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A walk down Memory Lane

Elia Feldsher's story posted by on May 31, 2010 at 6:03 pm. Elia emigrated from Odessa, Ukraine to New York, United States in 1978

Dear Reader, The story you are about to read, is re-told by a 15 year old high school student by the name of Ari Smolyar - me, from the words of my grandfather Elia Feldsher, who immigrated to the United States in 1978. “Every morning I woke up with the same dream. A dream that one day my family would live in a country free of anti-Semitism and have the opportunity to do whatever our hearts desired. I wanted to create a better life for my family – a life where we no longer worried about being Jews, in a place that provided equal opportunity to all, regardless of our beliefs and customs. Along with our two daughters, my wife and I lived, or rather struggled, in a one-bedroom apartment, but that was about to change. One lucky Tuesday afternoon, we got our ticket to a bright new future. As I opened the envelope I was filled with joy and tranquility, a state of mind I had only reached a few times before. I knew that my family and I were destined to leave the Soviet Union, but I couldn’t comprehend the journey we were about to take. The letter came from “OVIR”, a government organization granting VISAs to leave the country. With this letter in hand, the gates were still not open for us to leave – we had to wait for clearance from the Soviet government and that was one of the most difficult obstacles standing in our way. My wife, a telecommunications engineer and head of her group was considered essential to the government, both due to her knowledge and her clearance level. She had no choice but to quit her job. We did not know how long it would take to acquire permission to leave, and for the next two years I worked two jobs to support my family. I worked day and night making sure that we had enough to eat, and enough money to make it through the week. Some friends and family members laughed at me, telling me that I would lose everything - my status, my profession, the respect of my peers. But, that did not deter me a bit – I was ready to sweep the streets as long as I was able to provide for my daughters the freedom of thought. We waited and waited, I never gave up hope and one day the letter came. We were called for an interview that would evaluate our ability to leave the country. I can’t describe how I felt at that moment – tears of joy rushed down my cheeks, and I could taste the sweetness of a better life to come. In reality, 1978 was the year that opened the flood-gates of immigration, and our papers were lost among millions of applicants. Though both my wife and I were essential personnel we were granted a right to leave. With our case settled and no time to spare, my wife’s parents submitted their paperwork for immigration, but were refused. I knew we couldn’t leave without them, but little did I know, that I would be sacrificing a huge part of myself, to get them out. I awoke and looked at my clock. It read 4:30 in the morning, and I knew that I would be on time to get in line. Although they opened at 9:00am, morning after morning I would get in line at 5 a.m. just to get the opportunity to present my case to the General. I knew that once my time came I would be able to convince the General to give my parents-in-law the required documents to leave. So I got in line, as I had done numerous times in the past few months and waited my turn. I knew I had a shot to get that paperwork. I had hope; hope that couldn’t be upset even through a storm of disapproval and failure. This is the hope that got me to where I am now. One day, while waiting in line, I heard that the General was in town to review the work of the local emigration officers. This was my chance – the local officer was now familiar with my face, having ignored me daily, and would try to prevent any negative outbursts or references during the General’s visit. That morning, he looked in my direction one more time and said “You over there, you have been here every single day, what do you want?” I took my chance – I explained our situation and pleaded with him to sign emigration documents for my in-laws. He consented, and relief flooded my whole being, my kids would never face this humiliation again, my kids would never again have to base their life on a whim of a single human being. I came home with great news, and it seemed as if I was engulfed with happiness and admiration for my hard work. With papers in hand, I knew that our trials and difficulties were still far from over, for we had to face customs next. I heard crazy and unbelievable stories from others who were rejected by the customs agents. I decided not to worry about the hardships of travel that lay ahead, and concentrated on worrying about people I did not know who held my future, as it seemed then, in the palm of their hand. There was no positive information when it came to customs – the teams of agents were cruel, vicious and cared little (if at all) for our lives and our future. They were there to do a job – and that was to make our road difficult, as we were Traitors, running away from our homeland. Information was key, and I left for “Chop” - a border town where we were to pass customs, three days ahead of my family. I scouted the crew on duty, listened to fellow immigrants and prepared as best as I could. Our time came and we were in the room facing the customs agents. We were asked to open all our belonging, for one last check. Our life, our soul displayed before strangers – I felt a wave of fear come over me. I started doubting our position, asking myself whether or not they would let us leave. They started with us first; they took my ring, and my three-year-old daughter’s earrings along with some other possessions before moving on to our luggage. There was nothing I could do, but stand back idly and watch. After going through the first suitcase, the customs agent asked what my profession was, I was an engineer, I replied. He laughed and said, “Figures, that’s why you don’t have anything.” For a moment in time, I could tell he felt pity for us, I felt pity as well – we lived a life, I held patents signed by Brezhnev, yet I had nothing to show for it. This was one of the reasons I was so eager to leave – please just let us pass, I thought to myself… and somehow, they did… Our first stop was Vienna, Austria. All we were told was that a Jewish organization called HIAS, would help us upon arrival. We spent ten days there waiting for our documents to enter Italy. While in Vienna, my youngest, Jennifer, contracted an ear infection. The infection progressed quickly, her fever rose and she couldn’t get out of bed. I called HIAS for help and they sent over a doctor immediately. He prescribed medicine, but we couldn’t afford it. I was devastated and scared, losing hope quickly in a foreign land. With a twist of luck, or under the ever watchful eye of God – we met and became friends with a Russian couple staying in our hotel. He was a painter – they lived off the sale of his paintings. They were both kind and generous people to whom we owe a debt of gratitude. As long as I live I will remember his care and compassion – he sold a painting of his and helped us pay for the much needed medicine. After spending ten days in Vienna, it was time to board our train to Italy. Just a week prior there was a fatal attack by local Muslims on the Russian immigrants, and to prevent any more similar incidents, heavily armed Austrian soldiers escorted us into the train. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I couldn’t believe what was happening around me. I kept telling myself that the soldiers, positioned on either side of our walking path, were just there to protect us – but the horrible stories my father told me about the holocaust kept replaying in my mind. With every step my body shook more and more. The word ‘protection’ floated around in my mind, but I couldn’t comprehend the fact that these soldiers were there to protect me. This was 40 years later, yet I left like I was there in Nazi Germany - walking to the train. I was scared, I felt that any minute they would raise their guns and shoot, but I couldn’t show it, I had to be strong for my family. My worst fears did not come true and we boarded the tightly packed train heading to Italy. While on the train we laid our suitcases on our seats, they were numerous and we had no other place for them or us – so we stood for hours. Although we stood unprepared, worried, inexperienced, and foreign, we stood together. We stood together as a family – family with an impenetrable bond that would keep us together no matter what. As we got off of the train, Jewish activists greeted us. They rushed over to us, prepared snacks and drinks for us and unloaded our suitcases from the train. It was an unforgettable experience. We sat, we ate and then we were ushered into busses that brought us to a hotel. We stayed at the hotel for a couple of days, giving us time to find an apartment. HIAS was there, supporting us in every way possible, both financially and emotionally. Though we were living in Italy, we did not feel like we belonged there. We had no papers, and in reality, the Italian government didn’t know, or chose not to know, that we were living in their country. We were illegal immigrants, and that’s what frightened me most. What would happen if one of us got hurt? Who would take care of us? Where would we find help? We lived in a town called Ostia de Lido for two months, awaiting our permission to enter the United States, our final destination. While in Italy, my wife worked for HIAS translating – she was one of the few to speak English and wanted to help. In Italy we all became local salesmen. To supplement our existence, we were selling various “chachkas” which we brought from the Soviet Union, at the local markets. Funny enough, I was selling my collection of Lenin pins, which the Italians found to be antique and part of history. Every penny helped – and I was able to offer my girls a bit more of a glimpse of better days to come. The big day came and we were approved for entry into the United States. We were excited and nervous as we stepped off the plane in New York. We felt like strangers at home – if anyone can ever imagine that. We felt like the Israelites who had left Egypt. Besides feeling welcomed, we were once again legal - though we had no idea what to expect… From the start, I was determined to get my family on the right path to success - I went for job interviews, but was declined because I was over-qualified. I didn’t understand this concept - how could you be declined if you are OVER qualified but wanted the job, it just didn’t make any sense to me. After searching for two weeks, I finally got my first job - I was ecstatic, and couldn’t wait to begin. As time went on I began getting higher paying jobs, and began establishing a solid platform for my family. My wife began to work as well, and before we knew it, we were on our way. The land of opportunity welcomed us and rewarded us. This is how life should be - you work, you succeed and you live your life based on your principles, your beliefs and your traditions. Your mom and your aunt, both graduated Hebrew schools – my dreams and my goals finally came true!” Elia Feldsher now resides with his wife Sima, in Short Hills, New Jersey. It is thanks to people like my grandfather and their perseverance, determination and quest for a better life, that we enjoy the freedoms and benefits of this great country.


3 Comments

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Alla Meikson:

This truly remarkable story is re-told with passion and deep insight, love and gratitude.
It is specially meaningful to know that it is written by a young man, who's life never been affected by the hardships he conveyed so successfully.
Every letter is full of admiration to his grandparents, people of a strong character, who dared to risk everything for happiness and freedom for their their daughters.
Coinsidentally, the scene at Vienna's railroad station, brought back the same memories, the same feeling of horror and mistrust, so accurately depicted in this story. Great reading---Strongly recommend.

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Natalya Tachkova:

Reading this story,I felt like I was presant right there, becouse I also immigrated in 1978 also from Odessa.We have a very similar memories about our EXODUS(you can read my two stories "Vce dorogi vedut v Rim" and "Brest.1978").
Thank you for shearing your family's ordeal-this is part of our Jewih history for the next generations to learn.

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Suzanne Smolyar:

While reading this story I, myself, relived those times in 1978, though i was only 10 years old then. I am forever grateful to my parents for giving us the ability to live, study and prosper in freedom. I am also grateful to HIAS for building a presence for generations to come, to record our stories and honor our loved ones, who were able to take that first difficult step. After all, we as Jews need always to be cognizant of the world and the political climate around us, and this database of information will serve as a beacon of will and determination in our people.

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