I left everything but my doll behind in Russia
ay 2 marked 44 years since I first stepped foot on the shores of Australia — a place I’m still proud to call home, a place that not only gave me refuge from the persecution of Communist Russia, but also became a place of my personal spiritual redemption.
The year was 1977, and the mass exodus of Russian Jews was reaching its peak. All around me, Jews were talking in hushed whispers about getting papers to leave. I was eight years old, and like most Soviet children at the time, I was busy not only with school but with music, ballet, and ice-skating lessons. I was a tall child, shy and introverted by nature, with long, brown hair that was tied up with a big bow for school.
One day, I came home to find yellow exit invitations spread out in my parents’ room. Reading them, I understood that these were invitations to leave the USSR to reunite with family in Israel. My heart fluttered when I saw the names on the papers: I was listed there, but my beloved Dedushka was not.
Dedushka, my mother’s grandfather, lived with us, and I was not going anywhere without him. In the Soviet Union, childcare was delegated to grandparents while the parents went out to work, so I spent most of my days in Dedushka’s company. He was already 80 years old when I was born. He had lived most of his life in the Ukrainian town of Belaya Tserkov, about 80 kilometers from Kiev. His parents had been frum Jews — they even had a shtibel in their house — but most of the children had left Torah observance. Dedushka and most of his siblings relocated to Kiev, where I grew up. I remember how, before Pesach, Dedushka would get blue boxes of matzah.
I was an only child, and if not for Dedushka, my childhood might have been lonely. Dedushka was my biggest fan and supporter. I would bring my friends from the building to meet him — after all, who else had such an old Dedushka? And as he was a retired pediatrician, it’s not surprising that he had the patience to spend his days entertaining a child.
We were among the first of our extended family to receive the coveted “invitation” to leave the USSR. As part of the Family Reunification Agreement, those seeking to emigrate needed a family member to send them an invitation from Eretz Yisrael. How my extended family procured this invitation, I do not know, since we had no relatives in Israel. The “family” we were reuniting with was the extended Jewish nation.
Even with this golden ticket in hand, gaining permission to leave the USSR was a long, arduous process. It could take six months (as it did for us) or up to a year. It was also a dangerous undertaking, since to be labeled a refusenik was a fate worse than death.
Children were seen as a liability during the exit process — who knew what they might reveal to jeopardize the application. The yellow exit invitations quickly disappeared from sight and the adults in my extended family began talking in code. It didn’t take long for me to break the code, but I held my tongue; I understood instinctively that absolute secrecy was necessary.
During this time, I went to school as usual. I was an avid reader and a high achiever, and I worked hard to please my teacher, Anna Petrovna. She loved children and loved teaching, and we all adored her. Then, one by one, the Jewish kids in my class began leaving. In my class of 41, five left before the year was out. I didn’t even know some of them were Jewish. Finally, it was my turn to say goodbye to my teacher. She sighed and said, “All my best students are leaving.”
Goodbyes were painful. We thought we’d never see anyone again, but luckily, within 15 years of our departure, most of my extended family had left.
Some goodbyes, though, were forever. My beloved Dedushka was around 89 years old when we received our exit visas, and the journey was deemed too difficult for him. He was moved to a new apartment that was better suited for him. I was devastated to leave my great-grandfather. But children don’t make decisions; decisions are made for them. Seven years later, in 1984, when I was thousands of miles away in Australia, my beloved Dedushka — Pinchas ben Yirmiyahu — passed away behind the Iron Curtain in Kiev.
Journey to Freedom
We left Kiev in June of 1978, just as the school year ended. We traveled with nothing but one suitcase per person. In my arms, I carried a doll with a missing arm. She was almost lifelike with her soft body and plastic limbs. Her stitching had come loose, and one arm had fallen off, but back then, kids didn’t get new toys.
The first leg of our journey was to Lviv, a town on the Ukrainian border. It was a terrifying place. Barbed wire surrounded not only the train station, but ran along the entire town border, separating the USSR from the free world. Security was tight, police were everywhere, and documents were constantly checked. There was a heavy screening in Lviv, as some people smuggled out gold and diamonds. Those of us leaving Mother Russia were treated like criminals.
The authorities refused to let anyone board the train, which was standing empty at the station, until two minutes prior to departure. When the gates opened, everyone ran toward the train cars with their kids, their elderly, and their luggage. It didn’t matter if the car was yours or not, what mattered was boarding because the train would not wait.
After the doors slammed shut, the train sped its way toward Vienna. We had a sleeping compartment, but we could hardly sleep. My parents were particularly afraid of the Austrian officials since they spoke German. As for me, I wept the whole night… my Dedushka was not with us.
Vienna was clean. Very clean. People did not spit on the ground. People did not throw their trash on the sidewalks, nor their cigarette stubs. The city was beautiful. The supermarkets were full. We walked around as if in a dream, wanting to eat everything. Of course, we could afford nothing.
We refugees were supported by the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society (HIAS). They housed us in hostels, one room per family. Kids shared beds with adults. Privacy was nonexistent. Here we met Jews from all over the USSR — from Leningrad, Odessa, Moscow, Kiev, and beyond. Jews who were ardent Zionists and those who just wanted a better life.
The Zionists didn’t stay long in Vienna before they traveled on to Eretz Yisrael. I wanted to go there, too, just so the trip would end. But my parents had their hearts set on immigrating to the USA, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand. For that, you needed to wait. So we continued our journey to Italy, another country that granted temporary refugee status to those who were trying to emigrate elsewhere.
At the end of August, we arrived in Ostia, Italy, an ancient beachside town close to Rome. Everything was sunshine — from the dark sandy beaches to the beautiful Italian people who welcomed us refugees with smiles and endless patience. Russians are not used to greeting strangers or making eye contact, but the Italians were different. They weren’t Jewish, but they greeted us warmly, they were gracious and patient, they tried to be helpful.
Ostia was a seaport during the times of Imperial Rome and has the remnants of the oldest shul outside Eretz Yisrael. We knew nothing of the Jewish historical aspects of Ostia, but we did know of the Vatican l’havdil and its extensive art collection. So in the sweltering summer heat, we stood in line for what seemed like hours hoping to see the art.
The Baal Shem Tov teaches that one must learn from everything, and that day I learned my first lesson in tzniyus. We were turned away at the church door because I was wearing a sleeveless top, and shorts that ended above the knee. The Vatican had modesty rules and those rules were unbendable — even for children, even in the heat.
The food in Italy was unlike anything we refugees had ever seen. I distinctly remember the undiluted milk and the white bread rolls.
Our refugee status meant that we could not work, but HIAS helped us with resettlement costs and arranged visas. They also gave us money for basic needs, and we would buy plain bread rolls for eight lire or kaiser rolls for ten lire.
The housing in Italy was not as cramped as in Vienna. Our apartment had three bedrooms, one bathroom, and a kitchen. It was shared by three families, and at some point, a lost dog that we adopted (we somehow found an Italian family to take him in before we left). The kitchen was a hub of activity for the adults, who sat every evening playing cards and discussing the merits of Brighton Beach over Chicago, whether it was worthwhile waiting longer to go to Australia, and if you did make it there, which city was more cultured — Sydney or Melbourne?
The wait time for refugee status was different for each country. The US was the quickest at two to three months, followed by Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, which were anywhere from six to twelve months. How did one decide on which country? Which city? Throughout our long galus as a nation, the answers have been much the same: one had family or friends or a neighbor in one place or another. One country had better weather, and another free healthcare. In reality, Hashem guided each of us to where we were meant to be.
All in all, some 30 to 40 of my family members made their way out of the USSR. Some went to Eretz Yisrael, but the majority — including my grandmother — ended up in America. We were the only ones who immigrated to Australia, but our family kept in close contact. Indeed, we met most recently at my son’s wedding.
In Italy, we were joined by our cousins from Kiev. For several months, we had the comforting presence of family, and I had other children to play with. But after they left for Chicago, and I had read all the books I could find, I was bored again. I spent many hours playing with a neighbor’s dog. His name was Pako, and he was a ray of sunshine to a lonely kid surrounded by preoccupied adults.
A Spark of Spirituality
While in Ostia, we had to prepare for our lives in our respective adopted countries. HIAS arranged English school for adults and children alike, where we were taught English by Israeli shlichim. My teacher’s name was Morah. I came home and told my parents that teachers were called by their first name. Everyone was shocked by such disrespect until they realized that everyone’s teachers had the same name.
Teaching English was the only thing on Morah’s curriculum, but she taught me something far more valuable. She spoke about the existence of G-d. I was instantly mesmerized. Regardless of what the adults around me believed, I decided that this was emes.
Morah was not a frum woman, but when faced with a classroom of Jewish children who were lost to Yiddishkeit, she became a Morah in every sense of the word. I was given a Chumash Bereishis in Russian. I devoured it and later took it with me to Australia.
The year ended, 1978 rolled into 1979, and still we waited. Those continuing on to the US left, and more people arrived. Families left our apartment and new ones moved in.
Then, suddenly, it was our turn. With one suitcase per person and visas in our hand, we were off to Sydney, Australia.
The only way to get there was by flying, so I boarded my first plane, an Alitalia flight via Singapore, clutching my one-armed doll. We were filled with loneliness and longing for those we had left behind the Iron Curtain, but even as a young girl, I knew I was traveling to a land of freedom and opportunity. We arrived on May 2, 1979.
Life is not simple, and our landing in Australia was laced with hardships and adjustments. But here, in this country, with the help of Lubavitch shluchim of Lubavitch, I was able to continue the spiritual journey I had begun in Morah’s classroom.
Today, I live in Melbourne. Baruch Hashem, my husband and I have been blessed with children and grandchildren — many of whom are now spreading Yiddishkeit around the world as shluchim themselves.
I still think of my nameless Morah. She taught me a powerful lesson. If you know an alef, teach an alef. As Pirkei Avos instructs us, it is not up to you to finish the work… but neither are you free to desist from it.
This article is l’illui nishmas my great-grandfather, Pinchas ben Yirmiyahu, who stayed behind in Kiev and whom I never saw again. It is dedicated to my unknown Morah who likely did not realize the powerful impact she made on the lives of the children in her care.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 846)
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