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A second chance

Rebecca's Family's story posted by Rebecca S. on April 17, 2013 at 11:44 am. Rebecca's emigrated from Leningrad, Soviet Union (USSR) to New York, United States in 1978

  Soviet Russia was a force to be reckoned with. A powerful and cruel government, advanced in technology and intelligence not only held most of Western Europe and the United States in extreme discomfort during the enduring Cold War, but kept its civilians captive within its communist regime. These civilians varied in ideologies; some loved the sequence of totalitarian leaders, and some believed in the ideological doctrines of Communism. However, for the most part, the average person kept his head down, sang Soviet tunes and jingles loudly, and only spoke of unhappiness in quiet whispers in the dark of their communal apartments. Nevertheless, one thing unified everyone: there had never been an alternative. Well, almost all of them hadn’t had the choice. For the Sakovsky-Gurevich family, a critical decision of the previous generation had delivered them into this prison…


“I hate it here, Solomon. Take me back to Russia”Maria, wrapped in her threadbare shawl sat looking out of the grimy window into the steaming streets of New York. Even though the window was closed, the din was unbearable; children crying, women hollering, carriages and horses and carts clamoring through a sea of immigrants. The window was the only source of light into the room, aside from the greasy kerosene lamp that filled the closet-like interior with a thick, nauseating smell. Tears welled up in Maria’s eyes, and slowly dripped down her cheeks, which were once been full and ripe with youth and hearty meals. Now, in degrading poverty, the cheeks had disappeared, leaving a face with hollow shadows, and large sad eyes. She lifted a bony hand and caught the tear as it reached her chin. Looking at her wet palm, her mouth began to tremble and she quickly turned away from her husband, stifling a quiet sob.

Solomon Sakovsky stood quietly in the doorway. After hours of menial labor in a near-by sweatshop, he could barely keep his eyes focused on his distressed wife, as he leaned against the cracked plaster of the doorframe to counteract his exhaustion. “How,” he thought, “could I have made such a horrible mistake?” For months now, he had watched his lovely wife fade like an autumn leaf. In the beginning, her eyes had shone with the excitement of America, the land of opportunity and democracy, far away from serfdom and boyars! Oh how she had squealed and babbled with excitement at first sight of the Statue of Liberty as their ship had glided towards Ellis Island, all homesickness and seasickness forgotten. The first days of this new life in America were the best in their memory: the sights, the smells, the people, the hubbub of languages and people. They had stared wide eyed at the gentry of New York who had acquired their riches without the help of royal titles, land, or peasants. Suddenly everything became possible, every door was open, every dream was transformed into a pending reality. Until the doors closed. The American dream, became an American nightmare. With no English, no credentials, and no family or friends, the Sakovskys found themselves unwanted and disliked. Door after door was shut in Solomon’s face as he begged for a job, hoping to communicate his desperation with three words of English and humiliated tears. Any money had gone towards their living quarters, which teamed with vermin, and had paper thin walls that let out all heat, and let in all of the cold. Meat became a foreign word: cabbage and potatoes, half rotten, were the brutal reality of meal times. As the money and the quality of life shrieked to a complete stop, so did the enthusiasm and hope that had accompanied the Sakovskys from Russia. They spoke less, and sat, brooding, in their dejected silence. But it was when Maria was forced to pawn her mother’s ring that she had begun to cry, and since then, she had not stopped.All these memories and thoughts echoed through Solomon’s mind as he slowly crossed the room in three steps and gently sat down besides his distraught wife. Moments became hours as they sat, quiet with hopelessness, while the New York summer sky went from blinding white, to steel gray. It was dark before Maria broke the silence, “Solomon, I will die if I stay here. Please do not let me die.”


Sixty years later, and my mother is sitting by the grimy window of a small, bare apartment in Queens.

“Mama, I don’t want to go to school. Between the English and the Hebrew, I can’t understand a single thing,” she said bitterly. “I hate it here.” My grandmother, standing in the kitchen, came around the corner and stood, arms crossed in the doorway. My mother turned slowly to meet her gaze. They looked at each other in silence for a few moments, and my grandmother spoke,

“Tanya, you listen to me. My grandmother came here, at the turn of the century. Her and my grandfather didn’t have the easiest time either. They lived in a crummy apartment, like us, they barely spoke English, like us, and they too had a hard time adjusting to America. But they gave up. They came back to Russia because the going was too tough. And that’s why the three generations following them had to suffer… because they were too scared of their new world to go out and succeed. Do you know how lucky we are, to be here? To have a second chance? Well, the Sakovskys messed it up once and I am goddam sure we will not do so again. So finish your breakfast, get your books, and go to school.”


Twenty-five years later, and my family is still here. Nothing about their assimilation was easy, and the only tool they had at their disposal was intellect and perseverance. My family’s story is not a story of escape, passage, or the hardships of being foreign; the greatest obstacle they had to overcome was choosing the difficult path. Over a hundred years ago, two of my ancestors subjected their future family to many years of suffering because treading off the beaten path required too much effort. The going was too tough, so they turned around and went no further. I do not know if they regretted their decision to return, but I am glad that they passed on their adventurous spirit to my grandparents, who saw the cage they were in, and bravely sought to escape it. Perhaps if I find myself, in the near future, sitting by a window looking out at New York City, troubled by difficulties of school or work, I will remember my interesting family story and how running back to the safety of familiarity is just an invitation to entrapment, and facing the din and ruckus on street level will only bring me all of the wonders of a new world. 

Rebecca S. is the 1st Prize winner among High School Students of RJCF/HIAS Essay Contest, 2013