It was early April 1979, the week before Passover, although we didn’t realize it at the time. We grew up completely secular in the Soviet Union.
Nobody in our Moscow apartment slept that night, except for 3-year-old Sasha. Our plane was leaving early in the morning, and that was to be the end of our Soviet life. Four of us were leaving: my former husband (Valo), my mother-in-law, Sasha and me.
We spent the previous few months slowly shedding our past. Immediately after telling my boss about emigration, I was skillfully maneuvered out of my job. The woman I was replacing on maternity leave unexpectedly came back, and I was conveniently terminated, without the unpleasant emigration incident reported up the management chain.
Valo’s associate manager showed up at our apartment one night and begged Valo to resign, to save the boss from a reprimand or termination, and of course, he did. Valo loved his boss.
Our Russian life was ticking away. Dozens of small tasks — having to do with giving up our room in a communal apartment, obtaining the last pieces of paperwork, selling our things and packing — were demanding our energy and attention. Part of me was wild with excitement about the future ahead. Another part was devastated by the upcoming parting with my family, possibly forever.
A few days before our departure, my sister and brother-in-law from Gomel, Belarus, and my husband’s uncle and his wife from Leningrad, came to see us off. There were eight of us in the room that last night in Moscow. At early dawn, we walked out of our apartment one last time and climbed into two taxis.
As we said our last goodbyes at the airport and went through the gauntlet of customs officers, I was crying and so was my sister behind the barrier.
In 1979 this wasn’t an uncommon scene: Jewish emigration from the USSR started in 1971 and was gathering speed. A stranger approached my crying sister and said, “You should be rejoicing, not crying. Be happy for them!”
Our route to the United States included a three-week stop in Rome to complete paperwork. The city astounded us with its bright April sky, trashed, noisy streets and the omnipresent sounds of bells celebrating Easter. Pictures of the recently elected John Paul II were everywhere.
Things did not feel real, our senses were overloaded by the loud foreign speech, unusual smells and things working differently. Sasha became a favorite with the waiters in our boarding house. They would call her “Bella, Bella,” and she would crawl under the table in embarrassment.
The Pan Am flight to San Francisco was long, with many other Russian émigrés on board. We probably were not a well-behaved crowd, what with loud conversations and casual restroom hygiene. Valo overheard a flight attendant telling a colleague she “was sick and tired,” one of the few English idioms we knew.
When the white roofs of the San Francisco suburbs became visible through the windows of the airplane, we were dismayed. The mysterious San Francisco of our childhood books looked confusingly provincial.
Slowly we walked out of the plane, not quite believing the journey was ending. As we stepped on the escalator, down below we could see my sister-in-law and her husband. Our American life was awaiting us.