1977: From Leningrad to Baltimore
Written by Lucienne Erent, aged 13 (inspired by my father’s story)
The thing about roots, I have come to realize, is that they fulfil the same purpose for people as they do for plants. Roots keep you connected to the world and standing upright, but they do so invisibly, stretching deep into the past.
At least I often connect my thirteen stable years of life in Prague to my father’s journey which twisted and twined all around the globe, ending up in Prague, but with a long American odyssey through Los Angeles, Chicago, and Baltimore until, if we move backward along all the stories I’ve heard, we finally get to the very beginning: Leningrad, USSR, city of White Nights and grand bridges opening for passing ships, with the small ghosts of former communist pioneers, my dad among them, wearing red ties and marching around in perfect lines. Sometimes dad says that he was born in a city and country that no longer exist, since the names were changed when the totalitarian regime collapsed.
It was right at thirteen (my age now), that my dad’s life was transformed. Up until then, he lived one year to the next in a communist-era communal apartment which held five Leningrad families, each family in one room, all sharing the kitchen and the bathroom. Hygiene was hard with fourteen people using one bathroom, so every week my dad went over to his grandparents to take a bath. But at least all the families in his communal apartment got along pretty well, unlike many such living arrangements, where people hated each other and the relationships were very tense. They were such good friends that, once a year, my dad’s neighbour from the room next door - a Tatar woman - would hold a large celebration with unusual, tasty foods. Lots of her relatives from far away would come to stay, while my young dad was welcomed at the party and got to eat many treats with strange and spicy flavours. It was only years after leaving the USSR that he realized he had spent his childhood celebrating the Muslim holiday, Ramadan, with his neighbor. She had never dared to tell him why her family was gathering because religion was suppressed in the Soviet Union and it was dangerous to talk about it.
My dad was admitted to an elite school because they thought he was a genius since he could recite Pushkin’s poetry by heart. That didn’t last long. He had so much difficulty reading books and doing his homework that these days he would probably be diagnosed with dyslexia. My grandfather was so anxious about it that he would read all my dad’s homework and books out loud to him. Of all the books which my grandpa recited, Dad’s favourite was the Russian version of Kipling’s famous “The Jungle Book.” He was fascinated by the elegant black panther, Bagheera, portrayed as feminine in the Russian translation. Right as they finished the last “Jungle Book” story, Dad’s whole school class was marched through the streets of Leningrad to demand freedom for the beautiful civil rights activist, Angela Davis, a member of the American Black Panther Party. Dad was a bit confused about the connection between Bagheera, the majestic black panther who stalked through his dreams of being Mowgli and the lovely heroic woman on the posters who was locked up in an American jail.
He longed to go to the USA to free Angela Davis, the human Bagheera, when suddenly, just like the magical journeys that he had only known from books, his mother told him that his family was going on exactly this adventure. Like any good book adventure, he was sworn to secrecy about their plans to get to America. His parents were worried that if one thing went wrong and they had to stay in Russia, everyone would treat them badly if they knew they had tried to leave. My grandpa had already lost his job as an engineer and was made to work in a boiler room for months just for applying to get out of the USSR. At that time, my grandparents were among the first people to receive Jewish refugee status to go to America.
My grandma once told me that a major reason she took this risk, which might destroy their lives, was because dad was such a poor schoolboy that she knew he would end up in the Soviet Army and she desperately did not want that. She also joked that she wanted to taste a fresh pineapple once in her life. And she dreamed of a private home of her own. She had never had the privacy that a woman with her shy side needed. But she wasn’t just shy, she was strong. She was an epidemiologist who had to report on the health conditions of the city schools. Even though her salary was nothing, she many times refused bribes to look the other way from schools that didn’t follow the regulations that would keep kids safe. But none of her strength ever erased the cruel words of the border guard who searched their suitcases before finally letting them go: “Good for you, you are never going to see your family alive again.” In too many cases, he was right.
In Baltimore, the first home that wasn’t Russia, everything that surrounded my family was different and strange. Everything in the apartment had been donated, including the apartment. Dad had his own room after a lifetime spent in the same room with his parents. But the furniture in it was a white and gold princess bedroom set meant for a girl, including a bed with fancy decorated bedposts, a lavish dresser and curvy wardrobe. My teen dad just ignored the feminine furniture, happy enough to have his own space. Later, he made the room more his own with a poster of Bagheera on the wall and with American Revolution bed sheets and curtains. But my grandma would walk into his room every day to sit on the bed and look around in amazement. This was the very furniture that she had dreamed about having as a little girl. This was a little piece of the childhood she had longed for and could now finally enjoy, sitting for ten minutes a day on the princess bed during their first months in America. Was it a sign of good things to come, she wondered?
Meantime my dad and grandpa were having their own adventures. The first morning, it was time to explore. To be respectful to their new country, they put on their very best clothes, including fancy ties. In all this formal dress, they strolled farther and farther into Baltimore’s downtown. Soon, they started to notice that everyone on the street around them was an African American. Dad had only seen a few black people in his life, maybe two or three African students who came to university in Russia. Now he wondered if these people belonged to the heroic Black Panther Party and maybe even knew Angela Davis personally. My grandpa and dad went into stores to look at all the unknown things and try to understand what everything was. Of course, they spoke to each other in Russian since they had so little English, and people looked very surprised when they heard them. That evening, when they told the representatives of the refugee organization about their day, their hosts were upset, informing them that they had wandered into Baltimore’s ghetto, a tough, dangerous neighborhood. It never occurred to them that this was a scary or poor area. Everyone had been very nice. Was it true after all what they had been taught in the USSR about American race problems or was it Soviet propaganda?
More than anything, my grandparents wanted my dad to try to fit in. My grandma was determined that my dad would not seem like a misfit around American kids. Using what they knew about American style, which came from underground disco records they had managed to hear at family and friends’ houses and smuggled foreign magazines in Russia, they bought dad a blazing pair of striped disco bell bottom pants for his first school day and a pair of tall platform shoes to round out his look. When Dad started school the next week, he may not have fit in as much as his parents had hoped since the other kids were much more calmly dressed in faded jeans and worn sneakers, but judging from the surprised and intrigued looks they shot his way, they took him for a miniature rock star. At least, this is what dad has always believed. He can’t be sure since for the first year, he struggled to understand a word that anyone in school said to him.
Still another complicated issue that my grandparents had to decide about because they wanted so much for my teen dad to fit in with his new country was the question of circumcision. Most Jewish boys around the world are circumcised at seven days old when they are infants. But in Russia, as mentioned before, religion was suppressed and this ritual was mostly given up. Of course, most American boys are also circumcised when they are infants. My grandparents felt worried that a boy who looked quite different physically from other American boys in school locker rooms would always be teased. The painful result is that my dad might be one of the only men on this planet who can remember his own circumcision perfectly!
There were many other adventures and experiences in the first years of making a new life in America but those are too many for this small story and need to be saved for another day. I will end by sharing what my grandmother told me when I asked her when was the first time after leaving Soviet Russia that she felt truly free. Her reply was this: One year after they made it to Baltimore, my grandfather applied for a job as an engineer in Chicago and he got the job. In the USSR, there was no such thing as just deciding to get a new job and relocating because you wanted to. For the first time in their lives my grandparents not only moved somewhere far away just because they felt like it but this time they didn’t need any help from a refugee organization or any permissions from authorities. They packed and went. They were free people who lived in a country where they had the power to start a new life again whenever and wherever they wanted.