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From the Soviet state to the Garden State, a young nomad’s tale
Kharkov, Ukraine, USSR, early September 1989
I remember that September evening vividly because, while I was busy staging battles with my new plastic red soldiers, the old black rotary in Moskovskyi Prospekt 90, Apt. 5, rang, rang, rang, and rang like the Last Judgment was coming. Every caller had the same frantic news: “Did you hear? America is closing the border. The U.S. Congress will stop accepting Soviet Jews: Anyone who’s not registered in Vienna by December 31 won’t be able to go to America.” America is closing the border.
The rumor flashed through the city like a thunderbolt. “Go to Austria,” the whispers rustled through the phone lines. “Go to Moscow, get your exit visas, and head for Vienna. There’s help in Vienna.” Long after the soldiers and I had concluded the Siege of the China Closet, long into the night, the calls continued.
“We’re leaving,” declared Mom; “we’re leaving now!” The next morning my father was on a train to Moscow.
Kharkov, mid-September, three and a half months
to the December 31 deadline
My mother is a psychiatrist who works at one of the several large clinics in the city. My sister, Lina, is a promising engineering student at Kharkov Polytechnic. She is 12 years older than me, and I devote much of my time in the apartment to cooking up novel ways to annoy her. Dad is an engineer and he excels in his field. He spearheaded a paper on turbines that was selected for presentation at an international Communist expo in Bulgaria.
Dad’s just returned from Moscow, where he spent the better part of a week standing in line—the looming deadline has every Jew in the USSR rushing to the capital to do the exact same thing. The next step is to obtain official permissions from Mom’s clinic, Dad’s engineering bureau, and Lina’s institute to leave the USSR. All three institutions must sign off that my family knows no valuable state secrets.
Late September, three months to deadline
Mom’s clinic signs off on her leaving, with no issues. Dad’s supervisor signs off, shakes his hand, and demands his bottle of cognac. Dad brings him two bottles the next day, just in case he isn’t joking. Then Lina receives a letter from the dean of Kharkov Polytechnic. It states that the school (and by extension the Ukrainian SSR, and therefore the entire Soviet Union) has invested too much time and training in her to allow that precious knowledge to fall into the hands of our foreign adversaries. Grandma starts cooking Lina’s favorite meals. Mom does her best to shelter me from the stress, but even I can’t help noticing and I tone down Lina’s prank regimen. Mom and Dad scramble for a solution. The family’s not leaving without her.
Early October, 10 weeks to deadline
One of Mom’s old patients puts her in touch with a high-ranking administrator at Kharkov Polytechnic. A sizable package of rubles, cognac, and vodka (the holy trinity of Soviet bribery) is delivered to the administrator’s apartment. Two days later, Lina’s dean concludes that the faculty may have overreacted. Lina stops sulking. The pranks escalate accordingly.
* * *
Why Vienna? What did Vienna have to do with receiving Jews fleeing Soviet Russia? In fact, I have a strong suspicion it didn’t volunteer to become the refugee capital of Western Europe. The role was bestowed upon it by basic geography. Refugees fleeing persecution in the Soviet Union traveled west. International aid agencies consulted a map, located the nearest metropolis to Eastern Europe, set up their processing bureaus, and just like that, Vienna became the gateway. Word spread quickly; the moment the first migrant found shelter in the City of Music, the system propagated itself.
A tougher question is Why America? One would think that persecuted Jews would want to live in a country of, by, and for Jews, a place where we would get together, spin dreidels, eat matzah. But my family—and the majority of our fellow emigrants—would ask for asylum in the States.
We Russian Jews were persecuted not because of our religion but because of our ethnicity. We had no religion, spoke no prayers, and, aside from a few old superstitions and vestigial snippets of Yiddish, had little religious tradition. Throughout my childhood I had never talked to God, or thought of God, or wanted a god.
What my family and many families like mine desired was peace of mind, not a synagogue. We wanted the freedom to live our lives without trembling. Israel may be a Western nation, but, as the Russian Jews who did immigrate there found out, it’s also flavored with a bit of theocracy—if not governmental, then certainly cultural. We wanted to live in a land brimming with pork chops served in stores open on the Sabbath, and we didn’t want anyone wagging their finger and informing us we were sinning.
Ten days to deadline
We were only allowed one piece of jewelry per person. Not that we had much treasure—a gold watch from one grandfather and a fat Austro-Hungarian coin from the other—but neither heirloom would be permitted to cross the border, so Mom brought them to a jeweler, the husband of one of her old patients. “Make something meaningful out of them,” she asked the man. Two days later, she came home with a pair of necklaces, thin gold bands bearing intricately wrought Magen Dovidi (Stars of David), a large pendant for me and a smaller one for Lina. A Magen Dovid was not desirable in the Soviet Union and thus was less likely to catch a greedy border guard’s eye. The jewelry had to be worn by the emigrant who claimed it, and since Mom, Dad, and Grandma would be wearing their wedding bands, the Magen Dovidi would have to be conveyed by Lina and me. I winced at the thought.
“Did they have to be those stars?” sniffed my sister.
* * *
All around the apartment complex, windows were lit long into the night. Mom and Dad tried to keep our date of departure concealed. There were many reports of refugee busses being hijacked in the lawless plains of western Ukraine, where bands of robbers, given advance notice by their urban scouts, lurked in the wilderness, ready to attack. (Part of the reason the drivers charged so much was because they had to hire their own scouts to monitor the roads for bandits.) It was best to disappear without notice, at night, but moving was a rare occurrence in the USSR. People grew up, lived, and died in the same town, often at the same address. There was no such thing as a new family on the block or a new kid in school, and despite my parents’ attempts at secrecy, the increased last-minute activity alerted anyone with eyes that departure was imminent. The neighbors kept a vigil to see what would be left behind. Every half-hour a thin woman with a black kerchief around her gray hair darted into the foyer to check whether we were done with the kitchen table. She had been promised that table, and she wanted to make sure she got it. Something about her quick movements, gaunt frame, and black dress made her resemble the scrawny birds that hopped around the apartment block’s courtyard scavenging for food.
Dad shook me awake around 4:00 a.m., and I trudged to the sink and lazily brushed my teeth, spitting out the rust-brown liquid that squirted from the faucet. Our itinerary may have been uncertain, but I had a feeling brushing was not going to be at the top of the agenda for the foreseeable future, and I liked that. I got dressed, jogged downstairs, and stepped out into the Russian night. Silence hung over the courtyard. A foot of wet snow blanketed the earth and the flickering streetlights cast a yellow glow on the mounds. Idling next to the apartment block was a bus surrounded by people examining suitcases, loading suitcases, and discussing the status of suitcases yet to be loaded. Eight crates of vodka were stacked on a nearby curb. These were going to be handed out along the way at inspection points and gas stations, to police officers and anyone else we might encounter. Times were uncertain, exchange rates fluctuated, the ruble went up and down, but the value of a good bottle of vodka never depreciated.
* * *
The ride lasted three days. Our drivers pushed the groaning engine as fast as the roads permitted, stopping only in trusted villages and only long enough for bathroom breaks and to check in with their scouts. I sat next to Dad, alternating between sleeping and staring. The landscape was shackled with frost and all I could see were dead leaves interlocked with the frozen grass. Patches of trees hunkered down on the horizon. Every once in a while a thin line of them stretched to the road, dividing one field from the next. A field, a flash of bare branches, then the next field was all there was to see.
The Ukraine (u-kraina) isn’t much of a name. It’s just a word; it means “the land at the edge,” and this was that edge. We had reached the outskirts of the Great Steppe, a vast sea of grass that extends from Mongolia to Hungary. It was Eurasia’s no-man’s land, a place called pustyr, or “emptiness,” in Russian. For centuries, the steppe was inhabited by nomads, wild horsemen, skilled and dreaded archers. They rode out of the plains, sacking towns and ambushing caravans before receding back into the grasses. No one could predict the cycles of calm and strife: Scythians, Pechenegs, Huns, Bulgars, myriad clans and tribes came and went through the steppe, leaving behind them only kurgans, hill-shaped barrows that concealed the bones and gold of their chieftains. To the Russian mind, the steppe was a symbol of the unknown, the primal. Thus it was in the beginning, and thus it had remained, even to 1989.
By the second day the trees thinned, shrank, thinned some more, and finally ceded the steppe to the earth. The sheer amount of land was astounding. It unfolded steadily, relentlessly, ever expanding and never changing. At first I scanned the terrain as if it were a painting, looking for something distinct or hidden in a landscape composed solely of leaves and grass. After a few hours my eyes started hurting and I allowed them to lose focus and simply stare into the vastness.
December 24, 1989
It was late on Christmas Eve and Vienna slumbered under an enchantment. Rows of nutcrackers, puppets, candy, and chocolate beckoned from giant window displays. Christmas trees lit up plazas; garlands of snowflakes, crescents, exquisite ornaments, and intricate tinsel were draped across streets and twined around lampposts. It was bright, festive, varied, nothing like the anemic New Year’s light bulbs people hung up in Russia. And the roads shocked everyone: The smooth pavement and lack of potholes felt like being in a land where people drove on butter.
Nondorf, Niederösterreich (Lower Austria),
In 1987, a total of 8,155 Jews had been permitted to leave the USSR. The following year that number grew to 18,965. In 1989, the year my family left, 71,000 were granted permits. And in 1990, this spiked to a staggering 200,000 people. These numbers meant various things to different parties. For the U.S. government, this was another small triumph in its struggle with Moscow. For the American Jews, the ones who paid attention, it was cause for rejoicing, the payoff from three decades of lobbying, rallying, and fundraising. But human rights workers, the people on the ground, are always the last to celebrate. The joy of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) was tempered by the fact that every digit represented an individual in need of housing, and food, and political asylum. Running refugee camps in Europe wasn’t the immediate issue, since these were funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which had thrown open its coffers. The problem was getting people into America.
Every refugee had to have a sponsor, a person or organization to vouchsafe housing, medical care, education, and employment. The U.S. Congress had made it clear that if it was going to pressure the Kremlin to release its Jews, if America was going to raise its annual refugee admission quota, then HIAS would have to provide its refugees with sponsors.
In years past, when the refugee flow out of Russia was merely a trickle, this had not been a serious obstacle. HIAS enjoyed longstanding relationships with urban immigrant communities, such as the ones in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Many refugees were going to reunite with family members already interwoven into the fabric of these hubs.
But with the immigrant numbers exploding from thousands to tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands, the seemingly infinite capacity of the cities reached a limit. Individuals who were already supporting relatives were forced to refuse sponsorship for other family members. Organizations that had planned their budgets for several families were now bombarded with nonstop sponsorship requests. Neighborhood by neighborhood, New York, Chicago, and L.A. began telling HIAS to slow down, to give them time, to hold the refugees in Europe while they cleared space and resources. And yet every day new families sought shelter in Vienna. HIAS’s camps were suddenly faced with a massive influx on one end and a bottleneck at the other.
A fresh supply of American sponsors was needed, a suburban network extending past the overtaxed enclaves of the cities. This went beyond asking someone to sign a petition or mail a check. HIAS would have to convince random American Jews to take legal and moral responsibility for complete strangers, to accept entire families of refugees into their homes. First came recruitment, making local communities aware of the pressing need for sponsors. Then there was fundraising. And training. And preparations. All for one family. And there were thousands of families.
* * *
Two thousand years of roaming the world, of fleeing an oppressive homeland only to be oppressed in the next one, have etched the Jewish mindset. To this day, Jews will tell you where they’re from, and where their family escaped from to get there, and where they ran from before to get to that place, and so on.
One consequence of this collective pain has been the development of the idea that every Jew is responsible for the welfare of every other Jew, because you never know—tomorrow may be your turn to run. This undying vigilance is such a part of the Jewish psyche that it might as well be genetic. The suburban network HIAS sought had been there all along, mowing the lawns, driving the kids to soccer practice, renting movies on the weekends. Seemingly wispy and disjointed, isolated and oblivious, it was nevertheless capable of extremely rapid mobilization. All it needed was a stimulus.
In the early months of 1990, an urgent reminder went out to synagogues and Jewish centers across America. Phone calls, faxes, groups of young ambassadors fanned out from New York, visiting cities, then towns, then suburbs, all of them bearing the same message: We fought for the release of our people; now they are free. They are waiting in Vienna. They are waiting in Rome. They need our help. Let’s bring them in.
West Lafayette, Indiana, June 1990
Purdue University Airport in West Lafayette, Indiana, was not equipped with gates, so the little puddle jumper from Chicago simply taxied to a standstill in the middle of the tarmac. A hundred yards away sat a brown one-story building, and in front of the building, separated from the tarmac by a short chainlink fence, waited the crowd. There were children, a couple of babies, plenty of middle-age couples, and one ancient, bearded rabbi. Several photographers hovered next to the fence, twisting and tweaking their lenses. Two women tapped on microphones, accompanied by cameramen. A large paper banner made on a late-1980s dot matrix printer flapped from the overhang above the crowd. Lina translated the gray, pixelated letters: WELCOME HOME.
Dad took in the banner, the crowd, the bright summer sky, and I watched his fingers pumping and flexing around the suitcase handles, getting the blood flowing, the way he always did before charging into an important matter. “The sign says ‘Welcome Home.'” He nudged his glasses against his face. “So we go home.” We traversed the tarmac to the buzzing of gnats, strode up to a gap in the chainlink fence, and paused. Somehow I wound up in front; perhaps Dad decided to commence the introductions with the cutest family member. The crowd was silent. The photographers lurked.
Across the gap towered a mustached man in a checkered beige sports jacket. His thick glasses reminded me of Dad’s, which put me at ease. The man extended a long beige arm, I shook his hand, stepping across the gap, and suddenly everyone moved. Rapid shutter clicks burst through the air. The women in suits jostled toward us, tugging on cameramen and chattering into microphones. I heard the faltering rumble of Dad’s English mingled with the surer stream of Lina’s. The wizened old rabbi began speaking to Grandma, others approached, and handshakes flew everywhere as we were engulfed by Americans.
Both Mom and Dad made it clear that Lina and I were the main reason they had decided to flee the USSR. Their children were going to have a better future, and there was only one sure way to make it happen. Twin doctorates—an MD for me and a Ph.D. for Lina (she, at least, would not let them down). “Your mom and I will work and get money: That is our task. And you and Lina will study and get As: That is your task,” commanded Dad time and again.
Dad began work as a filing clerk for a medical supply company, Mom became a barista. Austria had taught us that not everyone in the West appreciated migrants, and the same was true of Lafayette. Several obnoxious individuals (who weren’t known for being coffee connoisseurs prior to our arrival) began to frequent Mom’s café, blurting out detailed orders, refusing to speak slower, and ridiculing her whenever she got something wrong. For 30 years, Mom had shepherded patients during some of the worst periods of their lives, and now she couldn’t brew an espresso. She felt worthless.
Dad channeled his frustration in a positive direction, spending nights and weekends researching the U.S. engineering sector and shooting out resumés to firms across the country. The rejections returned at an astonishing rate, but that didn’t deter him. “Step by step” was an expression he picked up early on in America, and that’s what he’d grunt on the way from the mailbox.
In March 1991, after hundreds of rejections, Dad got a bite from a company called Delaval, in New Jersey. He flew out to Trenton and immediately accepted an entry-level position typically reserved for graduates fresh out of college. He was fine with it. The only thing he asked was to have his company business cards printed before he flew back to Indiana. His first task upon returning to Lafayette was to distribute the cards across the community. The few believers who had encouraged the job search were given a card; the skeptics got two.
East Windsor, New Jersey, May 1991
We settled in a quiet middle-class township where two-story houses mingled with cornfields and strip malls. During summers, echoes of engines from the local stock car racetrack drifted across the woods behind our house; on crisp fall evenings, you could hear the drums from the high school marching band. Grandma spent most of her time looking out her bedroom window at kids racing bikes and adults walking dogs. Mom attempted studying for the medical boards; a year later she tried getting licensed as a nurse, then as an EKG tech, then she became a security guard. She didn’t have the English to do much else.
* * *
This is it, you realize. This is not a vacation; this is forever. This is what it will be like. You’re expected to learn the language, except you’re also working a menial job, maybe two menial jobs, because you just got to this country and you have no money. And you’re raising a family. Forget English: You’re already old. You will never work in your field again. Find something you can do with your hands, something that doesn’t require anything beyond a few words’ comprehension. 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 beyond 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 most inconsequential grocery store errand.
And that’s how the language barrier works.
I’m in awe of my parents’ strength. Throughout my childhood in Russia, Dad was a machine, plowing through obstacles. Failure was the signal to double his efforts; success was another brick upon which to build more success. Mom wasn’t as relentless. She’d get discouraged, she’d nurse doubts, but simmering underneath was this daring that flared up when we needed it most. She was the one who forced the final decision to flee the Soviet Union. She was the one who guided us through the exit visa gauntlet in the fall of 1989, when we were racing the deadline to be in Austria. Now, in the States, I watched the hope of being a doctor leech out of Mom, along with her confidence and optimism. I didn’t blame America, and I still don’t—I believe that immigrants must learn English or pay the price. Instead I blamed Mom, I blamed her security company, her blue shirt and black pants with blue stripes, her little tin security officer badge that looked like the Junior Detective badges cops hand out to 10-year-olds during D.A.R.E. workshops. I lashed out when she’d return home and catch us up on her work shift, and of all things I’ve done to be ashamed of, ridiculing my mother for trying to contribute to her new society hurts the most.
* * *
For Mom and Dad, the hardest part of leaving Russia was me. Abandoning your life and possessions and putting yourself at the mercy of strangers is hard; it is terrifying to do so with a child. For years, my parents marveled at how well I had handled it. No, I’m not scared. No, I’m not tired. I’m a little chilly, but I’m fine. Partly, I viewed that as my job. From the night we snuck out of Kharkov, it seemed that everyone in the family had assumed a certain role. Dad was the decision maker, Lina the translator, Mom and Grandma the base camp crew, tending to cooking, sewing, and other necessities. I dragged suitcases and ran errands, but my most valuable contribution was simply not to panic. Through cold, hunger, instability, or terror, I was the first thing Mom and Dad checked on, and as soon as they saw I was fine, it had a calming effect on the whole family. I took my job seriously, but to be honest I didn’t need to pretend much, because I loved emigration. I thrived on emigration.
The best part of emigration was hope. Everything was temporary, nothing was certain, and there was always that blessed chance that tomorrow something would happen and I would come across a place, a situation, a fairy godmother, a genie, something capable of generating a poof. But a couple of years after we moved to East Windsor, sometime around middle school, I realized that emigration was over and the poof never came. And this time there was no new place to disappear to. We were no longer trapped in Russia; we were no longer refugees in Austria. For the first time in a long time we didn’t have to run, and all I wanted to do was keep running.
Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, October 1999
“Do you have your citizenship?” asked Dan.
It was around 11 o’clock at night, and the three of us—Dan, the dog, and I—were in the middle of our nightly walk. Dan lived two doors down from me. We were both pre-med bio majors, and every night we took a 20-minute break to loop around the quiet neighborhood behind the freshman dorms, and smoke Camel Lights, and talk about getting laid, which, of course, is the real goal of becoming a doctor. The dog, a silver lab, lived in one of the houses. It wasn’t kept on a leash, and one September evening it tagged along with Dan and me, and ever since then it always joined our walks, trotting around the block a few times, then going off to wherever it lived.
Dan was a Russian Jew like me. He came to the States when he was young, like me. How he escaped Russia, where he was stationed in Europe, whether he got beaten up in school, or how he wound up in the States, I did not know. I wasn’t even sure which city or republic he was from. I’d overhear him mutter Russian on the phone to his parents, and I know he’d caught me doing the same, but we never exchanged a Russian word between us. This mutual reticence is what bonded us in the Catholic Jesuit milieu of Boston College. And as long as I didn’t squeal and he didn’t squeal it would remain our little secret. Which is why his citizenship question surprised me.
“No, I don’t,” I answered. “I applied, but they lost my paperwork. Twice. I’ve been meaning to reapply but I haven’t done it yet.” Dan looked concerned. “You should do it soon. I just read online about this immigrant who got caught doing something stupid, like public urination, and got deported, even though he had a green card.”
“How can they deport me? I don’t even have a country to get deported to—the Soyuz is gone. Where are they going put me?”
There was an uncomfortable pause as both Dan and I registered the use of Russian. Soyuz means union, as in the Soviet Union, which had fallen apart into its 15 constituent republics in 1991.
“I don’t know,” Dan said. “The guy I read about, they shipped him to Somalia. It doesn’t matter, man: You gotta get your citizenship.”
“Public urination?” I glanced down at the dog, who looked positively horrified.
I applied for my citizenship the next day.
* * *
On a crisp autumn afternoon one year later, I stepped into the gray Immigration and Naturalization Service Center in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Inside was a stark vestibule monitored by a bored security guard as well as a six-foot-tall Statue of Liberty made out of green plastic. I signed in, took a seat next to the rest of the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, and listened for my name. After about an hour, a middle-age lady ushered me into her cubicle.
“Mr. Golinkin, we have your fingerprints, documents, and application fee. You will now take the citizenship test to demonstrate your knowledge of U.S. history.”
I was in college. I was in midterm mode. Bring it.
The woman produced a sheet of paper with 10 questions. A cursory survey revealed that the test had been designed by an avuncular middle-school teacher who wanted everyone to get an A. “What do the 13 stripes on the American flag represent?” the first question asked. A few rows down was, “How many original colonies were there in America?” Brilliant. I breezed through the questions, nursing my disappointment. I wanted to discuss the Boston Tea Party and the Hayes-Tilden affair, the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan; I wanted to show America that I had forgotten neither the Maine nor the Alamo.
The case officer didn’t share my indignation.
“It’s time for the writing part. You will find some blank space on the bottom of your test sheet. In it, I would like you to write down why is the sky blue.”
Oooh, I perked up. Here we go! Finally, a real question. A little strange, a little unexpected, but still, an opportunity to make my country proud. Last year, in chemistry class, we covered optics and how Earth’s atmosphere diffuses white light into its components. These, in turn, get absorbed by the atmosphere, save the blue wavelength, which gives the sky its characteristic hue. But that’s only the scientific explanation. The ancient Egyptians believed the sky was a heavenly ocean upon which the celestial spheres journeyed in boats. I need to integrate these various perspectives into a coherent yet terse—
“I’m sorry, ma’am, I’m just thinking it over.”
“Mr. Golinkin, this is a dictation exercise. Would you like me to repeat the prompt?”
“Did you say dictation?”
“Yes. Would you like me to repeat the prompt?”
“I know stuff about the presidents,” I mumbled.
“Mr. Golinkin”—she anxiously glanced at the clock—”all you have to do is write down the sentence ‘Why is the sky blue?’ and we’re both done.”
Why is the sky blue? I methodically printed in big letters. It was a bit girlie (the y’s looped a lot), but overall a decent sentence. Definitely citizenship material.
“Very good. We will contact you within two months to make arrangements for the naturalization ceremony.” The woman squeezed out her most reassuring smile. “Goodbye, Mr. Golinkin.”
On the ride back to Boston I contemplated the fact that I had already become a young, jaded American and I wasn’t even an American yet. I didn’t know whether to feel concerned or ahead of schedule.
Chestnut Hill, May 2003
It was a hot day and the metal bleachers of Alumni Stadium channeled the sunshine toward the center, where the graduates and I melted in our black gowns. The Commencement speaker, a blind man who had climbed Mt. Everest, spoke about the journey of life, and ways to overcome obstacles, and the many lessons of college. I needed a cigarette. I needed a pack of cigarettes, I needed coffee, extra-large coffee with cream and no sugar, and most of all, I needed to walk. Boston College was kind enough to let me participate in the graduation ceremony, so I crossed the stage and was handed a giant envelope with a little printout explaining why there was no diploma inside. I smiled and shook the dean’s hand, Dad took a picture, and I scampered back to my seat. The only thing preventing me from graduating was a one-credit physics lab. I could earn my diploma in a month, and then apply to med
Commencement ended and the countdown began: We had to empty our dorms by 5:00 p.m. Dad, a meticulous packer, was rechecking straps and calculating optimal suitcase alignment when I excused myself, ran back to the dorm, shut the bathroom door, and turned on the faucet. Even though there was no one else in the dorm, the rushing sound made me feel more alone. I’ve always needed that moment before the plunge, to stand and gather. And I’ve always preferred being alone by myself to being alone in a crowd.
I felt my hands clenching the porcelain sides of the sink, felt the familiar panic radiate from my chest, crawl up my neck, choking me, urging me to run, get a new address, new goals, new friends, move, disappear, be somewhere else.
College has many lessons; I’m with the blind climber on that. The one that finally sank into my head is that you can’t have a future if you don’t have a past. I had to go back—to Indiana, to the refugee camps in Austria, to talk to people, walk around.
From the moment I stepped on American soil I had dedicated myself to forgetting. People and places I hadn’t thought about for years—that I’d refused to think about—flashed through my head. I didn’t know their names, or where they were, which was going to make looking for them a bit problematic.
Editor’s note: Lev Golinkin’s quest to reconstruct his past, the border crossings, the temporary refuges, and his reunions with the people who shared it, are the subject of his new book, A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka, from which this article is drawn and adapted.
Lev Golinkin ’03 is a writer based in New Jersey. This essay is adapted from his first book, A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka (copyright © 2014 by Lev Golinkin) and published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC.