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JPA Community Voices

JPA Community Voices

The Reluctant Respect for a Jew

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By Pavel Vaysman - March 1st, 2021

My personal history as a Jew is in many ways not like the hurtful tales of antisemitism children who were old enough to understand and process what they had experienced. You see, I was born in 1981 in Kiev and moved several times between Kiev and Rostov on Don prior to our departure from the former USSR. My father was a well renowned scientist whose patented technology helped protect The Kremlin. While in Kiev, I was enrolled in a school where the “Director” and many of the staff were Jews. In Rostov – a much smaller city – my father was a pseudo celebrity in a place which celebrated academic achievements as much as the ballet.

I was blissfully unaware of the issues Jews dealt with prior to departing Kiev on our journey which would lead us to the USA. Things began to deteriorate for my family in 1986, starting with a shocking event. Though I was a fairly late child for academics, my father was only 50 years old when he passed away that year. He died as a classic case of the failure of communism; my mother – a pharmacist – was able to get the medicine he needed as a favor. However, the doctor treating him at the hospital would not accept it without the proper signatures, and the hospital did not have access to it themselves.

The great irony of my life is that had he been alive, my father and his family would never have been allowed to leave the USSR – he knew too much sensitive information. He would have loved to leave. His father was also older than typical when my father was born – I never met the man – but he received his education in France and always urged my father to take any opportunity he had to leave from behind the Iron curtain. Now, in the days prior to the digitization of information, my mother changed her last name back to her maiden name and applied for and was granted permission to leave. Interestingly enough, the pivot to go to the US instead of Israel happened because of mandatory military service. By the time we were leaving, it was widely known that the Soviet Army was not a good place for a Jewish boy to spend a few years. My mother had two boys, and didn’t know that military service could be different. But that’s another story.

Our family’s journey to the US lasted over four months (though I should be grateful, hearing tales of far longer travels) and was a big adventure for me – an eight-year-old kid at the time. It was less so for my mother, my older brother, and her parents. Only years later did I realize why it was that she would come back from those “meetings” while living in Italy, where they announced who was granted passage to the US, looking so dejected, like she needed to pick herself up off the floor and continue a boxing match she had no option of losing.

It was more of the same when we did make it here. While everyone scrambled for any jobs we could find and the men in the family took regular trips around the neighborhood on trash days to collect decent furniture (that saying, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure rings true), I was enjoying the adventure and got to go through my adolescent years as a normal kid. I went to school knowing that my only obligation was to go to college thereafter.

Having always seen my father as a beloved hero – my favorite childhood memories included him picking me up and jostling me on his legs, and getting a remote controlled submarine for my fifth birthday – I had always asked questions about him. Though like many we came to the US without much money, my personal goal was to go back to visit his burial site in Rostov someday. On a milestone birthday or anniversary of his death. Some Soviet customs never leave you.

Thanks to this being The Land of Opportunity, that dream became a reality around ten years ago. While it was still a big enough deal for my own budding family at the time, it would no longer be a bank-breaking expense. Having known the history of his passing though, I did not want to spend a minute longer in this country than I had to. My idea was to fly in and out the same day. I was a frequent flyer for work – I would be comfortable enough and fine with the physical aspect of this. My mother insisted on coming along. I didn’t want to take her – by now she was older and frailty was setting in rapidly – because I thought she would slow me down. My uncle – one of the most respected members of my family – explained that she dearly wanted to go, but couldn’t justify the expense unless she told herself she would be doing her child a favor. She went.

Needless to say, her presence would preclude my plan of being in-and-out. At that point, she began contacting and mentioning names I’d heard before but never paid attention to. All these years, I didn’t realize how my father’s former students and colleagues had been checking in on the widow of their beloved Victor all these years.

Our arrival was surprisingly celebrated with a lot more fanfare than I would have expected for the son and former wife of an academic. Of course, by this time, many of these people were also getting up there in age. Despite the decades that passed, the time in their lives during which my father was alive represented their glory days. It was easy to see why. Academics were no longer the local heroes. While my father’s star pupil drove us around the city in his decrepit soviet era Zhiguli, entrepreneurs who sold things like hair bows paraded around in Porsches. Now, as they had always hoped, the years and “loose morals” of the USA did not diminish the respect this son had for his deceased father. The son returned to celebrate his father’s would-be 75th birthday.

Sasha – the star pupil – took us to visit my father’s grave. He was able to find it effortlessly in the tremendous cemetery. I followed him that morning past graves overgrown with greenery over the years. When we finally reached our destination, I was surprised for the first time. It was clean and orderly. Not like it was cleaned up for our arrival recently. Dead flowers and a worn path provided the evidence needed to deduce that 25 years did not dull these people’s desire to pay their respect to him. We were gone. Nobody was watching. Nobody would whisper anything to my mother in a condemning tone. They did it out of their own desire.

It took surprisingly little effort for my mother to organize a celebratory dinner. It was Victor’s birthday (and again, we all know how hung up these folks would have been about this being the 75th). His widow and their son were here. This was an occasion for celebration that these forgotten academics hadn’t had in a long time. If only for this night, they would be made to feel important just for being who they are. My second surprise of the trip was the fact that close to two dozen people had come. Nobody was expecting a free meal. Everyone greeted me like the proud father of the bride at a wedding. Before coming in and taking their place, they all hugged my mother and looked at me – a grown man at that point – beaming with elation.

They brought old pictures and token items only our little circle would cherish. The food was plentiful and the vodka flowed freely. They told me stories. Some I had heard before. Some, were new. Some corrected the sequence of facts I had somehow mixed up in my mind. We all felt a connection to one another. And it was then – a few hours in – that it all connected. The punchline to this long-winded essay, and my third and final surprise of the trip. In his drunken state, Sasha leaned in and said to me as he raised his glass, “Your father was so brilliant, not even his Jewishness could slow him down.”

I don’t hold it against Sasha or any of the others there that night. They respected this man. The fact that they respected him despite him being a Jew was a product of the system they lived in.

We left the next day as planned. I was glad I went because I got to feel close to a part of me that had been missed out on. I remembered him more vividly. I was impressed with the reputation he had built. I was warmly received – for likely the last time – by the people who knew him before I was born. I also understood the massive obstacle that so many Jews faced by the simple virtue of being born into the wrong last name in the Soviet Union. I hated the country no less than when I arrived. I was grateful to my mother and all those parents who chose the unknown for their own path in order for their children to avoid that feeling of helplessness that I now peripherally understood.

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