Journey to America

My father Illya Pinhkus Kirtsman was born in 1909 in Odessa, Ukraine, the youngest of 11 children. His older sister and brother immigrated to America in 1912. The whole family planned to follow them. It was their dream for many years. In the 1930s, my father received few letters from his American siblings, and only after W.W.II did he establish communication with them again. By this time, only he and his sister Sonia (the 10th child) were alive. When we received a letter, my father took it to a translator (letters were written in Yiddish) and the whole family would listen to the news from America. We kept the door to our apartment locked. My mother was afraid that people from the KGB might come over, see us reading the letters, and put us in jail.

My memory always goes back to our small radio with a green light, and my father sitting next to the radio listening to Voice of America, or Voice of Israel. He did this every day after he came from work. My mom always said, “Switch off the radio or you’ll go to jail.” I was told to keep this all a secret. This was a time when people were afraid to talk with friends, neighbors, even relatives. At six years old, I realized that I was Jewish, and I was not welcome in the country where we lived. The first time this happened was when I was in first grade; one boy told me that, “You are Jewish. Why don’t you go to Israel?” From this time on, I started to listen to the radio together with my father.

In 1962, we received a letter with a note. My uncle’s manager would be in Odessa, it said, and would bring us a parcel with presents. One evening, my father brought in the big package. This was my first touch of something from America. I tried to find any books about America. Of course, I had no chance to read books about Israel or Jewish history. In 1968, I got to see an exhibition, “Travel in the USA.” It had real RVs, cottages, tents, boats and a lot of posters. Everybody who attended this show received a few magazines, and I read them from the first to the last page, nonstop. Every day there was a huge line to get in. The whole city was talking about this exhibit. Every Sunday I watched my favorite TV program from Moscow, called “Travel Club,” a one-hour show about different countries, cites, cultures, filled with comments of Communist propaganda, which I knew was all the reverse from what they were telling us, but at least I could see this.

Time went by. I got married in 1972; in 1975, our first son was born. In 1978, we started to prepare to leave Russia to start a new life in America. It was 1978, and Russia had opened the gates for Jews to leave the country. Unfortunately, my visa was refused, but my wife’s parents left and went to Los Angeles to join the other part of our family. My son learned a lot of secrets during this time — what to say about his grandparents, and what not to say in different circumstances. My parents also tried to go to America in 1980, but the gates were closed. My father died in 1984. Unfortunately, he never saw his American dream come true.

In 1986, my wife was pregnant with a second baby, and for the eighth time, we applied to leave the country. After all those years, only hope kept us going. On June 21st, our second son was born. Ten days later – the first time we took him out of the house – the mailman brought an invitation to go to the KGB to get an answer for our application. The mailman said, “Maybe this child will bring you luck,” and then dropped a letter in the carriage. A few days later, I was waiting in line to get an answer. Every person in front of me received a “no” and my hope disappeared. When I stepped up, the officer said, “You can take your family and leave the country.” I went home and cried, probably for the first time in my adult life. On the way, I stopped at my work and told my controller and director that I quit as of today. They congratulated me and wished me good luck. I worked in that company for twenty years, and my father worked there for thirty-five. When I came home, I told my wife the good news. She started crying. Finally our dream had come true.

It took us one month to go through the Russian bureaucracy, to get tickets and visas and to leave the country by train. We were not allowed to take an airplane, even with a seven-week-old baby.

Our journey from Odessa to Vienna had three transfers. One transfer we will never forget: it was in the small city of Chop, on the border of Russia and Czechoslovakia. We had to go through customs and then take a train. There was a long line as usual, and after we received our portion of humiliation, we went to the platform to get in our compartment. First, I brought the baby, and my older son followed me to our compartment. Then my wife and I took our luggage and baby carriage and entered a hallway, which was full of people waiting to go through. The train took off and after we were traveling for twenty minutes, we got in our compartment. There, we saw our 11-year-old son Dimitry crying, because he thought he was going to America with his seven-week-old brother, alone. It was a very emotional moment, and Dimitry was so happy to see us, like he never had before in his life.

After ten hours, the train crossed the border into Austria and we started screaming that finally we were free. We arrived in Vienna and representatives from HIAS; a Jewish organization, gave us shelter and some money. We stayed three days. The first day we walked around and found a travel agency, where we bought a three-hour tour with an English guide, to see the beautiful city of Vienna. We spent all the money HIAS gave us.

Three days later, we took a train to go to Italy, stopping in Rome. We lived for four months in the small city of Ladispole, twenty miles from Rome. We often went to Rome to see the city, which I would say is a museum under the open sky. It was the longest vacation of our life, and we enjoyed every day.

In the beginning of November, we received visas to go to the USA, and on November 12, 1986, our dream came true. We arrived at JFK, where we met relatives from New York, and then after three hours, we took another plane to Los Angeles, where my wife’s parents, relatives and friends were waiting to meet us. When we came out of the plane, it was an unbelievable moment. We had not seen some people for more then ten years. My mother-in-law was very sick. She remained alive for only 10 months after the reunion.

I am writing this 13 years after we came to the USA. We adjusted our life to the American style. I am the comptroller at Sinai Temple. Our older son Dimitry finished college and will apply to graduate school. Igor had his bar mitzvah on July 17, 1999. We never, never take such celebrations for granted. And now have been able to travel in the USA, in Canada, and Europe, no questions asked.