I shared my story in my book Love Is Never Past Tense, but my life could have gone in a very different direction. For those who have never gone through it, immigration is only a political problem. All immigration is personal to the immigrant, and each person takes a different path. Today, my old friends help me explore a path I didn’t take. You met them in my Exodus story, but they have a story of their own. They offer a great example of rebuilding lives and contributing to their new homeland. It would have been a great American success story, except they didn’t go to America.
It is very difficult to leave the country where you were born, raised and established yourself as a human being, to relocate even when you relocate to a safer place, to make sure that your family is not threatened by the unpredictability of the next day, and your kids are not in danger.
In 1989, inspired by my friends Boris and Marina Bubis and motivated by the USSR crumbling around me, my family and I fled the country in search of a brighter future. Boris bravely took the first leg of the train trip with us to help with luggage and see us safely off the Soviet state, putting his own safety at risk by doing so. He escorted us as far as Chop, a border city that required special permits even short visit. We had them – he did not. We were ordered to get off the train with our luggage, where we would need to wait two days for the next train.
Excerpt from Love Is Never Past Tense – Part Three: Exodus
Boris grabs the trunks and carries them to the door. I go to the conductors. “Guys! What can be done not to make us leave? My mom is sick and I have a child.”
“Nothing,” the boys say. “We’ve been on this route for several years. Everybody leaves. The visas are already collected. We gave them to the customs officers.”
“Boris!” I shout. “Put the trunks back into the compartment!”
“You are out of your mind,” Boris was taken aback. But he drags the bags back. Then he takes off from the train car and hides behind a night train, so as not to be caught by the frontier guards. A person without the special permit is, at the minimum, sent to a prison cell with a long time to figure things out. For us, especially for him, this is not needed.
My story, including the harrowing train trip across Europe, is in the book. For all I knew, that would be the last time I saw Boris. I had to get back to the train and find a way to survive the next couple days. He had to sneak back home through the country I had just escaped, knowing he could be asked for a permit he didn’t have at any moment, and find a way out for his own family.
Fortunately, my plan to move to America succeeded and his plan to take his family to Israel did as well. In spite of the chaos, we kept in touch. My exodus story is told in the book. Almost 30 years later, I chatted with my old friends on Skype and I heard their version of what happened after he left us.
Both of them have made their mark on their new home (Israel) and the world at large. During our conversation, Boris masked his courage and expertise with characteristic modesty. Marina offered a bit more about her work and what’s happening with their children—toddlers in my story now grown into adults following in their parent’s footsteps on a path of their own.
J:(Janna) Hi Boris! I am so glad you agreed to the interview! So, I never asked you what happened after you jumped out of the train. Can you tell me?
B:(Boris) Sure. Practically, nothing exciting. It was November 29. It was around 12 AM or so, and you remember how cold it was outside. Thank God, I was in a warm jacket! I was looking for dark corners to hide to be unnoticeable, after I bought a return ticket. Luckily, the clerk was changing her shift and in a hurry did not ask me for the permit. Still, when I came back home it was a relief. Marina and kids were happy to see me back safe. Remember, at that time we did not have the cell phones?
J: Marina, I am assuming that for you it was very scary to let him go with us to the border. I remember, having this thought, but I did not want to ask you anything about your feelings not to amplify the fear. I thanked you for this in my mind so many times!
Close friends in our culture are the same as family
M:(Marina) Yes, Janna, it was pretty tough, but we are friends, and close friends in our culture are the same as a family. Isn’t it what friends do for you? We were waiting anxiously for him to come back home safely and learn that you left safe. So it happened!
J: I appreciate you, guys, for instilling in me the thought about the departure. I even have this very moment in my book at the time we had a vacation in Crimea:
The days flew cheerfully in Koktebel. In the evenings we gathered at Anna and Vladimir’s home, local residents who provided simple living for people on vacation. We sang songs with a guitar, told jokes, laughed a lot, drank plenty, and ate heartily.
“It is time to split,” Boris said.
“You’ve only arrived! Why do you have to leave?” I asked.
“But not in this sense …” Boris stretches his words in thoughtfulness. “There is no place to come back to, as a matter of fact. Before our departure from home, someone scratched a cross on the door of our house. Do you know what this means?”
“No,” I answer.
“It means, that we are marked by these thugs-nationalists. Nobody stops them. Not law, not government, not militia. Tomorrow a battle cry will resound: Beat the Jews!—And the Holocaust will begin with a new interpretation. And the most repugnant thing is that at work they hint to me about another nominee for my position. Fortunately, they let me go on vacation. They even paid me money. But I think it is just a tribute to good manners. When I return, they will show me to the door.”
Boris broke off, filtering sand through the thin palm of his hand.
Boris knows everything
Boris is my close friend since childhood. He is handsome and very smart. Boris knows everything. Even when he has no answer, he, all the same, knows everything. I knew too, that in Moldova anarchical forces were rising. They are gathering in parks and plazas, crying out chauvinistic slogans: “Moldova—for Moldavians!” All the others—Slavs, Jews, and other ethnic minorities, should in their opinion, leave the country. But I did not give it much thought: they were just youth gatherings, I thought, nothing more …
“Hitler’s Germany began with street processions too. And then six million Jews went to the gallows and to the gas chambers. To leave, it is necessary—you understand, Jannoshka? Or are you immune? ”
“Where to split to, Boris?” I whisper.
“Where? Probably, to Israel. Where else can you split?”
“And what will you do there?”
“I want freedom. I want to live easy!” Boris stands up and with long steps goes to the sea.
In fact, everything is so good: the hot sun, the sea. What slaughter? What gallows? But, in fact, Boris said that. And he knows everything.
“Marin, what do you think on this occasion?”
“I think like Boris,”—was the short answer. It was August 1988.
Shortly after I came home from that vacation, I found a Star of David scratched in my door …
J: It was tough to understand that you were going in a different direction. Now, when all is quiet, tell me please why you chose Israel over the United States?
M: I doubted whether to go to Israel or to the United States. My aunt, who lived in America, asked Boris’s profession and whether he spoke English. My Mom said ‘He is a very good person.’ My aunt said ‘This is not a profession.’ We understood it would be better to go to Israel. We knew Boris’s parents and sister would not go to America. This is why the vector was directed toward Israel.
B: I felt Israel is closer to my heart and better for me. I had relatives here, cousins, aunts, everybody was here.
J: It means to me that not everybody wants to come to America…
Not everybody wants to come to America…
B: You wanted! You were saying you wanted to live in a free and diverse place. I didn’t have a second thought of going anywhere but Israel. I never wanted to go to America. Maybe, in the United States it’s more comfortable, but I am comfortable here. I am good here! My friends are here! I hope my kids will have nests of their own here.
J: Did you have any moments you were sorry you went to Israel?
J: What kind of difficulties did you have when you came to Israel?
B: It’s a bunch of difficulties like everybody else when they relocate for good: language barriers, mental barriers. I didn’t read or write as well as a native speaker. And this was before, and still, the language is not native. Still, I’m sure I made the right decision to move here.
J: Marina, I remember your parents had difficulties to leave. Why?
M: When I was leaving, I practically said farewell to my parents. At that moment, it was absolutely not clear if they could go with us. My Dad had clearance and his dissertation was under clearance as well. It was very problematic that he would be allowed to leave the Soviet Union, even at that time.
J: This is so horrible, so horrible Marina! I can’t even imagine how you felt leaving your parents behind.
M: OK, Janna, I was leaving because I wanted to take the kids out of there, because it was scary to stay there. Do you remember when you came to our house and said pogroms were about to start? By the time of your departure, there started to appear signs of hope that my parents would be able to leave, and my Dad’s classified dissertation was no longer a problem.
J: Yes, I remember! This was the time when my family and I, and even our birds in the cage came with us. You guys had a metal door, and it felt safer at your house. We did not know how long we would stay, and the birds had to be cared for every day. So, we had to bring that screaming crowd in the cage with us.
With everyone safely out of the country and accounted for, our conversation turned to their lives after leaving the Soviet Union. Immigration doesn’t end a story. It merely starts a new chapter.
J: I am sure you could write your own book about your immigration and new life. So, can you please share, Marina, what was the reason that during a long period of time you were flying to the US several times a month? I remember you came to our house for a whole week years ago, as you were earning your Ph.D. in Biochemistry.
M: I actually came at 1998 at the end of my postdoc. I visited you on my way to the 2 weeks “Cold Spring Harbor course”.
J: Oh! Yes! You were at an International Conference in Las Vegas before that…
M: I presented our company’s work at APS (American Paraplegia Society) – 7-9/09/2004 in Las Vegas.I was working in a team of the cell therapy company named Proneuron. Those times we conducted phase 2 clinical trials in Israel and the US. We worked hard to transfer the experimental technology developed in Israel for the treatment of severe spinal cord injuries to its US manufacturing sites and also flew to take a necessary part in the manufacturing of this therapy for the US patients enrolled in the trial.
J: Marina, what’s going on with your kids, Ettel and Mark? Mark was my best buddy when he was three years old. Do you remember, he listened only to me for some time?
M: Both of them served in the army. Both of them are professionals. Ettel is in the beginning of her Ph.D. Mark is studying in Jerusalem University to be an engineer in Electronics.
J: Boris, now, back to you! I recall that you worked as a worker in Israel, although you were an engineer by profession. I am so proud of you that you became an engineer again!
B: I finished a certification course, and those who went through this program had access to engineering jobs like the one I am doing. It was very hard to start. Everyone who started the course was an engineer already. At the beginning, we were just workers. After a few years, we got back to our engineering positions.
J: When I visited you guys in Israel a couple of years ago you took me to the 9/11 Living Memorial in Jerusalem and you shared your role in it.
I was so proud of you that you had such an input into world peace, Boris! This makes me feel closer to Israel. 9/11 was so shocking to me as a US citizen! It shook the whole world! How did you become the Quality Engineer for this world monument?
B: Janna, it’s so simple. Do you know how many huge projects I had? This one has a big significance, but by volume, I have bigger works. For me, it’s just my job. During this project, I learned how to solve some technical problems we were trying to solve. I had the blueprints for this Memorial, and I had to make sure they were followed.
J: What about this project was special for you?
There are plaques with three thousand names on this monument
B: There are plaques with three thousand names on this monument, and I found the name of my friend who died on 9/11. He was an architect and we worked together for the same company back in the Soviet Union. We weren’t close friends, but …
Someone told me that he died or disappeared… His name was Adik Zaltsman. He was a gorgeous young man. He was very talented and goal oriented.
By the way, the architect of this project is the son of parents from Moldova.
J: This is a huge thing, Boris. We started new lives being adults. We did not play Four Square in these countries as kids. And suddenly you were responsible for engineering works, quality engineering for a monument important to Israel, to America and to the whole globe.
B: There are a million people like me. There could have been another person working on this Monument.
J: And instead of Yuri Gagarin there could have been a different person as well! Yes, Boris? And you and me could have been different people too! But we are who we are, and WE do what WE do! We live in the free countries we chose, and we are talking now without being threatened. So, we made it, Boris! WE, Boris, made it!
So there you have it, the path I didn’t take but others did. Immigration is always personal and always painful. I hope that our grandchildren, and their grandchildren, will know of immigration only through old stories!