Back to Written Stories

image of author

Interview with a computer programmer - my mother

Sofya Portnova's story posted by Daniel Strizhevsky on October 19, 2013 at 5:57 pm. Sofya emigrated from Leningrad, Soviet Union (USSR) to New York, United States in 1989

            My family was an ordinary Jewish family in Soviet Union.  My parents were school teachers and we lived in a small town in Belarus, which before World War II used to be a "shtetl" or mostly Jewish town. My parents were able to escape the horrors of the ghetto and imminent death under the Nazis by fleeing to the Asian part of the country beyond the Ural Mountains. When they returned to their home town in Belarus after the war ended, things had noticeably changed for the worse. Anti-Semitism, an ugly remnant of the war, was rampant.  I was born twelve years after the end of World War II, and anti-Semitism was so widespread in Belarus, that even as a child I could expect to be called names, and hear anti-Jewish slurs addressed to me just while walking the streets. 

            I was a very good student, mostly interested in foreign languages and literature. I knew almost from day one (though I now cannot recall exactly when it became obvious to me), that I could not possibly get into a university and study what I was interested in the most. I knew that my only opportunity to get a higher education was to enter some average engineering school. In the 1960s and 70s the cold war was at its height and the Soviet Union had a great need for engineers to keep pace with the West. This made engineering and technical universities more accessible to Jews. Fortunately, I was also a good math and science student and was able to get into a polytechnic university, from which I graduated five years later with a degree of a mechanical engineer

             I started working as an engineer, and then as a computer programmer. I was not very happy with my job, but I did not even expect to be happy. I was well aware of the limitations placed on me because I was Jewish: I could not travel abroad, study Jewish history, and read all the books I wanted. The idea of immigration never occurred to me at this time. It was not possible anyway. What is the most puzzling to me now, is how matter-of-factly I accepted all the limitations of life in the Soviet Union due to my Jewish nationality.

            Only when my daughter was born in 1984 did I start thinking about the future - her future. I became terrified. It is one thing to live this life, and another thing to understand what this life holds for your children. I was very lucky that around the time I started to realize how much I wanted to leave the Soviet Union, immigration became possible.

            In 1989, with the help of the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society, my family and I were able to leave the Soviet Union, and we came to the United States. I was 32 at this time, and even though I now had the opportunity to return to school and become all I had wanted, I felt that the time had passed for me.  I was not that excited about languages and literature any more, I had other priorities; I had to think about my family. I went to work as a computer programmer. My life is pretty happy, but it would definitely be more exciting had I been born in a free country and had the opportunity to pursue my dreams as a very young person. 

            Being able to compare the life and freedom and the opportunities in the United States to what I lived through before made me appreciate this country very much. I think I am more patriotic then the people who were born in this country who take so many things for granted. My children will have all the opportunities that I missed in my life, and I am forever grateful for the opportunity to live in the United States, and for the people who made it possible.