A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka: A Memoir is the story of a Jewish family in Kharkov, Ukraine who flees communist oppression to become refugees first in Austria then the United States in the late 1980s. With about $600, some suitcases, and eight crates of vodka for paying off helpers and officials, this Jewish family began their trek across the Ukraine into Czechoslovakia and eventually Vienna, Austria at a refugee camp. The author, Lev Golinkin, was a nine-year-old at the time.
This book caught my attention for several reasons. First, it is a story that recounts what life was like under the greatest dictatorship in the world – the USSR. I see those effects every day living in a country that experienced many of the same persecutions and policies. Second, I now live only six hours away from the Ukraine and its currently volatile situation. Third, this is a story of leaving everything to embrace a new life, culture, and language – something I too am currently in the midst of trying to do.
I was also struck by the level of discrimination and persecution of Jewish people in Eastern Europe then and still today. Though the Soviet Union effectively eliminated any form of worship for Jews through 50 years of communist atheistic oppression, still the hatred for people of Jewish descent remains – which is baffling to me. Lev’s mother captures this best when asked later in life by her son why she would leave everything to live as an immigrant in a foreign land. She replied,
“I didn’t want to be afraid of the government anymore, to live in fear of them going to my home. I didn’t want to watch my daughter suffer and be denied from school because she was Jewish. I didn’t want to stand on the schoolhouse steps and worry to death about explaining to my nine-year-old son why being a Jew was bad, and why he should prepare for a long and painful life (pp. 246-247).”
Upon arrival in a small town in Indiana, through the help of a Jewish sponsor family, the Golinkins tried, as so many immigrants have done, to adjust to the life and language of their new country. Though Lev’s parents were highly educated and skilled as a psychiatrist (mom) and electrical engineer (dad), they had neither the proof of such experiences (the Soviets did not allow them to leave the Ukraine with any documentation) nor the language ability to find equivalent jobs in the USA. The mother eventually was forced to settle as a security guard while the father eventually found work at an entry level engineering position in New Jersey.
Perhaps the paragraph that most resonated with me is the one about how the language barrier works for immigrants:
You will never be seen as anything more than an immigrant, or a moron, or a child. For the rest of your life it’s you, your family, and a world of impotence at your doorstep. You no longer have opinions. You don’t have jokes, or consolations, or conversations, or amusements, or experiences, or perspectives built over a lifetime. They’re useless , like you. How are you going to share them? With whom? You are an animal, mooing and mumbling and excuse me–ing your way through the smallest chore, the most inconsequential grocery store errand. And that’s how the language barrier works (pp. 232-233).
This book gave me an increased appreciation for both America and the struggle that each wave of immigrants face as they seek a new life in America.