Back to Written Stories

image of author

MY FIRST JOB IN THE HEART OF THE SOUTHERN CONFEDERACY

Saveli Schuster's story posted on July 14, 2011 at 3:53 pm. Saveli emigrated from Odessa, Soviet Union (USSR) to East Orange, NJ, United States in 1975

"It was the best of times, 
It was the worst of times". 

Charles Dickens, "A Tale of Two 
Cities"


TAKING A FINAL STEP

Stories of the Russian Jews' exodus from the now deceased Soviet Union are legion, and they are somehow similar going through the same routine : filing the necessary documents and taking care of every minute detail. However, every family has its own saga to tell. 

Here is my attempt to describe my family' s Odyssey to the free world. 
There was an exciting year of 1975, when the Jews of Russia started their en masse exodus from the "wonderful" realities of the so-called "advanced socialism". The heat of the moment was caught up with many families, including mine consisting of my wife, a 15-year old daughter and myself. 

There were endless discussions in our kitchen and those of our friends. Should we or should we not use this auspicious moment? What is awaiting us there, in an unknown and terrifying world behind the Iron Curtain? Everyone devoured the letters coming from those courageous ones who had already left, trying to read between the lines about what is really going on there to learn the situation "za bugrom". ("over the hill"). 

In truth, we were really buying time before taking a final step. The problems to deal with were many, but the most important was how to get my cello out of the country. I needed to get a permission from a special committee that arbitrarily decided whatever belonged to you or was considered a property of the government. There was no way to leave without the tool of my trade. The problem was that I was a lucky owner of a cello that had come to me not from an assembly line but was an Austrian master's work circa the eighteenth century. As I expected, the permission was denied. What to do? 

As it happens, when the situation is totally hopeless, like in a Greek tragedy, came a deus ex machina in the person of a well-established Ukraian artist who was also a member of the said committee. 
Somehow he convinced his colleagues to grant me the needed permission, but to return the favor,I agreed to pose for his next masterpiece titled "A Portrait of a Musician", and I was supposed to be that musician. It was executed in the official style of social realism. I was looking very pensive, in the full concert attire, with a ubiquitous shining black grand piano and a bust of Beethoven in the background. (To those curious, you may see it hanging on the wall of a posh restaurant in Odessa). 

Finally, my daughter announced one day, "This is it: either we are leaving or I will have to join the Komsomol." Her ultimatum was very convincing, so we made a final and irreversible decision. My wife left her job at school in order to avoid a routine ritual of public lynching as a traitor and a Zionist. 


I myself suspected that the administration of the Odessa Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra somehow expected me to leave sooner or later, so they were not surprised and only asked me if it would be possible for me to stay on the job until we leave They did not even cancelled my solo appearance with the orchestra in Richard Strauss' "Don Quixote". So far, so good, for now everything was going smoothly. 

We sold most of our possessions, packed the rest,spending as much time as possible with friends and relatives we were leaving behind. We all knew that it was as terminal as death.

Then, good news - we were given a permission to leave the country. Apparently, we were not considered such a valuable commodity, because the whole processing of our file took only three months. The dye was cast.


MEASURING TAPE

After a necessary trip to Moscow to obtain exit visas, to exchange 90 rubles per person for $100
and to pay money for being stripped of the Soviet citizenship we said good bye to our Moscow friends, and returned home to get ready for the departure. Later we found out that the reason for such an unusually expeditious processing of our file was that apartments vacated by emigrating Jews would become property of the KGB. 
I remember one evening when we sat in our kitchen with friends, having the usual discussions. Suddenly the bell rang. I opened the door and saw an officer in the secret police uniform. My immediate reaction was that something had gone wrong, and a vision of myself being interrogated coursed through my mind. Just at the moment, at which I got my hands ready for hand-cuffs, the man smiled and showed me what he had in his hands - a measuring tape. He apologized profusely for his intrusion and then said:

"Please, don't be alarmed. I have come to do some measuring of your rooms. You see, I am the next owner of the apartment and will move in after your departure". And he proceeded with his measuring, while we continued discussing some stuff not intended for the secret police ears.

At the railroad station we bid final good-byes to those who were not afraid to see us off, and to our beautiful city on the Black Sea and choking with tears boarded the train. I do not want to describe the last ordeal of going through the customs at the border station. Free at last! 


Then and there I promised myself that if I ever felt homesick I would remember the humiliation and the last "well-wishing" from the beloved Motherland. It really helped during the early period of adjustment to the new life. 


THE STREETS OF VIENNA

When we roamed the streets of Vienna, we could not believe what we saw. I remember my wife's astonishment at seeing a butcher's shop mouthwatering window display. She first thought that it was all fake, like in our town. Vienna was enchanting, but we still had a long journey before us.


When we arrived in Rome and were driven by bus through the streets of the eternal city 
we thought it was a dream. We absolutely and forever fell in love with her. "Italy entered my heart" , as Isaac Babel, the native of Odessa, wrote. Nice ladies from HIAS took us under their wing and continued to take care of us throughout our staying in Vienna and Rome, 
and saw us off all the way to the Leonardo da Vinci airport to take a flight to the JFK terminal. 

NOT NEW YORK CITY

I remember that day when my family completed the last lag of our journey and landed in New York. Other passengers on our flight did not think that that was anything special other than a relief from landing safely, but for us it was an entrance to a terra incognita, the beginning of a new life. However, at this exalted moment, it was impossible to think about it. We were all exhausted and at the highest degree of bewilderment. I simply remember our group of tired and confused people obediently following a representative of the agency in charge, HIAS-Joint, who greeted and welcomed us at our arrival. 
Following his directions, we boarded a bus without any idea where we were being taken. After a head-spinning ride on a highway, the bus stopped at a multistoried apartment building on a deserted street. We were told that our first home in America from now on would be 
East Orange, NJ. We are not in New York City! What a huge disappointment! Wasn't I told that New York is the PLACE for a musician to find a job? But a nice apartment had been prepared for us, and it was all we needed at the moment.

I never mentioned that it was the last day of July, the time when all auditions for major and minor orchestras ended. So we decided to follow our plan B and try to settle down in this little town. My wife got a job as a teacher's aid at the Solomon Schechter School, at which our daughter was enrolled in the 10th grade. I continued practicing in order to be ready at any moment to go to audition should any be announced. 

One day, I think it was in the middle of August, I received a call from the Jewish Family Services that the audition had been announced to fill a position of the principal cellist for the Richmond Sinfonia. Still, in a state of confusion, I was told in which direction to go, and boarded an Amtrak train New York - Richmond. At that time my English cried for improvement, to say the least. In fact, I was trying to make do with "yes" and "no", at times mixing affirmative with negative.

At the station in Richmond I was met by a group of people who brought me to the Symphony Hall where I immediately was asked to play. "You will hear from us,'" I was told and went back to E. Orange.


Before I reached my apartment, the Jewish agency had received a call from Richmond. I got a job! We said "good bye" to New Jersey and went to Richmond. With all my knowledge of American history and literature, I could not imagine such a dramatic difference between the East Coast and the South. I felt like I was in a different country. Now it was a major culture shock. The next day we were taken in the warm embrace of the Jewish Community and by a majority of the general population of Richmond. We were shown Southern hospitality in all its glory that would put Paula Dean to shame.


DEEP SOUTH

As I mentioned before, the year was 1975. The war in Vietnam was over, the anti-war demonstrations came to a halt, and colleges and universities returned to normal life. The tempestuous 60s have become a chapter in American history. The latest scandal called Watergate stopped being a focus the media. The country was preparing to celebrate the Bicentennial of its birth. 

Now the noble cause of the day, with the participation of both the Left and the Right, was a struggle for the emigration of the Russian Jewery. Posters bearing a slogan, "Let my people go!" were everywhere. 


There were numerous demonstrations in front of the Soviet Embassy and consulates. 
Every concert of Soviet artists was greeted by crowds of protesters. All the major cities were involved and the struggle spread to the deep South. 

It seemed that those wonderful people who tried their best to help us in any possible way had never seen up close those creatures from behind the Iron Curtain. We were the first family of Russian Jews to arrive in Richmond. Soon we were flooded with strange questions which we tried to answer politely and patiently: 

- How will you use your favorite recipes, which are in the decimal system?

- What is your profession besides playing cello for fun?

- Did you have television and refrigerators in your home country?

- Is it always cold there and bears roam the streets?

For quite a while we were a major curiosity, the aliens from a different planet. But all these folks were so caring, so eager to help, to show us around, to take us to a market, to offer a ride before we asked. 

The Richmond Jewish community offered us a choice of various denominations of Judaism, and invited us to celebrate Sabbath with different families. We had a lovely townhouse in town; and my wife was employed by the same school. So we came to an agreement that it was very advantageous for us to begin our new life in a small town where we had no choice but to speak only English and not in New York, as we had planned. In fact, entering New York for the first time from the Port Authority and seeing 42nd St. terrified my wife so much that for many years 
she refused to set a foot there. Anyway, it was a good start, and our life became more or less organized.


50 - DOLLAR BILL

One day, a letter arrived from Paris, France. Imagine our surprise that it was from our Moscow friend whose dream had come true and he could finally travel to Paris to visit his uncle. His boss, the director of one of the major film studios, had to pull a few strings to obtain the visa for him. Obviously, the air of freedom that he breezed in Paris made him so bold that he dared to send us a letter. Being in Paris also inspired him to do the unthinkable: to join the freedom fighters on the barricades if such an occasion should have presented itself. 
We were so impressed by all that, and also having known how humiliatingly Soviet tourists were strapped for cash, decided to share with him our newly-acquired fortune - we decided to sent him $50 (it was a huge sum of money for us at the time). Also, it would be a sign that we were doing OK.

Surely we had known that no Russian citizen had a bank account, and all the personal money transactions were done by cash. So to send him a 50-dollar bill in an envelope would be the only possibility. We had a problem though because at the time we had no car, which was the only means of transportation in Richmond. There was the only bus that ran from our neighborhood to downtown. 

On my first day-off, I took a bus to my downtown bank. I tried to explain to a clerk that I needed a 50-dollar bill to be withdrawn from my account. It seemed like an easy task, so I requested to give me not just $50, but, as I emphatically explained, a single $50- bill. Apparently, unlike me, the girl 
found it to be a problem since the bank did not have those bills. She was a very friendly black girl who wanted to say something nice to us: " Sir, I just recognized you - you are the people who always walk." We were such a rarity in Richmond because we used our own feet trying to get from point A to point B. 

I was not discouraged and continued on my mission. I’ve got the same answer in each bank on Main Street. 
Being so exhausted from walking miles without any result I stopped a taxi. The cab driver asked me why I was so upset, and I explained that I could not find a bloody 50-dollar bill in this town. 

The driver started laughing, "Listen, man, you will not find the blipping bill even if your life depended on it; didn't you notice that GENERAL GRANT'S picture is on it?” 

How should I guess? Despite taking pride in our knowledge of history of the Civil War, I had no idea that in this capital of the Confederacy they still hated and despised all the Union’s generals who had defeated and humiliated the southern aristocracy, as if the Civil War was lost yesterday. It was mind-bugling how history influences a behavior of people when applied to a certain time and place. They were still nursing their grievances after all these years. 
I could continue my story at infinitum, because so many things happened during the 36 years of my life in this magnificent land. 
There were only three of us who left the country of our birth to come here. Now, 36 years later, we have a big family, including four grandchildren and many friends, old and new.

I could only mention that we left this wonderful and friendly town of Richmond for another, larger city in the North. I was fortunate to work for one of the major and oldest American orchestras.

I had limitless opportunities to play all kinds of music in many cities and many countries for 21 remarkable years, but it could be another, a longer story to tell.


1 Comments

profile photo

Mila:

these stories about the bank and the southern ladies are hillarious! Truly how little did we know when we came to the US! Thank you --

Report Abuse