Fleeing Soviet Russia as a Jewish Family

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Janis Traven

A reader, Janis, shares her family’s courageous “coming to America” story:

It’s the little details of being “other” that creep up unexpectedly. Late last night I read Julia Ioffe’s own refugee story in The Atlantic and was brought to tears by her mention of the mineral collection in a blue cardboard box. I also had one, as a child in the 1960s, and I know it meant something to my grandparents, but I don’t know what. (It was likely some nationalistic and chauvinistic collection of natural resources; Russia has the best quartz, bauxite, etc.)

My grandparents escaped from the Soviet Union in 1921, masqueraded as a klezmer band on the way to a gig in Bessyrabia. My father was an infant hidden in their coats. Once they got to the other side of the river, they kept going. They were able to get a visa from their interim residence in Bucharest. They arrived at Ellis Island in 1923, on the sister ship to The Titanic.

My grandmother’s brother also left the USSR, but the rest of the family stayed. They survived the war by going east into the Caucasus and hiding. After WWII and during the Cold War, communication was limited and cryptic between my grandparents and their siblings. In 1960, my grandparents went back to the USSR to visit family and returned with a blue box of minerals for me. The whereabouts of that box is unknown, after many moves.

Thank you to Julia for sharing her story. It is monstrous the way that respect for others has morphed into intolerance and abuse [under the new Trump administration]. It’s not my America.

Janis also provided the following image of an American stamp that “reminds me so much of my father’s immigration photo” (seen above, posted with permission):

From the U.S. Postal Service’s Stamp Subject Selection criteria: “The Postal Service will honor extraordinary and enduring contributions to American society, history, culture, or environment. The stamp program commemorates positive contributions to American life, history, culture, and environment; therefore, negative occurrences and disasters will not be commemorated on U.S. postage stamps.”

After I posted the old family photo on my Facebook page, I was charmed that my nephews shared the post with a proud and full-throated defense of immigrants. We need more of that. They and their friends saw my nephews’ faces in my grandfather’s, and my son’s face in my grandmother’s, which was a lovely connection for them.

The infant in the photo is my aunt, who died two weeks ago. The little boy (age 3) is my father, Boris Tuchinsky, who changed his name to Traven to avoid the quotas imposed on Jews applying for admission to medical school. Boris Tuchinsky graduated 1st in his class at NYU and was rejected for medical school. Boris Traven was admitted.

Speaking of medical schools, reader Renie is worried that they’ll suffer under the Trump administration:

I just got off the phone with one of my children—an administrator for a fellowship program at the medical school of a major state university. The story she told me was of tremendous fear and upheaval.

American citizens, legal residents with green cards, people on student visas—some from the seven banned countries; some from other countries—all are terrified of what is going on. (There’s even fear from American citizens with parents in the banned countries.) Will they be able to stay? Will they be allowed in when the new group of fellows start in the summer? Will they be allowed to finish their programs. Can they visit family—often elderly family?

Her phone is ringing off the hook trying to find answers to very reasonable fears.  The idea that the rules on visas can change from one day to the next with no warning and no consultation with people who understand the chaos being created is simply terrifying to people here on visas or green cards and those awaiting them. These are accomplished people who are here to learn about the best we have to offer in medicine. In some cases these are researchers in an area where there is tremendous need for research and a reluctance on the part of American doctors to work in it because it isn’t a lucrative field. Some go home to share that knowledge in their home countries and are often the best ambassadors we have.  Some will stay here and will often work in underserved urban and rural communities or in the less lucrative specialties where American doctors often don’t want to work.

We will pay a high price for this ignorant demagogue and the white nationalist on his security team.

Another reader, Eric, grasps for a long-term solution to the immigration challenges faced by 21st century America:

Before the not-really-a-Muslim-ban Executive Order, I’d let my imagination get away from itself believing that we might finally see some sort of truce in the immigration wars. The GOP was finally going to pass their restrictionist immigration agenda, which would cause a firestorm that would likely energize the Democratic base even further. When Democrats were finally back in power, they’d find themselves either unable to move towards a less restrictionist policy—say, because they still were facing a President Trump—or would be unwilling to spend their political capital refighting the last war.

Finding themselves in a situation where they would need to do something to prevent a revolt by the base that elected them, Democrats would have to get creative. One solution would be to develop some sort of economic development program, where wealthy nations would “loan” money to developing nations—with strong oversight—for infrastructure, schools, and housing. Perhaps there could be certain benchmarks built into these “loans” that would allow for forgiveness of significant portions for hitting certain democratic benchmarks and environmental or labor standards. The benchmarks could be stretched out over the entire period of the loan—say, 30 years—so that the aspects of civil culture necessary to build and sustain a democratic society would have time to take hold and become the norm. If a country hit all the benchmarks, they could end up paying very little, if any, of the loans back.

A system like this—while more than a little utopian—could go a long way towards mollifying the concerns of those who would like the United States to expand immigration. For example, better infrastructure in developing nations could lead to higher GDP growth in those countries, which would benefit all of those living there, not just those with the intelligence, resources, or luck to be able to make their way to the United States. Stronger domestic growth in those countries would mean that fewer people would feel the need to immigrate in order to have better economic opportunities. And more democratic—and accountable—governance is a good unto itself, as is cleaner air, cleaner water, or stronger environmental standards. It would also go a long way towards repairing America’s image in a lot of the developing world, particularly in light of the GOP-passed restrictionist immigration policy.

There would be some on the left who would find it a bit too “neo-imperialist,” but I’d expect that to be the fringe. Less immigration would likely hurt U.S. growth, and this would likely fall short of the “trillion dollar bill on the sidewalk,” but it would be better than the angry and xenophobic status quo that helps no one. Alas, it does not seem like the direction we’ll be headed, but a guy can dream, right?