of our ancestral land enveloped us. It did not feel being in a foreign country.

 We had close friends in Haifa. Hedviga Kerner, who emigrated from Russia in 1972, was my former postgraduate student. She had twin sons and a daughter. The boys became airplane pilots and later physicians. One of them piloted a Hercules plane carrying 1000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Hedviga made impressive career for herself in Israel; she became Director of Pathology at Rambam Hospital and Professor at the prestigious Teknion University. I gave a lecture there and took part in the diagnostic process. We stayed in their apartment in a building situated on a hill top. To reach the apartment located on the third floor, we had to go down from a sixth floor entrance.      

 “If I forget Jerusalem, let my right hand be cut off”, says an ancient prayer. I could not hold back the tears when I touched the Western Wall, symbol of the 2000 years of dispersion and suffering. We had an excellent guide in Jerusalem, an Ashkenazi Jew from a family who had lived there for 200 years. He gave us a tour of all important sites in the city. He explained to us that a stony infertile piece of desert, known now for its fame and beauty, was chosen in antiquity as the Jewish capital because no particular tribe had laid a claim to it.

We also travelled to Masada, a symbol of Jewish resistance to the Romans. After many months of siege the defenders committed suicide. Nowadays, the recruits of the IDF (Israel Defense Force) take there an oath, “Masada shall never fall again”.  

We visited the Dead Sea. This was the first pool of water where I could swim without fear of drowning. 

Finally, we went to the most remote part of Israel: Eilat. This is a place of unparalleled beauty. During the war for independence it was up for grabs. An Israeli unit made a daring raid through Sinai to capture it, but they did not have a flag to raise. Instead, they used a white bed sheet with a Star of David drawn in ink.

 For summer vacations, we preferred to drive to Cape Cod. We were so infatuated with it that we bought a house in Falmouth. It had four bedrooms, enough for our Boston family and guests. It was so quiet there except for the crickets, mosquitoes and on occasion airplanes. But all of a sudden, invaders appeared. We began hearing in our attic some strange noises. We thought they were produced by squirrels that crawled in through the holes under the roof. But the invaders happened to be raccoons. I could not imagine how these animals managed to fit through such small openings. To get rid of them, an expert advised us to buy urine of a pregnant fox. Is not it strange that such an item can be purchased? But it was possible in the garden supply store. Armed with a cotton ball dipped in fox urine, a hammer and a nail, Ilya crawled into the attic through an entrance on the second floor while I was waiting nearby. Suddenly, he shouted, “They are sitting there and looking at me menacingly”. “Please get out immediately”, I supplicated. He retreated, leaving behind the hammer, but his action had the desired effect: the raccoons vanished forever. The house on the Cape was a marvelous place for our family. 

The millennium was coming to an end and, under the cloudless sky of our life, sudden and difficult problems emerged. Sonia had a miscarriage and then a stillbirth. Both were unexpected and unexplained. In June 1998, Ida and I had come to Chicago on Sonia’s due date, to welcome our new grandchild. But on the eve of Sonia’s expected delivery she called us at night to tell that the fetus had ceased to move. Colby’s parents, Nancy and Michael, and Ida and I sat in the maternity ward of the hospital in the midst of celebration of new life and could not understand how this had happened.  Eleven months later, Ida’s brother died while swimming at the Cape. 

A month after that, Sonia gave birth to her first son:  the amazing and wonderful Harrison.  However, he soon developed a bad lip infection caused by relatively innocuous bacteria. It was later discovered that he had an immune deficiency. The appropriate measures produced a complete curative effect. Sonia and Colby went on to have twin boys, Holden and Langford, in 2003, and Davis, in 2004.  Holden and Davis have the same immunodeficiency as Harrison, but all three boys receive treatment and are part of a study at the National Institutes of Health.  They are healthy and bright boys, soccer players, and perhaps someday, chess players as well. 

But at the time of the loss of Sonia’s pregnancy, and the death of Ida’s brother, other problems took root.  In the beginning of 1998, I noticed that during our frequent commutes between New York and Boston, Ida started going back to the same topic of conversation repeatedly. She also began forgetting keys for the doors and some other things. An awful suspicion flashed in my mind that she could be showing the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease. It was soon confirmed by the specialists. I realized that it was my duty to be with her as much as possible, and I started preparing for my retirement. We rented an apartment in Forest Hills and sold our house on Long Island.

 After I retired in December of 1999, we moved to Chicago to the building where Sonia’s family lived. I received part time employment as a lecturer in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Loyola Medical School. Then an unexpected event intervened: a newborn baby was stolen from the maternity ward.  The Department was blamed and, as a result, it lost the State financing including the funding for my remuneration. 

Sonia and her family moved to the suburbs. Lena insisted that we should relocate to Boston. Eventually, we moved to a location close to her place in Brookline. However, Ida’s condition was steadily deteriorating. We sold our house in Falmouth as the grandchildren in Boston grew older and the family in Chicago was too far away. 

I became depressed seeing Ida’s decline. Lena and Ilya had to visit us all the time. We engaged some domestic help, but it was not a solution. Luckily, Lena found a place for us to settle in: Hebrew Rehabilitation Center (HRC) in Boston.  

We moved in on January 5, 2005. HRC is the best institution of that kind, maybe it is the best in the world. It is part of Hebrew Senior Life and is affiliated with Harvard Medical School. It has a dedicated staff of medical professionals. From top to bottom, it is extremely well kept. A garden surrounding the center is absolutely marvelous. The whole center is located on an elevation bordering the Arnold Arboretum. 

HRC has a unique section designed specifically for immigrants from the Former Soviet Union. It was created in the year 2000 thanks to the efforts of Alexandra Dashevskaya who heads this program. All the employees there speak Russian which creates a unique and comfortable environment for the residents. 

Ida and I were placed together in a room for two people. Ida’s memory was failing fast. She was losing orientation and I tried to be by her side all the time. After a few months, she began to need constant sanitary care and had to be transferred to another section more suitable for that purpose. It was only one floor above mine, and I could still see her every day. 

After she was moved out, a new resident was moved in with me. He was an older man, a shoemaker in the past. It was annoying to share the room, but I was so preoccupied with Ida’s condition that nothing else could bother me.

 Ida began to need constant personal care. She was unable to walk and was confined to a wheel chair. I spent much of my by her side. She needed assistance with eating and drinking. She could say some phrases, and kept her usual cheerfulness and charming smile. She was loved by everybody around her. Sometimes, she eloquently expressed her feelings. During one visit by Sonia’s children, I asked her what she thought of them and  she articulated it so well in Russian: Îíè ïîòðÿñàþùèå” (they are super fantastic). 

She started regurgitating and aspirating food followed by bouts of pneumonia. The medical care she received was without reproach. But, her malady was taking its toll. On February 18, 2011, she passed away. She did not suffer. Everything was done to prevent her from feeling pain. I was near her the entire time, and when she ceased to breathe, I gave her a final kiss. 

Her funeral was filled with people who loved her, and many of those people continue to support me in my life. 

After this enormous loss, I preserved my spirit thanks to 11 people present in my heart: two daughters, six grandchildren, two sons-in-law, and a grandson-in-law. In May of 2012, I rejoiced at Julie’s wedding to her wonderful husband, Corey Glodek.  Corey’s family has become part of my family much like Colby’s family, and Ilya’s family. 

 A year before Ida died, I received a cozy personal room with a magnificent view of the garden. Ilya installed there a computer , which created a new important element in my life. With it, I could hear and see the whole world and communicate with my family and friends via Facebook. 

A few years earlier, I began giving weekly seminars to the Russian-speaking residents on Jewish and American history and current world events. I also added a new endeavor by becoming a member of the Advisory Council at HRC. Recently, I started producing a news bulletin in two languages: English and Russian.

I came to the conclusion that, though people may die, love does not. Real love is eternal. It is inside and I feel it every moment. A large portrait of Ida constantly emits the rays of her fabulous smile.

   The excerpt from the book 'One flew over the iron Curtain', 2012.