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Let Freedom Ring

Rachel F.'s family's story posted by Rachel F. on April 19, 2013 at 4:50 pm. Rachel emigrated from Moscow, Soviet Union (USSR) to Boston, United States in 1988

The subway rattled eerily as two eighteen-year-old American boys stood on it. They were trying not to make eye contact with anyone – they had heard too many fabled Cold War horror stories aboutyoung tourists being kidnapped and forced to work at labor camps. With goose-bumps crawling up their arms, the young boys hurried out of the subway, keeping their heads down, their coats whipping at their ankles. David and Jeff were in the Soviet Union on a mission; they had a list of refuseniks they needed to visit. They nervously searched the streets of Moscow beneath the ominous sky, looking for the address they had carefully memorized. As they entered the small apartment, they were greeted by two women, who quickly shuffled the boys inside, scared that a nosy onlooker would noticed them. One of the women offered the boys a sad bowl of watery green peas – one of her few sustenances, as there wasbarely any Kosher foods available to practicing Jews. The other woman was an unemployed English teacher making a meager living teacher young kids and helping translate encounters between Americas and refusenik friends. This woman, having two teenage-boys at home herself, saw that, despite their polite manners, David and Jeff were starving, and invited them home for dinner. This was my grandmother, Ena.

Meanwhile, across town, a boy only a few years younger than David and Jeff was excitedly taking advantage of the absence of his parents. As soon as the door shut behind his mothers heels, theboy heaved out a few buckets of paint and approached his canvas. Not his usual notebook, but this time it was the wall of his room. With large brush strokes, not caring about later repercussions, the sixteenyear-old painted a space shuttle in front of a map of America. To him, mural represented the freedom that the United States held and the life his family hoped to one day have. He did not know that, in a few short hours, before the paint on the wall would even dry, he would meet the Americans his mother was currently with. He had no idea that this painting would make them fall in love with his family and want to save them from Soviet oppression. Not knowing any of this, my father turned the volume a little louder on his tape deck, and continued to paint.

As my father sat on the floor, admiring his work and imagining all the potential reactions of his parents, the front door swung open. Curiously, he watched as his mother pushed two young boys intothe apartment. They looked strange, foreign even. Maybe his mind was still wrapped up in the theme of his artwork, but the two boys looked American. Ena quickly explained who they were as she bustledaround the kitchen. As everyone sat around the small kitchen table, heartily enjoying the impromptu meal, David looked around the bare apartment. Ena explained that eight years prior, the family had applied for visas to leave the country. Expecting to spend the following New Years outside the SovietUnion, the family had sold all their belongings. Ena told David how within weeks of the application shewas fired from her teaching position at the local high school. Her husband, who had been a prominent math professor, had also been fired from his job. Being in the pending process of emigration, both ofthem had been deemed “unemployable”. To make ends meet, my grandfather had become a car mechanic running a small business out of his garage, but since any form of private enterprise wasillegal in the Soviet Union, he had to conceal his job from the government.

Waiting for the visas to leave the country, the seemingly temporary situation unexpectedly turned permanent when they received an official notice declaring that they had no reason to leave. As David was heading back to hishotel from the apartment, he pondered how Mother Russia was the least maternal place imaginable, a place his mind, raised in the American spirit, had trouble comprehending.

Exiting the elevator, David passed a man reeking of oil and with grime up to his elbows; he wondered if this, perhaps, was the oncerenowned math professor, now forced to fix engines.A few months had passed since the Americans had visited and my family's life had continued its regular pace. The dinner was thought back upon as an exciting glitch in the bleak Soviet existence; littledid they know how life-changing this encounter would turn out to be. One afternoon, kitchen phonerang, a girl named Sylvia introduced herself. She was David's childhood friend, and, knowing that she had scheduled a trip to Moscow, he had urged her to visit my family. She wanted to meet them and hear their story firsthand. She called because she needed my family's address, so she could memorize it before she departed. If papers such as addresses of refuseniks were found in the pockets of traveling Americans, there would have been trouble for everyone.

Her stay was brief, but she, like David, felt extraordinarily moved. Upon her return back to the United States, she and David, with the help of their parents, worked tirelessly on a foundation theycalled “Free the Feinbergs”. Located in David's parents' house, the foundation encouraged people to write letters of support to my family. Over three thousand of these letters flew across the atlantic; they were written by school children, students, synagogue members, and many others. People wrote to express support and concern. My family received only one. The iron curtain of the KGB had stoppedthe rest. Knowing that their organization was not enough, David and Sylvia approached everyone theythought might be helpful or influential. The two kids, with only one foot in adulthood, went knocked on every door available, pleading for help. The only person who took interest in their cause was the youngnew congressman, Tom Delay.

On August 15, 1986, Tom Delay personally wrote a letter to Secretary General Gorbachev expressing his concerns about my family. This letter was signed by eighty five members of Congress.Claiming the Feinbergs as his “adopted family”, Congressman Delay, along with his wife, Christine, visited them in April of 1987. Though the Delays were not Jewish, they conducted the first passoverSeder my family ever had. My father remembers how mesmerized he was watching Congressman Delay take out of his bag kippahs for everyone, a passover plate, Matzah, gefilte fish, and my family's first ever Haggadah. The born-again Christian from Texas scrolled out the Torah my grandparents secretly owned – but did not know how to use – and conducted the first ever Passover service in nearly one hundred years of my family's history. Tom Delay, a businessman himself, connected with my grandfather's entrepreneurial disposition; they spent hours talking about the secretive ways mygrandfather had been providing for the family for the past nine years while avoiding persecution from the government. The Congressman was moved by my family's strong spirit. At the end of the ceremony, he offered to take the Torah, my family's most prized possession with him, certain that the Feinbergs' would one day be reunited with it as citizens of the United States. In order to make it fit into his bag, he had to take it off the scrolls.

Like in every good Jewish tale, a passover miracle occurred. Shortly after the Delay's visit, my family was granted permission to leave. It was a bittersweet farewell, as they were sure they wouldnever again see the relatives they were leaving behind. When my family was going through Soviet customs, their bags were searched and the scrolls of the Torah questioned.

 Desperately, my grandmother declared that she was an avid baker and that the scrolls were rolling pins. Just barely, she managed to bring the precious artifacts to America. Luck, ever so prominent in my family's journey, never wavered. The morning after the departure, my great-grandmother was woken by armed Sovietofficials looking to draft my father into the army. He had escaped by a narrow margin of less than twelve hours.

The sense of gratitude towards Tom Delay and David never faded in my family's lives. On the twentieth anniversary of immigration, when I was nine years old, I flew to Texas with my parents andmet Tom Delay. Listening to him tell this story from the perspective of a young Congressman was fascinating.

A few years later, I met David, the once young boy who began the Free the Feinbergs campaign.

At my Bat Mitzvah I used the Torah my family smuggled out of Russia, the faded lettering making it hard to distinguish the separate words. Even though my family's journey to America tookplace long before I was born, it is very much still a part of my identity.

Rachel F. is the 2nd prize winner of HIAS/RJCF Essay Contest, 2013.