HIAS myStory Immigration Project-The Generations Project
The “Generations Project” was created to collect the immigration stories from two or more generations within the same family that have emigrated from the Soviet Union to the United States. It brings together the stories of families in the Philadelphia and New Jersey communities. Each generation of grandparents, parents, and children has a valuable lesson to share with the other, and this cross-generational wisdom is recorded and shared. Interviews were conducted by phone, email, or in-person and answers from different generations juxtaposed with each other. The innocent memories of a young newly immigrant child hold poignant meaning for their own parents and grandparents. But, it’s possible that these memories could provoke meaningful conversations among the thousands of other Russian Jewish immigrants who had both an individual but highly collective experience of moving to this country and within the communities where they now live. The “Generations Project” is part of a larger effort called "HIAS myStory Immigration Project" to collect, record, and publish the experiences of those individuals that have emigrated from the Soviet Union to the United States. It is the belief that all those individuals and stories deserve a voice that is valuable for preservation and education of generations to come.
This is one of those family stories.
Name: Mikhail Etin
Place of origin: Minsk, Belarus
First City to call home in the US: New York
Year of immigration: 1989
Name: Robert (Ilya) Etin
Place of origin: Minsk, Belarus
First City to call home in the US: New York
Year of immigration: 1989
1. Why did you or your family decide to come to the United States?
Father Mikhail: I graduated Belarusian University as one of the best mathematicians over there but couldn't find a job as a mathematician because I was a Jew. I dreamed to be one since the 1st grade but just because of my ethnicity I couldn't fulfill my dream. We wanted our children to be free to become whatever they wanted and were able to.
Son Ilya: I am not entirely sure why my parents decided to immigrate to the United States given that I was six when the decision was made in 1989, but the impression I get is that there were a number of factors that prompted their decision. They seem to have been very conscious of the fact that they themselves had very limited economic/professional opportunities in the Soviet Union. This was partially because they are Jewish, but seems to have had at least as much to do with the fact that my father had gotten in trouble for agitating against the Communist Party while he was in college. They were also very concerned about a perceived lack of opportunity for my younger brother and myself because of our Jewish heritage.
Additionally, my parents seem to have disliked many of the totalitarian and oppressive aspects of Russian culture. Furthermore, the Soviet Union was beginning to disintegrate and stories about large-scale ethnic violence in Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan were beginning to circulate, stoking fears that Pogroms against Jews would soon follow. My parents had heard from my uncle in Israel and my aunt in the US that that there was much more opportunity in either country and that both countries provided a much safer environment for Jews. My grandmother had gotten an opportunity to visit my aunt in the US and reported that the quality of life in the US was far superior to what was available in the Soviet Union. So when the opportunity to leave the Soviet Union presented itself my parents decided to take it.
2. What was your life like when you left your home country? If you were young when you left, please describe any brief memories, family stories, or what your family left behind, good or bad, in their move to the United States.
Father Mikhail: Materially we had a relatively comfortable life but we always remembered and were always reminded to that we were 2nd class citizens. In late 1980s it became even more so. People started talking about pogroms. We knew very well what it meant from books and stories our parents told us. It was time to leave the country although we never believed we could achieve the same level of material comfort in the United States. If we knew how wrong we were, we'd have left 10 years earlier.
Son Ilya: I was only six when my family left the Soviet Union so my memories are very vague. I remember that we lived in an apartment building in Minsk, Belarus. My parents, my two-year-old brother, my grandmother, and I all lived in the apartment my mother had grown up in. It had a bedroom, a living room, a kitchen, and a bathroom. I shared the living room with my grandmother and my younger brother slept in my parents’ bedroom. My parents both worked so my grandmother would often watch my brother and I, when I was not at the day care center where I remember spending most weekdays.
The building seemed to have at least 80 people, but most of the families seem to have known each other pretty well. Looking back I get the impression that many of the families had lived in the building since it was built in the 1960’s and that a large percentage of them, if not the majority, were also Jewish. I seem to have been the only boy my exact age because all the boys I played with were at least a year or two older. This is probably part of the reason why in many of my memories of the Soviet Union I remember feeling slow witted and out of place, like everyone around me understood something I did not.
However, these feelings also may have an origin in the environment of the time. Looking back I remember that a constant sense of tension always seemed to hang over everything, although I am able to identify the feeling only now. The stories/opinions I heard at home, particularly from my grandmother, often seemed to contradict what I heard on TV and at the daycare center. This was particularly true of topics dealing with history and internal Soviet politics. But no one else seemed to notice these contradictions and I was generally too afraid to ask about it. It always felt like my questions would either make me look incredibly stupid, would get me into serious trouble, or both, although I can no longer clearly identify why I felt that way. I do distinctly remember seriously considering that I may be insane.
In some ways life was getting better right as we were making arrangements to leave. A few months before the move, my parents had been offered a new, larger apartment and a chance to obtain a dacha through my mother’s work. I had also just started 1st grade and I remember being very excited about going to school. For the first time I felt like I was not the least intelligent person around and I seemed to understand what was being taught.
However, I also remember that there was increasing tension about the move and about national events. My parents were very concerned with the logistical details of the move and the fear of Pogroms seemed to be becoming more serious. I personally was very concerned about the move because I was under the impression that there was a war going on in the United States. I had misunderstood news reports about “The War on Drugs” as being about a real war taking place in the US.
3. Describe the trip that you and/or your family took to the get to the United States. Did you receive an invitation from a family member or the Jewish community? Did you receive assistance from some organization in order to get here or immediately upon arrival? Please include year of arrival.
Father Mikhail: My brother was living in Israel since 1973 and my wife's sister was in US since 1980 so we've gotten the invitations from both of them. We left late in 1989 and arrived to New York in March of 1990. We spent about two month in each Austria and Italy and HIAS supported us in both countries.
Son Ilya: Officially, my family left the Soviet Union by train as refugees bound for Israel. Our first stop was Austria, where I believe we spent 6 weeks. I am under the impression that this was where my parents made the official request to go to the United States instead of to Israel. My aunt, who was already a US citizen, put in paper work to bring us in into the US. While we waited for the paperwork to be processed we were placed in a scenic hotel in an Austrian ski resort. I have no idea how this was arranged or specifically who paid for it, although I am under the impression that some Jewish organization was involved.
Afterwards, we moved on to Italy to be processed for entry into the US. For some reason that I no longer remember my grandmother was not immediately allowed to go with us and had to stay in Vienna for what I believe turned out to be 6 months. Initially, this was a huge source of tears and anguish for myself and for the family. As it turned out, she was just fine since she was provided a place to stay and her Yiddish allowed her to easily communicate with the Austrians.
I believe that we were in Italy for about 3 months. We stayed in several apartments that my parents rented, but I am not sure where the money for the rent and food came from. I know that my parents sold some valuables while we stayed there, but these could not possibly have been worth much so I’m certain that there must have been another source of funding.
4. Describe a vivid memory/story/impression upon your arrival or within a short period of your arrival to the United States.
Father Mikhail: The most vivid impression I had right after arriving was the way Jews were treated in the States. I knew about the freedom but never would even imagine that a Hassidic Jew could shop in a supermarket and nobody would pay much attention or the police would stop the traffic so Jewish kids could cross the road coming from a religious school.
Son Ilya: The most vivid memory I have upon arrival is meeting my aunt for the first time at the airport. She ran over to us and hugged my mother as they both wept. The scene was very unexpected for me because I had never seen her in person before and did not immediately recognize her from the photos I had seen. She gave my brother and I teddy bears. I remember being very impressed with this because these teddy bears were far softer and more attractive than any I had ever come across in the Soviet Union. Both my brother and I still have them. When my aunt drove us to her home from the airport I remember being shocked by how many cars there were, as well as by how many color variations and sizes they came in. When we got to her home I met my uncle and my cousin for the first time.
5. Many people left behind careers, years of schooling, friends before coming to the United States. Describe what you have done here to support yourself and your family in this country. Please make as long or short as you wish. If you moved here after retirement, describe your retirement experience here. If you came here as a child, has your parent's immigration experience affected your career goals, and if so, how?
Father Mikhail: We left behind a comfortable life by soviet standards, stable jobs, many relatives and friends and we didn't really know what to expect in our new life. It turned out, we built a comfortable life here as well, met many our friends who came over as well, and built new friendships.
Son Ilya: In the Soviet Union my father had worked as a computer programmer and my mother had worked as an engineer. After immigrating to the US my parents both became computer programmers. Although they struggled initially, both have since enjoyed professional success in this field.
My parents’ immigration experience has probably affected my career goals. As a result of seeing my parents’ early struggles I have always been conscious of the fact that I would one day have a family to support and that it would be my responsibility to be able to ensure at least a reasonably stable quality of life. However, since immigrating I have also been determined to be able to do something interesting with my life in order to take advantage of the opportunity my parents sought to provide for my brother and I. The experience has also left me with a desire to serve my country in appreciation of the success and stability living here has enabled my family to attain.
The second two sentiments probably played at least some role in my decision to join the military. After college, I spent five years as an Intelligence Analyst in the US Army. The work was often extremely stimulating intellectually and allowed me to serve my country. These same sentiments probably influenced my decision to devote myself to helping my friends run their startup company after I left the military. Although I left the company this week due to a change in ownership, the work was extremely stimulating and I feel that it allowed me to serve my country because the company’s signature Hydros Filtering Water Bottle (we started that trend) reduces the need for bottled water and is completely manufactured in the US.
6. If you could pass on one life lesson about your immigration to the United States to your children or grandchildren who are born here, what would it be?
Father Mikhail: To love and respect this country for everything it stands for.
Son Ilya: If I could impart one lesson about immigration it would be to appreciate all of the great things the United States provides. The nation is by no means perfect. It’s probably not even the best country in the world to live in for that matter. However, it has given my family and I a relative sense of safety (no fear of Pogroms here), opportunities for professional success in our fields of choice, and a chance to live in an open society where one does not have to be scared to ask questions.